Eurozone

The recent rise in eurozone equities, along with a sharp further decline in peripheral bond spreads, has occurred in the face of continuing disappointing data on economic activity. Real GDP in the eurozone seems to be declining at a 2 per cent annualised rate in the current quarter, and the pivotal German economy is showing worrying signs of being dragged into the mire with the troubled south (see this earlier blog).

Markets are in one of those periods (which usually prove temporary) where they interpret bad economic news as being good news for asset prices, because weaker growth will result in easier policy from the central banks. In the eurozone, expectations are high that the European Central Bank will deliver lower interest rates on Thursday, and specific measures designed to address the provision of liquidity to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the south seem probable.

But a more radical easing in monetary conditions may prove necessary to drag the economy out of recession, and prevent inflation from falling further below the target, which is defined as “below but close to 2 per cent”. In March, the ECB staff forecast for inflation in 2014 was 0.6-2.0 per cent, which seems barely consistent with the mandate, especially as the recession shows no sign of ending and fiscal policy is still being tightened. Any other major central bank would be urgently reviewing its options for aggressive easing, and the markets could become very disillusioned if they sense that the ECB is unwilling to do the same.

So what, realistically, can the ECB do? The following table gives a fairly comprehensive list of the options which are definitely available within the mandate [A], those which might be available if the ECB chose to interpret its mandate more widely [B], and those which are clearly unavailable under any circumstances [C]:

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The IMF on Tuesday repeated its call for the ECB to reduce policy rates in the eurozone, and Mario Draghi came fairly close to promising action in May at his press conference after the governing council meeting on April 4. But no-one really believes that the expected 0.25 percentage point cut in the main refinancing rate will do very much to solve the eurozone’s most pressing problem, which is the lack of bank lending to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the troubled economies.

Monetary conditions in the eurozone are fragmented. Bank lending rates are, perversely, much higher in the weakest economies than they are in the core. Unless this is solved, the eurozone economy will remain in trouble.

In order to address this issue, the ECB needs to think in ways which are unconventional, and therefore unpalatable for many of the conservatives on the governing council. However, both Mario Draghi and his colleague Benoît Cœuré have recently hinted that they view measures to eliminate fragmented lending rates as essential to fulfil the mandate of the ECB. This is how they justified the introduction of the Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme, which saved the euro last autumn.

They have also said that the power of the ECB in this area is limited, and have argued repeatedly that effective action will require co-operation from member governments and from the European Investment Bank (EIB). It is therefore probable that discussions are under way between the ECB and member states to decide what can be done. There are two options which could have significant beneficial effects. Read more >>

The eurozone is reluctant to admit formally that it is changing its austerity strategy, but in fact it is searching in every corner of national budgets to alleviate the squeeze on its troubled economies, and rightly so.

Recently, member states which have missed their budget targets (and that has been most of them) have been given more time to reach their objectives, implying less fiscal tightening in the near term. It is not all plain sailing, as Portugal’s latest tribulations demonstrate, but the eurozone has recognised that it should not be piling even more short term fiscal contraction on declining economies. It is reported today that the troika will suggest that the average duration of official loans to Ireland and Portugal should be extended by seven years at a meeting of EU finance ministers on April 12-13. Read more >>

The calmness of the financial markets in the face of the deteriorating Cyprus crisis in the past week has been remarkable. Although Cyprus is tiny enough to be completely overlooked in most circumstances, its economy and banking system have characteristics similar to other, much larger, eurozone countries. Cyprus is certainly at the extreme end, but an over-leveraged banking system, with insufficient capital and reliance on foreign funding, is familiar territory in the eurozone.

Cyprus is therefore, in some respects, a microcosm of the entire eurozone crisis, if a microcosm on steroids. The manner in which the crisis has been handled by the Eurogroup and the ECB will have demonstration effects on other economies, for good or ill.

At the time of writing, the outcome of this weekend’s negotiations remains uncertain. However, assuming that there is no catastrophic breakdown in the talks, leading to the exit of Cyprus from the euro area, the broad outline of the settlement seems to be taking shape. It is reported that the Cypriot government will accept a “bail in” of depositors in one or both of its troubled banks, allowing the release of eurozone financial support, while still keeping the government debt/GDP ratio under 150 per cent. Read more >>

When David Marsh wrote his definitive biography of the Bundesbank in 1993, he chose the following sub title: “The Bank That Rules Europe“. Feared and revered in equal measure, the Bundesbank was the model on which the ECB was built. Imitation was not, however, the sincerest form of flattery for Germany’s central bank. The arrival of the ECB removed most of its direct authority over monetary policy, leaving it with only one out of 23 votes on the governing council of the new central bank.

