Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

Back to the Drawing Board for Greece

Monday, July 9th, 2012

International lenders and Greece will renegotiate the program on which the second financial bailout for Athens is based because the original has become outdated, according to a senior Eurozone official.  Greece received a €130-billion bailout in February from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  General elections in May and June delayed the bailout’s implementation.  The United States, the IMF’s largest member, supports discussions to review the Greek bailout program, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel countered that any relaxing of Greece’s reform promises is unacceptable.

“Anybody who would say that we need not, and cannot renegotiate the MoU (memo of understanding) is delusional, because he, or she, would be under the understanding that the whole program, the whole process, has remained completely on track ever since the weeks before the Greek first election,” the official said.  “Because the economic situation has changed, the situation of tax receipts has changed, the rhythm of implementation of the milestones has changed, the rhythm of privatization has changed — if we were not to change the MoU –it does not work.  We would be signing off on an illusion.  So we have to sit down with our Greek colleagues and say: this is where we should be in July, and this is where we are in July, and there is a delta.  Let’s find out what the delta is and then how to deal with the delta — that is a new MoU,” according to the official.

According to the official, representatives of the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission will visit Greece as soon as a new government is in place to review the program’s implementation and prepare for negotiations.  “It is no secret, quite logical in fact, that due to the time passed without a functioning government in place that can take the required decisions, because of this, there have been significant delays,” the official said.  “The conclusion is that they have to engage in discussions on the memorandum of understanding and bring it back onto an even keel.”

Meanwhile at the G-20 summit in Mexico,  leaders of the world’s most powerful economies say they have produced a coordinated global plan for job creation, which it calls the top priority in fighting the effects of the European economic crisis.  The draft says “We are united in our resolve to promote growth and jobs.”

An editorial in the Australian Financial Review warns Europe not to misrepresent the issue. “The optimism that followed Greece’s election has proved to be short-lived as investors acknowledge the poll result doesn’t really change all that much in terms of Europe’s ongoing debt crisis.  Less than a day after Greece pulled back from installing anti-austerity parties in office, European bond markets were once again in meltdown on concerns that Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland may need more financial aid to prevent default.  The European Union’s financial ‘firewall’ is clearly not up to the task, with the yield on Spanish 10-year bonds soaring to a Euro-era high of 7.29 percent.  In Athens, talks are under way to form a pro-EU coalition government between the center-right New Democracy party and the socialist Pasok party, reducing the likelihood of a near-term Greek exit from the Eurozone.  Yet rather than insist that Athens stick to the tough conditions it agreed to as part of the EU’s €240 billion ($300 billion) rescue packages, there are signs that European leaders may again be preparing to fudge the issue.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel insists that Athens must stick to its austerity commitments and that there is no room for compromise.  But other European politicians are starting to talk about giving Greece more time to fix its problems.  This appears to confirm the Greeks will never live up to their austerity conditions and that the exercise was all about kicking the can further down the road.”

Devaluation would be the optimal way for Greece to jump start its economy.  Because that option is not on the table this time, achieving competitiveness is going to be much harder.  One of the bailout’s stipulations requires the government to cut pensions, slash the number of public servants and control costs – in other words, the “austerity” option.  Others prefer a program to stimulate growth and boost revenue, although one that would likely involve increased spending.  This is the “growth” option.  Angela Merkel favors austerity while French President Francois Hollande prefers the “growth” option.  In this debate, the Germans are in control because they are the ones that are going to cough up the money.  They have the ability to help because, contrary to most of Europe, they practice austerity and thrift.  If German taxpayers are going to have to pay higher taxes to save nations like Greece, they think their European brothers and sisters should share some of the pain.

According to a Washington Post editorial, Germany and other creditworthy E.U. governments were right to tell Greeks before the election that they could not choose both the Euro and an end to austerity and reforms, as several populist parties were promising.  Yet now that voters favored parties that supported the last bailout package, it’s time for Angela Merkel and other austerity hawks to make their own bow to reality. For Greece to stabilize, some easing of the terms of EU loans will be needed, at a minimum; an extension of deadlines for meeting government spending and deficit targets may also be necessary.  Unless it can deliver such a relaxation, there is not much chance the new administration in Athens will be able to push through the huge reforms still needed to make the economy competitive, including privatizations, deregulation and public sector layoffs.

“In the end, a Greek slide into insolvency and an exit from the euro may still be unavoidable. That’s all the more reason why EU leaders must at last agree on decisive measures to shore up the rest of the currency zone, beginning with Spain and Italy.  Measures under discussion for a summit meeting next week, including euro-area bank regulation, are positive but not sufficient.  In the end, banks and governments must be provided with sufficient liquidity to restore confidence — something that will probably require the issuance of bonds backed by all Euro-area countries, or greatly increased lending by the European Central Bank.  As German officials invariably point out, bailout measures will be wasted unless they are accompanied by significant structural reforms by debtor nations.  But without monetary liquidity, and the chance for renewed growth, the Euro cannot be rescued.”

