Wednesday, June 18, 2008
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International Business Editor
The clash between the European Central Bank and the US Federal Reserve over monetary strategy is causing serious strains in the global financial system and could lead to a replay of Europe's exchange rate crisis in the 1990s, a team of bankers has warned.
"We see striking similarities between the transatlantic tensions that built up in the early 1990s and those that are accumulating again today. The outcome of the 1992 deadlock was a major currency crisis and a recession in Europe," said a report by Morgan Stanley's European experts.
Just as then, Washington has slashed rates to bail out the banks and prevent an economic hard-landing, while Frankfurt has stuck to its hawkish line - ignoring angry protests from politicians and squeals of pain from Europe's export industry.
Indeed, the ECB has let the de facto interest rate - Euribor - rise by over 100 basis points since the credit crisis began.
Just as then, the dollar has plummeted far enough to cause worldwide alarm. In August 1992 it fell to 1.35 against the Deutsche Mark: this time it has fallen even further to the equivalent of 1.25. It is potentially worse for Europe this time because the yen and yuan have also fallen to near record lows. So has sterling.
Morgan Stanley doubts that Europe's monetary union will break up under pressure, but it warns that corked pressures will have to find release one way or another.
This will most likely occur through property slumps and banking purges in the vulnerable countries of the Club Med region and the euro-satellite states of Eastern Europe.
"The tensions will not disappear into thin air. They will find fault lines on the periphery of Europe. Painful macro adjustments are likely to take place. Pegs to the euro could be questioned," said the report, written by Eric Chaney, Carlos Caceres, and Pasquale Diana.
The point of maximum stress could occur in coming months if the ECB carries out the threat this month by Jean-Claude Trichet to raise rates. It will be worse yet - for Europe - if the Fed backs away from expected tightening. "This could trigger another 'catastrophic' event," warned Morgan Stanley.
The markets have priced in two US rates rises later this year following a series of "hawkish" comments by Fed chief Ben Bernanke and other US officials, but this may have been a misjudgment.
An article in the Washington Post by veteran columnist Robert Novak suggested that Mr Bernanke is concerned that runaway oil costs will cause a slump in growth, viewing inflation as the lesser threat. He is irked by the ECB's talk of further monetary tightening at such a dangerous juncture.
The contrasting approaches in Washington and Frankfurt make some sense. America's flexible structure allows it to adjust quickly to shocks. Europe's more rigid system leaves it with "sticky" prices that take longer to fall back as growth slows.
Morgan Stanley says the current account deficits of Spain (10.5pc of GDP), Portugal (10.5pc), and Greece (14pc) would never have been able to reach such extreme levels before the launch of the euro.
EMU has shielded them from punishment by the markets, but this has allowed them to store up serious trouble. By contrast, Germany now has a huge surplus of 7.7pc of GDP.
The imbalances appear to be getting worse. The latest food and oil spike has pushed eurozone inflation to a record 3.7pc, with big variations by country. Spanish inflation is rising at 4.7pc even though the country is now in the grip of a full-blown property crash. It is still falling further behind Germany. The squeeze required to claw back lost competitiveness will be "politically unpalatable".
Morgan Stanley said the biggest risk lies in the arc of countries from the Baltics to the Black Sea where credit growth has been roaring at 40pc to 50pc a year. Current account deficits have reached 23pc of GDP in Latvia, and 22pc in Bulgaria. In Hungary and Romania, over 55pc of household debt is in euros or Swiss francs.
Swedish, Austrian, Greek and Italian banks have provided much of the funding for the credit booms. A crunch is looming in 2009 when a wave of maturities fall due. "Could the funding dry up? We think it could," said the bank.
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
Last Updated: 11:44pm BST 17/06/2008
The Royal Bank of Scotland has advised clients to brace for a full-fledged crash in global stock and credit markets over the next three months as inflation paralyses the major central banks.
"A very nasty period is soon to be upon us - be prepared," said Bob Janjuah, the bank's credit strategist.
A report by the bank's research team warns that the S&P 500 index of Wall Street equities is likely to fall by more than 300 points to around 1050 by September as "all the chickens come home to roost" from the excesses of the global boom, with contagion spreading across Europe and emerging markets.
Such a slide on world bourses would amount to one of the worst bear markets over the last century.
# More on banking
RBS said the iTraxx index of high-grade corporate bonds could soar to 130/150 while the "Crossover" index of lower grade corporate bonds could reach 650/700 in a renewed bout of panic on the debt markets.
"I do not think I can be much blunter. If you have to be in credit, focus on quality, short durations, non-cyclical defensive names.
"Cash is the key safe haven. This is about not losing your money, and not losing your job," said Mr Janjuah, who became a City star after his grim warnings last year about the credit crisis proved all too accurate.
RBS expects Wall Street to rally a little further into early July before short-lived momentum from America's fiscal boost begins to fizzle out, and the delayed effects of the oil spike inflict their damage.
"Globalisation was always going to risk putting G7 bankers into a dangerous corner at some point. We have got to that point," he said.
US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank both face a Hobson's choice as workers start to lose their jobs in earnest and lenders cut off credit.
The authorities cannot respond with easy money because oil and food costs continue to push headline inflation to levels that are unsettling the markets. "The ugly spoiler is that we may need to see much lower global growth in order to get lower inflation," he said.
"The Fed is in panic mode. The massive credibility chasms down which the Fed and maybe even the ECB will plummet when they fail to hike rates in the face of higher inflation will combine to give us a big sell-off in risky assets," he said.
Kit Jukes, RBS's head of debt markets, said Europe would not be immune. "Economic weakness is spreading and the latest data on consumer demand and confidence are dire. The ECB is hell-bent on raising rates.
"The political fall-out could be substantial as finance ministers from the weaker economies rail at the ECB. Wider spreads between the German Bunds and peripheral markets seem assured," he said.
Ultimately, the bank expects the oil price spike to subside as the more powerful force of debt deflation takes hold next year.
Sunday, June 01, 2008
The boss of Bradford & Bingley has quit "due to a serious cardiovascular condition", the firm has announced.
Chief executive Stephen Crawshaw is leaving the UK mortgage lender with immediate effect, and will be replaced by chairman Rod Kent in the short-term.
Mr Crawshaw's departure comes a day before a trading update and reports say the firm will issue a profit warning.The firm has been hit hard by the credit crisis and is trying to raise £300m to boost its balance sheet.
I wonder will they be the next Northern Rock?