France Risks Upsetting Eurozone Calm…

27th November 2013

“Throughout the country we have come to the same conclusion – of a society rife with tension, exasperation and anger. There is a sense of despondency.” French regional prefects, in an unusually alarmist report to Paris

It’s notable how many notorious and dogmatic bears have capitulated in recent weeks, from hedge fund manager Hugh Hendry of Eclectica (a prominent proponent of the China hard landing thesis) to CNBC fixture Marc Faber (of Austrian school Fed hyperinflation/gold bug fame) and at the more credible and nuanced end of the guru spectrum, Jeremy Grantham of asset manager GMO. Having largely missed the huge rally in risk assets since 2009, all have more or less recanted on the basis that you can’t fight the flood of global central bank liquidity.  Grantham for instance now sees global equities rising another 20-30% over the next year or two. So what could throw a rock in this pond of complacency? Political risk is rising globally as QE driven asset inflation exacerbates underlying inequality trends and drives social polarization from the US to Thailand. France is worth watching closely on this score; while long delayed spending cuts amounting to about €60bn are set to hit most public sector employees in coming months, we can safely assume that the overtime bill for the notorious CRS riot police will be well over budget as they attempt to suppress a growing backlash on the streets against perceived excessive immigration and deteriorating living standards.

The French are accustomed to an all-powerful and intrusive bureaucracy and almost monarchical executive, the broad structure of which hasn’t changed since Napoleonic times, but they expect their Presidents to at least project French flair and virility, not become a global laughing stock. Francois Hollande’s provincial mediocrity and innumerable political U-turns have earned him the moniker ‘Flanby,’ after a wobbly Nestle dessert brand, creating a political vacuum which the far-right National Front is seeking to fill amid growing talk of the end of the Gaullist Fifth Republic. While Italy has finally rid itself of Berlusconi and the New Dawn proto fascists have been sidelined in Greece, a febrile political mood is taking hold in France. The country has been in inexorable decline since the 1990s on just about every economic metric from productivity to government debt and trend growth has been a dire 1.2%, just above Italy’s; a tipping point may be looming in terms of investor perceptions in 2014.

The usual French ritual of noisy street protests by farmers, fishermen, teachers or some other interest group protecting their privileges until they force a government climb down simply can’t play out any longer, given the EU pressure on Paris to belatedly meet its 3% deficit target and we could well see a large portion of the lower middle classes in open revolt next year. The central bank asset reflation experiment since 2009 has exacerbated wealth inequalities globally, but it is a particularly contentious issue in a country with egalitarian pretensions as a key part of its identity, set against the backdrop of a sclerotic economy and the most centralized state administration aside from China and Russia.

Taxes have risen by about 3 percentage points of GDP in the past three years, taking the overall tax burden to 46% of national income and the spending cuts  will antagonize a volatile national mood. A recent report by the OECD said there had been “no significant improvement” in France’s diminished competitive position since the financial crisis of 2008. France has swung from a trade surplus until 2004 to a deficit of about 2% of GDP (versus Germany’s 6% plus surplus). The EU and the OECD have called on the government to take more radical steps to cut the enormous public spending bill at almost 57% of GDP. Unemployment is over 11% versus just over 5% in Germany, but youth unemployment is on a par with Spain at almost 27%. Betting on a widening spread on OATS over Bunds hasn’t paid off this year, despite another credit downgrade and the government debt ratio exceeding 95% of GDP, but is a trade worth revisiting in early 2014.

The French economy unexpectedly contracted in Q3, there is no respite in Q4; the Markit composite PMI fell two points to a five-month low of 48.5 in November. Against that economic backdrop, the National Front’s populist mixture of anti-immigration, anti-EU and anti-austerity policies is gaining traction and echoes the platform of other far right wing parties emerging from the UK (UKIP) to the Netherlands (PVV),who may form a powerful ‘rejectionist’ bloc in the next European parliament, and thus resuscitate EMU sustainability fears among global investors.

