MacroScope

Marathon banking union talks

Shots were fired at an international team of monitors in Crimea over the weekend, violence flared in Sevastopol as thousands staged rallies and Angela Merkel, who perhaps has the most receptive western ear to Vladimir Putin, rebuked him for supporting a referendum on Ukraine’s southern region joining Russia. But in truth we’re not much further forward or backwards in this crisis.

The West from Barack Obama on down has said the referendum vote next Sunday is illegal under international law but it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle if Ukraine’s southern region chooses to break away. The best guess – but it is only a guess – is that barring an accidental sparking of hostilities, there is not much percentage in Russia putting its forces in Crimea onto a more aggressive footing in advance of the vote.

Euro zone finance ministers meet and are joined by their non-euro counterparts for an Ecofin on Tuesday. They have the mammoth task of finalizing everything on banking union that was set out in principle by their leaders at a December summit, since when not much has happened.

Intractable issues such as who decides when a bank is failing, how a decision is taken to wind down a failing bank and how long it will take to build up a fund from bank levies to pay for failing lenders all have to be sorted out, as does who picks up the bill in the meantime. Plan A was for the fund to be built up over 10 years and then be pooled but critics say that leaves the bloc’s governments exposed for far too long.

Policymakers agreed last year that the ECB will be the single supervisor for all euro zone banks from November. But talks on a single European agency to wind up or close failing banks, and on a single fund to back it up, are ongoing and the EU finance ministers and European Parliament must reach a deal this week or run out of time before May elections and then face months of delay. Sounds like it could be a marathon couple of days.

Weather to make February jobs report a crap-shoot too

Blaming bad economic news on winter is getting as tiresome as tales of snarled traffic, flight cancellations and trips out with the snow shovel in freezing winds.

The February jobs report will be no exception to this U.S. season of climactic howling.

Most of the 97 forecasters who contribute to the Reuters Poll on non-farm payrolls have stuck to their forecasts, resisting the temptation to make last-minute changes based on even more disappointing data this week.

Putin unmoved by carrots or sticks

Vladimir Putin said this morning Russia and the United States are still far apart over Ukraine. Moscow, he said, could not ignore “illegitimate decisions” imposed on the east and south of the country and calls for help by ethnic Russians there but the two powers should not sacrifice relations over it.

In an hour-long telephone call last night Barack Obama urged Putin to accept the terms of a potential diplomatic solution to the crisis whereby Moscow would keep its military bases in Crimea while respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty. But he also ordered sanctions – including travel bans and freezing of assets in the U.S. – on people responsible for Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine though Putin himself is not on the list.

Obama also said a Crimean referendum on joining Russia, called for 9 days’ time, violated international law.
Meanwhile, Congress passed a $1 billion loan guarantees package for the new government in Kiev. The European Union has already promised some $15 billion over the next two years, contingent on a deal being signed with the IMF.

Five years of rock-bottom rates for the UK – an unhappy anniversary

Britain’s economy has now been wedded a record low 0.5 percent interest rate for five years.

Traditionally, a fifth anniversary demands a wooden present – perhaps a spoon in Britain’s case. The economy is still smaller than its pre-recession peak (1.4 percent at the last reading), unlike almost all of its major developed economic peers.

When the Bank of England first cut interest rates to 0.5 percent in March 2009, Britain had just reached the nadir of its worst recession in living memory.

Unsterilised ECB?

Foreign ministerial talks in Paris yesterday made little progress on Ukraine. Russia rejected Western demands that its forces in Crimea should return to their bases and its foreign minister refused to recognise his Ukrainian counterpart. Moscow continues to assert that the troops that have seized control of the Black Sea peninsula are not under its command. The West is pushing for international monitors to go in.

Today, at least some of the focus switches to Brussels where EU leaders will hold an emergency summit with a twin agenda of how to help the new government in Kiev and possible sanctions against Russia. On the latter, Europe has appeared more reticent than Washington not least because of its deep financial and energy ties, none more so than Germany and Britain.

The bloc yesterday offered Ukraine’s new government 11 billion euros in financial aid over the next two years, contingent on it reaching a deal with the IMF. It will also freeze the assets of ousted president Viktor Yanukovich and 17 others seen as culpable for violation of human rights – around 80 people were killed in the capital last month as they protested against Yanukovich’s rule. Kiev caused some market wobbles by saying it would look at restructuring its foreign currency debt.

Jaw jaw not war war, hopefully

The end of Russian military exercises near the Ukrainian border and Vladimir Putin’s statement that force would only be used as a very last resort seemed to have taken some of the tension out of this crisis but the situation remains on a knife edge.

Moscow chose to test fire an intercontinental ballistic missile though Washington said it had been notified of plans to do so before the standoff in Crimea blew up. And there is always the possibility of conflict being triggered inadvertently.

Yesterday, a Russian soldier fired three volleys of shots over the heads of unarmed Ukrainian servicemen who marched towards their aircraft at a military airfield surrounded by Russian troops near Sevastopol.

A small step back?

A reported 0300 GMT deadline, which Russian forces denied had been issued, for Ukraine’s troops to disarm in Crimea or face the consequences has passed without incident and in the last hour President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops that took part in military exercises in western Russia to return to base.

That has helped lift the euro but the situation remains incredibly tense. Russia’s stock market is up a little over two percent and the rouble has found a footing but they are nowhere near clawing back Monday’s precipitous losses.

The West may have no military card to play – and its ability to impose meaningful sanctions is untested as yet – but the markets reminded Putin in no uncertain terms yesterday that there is a price to pay for war mongering.

When is a war not a war?

Is it war if no shots have been fired? The Ukrainians say so but Moscow, its grip on Crimea now pretty much complete, says it is merely protecting its people. The rest of the world and its financial markets watch on very uneasily.

There is virtually no chance of any western military response after Vladimir Putin declared he had the right to invade his neighbour – NATO  expressed “grave concern” but did not come up with any significant measures to apply pressure on. But there will be a diplomatic and economic price to pay.

The rouble tumbled by 2.5 percent at Monday’s open and the central bank has already acted to try and underpin it, raising its key lending rate by 1.5 percentage points although the Russian economy is already in poor shape. The main Russian stock index has plunged by about 9 percent with Gazprom doing worse than that and safe haven German Bund futures have jumped.

Escalation in Crimea

Worrying escalation in Crimea. Interfax reports Russian servicemen have take over a military airport in the Russian-speaking region of Ukraine and armed men are also patrolling the airport at Crimea’s regional centre of Simferopol.
Kiev has condemned the moves as an “armed invasion”.

There has been no bloodshed and there are more constructive noises from Moscow to weigh in the balance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his government to continue talks with Ukraine on economic and trade relations and to consult foreign partners including the IMF and the G8 on financial aid.

UK recovery? What UK recovery?

A second look at fourth-quarter economic growth figures for Britain confirmed that recovery is under way. The quarter-on-quarter rate was  0.7 percent, unchanged from a preliminary estimate. Year-on-year was knocked down slightly.

But no matter the improvement over the past few quarters, Britain’s recent renaissance is pretty slow and still a long way off actual recovery. Consider the graphs below. The top one illustrates how large the dip has been since 2008 versus recession from  1955. The second illustrates how the current 28 and counting quarters of economic slide and crawl back  compare with, say, 12 after 1973 or 11 after 1990.

UK economic recoveries since 1955