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Return of the euro crisis: After the sugar rush

Geschrieben von hkarner - 13. April 2012

Date: 12-04-2012
Source: The Economist

Spanish bond yields have risen as the effect of cheap ECB cash wears off

THE high is over. The European Central Bank’s two long-term refinancing operations (LTROs) in December and February saw commercial banks borrow over €1 trillion ($1.3 trillion) of three-year money at the ECB’s main interest rate, which it had cut to 1%. Ostensibly a scheme to keep euro-area banks afloat, the LTROs also boosted flagging public-debt markets in the zone’s southern periphery, as banks used some of the cash to buy high-yielding bonds. That effect has faded.
 Spain’s ten-year government-bond yield has been rising since the second tranche of three-year ECB cash was doled out. This week it reached almost 6%, the highest level since November (see chart 1). The U-turn owes a lot to the shifting dynamics of the euro-zone bond markets, which have also affected Italy. Missteps by Spain’s new government have not helped. Beneath all this lie deeper fears about Spain’s injured banks, the stringency of the government’s fiscal plans, and the impact of both on an already weak economy.

Start with the bond-market dynamics. With tacit support from regulators, the stock of government bonds held by Spanish and Italian banks rose by €122 billion between November and February. Prices surged and yields fell. Hedge funds which had sold borrowed bonds in the hope that prices would fall were forced to buy them back. The rally lured others in.  This virtuous cycle turned vicious in early March. Some investors say the buying petered out once yields fell below 5%, when the bonds might no longer be considered cheap. But the conclusion of the second and last LTRO may have been the main trigger. Banks which bought periphery bonds have used up their ammunition. “The minute the ECB says ‘no more,’ the bank bidder is lost,” says a hedge-fund manager. Since there are few committed buyers of bonds beyond such banks, the smart money bet that yields would rise again. Brokers are less willing to take bonds off sellers’ hands in the hope that buyers eventually turn up, says Andrew Balls of PIMCO, a fund manager. In thinly traded markets, bond prices can suddenly shoot up if only a few investors take fright and start selling.

The clumsy handling of Spain’s 2012 budget may have persuaded some to sell. The newish Spanish government delayed it until after local elections in March; it also announced that its deficit target would be 5.8% of GDP, not the 4.4% agreed with European leaders (the compromise was a goal of 5.3%). The budget minister, Cristóbal Montoro, and the economy minister, Luis de Guindos, “contradict each other all the time”, complains a Spanish economist.

Yet Spain has deeper problems than muddled messages. The 2011 budget deficit was 8.5% of GDP, not the goal of 6%, in large part because of overspending by Spain’s autonomous regions. The economy is in recession—industry shrank by 5.1% in the year to February according to figures released on April 11th. Attempts to cut the deficit by 3.2% of GDP in a year will make things worse. Reforms to the jobs market, making it cheaper to fire workers and easier to set pay locally, will benefit Spain’s economy in time but not now.

Anxiety about Spain’s banks worsens the outlook further. A messy end to Spain’s long construction and mortgage boom means a lot of bank loans have already turned sour. More are likely to. Property prices have not yet fallen as far as in Ireland, the euro zone’s other housing black spot. Investors fear that the state will be called on to recapitalise Spain’s banks.

To complicate matters, much of Spain’s huge private debt is owed indirectly to foreigners via its banks. Spain’s net investment deficit—the sums owed to foreigners by firms, householders and the government, less the foreign assets they own—comes to 93% of GDP, the cumulation of a long series of current-account deficits. The increasing home bias of euro-zone investors makes it harder for countries with foreign debts to roll them over. Greece and Portugal have similar foreign debts but have higher borrowing costs (see chart 2).

Spain and Italy could not live with today’s borrowing costs for long unless the outlook for their economies were to improve dramatically. So they may have to look to outside help. But it would be hard for the ECB to sanction another LTRO so soon, reckons Laurence Boone of Bank of America. The ECB could restart direct bond purchases: Benoît Cœuré, a member of the bank’s six-strong executive board, suggested on April 11th that it might, which helped push Spain’s bond yields down a bit. But that would make existing investors worry more about subordination to the ECB in the event of a restructuring. In any case Mario Draghi, the bank’s president, has recently said high yields are the bond markets’ way of asking governments to implement promised reforms.

Spain could volunteer for the kind of support programme that Greece, Portugal and Ireland have signed up to. But Italy is scarcely in any less trouble and the euro zone’s meagre rescue fund could not stretch to a bail-out of both countries for long. A more likely outcome is that Spain is eventually forced to draw on the shared rescue fund to recapitalise its banks, which might in turn take pressure off its sovereign-borrowing costs. Meanwhile, some have turned to the next trouble spot. “France is our cheapest and biggest short,” says one hedge-fund manager.

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