eurozone crisis

Michael Steen

The dust has yet to settle on the Bundesbank’s fight with the ECB over bond-buying, but this has not stopped Germany’s central bank from taking on another heavyweight global financial institution: the International Monetary Fund.

BuBa’s monthly report, published on Monday, includes a whole chapter entitled: “The IMF in a changed global environment.” It becomes clear fairly quickly that eyebrows are being raised in Frankfurt at some elements of the IMF’s stance in the eurozone sovereign debt crisis, where the Fund has taken on its own lending and acted as a member of the “troika” of IMF, ECB and European Commission officials advising on bailouts.

“By taking on excessive risks, the IMF would gradually transform from a liquidity-providing mechanism into a lending institution,” the bank says on the first page of its 15-page discussion. “Such a transformation would neither accord with the legal and institutional provisions of the IMF agreement, nor with the fund’s financing mechanism or its risk control functions.” Read more

Claire Jones

Courtesy of the Irish Times:

How many euro area finance ministers does it take to change a light bulb? None – there is nothing wrong with the light bulbRead more

Ralph Atkins

The European Central Bank distanced itself on Tuesday from the Swiss National Bank’s plans to combat the overvalued franc by linking it to the euro. With the SNB likely to acquire substantial piles of euro assets as a result of its intervention, one fear is that it will worsen tensions in eurozone debt markets by buying only AAA bonds. Italy’s spreads versus Germany would rise further.

But maybe it would be in the SNB’s interest to help the ECB? By buying lower quality bonds, the Swiss central bank could display a level of recklessness  that might convince financial markets of its determination to do whatever is necessary to weaken the franc. Moreover, given the franc is now linked to the euro, the SNB has a greater interest in a stable eurozone. “What would be great now would be if the SNB bought €50bn in Italian bonds – it would be good for everyone,” quipped one trader.

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

“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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Sovereign bondholders received the worst news possible from eurozone policymakers yesterday: a dire combination of confirmation and uncertainty about the key issue of bondholder rights from the ESM term sheet, which sent yields up on all sovereign debt seen likeliest to restructure (read: Greece, Ireland and Portugal).

(Note: All that follows is subject to a rubber-stamping confirmation at meetings Thursday-Friday. It is unlikely any details will change.)

First came confirmation that the eurozone would in theory allow a member state to restructure their debt. (You’d have been forgiven for thinking eurozone bail-outs to date, such as Greece and Ireland, were specifically intended to prevent such an outcome.)

Second came confirmation – at long, long last – that sovereign bondholders will lose protection on their investments. (It is likely in practise that this means a sovereign bond will become worth less if its issuing government receives aid. It is hard to see what other forms of “involvement” – emotional support? – would be expected of bondholders.) Read more

It would be better for sizable eurozone bail-outs to occur after July 2013. This is the implication of a strange state of affairs in Brussels: namely that policymakers have agreed how to fund the future ESM to its full value, but not its predecessor, the EFSF.

Only about €250bn of the existing €440bn European Financial Stability Facility is available to bail out beleaguered eurozone sovereigns. This is because the fund wants to lend with an AAA rating, but several contributing eurozone sovereigns are rated lower. Increasing the rating is achieved, in effect, by overcollateralising each loan. Now it has been agreed to increase the lending capacity of the EFSF, but no word yet as to how. Apparently, further overcollateralisation has been ruled out: according to Citi’s Jurgen Michels, the lending capacity of the eurozone’s transitional measures (currently the EFSF and EFSM) shall never exceed €500bn.