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Judgement Day for the ECB, as Spain Ponders a Bailout…

Nobody would confuse the self-effacing Mario Draghi with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the title of the ECB’s movie would be Target 2 rather than Terminator 2, but this week’s meeting will be a blockbuster event for markets, which have anticipated a bond buying spree by pushing 2-yr Spanish and Italian yields to multi-month lows and to the lowest ever relative to local 10-year bonds. The key to ‘surprise’ policy developments since June is that the euro zone payments system has been operating as an implicit bailout mechanism. I highlighted this back in the June 7th  note, when I wrote that: ‘The most dangerous trend in the euro zone is that financial institutions are increasingly trying to match assets and liabilities by country, defeating the original purpose of EMU in fostering integrated and more efficient cross-border capital markets, while a rising share of cross-border risk is now assumed by the ECB and de facto by the Bundesbank.’ If the ECB collapsed in a euro zone break-up, the biggest loser via both the financial and trade impact is Germany. The reluctance to abandon Greece stems from the fact that if it departs from the euro zone or if its Target 2 balances are capped, the current slow bank run from the periphery would accelerate uncontrollably, unless the other peripheral nations were backstopped explicitly by the ECB, which is where things are heading.

After a brief respite in sovereign funding costs for Italy and Spain following nearly €1 trillion in LTRO (long-term refinancing operation) lending to euro zone banks by the ECB at the turn of the year, in Q2 these rates rebounded as Spain in particular had to revise its fiscal target for the year and concern mounted about its banking clean-up costs, with many commentators fearing a possible debt restructuring for Spain. Interest rates on 10-year bonds had fallen from peaks of 7.3% for Italy and 6.7% for Spain in late November 2011 to lows of 4.9% for both countries at the beginning of March 2012. By the third week in July, however, these rates had rebounded to 6.6% for Italy and 7.6% for Spain. The EU summit at the end of July agreed in principle on a banking union that could potentially relieve the Spanish sovereign of those bank bailout costs, and the ECB pledged forceful ECB support for two-year bonds subject to policy conditionality. These have been very positive developments, but ultimately, the prospects for avoiding debt restructuring in the two economies will depend on whether economic fundamentals enable them to boost solvency dynamics with a higher nominal growth trend.

This intra euro zone payments system was the critical issue driving my expectation in Q2 of a German compromise this summer; before the current crisis, these balances more or less offset each other or were settled through the private interbank market, which has ceased functioning. As a consequence, large positive Target 2 balances have arisen with the national central banks in the four northern Eurozone countries (Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Finland) and corresponding big negative balances with eight countries (Italy, Spain, Ireland, Greece, France, Portugal, Belgium, and Austria). The causes of these balances are current-account deficits of the southern countries as well as transfers of bank deposits from the south to the north. Germany’s surplus alone corresponds to about a third of its GDP.

While Spain looks set to turn to the EFSF for a formal bailout subject to stringent conditionality in order for the ECB to buy its bonds, Italy’s situation remains more benign. There was no real estate bubble in Italy; Italian banks are weakened by recession but their balance sheets do not bear the legacy of mortgage NPLs. At 123% of GDP, public debt is clearly high, but the government runs a primary surplus (3.4% of GDP this year) while Spain has a primary deficit of 3.3%. Italy’s net external position is balanced while Spain has run current account deficits close to 10% of GDP per year over a decade. If Italians were to swap their foreign assets with the government bonds held abroad, Italy would look like Japan: a highly indebted country at the sovereign level but one in which a private funding surplus means the vast bulk of that debt is held domestically.

In part this ‘domestication’ of Italy’s outstanding debt has already happened as a result of the ECB’s LTROs. The share of government debt held by foreign residents has fallen since late 2011 from 45% to 34% of the total. Italy’s technocratic government owes its legitimacy to its ability to steer the country through this crisis, which would vanish if a formal bailout were requested. If that happened, an early election would be inevitable with the likely result being a hung Parliament, probably dominated by a resurgent Berlusconi. As things stand, a general election is due in the spring of 2013 and parliament needs the intervening period to pass a new electoral law that should reduce the probability of a hung Parliament.

The day (later this month?) that Spain goes to the EFSF and the ECB starts buying its bonds, Italian bonds will be under renewed pressure. Without a bailout, Italy will need to reduce the volume of medium- and long-term bonds it auctions from now until the general election because yields will not fall until the political uncertainty is resolved. Some €100 billion of these will come due in the next six months; rather than rolling them over, they should be redeemed through the future revenue from asset sales.  The government still owns large shares  in publicly traded companies, among them Enel, Eni and Finmeccanica. There is also a huge stock of prime real estate, harder to sell outright near-term but feasible to mortgage/ securitise to raise cash.