Spain Asks the Eurozone for a Bank Bailout

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Spain asked the Eurozone for a bailout of up to €100-billion to rescue its banks.  This is just a short-term fix for the troubled Eurozone because it doesn’t address the underlying problems in the monetary union.  The earlier bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal didn’t resolve the problems either.  “The Spanish banking bailout is big enough for some shock and awe (€100-billion vs. talk of €40-billion) but details are murky,” said Kit Juckes, the chief of foreign exchange at Société Générale.

Still unanswered are who shares the burden, and just how much will Spain be limited in terms of talks over its debt troubles.  It’s crucial to keep in mind that in Spain, it’s currently a banking crisis.  “And where is the growth coming from to make the problems go away?” Juckes said.  “The Spanish bailout doesn’t solve Europe’s woes…but maybe it allows the rest of the world to focus on something else.”  There are many other questions, said Adam Cole of RBC in London.  Which bailout will fund the rescue?  How much will the final rescue total?  What will the ratings agencies do?  What terms will be attached to the funds?  “The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) report concluded Spanish banks would need at least €37-billion,” Cole said, noting that the maximum of €100-billion is perceived as credible.  In terms of the ratings agencies, Cole said that “the loans will add directly to the Spanish government’s liabilities and so increase the debt-to-GDP ratio by around 10 per cent, leaving further downgrades likely.”

Spain’s bailout plan is seen as a robust answer to critics who accused European Union (EU) leaders of reacting too slowly, too late and with the least possible amount of cash while the crisis is spinning out of control.  “This is a very clear signal to the markets, to the public, that the Eurozone is ready to take determined action,” Olli Rehn, the EU’s top economic official, said.  “This is pre-emptive action.”

Instead of waiting for Spain to complete stress tests on its banks later, Eurozone officials agreed to move before the market turmoil that Greece’s upcoming elections may produce.  Rather than undershooting estimates of Spanish bank needs, they have been generous: the International Monetary Fund estimated a requirement of at least €40 billion, but the Eurozone agreed to provide at least €100 billion.  “We deliberately wanted to ensure there is some additional safety margin,” Rehn said.  “This is the first time Europe is willing and able to deal confidently and overwhelmingly with (such) a large contingency,” said an unidentified Eurozone diplomat.  “And all through a straightforward telephone conference.  No all-nighters, no devising new instruments in a panic, and no penny-pinching haggling over money.”

The bad news is that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s request for a bailout for Spain’s banks may undermine his political authority and credibility in financial markets.  “The emperor’s clothes are tattered,” Simon Maughan, financial strategist at Olivetree Securities Ltd., said. “Unless he uses this money to attack the regions and control the failed cajas, what threads he has left will be stripped off him.”  Rajoy has to persuade the Spanish people to accept austerity, and convince bond investors the cuts will deliver the deficit goals he has pledged.  if he fails, he may have to return for a larger rescue, potentially draining the Eurozone’s financial ammunition.

“Clearly his domestic credibility will have been hampered by this U-turn but at least he is partially recognizing the depth of the problem,” said Stuart Thomson, a fixed income fund manager at Ignis Asset Management, who predicts another bailout, this time for the government itself, within the next year and a  half.  “This bailout is predicated on a return to growth next year and we don’t think that’s possible.”

Protestors demanded to know why billions would prop up broken Spanish banks, instead of helping people who are suffering financially.  According to Moody Analytic’s Mark Zandi, the reason why Spain is in so much trouble may sound familiar to Americans.  “Spain had a bigger housing boom and bust than we had here in the United States and that means a lot of bad mortgage loans bad real estate loans that undermined the capital positions of the banks.  They are broke, they need help from the European Union,” Zandi said.  “The Spanish must be very humiliated by having to take the aid.  For them to actually have to go to the European Union for help like this, I’m sure was very difficult.”  But the pain runs deep with 25 percent of Spaniards is out of work; among the young, unemployment is upward of 50 percent.

Prime Minister Rajoy warned that Spain’s economy, Europe’s fourth-largest, will get worse before it gets better.  ‘‘This year is going to be a bad one,’’ he said.  ‘‘By no means is this a solution,’’ said Adam Parker, of Morgan Stanley.  Spain’s aid ‘‘could be a near-term positive from a trading standpoint, but you haven’t solved anything in the long term.’’

European leaders must prove to the world that they are making a credible effort to repair flaws in the Eurozone that allowed the problems in Greece to threaten the world economy.  If Greek voters elect a government that is willing to live up to the terms of its €130 billion bailout by meeting its payments and narrows its enormous budget gap, strong doubts remain whether new leadership can fulfill those obligations.  A significant amount of private money has already fled Greece, while its deeply depressed economy and dwindling tax revenues threaten to put the country deeper in the hole.  ‘‘Even in case of a new government, I doubt whether the institutional framework in Greece can guarantee the program,’’ said Jurgen Stark, a former member of the European Central Bank’s executive board.  ‘‘Who has the competence to implement the program?  That is the key point.’’

