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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.
Graph showing the correction in world equity markets over the past week (S&P 500 in white, Eurostoxx 600 in orange, FTSE 100 in yellow); put in context of the substantial upward move year to date. Source: Bloomberg
This week, issues concerning Europe’s firepower, the US consumer and broader economic growth will determine the direction of markets. Inflation, hard-to-beat expectations and political stalemate provide a significant downward risk to market, although upward momentum could always drive them further.
As fuel price inflation dents sentiment in the US, the consumer may be squeezed and figures for income and spending may disappoint. Furthermore, the opportunity for upside surprises in durable goods orders and Q4 GDP growth is limited as forecasted figures are already high.
A two-day meeting of Europe’s finance ministers will be closely watched for signs of an expansion in the firepower of the rescue fund. The deadline to do so draws near and the pressure for progress grows. However, Germany remains staunchly against such a move and, even if achieved, the figure reached may still not be enough.
Debate has been raging as to whether the Greek economy can avoid bankruptcy. Just how big is the problem, what are the options and how is this impacting financial markets?
Background to the Problem
Greece is around €300bn in debt. Putting that into context, its budget deficit is one of the highest in Europe and last year amounted to more than four times the Eurozone limit at 13.6% of GDP. This more than supports the country’s inclusion in the infamous ‘PIIGS’ acronym (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) used to refer to the areas of sovereign debt concern.
Despite the jobless rate reaching 16% (and a horrific 42.5% for youth), the Greek economy has seen only marginal deleveraging. Instead, people are depending on consumer credit to maintain their levels of expenditure and service their debts (i.e. paying credit card bills with other credit cards). Moreover, whilst many in the UK struggle to obtain loans from banks, the overall banking sector in Greece actually increased their credit availability, with the most significant increase going to the government itself.
Last Thursday, Jean-Claude Trichet, President of the European Central Bank, announced that they would lend Greece €45bn in new loans. However, this alone, they acknowledge, is not enough. The ECB wants to see structural reforms and a good deal of privatization, with the claim that €50bn could be generated over 3 to 5 years to reduce debt/GDP from 160% to 140%.
What are the Complications?
Loans to ‘bailout’ struggling countries are partially funded by taxpayers from different countries within the EU. Therefore, the problem is not an isolated one. Furthermore, even after this loan and the privatization contributions, there will be a financing gap of €170bn between 2012 -14 which will need filling. European banks have to refinance €1.3tn maturing debt by end 2012 and are owed over €200bn already by the PIIGs for refinancing ops.
Could a Good ‘Haircut’ Help?
With so much talk of a ‘restructuring’, i.e. bond holders sharing some of the pain, it is interesting to hear the views of Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, an ECB executive board member on the subject. He maintains that these are not the tools by which Greece can save its economy but could cause a “Depression” and “banking system collapse”. Furthermore, those pointing to a compromise of a voluntary or ‘soft’ restructuring appear to be fooling themselves. According to him, there is “no such thing as an ‘orderly’ or ‘soft’ re-structuring” since ‘haircuts’ (a percentage knocked off the par value of a bond) would have to be forced by governments. Crucially, any type of restructuring would cause a panic in the markets and cause credit events reducing the value of these investment vehicles either way.
Yield on a 10 year Greek Government Bond (Orange), 10 year German Government Bond (white) and the spread between the two (yellow) - showing the higher premium demanded by investors for holding Greek debt, near historical highs - highlighting a heightened risk perceived by the markets.
So, What Are the Options?
As previously mentioned, a default on some of its debts would have dire consequences but the prospects for sustainable financial solvency appear weak with such a substantial deficit and the habits of borrowers and lenders not much improved. Most worrying, from the perspective of European stability is the recent comments from a Greek EU Commissioner that “The scenario of removing Greece from the euro is now on the table”. Therefore, although in stark contrast to statements by Greece’s Prime Minister and with France and Germany still heavily exposed to EU laggards, which together make a break up of the euro unlikely in the short-term, it is a fear weighing on investors minds.
This has two consequences. Firstly, investors should be more cautious of an indiscriminate sell-off but secondly, this can be used as an opportunity to pick up high quality assets at a lower price. Be wary but remain opportunistic.
The US Equity market in less than two years, as measured by the S&P500, has doubled from its post crisis March 2009 low. Volatility has sunk. US Unemployment remains high. The Fed is fueling a speculative boom with the riches accumulating to the few. US Labor struggling to get back to a decent or any work and the geopolitics paint a complete opposite picture to the market euphoria. All the while clouds in the global geopolitical sphere continue to gather pace. While in the west we measure progress many times by the rise or fall of the markets alone on a daily basis – For the people of Egypt the long struggle for jobs, social justice has only begun. On Feb 13th, the military council abolished the constitution… timetable to nowhere is all we can see… as the military positions to further consolidate its stranglehold on the people. Unrest potential is building in the Arab world. From the lands north of Sahara- Northern Africa. From the Nile to the Euphrates. From the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia. The two ‘I’s, Israel-Iran, eyeing each other and global players are taking positions. China has a new world status and it could test its newly found powers, all the while weaknesses are building into its own economic system that risk world destabilization. Change in the status quo in the middle east and elsewhere where pressures have been building for some time now can have seismic implications for growth of the world economy. Rather growth stalling at best with uncertainty keeping long term investment plans at bay and hungry jobless populations or democratically starved plutocratic nations citizens pressuring for reforms. Global aggregate demand on the government side is pressured to collapse as spending at current intervals is unsustainable. The pace of implementation of structural reforms is slow and major structural reforms measures are still to be taken. Will the Fed stimulus policies continue to keep the economy from faltering? We take the view that the higher you are the greater the fall and the highs we are now are not compatible with the struggle to put bread on the table for most families. Even in the most affluent of Nations. Ours. The Baltic index has closed at near quarter century lows. Ship oversupply? Yes. Australia flood impact? Yes. Trade used to be the life blood of world economy. Now it is finance. Speculative flows of money looking for a quick domicile for short term gain. Capital has always ruled the world but money movements of such intensity is a relatively new phenomenon that our econometric models do not have much historic data to go by. All is so synchronized now around the world. The supply of funding for excess speculative building abundant from the central authorities. Yet Trade the heart pulse of human global endevours and interactions since time in antiquity- trade- global trade- is telling us otherwise. Something is happening. Something big. The amount of trade is clearly going down as things look up in government, central banks and brokerage house reports. The Greek ships have been taking much to China but lately they come back many times empty. Yet the forward looking equity markets of our Western World…measures of progress in the eyes of many.. vain quests of financial engineering yet once more.. have been marching higher. Fundamental and technical traders follow the same momentum of a rising tide on stimulative action not structural reform. This is not healthy. The system has yet to cleanse itself. Something has to give…..
TZANETATOS CAPITAL MANAGEMENT LLC
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