If a credible program of asset sales is launched in Q4, bridge financing could be also provided by the Cassa Depositi e Prestiti, a government-controlled institution which finances itself through saving deposits issued by the Post Office worth €220 billion. The Cassa lends to local authorities and these loans are accepted by the ECB as eligible collateral. They could be turned into liquidity that the Cassa could use either to buy government bonds or to lend directly to the Treasury. None of this would solve Italy’s underlying trend growth and productivity problems, but it would give the country a period of relative calm which Monti could use to give new impetus to his government.

Meantime,  the  euro  zone  economic  data  continues  to  disappoint,  although  the  pace  of deterioration has abated; the euro area manufacturing PMI was revised slightly down in August, to 45.1 from the flash estimate at 45.3. The revision was driven by similar moves in Germany (to 44.7 from the flash at 45.1) and in France and by mixed releases in the periphery. In the latter, manufacturing PMIs remain well into negative territory and consistent with a sharp contraction in activity. The Italian manufacturing PMI fell to its lowest level since October 2011, to 43.6 from 44.3 and has failed to improve from the lows recorded in Q2. The Spanish manufacturing PMI, on the other hand, rose to its highest level in 6 months, up to 44.0 from 42.3. The rise was mainly driven by new orders, up to 43.1 from 39.2 (export orders up to 48.2 from 44.2, its strongest reading since Aug last year). Employment also moved up a bit, to 42 from 41.5. In Ireland, the PMI index fell in August, but it is the only one still above 50, at 50.9 from 53.9.

Will the current plan work as outlined? In principle, the ECB can eliminate ‘convertibility’ risk (i.e. risk premia associated with investor fears of an EMU break-up) in peripheral debt markets by acting as lender of last resort and capping yields at a level that ensures solvency. The ‘target’ yield would need to be sufficiently low to be consistent with debt sustainability but sufficiently high to maintain the incentives to undertake domestic reforms. This would theoretically eliminate (or at least reduce massively) the risk of default and start a virtuous cycle. However, in order to be ‘successful’, the ECB would need to be credible that it is going to defend its desired target rate. Clearly, the ECB has the balance sheet to buy as much debt as needed to defend the target yield it pleases. But in practice, the ECB is unlikely to commit to the magnitude of the intervention that may be required to cap yields because of concerns that moral hazard in policymaking could lead the weakest countries in the Eurozone to slacken their efforts to reduce structural deficits and the ECB may not be willing to accept the associated credit risk.

Instead,  in  conjunction  with  the  EFSF,  it  is  going  to  provide  limited  conditional (and potentially sterilised) lending. This raises the issue of subordination. Mario Draghi commented that “private investors’ concerns about seniority will be addressed”. Despite these assurances, investors cannot rule out the possibility that in an eventual restructuring, the ECB would claim seniority regardless; Draghi is almost certainly unable from a legal standpoint to renounce irrevocably the institution’s seniority in a credit event. The second problem is that limited and conditional ECB/EFSF intervention may not reduce yields sufficiently, because the ECB is unwilling to make purchases unconditional on the underlying fiscal position. Spain and Italy face credit risk compounded by the fact that while ECB lending may or may not be unlimited it is conditional, so bond investors have to assign some probability to a scenario in which the ECB bond buying is curtailed because of missed fiscal targets.

The new plan certainly increases the chances of eventual resolution of the crisis as an interim step toward eventual fiscal union/common bond issuance. Success over the next 6-12mths should be measured in the ability of Italy and Spain to regain market confidence such that longer duration (5-yr plus) yields start falling on a sustained basis as private sector buyers return. Given the conditionality, if domestic political support for further adjustment evaporates in say Spain, the end game will still be either default or debt mutualisation, either of which will be traumatic for a different group of investors. The flurry of policy initiatives since June should be welcomed as providing an overdue respite from the euro zone solvency crisis allowing global investors to focus on asset fundamentals and other macro risks from China’s painful post-stimulus deleveraging to the US debt ceiling, but no more than that.