“Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.”
It is seemingly hard to not freak out just a little about the Eurozone’s economic, financial, and political woes, often labeled The Eurozone Crisis, especially if you have money at work in the capital markets. In the interconnected global world we live in with a 24/7 news cycle, crises boost air, print, and electronic media revenues, and it’s this news flow that also influences investor behaviors. Interestingly enough, the crises throughout Europe have lasted for months and years, far from the limited, “turning point” definition of the word, with the loudest headlines of fear coming from the region’s smallest economies.
While this state of developments come as no surprise to even a casual observer, below we’ll reinforce numerous points that suggest there’s no need to freak out about the future bailout needs from such smaller countries as Cyprus, Portugal, and Slovenia (as they’ll be easily covered), and while larger countries like Italy, Spain, and France (in particular) show material systemic risks, we ultimately see the ECB providing a full backstop to keep the Union of uneven economies together at all costs.
A Broken System with Political Resolve
To refresh, we believe the Eurozone is in no better of a structural state today than it was in May 2010 when Greece received its first bailout, with little exception. Yes, the European Commission has crafted a banking system 101, but it’s far from encompassing or focused enough to materially erode the sovereign-banking feedback loop on its own.
What continues to lie at the heart of the mismatch is that these uneven economies are joined by one monetary policy, therein preventing any one nation from independently debasing its currency to spur competition, or help inflate its way out of debt, which is further compounded by the ECB 2% inflation target mandate. And even hypothetically if (say way down the line) one monetary policy equitably governed the Eurozone states, you’d still need a fiscal union (say from Brussels or Frankfurt) to oversee the budgets of the member countries to ensure (witnessed magnificently through this crisis) that countries don’t overstep their fiscal boundaries.
But here too you run into problems:
- Countries don’t want to give up their fiscal sovereignty to a higher order
- There will remain structural imbalances trying to mandate deficit quotas, especially for example with countries that historically run trade deficits and have limited economic breadth to diversify
Yet, despite the structural juxtapositions described above, and while it’s not empirical, one cannot rule out the resolve of the ECB and Eurocrats to keep the Union together. It’s a belief grounded in their desire for job security, and supported by a belief in trade benefits, freedom of borders, as a force against superpowers like the USA and China, and a post WWII desire for a peaceful collective.
It’s Not All So Bad And the Germans Are All-In
At every weak fiscal point in the Eurozone, Troika (the European Commission, ECB, and IMF) has answered the call to throw good money at bad and sweep the fears under the rug. Here we expect more of the same since it’s our intention that Eurocrats greatest fear remains a tumble weed effect in which the exit of one country can dissolve the entire union.
From a market perspective, despite a protracted slow growth outlook, it has not paid to sell Eurozone capital markets since Draghi issued his famous OMT put to bail out any nation that requests it in SEPT 2012. We expect the Eurozone will remain grounded on Draghi’s word and below are a number of factors that support the view that now is also no time to freak out about this continuing crisis:
- German Checkbooks – it’s clear the Eurozone playing field is tilted in Germany’s favor via a weaker EUR and easy access to trading partners. Writing bailout checks is a much more profitable exercise than returning to the D-mark.
- ECB Leverage –the Bank has taken down its balance sheet -14% since SEPT 2012 due in part to the repayment of the LTROs, so it has room to lever it up.
- ECB Rate Cut – Draghi has been tight lipped but continues to signal a weak economic outlook. ECB executive board member Joerg Asmussen said this week that he sees more downside risks to a recovery in the Eurozone in the second half of the year, which may be an early indication of a 2H rate cut.
- Still Liquid Credit Markets –Despite political concerns across the region, sovereign yields on the 10YR for Germany, France, and the Netherlands are low at 1.30%, 1.85%, and 1.73%, respectively. As a promising sign, this Wednesday Italy sold €8B of 1YR bills at a yield of 0.92%, down significantly from the 1.28% it paid at the last auction in March. It also sold €3B of three-month bills at 0.24%.
- Cyprus was a One-off Mistake – the deposit levy scheme in Cyprus was a misstep by the Eurocrats, which even Draghi admitted. It will be caged as a one-off and a similar scenario will not be carried out again.
- Italy’s Saving Grace, its Deficit – despite a high debt, which this week was revised upward to 130.4% of GDP in 2013 vs 126.1%, and that we’re no closer to a coalition government today than we were when elections ended on February 25 (and we suspect new elections will have to be called), the country’s deficit should remain below -3% this year which may be one important saving grace in shielding against expedient rises in sovereign yields as politicians wrestle with budget promises.
- Slovenia is a Peanut – certainly the risk signals are “on” with 5YR Slovenia CDS making a new YTD high of 369bps (vs a high of 511bps last summer) and 8YR sovereign yields at 6.36% (off a high of 7%), but the country’s economy at €35B (or 0.3% of the Eurozone) is only slightly larger than Cyprus, and nowhere near as levered to banking. If needed, a potential bailout package will likely be less than the figure Cyprus may get. (Interestingly enough, Austria is the country with the most leverage to Slovenia according to Bank for International Settlements data.)
Risks Will Always Remain
IMF Head Lagarde said this week that a three speed global economy has emerged with the Eurozone being the weakest link with lots of distance to travel. It’s clear that the Eurozone unemployment rate is ugly at an all-time high of 12% (with youth unemployment reaching 50% in many peripherals), that labor reforms on the country level are a huge uphill battle, that country resources and cultures will influence economic competitiveness, and that austerity’s bite is a significant tax on economies, but a necessary one in light of outsized fiscal positions.
These are not light issues, and the political scandals – from the French budget minister lying about a secret untaxed foreign bank account to Spanish PM Rajoy being accused of taking construction kick-backs, or even the head-scratcher that the most corrupt of them all in former Italian PM Berlusconi has a chance of forming a coalition government – compound these economic ails. That said, this “crisis” is being managed by the European Commission, which wants to extend debt and deficit reduction targets for most countries and lengthen bailout loan maturities (likely for Portugal and Ireland) so as to lessen the economic and political stresses.
Taken together we think there’s plenty of evidence to support a continued Eurozone capital markets rally and tactically trade the short side on time and price around catalysts; we believe that no country will be leaving the union due to the fear of contagion; and that there is plenty of powder tools to use should they be needed: the OMT, a rate cut, and possibly even the issuance of Eurobonds (which George Soros continues to be a big proponent of). We’d also say that while we don’t think the EUR is going away, or going to parity, we do think it carries some additional downside risk against our call for a strengthening US Dollar.
Stay calm and look to the hills for support.
Our immediate-term Risk Ranges for Gold, Oil (Brent), Copper, US Dollar, USD/YEN, USD/EUR, UST10yr Yield, VIX and the SP500 are now $1, $101.72-106.71, $3.29-3.46, $82.22-83.28, 97.45-100.98, $1.28-1.31, 1.71-1.87%, 11.78-14.51, and 1, respectively.
Congratulations to the Yale Men’s Ice Hockey team on their big win last night and advancing to the NCAA Finals. Go Bulldogs!!