Catalina Parada is an International, Marketing Consultant and Alter NOW’s Madrid correspondent.  She can be reached at catalinaparada@hotmail.com.

Is the Eurozone Sustainable?

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank (ECB), has asked policymakers to focus their crisis support on solvent Eurozone banks.  “The ECB will continue lending to solvent banks and will keep the liquidity lines active and alive with solvent banks,” Draghi said.

World stock markets have lost roughly $4 trillion as European turmoil proliferated after inconclusive Greek elections and the danger of Spain’s finances being overwhelmed by its banking crisis.  The ECB has taken the lead in fighting the turmoil by infusing the banking system with more than one trillion Euros ($1.24 trillion), cutting its benchmark rate to a record low and purchasing government bonds.  When asked whether the ECB can tame financial turmoil and help cap widening bond spreads, Draghi said that “it’s not our duty, it’s not in our mandate” to “fill the vacuum left by the lack of action by national governments on the fiscal front,” on “the structural front, and on the governance front.”

Draghi favors using the permanent bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), to inject capital into banks.  “People are actually working on finding ways that the ESM could be used to recapitalize banks,” he said.  “ The issue is not so much the use of ESM money to recapitalize banks but whether this could be done directly without having to go to governments.”

Despite the ECB’s efforts, Draghi admits that the setup of the 17-country euro currency union may be unsustainable.  According to Draghi, the financial crisis proved the inadequacy of the financial and economic framework set up for the Eurozone.  “That configuration that we had with us by and large for ten years which was considered sustainable,  I should add, in a perhaps myopic way, has been shown to be unsustainable unless further steps are taken,” he said.

Draghi said the next step “is for our leaders to clarify what is the vision…what is the euro going to look like a certain number of years from now.  The sooner this has been specified, the better it is.”  In 1989, European Commission President Jacques Delors issued a breakthrough report that charted the initial path to the creation and launch of the Euro 10 years later and detailed goals. “The same thing should be done now,” Draghi said.  He compared Europe’s efforts to those of someone crossing a river in thick fog while struggling against a strong current.  “He or she continues fighting but does not see the other side because it is foggy.  What we are asking is, to dispel this fog,” he said.

“Can the ECB fill the vacuum of lack of action by national governments on fiscal growth? The answer is no,” Draghi told the European Parliament.

Ongoing discussions about closer Eurozone economic union have been revived by growing apprehension that Spain may need an international bailout.  June elections in Greece could see major wins by anti-bailout parties, possibly leading to the country’s departure from the Euro.  Asked about the potential for a bank run, Draghi said: “We will avoid bank runs from solvent banks.  Depositors’ money will be protected if we build this European guaranteed deposit fund.  This will assure that depositors will be protected.”

Germany is loath to risk more of its taxpayers’ money to prop up Eurozone partners and has rejected any joint deposit guarantee.  “The financial crisis has heightened risk aversion in a dramatic way,” Draghi said.  “I urge all governments to keep this in mind, because it is better to err by too much in the very beginning rather than by too little,” he said, referring to the failure of regulators to correctly assess the needs of failed Franco-Belgian bank Dexia and Spain’s Bankia.

Bank of Italy governor Ignazio Visco said political inertia and bad economic decisions had put “the entire European edifice” at risk and only a clear path to political union could save the Euro.  “There are now growing doubts among international investors about governments’ cohesion in guiding the reform of European governance and even their ability to ensure the survival of the single currency,” Visco said.

EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said Europe needs tighter budget discipline and more integrated rescue funds to forestall the Euro’s breakup.  “We need a genuine stability culture and a much upgraded common capacity to contain common contagion,” he said.  “This is the case, at least if we want to avoid a disintegration of the euro zone and instead make the euro succeed.”

Eurodammerung?

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Despite Germany’s strong manufacturing output in March, it was not enough to compensate for a slump across the rest of the Eurozone with declining production, a signal that an expected recession may not be as mild as policymakers hope.  Industrial production in the 17 Eurozone countries declined 0.3 percent in March when compared with February, according to the European Union’s (EU) statistics office Eurostat.  Economists had expected a 0.4 percent increase.

The figures stood in stark contrast with German data showing output in the Eurozone’s largest economy rose 1.3 percent in March, according to Eurostat, 2.8 percent when energy and construction are taken into account.  “With the debt crisis, rising unemployment and inflation, household demand is weak and globally economic conditions are sluggish, so that is making people very reluctant to spend and invest,” said Joost Beaumont, a senior economist at ABN Amro.

According to Eurostat, output declined 1.8 percent in Spain; in France — the Eurozone’s second largest economy after Germany — output fell 0.9 percent in March.  Many economists expect Eurostat to announce that the Eurozone went into its second recession in just three years at the end of March, with households suffering the effects of austerity programs designed to slash debt and deficits.

“Industrial production is a timely reminder that first-quarter GDP will likely show a contraction,” said Martin van Vliet, an economist at ING.  “With the fiscal squeeze unlikely to ease soon and the debt crisis flaring up again, any upturn in industrial activity later this year will likely be modest.”  European officials believe that the slump will be mild, with recovery in the 2nd half of this year.  The strong economic data seen in January has unexpectedly faded point to a deeper downturn, with the drag coming from a debt-laden south, particularly Greece, Spain and Italy.

