Euro Area

 

Europe's Cage is Rattled a Bit

The little disturbance in Portugal's banking landscape hasn't been entirely overcome yet. New management has been installed at Banco Espirito Santo, but the problem is that the bank apparently sits on quite a few dubious assets, and the new management cannot wish them away. BES appears to have sunk a lot of money into former Portuguese colony Angola, and these loans are the subject of growing concern. On Tuesday, the stock of BES collapsed to a new low, but the losses have been recovered in Wednesday's trading session.

In parallel with the still growing worries about BES, Germany's ZEW institute issued its economic confidence indicator, which showed the 7th monthly decline in a row. Wasn't there supposed to be a recovery?

A few excerpts from a Reuters summary:

 

“European stocks and the euro fell on Tuesday after shares in Portugal's biggest listed bank hit a record low, while a plunge in German economic sentiment pushed up borrowing costs for some peripheral euro zone countries.

Global stock markets have recently been supported by dovish policy measures from major central banks and signs that economies are recovering, though worries persist over the pace of growth in Europe and the health of the region's banks.

[…]

The banking sector was a sharp underperformer, with Portugal's Banco Espirito Santo  slumping 17.5 percent to a fresh record low. Traders blamed concerns over the bank's Angolan loan portfolio and the sale of a stake at a low price by the bank's founding family on Monday.

[...]

"The key takeaway is that the banking sector globally continues to struggle despite time having been bought, and policy being tremendously supportive," said Jeremy Batstone-Carr, head of private client research at Charles Stanley.

"The sector feels like a minefield."

 

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Mr. Draghi Regrets His Inability to Debase the Currency

Mario Draghi has managed to talk the bonds of completely insolvent governments up, merely by making vague promises of doing something that sounded somewhat dodgy, even illegal. Since he never actually had to keep his promise, this must surely count as an astonishing feat in central banking history.

Convinced of his power to move markets by mere utterances, he is lately engaging in what superficially appears to be a far easier task for a central banker,  namely trying to talk down the currency the bank is issuing. Given that there is no theoretical limit to how much of its confetti a central bank can create, this should be a piece of cake. In a way this is however really a head-scratcher. Hasn't said currency only just recently come out of intensive care? We still happen to remember news magazine covers like these:

 

100507 NewsweekEuropeanEditionNewsweek times an interim low in the euro …

 

Newsweek-juny_ARAIMA20120614_0059_1And another one …

 

end-of-euro-economistThe Economist didn't want to be left out (perfect timing here as well)

 

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French Labor Bureaucracy to Measure the Pain of Work

 

I wish we could get into that painfulness stuff.

– One luggage handler to another, overheard in the airport in Paris

 

tobacco

Tobacco field

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Today, exceptionally, we write about something we know something about: painfulness. This is our translation of a new concept in French labor law. It involves something called “la pénibilité,” which refers to the difficulty, suffering or pain, involved in a job.

Sitting at a desk in an air-conditioned office involves little or no pénibilité. Carrying heavy roof tiles up a steep ladder in the rain, by contrast, involves quite a bit. In typical French fashion, the labor bureaucracy has set out to make adjustments. Pénibilité is measured. Then it is compensated. Each worker has his own account, in which he gets credits, depending on how painful his work is.

Get 10 points in your account, and you get to retire three months early. Factors contributing to painfulness include: noise, night work, bending, kneeling, crouching, carrying heavy burdens, smoke and so forth. If you get two of these factors working for you, your points are doubled. This system is scheduled to begin in 2015.

 

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Portuguese Banking Group's Woes Deepen

When we wrote about the troubles at Banco Espirito Santo yesterday (our post was written before European markets opened) information was still fairly scant. However, on the very same day the situation continued to escalate. Here is an excerpt from the WSJ providing further details:

 

Shares in the troubled Portuguese lender have been under pressure since May, when the bank disclosed that an audit ordered by Bank of Portugal into Espírito Santo International SA, the conglomerate that indirectly holds a stake in the bank, had found Espírito Santo International was in a "serious financial condition" and had uncovered accounting irregularities. But the declines mounted drastically Thursday after investors learned Espírito Santo International had delayed coupon payments relating to some short-term debt securities.

Switzerland-based Banque Privee Espírito Santo SA, which is owned by Espírito Santo Financial Group, said in an emailed statement Wednesday that Espírito Santo International has delayed the repayment of short-term debt sold to some of its clients. It said the repayment is the sole responsibility of the conglomerate. The conglomerate declined to offer a separate comment.

