In Europe there is a bright line
Twixt nations, those strong, those supine
The Germans and Dutch
Refuse to give much
While Italy wilts on the vine
Once again, the EU has failed to accomplish a crucial task and once again, market pundits are calling for the bloc’s demise. The key story this morning highlights the failure of EU FinMins, after a 16-hour meeting yesterday, to reach a support deal for the whole of Europe. The mooted amount was to be €500 billion, but as always in this group, the question of who would ultimately pick up the tab could not be agreed. And that is because, there are only three nations, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, who are in a net financial position to do so. Meanwhile, the other twenty-four nations all have their collective hands out. (And you wonder why the UK voted to leave!) Ultimately, the talks foundered on the desire by the majority of nations to mutualize the costs of the support (i.e. issue Eurobonds backed by the full faith and credit of the entire EU), while the Germans, Dutch and Austrians would not agree. Realistically, it is understandable why they would not agree, because in the end, the obligation will fall on those three nations to pick up the tab. But the outcome does not bode well for either the present or the future.
In the current moment, the lack of significant fiscal support is going to hamstring every EU nation, other than those three, in their attempts to mitigate the impacts of shutting down economies to halt the spread of Covid-19. But in the future, this issue is the latest manifestation of the fundamental flaw in the EU itself.
That flaw can be described as follows: the EU is a group of fiercely competitive nations masquerading as a coherent whole. When the broad situation is benign, like it is most of the time, and there is positive economic growth and markets are behaving well, the EU makes a great show of how much they do together and all the things on which they agree. However, when the sh*t hits the fan, it is every nation for themselves and woe betide any attempt by one member to collaborate with another on a solution. This makes perfect sense because, despite the fact that they have constructed a number of institutions that sound like they are democratically elected representatives of each nation, the reality is in tough times, each nation’s political class is concerned first and foremost with its own citizenry, and only when that group is safeguarded, will they consider helping others. At this point, in the virus crisis, no nation feels its own citizens are safe, so it would be political suicide to offer help to others. (Asking for help is an entirely different matter, that’s just fine.) In the end, I am confident that this group will make an announcement of some sort that will describe the fantastic cooperation and all they are going to do to support the continent. But I am also confident that it will not include a willingness by the Teutonic three to pay for the PIGS.
The initial market impact of this failure was exactly as expected, the euro (-0.5%) declined along with the other European currencies (SEK -0.75%, NOK -1.25%) and European equity markets gave back some of their recent gains with the DAX and CAC both falling around 1.5%. Meanwhile, European government bonds saw Italian, Spanish and Greek yields all rise, as hoped for support has yet to come. However, the EU is nothing, if not persistent, and the comments that have come out since then continue to suggest that they will arrive at a plan by the end of the week. This has been enough to moderate those early moves and at 7:00, as New York walks in the door, we see markets with relatively modest changes compared to yesterday’s closing levels.
In the G10 currencies, while the dollar remains broadly stronger, its gains are far less than seen earlier. For example, NOK is the current laggard, down 0.35%, while SEK (-0.3%) and EUR (-0.2%) are next in line. The pound has actually edged higher this morning, but its 0.1% gain is hardly groundbreaking. However, it is interesting to note that the non-EU currencies are outperforming those in the EU.
Emerging market currencies have also broadly fallen, with just a few exceptions. The worst performer today is INR (-0.9%), which seems to be responding to the growth in the number of coronavirus cases there, now over 5,000. But we are also seeing weakness, albeit not as much, from EU members CZK (-0.35%), BGN (-0.3%) and the rest of the CE4. The one notable gainer today is ZAR (+0.5%) which seems to be benefitting from a much smaller than expected decline in a key Business Confidence indicator. However, I would not take much solace in that as the data is certain to get worse there (and everywhere) before it gets better.
Overall, though, the market picture is somewhat mixed today. The FX market implies some risk mitigation, which is what we are seeing in the European equity space as well. However, US equity futures are all pointing slightly higher, about 0.5% as I type, and oil prices are actually firmer along with most commodities. In other words, there is no clear direction right now as market participants await the next piece of news.
The only data point we see today in the US is the FOMC Minutes, but I don’t see them as being that interesting given both how much the Fed has already done, thus leaving less things to do, and the fact they have gone out of their way to explain why they are doing each thing. So I fear today will be dependent on the periodic reports of virus progression. At the beginning of the week, it seemed as though the narrative was trying to shift to a peak in infections and better data ahead. Alas, that momentum has not been maintained and we have seen a weries of reports where deaths are increasing, e.g. in Spain and New York to name two, where just Monday it was thought things had peaked. Something tells me that the virus will not cooperate with a smooth curve of progress, and that more volatility in the narrative, and thus markets, lays ahead. We are not yet near the end of this crisis, so hedgers, you need to keep that in mind as you plan.