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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?

 Read more

Moody’s expects the next Portuguese government, due to be elected on June 5, to seek a bail-out as “a matter of urgency”, and as a result, the agency has again downgraded the sovereign’s rating. The rating now stands one notch lower at Baa1, and remains on watch for further downgrade. The rating is still two notches higher than peers S&P and Fitch, both rating the sovereign BBB-.

Portuguese sovereign ratings, which had been falling, entered a downward spiral once the government stepped down. Moody’s, which has just cut by one notch, previously cut by two on March 16. S&P downgraded Portugal two notches on March 25 and a further notch on March 29. Fitch downgraded by two notches on March 24 and a further three notches on April 1. Overall, about five notches have been taken off the rating since the start of the year. Read more

Deja vu? No, ratings agency Standard and Poors has cut Portugal’s credit rating for the second time in less than a week, this time one notch to BBB-, leaving the rating with a negative outlook. Last week the agency cut by two notches – the most it could reasonably cut, given an explicit indication that they would be “unlikely” to cut by more. The agency left the rating on negative creditwatch, but that is usually interpreted to mean a further cut is likely in three months, not three days.

Greek ratings, meanwhile, have been cut deeper into junk territory with a two notch downgrade to BB-. The rating remains on negative creditwatch meaning a further cut is likely if there is no improvement; typically, that would be within three months, but in the current climate, who knows?

In both cases, the downgrades have been prompted by the structure of the permanent eurozone rescue fund, the ESM, which was confirmed at the end of last week by eurozone leaders. Two things in particular. One is the issue of subordination Read more

The ESM term sheet claims its first casualty. As predicted, Standard and Poors rating agency has downgraded Portugal by two notches to BBB, leaving the rating on creditwatch negative, meaning another downgrade is likely within three months if there is no improvement in the country’s financial prospects. A further downgrade could place Portugal’s rating below investment grade: S&P’s rating is now just two notches above junk. But by then, the country will have passed or failed two significant tests: refinancing its debt in the markets in April and June.

S&P’s move is likely to be more significant than recent downgrades by Moody’s and Fitch. That’s because, first, S&P is leading the rating descent, having downgraded Portugal to its current Moody’s/Fitch level of A- in May of last year. (Moody’s and Fitch have only just downgraded to this level.) Second, the downgrade is significant because of timing. With a key vote on Portugal’s austerity package yet to pass and the PM stepping down, fiscal discipline will be further delayed. (This is one reason given by S&P for the move.) More than that, general elections are expected in a few months, and it would be very tempting for a new government to restructure its debt, laying the blame with its predecessors. Similar temptations must be present in Ireland.

Cast your mind back to the good old days, when a high yield meant 6 per cent and nervous market talk might culminate in whispers of a bail-out. Compare and contrast with the situation now, where two states have long since passed the point of bail-out and there is real and present danger of a default.

Much focus is on Portugal, lined up somewhat unwillingly for the next cash injection. It must make an unappealing prospect as two already-medicated patients have just taken a sharp turn for the worse. Yields on Irish bonds rose nearly an entire percentage point during trading yesterday to touch 10.7 per cent. As a reminder, Irish yields were about 8 per cent at the time of the bail-out. And it bears repeating: Irish yields are above bail-out levels even though Ireland has been bailed out. Ditto Greece.

Eurozone leaders are due to begin a scheduled meeting in Brussels about now. They’ll have plenty to discuss. A possible bail-out of Portugal will certainly be on the agenda but it might not make the top of the list. After all, Read more

Fitch has just downgraded Portugal two notches to A-, placing the rating on credit watch down, meaning that further downgrades are likely. It’s not great news for the Iberian nation, which faces increasing pressure for a bail-out as yields rise and domestic politics worsen. But the bigger ratings news is yet to happen and it is likely to come from Standard and Poors.

Fitch’s downgrade just brings its Portuguese government rating in line with those of its peers: all three main agencies now hold equivalent ratings. Moody’s downgraded Portugal two notches to A3 (=A-) about a week ago, leaving the rating with a negative outlook. S&P was quicker off the mark, lowering its rating in April 2010 and placing the rating on watch down on November 30. Read more

The night before a government debt auction, Moody’s concluded its review of Portugal with a two notch cut to their credit rating, which now stands at A3. The rating agency also left the sovereign issuer with a negative outlook, implying further downgrades are likely within two years if there is no improvement.

According to central bank forecasts, the economy will contract by 1.3 per cent this year, pushing Portugal into its second recession in three years. Citing subdued growth prospects and high borrowing costs, Moody’s actions might aggravate both issues today. Portugal is aiming to raise up to €1bn in 12-month Treasury Bills at auction and yields in the secondary market – an indication of the government’s cost of debt at auction – have risen this morning and remain near record highsRead more

Despite record yields, no bonds bought by the ECB settled last week – that’s two in a row for the eurozone central bank. The stock of ECB-bought bonds therefore remains at €77.5bn. Next week might be different, however, as demand for Portugal’s unexpectedly successful bond auction last week might have been driven by ECB purchases.

In future, buying government bonds at auction is a role that might pass to the eurozone’s rescue fund, the EFSF. A deal struck between eurozone heads of state over the weekend agrees that the fund can intervene in primary market (i.e. government debt auctions) in exceptional circumstances. This would not entirely replace the ECB’s role, as they have bought debt in the secondary (i.e. resale) bond market, too. Of €77.5bn ECB bond purchases, we do not know the split between primary and secondary debt – though anecdotally, secondary market purchases seem to have been bigger.

A look at the data on Greece and Ireland should stay the hands of policymakers keen to bail-out Portugal. If those two bail-outs were intended to reassure markets, they have failed. Clarity on bondholder rights might be a better target.

Ireland was bailed out in November. Despite knowing €85bn is on tap, markets priced Ireland’s ten year cost of debt at a record high yesterday: government bonds trading in the secondary market closed at 9.39 per cent. See green line on chart, right. (Note: this number does not affect the Irish government directly since they do not finance their loans from the resale market: it is a proxy for the rate the government would have to pay to borrow from the market at auction.) These record levels are more than a percentage point higher than levels that prompted the bail-out, and just higher than the previous record which occurred post bail-out (since yields, bizarrely, rose).

Greece was bailed out in May. But Greece’s ten year cost of debt touched a record 12.82 per cent during yesterday’s trading. Their ten year debt closed at 12.68 per cent, second only to a rough patch in January. Bail-outs are useful when there’s a temporary cashflow problem – but continued and rising market stress should tell us that something else is at play. Read more