Posts Tagged ‘Spain’

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will renegotiate the program on which the second financial bailout for Athens is based because the original has become outdated, according to a senior Eurozone official.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.”

March Housing Starts Down, While Construction Permits Rise

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

American homebuilders started construction on new houses in March at a slower pace, but in an ironic twist, the number of construction permits jumped to their highest level in 3 ½ years.  This is a positive signal for the slumping residential industry.  According to the Department of Commerce, housing starts fell 5.8 percent to an annual rate of 654,000, significantly below the MarketWatch forecast of economists who had projected an increase to 703,000.  Housing starts in February were also revised down slightly, to 694,000 from 698,000.  At the same time, building permits — a measure of future demand — rose 4.5 percent to 747,000 in March from February’s revised 715,000.  The increase occurred entirely in the multi-dwelling housing segment.

The increase in permits suggests builders are increasingly optimistic as the industry recovers from the worst slump in modern times. Multi-family permits rose 24.2 percent to 262,000.  On the other hand, permits for single-family homes fell 3.5 percent to 462,000 — evidence that builders still face pressure from a deluge of foreclosures.  Many buyers are looking for deals on existing homes instead of paying more for new construction.

Some economists speculate that warm weather contributed to the March decline in housing starts because it allowed builders to start new projects in January and February that they normally would have begun in spring.  “It appears that the payback from an unusually warm fall and winter came in March as record warm temperatures likely pulled new construction forward,” said Yelena Shulyatyeva of BNP Paribas.

The average March temperature was 51.1 degrees; that’s 38.6 degrees warmer than the 20th century average and the hottest March since records were first kept in 1895, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.  Spring home sales are expected to outpace last year as record low mortgage rates produce an attractive market for home buyers.  The average fixed rate on a 30-year mortgage was 3.88 percent in mid-April, according to Freddie Mac and may fall again.

An oversupply of unsold homes is holding prices down, creating a major difficulty for the sector, said Gregory Miller, an economist at Suntrust Banks in Atlanta.  “The production side of the housing market is in the early stages of recovery, but builders are shifting their composition of products from condos and single-family homes to apartment construction.  It’s going to be rocky for awhile.  You still have inventory overhang.  There are also issues on the financing side of production as well as the mortgage side.  The problem is getting over the financing hurdle. Lenders are still very concerned about where they put their capital.  From a trend perspective, it is still on a rising path.  Tentative is the best we could say about this.”

Even a slow-growing housing market is a big plus because it is no longer a drag on the broader economy. Residential real estate was the cause of the financial crisis and the recession, so it’s encouraging to see this sector moving in the right direction.  It’s early to expect strong, sustained growth in the immediate future.  “Housing continues to bump along the bottom,” said Jacob Oubina, a senior economist at RBC Capital Markets.  “The best we can hope from housing over the next couple years is that it won’t subtract from growth.”

According to Omer Esiner, Chief Market Analyst, Commonwealth Foreign Exchange, “The housing data is mixed.  On the one hand housing starts came in below expectations and on the other hand it was a strong month for permits, which bodes well for the months ahead.  So the rise in permits kind of offsets the disappointing data.”

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.”

A Tale of Two Countries: Germany and Spain

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Germany’s unemployment declined more than predicted in December as car and machinery exports boomed and one of the mildest winters on record helped construction jobs. The number of jobless people declined a seasonally adjusted 22,000 to 2.89 million, according to the Nuremberg-based Federal Labor Agency.  Economists had forecast a decline of 10,000.  The adjusted jobless rate fell to just 6.8 percent.  German firms are working virtually nonstop to fulfill orders for exports and investment goods.  As a result, the nation has defied a debt crisis that the European Commission fears will unleash a recession throughout the Eurozone.  The Munich-based IFO Institute’s measure of business confidence also rose unexpectedly in December.  Polls show that the majority of Germans see their jobs as secure even as Europe’s biggest economy slows.  Forward-looking indicators including IFO’s underscore that the German jobs motor is fundamentally intact, said Johannes Mayr, a senior economist at Bayerische Landesbank in Munich.

Except for an unexpected 6,000 increase in October, German unemployment has declined in every month since June 2009. The average jobless total in unadjusted terms for 2011 was well below the three million mark, Labor Agency head Frank-Juergen Weise said.  “German unemployment mastered the dual impact of the debt crisis and weakening economic growth in 2011 but these risks remain, accompanying us as we enter the new year, Weise said.

Both the jobless total and the jobless rate were at their lowest level since unification in 1991, noted German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler. “2011 can be described as the most successful since German unification for working people,” Roesler said.  “Demand for labor remains very high, despite the current economic risks.  Overall, the upturn in employment should continue, albeit at a slower rate.  The labor market remains one of the main pillars of our economy,” the minister said.

