Markets have shrugged off improvement in the Eurozone because more is needed for stability. Rising demand for German goods, an improving business climate and stability in Spanish housing should have given markets cause for celebration. However, after the substantial rally we’ve seen, and the headwinds yet to be tackled within the region, caution has crept back into markets.
Absence of Growth and Currency Risk
There is deep concern over Europe’s ability to kickstart growth, as austerity measures dampen economic expansion and a strong euro stifles exports. The increase in demand for German factory goods interestingly was driven by demand withinthe euro area. Domestic demand was weak and the currency still source of concern abroad. Furthermore, despite an overall improving business climate, uncertainty in the political and economic landscape going forward is causing delay in hiring and investment.
Spain Precarious and Firepower Lacking
Once again hitting the headlines, Spain could derail European stability, as corruption charges are directed at the government while they continue to grapple with a large budget deficit. The latest data points to a possible floor in Spanish housing prices but defaults on bank loans due to the real estate bubble remains elevated and there is only limited further financial aid available directly from the rescue fund. In order to meet its main obligation of lending to struggling countries, additional direct bank aid has been rumoured to amount to less than €100bn, nowhere near enough to contain future turmoil!
Reform and Unity Needed
With France expected to have slipped back into recession, Draghi, the European Central Bank President, is right to warn that the region is not in the clear yet. What’s needed now are structural reform and closer fiscal and political unity. Only with a return of confidence, based on improving fundamentals, can stability return.
“The concern we have as investors is that there is a lot of risk out there that people aren’t really picking up on. The fact that this bond buying program (“Outright Monetary Transactions”) is conditional means that it’s actually hard to police. How can you give a country that asks for help support, and then withdraw it and not expect the market to implode as a result…
“A physics quip to link to is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle… the more you understand about a particle’s momentum, the less you know about its location. And you can say that about Europe. The more we understand about how fast things are deteriorating, the less we understand the full extent of how big the problem is.”
Gemma Godfrey, Head of Investment Strategy at Brooks Macdonald and CNBC’s ‘go to’ expert on Europe and financial markets, on Squawk Box October 2012.
Huge strides forward in Europe and subsequent market rallies have raised hopes for the region. So is the road to recovery now clear or are significant risks still present? Crucially, what are the key areas of conflict we should be watching closely and which are ‘red herrings’?
A greater degree of oversight of the banking sector is needed for stability. Issues of experience and breadth of oversight to include smaller banks are somewhat misnomers but issues of authority, conflicts of interest, and deposit guarantees are not. Nevertheless, turmoil creates opportunities and the road will remain rocky for the shorter-term at least.
Resolution Remains Just Out of Reach
‘Tail risk’ in Europe has dramatically reduced over the past few months. This refers to the risk of a dramatic event which could drive an extreme change in portfolio values, i.e. a Greek exit from the Euro, having fallen substantially. Prompted by Draghi’s statement that he will do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, and solidified with his launch of an ‘Outright Monetary Transaction’, buying the bonds of countries that request help, markets have moved to reflect this reduction in perceived risk.
But does this mean the road to recovery is now clear? Unfortunately not. The risk of an immediate euro breakup may have eased but Europe still needs to integrate further before we can say unity has been strengthened sufficiently.
With the region rocked every time there is turmoil in one country’s banking sector, providing a level of oversight to spread, offset and protect from risk is a desperately needed move forwards. Agreement has been reached to progress this course of action, and the European Central Bank put in charge. So what are the key areas of conflict we should be watching closely to decipher how far risk has truly abated? What issues matter and which are ‘red herrings’?
Ready, Steady, Go….?
The ECB may have been the natural choice of supervisor but it has neither experienceof direct supervision, nor dedicated staff. However, this is probably the most easily remedied concern, with recruitment of a team with appropriate experience.
Of greater concern is the lack of authority with which the central bank would begin its ‘reign’. A ‘Banking Resolution Mechanism’, i.e. a process for the enforcement of support, rules and regulation, will only come into place at a later date. Threats without force are just words and the sustained support that could bring is doubtful.
