The European Central Bank’s plan to buy bonds is proving more successful at keeping borrowing costs for France and Belgium near record lows than persuading investors to lend to Spain and Italy for less.
Spain’s three-year yield is back up to 3.83 percent after dipping to 3.37 percent on Sept. 7, the day after ECB President Mario Draghi detailed his proposal to buy unlimited debt for countries that agree to economic conditions in return for help. Since then, investors have lost 0.1 percent on Spanish debt repayable in three year or less, and made 0.1 percent on Belgian notes with similar maturities. The cost of insuring French debt against default has declined 24 percent, almost twice the 13 percent drop in Italian default-swap costs.
“What Draghi has done has been beneficial to some degree, but there’s still skepticism in the market because Spain hasn’t taken the final step and asked for help,” said Adrian Owens at GAM Ltd. in London, which oversees $62 billion. “It doesn’t change the fact Spain still has a huge problem to tackle. France and Belgium are seen as a safer play.”
Spanish two-year notes yield 3.13 percent today, compared with 0.24 percent on French securities. Italy’s two-year borrowing cost of 2.18 percent is more than six times higher than Belgium’s 0.35 percent rate.
The ECB program “sounds aggressive and the market rallied initially because investors don’t want to stand in the way,” said John Wraith, a fixed-income strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London. “And then they realize they are not standing in the way of anything. There is a process to go through first. My view is that Spain will not voluntarily do it unless the market forces it to.”
Spain has also underperformed Ireland, praised by European Union leaders for its economic reforms. Irish bonds handed investors a 4.6 percent gain since the ECB announcement, triple the Spanish bond gain of 1.5 percent, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes. Italian securities gained 1.7 percent. Ireland sold bonds in July, returning to longer-term capital markets for the first time in almost two years.
The sovereign debt turmoil started in 2009 after Greece’s newly elected socialist government said the nation’s budget deficit was twice as big as previous leadership had disclosed. Since then, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus have sought external aid. Spain has already asked for as much as 100 billion euros ($130 billion) for its banks. Italy and Spain won’t request bailouts unless a new surge in bond yields leaves them shut out of markets as no government will voluntarily accept conditions imposed for the aid, Gianfranco Polillo, undersecretary of finance said in an interview yesterday.
“There is a decent chance that even if Spain agrees to a program, there will be periods and reviews that it doesn’t meet its conditions,” said Nick Eisinger, a sovereign analyst with Fidelity Investment in London, which oversees $1.6 trillion. “If that happens, the market will start speculating as to whether the ECB will stop bond purchasing. There are still enormous macro challenges in Europe and the growth outlook continues to deteriorate.”
Spain is in its second recession in three years, while its 24.6 percent unemployment rate is Europe’s biggest. The debt crisis has also pushed the whole euro region to the brink of recession, with ECB forecasts showing the economy shrinking 0.4 percent this year.
Yields on Spanish bonds rose even after the country managed to sell 4.8 billion euros of 3-year notes and 10-year bonds yesterday, the most since January. The 10-year yield added 8 basis points to 5.77 percent, after topping 6 percent earlier this week for the first time since the ECB announcement. The yield fell 6 basis points to 5.71 percent.
Draghi said earlier this month that driving down borrowing costs for countries willing to submit to a program of economic discipline is justified because rising yields hamper the ECB’s ability to channel low interest rates to all of its 17 economies, leaving the region at risk of a deeper economic slump.
“If you ask what has changed, the answer is not much,” said Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Wraith. “The measure may remove near-term risk, but the fundamental picture remains the same. I’m not saying you should be playing games with the ECB as they obviously meant what they said, but there is a process to go through first. I suspect the market will keep testing Spain’s resolve.”