The bank's stock dropped more than 17% before trading in its shares was suspended. Trading in Banco Espirito Santo's controlling shareholder, Espirito Santo Financial Group SA, listed in Luxembourg and Lisbon, was also suspended earlier Thursday. The Portuguese markets regulator banned short selling, or betting against, Banco Espirito Santo shares in Friday's session.

 

 

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Breaking From the Wedge

France is currently Europe's “sick man”, not least due to the destructive economic policies pursued by its socialist government. Halfhearted attempts at reform have so far not achieved any notable change, precisely because they are going nowhere near far enough. President Hollande seems to be waiting for the recovery in the rest of Europe to bail him out. His willingness to look beyond leftist dogma and display political courage seems rather limited, which we have always attributed to his fear of being challenged from elements even further to the left, both in his own party and outside of it. However, it is probably more than that: he is a true believer, and is suffering from the delusion that governments can suspend economic laws by fiat. This delusion is of course shared by central planners all across the so-called capitalist world, but it is especially pronounced in his case.

A friend just pointed out to us that France's stock market suddenly looks rather wobbly. French stocks rallied strongly along with other European stock markets once fears over the sovereign debt crisis receded. As we have discussed previously in these pages, year-on-year true money supply growth in the euro area surged strongly from its late 2011 low near 1%, to a high slightly above 8% in early 2013, and has since then begun to decline noticeably again (see our assessment of Europe's tepid economic recovery from mid May: Europe’s Recovery is Stuck in the Mud. A chart of the euro area's true money supply and its annualized growth rate can be seen here). The money supply growth rate is still fairly high at present, but the trend is down and one cannot tell in advance what level will be the threshold that triggers the next bust. However, it would certainly make sense if France's stock market were to lead other European markets at the turning point.

There is a chance that such a turning point may have arrived. Of course, this isn't the first time European stocks are correcting since their uptrend started, and one can never be certain whether short term moves really have significance for the larger degree trend. France's stock market is acting worse in the recent correction than other European markets, but we thank that may well be because it is  leading them.

The character of the recent correction seems different from that of previous short term downturns, even though its extent is not yet unusual. Contrary to previous dips, the market has put in a second lower high on the daily chart. The move has moreover clearly violated the lower boundary of the preceding wedge-like advance. The last rebound attempt didn't even manage to move the CAC-40 index back to the broken trend line for a “good-bye kiss”, which we believe is a strong sign that something is amiss.

 

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“Good Riddance, Rich Bastard”

We have actually discussed the flight of the best and brightest (as well as the  richest) citizens from president Hollande's socialist paradise before – see  “Regime Uncertainty in France” for details. We have just come across the video below, which is also slightly dated by now, but since nothing much has changed in France, it is worth reviewing it.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, the London journalist (born in France, and now living in France's six-largest city, far away from the clutches of Hollande and Mountebank) is interviewed in the video as well.  As she points out, when France's richest man decided he would rather leave than keep feeding Leviathan, the French press reacted with the headline “good riddance, rich bastard”.

The anti-capitalist mentality is deeply rooted in France, which leads even to escapades such as unions kidnapping and blackmailing managers.  They have nothing to fear – for some reason it is apparently considered perfectly legal when unions do this. This is not to say that there are actually legal exceptions in the statutes regarding kidnapping and blackmail by unions or workers, but they are simply never prosecuted for it. On the contrary – they get gifts from the courts! As Business Week reported:

 

“Bossnapping” and similar tactics have turned out to be pretty effective negotiating tools for French labor unions. Workers who have participated in past hostage-taking incidents haven’t been prosecuted, and most have won sizable concessions from employers.

After four executives of Caterpillar (CAT) were held hostage in 2009 for 24 hours to protest layoffs in Grenoble, the company upped its total severance package from €48.5 million to €50 million, amounting to an average €80,000 ($108,000) per worker. The same year, appliance maker Ariston (A3E:GR) agreed to severance packages of up to €90,000 for workers at a factory in Brittany who protested planned layoffs by locking the manager out of the building.

In still another case—among a spate of 10 French “bossnappings” in 2009—the manager of a 3M (MMM) factory in the town of Pithiviers was taken hostage in a dispute over severance pay. The workers served him a takeout meal of mussels and French fries before deciding to let him go and pursue their grievances in court. An appeals court ruled in their favor last July, ordering 3M to pay €800,000 to 110 laid-off workers.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy denounced the hostage-taking, but public opinion polls showed that many French sympathized with the protesters and no charges have ever been filed against them.”