Furthermore, the central bank’s original mandate of price stability could be compromised. It is unclear how a conflict of interest can be avoided when knowledge of bank positioning may affect its resolve to implement monetary policy. Knowing an interest rate move, for example, could destabilise a large bank and create a level of turmoil, may muddy the waters.
One for All and All for One
Germany has voiced its opposition to a broad-based level of oversight, focused not just on the largest banks but any that could pose a risk to the stability of the banking sector. As the country within the region with the largest number of ‘small’ banks as well as almost a third of the regions total number of banks, this has been a focal point in the press. The claim is that the administration costs to comply would be enormous, passed on customers and hit the local economy.
However, for two main reasons this again is more of a distraction than a nail in the coffin. Firstly, as in Spain, for example, it was issues in smaller banks which brought chaos to the country. Bankia, the ‘bailed-out’ bank, was constructed from several smaller struggling banks. Germany’s smaller banks together have total assets than exceed Deutsche Bank and are responsible for around 38% of both bank lending and deposits. Therefore, oversight should indeed include these banks.
Secondly, on a day-to-day basis, smaller banks may continue to receive oversight similar to national arrangements, minimising the feared disruption and cost. Rules were ‘softened’ when the European Parliament expressed the desire for the ECB to have the choice of delegating its supervision of smaller relevant lenders to national authorities. A feeling of loss of sovereignty is still tough to challenge but may be eased and outweighed by necessity.
Nevertheless, hostility from Germany continues in the form of opposition towards a single deposit guarantee scheme. A ‘run on banks’ was touted as a key risk as capital outflows from the periphery European countries gathered momentum last year. A lack of confidence in the safety of customer deposits drove exits and challenged the liquidity levels and stability of the targeted banks. A region-wide scheme to guarantee these deposits is hoped to bring some calm and reduce these fears.
This is a crucial part of the longer-term plan for a return of confidence to the region but has seemingly ‘dropped off the agenda’ according to Germany, resisting further discussion. The fear is the relative strength of one country will be used to offset weaknesses in another. Tax payers from one country could end up having to pay for the mistakes of a bank in another. Nevertheless, behind the headlines, it is understood that some form of transfer from Germany to the periphery is necessary for stability and this is certainly an issue to watch closely going forward.
A Rocky Road
Therefore, Europe has some crucial challenges to tackle over the next few months. Longer-term strategies must be embedded to protect the region. To complicate matters, politicians will continue to be distracted by ‘putting out fires’. For example, a request for help by Spain remains hotly debated and there is the potential for further civil unrest in reaction to growing opposition to austerity. The risk of further turmoil in Greece is high as it is tasked with completing bank recapitalisation and paying public sector debts, but a long-term solution to alleviate reliance on financial support remains illusive.
Turmoil creates opportunities and the road will remain rocky for the shorter-term at least. International firms that are merely headquartered in an area of weakness can provide an interesting opportunity as price moves, volatile in the shorter-term, more accurately reflect underlying value over the longer-term.
Bold words, high expectations and market rallies. We’ve seen steps in the right direction in Europe, but the 3 features that differentiate the latest bond buying program also highlight its flaws. It’s conditional but hard to police, transparent but uncertain, and unlimited but not long-term. The vicious circle is clear; a country will only get support if its economy deteriorates to the extent they will accept onerous conditions which will cause it to sink deeper into recession. With multiple significant flaws present in current plans, enough has been done to buoy markets but more is needed to support economic progress and bring sufficient confidence back to markets.
“Whatever it takes”
With bold statements come high expectations and Draghi, the European Central Bank President, has been acutely aware of this fact. After claiming he would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, the pressure was on to support this with a decisive plan of action.
Earlier this month he seemed to do just that, promising to launch an unlimited bond-buying program to ease pressure on sovereign borrowing costs. Taken positively by the markets, the Eurostoxx closed up over 2% that day and periphery sovereign bond yields fell on the news alone.
However, the question remains: has this really marked the end of the Eurozone crisis? The rally has taken bank shares and CDSs back to where they stood in March, when markets similarly put faith in cheap 3-year ECB loans, only to be disappointed. Are markets at risk of a correction this time too?
