Incredibly Hobbled

 “I can believe anything, provided it is quite incredible.

-Oscar Wilde 

 

Heading into tomorrow’s highly anticipated two-day EU Summit, Wilde’s pithy quote reminds us that Eurocrats have a tall order to impress the market with policy that will revert the direction of Europe’s 19 month-old sovereign debt and banking crisis. Below we caution that tomorrow’s results will likely disappoint investors’ expectations. Why?

 

If we’re right that the focus of tomorrow’s resolutions are largely centered on the topic of a fiscal union, either for the EU’s 27 countries or the Eurozone’s 17, we don’t think that the creation of another (likely bureaucratic) organization to monitor and impose budget restrictions will be the “bazooka” around which markets will see a sustained rally. Over the last decade we’ve seen the utter inefficiency of a somewhat similar program in the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact—a budget agreement issued in 1997 that limited member states to public debt (as a % of GDP) to 60% and deficit to 3%— as the majority of countries (including Germany) breached its mandates. 

 

Further, beyond how a “hands-on” Fiscal Union 2.0 is going to make up for the shortcomings of the Stability and Growth Pact, it’s unclear how Eurocrats will address the pressing question:  if peripheral European countries can’t grow and can’t fund themselves with rising credit spreads, and therefore can’t balance their budgets no matter how much austerity is delivered; aren’t allowed to default (Greece); and can’t individually adjust monetary policy, 1.) how do weak states get out of this vortex? and 2.) what’s the benefit to weaker states to be bound in the Eurozone?

 

If we take the view that major Eurocrat actors (including Merkel, Sarkozy, and Draghi) strive to preserve the fabric of the Eurozone, we believe Eurocrats largely have their hands tied as they don’t have the facilities (firepower) to adequately answer the questions above.  We estimate that European banks and the sovereigns need a funding facility to the tune of $2 to 3 Trillion (or $1.25 to 1.75T to recapitalize banks and $0.75 to 1.25T to fund future sovereign deficits) to address bailout and funding assistance needs.

 

Key factors that will continue to challenge issuing a “bazooka”:

1.)    The ECB, unlike the Fed, cannot print money to leverage/expand the EFSF

2.)    Merkel and ECB stand against the issuance of Eurobonds

3.)    We don’t see it in China’s interest to run in with a blank check to “save” Europe

4.)    The current EFSF has a mere €250 Billion left to address sovereign and banking concerns

5.)    The IMF only has €385 Billion in lending capabilities

6.)    Fiscal Union 2.0 will require treaty changes and a united voices across at least 17 countries

 

Should we not get any positive discussion on points 1-3 on Friday, which we think is highly likely, we do not expect capital markets or the EUR-USD to lift into a sustained rally (see chart below of our EUR-USD levels; we’d short any rally around $1.36 and don’t see a next material line of support until the previous low of $1.19).  It’s more probable that the ECB reiterates its ardent position that its sole mandate is price stability; Merkel says she is unwilling to see German funding costs rise; and the “value” of assets on the chopping block for the Chinese is unclear.

 

Under such a scenario, particularly in which there’s no talk or action specific to ECB backstop involvement or the issuance of Eurobonds, we’d expect the ECB’s secondary bond purchasing program, the Securities Market Program (SMP), to take on a larger role to fill waning demand for PIIGS paper. For context, last week the SMP bought €3.7 Billion versus €8.6 Billion in the previous week to take its total since May 2010 to €207 Billion.

 

Ultimately, we think this leaves the region in a tenuous position. First, the SMP is intended to only be a “temporary” program. Second, it will force the SMP to take on a much larger role to meet the demand of PIIGS issuance, or put an artificial bid that alone may not drive down sovereign yields.

 

More Risks on the Horizon Without ECB Support


While we view the actions of ratings agencies as lagging indicators, Monday’s move by Standard & Poor’s to place the ratings of 15 Eurozone nations on CreditWatch negative and Tuesday’s announcement that the EFSF’s AAA rating is being placed on CreditWatch negative adds one more bee in the Eurocrats’ bonnet ahead of Friday.  S&P said that ratings could be cut up to one notch for Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Luxembourg – and by up to two notches for everyone else (France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, and Malta.)  (Note: Greece was spared, and Cyprus remains on negative watch.)

 

While S&P said it would review the ratings following the Summit, the warning portends negatively for the EFSF, a facility that is built around its AAA status. Should downgrades come to Germany and France, its main contributors at 28% and 22%, respectively, we’d expect funding costs to rise, which negates the very purpose of this facility, and once again (negatively) refocuses the eye on the undercapitalized programs to fund imbalanced sovereigns and banks. 

 

Expect insolvent banks in this environment to struggle to raise money on the secondary market. This will elevate risk as sovereigns are now less capable to back their struggling banks, and the EFSF is far undercapitalized. Here we think French and German banks will be critical to watch. Along those lines, the European Banking Authority will publish updated stress tests at 12pm EST today to review how much capital lenders should raise to absorb losses from Eurozone bonds. We’ll reiterate that if countries truly mark their sovereign holdings to market, we think the capital raise will need to be substantially larger than the Q2 published result of €106 Billion to reach a 9% core Tier 1 capital by mid-2012.

 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said to her Parliament on Dec. 2, 2011: "Resolving the sovereign debt crisis is a process, and this process will take years." If Europe’s currency union is here to stay, beware of the lofty expectation that Friday will bring quick-fixes to years of fiscal and banking imbalances and excesses, as well as cultural differences that divert priorities as Europe will once again need to find a united voice on fiscal union.

 

Unfortunately, should Friday’s Summit come up short of expectations, there’s nothing currently on the calendar in terms of summits or major catalysts into year-end around which markets could get behind.  

 

Hobble on.

 

Matthew Hedrick

Senior Analyst

 

Incredibly Hobbled - EL EUR

 

Incredibly Hobbled - VP 12.8



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