The big banks are getting restless. Nowhere is this more evident than in the latest just released letter from Citi's European Credit Strategy, literally a letter to Europe's trio of leading politicians, which follows hot on the heels of yet another recent Citigroup missive from Willem Buiter, which was largely ignored in the noise, yet which made it all too clear that when all else fails, it is the Chairman's sworn duty to paradrop money. Because if anyone, it is the banks that know that if things aren't fixed (they aren't), it is up to the central banks to do something to prevent the vigilantes from forcing the politicians hands, as they did in the summer and fall of 2011 (which will not provide a long-term fix, but at least allow bankers to hope that the next collapse won't take place before bonus season). As Citi says, "Until the gravity of the situation is made clear, until the self-reinforcing mechanisms that already seem to be in motion are understood, we don't see how the solutions, the answers, and the certainty that market craves can be brought to the table." Which simply means that things are about to get much, much worse as it will be up to the markets to bring the world to the edge of collapse once again, just so Europe, with the help of the Fed of course, once again is forced to get over the political bickering and prop up risk assets, in yet another iteration of "this time it's different", even though it isn't. Sure enough: "Our impression is that markets will need to act as the proverbial 'attack dog', forcing the issue on the political agenda. We can't escape the sense that it is probably politically easier to let the markets run loose for the time being to make it apparent that further intervention is needed. But 1000bp on Crossover is much closer than you imagine." In other words, Citi just gave the green light for the bottom to fall from the market just so Europe's increasingly impotent political elite does something, anything. Look for many more banks to sign off on the same letter.
Dear Angela, Dear Francois, Dear Mario
It seems that we are at a watershed once again. Judging by the movement we have seen in the credit market and in other risk assets over the last week, a chain of events that could lead to implosion has been unleashed, unless checked by policy action.
2012 started so well. The LTROs allayed market fears about a liquidity crisis in the European banking system and created additional demand for periphery sovereign debt during the first quarter.
However, we reckon it is now time to face the fact that the market does not believe Schäuble's firewall works. Most urgently, the market fears a Greek exit, or the reintroduction of capital controls to stem deposit outflows, might spark deposit flight from banks across a number of other countries. Playing down the importance of a Greek exit now is hardly reassuring, when Mario Draghi said the consequences for the Eurozone would be 'incalculable' only last December.
While the lack of an elected government in Greece complicates matters, the market sees a growing risk any new government will not be able to make the concessions demanded by the Troika quickly enough – or at all. Then what? If a hard line is to be taken on Greece, then we reckon the firewall must be reinforced at least with a pan-European deposit guarantee scheme of some form. The market knows that it is not easy to sell politically in Germany.
It doesn't help that the Spanish spread to Bunds has drifted to record levels again, while there is no clarity on where the funding necessary to recapitalise the Spanish banking system will come from. It may be that LTRO-driven bank demand can sustain the auctions for now, but it seems likely to us that foreign investors will continue to pull out.
Add in the prospect of Moody's downgrading more banks across Europe and North America, the persistent negative bias in the economic data relative to consensus, the upcoming Irish referendum, all the funding Italy still needs to do this year and the prospect of Portuguese PSI discussions in only a few months – and it is small wonder that market confidence is breaking down.
Through the LTROs and extremely low interest rates policymakers have ensured that financial markets are flush with cash. We don't recall a time where the liquidity situation and the technical position of the credit market has been much stronger than now. But that isn't enough. Quite simply, the uncertainty is killing any incentive to take risk. What goes in financial markets generally goes in the wider economy too. Companies are flush with cash, but we struggle to see them investing – especially in the countries where investment is sorely needed – while there is no visibility on the Euro project. Meanwhile, things grind to a halt.
We understand the political constraints key policymakers operate under. We know that many backbenchers and ECB board members are not fully onside. We can see in the election results and the opinion polls that a large part of the electorates are not onside either. There seems to be a dangerous perception in many places that enough has been done already.
However, don't be fooled by the apparent resilience of many corporate bonds (and equities). Aside from the sheer amount of cash funds have been left with, it is only the perception that the policy intervention will come eventually, triggering a very large short squeeze that is preventing more selling. Every day seems to bring headlines that challenge that perception. We could be close to the breaking point. Already in the last week there are clear signs in credit that the selloff is becoming more systemic. If you have come across our 'five phases of grief' framework – it appears we are moving straight from 'depression' back to 'anger'.
Until the gravity of the situation is made clear, until the self-reinforcing mechanisms that already seem to be in motion are understood, we don't see how the solutions, the answers, and the certainty that market craves can be brought to the table. Our impression is that markets will need to act as the proverbial 'attack dog', forcing the issue on the political agenda. This would not be the first time that markets have had to bark to get a credible policy response. We can't escape the sense that it is probably politically easier to let the markets run loose for the time being to make it apparent that further intervention is needed. But 1000bp on Crossover is much closer than you imagine.
Moreover, every bark comes with a loss of credibility – a loss of faith in the institutional capacity of the European Union to address the fundamental imbalances. Reining in the market eventually may end up taking a bigger effort than policymakers are bargaining for.
The market needs to know what policymakers are committed to and it needs to see actions that validate those commitments. Inaction is just a carte blanche for investors to sit on the sidelines and wait for things to deteriorate further.
Citi Credit Strategy