The national statistics office Destatis reported that the number of employed people in Germany hit a new record of 41.04 million in 2011, with more than 500,000 jobs created.  It was the first time the number of people working in Germany has risen above 41 million, Destatis said.  The nation’s population is approximately 82 million.

“Overall, labor market conditions will remain markedly healthier in Germany than in most other countries in Europe in the months ahead,” said IHS Global Insight’s Timo Klein. At present, Germany is confronting a shortage of skilled labor.  Leading economists anticipate that Germany’s economic growth will slow in 2012, in line with other major Eurozone economies, which may put a squeeze on wages and jobs.  But, unemployment at a record low for the last 20 years, is a position that most countries envy and a sign of the way Germany has rebuilt itself since the Wall was torn down.

“Germany’s manufacturing and export-driven economy finished the year strongly — piling on another 22,000 jobs in December,” said Anthony Cheung of market analysts RANsquawk.  “Behind the strong performance lie some adept moves by Germany’s exporters.  As their Eurozone markets weakened, they have been very good at moving their focus elsewhere.  German carmakers have more than compensated by dramatically growing sales to developing markets.”

This is one reason why companies are not shedding significant staff, even if the economy hits a downturn, said Berenberg Bank’s Holger Schmieding.

Germany’s labor market strength means that domestic demand will “remain a pillar of support” to the eurozone “under very challenging circumstances otherwise,” Schmieding said.  The Eurozone badly needs this help.  For example, Spain again published dire labor market data with the jobless rate rising by nearly 2,000 in December when compared with November.  Eurostat’s most recent data showed October unemployment in Spain at 22.8 percent, by far the Eurozone’s highest.

Spain represents an entirely different scenario.  During 2011, unemployment in Spain soared 7.9 percent, totaling an astonishing 322,286 individuals.  Nearly one-third of all the Eurozone’s unemployed are Spanish; approximately 50 percent of young Spaniards are out of work.  The tough austerity measures outlined by the new prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, are likely to push Spain’s jobless rate even higher.  These include €8.9 billion in spending cuts and tax increases to cut Spain’s borrowing which should total €16.5 billion in 2012.  Spain closed out 2011 with a deficit of 8 percent of its GDP, significantly higher than the six percent reported at the end of 2010.  “This is the beginning of the beginning,” said Deputy Prime Minister Saenz de Santamaria, noting that Spain is facing “an extraordinary, unexpected situation, which will force us to take extraordinary and unexpected measures.”  She stressed that the wealthiest will be increasingly taxed for at least two years, resulting in expected budgetary gains of €6 billion.

These numbers represent a new 15-year high in Spain’s unemployment rate “The figures for the number of registered unemployed for the month of December confirm the deterioration of the economic situation during the second half of the year,” according to Spain’s labor ministry.  Once the Eurozone’s job creation engine, Spain has struggled to find jobs for the millions thrown out of work since the 2008 property bubble collapse.

The bad news fueled fears that Spain, the Eurozone’s fourth-largest economy, was slipping back into recession after the economy posted zero growth in the 3rd quarter of 2011.  Prime Minister Rajoy’s new government has promised to fight unemployment and fix the country’s finances as its top priorities.  Rajoy plans to present a major labor market reform which will alter hiring laws and Spain’s collective bargaining system to encourage companies to hire workers.

Spain’s secretary of state for employment, Engracia Hidalgo, said the successive labor reforms carried out by the previous government “never made the labor market more dynamic and flexible.”  Spain  lets the jobless receive unemployment benefits for a maximum of two years.  Prime Minister Rajoy’s government extended a monthly payment of 400 euros ($520) for people whose benefits have run out.  Otherwise, the payments would have expired in February.

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.”

Spain’s New Financial Hit: S&P Downgrades Its Credit Rating

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Standard & Poor’s slashed Spain’s credit rating to AA-, three steps beneath the highly desirable AAA, underscoring the challenges facing Europe’s major powers as they meet G20 counterparts over the eurozone debt crisis.  S&P, whose move mirrored that by fellow ratings agency Fitch, cited high unemployment, tightening credit and high private-sector debt.  Spanish 10-year government bond yields climbed slightly in response, although they are still nearly 60 basis points lower than those of Italy.

“Despite signs of resilience in economic performance during 2011, we see heightened risks to Spain’s growth prospects due to high unemployment, tighter financial conditions, the still high level of private sector debt, and the likely economic slowdown in Spain’s main trading partners,” according to S&P.  Spain’s Economy Minister Elena Salgado noted that there would be some margin for maneuver this year thanks to about two billion euros raised by an auction of wireless frequencies and lower interest payments.  “Interest payments by the central government will be at least two billion euros below budget.  So the combined effect of the spectrum auction and lower interest payments will mean we have a margin of 0.4 percent (of GDP)” Salgado said.

