With the world ever more lethargic daily, as if in silent expectation of something big about to happen (quite visible in daily trading volumes), it is easy to forget that just about a year ago the Mediterranean region was rife with violent revolutions in virtually every country along the North African coast. That these have passed their acute phase does not mean that anything has been resolved. And unfortunately, as BMO's Don Coxe reminds us, it is very likely that the Mediterranean region, flanked on one side by the broke European countries of Greece, Italy, Spain (and implicitly Portugal), and on the other by the unstable powder keg of post-revolutionary Libya and Egypt, will likely become quite active yet again. Only this time, in addition to social and economic upheavals, a religious flavor may also be added to the mix. As Coxe says: "Today, the Mediterranean is two civilizations in simultaneous, rapidly unfolding crises. To date, those crises have been largely unrelated. That may well be about to change." Coxe bases part of his argument on the same Thermidorian reaction which we have warned about since early 2011, namely the power, social and economic vacuum that is unleashed in the aftermath of great social change. But there is much more to his argument, which looks much more intently at the feedback loops formed by the divergent collapsing economies that once were the cradle of civilization, and this time could eventually serve as the opposite. To wit: "The eurocrisis has been front and center for nearly two years, during which time the economic and financial fundamentals have continued to deteriorate. “The Arab Spring” came suddenly, in a series of outbursts of optimism. It may have come at the worst possible time for the beleaguered nations of the North Shore. The Mediterranean has entered one of the stormiest periods in recorded history. It is the major contributor to risk in global equity markets. It is too soon to predict how these crises will end. The Cradle of Civilization is rocking amid an array of winds and storms. “The Arab Spring” ...may have come at the worst possible time for the beleaguered nations of the North Shore."
A few days after Germany proposed the stripping of Greek fiscal authority from the insolvent country, in exchange for providing funding for what German FinMin Schauble called today a "bottomless pit" (and Brüderle chimed in saying that "a default of the Greek government would be bitter but manageable), Sarkozy decided to demonstrate his "muscle" if not so much stature, and openly denied Germany, saying "There can be no question of putting any country under tutelage." Sure enough, it was now Germany's turn to reciprocate the favor. According to Bloomberg, "Finance ministers from the four euro- area countries with AAA ratings -- Germany, Finland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands -- will meet in Berlin tomorrow afternoon, a German Finance Ministry spokesman said." And as is well known, FrAAnce no longer a member of this, however meaningless, club. "The gathering is part of a a series of meetings convened by officials from the highest-rated euro states, the spokesman said, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity. Ministers will discuss current issues without briefing reporters after the meeting." And so the gauntlet of public humiliation is now once again back in Sarkozy's court. The good news: if the de minimis Frenchman does not get his act in order, and overturn the massive lead that his challenger in the April presidential elections has garnered, he will need to endure the humiliation for at most 3 more months. In other news, it appears that when it comes to saving political face, the rating agencies are actually quite useful.
Mike Krieger submits: "I’ve always loved history. Even all the way back to grade school I remember it being my favorite subject. Very early on I noticed certain patterns in history and I wondered why they occurred. When I was first exposed to European history, I recall being absolutely floored by how certain countries could become so rich and powerful and then subsequently collapse so stunningly and rapidly. The one that really boggled my mind was Spain - the homeland of my maternal grandfather who I never met. Here was a country that conquered and viciously looted essentially all South America other than Brazil (thanks to the pope being magnanimous enough to grant that part of the world to Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesillas), Mexico, Central America and parts of the United States. The gold and especially silver that was taken back to Spain was the stuff of legend, yet almost at the same time they had defeated the native peoples overseas their kingdom at home was crumbling. Not to bore anyone with too much history, but by the mid 1500s the Spanish had essentially conquered the Aztecs (Mexico) and the Incas (Peru). At the time, the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan was estimated to be larger than any city in Europe. Despite these tremendous “successes” and the riches that came with them, the battle of Rocroi in Northern France in 1643 less than one hundred years later marked the end of Spanish dominance in Europe. What is so fascinating to me is that while the conquistadors were out raping and pillaging halfway around the world the domestic economy was experiencing economic crisis. There were episodes of major currency debasements in the homeland as the crown was forced to fight wars on their borders as well as fund the excursions abroad. It is important to note that the collapse came pretty quickly as it was only in 1627 when things were still looking pretty good for the empire that The Count-Duke Olivares famously stated: “God is Spanish and fights for our nation these days.” Does this story sound familiar?"
With harsh long-term consequences for the heavily indebted countries.
