Europe without Merkel? Investors are braced for another electoral shock
If Martin Schulz becomes the next German chancellor, can the markets handle it?
Martin Schulz’s appointment as the Social Democrats’ (SPD) candidate to run against Angela Merkel has energised Germany’s September election race. Photograph: Julien Warnand/EPA
A serious challenger to German chancellor Angela Merkel is forcing global investors to parse another potential electoral surprise: the removal of a key political constant through years of euro zone turbulence, but also an end to Europe’s austerity bias.
Martin Schulz’s appointment as the Social Democrats’ (SPD) candidate to run against Merkel has energised Germany’s September election race – and those in his party who dare to think they could unseat her. He remains the underdog, but polls show him pulling closer by the day. One poll published on Thursday gave just a six-point gap between Merkel’s alliance and the SPD. It said Schulz far outstripped her in one-on-one popularity. That is an unnerving prospect for some investors now accustomed to Merkel’s generally steady handling of Europe’s rolling crises which has contributed to triple-digit gains from German stocks to Portuguese bonds.
Just a few weeks ago, Larry Fink, head of the world’s biggest asset manager BlackRock, praised “the moral leadership chancellor Merkel and Germany have played in an increasingly discordant world”, adding that he hoped it would continue. Schulz, a former European Parliament president, though, is looking to shake things up. Having seen his party wither during its time as the junior partner in a “grand coalition” with Merkel’s conservative alliance, he is vowing to fight for fairer tax rules, higher wages, better education and to overcome the “deep divisions” that have fuelled populism.
Loosening purse strings
One lesson for investors from 2016 was that political shocks from the US election of Donald Trump and Britain’s vote to leave the EU did not crash markets. In part that’s because growth-friendly fiscal policies have come to the fore, away from an over-reliance on maxed-out monetary policy. A change in Germany could also help ease international strains about its budget and trade surpluses that surfaced again this week when Trump’s trade advisor lashed out at the boost German exporters gets from a “grossly undervalued” euro.
Another question for international investors will be what happens to Wolfgang Schäuble’s tough stance on financial aid for Greece if the veteran finance minister is replaced. They will want to know if Schulz could end the push for austerity in Europe and take aim at the European Central Bank’s money-printing programme and the sub-zero interest rates that have been crushing German savers.
“If you read between the lines, the Merkel administration has been very supportive of the ECB’s actions,” said Tim Barker, head of credit at Old Mutual Global Investors. “Were she not to be in power, would that support remain? We don’t know the answer.”
Despite the SPD’s excitement about Schulz, his chances of toppling Merkel are still seen as slim. Though popularity polls have him pulling neck-and-neck, or even beating Merkel, personal ratings don’t necessarily count for much as Germany does not have a presidential-style system. A more significant measure of party support still shows Merkel’s conservatives ahead on 34 per cent, with the SPD trailing on 28 per cent. The gap means that to clinch power, Schulz would need to team up with two smaller parties: the environmentalist Greens and the leftist Linke. Exploratory talks have been held. The prospect of a heavily left alliance is already alarming some conservatives, even if it is a long shot.
“It would endanger everything we have achieved,” said Michael Frieser, a member of parliament for the Christian Social Union, Merkel’s conservative Bavarian allies.
For market players the unknowns all breed caution. If Schulz becomes chancellor and signals a spending drive, German Bunds are likely to underperform their euro zone peers, said JP Morgan Asset Management’s Tilmann Galler, though the bond market selling would broaden if the ECB makes a quick move to wind down its aid.
The uncertainty is already being reflected in currency options markets. Traders have been taking out some bets on euro volatility around the September 24th election, although that is also when analysts expect the ECB to announce the next scaledown in its bond buying. Analysts in UBS’s chief investment office expect the euro to be at $1.20 in 12 months’ time once the dust has settled, though it could be a bumpy ride if Schulz does win.
“It would be an enormous shock to markets and the political order of the euro zone,” said Sassan Ghahramani, CEO of US-based SGH Macro Advisors, which advises hedge funds.