Economists polled by Reuters estimated the Eurozone economy contracted 0.2 percent in the 1st quarter, after shrinking 0.3 percent in the 4th quarter of 2011.  “We suspect that a further slowdown in the service sector meant that the wider economy contracted by around 0.2 percent last quarter,” said Ben May, an economist at Capital Economics.  “What’s more, April’s disappointing survey data for both the industrial and service sectors suggest that the recession may continue beyond the first quarter.”

“It is evident that Eurozone manufacturers are currently finding life very difficult amid challenging conditions,” said Howard Archer at IHS Global Insight. “Domestic demand is being handicapped by tighter fiscal policy in many Eurozone countries, still squeezed consumer purchasing power, and rising unemployment.”  Eurozone governments have introduced broad austerity measures in order to cut debt, and these have undermined economic growth.

European watchers also expect to see Greece exit the Eurozone.  Writing for Forbes, Tim Worstall says that “As Paul Krugman points out, the odds on Greece leaving the Eurozone are shortening by the day.  In and of itself this shouldn’t be all that much of a problem for anyone. Greece is only two percent of Eurozone GDP and it will be a blessed relief for the Greeks themselves.  However, the thing about the unraveling of such political plans as the Euro is that once they do start to unravel they tend not to stop.”

The European Commission hopes Greece will remain part of the Eurozone but Athens must respect its obligations, the European Unions executive Commission said.  “We don’t want Greece to leave the Euro, quite the contrary – we are doing our utmost to support Greece,” European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said.  Greece is likely to face new elections next month after three failed attempts to form a government that would support the terms of an EU/IMF bailout.  Opinion polls show most Greeks want to stay in the Eurozone, but oppose the harsh austerity imposed by the emergency lending program.  “We wish Greece will remain in the euro and we hope Greece will remain in the euro … but it must respect its commitments,” according to Ahrenkilde.  “The Commission position remains completely unchanged: we want Greece to be able to stay in the Euro.  This is the best thing for Greece, for the Greek people and for Europe as a whole,” she said.

European Central Bank (ECB) policymakers Luc Coene and Patrick Honohan voiced the possibility that Greece might leave the currency bloc and reached the conclusion that it will not be fatal for the Eurozone.  According to Luxembourg’s Finance Minister Luc Frieden “If Greece needs help from outside, the conditions have to be met.  All political parties in Greece know that.”  There are powerful incentives for keeping Greece stable, one of which is that the ECB and Eurozone governments are major holders of Greek government debt.  A hard default could mean heavy losses for them; if the ECB needed recapitalizing as a result, that debt would fall on its members’ governments, with Germany first in line.  “If Greece moves towards exiting the Euro…the EU would then need to enlarge its bailout funds and prepare other emergency measures,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warned euro skeptics to avoid gloating over the state of the Eurozone as Greece tries to assemble a workable government.  According to Clegg, “We as a country depend massively on the prosperity of the Eurozone for our own prosperity, which is why I can never understand people who engage in schadenfreude – handwringing satisfaction that things are going wrong in the euro.  We have an overwhelming interest – whatever your views are on Brussels and the EU – in seeing a healthy Eurozone.  That’s why I very much hope, buffeted by these latest scares and crises in Greece and elsewhere, that the Eurozone moves as fast as possible to a sustainable solution because if the Eurozone is not growing and the Eurozone is not prosperous it will be much more difficult for the United Kingdom economy to gather momentum.”

Is Greece Headed Towards a Third Bailout?

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Lucas Papademos, Greece’s prime minister, said that his crisis-plagued country could require a third bailout just weeks after it secured a second round of rescue funds after much discussion in Brussels. Athens may have received the biggest bailout in history but another lifeline could not be ruled out, according to Papademos.  To date, the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have committed a total €240 billion to the nearly bankrupt nation.  “Some form of financial assistance might be necessary but we have to work intensely to avoid such an event,” Papademos said, noting that additional spending cuts are inevitable.  Whatever government emerges after the upcoming general election, it is vital that is it prepared for the measures.  “In 2013 – 2014, a reduction in state spending of about €12 billion is required under the new economic program,” Papademos said.  “Every effort must be made to limit wasteful spending and not to further burden salaries of civil servants.”

Greece’s new government will have “about 60 days” to enact long-overdue structural reforms and agree on ways of reining in public debt before officials make a decisive inspection tour in June.  “It is very important that there is no let up in the pace of reforms after elections,” said a senior Papademos aide.  The chiefs of both the EU and IMF missions to Greece said while progress is being made in meeting deficit-reducing targets, a lot of work remains to be done.  “There are still many measures to be taken, painful ones too.  I believe we’ll be able to see in the second half of the year in which direction we’re going, whether we’re on the right path or not,” said Matthias Mors, head EU monitor.

