Building Hedges around Greece?

While Macro Man opted to present a po(p)etic styling on the ongoing hardship in Greece (or was that Grease?) today came with a couple of notable developments in the story and would seem to be honourable and real efforts to calm down markets. Obviously, it is difficult to tell whether this is a true attempt to save Greece from what increasingly looks inevitable or whether it is an attempt to make sure the debacle does not turn out to be a Eurzone rout. In any case, action it seems is entering the stage on the cost of fiddling.

Firstly and as is customary in these kinds of situation, the Eurozone group of finance ministers gathered Sunday to approve the whopping € 110 bn aid package which had been rumoured last week. Euro-region governments are betting 110 billion euros ($146 billion) in economic medicine for Greece will be enough to inoculate the rest of their region from contagion.

(quote Bloomberg)

Finance ministers approved the unprecedented bailout yesterday for Greece after a week that saw the country’s fiscal crisis spread to Portugal and Spain. At the same time, they refused to say how they would help other indebted nations if the need arose, calling Greece a “special case.”

The risk is that investors will shift focus to other euro nations in the absence of a clear aid plan for the 16-nation bloc’s weakest members. The extra yield investors demand to buy Portuguese debt over German bunds surged to the highest since at least 1997 and Spain’s IBEX 35 stock index fell the most in three months last week. The euro fell against the dollar today. “It is far from assured that this program will forcefully counter contagion risk,” said Mohamed El-Erian, co-chief investment officer at Pacific Investment Management Co. in Newport Beach, California, which runs the world’s biggest bond fund. “Heavily exposed creditors” may try to head off potential losses and sell bonds, “increasing the pressure on core European governments to also provide a backstop for Portugal and Spain.”

Greece yesterday pledged to push through 30 billion euros ($40 billion) of budget cuts, equivalent to 13 percent of gross domestic product, in return for loans at a rate of around 5 percent for three years. The EU and the International Monetary Fund, which is co- financing the bailout, also agreed to set up a bank stabilization fund. With downgrades threatening to render Greek bonds ineligible as collateral for its loans, the European Central Bank today said it will accept all Greek government debt when lending to banks.

Two questions immediately arise here. One is the extent to which the bailout put up front as it were is enough to avoid contagion to Spain and Portugal (or god forbid Italy). Basically, it was this very issue which raised the stakes last week as the S&P moved in to downgrade both Spain and Portugal and where markets began to play the dreaded spread game as yields on Spanish and Portuguese government deb widened alarmingly. The second is the more technical question of whether this will be enough to avoid an eventual default in Greece. This depends both on the real scale of the situation (i.e. how many more skeletons can we expect to rattle out of the closet) as well as whether Greece has the actual capacity to carry through the austerity measures demanded. I am not talking about in principle here, but more in reality and with all the practical issues of having to fight your own citizens with water canons three days a week as well as accounting for the loss of production when Greece turns to the street in stead of to the offices and factory line. I am an optimist by nature, but it looks difficult, very difficult.

However, perhaps the second news coming in today might help a little bit even if it was not unexpected. Consequently and in light of the fact the Greek government bonds has long been fairing below the pedigree otherwise needed to act as collateral at the ECB (well de-facto, if not de-jure yet), Trichet and his colleagues extended a helping hand today by specifically making Greek govies eligible as collateral at the ECB’s asset facilities.

“The ECB is a key player in the rescue package designed to help Greece and it is clearly buying insurance against the likelihood of further multiple downgrades of the Greek debt, something that might lead to a halt of ECB financing to the Greek banks,” said Silvio Peruzzo, an economist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in London.

Further downgrades from credit-rating companies had threatened to render Greek bonds ineligible for collateral for ECB loans after Standard & Poor’s last week cut the nation to junk status. Had Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings followed suit, Greece’s debt would have no longer been accepted under the previous rules, threatening to inflict further pain on the economy and its banks.

This will definitely help, but it was also a foregone conclusion. Consequently, had the ECB chosen to stand aside as Greece was further downgraded by the rating agencies the yields would almost surely have risen to levels not only inconsistent with proper debt management but also ultimately to levels forcing an instant default. The point I am making here is simply that if the ECB had chosen not to do this, they would have explicitly sent the message that it is ok for the market to discriminate markedly and decisively between Eurozone debt issued by different countries and presumably, it is exactly the opposite message that they want to be sending at this point in time.

So where does it go from here.

Well, to me Greece is doomed and while this may sound excessively alarmist I see no way out for this economy. The real nutbreaker will be whether Portugal and Spain are the next one to follow. One default and you blame the defaultee, three and you blame the system and it is exactly the imminent risk of the second (almost unthinkable) scenario that I recently dealt with in a more lenghty format.

Don’t get me wrong, I salute the effort and I sincerely hope that the Eurozone will make it through in one piece, but at this point in time I need to be building hedges around my erstwhile optimism.