The ban on further overcollateralising the rescue fund might seem odd, since that is partly the solution agreed for the European Stability Mechanism. Read more

If it is approved, the nascent agreement reached in the small hours of Saturday morning will address many of the symptoms of the eurozone’s disease. Note, though, that the fundamental issue of bond haircuts was not addressed. Euro leaders’ hard work leaves them on target for what was a very tight March 24/25 deadline. Measures include:

  • Increase the effective lending capacity of the EFSF from ~ €250bn to €440bn. The Fund already had €440bn at its disposal in theory, but needed to hold back a proportion in order to issue AAA-rated debt. Discussions are ongoing on how to achieve this.
  • Give the EFSF the right, “as an exception”, to intervene in primary debt markets – though with such strict conditionality that some analysts say this will make little effective difference. The right, which will extend to EFSF successor, the ESM, is not a full substitute for the ECB’s bond-buying programme, since the ECB buys bonds in both the primary market (government auctions) and secondary market (resale of already-issued bonds).
  • Lower the rates charged by the EFSF on bail-out loans to take into account debt sustainability of recipient countries. Rates should remain above facility’s funding costs and in line with IMF pricing principles.
  • Specifically, for Greece: reduce the interest rate on rescue loans from 5.25 to 4.25 per cent and increase the average maturity of Greek bail-out loans from 4 to 7.5 years.
  • €500bn funding confirmed for the ESM, EFSF successor.
  • Further explore the idea of a financial transaction tax.

 Read more

Strong demand for today’s eurozone bond issue, priced at a yield equivalent to 2.89 per cent. Hardly surprising. For exactly the same risk profile as German bonds, you get half a percentage point extra payment per annum for your money. (48 basis points, to be precise.)

The news is being greeted as a vote of confidence in the eurozone. Likewise, Japan’s pledge to buy at least 20 per cent of the bonds was treated as an offer of support. Klaus Regling, EFSF chief, said: “The huge investor interest confirms confidence in the strategy adopted to restore financial stability in the euro area.” But does it? Really?

Surely hard-headed profit-seeking is a more plausible explanation? After all, a vote of confidence would be investors buying Portuguese, Greek or Irish bonds; whereas here they are buying bonds backed in full by Germany. The legal framework of the EFSF makes clear that member states are each independently liable for debt issued, up to their maximum commitment. The only exceptions are countries currently “stepping out” (Greece; Ireland) and those that have not yet signed up in full (recent euro-joiner Estonia). See the table below. Read more

Phew. Portugal can still raise money in the debt markets, €1.25bn of it today in an auction of two bonds, the 5- and 10-year. Relief all round. But the country probably had a helping hand to keep yields below the all-important 7 per cent level, despite the ECB’s public interpretation that the good result implies a market change of heart (Carlos Costa, quoted by Reuters).

Yields on the 10-year bond actually fell since the last comparable auction in November. Today the weighted average yield, which is the cost of debt to the government, was 6.719 per cent, down from 6.806 per cent in November. Surprising, perhaps. But then the bid-to-cover (demand ÷ agreed sale) picked up considerably at this auction. It has typically trailed at just under 2; today it was 3.2. It is likely some taxpayers, unwittingly, have just bought some Portuguese debt. Read more

Chris Giles

If you want to understand why it is so difficult to solve the eurozone sovereign debt crisis and why pro-euro commentators such as Wolfgang Münchau are so pessimistic, you need do no more than read today’s comments from Otmar Issing, former chief economist of the European Central Bank and highly respected economist in Germany.

It is almost a consensus view in the economic community that the eurozone needs more pooling of sovereign risk if it wants a chance of escaping the current crisis. This view stems both from the observation that the eurozone-wide sovereign debt is lower and more sustainable than that in the US, Japan and the UK and from the fact that a lower interest rate on debt for peripheral eurozone economies could transform their individual sovereign debt problem into a liquidity issue from a fundamental solvency issue.

What does Mr Issing think? Like a good creditor, he wants debtors to suffer more and believes the austerity programmes have been too weak, describing it as “disconcerting” that even Germany now supports looser systems for policing fiscal rules: Read more

Ralph Atkins

In the past, the first European Central Bank meeting of the year was a low-key affair. Although held in the second week of January (rather than the first week as in every other month), the Christmas and New Year holidays meant there was little fresh to say.

This Thursday’s governing council meeting will be different, of course. Since December’s gathering, inflation has risen above the ECB’s target of an annual rate “below but close” to 2 per cent, and the eurozone debt crisis has re-erupted. Read more

Portuguese and Irish government debt have again been on the ECB’s shopping list – which would appear to exclude Belgian debt, where yields are still rising. Traders report the ECB buying Portuguese and Irish debt, though there might easily be other countries. This suggests the ECB’s bond buys will rise considerably from purchases settled last week – a mere €113m.