Papademos reiterated that Greece will do everything necessary to remain in the Eurozone, saying the cost of an exit would be “devastating.  More than 70 percent of the Greek people support the country’s continuing participation in the euro area,” he said.  “They realize, despite the sacrifices made, that the long-term benefits from remaining in the Eurozone outweigh the short-term costs.  Greece will do everything possible to make a third adjustment program unnecessary,” Papademos said.  “Having said that, markets may not be accessible by Greece even if it has implemented fully all measures agreed on.  It cannot be excluded that some financial support may be necessary, but we must try hard to avoid such an outcome.”

Private investors in Greek debt wrote down the value of their investment by 53.5 percent, or risk losing everything in a possible default.  Public-sector jobs are being slashed, workers ‘ wages are being frozen, welfare payments are being slashed, and taxes are being raised.  Greece’s official unemployment rate is currently more than 20 percent.  If Greece does default, it could start a domino effect that would drag down other ailing European economies — possibly plunging the Eurozone into recession.

According to Papademos, “The real economy is still weak, and high unemployment is likely to persist in the near future.  The challenging period ahead of us needs to be addressed with great care.  If we do things right, implementing all measures agreed upon in a timely, effective and equitable manner, and if we explain our policy objectives and strategy convincingly, public support will be sustained.  An improvement in confidence would have a positive multiplier effect on economic activity and employment.”

When asked if Greece might return to its old currency, Papademos said “The consequences would be devastating.  A return to the drachma would cause high inflation, unstable exchange rate, and a loss of real value of bank deposits.  Real incomes would drop sharply, the banking system would be severely destabilized, there would be many bankruptcies, and unemployment would increase.  A return to the drachma would increase social inequalities, favoring those who have money abroad.”

Rising Unemployment Could Push Eurozone Into a Double-Dip Recession

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Europe’s unemployment has soared to 10.8 percent, the highest rate in more than 14 years as companies from Spain to Italy eliminated jobs to weather the region’s crisis, according to the European Union’s (EU) statistics office.  That’s the highest since June 1997, before the Euro was introduced.  European companies are cutting costs and eliminating jobs after draconian austerity measures slashed consumer demand and pushed economies from Greece to Ireland into recession.

According to Eurostat, the number of unemployed totaled 17.1 million, nearly 1.5 million higher than in 2011.  The figures stand in marked contrast to the United States, which has seen solid increases in employment over the past few months.  “It looks odds-on that Eurozone GDP contracted again in the first quarter of 2012….thereby moving into recession,” said Howard Archer, chief European economist at IHS Global Insight.  “And the prospects for the second quarter of 2012 currently hardly look rosy.”

The North-South divide is evident, with the nations reporting the lowest unemployment rates being Austria with 4.2 percent; the Netherlands at 4.9 percent; Luxembourg at 5.2 percent; and Germany at 5.7 percent.  Unemployment is highest among young people, with 20 percent of those under 25 looking for work in the Eurozone, primarily in the southern nations.  The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, defended the debt-fighting strategy, insisting that reforms undertaken by governments are crucial and will ultimately bear fruit.  “We must combat the crisis in all its fronts,” Amadeu Altafaj, the commission’s economic affairs spokesman, said, stressing that growth policies are part of the strategy.

According to Markit, a financing information company, Germany and France, the Eurozone’s two powerhouse economies, saw manufacturing activity levels deteriorate.  France fared the worst with activity at a 33-month low of 46.7 on a scale where anything below 50 indicates a contracting economy.  Only Austria and Ireland saw their output increase.

Spain, whose government recently announced new austerity measures, had the Eurozone’s highest unemployment rate at 23.6 percent; youth unemployment — those under 25 years of age — was 50.5 percent.  Greece, Portugal and Ireland — the three countries that have received bailouts — had unemployment rates of 21 percent, 15 percent and 14.7 percent respectively.

With unemployment rising at a time of austerity, consumers have stopped spending and that holds back the Eurozone economy despite signs of life elsewhere.  “Soaring unemployment is clearly adding to the pressure on household incomes from aggressive fiscal tightening in the region’s periphery,” said Jennifer McKeown, senior European economist at Capital Economics.  She fears that the situation will worsen and that even in Germany, where unemployment held steady at 5.7 percent, “survey measures of hiring point to a downturn to come.”

The numbers are likely to worsen even more. “We expect it to go higher, to reach 11 percent by the end of the year,” said Raphael Brun-Aguerre, an economist at JP Morgan in London.  “You have public sector job cuts, income going down, weak consumption.  The economic growth outlook is negative and is going to worsen unemployment.”

Writing for the Value Walk website, Matt Rego says that “By the looks of it, Europe could be heading for a recession very soon.  If the GDP contracts this 1st quarter of 2012, they will most likely be in a double dip.  Those are some pretty scary numbers and forecasts because they would send economic aftershocks around the world.  If Europe goes into a double dip and U.S. corporate margins do peak, we could be looking at trouble.  If you are a ‘super bull’ right now, I would reconsider because we are walking the line for both factors coming true and there really is nothing we can do, the damage is done.  Could we have seen all of the year’s gains in the beginning of this year?  Probably not but this European recession scare would certainly trigger a correction in the U.S. markets.  Bottom line, get some protection for your portfolio.  Buy stocks that aren’t influenced by economic times and buy protection for stocks that would react harshly to a double dip.”