 

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Dysfunctional Bond Markets – A Comparison of Yields

Below we show the 10 year government bond yields of three countries: Spain, Japan and the United States. Also shown are budget deficits and total public debt as a percentage of GDP. It would actually make more sense to look at deficits as a percentage of tax revenues. The comparison of debt to GDP seems not to make a lot of sense intuitively, as governments cannot pay their debts out of 'GDP', but only out of tax revenues (note also that there are slight differences in the GDP calculations).

Anyway, the point is mainly to compare the three countries, as both Spain's and Japan's bond yields essentially reflect zero risk at this point. In fact, investors seem to assume that the combination of inflation risk and default risk in Spain and Japan is lower than in the US, which strikes us as slightly absurd, if only for “technical” reasons. An overview of annual CPI rates of change is shown as well.  Also included above the bond yield charts are the credit ratings assigned by the three big credit rating agencies (in this order: S&P, Moody's, Fitch).

 

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Elections to European Parliament Create 'Political Earthquake'

Parties skeptical of the EU have made large inroads into the European parliament this week, but they haven't won enough seats to seriously derail the Brussels machinery. What's more, there are significant ideological and political differences between the various parties that make up the euro-skeptical hodgepodge.

Among the most successful ones in the recent election we find Nigel Farage's UKIP, which apart from its anti-immigration stance appears to have a fairly strong libertarian bent, the Front National (FN) in France, which is essentially a nationalist socialist party (mind, we are not trying to say they are 'Nazis', only that their program is both nationalistic and socialistic), and Syriza in Greece, which is an alliance of far-left movements. Somehow we don't see Nigel Farage having much in common with Alexis Tsipras.

Beppe Grillo's Five Star moment took 21% of the vote in Italy, but fell a bit short of expectations. In Spain, the new Podemos party received 8% of the vote, while the established parties all lost about one third relative to the last EU election. Even in Germany, where the established parties retained a comfortable  majority, the euro-skeptic AfD scored a respectable 7%.

Naturally, no-one was surprised by Syriza's victory, which was foreshadowed by polls in Greece ever since the ND-PASOK coalition took power. The success of UKIP in the UK and the FN in France wasn't a surprise as such either, but the extent of their success certainly was. Marine Le Pen's FN bulldozed not only France's establishment parties, it also seems to have taken votes from the far-left led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Voters humiliated Francois Hollande's government by delivering a stern rebuke; the socialists landed only in distant third place. A brief summary of the election outcome in France:

 

“Marine Le Pen unleashed a political earthquake in France on Sunday night, after her National Front party topped the poll in the European elections.

With the polls closed, exit polls indicated that Le Pen's National Front party had won its first ever nation-wide election, with 25 percent of the vote, electing 25 of France's 74 MEPs. Following the vote, Le Pen immediately called for President Francois Hollande to dissolve the French parliament and call fresh elections.

Hollande's governing Socialist party received a drubbing from voters, picking up just 15 percent. Meanwhile, the centre-right UMP, traditionally the dominant force in French politics, also fared poorly, securing 20 percent.

Elsewhere, the liberal Movement for Democracy party claimed 10 percent of the vote, followed by the Greens on 9 percent, and Jean-Luc Melanchon's Left Front taking a mere 6 percent. The

(emphasis added)

 

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Weak Economic Performance

It was reported last week that the recovery in euro-land remains more hope than reality. It is worth noting that the sovereign debt crisis has not produced much by  way of spending cuts on the part of governments. By and large, the debtberg has just kept growing as if nothing of importance had happened. While the gap between government revenue and spending has narrowed somewhat – due to a combination of tax increases and a slowing in the contraction in the economies most severely affected by the bust – total spending has continued to grow, if at a somewhat slower pace than before:

 

Development_of_total_expenditure_and_total_revenue,_2003ÔÇô13_(1)_(1_000_million_EUR)_YB14_III

Public spending and revenue in the EU and the euro area – click to enlarge.

 

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The 'Great Stretch'

Last week the Greek government celebrated its return to the bond market, selling 3 billion euros in five-year bonds at a yield of 4.95 percent. Reportedly there was great demand for the issue, which should be no surprise given the current propensity of investors to buy all sorts of junk debt as long as it yields more than just a smidgen.

