portugal

Markets are showing signs of stress over Portugal following Moody’s three-notch downgrade of Greece as we approach a significant bond auction on Wednesday.

Yields on the ten-year government bond reached 7.65 per cent today – a euro lifetime high – indicating Lisbon would need to pay these sorts of levels if it tried to issue ten-year debt now. (Or Wednesday.) If it goes ahead, the auction is intended to raise €0.75-1bn. This is optimistic, however. The last two auctions raised just €1.25bn between them.

So, assuming Wednesday’s auction raises €0.75bn (optimistic), the IGCP will have raised about €2bn since the start of the year from the market in bonds. Rumour has it that the agency has about €4bn in cash. So that’s €6bn, excluding bills. So what does Lisbon’s debt management agency, the IGCP, need, and by when? The answers are sobering. Read more >>

Moody’s rating agency has just downgraded Greece’s government bonds to B1 from Ba1, placing the debt on negative outlook, meaning further downgrades are likely. The move takes Greek debt from borderline junk to “highly speculative” territory.

Fitch and S&P still rate Greek debt three notches higher at BB+ (the equivalent of Ba1, Moody’s previous rating), but this might not last long. Fitch last downgraded on January 14 and has a negative outlook on the rating, while S&P last downgraded in December but has the rating on credit watch negative (meaning a downgrade is imminent, if there is no material improvement). Read more >>

Bad day for Portugal. S&P has cut to junk the credit ratings of four state-owned utilities, saying the country’s sovereign debt troubles could limit the timeliness or sufficiency of help on offer from the government:

Government support for distressed state-owned companies was “increasingly constrained by difficult financial conditions”. This was also reflected in the “weak access” of Portuguese banks to external funding, S&P said. Read more >>

After three weeks of relative calm, the ECB was forced to re-enter the fray and buy government bonds a couple of weeks ago, as rumoured by traders. Last week, €711m bonds bought under the eurozone central bank’s securities markets programme, settled.

Rumour has it the majority of bonds were Portuguese. Yields for the 10-year bonds remain on an upward trend despite this additional demand, however. The 10-year has typically closed above 7 per cent during February, touching 7.5 per cent several times in intra-day trading in the past few days. Read more >>

Rumour has it Europe’s central bank has once again been buying Portuguese government bonds, to shore up demand and reassure existing bondholders. Apparently they’re buying 5-year bonds. Similar rumours flew around last week as yields topped 7.63 per cent during the day – following three weeks in which the ECB had been absent from government bond markets.

Yields on retraded – or “secondary” market – government bonds are a proxy for a government’s cost of debt. (They are not the actual cost of debt, which occurs when the government auctions debt off in the “primary” market.) 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 >>

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 >>

Chris Giles

Last week, the Swiss National Bank let it be known that it no longer accepted Portuguese sovereign debt as collateral in its open market operations. An official from the SNB said: “Only securities that fulfil stringent requirements with regard to credit rating and liquidity are accepted as collateral by the National Bank”.

The Bank of England has almost identical criteria for accepting euro-denominated sovereign bonds in its market operations. They have to be rated Aa3 or higher on the Moody’s scale or higher than that by at least two other ratings agencies and traded in liquid markets.

Portuguese and Irish sovereign bonds fail this test.  But the Bank does not apply a mechanical rule and, as its daily collateral list shows, it is still smiling on Portugal and Ireland, but not Greece. In a market notice from the time of the Greek crisis, the Bank asserts its discretion, insisting it “forms its own independent view on collateral it takes in its operations”. 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 >>