Spain

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. 

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. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote that the twists and turns in the eurozone crisis had, in the early months of 2012, lost the power to shock global asset prices. The reason given was that the prophylactic provided by the use of the ECB’s balance sheet essentially trumped the deteriorating economic fundamentals in several countries, notably in Spain. This view has since been severely challenged, but it has just about remained intact; after all, American and Asian equities are still 6-7 per cent up so far this year.

However, the crisis which surrounds political events in Greece threatens to change all that. This is the first major revolt by any electorate against the eurozone’s austerity policies, and it is those policies which have underpinned the willingness of the ECB to use its balance sheet to rescue the banking system. Furthermore, Greece is just the tip of the iceberg. The swing against austerity by voters in the eurozone is manifesting itself in many different places. I have been wondering whether this is good or bad news for the resolution of the crisis. 

In the second half of 2011, the twists and turns in the eurozone crisis dominated global markets to such an extent that nothing else seemed to matter. This remained true in January and February of this year, when the strong rally in peripheral bond spreads in the eurozone coincided with an equally strong rally in global equities. But in recent weeks, the umbilical link between the eurozone crisis and global risk assets seems to have broken down. As the graph shows, peripheral bond spreads (proxied by the average of Spanish and Italian spreads over German bunds) have returned towards crisis mode, while global equities have fallen only slightly. 

The wobble in risk assets in the past week has followed the Fed’s shift towards hawkishness, weaker US jobs data and the budget announcement in Spain. The fact that eurozone equities have once again underperformed US equities suggests that the Spanish budget was probably the dominant factor.

As the first graph shows, Spain’s sovereign bond yields and bank CDS spreads have recently widened to near their worst readings since the crisis started in 2010. What is even more worrying is the consistent upward trend which is apparent in the data. The eurozone rescue operation, mounted by the ECB and heads of government last December, reversed this deterioration only temporarily, and markets now seem to have resumed their earlier adverse trends. Everyone is asking whether this will trigger a new, and larger, eurozone crisis in 2012. 

Moody’s decision to downgrade Spain’s sovereign credit rating from Aa1 to Aa2 was very unwelcome to the Spanish government yesterday, but it may have come as a timely reminder to other European leaders, meeting in Brussels today, that they are still a very long way from solving the sovereign debt crisis.  

The events of the last few weeks have shone a very harsh searchlight on the nature of sovereign debt within the European Monetary Union. Although critics of EMU have always argued that monetary union without fiscal union is “impossible”, it was only when Angela Merkel started to call for a procedure to handle a possible default on the sovereign debt of a member state that the markets began to focus on the fact that such a default really is possible.