Desperate Straits

When yield curve control was designed
Its goal was a rate be defined
Which can’t be exceeded
With bonds bought as needed
To help governments in a bind

Lagarde, though, when looking ahead
Must work at controlling the spread
So BTP rates
Don’t reach desperate straits
Vs. bunds, an outcome she would dread

Ahead of the inauguration of President Biden, the market has turned its focus to Europe and the ongoing situation in Italy.  Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has been struggling to lead a fractious coalition from the left and was just subject to no-confidence votes in both houses of the Italian government.  (They have a House and Senate similar to the US.)  This occurred when one of his former allies, Matteo Renzi, split from the coalition triggering the vote.  Renzi leads the Viva Italia party, a center-left group focused on progressive reforms to the Italian government, and it appears Conte has become a little too status quo for his taste.  While Conte was able to cobble together a majority in the lower house, today’s vote in the Senate was less successful, with a majority of votes cast, but no majority in the Senate overall.  This means he has a minority government whose stability has now been called into question.  Estimates are that he has two weeks to develop a majority or the President may call for parliament to be dissolved and new elections held.

As this story has unfolded, investors have been focused on the bond market, specifically the spread between Italian BTP’s and German bunds.  This spread is seen as a key metric, by both the market and the ECB, as to the health of the European economy overall.  The narrower that spread, the healthier the situation.  This is based on the idea that investors are not demanding as great a yield premium to fund Italy’s debt as they are Germany’s.

A quick history shows that for the first eight years of the euro’s existence, that spread hovered between 25 and 45 basis points, with investors not particularly concerned by Italy’s profligate ways.  The GFC awakened many to the potential risks in Italy and the spread ballooned as high as 160 basis points at that time.  But that was nothing compared to the Eurozone bond crisis in 2012, when Greece was on the ropes and the term PIGS was invented.  At that time, Italian yields peaked at 5.525% higher than German yields.  The second time this level was reached, in July 2012, led to Mario Draghi’s famous words, “whatever it takes” regarding the ECB’s will to save the euro.  Since that time, the spread has only ever edged below 1.0% briefly, lately reaching a peak of 2.8% at the beginning of the Covid crisis and currently trading around 1.14%.

The point here is that the ECB watches this spread very carefully.  But now, it appears they are interested in more than merely watching the spread.  Rather, they want to control it.  Yield curve control (YCC) is currently ongoing in both Japan and Australia and has generated a good deal of discussion in the US.  But those three central banks have a single government rate to manage.  The ECB has no such luck, and so they need to find other ways to control things.  Hence, their newest idea is Yield spread control (YSC), where the ECB will buy whatever amount of bonds are necessary to prevent a particular spread from rising above a particular level.  Obviously, this means they will be looking at the bonds of the PIGS, as those are the nations with the biggest outstanding issues.  The problem Lagarde has is the ECB, by law, is not allowed to finance government spending, and QE in Europe was designed to be implemented along the lines of the ECB buying bonds in proportion to national economic size.  But this will require something completely different, as in order to prevent that spread from widening beyond whatever level they choose, the ECB will need to purchase an unlimited number of Italian BTP’s.  As such, this idea is not without controversy, but do not be surprised to hear about it tomorrow when the ECB meeting ends.  While it may not be implemented right away, it does appear they are actively considering the idea.

At this point you are likely asking yourself why you care about this esoteric concept.  And the answer is because it will have an impact on the value of the euro, and therefore the dollar, going forward.  Given the current draconian lockdowns throughout Europe and the significant negative impact they will have on the Eurozone economy, and combine that with a political morass in the 3rd largest economy in the Eurozone, and you have a recipe for a more severe downturn in a double dip recession in Europe.  As the ECB has already used up its basic toolkit of extraordinary measures, it needs to develop new ones if it is to keep the money flowing.  And that is the point.  Especially after yesterday’s testimony by Janet Yellen, where it is clear that the Treasury is not going to slow down spending and the Fed will be right there buying up those new bonds, the ECB is growing concerned that the dollar could fall much further.  They have recently been reminding us that they are paying attention to the exchange rate, and while intervention is not likely in the cards, a new easing policy that results in lower yields and a correspondingly weaker euro just might be.  One has to be impressed with central bank creativity when it comes to spending/printing more money.

But for now, investors remain sanguine to the risk inherent in this strategy and continue to add risk to their portfolios.  This can be seen in the continued rallies in equity markets around the world.  For instance, last night saw strength throughout Asia, except for the Nikkei (-0.4%).  Europe, this morning is showing far more green than red (DAX +0.5%, CC +0.3%. FTSE 100 -0.1%) and US futures, following yesterday’s tech inspired rally, are all higher again this morning.

Bond markets are under pressure generally, with Treasury yields backing up 1.4bps, although still unable to break the recent highs of 1.15%, Gilts are also softer with yields higher by 1.2bps while bunds and OATs are little changed. BTP’s, however, have fallen ¼ point with yields higher by 2.5bps, which means that spread has risen by the same amount.  Keep an eye on this.

Oil (WTI +1.3%) and gold (+0.5%) are both firmer this morning while the dollar is broadly under pressure.  However, the magnitude of that weakness is fairly minimal, with AUD (+0.35%) the biggest gainer in the G10 on the back of firmer commodity prices, while SEK (-0.35%) is the laggard on what appears to be position unwinding.  The euro (-0.15%) is definitely not following a classic risk-on pattern here, with some reason to believe traders are beginning to take the YSC into account.  In the EMG space, the moves are also limited, with TRY (+0.4%) and BRL (+0.25%) the leading gainers while CE4 currencies (CZK and PLN both -0.1%) are the laggards.  But overall, the risk theme does not appear to be having an impact in FX.

Once again there is no data released today and we are still in the quiet period, so no Fedspeak.  And we don’t even have Yellen to testify, so the FX market is going to be paying attention to equity movements and the bond market, probably in that order.  If risk continues to be acquired, I expect the dollar will have difficulty gaining any traction, but if we start to see a reversal, don’t be surprised to see some of the massive dollar short positions unwound.

Good luck and stay safe