Bond yields have been tempering in Portugal, Greece, Ireland and Italy – and also, belatedly, Spain, which bucked the trend yesterday by rising while other yields were falling. This suggests either that markets are less stressed, or that ECB purchases have been large enough and diverse enough to bring bond prices up/yields down through simple supply and demand. Read more

Ireland’s fate should be a cautionary tale to those pushing Portugal towards a bail-out. Ireland’s bail-out – arguably not needed – didn’t work.

Government bond yields – a measure of market stress – rose above 8 per cent, and Dublin found itself inundated with offers of cash. This unlimited funding should have been enough to reassure markets, but it was not, proving a cash shortage was not the problem. Politicians ignored this, and the offers became more insistent. Ireland accepted a loan, but markets were unimpressed and yields stayed above 8 per cent. A month later, yields returned above pre-bail-out levels of about 8.4 per cent. Now they are nearer 9 per cent. The Irish bail-out was misdirected, targeting the symptom and not the cause. Bond markets were worried about bondholder rights, not a cash crunch. Making cash available while remaining vague on bondholder rights was a mistake. Read more

Jean-Claude Trichet, ECB president, has been here before. Early in his life as governor of the Bank of France in 1993, Mr Trichet faced down a tidal wave of market pressure and prevented the franc from being devalued.  Read more

Ralph Atkins

Berlin’s approach – and that of the European Central Bank – to handling the eurozone crisis, has come under strong attack from Peter Bofinger, economics professor at Würzburg university and an independent adviser to the German government. Without a profound change of strategy there was a “major risk of an unraveling of the euro area,” he has said.

A “dangerous” adjustment process is being forced on eurozone countries, he told a Financial Times/Credit Suisse conference in Frankfurt. The weakest spot is Greece, which faces rising unemployment and debt levels. As a result, political opposition to euro membership would grow, according to Prof Bofinger. “Sooner or later we will have a discussion in Greece: ‘why not leave the euro?’” A new currency could then be devalued and much of the government’s debt cancelled out. Once Greece had left, others would follow. Read more

Are politicians enslaved to the markets? EU officials are falling over each other to reassure bond markets, in particular, that there is plenty of money should Ireland need it. Ireland has not requested aid, and it is Irish banks rather than the Irish government that are likely to need funds. Irish banks, like all eurozone banks, would approach the ECB and not the Irish government for their regular liquidity needs.

But no matter. Irish politicians find themselves surrounded by hands thrust forward, stuffed with cash, which at present they politely refuse. It is a sensible strategy, on the face of it. Given Irish ministers’ refusal to accept cash they don’t need, continued offers should surely reassure markets that cash is readily available.

Problem is that the clamour creates both momentum and fear. Fear without momentum can ebb away, but fear with momentum demands a climax. A climax in this case would probably be a bail-out of Irish banks. But would it really help? Read more

The premiums investors demand to hold Irish or Portuguese bonds instead of German have now passed the levels that precipitated the Greek bail-out.

Bond spreads reached 453bp for Ireland and 441bp for Portugal in trading today – higher than Greek bond spreads were in late April, just before they headed toward 800bpRead more

Portugal is the latest PIIGS government to suffer a sharp increase in its cost of debt. Like Ireland earlier in the week, Portugal has raised a significant amount of debt at auction at roughly one percentage point above the last auction.

Unlike Ireland, Portugal raised just three-quarters of its intended €1bn offering – not because of a lack of demand, but because Lisbon refused to accept the very high yields demanded by some investors. €400m of 2014 bonds sold at 4.695 per cent; €350m 2020 bonds sold at 6.242 per cent. Read more

All eyes on tomorrow’s €1.5bn Irish bond offering. As investors have become more nervous, the head of the central bank has called on the government to rethink some of its austerity plans:

“I think these kinds of budgetary programmes do need to be reprogrammed in the light of circumstances,” Patrick Honohan told an audience today at a regulatory conference in Dublin. Read more