Below is an interview with Giacomo Barisone, managing director in sovereign ratings at Scope Ratings.
Are European governments’ responses to the coronavirus crisis the right ones?
Governments in Europe have realised the gravity of the circumstances and are enacting two types of policies: i) containment measures to respond to and mitigate the public health crisis and ii) policies to reduce the economic impact of the crisis.
Tough containment measures are negative for near-term growth, but assuming that they achieve desired ends of slowing transmission – as they have in parts of the world like China and Taiwan – they support prospects of gradually “flattening the curve” of infection rates: that is, ensuring a slower rate of transmission and thus, lowering the strain on hospital capacity and fatalities.
Assuming the containment measures slow the coronavirus’ transmission in the coming months in the northern hemisphere, a focus by governments on alleviating the impact of the crisis on businesses and households is key.
In this context, action by national governments and the European Commission, including liquidity guarantees and targeted support to groups most likely to suffer from the effects of the pandemic – such as the self-employed and small businesses – are what is needed at this stage.
Banks are unlikely to extend loans to businesses that have now become riskier owing to limited cash flows. Tough containment and economic- and liquidity-support measures could abet a very gradual recovery, hopefully starting in H2 2020. However, risks of continued transmission of the virus and/or a new wave in the fall or winter could still have an impact in H2 2020.
What do you think of the ECB’s announcements so far including the ECB’s new emergency package?
The ECB delivered last week a well-designed package of emergency measures to counter the shock, including attractively priced liquidity to the banking system and additional asset purchases to ease significant market anxiety.
The new Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) of EUR 750bn of new purchases of public- and private-sector securities extending to at least the end of 2020 implies cumulative new asset purchases of almost EUR 1trn when combined with the package announced earlier in March.
Importantly, the ECB is giving itself more room for manoeuvre by conducting securities purchases under this programme with greater flexibility with regards to time and across asset classes and jurisdictions, including a waiver that allows for the purchase of Greek securities.
In addition, the ECB Banking Supervision agreed to temporary capital and operational relief for euro area banks, which should mitigate pro-cyclical, unintended consequences.
This ECB decision also allows for consideration of public-sector issuer limit changes and de facto activation of Outright Monetary Transactions without conditionality via facilitation of the front-loading of purchases for certain countries. The action also underscores authorities’ commitments to avoid the Covid-19 economic shock deepening the existing financial crisis, which could, if left unchecked, exacerbate the overall economic dislocation caused by the pandemic.
What is the impact on Europe’s economic outlook?
We expect a strong downward revision to growth in H1 2020.
Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis, we expected moderate euro area growth of just above 1% for 2020. Now, depending on the duration of the lockdowns, the economic impact will be severe. On average, in line with a recent ECB update, we assume for now a 1.5 to 2.0pp decline in growth for each month a country is in lockdown, which for the euro area implies deeply negative growth for 2020.
Will the containment, fiscal and monetary policy response be enough?
This is too soon to tell.
The key for overcoming this crisis is to slow the transmission of the virus until ultimately immunisation treatment is available for public use (hopefully by 2021). The earlier containment measures work, the sooner they can be relaxed in gradual phases, bringing businesses and households back towards normality. In this context, the national and European policy responses are now accelerating and in the right direction.
Will countries breach the European fiscal rules?
No. The Stability and Growth Pact allows for deviations from the 3% fiscal deficit rule under exceptional circumstances and the European Commission has indicated leniency in this regard at least for the year 2020.
Therefore, even if countries’ 2020 deficit figures break beyond 3%, which may be the case for Italy (BBB+/Stable), France (AA/Stable) and Spain (A-/Stable) among others, member states would still be compliant with budget rules as these have been suspended under a “general escape clause” for 2020.
Does this crisis put sovereign ratings for countries at risk?
Our focus in the current environment will be on assessing whether temporary and urgent fiscal measures enacted by governments to counter the public health emergency will have implications that persist over the medium-run as well.
At this stage, the prospect of one-off 2020 fiscal deficits closer to or above 3% of GDP in 2020 is not in and of itself a reason to downgrade a sovereign’s credit ratings. The size and potential longevity of the current simultaneous demand and supply shock induced by the crisis warrant a significant fiscal effort to mitigate the economic impact.
The pandemic is an external shock that will ultimately hit most countries of the world, albeit to varying degrees depending on the effectiveness of containment actions, hospital capacity, policy responses as well as economic structures and fiscal resilience.
COVID-19 is exacerbating risks especially for countries already experiencing low growth and/or those with elevated debt ratios, external vulnerabilities and/or financial system fragilities. Countries whose sovereign ratings might be more likely to be affected include China (A+/Negative), Japan (A+/Stable), Italy (BBB+/Stable) and Turkey (BB-/Negative).
Giacomo Barisone is Managing Director in Public Finance at Scope Ratings GmbH.