Friday, March 25, 2011

The Bad and the Ugly

Finally, the EU managed to find a decision on the ESM (as well as an overhauled stability pact and increased economic monitoring and surveillance measures). Coupled with the already agreed enlargement of the effective lending capacity of the temporary EFSF (as well as a broadening of its mandate), this is a significant step forward for the Euro project. I would have preferred if the EFSF would have been allowed to be buying government debt in the secondary market but overall, the measures are going in the right direction and show that the political support for the Euro remains strong. I am convinced that these steps reduce the risk of a systemic breakdown of the Eurozone (i.e. a break-up). Additionally, it seems that markets are starting to perceive a similar picture as correlations between peripheral government bond spreads to Bunds have been falling since early this month.
The chart below shows that Portuguese and Irish spreads continued to widen. This should not come as a big surprise given all the negative news out of Portugal (collapse of the government, significant rating downgrades) which renders a bail-out very likely and the ongoing problems in the Irish banking sector, a lack of agreement about a potential cut in the interest rate of the bail-out loans and the absence of the ECB in the secondary market. On the other side, spreads of Italian and Spanish bonds have tightened considerably.

The bad and the ugly: Italy/Spain diverge from Portugal/Ireland
Source: Bloomberg

This is probably down to an improved growth outlook for the Spanish as swell as Italian economies (it has also been mirrored in equity markets where the Spanish IBEX and the Italian MIB index show the largest year-to-date gains besides Greece). Also in the case of Spain, it seems that the austerity measures taken by the government over the past two years as well as the steps to bail-out the banking sector are starting to help restore confidence. Moreover, it suggests that contagion from a likely Portugal bail-out should prove minimal. This is not only a great development for Spain - which has been frequently cited as a likely bail-out candidate following Portugal - but for the entire Eurozone. Additionally, given the size of the Spanish bond market, a self-reinforcing widening cycle (and a likely bail-out) would have caused tremendous losses on the already weak European banking sector.
Finally, these developments are support my notion that for peripheral bond yields it is much more important what the EFSF does/how the liquidity situation evolves, than whether the ECB hikes its repo rate. 10y Spanish government bond yields have fallen by some 50bp since mid January. To be sure a 5% 10y rate is still restrictive for the Spanish economy, however, it is less restrictive and as such will help the economy to stabilise and the sovereign to reduce the budget on the margin. Furthermore, as spread volatility drops, more buyers might be enticed back into investing in Spanish bonds, with the potential of establishing a positive feedback loop (lower yields=better for the deficit and the economy=improving fundamentals=lower credit risk=more bond buyers=lower yields). At the short end, the situation is similar and 2y yields fell 60bp over the past two months.
As a sidenote, these developments support the case for an early ECB rate hike. Furthermore, I expect Spanish and Italian bonds to perform further vs. Bunds over the medium term. Therefore, my expectations for the development of monetary policy remain the same as they have been since early this year:

Policy tool


Expected stance

Repo rate (ECB)


Less accommodative

Liquidity provision (ECB)


Ample liquidity

Peripheral bond yields (EFSF)


Less restrictive

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