The ECB and its Italian and Turkish problems

by Shaun Richards

At the moment the European Central Bank (ECB) Governing Council is on its summer break and does not formally reconvene until the 13th of September. So I raised a wry smile when Bloomberg assured us ” The ECB is staying calm amid Turkey and Italy routs” this morning! The world does not stand still during summer and is showing more than a few signs of upset for the ECB so let us take a look.

Turkey

The very volatile nature of Turkish financial markets is an issue for the ECB and one signal of this is how such a nearby country can have such a different official interest-rate. The Turkish central bank after hints of a new 19.25% interest-rate in the melee of Monday has remained at 17.75% which is an alternative universe to the -0.4% deposit rate of the ECB. It is hard to believe Greece and Turkey are neighbours when you look at that gap.

Next comes the exchange rate where at the start of 2018 some 4.55 Turkish Lira were required to buy one Euro as opposed to the 6.72 required as I type this. Even that is a fair retracement of the surge which saw it just fail to make 8 only on Monday. Apart from being a dizzying whirl recently we can see that the fall this year must have made trade difficult. As to how much trade there is we need to switch to the European Union about which we were told this in April.

  • In 2017, among the EU’s trading partners, Turkey was the fifth largest partner for exports from the EU and the sixth largest partner for imports to the EU.
  • The EU’s trade surplus with Turkey has fallen from a peak of EUR 27 billion in 2013 to EUR 15 billion in 2017.
  • Manufactured goods make up 81 % of EU exports to Turkey and 89 % of EU imports from Turkey.
  • In 2017, Germany was the EU’s largest import (EUR 14 billion) and export (EUR 22 billion) partner with Turkey.
  • Germany also had the largest trade surplus (EUR 8 billion) with Turkey while Slovenia had the largest deficit (EUR 1.5 billion).

If we just switch to exports then we see the importance of Turkey.

Germany was also the largest exporter (EUR 21.8 billion) to Turkey followed by Italy (EUR 10.1 billion) and the United Kingdom (EUR 8.4 billion). Almost a quarter of Bulgaria’s extra-EU exports (23 %) were destined for Turkey. Greece (15 %) and Romania (14 %) also had high shares while all other Member States had shares below 9 %.

Of course some of those countries are not the responsibility of the ECB but we do get an idea of vulnerabilities such as the ability of Turkish consumers to buy German cars. Also Italy with its own economic issues that I will come on to later can do without any fall in exports. Even worse for Greece.

Right in the ECB’s orbit however was this from the Financial Times last week about risks to the “precious”.

The eurozone’s chief financial watchdog has become concerned about the exposure of some of the currency area’s biggest lenders to Turkey — chiefly BBVA, UniCredit and BNP Paribas — in light of the lira’s dramatic fall…….Spanish banks are owed $82.3bn by Turkish borrowers, French banks are owed $38.4bn and Italian lenders $17bn in a mix of local and foreign currencies. Banks’ Turkish subsidiaries tend to lend in local currency.

There have been arguments since then as to exactly the size of the risk but it is clear that there is an issue. Of course if we bring the exchange-rate back in it looks much less at 6.7 to the Euro than it did at 8 but to any proper analysis that move this week may well be as dangerous as the fall. Looked at through the eyes of an ex-option trader (me) you see that a short derivative position might have been hedged in the panic ( so towards 8) but the catch is that you would be long the Euro up there just in time for it to drop! So you lose both ways. We never really find out about this sort of thing until it has really badly gone wrong.

Italy

In a way much of the problem here has been exemplified by the dreadful Autostrada bridge collapse. For a start how does that happen in a first world country? Then even worse everyone seems to be blaming everyone else. If we move to the direct beat of th ECB there is the ongoing economic growth issue.

In the second quarter of 2018 Italian economy slowed down, as suggested in the previous months by the leading indicator. The GDP quarterly slightly decelerated (+0.2% compared to +0.3% Q1,)

That brings Italy back to my long running theme that it struggles to have economic growth above 1%. Indeed as this still represents a period where monetary policy was very expansionary there will be fears for what will happen as it gets wound back.

On the latter subject of reducing and then an end to the QE program there was this on Monday.

The economic spokesman of Italy’s ruling League party warned on Monday that unless the European Central Bank offers a guarantee to cap yield spreads in the euro zone, the euro will collapse………….Borghi said the ECB should guarantee that yield spreads between euro zone government bonds not exceed a certain level, suggesting 150 basis points between the yields of any two sovereign bonds as a reasonable maximum. ( Reuters)

That sort of statement opens more than one can of worms. The simplest is just to compare that with where we are which is 284 basis points or 2.84%. So he is looking for the ECB to back stop the Italian bond market and his own spending plans a subject which has arisen before. No doubt this is driven by the rise in the ten-year yield of Italy which is now 3.14% which is not historically high but since then Italy’s national debt and therefore borrowing needs has risen meaning that matters tighten at lower yields than they used to.

Next comes the fact that even the ECB which in spite of calling itself a “rules based organisation” has operated at least to some extent by making them up as it goes along. But a programme just to help Italy would be even nearer to overt monetary financing than what we have seen so far. Other nations taxpayers would wonder why it was being singled out for favourable treatment. This would be especially true in Greece which only a week ago found that a waiver for its collateral at the ECB had ended.

Greek banks borrow just over 8 billion from the ECB in longer-term refinancing operations and now need to post a new type of collateral to maintain their access. ( Reuters)

Meanwhile there is the ongoing issue of the Italian banks and the irony of the Turkish situation is the way that Unicredit which was supposed to be escaping the noose may have found a way of putting its neck back in it.

Comment

Having looked at particular issues it is time to bring the analysis back to the day job which is monetary policy. This morning brought troubling news for those who are in the “pump it up” camp.

The euro area annual inflation rate was 2.1% in July 2018, up from 2.0% in June 2018. A year earlier, the rate was
1.3%.

Thus it has for now achieved its inflation objective and in fact it is a little above the 1.97% indicated by the previous President Jean-Claude Trichet. So those wanting more only have the “core” or excluding energy number at 1.4% to support them. They can also throw in the fact that economic growth has slowed in 2018 but also have to face the issue that even Mario Draghi regards this as pretty much a normal level.

Seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.4% in both the euro area (EA19) and the EU28……..Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 2.2% in both the euro area and the EU28.

Thus the ECB moves forwards with its monetary policy locked on course. It has no intention of raising interest-rates and a cut would provoke questions as after all it has told us things are going well. The QE programme is being trimmed in flow terms and it will not be long before that stops. What it has now are the boring parts of central banking such as bank supervision but in the case of Euro area banks in Turkey that would look like closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted.

Of course it could intervene against the Turkish Lira to help provide some stability and to help Euro area exporters. But I think we all know it would only do that if it thought it would help the banks. Also if we take the example of right now and the fall to 6.91 versus the Euro whilst I have been typing this it would no doubt attract the attention of the Donald and his twitter feed plunging the ECB into a political morass.  Such thoughts will have Mario Draghi reaching for another glass of Chianti on his summer break.

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