Reuters report on the backdrop that made this successful auction possible:

 

“Call it the Great Stretch. Two years ago, Greece's debt crisis almost brought the euro zone crashing down. Now European partners are preparing to ease Athens' debt burden without writing off their loans but by stretching them out into the distant future, extending maturities from 30 to 50 years and further cutting some interest rates, EU officials say.

Greece made a successful, if artificially engineered, return to the long-term capital markets last week for the first time since its international bailout in 2010, and just two years after imposing heavy losses on its private creditors.

But with its economy shattered, the country is still a long way from being able to fund itself unassisted in the market. The International Monetary Fund says Greece is likely to need further financial help from the euro zone over the next two years.

One reason why the sale of 3 billion euros in five-year bonds at a yield of 4.95 percent went so smoothly, on the eve of a support visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was that investors are widely anticipating official debt relief.

"That has been quite substantially priced in, and the market is also expecting Greece to be quickly upgraded by the credit rating agencies," said Alessandro Giansanti, senior rate strategist at ING bank in Amsterdam.

"In a second stage, the market is also expecting a reduction in principal on official debt, and no private sector involvement (write-down) in the coming years," he said.

Whether such expectations are fully realized will only become clear later this year, when negotiations start with the euro zone and the IMF on Greece's longer-term funding, and the end of its wrenching bailout program.

But EU leaders share an interest in helping conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' shaky coalition cling to office rather than seeing leftist anti-bailout firebrand Alexis Tsipras sweep to power demanding a massive debt write-off.”

 

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A Word to the Wise

Readers may remember former BuBa board member and ECB chief economist Otmar Issing, who probably like few others personified the image of the stern, conservative German central banker (Jürgen Stark and Axel Weber were also people in this mold). Issing now and then still offers his opinion to those interested, most recently in an editorial in the FT, entitled “Get your finances in order and stop blaming Germany”.

As one might expect, Issing is no fan of 'euro-zone bonds' and similar ideas attempting to create shared responsibility for the debts of independent sovereign countries running their own fiscal policy. Several of his points are worth commenting on.

 

Germany Shoots Own Goal

Issing starts out by noting that Germany should best lead by example – and not by throwing money at the euro area's problems. He also reminds us that Germany's economic success is not irrevocable, and that there is a threat it won't be preserved:

 

“Germany is not only the biggest economy in Europe, it is also the best performing – and it would be in everyone’s interest if the country led by example. Unfortunately, it may be undermining its economic dominance by undoing past reforms and reinforcing labour market regulations. It is perhaps not too pessimistic to argue that the time will come when Germany’s economy is no longer the subject of envy.”

 

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Illustration of Economic Interdependence

RT and Der Spiegel have recently published a few infographics on trade between the EU and Russia, respectively Germany and Russia, which we reproduce below. This shows why tit-for-tat sanctions could be a really big problem for Europe and why the EU's leaders are probably quietly praying for the crisis to simply go away. The associated article in Der Spiegel on the high price German business may end up paying is worth looking at in this context.  As an aside, we recently chided Stratfor a bit, but this article on Putin's motives and options is actually well worth reading as well (apart from the once again personified countries). Similarly, there are a few well-considered comments on the situation in this article at Bloomberg, which attempts to decipher Putin's motives by bringing them into a historical context. We don't necessarily agree with everything that is said in these articles, but they are different from the usual fare and all make for interesting reading. On to the trade infographics:

 

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Matteo Renzi Proposes Sweeping Tax Cuts

Italy's new prime minister Matteo Renzi is reversing some of the worst aspects of the legacy of the Brussels-approved professional bureaucrat Mario Monti by proposing a package of tax cuts, which is mainly going to be financed by spending cuts. This is of course what should have been done from the very beginning. Better late than never though. However, there is one slight flaw that is rightly criticized by some observers:

 

“Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Wednesday presented a sweeping package of tax cuts, saying they could help economic recovery in the euro zone's third largest economy without breaking EU budget deficit limits.

Renzi, in his first full news conference since taking office last month, said income tax would be reduced by a total of 10 billion euros ($14 billion) annually for 10 million low and middle income workers from May 1.

"This is one of the biggest fiscal reforms we can imagine," he told reporters after a cabinet meeting that approved the measures.

