Europe

Michael Steen

You still need a strong constitution or a taste for gallows humour to read most eurozone economic statistics, as today’s release of the preliminary Q1 gross domestic product growth contraction data shows.

The bloc is now in its longest recession since the birth of the single currency, beating the post-Lehman Brothers slump in duration, though not in the depth of the downturn. Read more

Michael Steen

One of the benefits of the European Central Bank’s new household finance and consumption survey is that it allows eurozone household data to be compared with that of the US, since the surveys use comparable methodologies.

The survey already caused something of a stir in Germany earlier this week because it appeared to show that the typical Cypriot household was better off than the typical German one. (In 2010, anyway, and subject to a lot of caveats and nuance, summarised in the story.)

Today’s ECB monthly bulletin also picks over some of the data in the HFCS and highlights this ability to compare data with the US Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. One interesting tidbit it points out is quite how much wealth distribution differs between the US and (the euro-wielding corner of) Europe. Read more

Tom Burgis

Mark Carney, the incoming governor of the Bank of England, was grilled by MPs and his ECB counterpart Mario Draghi faced awkward questions. By Tom Burgis, Ben Fenton and Lina Saigol in London with contributions from FT correspondents. All times are GMT.  

Ralph Atkins

The European Central Bank’s fears about inflation appear to be materialising. Eurozone “core,” or underlying, inflation has reached the highest level in more than two years, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical office. Excluding volatile energy and unprocessed foods, consumer prices rose at an annual rate of 1.8 per cent in April – up from 1.5 per cent in March and the highest since January 2009. The surge suggests higher headline inflation rates caused by commodity prices are feeding through into broader price pressures.

The late timing of Easter might have distorted the figures by delaying usual price-cutting offers. The ECB is also not a big fan of “core” measures, which it sees lagging indicators of underlying trends. Jürgen Stark, executive board member, once described them as “well suited for central bankers who don’t eat or drive”. Read more

Ralph Atkins

Another barrage of warnings this morning from European Central Bank policymakers about the dangers of a Greek debt restructuring. Jürgen Stark, executive board member, told Bavarian radio that Greece was “not insolvent” and that a restructuring “wouldn’t be a solution to the problems that Greece needs to overcome”. But Athens should not assume international bail outs were a “bottomless well” he warned.

A different – and novel - argument was made by Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, his board colleague, the gist of which was that eurozone governments should not allow themselves to be pushed around by financial markets. Read more

Ralph Atkins

It is a brave luncheon speaker who chooses Finnish monetary policy between the first and second world wars as his subject. But Mervyn King, Bank of England governor, just pulled it off at a conference in Helsinki, marking the 200th anniversary of the country’s central bank. (Read the speech here.)

King may have selected his off-beat subject to avoid generating unwanted headlines – there was a strong media presence following the European Central Bank’s meeting here on Thursday. But it was also a subject close to his heart – and is more compelling than you might thing. Read more

The European Central Bank has left its main interest rate unchanged at 1.25 per cent but is expected to confirm a bias towards another increase in coming months as it combats surging eurozone inflation.

The decision to hold fire on Thursday was expected. Jean-Claude Trichet, president, prefers not to surprise financial markets. However, at its meeting in Helsinki, Finland – one of two occasions each year when it gathers outside its Frankfurt home – the ECB’s 23-strong governing council is thought to have plotted the timing of its next move. Read more

With Mario Draghi, Italy’s central bank chief, looking almost certain to become its next president, the European Central Bank is set for a significant change of style – but not necessarily in strategic direction.

Under Jean-Claude Trichet, whose eight-year mandate expires on October 31, the ECB secured an inflation-fighting reputation in the tradition of Germany’s Bundesbank. During the eurozone debt crisis, the central bank acted as a crucial backstop, pumping liquidity on a huge scale into the banking systems of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. More recently, it has taken a much tougher line in insisting politicians take action themselves. Read more

Greece needs time to convince international investors about its reform programme and may not be able to return to financial markets next year as planned, its finance minister has admitted.