Early Tuesday morning, the Portuguese 10Y bond was trading over 300bps wider than its close last Friday. Contagion from concerns in Greece and what that meant for a nation that while not in as dire a position as Greece economically was well on its way to totally unsustainable debt levels relative to what little and shrinking GDP they can garner. Market access is of course off the cards and there are reasonable chunks of debt maturing that will need to be funded. Since then the PGB has rallied an incredible 300bps, now trading a mere 5bps wider on the week as if nothing had ever happened. We know the ECB was active yesterday and it appears also today but what is also very notable and perhaps explains more of the compression is the huge drop in the basis between CDS and bonds for Portugal. The basis, as we have discussed before, was extremely wide for Portugal (a quite illiquid sovereign bond and CDS market) and we suspect at a spread between bonds and CDS of almost 850bps, it was just too tempting for hedgies not to buy the package en masse. This means they would have bought PGBs (bonds) and bought CDS protection to try and 'lock-in' the spread between the two. That demand for the basis has pushed it 200bps narrower and given the thinness of the PGB market, the marginal demand from basis traders has exaggerated that rally by the 300bps we noted above. So Portuguese bond risk remains elevated (CDS around 1400bps and and 5Y PGB around 20% yield) but the drop in the last few days is not a risk appetite signal but reflective of an ECB-spurred risk transfer to basis traders who we assume are more confident in Portuguese bond contracts and CDS triggers than Greek bonds for now. It seems they have found another pivotal security to manipulate down to show 'improvement' as Portugal leaves the global bond indices but is mysteriously bid this week - watch the basis for more compression and the signal for unwinds which will stress PGBs once again.
Anyone who went to bed with the EURUSD about to breach 1.30 to the downside may have been surprised this morning to see it trading nearly 150 pips higher. Checking the headlines for news of a Greek deal however would be futile, as one did not occur. Instead what did, were more promises of a deal being "imminent" even as Greece is doing all it can to appease intransigent creditors, offering GDP upside warrants (something that did not work too well for Argentina), with the IMF stating it demands guarantees that this time Greece will follow through with promises. Oddly enough the German demand for fiscal overrule has gotten lost in the noise but is certainly not forgotten and last we checked Merkel has not withdrawn this polite request. Still futures are up, primarily on a smattering of better than expected PMIs, in China and Europe. Alas, the Chinese PMI beat as discussed last night, was more of a cold water shower as the market had been hoping for much more defined promises of PBoC intervention and instead got a lukewarm Goldilocks economy which could last quite a bit longer without RRR-cuts. As for European PMI numbers being better than expected, we only wonder if these now correlate with the prevailing unemployment rate throughout the Eurozone.
The post-hoc (correlation implies causation) reasons for why the initial LTRO spurred bond buying are many-fold but as Nomura points out in a recent note (confirming our thoughts from last week) investors (especially bank stock and bondholders) should be very nervous at the size of the next LTRO. Whether it was anticipation of carry trades becoming self-reinforcing, bank liquidity shock buffering, or pre-funding private debt market needs, financials and sovereigns have rallied handsomely, squeezing new liquidity realities into a still-insolvent (and no-growth / austerity-driven) region. Concerns about the durability of the rally are already appearing as Greek PSI shocks, Portugal contagion, mark-to-market risks impacting repo and margin call event risk, increased dispersion among European (core and peripheral) curves, and the dramatic rise in ECB Deposits (or negative carry and entirely unproductive liquidity use) show all is not Utopian. However, the largest concern, specifically for bondholders of the now sacrosanct European financials, is if LTRO 2.0 sees heavy demand (EUR200-300bn expected, EUR500bn would be an approximate trigger for 'outsize' concerns) since, as we pointed out previously, this ECB-provided liquidity is effectively senior to all other unsecured claims on the banks' balance sheets and so implicitly subordinates all existing unsecured senior and subordinated debt holders dramatically (and could potentially reduce any future willingness of private investors to take up demand from capital markets issuance - another unintended consequence). We have long suggested that with the stigma gone and markets remaining mostly closed, banks will see this as their all-in moment and grab any and every ounce of LTRO they can muster (which again will implicitly reduce all the collateral that was supporting the rest of their balance sheets even more). Perhaps the hope of ECB implicit QE in the trillions is not the medicine that so many money-printing-addicts will crave and a well-placed hedge (Senior-Sub decompression or 3s5s10s butterfly on financials) or simple underweight to the equity most exposed to the capital structure (and collateral constrained) impact of LTRO will prove fruitful.