The cuts will be financed by reductions in central government spending, extra borrowing and by resources freed up thanks to the recent fall in Italy's borrowing costs, he said.

Daniel Gros, the head of the Brussels-based think tank CEPS, said it was worrying that Renzi appeared to be back-tracking on previous pledges to finance any tax cuts entirely with structural spending reductions.

"This is not what Italy needs," he said. "We don't know what bond yields will do in the future and, with its huge public debt, the government cannot afford more deficit spending."

Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan said the government would have to evaluate the effect of its measures on public finances and would need to seek EU approval if deficit and debt targets appeared in doubt. Renzi, the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence, said his agenda to stimulate the economy and reform Italy's political system was the most ambitious Italy had ever seen as he reeled off tax-cutting plans that he insisted were fully funded.”

 

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Will Austrian Bank Woes Be Again the Catalyst for a European Kondratieff Winter?

Sad affairs have been heating up in the tiny Alpine republic in the center of the European Union. While Austria experiences record unemployment at record growth rates and tax revenues  have fallen behind optimistic projections, the looming bankruptcy of a mid-sized regional bank, Hypo Group Alpe Adria (HGAA), may propel the country to the disdained position of being the catalyst for a new round of bank failures due to interwoven banks risks on both the domestic and the international level.

Austrian politicians are up in arms since a third-party expert opinion that recommends to wind down the bank at a cost of €18 billion has been leaked to the media, but keep on marching on the most fatal route that will not dissolve the problems: They keep flogging the dead horse HGAA with taxpayer's millions in a monthly money injection routine that has cost so far around €4.5 billion.

Current talks involving politicians appear to be more adequately suited for the Vienna opera house, but not for a rolling high finance train wreck that needs more than montlhy band aids.

On Monday Austrian financial market authority FMA publicly said what the official Austria never wanted to hear as it is now confronted with a widening public discussion on a problem it had surrealstically hoped to brush under the carpet. FMA head Harald Ettl warned that any further delay would make the – in this blogger's humble opinion doomed HGAA – an incalculable risk and that Austria should consider no option as a taboo anymore.

Nothing could be more true. An unorderly liquidation of HGAA will not only push Austria from the throne of the best economy in the Eurozone, pushing its public debt to GDP ratio well over 100%, but will also have continent wide reverberations.

 

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A 'Flood of Good News'

As der Spiegel recently reported, the Greek government is intent on smothering its reluctant creditors with good news (in order to be able to accumulate a reasonable amount of such, the last 'troika' assessment has apparently been subject to numerous delays):

 

“A SPIEGEL report that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is considering a third rescue package for Greece has electrified the struggling nation. Athens wants to impress its creditors with a stream of good news. But it still has a long list of unkept promises. New loans are welcome, but don't ask us for any new austerity measures. This pretty much sums up Athens' reaction to Germany's reported willingness to approve further loans to Greece to cover the country's multi-billion euro projected financing gap in 2015-2016.

Although there was no official reaction to SPIEGEL's report, published on Monday, government sources say that Berlin's intentions were known to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, adding that Germany will not pull the rug from under Greece's feet, especially with the European election due in May.

But the Greek government has also made clear that it will not accept a new round of measures or a continuation of what are perceived by many in Greece as the asphyxiating and humiliating controls by the troika of European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras is preparing Greece's position ahead of the troika's arrival. With a fresh round of bargaining looming on the new loans, he promised an avalanche of "impressively good news" in the coming days to show that Greece doesn't need any further belt-tightening. It only needs to press on with its structural reforms, he said.

According to a Greek Finance Ministry official, the good news will include the first increase of retail sales in 43 months, and the first rise in the purchasing managers' index in 54 months. The "super-weapon" in Stournaras' arsenal, however, is the hefty 2013 primary budget surplus, now estimated at €1.5 billion, well above the official budget forecast of €812 million.

The same official said the expected good news was the reason why Athens doesn't want the troika to return earlier to conclude a much-delayed round of inspections that started in the autumn. Stournaras is expected to present Greece's accomplishments to German officials when he visits Berlin later this week. The final details of his trip are still being worked out. Athens also plans a return to the markets by the end of 2014 in what it believes will be a definitive sign that the Greek economy is out of the woods.

With the leftist opposition alliance Syriza leading most opinion polls, some observers say the Greek government needs to be able to show success soon. Athens was therefore quick to react to the reports about new loans, telling the public it should not fear a new wave of measures.

 

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