S&P took note of Spain’s “signs of resilience in economic performance during 2011” but saw “heightened risks” to the country’s prospects for growth.  Elevated unemployment, tighter financial conditions, and an external debt-to-GDP ratio of approximately 50 percent and the likely economic slowdown of Spain’s main trading partners are the downgrade’s primary causes.  S&P noted that the “economy” variable in its credit-rating equation was responsible for the downgrade.  Spain’s GDP, according to S&P, will likely grow about 0.8 percent in 2011 and nearly one percent in 2012, weaker than S&P’s 1.5 percent estimate made in February.  S&P said that Spain is still in danger of another downgrade if the situation deteriorates.  According to their downside scenario, “We have also adopted a downside scenario, consistent with another possible downgrade.  The downside scenario assumes a return to recession next year, partly as a result of weaker external and domestic demand, with real GDP declining by 0.5 percent in real terms, followed by a weak recovery thereafter.  Under this downside scenario, the current account deficit would decline, but the general government deficit would remain above 5.5 percent of GDP, at odds with the government’s fiscal consolidation targets.”

Investors currently are focusing on“whether European governments can forge a political solution to the sovereign crisis,” said Guy Stear, Hong Kong-based credit strategist at Societe Generale SA.  The longer-term question is “whether austerity plans will work,” he said.

S&P pointed out ongoing challenges facing Spain. “The financial profile of the Spanish banking system will, in our opinion, weaken further, with the stock of problematic assets rising further,” according to S&P analysts.  Spain is being held back by “uncertain growth prospects in light of the private sector’s need to access fresh external financing to roll over high levels of external debt amid rising costs and a challenging external environment.”

Simon Denham, the head of Capital Spreads, noted that “S&P and Moody are working overtime at the moment downgrading bank after bank and European country after European country which reminds us of the dangerous situation that the eurozone is in.  However, as mentioned, the overriding theme that something will be done to sort the mess out is keeping equity markets afloat and the FTSE remains just above the 5,400 level at the time of writing.”

Steven Barrow, currency strategist at Standard Bank, offers this perspective.  “The move follows a similar downgrade from Fitch last week and hence does not have a huge shock factor for the market.  Nonetheless, it clearly questions the markets ability to continue with the more optimistic tone towards the debt crisis that seems to have been reflected in the euro recently – although not necessarily in the bond markets.”

 

Catalina Parada, Marketing Consultant, is Alter NOW’s Madrid correspondent.

Portugal Becomes Third of PIGS To Seek EU Bailout

Monday, June 6th, 2011

Portugal has become the third European nation to accept a financial bailout to the tune of € 78 billion, with € 12 billion going directly to the Iberian nation’s banks.  It is the third of four PIGS nations (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) to require a bailout.  Caretaker Prime Minister Jose Socrates announced that he had reached preliminary agreement with the European Union (EU), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB) for a three-year package of support, including help for Lisbon’s banks.  Portugal’s bailout means three of the eurozone’s 17 countries can be described as being in financial intensive care.  Greece accepted €110 billion of bilateral loans last year; Ireland signed an € 85 billion bailout last November — with the long-term fiscal and economic prognosis for all three nations still uncertain.  Socrates believes that he has secured a good deal, saying, “There are no financial assistance programs that are not demanding.”

The eurozone’s three patients are on three different medicine regimes: Greece’s loans must be repaid over seven years at an average 4.2 percent interest rate; Ireland’s over seven years at an average 5.8 percent rate (although it is trying to change the rate); and Portugal’s is still under discussion.  “I think the terms inevitably are going to be different in each country because the circumstances are…different,” said Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs.  “The government would be very fed up too if another country was getting a bailout deal better than the terms that we are getting,” he said.

The capital of these banks isn’t really the main problem at the moment.  The focus is their dependency on the ECB for liquidity and how they can get out of that and somehow fund themselves in the wholesale market again,” said Carlo Mareels, banks analyst for RBC Capital Markets.  Portugal’s banks have been unable to raise funds in wholesale markets for the last year, demonstrating exactly how intertwined the fortunes of the state and lenders has become in eurozone countries.  Margins have been squeezed as banks compete for retail deposits, which strains their capital positions.  The declining value of their government bonds makes a bad situation even worse.