Recently, the Bundesbank’s President Jens Weidmann has been in a minority of one on the question of whether to launch the ECB’s new programme of Outright Monetary Transactions, to which he is fundamentally opposed. He views the proposed purchases of government debt in the troubled eurozone economies as a thinly disguised monetary bail-out of profligate governments, something which the Bundesbank had believed from the very beginning to be outside the intention of the treaties. Read more >>

It is often claimed by economists that the central banks have run out ammunition to boost economic activity, but they certainly have not lost the ability to have an impact asset prices. Since the latest round of quantitative easing was signalled back in June (see this blog), global equity prices have risen by 14.5 per cent, and commodity prices are up by 15.4 per cent, despite the fact that economic activity data have shown no improvement whatever over this period.

Clearly, these impressive moves in asset prices have been triggered by a sharp decline in the disaster premia that were priced into markets only three months ago. Mario Draghi and Ben Bernanke have, in a sense, purchased global put options on risk assets, and have offered them without charge to the investing community.

By doing the market’s hedging for it, the central bankers have certainly had an impact. Confidence, while not fully restored, is much improved, which is exactly what was intended. But there is no sign yet from hard data that the downward slide in global GDP growth has been reversed. Until that happens, the market rally will remain on insecure foundations. Read more >>

Today’s decision from the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe is a major victory for Angela Merkel and for Germany’s preferred approach to handling the eurozone crisis. The court has approved the ratification of the ESM treaty, with only minor conditions attached.

It looks like a comprehensive defeat for those trying to mobilise political opinion inside Germany to block the treaty. As a result, the ESM and the fiscal compact can now be safely launched, and any immediate obstacle to Mario Draghi’s bond buying plan at the ECB has disappeared. What has emerged from this messy process is, in effect, an ESM leveraged by the ECB, something which seemed impossible this spring.

This represents a very large building block in the rescue strategy which the eurozone has gradually pieced together in the last three months.

The acute phase of the crisis peaked in mid June with the Greek election, which reduced the probability of a disorderly Greek exit.

Then, the eurozone summit in late June announced a roadmap for the long term reform of the eurozone. Mr Draghi was a co-author of the plan, and in retrospect it was a very important step, not least because he deemed it to be so.

These steps did not immediately settle the markets, and at times during July it seemed that the capital outflow from Spain would reach unmanageable proportions. However, at that point, Mr Draghi crucially said that the ECB considered it to be within its mandate to eliminate “convertibility risks” in the eurozone,  and that statement basically turned the crisis around. Since then, for example, Spanish equities have risen by 30 per cent. Read more >>

Gavyn has made some changes to the presentation of the table due to readers’ comments summarised in the footnote. The argument is not changed.

Another week, another summit. Once again, we are being told, this time by Italian prime minister Mario Monti, that there is only one week left to save the euro. Yet the crisis still does not seem sufficiently acute to persuade eurozone leaders that a full resolution is necessary.

The next summit on June 28 and 29 will unveil a long term road map towards fiscal and banking union, which in better economic circumstances could appear highly impressive. But the market is currently focused on the shorter term. Unless there is some form of debt mutualisation at the summit, resulting in a decline in government bond yields in Spain and Italy, the crisis could rapidly worsen.

Debt mutualisation can come in many forms. The European Redemption Fund, proposed by the Council of Economic Experts in Germany (and discussed here) seems to have receded into the background this week but could still have an eventual role. More immediately, the main option on the table seems to be the use of the eurozone firewall (ie a combination of the EFSF and ESM) to buy secondary government debt, or inject capital directly to the banks. But the problem here is simple: a lack of money. Read more >>

As the eurozone crisis enters a critical phase, market attention is once more focused on the central banks to contain the crisis. They have promised in advance to provide unlimited liquidity to solvent financial institutions if necessary in coming weeks, which is now their standard response to financial shocks. However, the slowdown in global activity caused by the euro crisis may mean that they are thinking of acting more aggressively than that. A further large bout of unconventional easing is now on the agenda. Read more >>

Today’s governing council meeting at the ECB marked a return to “business as usual” after the dramatic injections of liquidity into the banking system in December and February. The ECB understandably wants to return to its regular duties, where it focuses on keeping inflation below its 2 per cent long term target, and is desperate to shift the burden for other aspects of managing the eurozone economy back to member governments.

Mario Draghi’s main message in recent weeks has been that “the ball is in the court of governments” in three different ways: the need for fiscal consolidation, bank recapitalisation and a “growth strategy” involving labour and product market reform. Assuming satisfactory progress on these three objectives, the ECB would retire to the relative obscurity of inflation control, a place where it is always happy to find itself. “Non standard” monetary measures, which involve the use of the ECB balance sheet to finance troubled banks and sovereigns, would no longer be needed.

Unfortunately, it is improbable that the ECB will be granted its wish to remain on the sidelines for very long. The key question is how, when and where it will be called back into action. Read more >>