2012 Stock Market Off to a Promising Start

Monday, February 6th, 2012

As the stock market moved between negative and positive territory on the last day of January, 2012, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was nevertheless poised to close with their biggest January gain in 15 years – despite closing down a few points for the day.  In fact, it could be the best January for Standard & Poor’s (S&P) and Dow since 1997 and since 2001 for the Nasdaq.

“Everyone is cautiously waiting for the close today to see if we can put this on the board,” said Frank Davis, director of trading at LEK Securities.  “It would be a pretty darn good foothold to start the year.”  Stocks initially rose after European Union leaders agreed to strengthen their financial firewall.  Additionally, most members have agreed to sign a new fiscal compact.  Even so, 2012’s first summit ended without new solutions to resolve Greece’s debt crisis.  “There’s positive news coming out of Europe, but it’s still very tenuous with Greece,” said Jeffrey Phillips, chief investment officer of Rehmann Financial.  “Every time we see something positive there, we seem to see it reverse in four or five days.”

The S&P 500 rose 4.3 percent in January, which is its best performance since the 6.1 percent gain that occurred in January of 1997.  One year ago, the market added a respectable 2.3 percent in January.  Following a trying 2011, investors had such low expectations that it’s easy for the year’s earliest reports to come in better than expected, said Jerry Harris, chief investment strategist at the brokerage firm Sterne Agee.  “I don’t see anything really glamorous or tremendous about the economy or earnings,” Harris said.  “But I think they’re very acceptable, and things are grinding along.”

“Longer-term investors should not be fooled by what appear to be attractive valuations for financials,” said Brian Belski, Oppenheimer & Co.’s chief investment strategist.  Any investor should look three to five years into the future and invest less money in these stocks than their S&P 500 weight would suggest because they account for roughly 14 percent of the index’s value.  The financial index was recently valued at 12.4 times earnings, which is about twice as high as it was two years ago.  “Most of these companies operate in a ‘whole new world’ of increased scrutiny and regulation,” Belski wrote, noting that more restrictive capital requirements, imposed as part of that shift, will hurt profitability.

The European debt crisis is a major culprit in the market’s volatility. Confidence that American markets can remain relatively unaffected by Europe’s difficulties has fueled gains in 2012.  Money managers, some of whom missed the upward move, seem to be willing to buy on day-to-day declines.  “The action that we’ve seen today is very similar to what we’ve seen throughout most of the year so far,” said Ryan Larson, head of equity trading at RBC Global Asset Management.  “We see the resilience showing in U.S. markets and I think that’s a theme that we’ve seen throughout 2012.  The U.S. appears to be slowly, slowly in the early stages of a decoupling from the Eurozone,” he said.

Chris Cordaro, chief investment officer at RegentAtlantic Capital, a wealth management firm, believes equities will finish sharply higher this year as Europe’s problems are resolved and investors buy into stock valuations that were beaten down through much of last year.  “We could definitely end the year much higher on equities,” he said.  “We have been favoring equities in our portfolio. We have just increased our exposure to emerging markets.”

More bad news came January 31 when the Conference Board’s consumer confidence index fell to 61.1, missing the forecast 68.  December’s level had experienced a slight upwards tick to 64.8 from 64.5.  “The US consumer has still seen a very firm turnaround since October, this also is likely to reflect the increase in gasoline prices since the start of the year,” wrote David Semmens, U.S. economist with Standard Chartered.  “While the U.S. consumer is feeling better, the turnaround is still likely to be volatile.”

“Most market participants will raise their glasses to usher out what has proved to be a decent January for performance, data and sentiment,” said Jim Reid, a global strategist at Deutsche Bank AG.

Fallout From European Credit Downgrades Still Underway

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

European leaders will this week try to deliver new fiscal rules and cut Greece’s onerous debt burden.  All this in the wake of Standard & Poor’s (S&P) Eurozone downgrades.

France was not the only Eurozone nation to feel the pain. Austria was cut to AA+ from AAA; Cyprus to BB+ from BBB; Italy to BBB+ from A; Malta to A- from A; Portugal to BB from BBB-; the Slovak Republic to A from A+; Slovenia to A+ from AA-; and Spain to A from AA-. S&P left the AAA ratings of Germany, Finland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands the same.

The European Central Bank (ECB) emerged unscathed.  The ratings agency said Eurozone monetary authorities “have been instrumental in averting a collapse of market confidence,” mostly thanks to the ECB launching new loan programs aimed at keeping the European banking system liquid while it works to resolve funding pressure brought on by the sovereign debt crisis.