EMU: Recovery or Decline?

NY Times recently reported on the agreed financial rescue assitance to Grecce from EMU (€110 billion) and IMF ($145 billion). Alongside Ireland and Mediterranean countries, the economic recovery of EMU is hampered by a high mountain of public debt and unfavorable macroeconomic data on growth, employment and current account.

Public debt in the European Union in 2009

Source: Eurostat (2009)

The graph I attached, shows the level of public debt in EU countries in 2009. Solid horizontal blue line shows the 60 percent debt-to-GDP ratio required by Maastricht criteria for each EMU entrant.

The underlying data (link) on economic recovery in the US point out a strong and robust recovery. The data from Bureau of Economic Analysis show that the US economy grew by 3.2 percent in Q1:2010 continued from a remarkable 4.6 percent growth in Q4:2009. While private consumption expenditure growth increased by 2 percentage points from the previous quarter, private domestic investment rebounded by 14.8 percent in Q1:2010 after a remarkable 46.1 percent increase in Q4:2009. In addition, labor productivity in Q4:2009 increased by 6.9 percent – the largest quarterly increase since Q3:2003 (link) On the other side, recent revision (link) of quarterly growth rate in the EMU has shown that quarterly GDP in Q1:2010 increased by 0.0 percent, revised from 0.1 percent. Industrial confidence, an important measure of manufacturing outlook, further decline by 12.2 index points.

The macroeconomic outlook for the EMU is downsized by high public debt and negative budget deficit which led 10-year bond premium spread between EMU economies and Germany (link). The premium spread between Greece and Germany stood at 8.57 percentage points on April 28 while the spread between Ireland and Germany was at 2.54 percentage points.

High level of fiscal deficits restrains the economic recovery of the EMU countries. In 2009, Spain, Ireland and Greece faced the highest deficit-to-GDP ratio while Denmark’s 2 percent deficit-to-GDP ratio was the lowest in the European Union. NY Times recently collected annual dataset on public debt and budget deficit (link) in which an overview of key public finance indicators is availible.

The prospects of economic recovery in the EMU are further downgraded by unfavorable growth forecast. One of the key questions during the ongoing debt crisis has been whether the EMU will sustain fiscal discrepancy within the EMU since asymmetric fiscal policy undermine the ability of the common monetary policy. Even though Greece’s debt crisis is the core of the debate regarding future viability of the single currency, growth estimates for Spain and Italy in 2010/2011 will determine the mid-term macroeconomic stability of the eurozone. European Commission recently updated the quarterly economic growth estimates for eurozone countries (link). Depending on the absorption of financial market spillovers into investment and net exports, economic growth estimates for Italy and Spain are quite pessimistic. After an estimated 0.1 percent growth rate in Q2, Spain’s economy is likely to contract in Q3 by -0.2 percent and experience a slight rebound in Q4:2010. Quarterly economic forecast for Italy is positive throughout the year although the economic growth rate is likely to be close to zero. However, Italy’s economic growth rate is likely to keep the increasing pace towards the end of the year although current macroeconomic outlook deters consumption, investment and inventories’ contribution to GDP growth mainly because of high unemployment rate and sluggish productivity growth.

Robust economic growth is essential to the cure of high public debt. Since EMU countries have adopted a single currency, policymakers cannot trigger exchange-rate adjustment through currency depreciation. The latter would spill into higher inflation and modestly reduce the volume of public debt. Due to high unemployment and slower recovery of inventories, inflation rate is unlikely to rebound to pre-crisis levels.

EMU’s most problematic countries’ recovery is unlikely to be robust given public debt and deficit constraint on quarterly growth outlook. Without a prudent fiscal tightening, lower government spending, there will be a bleak economic outlook for the future of EMU countries which could result in a decade-long period of low growth, high unemployment and Japan-styled deflationary persistence.

The Bogey of Exports Growth

There is a lot of talk about rupee appreciation in recent weeks. It is claimed that rupee appreciation is bad for exports growth and that RBI must trade in the rupee-dollar market so as to force the exchange rate back to (say) Rs.50 a dollar. I wrote a piece in Financial Express yesterday, about the real effective exchange rate, exports growth, and the Chinese exports miracle.

Economic Events on May 4, 2010

At 7:45 AM EDT, the weekly ICSC-Goldman Store Sales report will be released, giving an update on the health of the consumer through this analysis of retail sales.

At 8:55 AM EDT, the weekly Redbook report will be released, giving us more information about consumer spending.

At 10:00 AM EDT,the value of the pending home sales index for March will be announced.  It is expected that the index will increase over February because of the poor winter weather in that month, and the impending deadline to take advantage of the federal tax credit for buying a home.

Also at 10:00 AM EDT, the Factory Orders report will be released.  The consensus is for an decline of 0.1% in orders in March, after a gain of 0.6% in February.

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