Clouds gather over the eurozone

Peripheral bond yields may be falling, but it's too soon to celebrate the end of the eurozone crisis.

"Some are whispering it, some are shouting it," says "the euro crisis may be over." Bond yields, and hence implied borrowing costs, have fallen sharply in the troubled peripheral states in the past 18 months, and the economy finally began a tentative recovery in the middle of last year. But there may be turbulence ahead.

Whatever it takes?

It allows the ECB to buy unlimited quantities of peripheral debt to drive down bond yields long-term interest rates and thus avert defaults. The OMT has never had to be activated: simply the prospect of an effective backstop for European debt stopped the dangerous sell-off.

However, the ECB's president, Mario Draghi, "was always sailing close to the wind", says Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph. Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, and many German economists "opposed it vehemently as a fiscal blank cheque" for periphery economies and "a fatal erosion of ECB independence". The matter was referred to the German Constitutional Court (GCC).

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This week, after mulling it over for a year, the GCC decided that the OMT did exceed the ECB's mandate, because it would amount to financing southern countries' debts. But it also referred the matter to the European Court of Justice.

This way, Berlin doesn't look as if it has caved in, yet the European court, which will give its decision in a few months' time, can give the programme the green light.

So for now, at least, OMT remains in place. But as Tony Barber puts it on, the ruling has produced a "cloud of uncertainty". The GCC could decide to take another look at OMT, and has indicated that it wants the ECB to reduce its scope.

And even if it goes through, a nagging worry that could undermine investor confidence in the effectiveness of OMT remains: the political divide between the German establishment, which holds the purse strings, and the rest of the EU.

More useless bank stress tests

"Given that political fudges continue to allow eurozone sovereign debt to be deemed risk-free for capital purposes, this perpetuates the absurd situation where a European stress test doesn't properly test for the big risk investors worryabout a sovereign default."

So it looks like the long overdue clean up of banks' dodgy loans, which have led to a dearth of credit and growth as undercapitalised banks retrench, won't happen. That in turn will hamper the recovery.So the periphery countries' debt mountains will continue to grow, and, as we noted a few weeks ago, imminent deflation will make the burden even heavier: it raises the real value of a fixed amount of debt.

"Debt deflation is dangerous in a world with an unresolved debt crisis," says Wolfgang Munchau in the FT. Many now fear that Europe is heading for Japan-style stagnation.

Meanwhile, political divisions between north and south may flare up again when Greece's inevitable third rescue programme is put together; the euro establishment is already working on it, according to The euro is "stuck with a floundering economy, inadequate institutions and weak support", concluded Gideon Rachman in the FT. "That does not sound like a long-term recipe for success to me."

Andrew Van Sickle

Andrew is the editor of MoneyWeek magazine. He grew up in Vienna and studied at the University of St Andrews, where he gained a first-class MA in geography & international relations.

After graduating he began to contribute to the foreign page of The Week and soon afterwards joined MoneyWeek at its inception in October 2000. He helped Merryn Somerset Webb establish it as Britain’s best-selling financial magazine, contributing to every section of the publication and specialising in macroeconomics and stockmarkets, before going part-time.

His freelance projects have included a 2009 relaunch of The Pharma Letter, where he covered corporate news and political developments in the German pharmaceuticals market for two years, and a multiyear stint as deputy editor of the Barclays account at Redwood, a marketing agency.

Andrew has been editing MoneyWeek since 2018, and continues to specialise in investment and news in German-speaking countries owing to his fluent command of the language.