Eurobonds To be? Or not to be?

We find that some topics have a habit of recurring mostly because they never get quite settled, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction. At the time however triumph is declared as we enter a new era until reality intervenes, often quite quickly. So last night’s Franco-German announcement after a virtual summit caught the newswires.

France and Germany are proposing a €500bn ($545bn; £448bn) European recovery fund to be distributed to EU countries worst affected by Covid-19.

In talks on Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed that the funds should be provided as grants.

The proposal represents a significant shift in Mrs Merkel’s position.

Mr Macron said it was a major step forward and was “what the eurozone needs to remain united”. ( BBC)

Okay and there was also this reported by the BBC.

Mrs Merkel, who had previously rejected the idea of nations sharing debt, said the European Commission would raise money for the fund by borrowing on the markets, which would be repaid gradually from the EU’s overall budget.

There are a couple of familiar features here as we see politicians wanted to spend now and have future politicians ( i.e not them face the issues of paying for it). There is an undercut right now in that the choice of Frau Merkel reminds those of us who follow bond markets that Germany is being paid to borrow with even its thirty-year yield being -0.05%. So in essence the other countries want a slice of that pie as opposed to hearing this from Germany.

Money, it’s a crime
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a raise it’s no surprise that they’re
Giving none away, away, away ( Pink Floyd)

Actually France is often paid to borrow as well ( ten-year yield is -0.04%) but even it must be looking rather jealously at Germany.Here is how Katya Adler of the BBC summarised its significance.

Chancellor Merkel has conceded a lot. She openly agreed with the French that any money from this fund, allocated to a needy EU country, should be a grant, not a loan. Importantly, this means not increasing the debts of economies already weak before the pandemic.

President Macron gave ground, too. He had wanted a huge fund of a trillion or more euros. But a trillion euros of grants was probably too much for Mrs Merkel to swallow on behalf of fellow German taxpayers.

She has made a technical error, however, as Eurostat tends to allocate such borrowing to each country on the grounds of its ECB capital share. So lower borrowing for say Italy but not necessarily zero.

The ECB

Its President Christine Lagarde was quickly in the press.

So there is zero risk to the euro?

Yes. And I would remind you that the euro is irreversible, it’s written in the EU Treaty.

Of course history is a long list of treaties which have been reversed. Also there was the standard tactic when challenged on debt which is whataboutery.

Every country in the world is seeing its debt level increase – according to the IMF’s projections, the debt level of the United States will reach more than 130% of GDP by the end of this year, while the euro area’s debt will be below 100% of GDP.

Actually by trying to be clever there, she has stepped on something of a land mine. Let me hand you over to the French Finance Minister.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Tuesday, the European Union (EU) recovery fund probably will not be available until 2021.

The 500 bln euro recovery fund idea is a historic step because it finances budget spending through debt, he added. ( FXStreet )

So the height of the pandemic and the economic collapse will be over before it starts? That is an issue which has dogged the Euro area response to not only this crisis but the Greek and wider Euro area one too. It is very slow moving and in the case of Greece by the time it upped its game we had seen the claimed 2% per annum economic growth morph into around a 10% decline meaning the boat had sailed. In economic policy there is always the issue of timing and in this instance whatever you think of the details of US policy for instance it has got on with it quickly which matters in a crisis.

Speaking of shooting yourself in the foot there was also this.

Growth levels and prevailing interest rates should be taken into account, as these are the two key elements.

The latter is true and as I pointed out earlier is a strength for many Euro area countries but the former has been quite a problem. Unless we see a marked change we can only expect the same poor to average performance going ahead. Mind you we did see a hint that her predecessor had played something of a Jedi Mind Trick on financial markets.

Outright Monetary Transactions, or OMTs, are an important instrument in the European toolbox, but they were designed for the 2011-12 crisis, which was very different from this one. I don’t think it is the tool that would be best suited to tackling the economic consequences of the public health crisis created by COVID-19.

They had success without ever being used.

Market Response

Things have gone rather well so far. The Euro has rallied versus the US Dollar towards 1.10 although it has dipped against the UK Pound. Bond markets are more clear cut with the Italian bond future rising over a point and a half to above 140 reducing its ten-year yield to 1.62%. The ten-year yield in Spain has fallen to 0.7% as well. It seems a bit harsh to include Spain after the economic growth spurt we have seen but nonetheless maybe it did not reach escape velocity.

Comment

Actually there already are some Eurobonds in that the ESM ( European Stability Mechanism) has issued bonds in the assistance programmes for Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Although they were secondary market moves mostly allowing countries to borrow more cheaply rather than spend more. On that subject I guess life can sometimes come at you fast as how is this going?

Taking into account these measures, the
government remains committed to meeting the
primary fiscal surplus for 2020 and forecasts a
primary surplus at  3.6% of GDP ( Greece Debt Office)

On the other side of the coin it will be grateful for this.

81% of the debt stock is held by official sector creditors,
allowing for long term maturity profile and low interest
rates

On a Greek style scale the 500 billion Euros is significant but now we switch to Italy we see that suddenly the same sum of money shrinks a lot. I notice that Five Star ( political party not the band) have already been on the case.

It’s just too little, too late
A little too long
And I can’t wait ( JoJo)

This brings me to the two real issues here of which the first is generic. In its history fiscal policy finds that it can not respond quickly enough which is why the “first responder” is monetary policy. The problem is that the ECB has done this so much it is struggling to do much more and the European Union is always slow to use fiscal policy. Such as it has then the use has been in the other direction via the Stability and Growth Pact.

Next comes the fact that there are 19 national treasuries to deal with for the Euro and 27 for the European Union as I note that last night’s deal was between only 2 of them. Perhaps the most important ones but only 2.