Nothing To See?

14/03/2017 at 6:43 pm

Tomorrow’s election in the Netherlands may not be very exciting after all. Until recently it looked as though the nationalist PVV would emerge the clear winner, to the extent that keeping its leader from the Prime Ministership would be very difficult. (PVV wishes the Netherlands to leave the European Union among its other policies.) But then the party’s leader, Geert Wilders, was convicted for inciting discrimination before Christmas, and as the campaign got underway the incumbent PM, Mark Rutte, deployed much hard rhetoric and advertising on PVV’s key issue, immigration. The current polling is finely balanced. Mr Rutte has repeatedly ruled out coalition with Mr Wilders. Dutch politics may remain an earthquake-free zone; we will soon know either way.

Eurozone asset markets are priced rather sanguinely in any case. Back in 2011 it was the bond market, and specifically the Italian bond market, which threatened to ignite a wholesale global banking collapse with an internationally unaffordable sovereign default. Back then, the credit default swaps which can be bought to hedge against Italian credit risk cost almost 6% over LIBOR, as against 6bp in mid-2007. Today the rate is 192bp: higher than the pre-credit crunch levels, but then Italy has been downgraded from AA to borderline junk since then. Even the end of the country’s government last December at the hands of a referendum seen as a valve for anti-Establishment sentiment did relatively little to move the price.

Elsewhere in the euro area the story is similar. The exception, which is worth dealing with separately, is Greece. Here the debt burden, which has of course already been restructured once, has reached over 180% of GDP. The IMF – one of the “troika” of creditors dictating Greek fiscal policy – has said that it has again become unsustainable. Fraught negotiations with the Greek government have continued. But none of this is news. Furthermore the Bank of Greece’s November estimate for the country’s budget was of a “primary surplus” (budget balance before debt interest) of +4% of GDP, indicating both a sustainable underlying spending pattern and compliance with creditor demands. There are those who expect the contradiction between monetary union and fiscal autonomy to upend the single currency at some point, but then at the zone-wide level debt to GDP peaked back in 2014 and again, this is hardly news.

Another recent source of concern over Europe was the banking system – or, to be more accurate, the solvency (or otherwise) of various European banks. Deutsche Bank caused consternation for a time, but then the German government has been cutting its debt burden since 2010 and if anyone can afford a major bailout, it is surely them. In any case, no bailout was necessary; DB shares have risen by more than 70% from their lows. Where restructuring has been needed, at Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, it has not been anything like sufficiently material to threaten the whole Continent. And where banks are daily dependent on emergency central bank facilities (Athens), this is, once again, not news. Their shares have been available for a handful of cents for years.

There is only one moving part that has shown real signs of weakness: the euro itself. This has fallen by 23% over the last three years. Its low against the dollar of $1.0388 back in December was the weakest level it had reached since the opening sessions of 2003. However, even this is not a credible sign of structural malaise. The currency has been much lower still in the past, hitting an all-time record of $0.8272 in late 2000. And while the ECB has been loosening policy in a range of ways, the Fed has embarked on a tightening cycle. Like the Italian credit spread the euro’s weakness can be interpreted as nothing more than a rational response to changed circumstances.

In other words, there appears to be nothing to see here. Political risk remains, yet seems not to be priced in.

This blog argued at the time that the support of the stronger eurozone economies for the weaker ones in 2010 answered a key existential question for the single currency. In theory, (a) there is no debt mutualisation in Euroland and (b) its members enjoy complete fiscal autonomy. In practice, when the going got tough, there was a very EU-esque “pooling of sovereignty” over debt via the European Financial Stability Facility / European Stability Mechanism. And bailout nations have had to comply with the rules of their emergency lending regimes.

There is another factor to consider, however, and that is Brexit. Attention in the UK tends quite understandably to focus on the consequences for ourselves, but there will also be consequences for the rest of the EU.

A harsh deal, or no deal, with Britain, and some businesses and industries will suffer. It was interesting that a senior executive at global food giant Mars Incorporated spoke about this a few days ago. Agriculture has managed to remain immune to the GATT / WTO decades of compromise on tariff reduction and quota control. Look at the WTO tariff tables and food, drink and tobacco are about the last redoubts of punitive import duties. From the BBC last Friday:

Fiona Dawson . . . said the absence of a deal with EU member states would see tariffs of up to 30% for the industry.

Speaking at the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU, she warned this would “threaten [the] supply chain and the jobs that come with it.”

“The absence of hard borders (in Europe) with all their attendant tariff, customs and non-tariff barriers allows for this integrated supply chain, which helps to keep costs down,” she said. “The return of those barriers would create higher costs which would threaten that supply chain and the jobs that come with it.” Ms Dawson said those costs could not be absorbed by confectionery companies, meaning consumers would have to pay more for their products . . .

Companies in the automotive and the financial sector have been the focus since the vote, according to Ms Dawson. But with food and drink the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, accounting for 16% of turnover, she said she wanted a new focus, and called for EU leaders to look at the bigger picture when negotiating. “There can be no economic advantage either side restricting trade with a large market situated on its doorstep,” she said.

“In simple terms, if the UK and the EU fail to agree on a new preferential deal, it will be to the detriment of all. Other member states should remember this is not about ‘punishing’ Britain for her decision to withdraw, but rather about finding the best solution for European and UK workers and consumers.

The emphasis at the end there is my own. And it is not just manufacturers who could, in theory, be walloped in this sector. Pity the poor farmers, logistics firms, supermarkets, restaurauteurs who would be crippled by the reimposition of border controls. (The EU’s “Border Inspection Post” system is, to put it mildly, neither rapid nor straightforward. Our own government has helpfully printed the details here.)

A no-deal Brexit, then, would entail potentially disastrous consequences for certain sectors.

This is not priced in. Does this mean that Britain will leave with many of the customs union’s features still in place? That we will, as Ms Dawson clearly desires, not be “punished”?

That is a possibility but it could spell the end of the EU, which appears not to be priced in either . . .

Just imagine. An economically benign Brexit would mean Britain securing a free trade deal that goes way beyond current WTO rules in the key areas of agriculture and fish, while maintaining border control-free access in these and related markets. At the same time we would be regaining complete control of our immigration, lawmaking and judicial processes – and saving part, if not all, of our contributions to the Brussels budget.

A core of true believers – Luxembourg, for instance – might want to stay in the bloc and accelerate the move towards political federation. But surely, plenty of other “member states” would want to follow such an example.

This year’s electoral cycles across the Channel may not threaten the euro, then. But Brexit seemingly has to threaten either some sector-specific but nonetheless material economic damage, or the continued existence, to some extent, of the EU. If a eurozone country wanted to leave the EU, it could in theory continue to use the single currency. But might financial market pricing, by that point, not have begun to look rather different . . ?

So much of the focus has been on Article 50 and the possibility that Brexit might be somehow derailed that thinking has yet to turn to this apparently logical conclusion. The question for investors is: what are the euro assets which are so compellingly attractive that one should wait until it does so?

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