Step in the right direction but we’ve a long way to go
Draghi identified at least 3 ways in which his latest plan would be different from previous bond-buying schemes. However, they also help identify flaws which could come to light if the situation in the Eurozone were to continue to deteriorate significantly:
1. Conditional but hard to police
To allay (German) worries of long-lasting and repeated requests for help, the support provided by the ECB will come with conditions. The ECB will buy bonds of countries that request help, as long as they conform to certain terms. Countries will be charged with specific requirements, e.g. spending cuts, to try and build fiscal discipline so assistance can wind down. The conditional nature of any offer to support a country’s government bonds could however also be cause for concern. It is hard to police. The resultant turmoil that would ensue from a country not only having identified themselves as in need of help, but now having that help withdrawn would extend beyond the country in question. This would therefore be mutually destructive. With investors fleeing from any asset perceived to be exposed to this country as they looked to de-risk portfolios, ECB assets could be damaged, lowering their resolve to enact this punishment.
Moreover, this unintentionally maps out the road to a euro exit. It highlights that once a country that has received a bailout no longer meets specific targets, the rug may be pulled out from underneath it and the resulting pressure could force it out of the euro.
2. Transparent but uncertain
The ECB will be transparent about which country’s bonds they are buying, reducing speculation and giving markets a clearer indication of what’s going on. However, this doesn’t mean the picture would be crystal clear. Uncertainty remains as to the exact level at which bond-buying could be triggered and the conditions that would be put in place.
3. Unlimited but not long term
There is no cap on the amount of bonds that can be bought and therefore it can provide some form of support long into the future. However, this does not equate to a long term solution. Buying bonds is not a substitute for reform or a strategy for economic growth, which Draghi himself stated has “risk to the downside”. Both of which are crucial for the health of Europe and an end to the crisis.
Finally, although not corresponding to anything stated as a benefit of the plan, it was not unanimous. The German Bundesbank President was not in favour of the plan and could still cause trouble. Indeed, it has since been ruled that Germany has the right to vote over every rescue programme. Considering the country’s fondness for austerity, bailout terms could be tougher and either rejected, damage the economy further, or accepted and failed to be followed. The vicious circle is clear; a country will only get support if its economy deteriorates to the extent they will accept onerous conditions which will cause it to sink deeper into recession.
With multiple significant flaws present in current plans, enough has been done to buoy markets but more is needed to support economic progress further down the line and bring sufficient confidence back to markets.
Central banks are running out of steam as their measures to bring calm back to markets are no longer as effective as they once were. Germany too seems unable to keep up. Like a marathon runner caught in a sprint, their reluctance to move forward stands in stark contrast to market moves focused on the end game. But the road isn’t clear. Europe has three remaining hurdles in their race to recovery: funds, fiscal unity and reform. With Greece approaching the final whistle, doubts over its ability to stay within Europe are growing louder. The worry is investors are watching the referee not the striker, more focused on the search for safety than the rising risk elsewhere in the markets. False starts continue to drive market volatility and while investors ask whether it’s time to back the ‘underdog’, European stocks may provide diamonds in rough, but things could get rougher.
The vital relationship between central banks implementing stimulus and Spanish yields falling has broken down since April of this year. No longer is central bank action able to reassure the market and instead Spain and Italy’s borrowing costs remain at elevated levels. Investors are demanding more. Structural change is needed but markets are concerned that leaders could choke under the pressure.
Germany: A marathon runner caught in a sprint
Germany wants to progress towards greater unity at its own pace but the markets move faster. Indeed a backbencher delivered his dissatisfaction with the European Central Bank’s plans to their Constitutional Court! It will be tackled in September but investors and the economy won’t wait. Weak consumer confidence and rating agency scepticism highlight the urgency for action.
Europe: 3 Hurdles in Race to Recovery
The three key obstacles to be tackled to progress towards stability are: enough funds to contain the crisis; fiscal consolidation (share budgets in order to share debt burdens and be able to offer ‘eurobonds’); and finally structural reform to regain competitiveness & growth. All are vital for the future of the region and this realisation is starting to build within the markets. Europe did manage to overcome their concern that a Fed-Style straight bond buying programme would reduce the pressure on countries to reform, with a Memorandum of Understanding putting these measures on paper. The use of ‘MOU’s in order to accept ‘IOU’s to lend to countries within Europe may be a step forward, but this remains only part of the full picture needed for longer-lasting results.