George Papaconstantinou’s comments in a Financial Times interview highlight how Greece continues to struggle to turn its economy round almost a year after the launch of an €110bn European Union and International Monetary Fund bail-out. They may fuel speculation that European leaders will have to find fresh ways of alleviating Greece’s debt problems to avert a default scenario. Read more

Turkey’s banking industry could be damaged unless the central bank reverses last year’s decision to stop paying interest on required reserves, the head of one of the country’s biggest lenders claims.

Suzan Sabanci, chairman of Akbank, told the Financial Times that new rules requiring banks to lodge 15 per cent of short-term lira deposits with the central bank risked fundamentally weakening banks unless they received interest in compensation. “The government is trying to be cautious that the economy doesn’t grow too fast. And I agree with that,” she said. “But we need to be recompensed. They should start paying interest in six months’ time.” Read more

The ECB denies nudging Portugal towards its bail-out, but data just released suggest otherwise. Despite growing problems in the eurozone the ECB bought no government bonds last week. Buying government bonds either at auction or through the secondary market is a practice employed heavily in the past but frugally of late to suppress the cost of debt in vulnerable economies and shore up market confidence.

It also means the ECB did not buy any bonds in Portugal’s punitive bill auction last week. The prohibitive cost of debt at that auction is likely to have influenced Portuguese policymakers in seeking a bail-out. Lisbon is facing the expiry – and therefore the refinancing – of nearly €4.4bn debt in mid April and the bill auction gave an indication of the market’s likely price. Read more

Ralph Atkins

The competition to succeed Jean-Claude Trichet, who steps down as European Central Bank president at the end of October, was a big story in February - when Axel Weber, Germany’s Bundesbank president, withdrew from the race. Since then it has gone quiet.

Now news agency reports from the European Union finance ministers’ meeting near Budapest, Hungary, at the weekend suggest a decision may not be taken until an EU summit at the end of June. Germany’s government “has decided to form its opinion close to that date,” Bloomberg reported Wolfgang Schäuble, the country’s finance minister as saying.

That sounds plausible. Read more

More-hawkish-than-expected noises from the ECB have led analysts at Citibank to revise their rate forecasts upwards. They now think there will be two rate rises instead of one in 2011, with the key marginal lending rate ending the year at 1.75 per cent, with an outside chance of 2 per cent. Analysts expect the next, quarter point, rate rise in July.

Evidence of hawkishness is cited as follows. (1) The governing council said that even after the April rate hike, “interest rates across the entire maturity spectrum remain low”, adding that the policy stance remained “accommodative”. (2)  President Trichet also said the ECB would continue to ”monitor very closely“, a phrase typically associated with a further rate rise within two meetings. Read more

A senior Portuguese banker has said that the European Central Bank pressed the country’s lenders to stop increasing their use of its liquidity – setting in train events that led Lisbon to ask for a bail-out this week.

António de Sousa, head of the Portuguese Banking Association, said that the message from the ECB and Portugal’s central bank not to expand their exposure to ECB funding further came a month ago. Read more

The ECB decision to raise its policy rate by 0.25 per cent to 1.25 per cent is a seminal moment for the global economy. Not only is this the first of the leading central banks to raise rates, it is the first time for decades that Europe has initiated a rate rising cycle ahead of its counterparts at the Fed. I believe that it is wrong to view this as an isolated occurrence: economic fundamentals are far more supportive of rate rises in the eurozone than they are in the US, and that will remain the case for some time to come. And the ECB is deliberately sending a very strong message to member states that they have not gone far enough to fix the sovereign debt problem. Although the markets have already to some extent anticipated the front-loading of ECB rates, relative to those set by the Fed, they may not yet have moved far enough in that direction.

The main reason for today’s rate rise is of course entirely obvious. Eurozone inflation has persistently come in higher than expected in recent months, and the headline CPI rate reached 2.6 per cent in March, mainly because of higher oil prices. Since the ECB tends to be more influenced by the headline inflation rate, while the Fed places more emphasis on the (much lower) core rate, it was always likely that the two central banks would react in different ways to a commodity price shock.

