Euro Shrugs off European Banking Woes

The eurozone appears to be in rare
  The political threat that seemed so palpable at the start of
the year has faded.  Not only have the populist-nationalists been turned
back at every opportunity, but polls suggest the new French President can
secure a parliamentary majority in upcoming elections.  

The regional economy continues to expand at a stable clip around 0.4% a
quarter, which may be a little above trend
.  The composite PMI
reported earlier today unchanged at 56.8 in May is above the 55.6 average of Q1
17, the  53.9 average in Q4 16 and the 53.3 average for all of last year.

The ECB meets later this week.  It is widely expected to take a
small step toward the eventual end of its extraordinary monetary policy
shepherded by Draghi, who was once referred
to as the Prussian Roman.    Most likely, the step will involve
some moderation of its forward guidance.  In September, it is expected to
announce its intentions to scale back its
purchases from the current pace of 60 bln a month
and extended them into the first part of next year.  

The ECB is challenged, as are many
major central banks, with softer than
desired inflation.
  The drop in the price of oil, the strengthening of
the euro, and unwind of the effect of Easter and poor weather are conspiring to
push headline and core inflation lower after a recent spike.  This alone keeps the majority of the ECB
reluctant change policy.  Recall in 2008 and 2011 the ECB tightened
monetary policy prematurely.  The ECB cannot afford to make the same
mistake in 2017.  

The eurozone faces two imminent
  First, Greece’s debt situation is unresolved insofar as
the European proposal to extend some maturities does not satisfy the IMF, which
has argued for greater debt relief.  Without a significant move, European
officials risk delaying when Greece can
fund itself in the capital markets. 

In turn, this is raising the prospect that Greece will need another aid
package when the current one expires in the middle of next year
.  It
seems impolitic to discuss this ahead of the German election in
September.   European finance ministers meet next week.  Greece
will most likely be granted a tranche payment so that it can service the debt
largely held by the official creditors.  

The second imminent problem, like Greece, is also the return of an old
issue that has not been addressed: namely
European banks.
  Spain’s Banco Popular is in the cross-hairs. 
Share prices fell by around a third in the second half of last week and were
off another 16% today.  Its debt is
also selling off.   This seems
to be contributing to the rally in the sovereign CDS.  It was trading near
63 bp a month ago.  It is now near 78 bp.  

Bad real estate loans are the main culprit.  It is trying to
sell assets.  Reports suggest it has raised a little more than 200 mln
euros in recent weeks by selling stakes in Targobank (jointly held with a
French bank) and a real estate company.  It has sold treasury shares and
Tier 1 notes issued by itself and other lenders.  It is also reportedly in
talks to sell its US unit TotalBank.  

Bank officials are to meet ECB officials tomorrow.  Its choices
are getting to be stark.  Unload more assets quickly, find a buyer for the
bank,  or move into resolution. 

Meanwhile, Italian banks are also in the spotlight.  Monte Dei Paschi
reached an agreement with the EU  that involves a
precautionary recapitalization.  |It is unclear whether this can serve as
a model for two other Italian banks (Banca Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto
Banca.  A key issue is the extent to
which the banks’ shareholders and junior bondholders
share in the burden of adjustment (i.e., haircut).  

An index of Italian bank shares eased by around 6.3% in January and
February before rebounded 18% in March and April. 
It was off 1.1%
last month when it finished with a
five-day slide.  It was up 0.65% last Thursday and Friday and is off 1.6%
today.     March and April were also good months for the bank
index within the Dow Jones Stoxx 600 when
it rose 15%.  It fell 2.2% last month.  Like Italy, the European bank
index is giving back today everything it made in the second half of last week
plus some.  

On a purely directional basis, the euro’s correlation with the Dow Jones
Stoxx 600 bank index reached a three-year high near 0.90 in the middle of last
month on a 60-day rolling basis
.  The correlation has eased a bit, but
at 0.66 it is still fairly strong about
the last several years.  Still, the
decoupling is evident, as the bank share index peaked on May 5 and the euro
made new highs for the year before the weekend.  

In addition to Spanish and Italian banks, there is also concern about
Portuguese banks
.  The largest banks are still putting funds aside to
cover bank loans.  Portugal’s largest publicly traded bank put a record
1.6 bln euros aside last year for impairments.  Caixa Geral, which is
already owned by the state, put three bln
euros aside for impairments and provisions in 2016.  

The banking challenges in these three periphery countries do not pose the
systemic risk that they may have a couple of years ago.
  The euro is
benefiting from the lifting of political uncertainty in Europe and increasing
questions about US politics.  At the same time, more skepticism about the
health of the US economy and the ability of President Trump to enact his
economic agenda also help underpin the euro through the interest rate and
portfolio flow channels.  


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