Greece: Approaching the Final Whistle
S&P ratings agency has questioned whether Greece will be able to secure the next tranche of bailout funds as it downgraded the outlook for its credit rating to negative. Without such funding, the ‘death knell’ for Greece’s euro membership will be sounded. With the IMFsignalling payments to Greece will stop, the lack of funding fuels fears that without drastic action, the end could be near. Even beyond Greece, the Italian Prime Minister dared to publicise the possibility of a Eurozone breakup if borrowing costs did not fall.
Investors: Watching the Referee not the Striker
The rush to safety has been overshadowing rising risks. As investors pile in to perceived ‘safe haven’ assets, the yield on German government bonds has been falling. However, in a different market, the cost of insuring these bonds has risen as these investors see risk on the rise. The snapback in bond markets to better reflect this sentiment could shake the equity market as well and is therefore a significant concern.
Markets: False Starts
Markets have rallied in the face of disappointing data. Eurozone stocks reached a 4 monthhigh as manufacturing dropped to a 3 year low suggesting the slump is extending into Q3. This discrepancy has driven market volatility, exacerbated by the low volume of shares traded over the summer months. Greater clarity is required to see a more sustained upward momentum which will have to wait until leaders are back from their hols!
Investments: When to Back the Underdog?
European stocks may provide diamonds in rough, but things could get rougher. The overweight US / underweight EU trade is starting to look stretched, as the divergence in performance between the two regions continues to increase. This has been quite understandable, but there will come a time when this is overdone. Within Europe, there are international companies, with geographically diversified revenue streams so not dependent solely on domestic demand for their products or services. Furthermore, with effective management teams and strong fiscal positions, some may be starting to look cheap. However, cheap could get cheaper. Damage to sentiment could lead to market punishment regardless of fundamentals. Therefore waiting for decisive developments & clarity on road to recovery may be prudent.
As scientists around the world celebrate the possible discovery of a new particle, European leaders may look upon this with envy. Potentially a great leap forward in unifying the complex and differing elements that make up our world, Europe meanwhile continues to struggle with internal conflicts. From particle colliders to monetary unions, experiments can offer valuable insights into how the world works; neither has reached its ultimate conclusion so let’s just hope envy can be turned into action…
Quest For Unity
In an attempt to elegantly unite all particles and forces in the universe into a single set of equations, the Standard Model strives to be a ‘theory of everything’. However, scientists remained unable to explain how matter attains mass. The Higgs Boson was postulated as a potential solution to this problem, giving subatomic particles mass as they travelled through the ‘Higgs field’. For almost 50 years, this particle was sought and announcements made this week appear to imply something fitting the description has been found.
Progress towards greater unity within Europe is likewise sought. Forming a monetary union to ease trade within the region was the experiment; forming full fiscal unity would be the solution. With some countries in deficit, whilst others enjoy a budget surplus, the imbalances are unsustainable. In order to share debt burdens, budgets must be shared first…
Investment Into A Solution
Substantial investments have been made in both these scientific and economic experiments. The Large Hadron Collider took 25 years to plan and $6 billion to build. It smashes protons at nearly the speed of light, with the debris scoured for signs of hidden new particles. Identifying a particle with a mass that would fit the profile of a Higgs Boson is the reason for the current excitement.
Unfortunately, the €1 trillion of loans offered to European banks cannot be said to claim such a conclusive victory. The loans have failed to be passed on to the wider economy, and government bond yields have crept back up to previous levels.
We’re Not There Yet
Nevertheless, both the scientific world and the political one have a way to go. We are still unable to answer why the 4 forces differ so greatly in their power. And similarly our options to deal with the vastly differing economic power of European countries appear limited. Potential steps forward exist for both. While one needs the building of an even larger collider, unlikely in many people’s lifetimes, the other could be achieved with political will sooner. There is hope for Europe, let’s hope voyages of discovery can inspire action.