Chronology of a Crisis – endgame?

Please see below an extract from my forthcoming book Chronology of a Crisis (Searching Finance 2012).

The departure of Greece from the Euro is by no means a forgone conclusion but if it happens it is not clear that global policy makers have much ammunition left to shield markets from the resulting fallout.

Stimulus after stimulus has only left governments increasingly indebted. The price of such largesse is now being paid in the form of higher borrowing costs. Even central banks do not have much ammunition left. Admittedly further rounds of quantitative easing, and central bank balance sheet expansion may help to shore up confidence but the efficacy of such policy actions is questionable. Moreover, policy support may only help to buy time but if underlying structural issues are not resolved pressure could resume quickly.

Against this background Europe is under intense pressure and there is little time left before it results in something catastrophic for global markets via a disorderly break up of the Eurozone. EU leaders and the European Central Bank (ECB) have to act to stem the crisis. However, at the time of writing the ECB under the helm of Mario Draghi is steadfastly refusing to provide further assistance to the Eurozone periphery either directly via lower interest rates or securities market purchases or indirectly via another Long term refinancing operation (LTRO). Any prospect of debt monetization as carried out already by other central banks including the Fed and Bank of England is a definite non-starter. The reason for this intransigence is that the ECB does not want to let Eurozone governments off the hook, worrying that any further assistance would allow governments to slow or even renege upon promised reforms.

Whether this is true or not it’s a dangerous game to play. The fact that the previously unthinkable could happen ie a country could exit the Eurozone should have by now prompted some major action by European officials. Instead the ECB is unwilling to give ground while Germany continues to stand in the way of any move towards debt mutualisation in the form of a common Eurobond and/or other measures such as awarding a banking license to the EFSF bailout fund which would effectively allow it to help recapitalize banks and purchase peripheral debt. Germany does not want to allow peripheral countries to be let off the hook either, arguing that they would benefit from Germany’s strong credit standing and lower yields without paying the costs.

To be frank, it’s too late for such brinkmanship. The situation in The Eurozone is rapidly spiraling out of control. While both the ECB and Germany may have valid arguments the bottom line is that the situation could get far worse if officials fail to act. As noted above there are various measures that could be enacted. Admittedly many of these will only buy time rather than fix the many and varied structural problems afflicting a group of countries tied together by a single currency and monetary policy and separate fiscal policies but at the moment time is what is needed the most. Buying time will allow policymakers to enact reforms, enhance productivity, reform labour markets, increase investment funds etc. Unfortunately European policy makers do not appear to have grasped this fact. Now more than at any time during the crisis much depends on the actions of policy makers. This is where the major uncertainty lies.

If officials do not act to stem the crisis, economic and market turmoil will reach proportions exceeding that of even the Lehmans bust.

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Fed disappoints, NZD jumps on firm GDP

The decision by the Fed to extend its maturity extension program through year end by USD 267 billion left markets with a taste of disappointment. Although the Fed noted that it was “prepared to take further action” it was clear that FOMC members were resistant to such action at this point in time. Nonetheless, any downside to risk assets was limited by the potential for more quantitative easing (QE) somewhere down the line.

Indeed, while equity markets took a softer tone it was notable that the VIX ‘fear gauge’ continued to drop reflecting an improvement in risk sentiment. The VIX has dropped by 35% from its high at the beginning of the month. Commodity prices remained under downward pressure, however. The lack of further Fed balance expansion capped gold prices too. The outcome is likely to play positively for the USD given that the Fed is not going to debase the currency any further for now.

Following the Fed decision clearly pressure is on other central banks to act. The European Central Bank’s Coeure hinted at the prospects a press interview while the Bank of England minutes were surprisingly dovish, indicating a strong likelihood of further UK QE at the next MPC meeting.

EUR/USD dropped to around 1.2638 following the FOMC outcome but rebounded probably helped by the fact that the Fed left open the door for further balance sheet expansion. EUR/USD 1.2750 remains a major barrier to the currency pair but if breached there is plenty of upside potential.

Flash Eurozone purchasing managers indices (PMI) releases today will likely restrain the EUR, with a further slight declines in manufacturing confidence expected, consistent with further contraction in activity. The data will put further pressure on the ECB to cut interest rates. EUR direction today will also come from Spanish and French bond auctions today.

It’s worth highlighting the surprisingly robust New Zealand Q1 GDP data released this morning. The data revealed a strong 1.1% quarterly increase compared to consensus expectations of a 0.4% increase. The data boosted NZD which rallied to a high of 0.8018 versus the USD and remains well supported. NZD/USD 200 day moving average around 0.7952 will provide decent support for the currency especially given the sharp move hawkish move in NZ interest rate markets.

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