Simonetta Nardin, a spokeswoman for the IMF, l confirmed that officials had reached an agreement with the Portuguese government ”on a comprehensive economic program.  We have said from the beginning that it is important that any program should have broad cross-party support and we will continue our engagement with the opposition parties to establish that this is the case.”  The bailout requires EU approval.  Portugal’s prime minister said that he would present the deal to opposition parties and called on them to show ”a sense of responsibility and a superior sense of national interest” to ensure Portugal receives emergency financing quickly.  Under the plan, the deficit would need to be reduced to 5.9 percent of GDP this year; 4.5 percent in 2012; and three percent in 2013.

Jonathan Loynes, chief European economist at Capital Economics, predicted that Portugal’s GDP will decline by two percent in 2011. “Against this background, while the confirmation of the bailout should provide some reassurance that Portugal will be able meet its upcoming bond redemptions, it won’t put an end to speculation that – along with Greece and perhaps others – it will sooner or later need to undertake some form of debt restructuring,” he said.

The bailout needs wide-ranging cross-party support because Socrates’ government collapsed last month, which set off a round of increased borrowing rates.  Additionally, it forced Lisbon to seek financial assistance from the EU.  The winner of the June 5 general election will implement it.  Agreement on the loan terms is required by June 15, when Lisbon needs to redeem € 4.9 billion worth of bonds.

World Cup Redux

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

So, another World Cup ends and the succeeding weeks bring a nagging sense of withdrawal  but also a chance to revisit the narratives that were played out.  The pathos of the World Cup tournament came largely from Holland’s defeat – its third in a World Cup final.  This country which has produced some of the greatest players of all time – Cruyff, Neeskens, Gullit and Bergkamp-is the greatest soccer power never to win.  Holland’s loss was especially difficult because they toppled #1 ranked Brazil to get to the finals, taking control of the game in the second half of their game with fine goals by Schneijder and Robben against Brazil’s celebrated defense.The World Cup tournament came largely from Holland’s defeat – its third in a World Cup final.

What makes Holland’s continual failure at this level mystifying is that they are the originators of one of the most imitated styles of play in the history of the game.  Total football was fashioned by former Dutch coach, the legendary Rinus Michels when he  helmed   the team in the early 1970’s.  It called for players to be flexible-equally adept at attacking and defending.  During a match, when the team is being pinned down by the opposition, the team members adopt a defensive stance with all 10 outfield players behind the ball; alternately, if the team is attacking the opposition half of the field, then the players adopt an attacking stance where all ten outfield players support  each other in the opponent’s half of the field.  In order for this strategy to work, a team needs players who are comfortable with the ball and able to switch from attack to defense very quickly.  The irony is that Spain largely adopted total football: their strategy was mainly based on the successful tactics of the Barcelona club team which had been formed over decades by Dutch coaches, including  Michels, Cruyff and Louis van Gaal.

So the final between Spain and Holland should have been a classic struggle of prophet and acolyte.  But it wasn’t.  It seemed like the only team interested in playing  football was Spain.  The Holland team players resorted to roughhouse tactics hoping to unsettle the Spanish team, denying them the space and rhythm to play their close passing game.  Trips, crunching tackles and elbows were the order of the day.  The Holland player, De Jong, launched a scandalous kick to the chest of Spanish player, Alonso, earning only a yellow card from the British referee, Webb.  He should have been sent  off.  Johann Cruyff,  the legendary Holland player from  Holland’s  “Total Football” era of the 1970’s described the team’s performance as “antifootball”.

And what was the other low?  Who would have thought that Italy and France, the teams that played in the last final,  would crash and burn in the first round?  For France, it signaled the end of a 30-year run of glittering, balletic football. From Platini to Zidane, France were a European side that rivaled the South Americans in flair and grace.  Many will remember the epic game they played against Brazil in 1986, an impossible display of intelligence, rhythm and athleticism that ended in a penalty shootout.  Sadly, the 2010 French will be remembered for the fact that their team went on strike when the nation needed their services the most.  This comes 4 years after France’s hero, Zidane head butted Italian player, Materrazzi in the 2006 World Cup final.   Swan song indeed.

Compare the dissolution of Holland’s brilliant gestalt football and France’s aesthetic game to the singular delight of the 2010 tournament which was undoubtedly the re-emergence of Uruguay as a soccer power. Remember that Uruguay was the first nation to win a World Cup, defeating Argentina 4-2 in 1930.  The new  Uruguay team played a crackling game against Ghana to enter the semi finals and came very close to equalizing with Holland which would have taken them to the finals.  Diego Forlan and his teammates gave hope to all the has-beens and minnows in football around the world.  Perhaps their success will wake the soccer greats of yesterday — like Hungary and England — back to form and serve as inspiration to the powers to come.

Rodrigo Silva is AlterNow’s soccer correspondent.  Based in Malaysia, he teaches business and marketing at the MBA level at Segi College in Kuala Lumpur.