TESTING TIMES

It’s going to be a big week for the euro zone. Italy’s bond yields are drifting higher, concerns are growing about its debt ratios and anti-euro sentiment is rising in bloc’s third-biggest economy.

The European Central Bank calmed markets a month ago with a 750 billion-euro emergency bond- buying scheme. But politicians’ failure to come through with coronabonds undid much of the benefit, meaning markets are again testing policymakers’ resolve by pushing out the Italian/German 10-year bond yield gap.

A key gauge of Italian credit risk, that yield spread is back near levels seen before the ECB announcement. Essentially, the ECB will now have to work harder on capping Italian borrowing costs and preventing the spread from blowing out. It’s probably already front-loading Italian bond buying, but markets have started watching for the ECB to announce another rise in debt purchases.

Could euro zone finance ministers ease the burden? They meet on April 23 to have another stab at pooling euro zone risk, but the chances of success are slim. A S&P ratings review the next day could see Italy downgraded to BBB-. Beyond that, a “junk” rating looms — and even higher borrowing costs.

EUROPE INC: DO WE CARE?

Even the world’s largest financial market regulator, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissions, doesn’t care about first-quarter corporate earnings, so why should Europe?

Europe begins reporting results next week with the likes of Credit Suisse, Apple component supplier STMicroelectronics, Sanofi and Volvo all due to report and focus is on the second-half and 2021 outlook.

European companies are expected to report a 22% earnings decline in the first quarter and 34% drop in the second, Refinitiv data show. That would be the sharpest decline in annual profits since at least the global financial crisis.

With the STOXX index down 25% year-to-date, much of that’s already priced in. Those seeking detailed commentary on where companies stand might be disappointed. So far, ASML and Volkswagen have failed to provide outlooks. Given uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and lockdowns, more companies may follow suit.

US EARNINGS ALSO HEAT UP

If big banks were the appetiser for the U.S. corporate reporting season, investors are preparing to dig into the main course, with around 100 S&P 500 companies due to post first-quarter results in the coming week.

They include Netflix and airlines such as Delta and Southwest, after major carriers agreed in principle to a $25 billion U.S. rescue package.

Others include consumer giant Coca-Cola, chip stalwart Intel, defence company Lockheed Martin and wireless carrier Verizon.

Investors are bracing for brutal first-quarter earnings as well as for a big profit swoon in 2020 overall. But they will also look for signs of how soon business can get back on track, with Wall Street factoring in a profit rebound in 2021.

PMI PAIN

We’ll soon get a glimpse of how economies fared in April as the full effects of coronavirus lockdowns appeared. And the advance readings of purchasing manager surveys (PMI) are likely to be harsh.

Composite euro zone PMIs, comprising services and manufacturing, plummeted last month to a record low of 29.7 versus February’s 51.6 – the biggest monthly drop since the survey began in July 1998. The 50 mark separates growth from contraction. What’s more, the difference between final composite PMIs between February and March was 21.876, four times the fall seen in November 2008, during the global financial crisis.

U.S. PMIs will also drop further in April, after record-low March readings showed the economy may be already in recession.

Flash PMIs may not drop that dramatically in April, but it won’t be the end of the pain. Consumption may recover only gradually after lockdowns end and unemployment may rise further — putting pressure on central banks to deliver more stimulus.

BELLWETHER RECKONING

South Korea, a trailblazer in the battle against COVID-19, on Thursday releases first-quarter economic growth data. That should provide some idea of how Asia’s fourth-biggest economy has held up.

It has seemingly tamed the outbreak with rigorous testing rather than blanket lockdowns. New cases this week held under 50 daily, a level the authorities say is crucial to keep the coronavirus under control.

The first-quarter GDP numbers will offer a glimpse of what a model virus response looks like in economic terms and a reading on world trade during some of the darkest days. Forecasts vary between a slowdown to a contraction as severe as 2%.

Markets may find an ugly growth number in Asia’s bellwether economy harder to shake off than China’s 6.8% contraction, putting pressure on nascent confidence. Cash has poured into bonds and the benchmark Kospi .KS11 stock index has gained 33% since last month’s trough – leading the region and second only to a 38% rally in Argentina.