The talks on Greece and budgets may serve as tougher tests of the tentative recovery in investor sentiment than S&P’s decision to cut the ratings of nine Eurozone nations, including France. If history repeats itself, fallout from the downgrades may be limited.  JPMorgan Chase research shows that 10-year yields for the nine sovereign nations that lost their AAA credit rating between 1998 and last year rose an average of two basis points the next week.

Policymakers worked doggedly to take back the initiative. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said S&P’s decision and criticism of “insufficient”  policy steps reinforced her view that leaders must try harder to resolve the two-year crisis. Germany is now alone in the Eurozone with a stable AAA credit rating. Reacting to Spain’s downgrade to A from AA-, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy pledged spending cuts and to clean up the banking system, as well as a “clear, firm and forceful” commitment to the Euro’s future. French Finance Minister Francois Baroin said the reduction of France’s rating was “disappointing,” yet expected

The European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), which is intended to fund rescue packages for the troubled nations of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, owes its AAA rating to guarantees from its sponsoring nations. “I was never of the opinion that the EFSF necessarily has to be AAA,” Merkel said.  Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker said the EFSF’s shareholders will look at how to maintain the top rating of the fund, which plans to sell up to 1.5 billion Euros in six-month bills starting this week. In the meantime, Merkel and other European leaders want to move speedily toward setting up its permanent successor, the European Stability Mechanism, this year — one year ahead of the original plan.

Greece’s Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said that a deal will be hammered out. “Some further reflection is necessary on how to put all the elements together,” he said. “So as you know, there is a little pause in these discussions. But I’m confident that they will continue and we will reach an agreement that is mutually acceptable in time.”

Standard & Poor’s downgraded nine of the 17 Eurozone countries and said it would decide before too long whether to cut the Eurozone’s bailout fund, the EFSF, from AAA.  “A one-notch downgrade for France was completely priced in, so no negative surprise here, and quite logical after the United States got downgraded,” said David Thebault, head of quantitative sales trading at Global Equities.

Thanks to the downgrades, fears of a Greek default also increased after talks between private creditors and the government over proposed voluntary write downs on Greek government bonds appeared near collapse.  Greece appears to be close to default on its sovereign debt, eclipsing the news that France and other Eurozone members lost their triple-A credit ratings.  “At the start of this year, (we) took the view that things in the Eurozone had to get worse before they got better. With the S&P downgrade of nine Eurozone countries and worries about the progress of Greek debt restructuring talks, things just did get worse,” wrote economists at HSBC.

Additionally there are implications for Eurozone banks from the sovereign downgrades.

“The direct impact of further sovereign and bank downgrades on institutions in peripheral.  nations is perhaps neither here nor there given that they are already effectively shut out of wholesale funding markets due to pre-existing investor concerns over the ability of governments in these countries to stand behind their banks,’ said Michael Symonds, credit analyst at Daiwa Capital Markets.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Ha-Joon Chang says that “Even the most rational Europeans must now feel that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day after all.  On that day last week, the Greek debt restructuring negotiation broke down, with many bondholders refusing to join the voluntary 50 per cent ‘haircut’  – that is, debt write off – scheme, agreed to last summer. While the negotiations may resume, this has dramatically increased the chance of disorderly Greek default.  The Eurozone countries criticize S&P and other ratings agencies for unjustly downgrading their economies. France is particularly upset that it was downgraded while Britain has kept its AAA status, hinting at an Anglo-American conspiracy against France. But this does not wash, as one of the big three, Fitch Ratings, is 80 per cent owned by a French company.”

Italy Asks IMF to Oversee its Debt Reduction Efforts

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has asked for international oversight of his efforts to slash the eurozone’s second-largest debt, even as his unraveling coalition threatens efforts to build a wall against Europe’s debt crisis.  Berlusconi’s government asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to assess its debt-reduction progress, and turned down an offer of financial assistance.

“It hasn’t been imposed, it was requested,” Berlusconi said.  The IMF will carry out quarterly “certifications” of the euro region’s third-largest economy, he said, noting that the current sell-off of Italian debt is “a temporary trend” even as the nation’s borrowing costs soared to record highs.  Berlusconi is under mounting pressure as Italy tries to avoid yielding to the sovereign-debt crisis.

Italy’s 10-year borrowing costs are getting dangerously close to the seven percent level that forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to ask for bailouts.  The yield on the nation’s benchmark 10-year bond surged to a euro-era record of 6.404 percent, the highest since the creation of the single currency.  “If the current Greek tragedy is not to turn into an Italian tragedy, with far more serious and far-reaching consequences for the eurozone, Berlusconi must resign immediately,” Marc Ostwald, a fixed-income strategist at Monument Securities Ltd., said.  Berlusconi may be “remembered as the architect of Italy’s descent into an economic inferno.”

IMF managing director Christine Lagarde hopes that quarterly monitoring will start by the end of November to verify that the reforms Berlusconi promised are implemented.  “It’s verification and certification if you will, of implementation of a program that Italy has committed to,” she said. “It’s one of the best ways to have an independent view…to verify that promised measures are actually implemented.”  She agreed that Italy doesn’t need IMF funding.  “The problem that is at stake — and that was clearly identified both by the Italian authorities and its partners — is a lack of credibility of the measures that are announced,” according to Lagarde.  “The typical instrument that we would use is a precautionary credit line.  Italy does not need the funding that is associated with such instruments so the next best instrument is fiscal monitoring, which is what we have identified.”