For today's installment we'll take a look at the debt:gold ratio for the PIIGS countries to see who puts the IG in PIIGS (perhaps you've already guessed). the ratio represents the multiple by which the country's debt exceeds its gold holdings. To an optimist, a high ratio means that the rest of the world has great confidence in the economy of the country in question. To a pessimist, a high ratio means the country is ruined. At a quick glance, it appears that Italy is no worse off than America--assuming that both countries actually have the gold the World Gold Council claims they have. Italy may have trouble getting theirs from New York, if that is where it is. Notice the decline in the ratio over the past decade--that is a reflection of the rising price of gold, not a decline in these nations' debts. Debt has increased over the past decade. The price of gold has apparently risen more. So does this mean these countries are becoming solvent? Can a rising price of gold solve our economic woes? Historically, a decline in this ratio can been used by governments to justify monetary expansion, particularly if it happened during an episode of such expansion. Why not? The improvement of the ratio suggests that the government isn't printing enough. The destruction of the value of the currency (and the country's debt) begins to occur faster than the rate of monetary creation (thus the label in the US graph "Ben proposes, the Market disposes"). The government counters this by printing faster, but the destruction of the currency's value is faster still.
Below are some of the key events to have transpired in the overnight session. According to Bloomberg's TJ Marta, sentiment is broadly higher, with stocks, bond yields, FX higher, EU sovereign spreads tighter as markets focus on German unemployment, ebbing EU concerns, shrug off German retail sales, Greek debt. Whereas German retail sales unexpectedly fell -1.4%M/m vs est. +0.8%, unemployment fell more than expected -34k vs est. -10k. Italy December unemployment climbed to 8.9%, highest since the data series began in Jan. 2004, from a revised 8.8% in November. Commodities mostly higher, led by WTI +1.5%, 1.0 std. devs. EU leaders agreed to accelerate rescue fund, deficit control treaty . Greek debt negotiations remain in flux with Greece reporting progress, Germany expressing frustration over Greece’s failure to carry out economic. Portugal 10-yr yields fell after earlier touching euro-era record; yields of AAA-rated Finland, Norway, Sweden and Germany higher even as Coelho Says Portugal’s Debt Is 'Perfectly Sustainable.' Treasuries decline for first time in five days; 5-yrs yields yesterday touched record-low 0.7157%. SNB Says Currency Reserves Declined to 257.5 Billion Francs. Foreign Investment in Spain Shows EU38.6 Bln Outflow in Jan-Nov. ECB’s Nowotny Says ‘Can’t Be Sure’ Greece Will Stay in Euro. Belgium Borrowing Costs Rise at 105-Day, 168-Day Bill Auction. Finally, according to KBC, Irish Consumer Confidence Up As ‘Armageddon’ Averted. So every day the world does not end consumer confidence should be higher. Brilliant.
The divergence between credit and equity marksts that we noted into the European close on Friday closed and markets sold off significantly. European sovereigns especially were weak with our GDP-weighted Eurozone credit risk index rising the most in six weeks. High beta assets underperformed (as one would expect obviously) as what goes up, comes down quicker. Stocks, Crossover (high-yield) credit, and subordinated financials were dramatically wider. Senior financials and investment grade credit modestly outperformed their peers but also saw one of the largest decompressions in over a month (+5.5bps today alone in the latter) as indices widen back towards their fair-values. The 'small moderation' of the last few weeks has given way once again to the reality of the Knightian uncertainty Europeans face as obviously Portugal heads squarely into the cross-hairs of real-money accounts looking to derisk (10Y Portugal bond spreads +224bps) and differentiate local vs non-local law bonds. While EURUSD hovered either side of 1.31, it was JPY strength that drove derisking pressure (implicitly carry unwinds) as JPYUSD rose 0.5% on the day (back to 10/31 intervention levels). EURCHF also hit a four-month low. Treasuries and Bunds moved in sync largely with Treasuries rallying hard (30Y <3% once again) and curves flattening rapidly. Commodities bounced off early Europe lows, rallied into the European close and are now giving back some of those gains (as the USD starts to rally post Europe). Oil and Gold are in sync with USD strength as Silver and Copper underperform - though all are down from Friday's close.
It was only logical that following its most profitable year in history, the world's most successful hedge fund (by absolute P&L), which generated $77 billion in profit in the past year, would follow up with mass promotions. In other news, it is now more lucrative, and with better job security, to work for the FRBNY LLC Onshore Fund as a vice president than for Goldman Sachs as a Managing Director. Also, since one only has to know how to buy, as the ancient and arcane art of selling is irrelevant at this particular taxpayer funded hedge fund, think of all the incremental equity that is retained courtesy of a training session that is only half as long.