The spotlight remained on Portugal the end of last week as EU finance ministers agreed to give the country seven more years to repay its stock of existing loans. Still, despite the words of praise showered on the country the deficit containment record has been a pretty checkered one. The deficit target for 2013 is 5.5% of GDP will not come under the EU 3% level until 2015 at the earliest.
Germany remains the proverbial strong man of Europe, but we are skeptical that this is a fitting moniker. Looking at exports, it is now clear that Germany and thus Europe continues to see weakness. The total value of German exports has now clearly rolled over from its peak in mid-2012, which coincides with the share of total exports going to China.
France looks increasingly like it is slipping into recession. It is the poorest performing core country – an increasingly inapt label. Highlighting this are the latest PMI numbers. The services PMI, already woefully depressed, slipped lower last month, to 41.9, lower even than Spain’s. The manufacturing PMI was barely much better, falling to 43.9.
This weekend’s Italian elections are provoking a good deal of commentary and fueling mounting concern about possible consequences for the European debt crisis, and in particular for the outlook for Italian sovereign spreads in the short term. We think much of this concern is misplaced, not because we don’t think there is cause for concern, but because people are getting the timing wrong.
The Euro is making headlines again, this time not due to its possible imminent disappearance as a currency but rather as a result of what many regard as its undue strength. Last week’s press briefing comments by ECB President Mario Draghi to the effect that “The exchange rate is not a policy target but it is important for growth and price stability,” had put markets on their guard that the central bank was taking note of recent currency movements, and especially those vis-à-vis the Japanese yen.
European economies showed further signs of stabilization in January with flash PMIs registering continued strengthening on most fronts (this week will see a number of actual PMI readings). The only noteworthy exception was France where conditions deteriorated further, with the composite reading falling to 42.6 (from 44.7 in December) and hence showing a sharp contraction. At the other end of the scale was Germany, where the composite showed 53.6 (up from 50.3 in December), an evidently positive surge in activity.
As foreseen in recent updates on Spain, the market for SGBs remains calm and spreads across the maturity horizon are tightening. Last week Spanish ten year yields fell below the 5% mark for the first time since March last year, while two year yields are now hugging the 2% threshold. During the week the Spanish debt agency sold 5.8 billion euros worth of bonds at yields which were significantly down over recent levels across all maturities.
Events of the last week have once more brought Italy back into the headlines. The decision of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to deny support to the technocratic government of Mario Monti sent alarm bells ringing in markets across the globe. But the excitement was short lived. Last Thursday Italy sold 3.5 billion euros of a new three-year bond at 2.50 percent, the lowest yield on similar-maturity debt since October 2010 and down from the 2.64 percent paid on 14 November.
While a good deal of investor attention has been focused on the US of late, in the process relegating the EU debt crisis into clear second place, CEE economies have been largely subjected to benign neglect. Arguably this is a mistake, since a lot can be learnt from following the evolution of these economies, many of which are undergoing a rapid transition from being emerging prospects to over-mature stars of yesteryear. The unique demographics which are to be found in the region make them a fascinating laboratory for what might happen in other parts of the world, most notably China, as we move into the 2020s.
Our Chief Editor was on Spanish television yesterday to talk about Spain’s economy and the viability of a Catalan state. You can see the interview here (in Spanish) or below.