‘Yellow vest’ protests could shake up EU bond markets

France’s response to “yellow vest” protests could be a turning point for euro zone bond markets if it kicks off an era of increased public borrowing in the bloc and loads additional debt on to a market already nervous over the removal of ECB stimulus.
Increased public spending could be the way out for governments struggling to contain discontent over living standards and may face a strong challenge from populist politicians at May’s European parliament elections.
But if that pushes up government bond supply, it may also increase concern about some member states’ longer-term ability to service debt, and could hamstring the European Central Bank’s plan to lift interest rates.
Central to this is the situation in France, where people have taken to the streets in recent weeks wearing brightly coloured “gilets jaunes” or “yellow vests”, protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies.
In response, Macron pledged tax cuts for pensioners and minimum wage increases that will cost France an additional 8-10 billion euros.
With Italy and Spain already ramping up 2019 spending plans, and even Germany reviewing its long-standing conservative fiscal stance, debt could be on the rise again in the bloc.
“If there is more fiscal flexibility with Italy and France, then this is the start of a new era, an inflection point in terms of fiscal policy,” said Frederik Ducrozet, strategist at Pictet Wealth Management.
In France, the surprise spending increases will likely push the country’s budget deficit past the 3 per cent limit mandated by the European Union. Italy’s 2019 deficit, while lower than initially planned, will be higher than recent years at 2.04 per cent.
Already, France’s 10-year bond yield spread over benchmark Germany has doubled over the last six months to its widest level in 20 months at around 50 basis points.
The immediate implications for European debt metrics don’t look too worrying — the European Commission forecasts the bloc’s budget deficit at 0.8 per cent of gross domestic product in 2019, after 0.6 per cent last year. The extra French spending may add 0.1 percentage points to this, analysts estimate.
The bigger concern is that more spending in the bloc’s second and third-largest economies may set a precedent for the rest. And it will entail more borrowing in countries already dogged by high debt and sluggish growth.
France’s debt-to-GDP ratio is close to its record high at just under 100 per cent. Italy’s debt is the highest in the region in absolute terms and the highest barring Greece as a percentage of economic output at around 133 per cent, according to Eurostat.
To account for its extra spending, France has raised its 2019 bond issuance plans. Gross issuance in Italy — already the biggest euro zone government debt issuer — is expected to rise by 10 billion euros this year to about 247 billion euros. — Reuters

Abhinav Ramnarayan, Dhara Ranasinghe