However, this is not the only reason for the ECB’s greater hawkishness. The Fed (rightly in my view) is convinced that there is still plenty of spare capacity left in the US economy, because the unemployment rate remains far above the equilibrium or structural rate of unemployment. By contrast, the ECB is less confident about the margin of spare capacity in the European economy.

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Cyprus is showing signs of stress. Credit ratings, yields, the banking sector and sentiment are all signalling distress. This tiny island economy, roughly a tenth the size of Portugal, might defy the PIIGS acronym by needing help sooner than its eurozone peers Spain or Italy.

Redrawing the sovereign ratings map clearly showed what the ratings agencies thought. See the blue circle on the map, right. This heatmap colours countries that have been heavily downgraded since the start of the year more red, and those that have been more heavily upgraded, green. Spain and Ireland are reddish. But Cyprus is clearly in the Portugal-and-Greece camp of dark red (high downgrades).

Next, yields. Bond yields are the cost of debt to the government, so rising yields are bad news. And they are certainly rising in Cyprus. Compare two auctions of six-month debt, one in January and the other in March. Yields rose from 2.02 per cent to 2.74 per cent in those two months. This level is higher than yields on the last two-year debt offering in January of 2010. Read more

In order to maintain its currency peg, Denmark’s central bank has raised rates 0.25 per cent, matching the earlier increase from the ECB. Danish monetary policy is aimed at keeping the krone pegged to the euro. All four key rates were raised, now standing as follows:

Serbia also raised rates today, taking the highest rate in Europe 25bp higher to 12.5 per cent. The quarter point increase, announced before the ECB’s announcement, is the third this year, but represents a slowdown in tightening. Serbia has been raising rates since mid-2010, typically by half a point or a full percentage point, while the most recent two raises are smaller and follow a long pause.

No-one can say they weren’t warned. In what must be the most trailed rate rise in history, the ECB has increased key rates in the eurozone by a quarter of one per cent. As of April 13, key rates will stand at:

  • Marginal lending facility – 2 per cent;
  • Main refinancing operations (fixed rate) – 1.25 per cent;
  • Deposit facility – 0.50 per cent.

Eurozone inflation rose to 2.6 per cent in the year to March, according to a flash estimate last week. This is up from 2.4 per cent in the year to February and 2.3 per cent in the year to January, against a target of “below but close” to 2 per cent. Read more

“It is necessary to refer to available funding mechanisms in the European framework.” This, grimly, from Portugal’s finance minister Fernando Teixeira dos Santos, according to Portuguese paper Journal de Negocios. Portugal is also holding talks on a bridging loan with the EU.

The news follows a punitive auction of 6-month bills today, at which the cost of debt to the government rose to 5.11 per cent, up from 2.98 per cent a month ago for comparable debt. More than €4bn longer-term debt is due to expire in April, leaving the central bank with a significant shortfall if it cannot issue new bonds at manageable levels. Today’s auction strongly suggests this would not be possible.

Answering a set of questions in writing, the finance minister said, via Google Translate:

Business: Portugal must now ask for help as they appeal the bankers and economists in general? The debt that you have to pay in a year do not worry you?

Fernando Teixeira dos Santos: The country has irresponsibly pushed a very difficult situation in financial markets. Given this difficult situation, which could have been avoided, I think it is necessary to refer to available funding mechanisms in the European framework as appropriate to the current political situation. This will require also the involvement and commitment of major forces and political institutions.

JDN: How do you assess the results of the auction today, particularly with regard to interest rates?

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Irish central bank governor Patrick Honohan writes:

The focus should be increasingly on measures that can help unblock growth. One dimension which, in my personal view, has not yet received the attention it deserves is the potential for mutually beneficial risk-sharing mechanisms. A variety of financial engineering options could be considered going beyond the plain vanilla bonds currently employed. Read more