Lagarde isn’t certain that the proposed reforms are credible. “The problem that is at stake and that was clearly identified both by the Italian authorities and by its partners is a lack of credibility of the measures that were announced,” Lagarde said.  Additionally, the IMF will provide funds to stimulate Italy’s economy, although under strict conditions.

Will Berlusconi’s regime survive this crisis?  “Historically, technocrat governments in Italy have been able to pass pro-growth structural reforms, including politically difficult labor market reforms,” said Barclays Capital analyst Fabio Fois.  Governments such as those led by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Lamberto Dini – who had served as central bankers — in the early 1990s saved Italy from financial crises even worse than the present one.  “I think the political parties would have a big incentive to go through the painful policy adjustment now, before the next election due in 2013, so that whoever wins won’t have to do it later,” Fois said.

Berlusconi seemed almost nostalgic for the days when the lira was Italy’s currency. “You don’t get much in your supermarket trolley for €80 today, whereas you used to get a lot for 80,000 lire,” he said.

He insisted that Italy’s economy is generally prospering.  “The restaurants and vacation spots are always full, nobody thinks there is a crisis,” he said, noting that, considering its low household debt levels, Italy has Europe’s second-strongest economy, after Germany and was stronger than France or the U.K.  The country’s €1.9 trillion in public debt, the equivalent of nearly 120 percent of GDP, was a legacy problem, had not grown in the past 20 years, and had been consistently serviced, Berlusconi said.

Berlusconi admitted that his government “might have made a mistake” in assuming the public debt was sustainable without more aggressive fiscal and reform action.  When asked what he thought about frequent warnings from European Union partners that Italy demonstrate credibility with the promised reforms, Berlusconi said the criticism reflected prejudice about past Italian behavior.  “If we don’t enact the reforms Italy will be in trouble,” he said.  “But we will enact them.”

S&P Computer Error Briefly Downgrades France’s Credit Rating

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Whoops!  Someone has a red face.  France’s credit ratings have not been downgraded by Standard & Poor’s (S&P) and apparently resulted from an accidental transmission of a message that it had downgraded the nation’s credit. S&P’s error roiled global equity, bond, currency and commodity markets when it sent and then corrected the erroneous message.

“As a result of a technical error, a message was automatically disseminated today to some subscribers of S&P’s Global Credit Portal suggesting that France’s credit rating had been changed,” S&P said.  “This is not the case: the ratings on Republic of France remain ‘AAA/A-1+’ with a stable outlook, and this incident is not related to any ratings surveillance activity.  We are investigating the cause of the error.”

Downgrading France’s credit rating would negatively impact the rating of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), the bailout fund for struggling euro member countries that has funded rescue packages for Greece, Ireland and Portugal.  If the EFSF ends up paying higher interest on its bonds, it may not be able to provide as much funding for indebted nations.  “It was a mess,” said Lane Newman, the New York-based director of foreign exchange at ING Groep NV. “It calls into question the credibility of people who can have that sort of impact not really being careful.”

“It clearly raises issues about internal systems and controls,” said Christopher Whalen, managing director of Institutional Risk Analytics, a Torrance, CA-based bank- rating firm.  “The onus is on them to be careful and it’s troubling.  Whether you’re a broker dealer or a rating agency, everything you say has to be very carefully considered because of the weight that they carry.”

The incident is currently under investigation.  “This is a very serious incident,” said European Union (EU) Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier.  “This shows that we are in an extremely volatile situation, that markets are extremely tense, and therefore that players on these markets must be extremely rigorous and exercise a duty of responsibility.”  Barnier continues, “It is all the more important since these are not minor players on these markets, but actually one of the three major rating agencies and therefore an agency that has a particular responsibility. I do not wish to make a statement on the failure itself, which immediately was recognized by Standard & Poor’s.  The European authority for credit rating agencies, together with AMF, the French market authority, will have to look into this and draw conclusions from this incident.”

S&P’s error spooked investors already apprehensive over Europe’s debt crisis, feeding concerns that the continent’s debt problems had engulfed the region’s second-largest economy.  It contributed to the worst day for French government bonds since before the euro debuted in 1999.

The Globe and Mail’s David Berman wonders If the error was practice for the real thing. “Standard & Poor’s downgrade of France’s credit rating was apparently accidental – so consider the reaction to the panicky downgrade as a kind of dress rehearsal:  It lets you know how markets will react if and when an actual downgrade goes through.  The way things are going for Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis, an actual downgrade looks more than likely.  Just as Italy supplanted Greece as the eurozone’s biggest trouble spot, highlighted by the country’s surging bond yields, France has the makings of a troubled spot in-the-making.”

As MarketWatch’s Laura Mandaro sums it up, the computer did it.