Caught In The Headlights

For a prolonged period of time market attention had firmly focused on the Fed and prospects for quantitative easing (QE2). Now that QE has been delivered with little surprise, as the Federal Reserve arguably did a good job of living up to market expectations, it is Europe that is back in the limelight. Until recently the major surprise about Europe was how well the economy and the EUR were doing and how quickly the European Central Bank (ECB) would diverge from the Fed in its policy path.

This all looks premature and as if to confirm the shift in outlook the slowing in eurozone growth in Q4 (0.4% QoQ) revealed last week is likely to mark the beginning of a sharp and diverging deceleration in growth over coming quarters. The EUR may still have some life left in it given the ongoing purchases via recycled intervention flows from Asian central banks but weaker growth and peripheral worries are undermining this vestige of support.

Unfortunately for Europe the region is now not being caste in a good light and the peripheral trio of Ireland, Greece and Portugal are all staring into the headlights with nowhere to run. A crash of sorts seems inevitable but will there be any casualties? Markets are being whipsawed as they determine what will happen next in this slow motion saga.

Irish officials have maintained they do not need any aid package following discussions held over the weekend. Any bailout would likely come from a EUR 60 billion fund from the European Commission meaning a quick distribution but Ireland’s refusal will likely see pressure resume on peripheral debt markets in Europe as well as the EUR.

Portugal is also in the spotlight following comments by its foreign minister that the country may be forced to abandon the EUR if there is a failure to adopt a broad coalition government to deal with the crisis. This sounds like scaremongering but nonetheless highlights the political tensions in the country.

In Greece the second round of regional elections reveals the ruling Pasok party candidates are in the lead, reducing the prospect of early general elections. Nonetheless, this will do little to alleviate pressure as the EU is set to revise higher Greece’s 2009 deficit and debt estimates implying even more difficulty in meeting this year’s targets.

An EU/IMF team will visit Greece to assess progress as well as decide on whether the country should receive its 3rd instalment of a EUR 110 billion loan. Suggestions from PM Papandreou that he does not rule out having to extend the repayment of the loan will not auger well for sentiment. Finally, the government is set to present its 2011 final budget on Thursday, suggesting plenty of event risk this week.

A meeting of EU finance ministers tomorrow and Wednesday will also garner attention. Germany’s stance that investors will only have to take the brunt of losses from debt rescheduling only from 2013 still remains a contentious issue amongst officials even though it is a slightly softer stance than previously stated. Agreement on this as well as pressure on Ireland to accept funding will be key points of discussion.

Event wise, an auction of T-bills in Greece tomorrow as well as a Spanish debt auction on Thursday will be watched to determine how far the contagion of Irish woes have spread. The news is unlikely to be good, with higher yields likely. Unfortunately tomorrow’s German November ZEW investor confidence survey will provide further signs of retreating investor sentiment in the wake of renewed peripheral debt concerns.

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