MacroScope

Iran and Japan in focus at Davos

Lots of action in Switzerland today with the annual get-together of the great and good at Davos getting underway and Syrian peace talks commencing in Montreux.

On the latter, few are predicting anything other than failure, a gloom that Monday’s chaotic choreography did nothing to dispel.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon Ban first offered Iran a seat at the table, prompting a threat to pull out by Syrian opposition groups which led to Washington demanding the invitation to Tehran be withdrawn. In the end, Ban did just that.

The release of thousands of photographs apparently showing prisoners tortured and killed by the government reinforced opposition demands that Bashar al-Assad must quit and face a war crimes trial. The president insists he can win re-election and wants to talk about fighting “terrorism.”

Davos often yields more heat (even in that cold) than light but there are some eye-catching guests to follow over the next four days with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani topping the list.

Presumably he’s there to woo the world of commerce now sanctions are to be relaxed in return for Tehran suspending enrichment of uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, a short step below the level needed for nuclear weapons.

A moment of truth for Turkey

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will make his first visit to Brussels for five years where he will meet EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament President Martin Schulz.

The EU has been critical of Erdogan’s response to a sweeping corruption inquiry, clearing out hundreds of police officers and raising concern about a roll-back of reforms meant to strengthen independence of judiciary.

That will put a new round of EU membership talks which began two months ago into a rather tricky light. They had already been delayed after Brussels took a dim view of the way Erdogan cracked down on anti-government demonstrators over the summer.

The Iranian thaw

A landmark deal curbing Iran’s nuclear programme in return for a loosening of sanctions appears to be underway, an agreement intended to buy time for a permanent settlement of a decade-old standoff.

Under the deal, Iran must suspend enrichment of uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent. An Iranian official has just said Tehran will start its suspension of uranium enrichment up to 20 percent in a few hours.

EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels and are expected to suspend some sanctions against Iran in line with the Nov. 24 interim agreement if as expected, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog confirms Tehran is meeting its end of the bargain.

Why should the Bank of England hike rates when it can baby-step?

When the Bank of England decides to start hiking interest rates, it may find that its standard 25 and 50 basis point interest rate moves of old are too blunt a tool for Britain’s delicately-poised economic recovery.

Instead, UBS economist Amit Kara suggests the Bank should “test the waters” with rate hikes of 5 to 10 basis points:

After many years of an aggressive ‘shock and awe’ approach, one can reasonably say gradualism is back. To be clear, gradualism in monetary policy setting is not new. Ben Bernanke offered a strong justification for gradualism in a speech in 2004, essentially advocating an incremental approach to rate setting in the face of uncertainty. Another good example, also from the US, is the Fed decision last month to dial back its QE programme. The market was looking for an explicit tapering path, but the FOMC instead delivered a small step and a promise to take further action after one month depending on the data. Our prescription of a 5 basis point rate hike in the UK is analogous to the gradualism delivered by the FOMC.

EU ratings day: Portugal modest thumbs up, Dutch unscathed, Ireland awaited

Friday is European ratings day since EU rules took force requiring ratings agencies to say precisely when they will make sovereign pronouncements and to do so outside market hours.

S&P has already shifted its outlook on Portugal’s rating from creditwatch negative to negative. The rating remains at BB, one notch below investment grade. That sounds obscure but it’s actually something of a vote of confidence though probably short of what the market had been hoping for.

The ratings agency said it expects Lisbon to meet its budget deficit target this year based “partly on indications that the economy has been showing signs of stabilization since mid-2013” – another fillip as Lisbon tries to follow Dublin out of the bailout exit door this year.

Relief from UK services inflation seen fleeting

British inflation dipped to 2 percent  in December – its lowest since November 2009 and within the Bank of England’s target. Part of the move was driven by a fall in prices in Britain’s services sector – which constitutes more than three quarters of the country’s output.

Services inflation, which makes up around 47 percent of the consumer price index, eased to  2.4 percent in December – also its lowest since November 2009. Goods inflation – which is more sensitive to global markets than domestically generated services inflation – edged up to 1.7 percent last month. But it has also come down in recent months as a strengthening sterling pushed down import prices.

The fall has helped the case for the Bank of England to keep interest rates at a record low of 0.5 percent, also giving the government a boost ahead of elections next year. Analysts say weak wage growth may be a reason for more subdued services inflation, but given the strength of the labor market, this trend could be fleeting.

Spain ascendant?

Spain appears to be on the road to recovery, if you can call it that with around a quarter of the workforce without a job.

The government says growth hit 0.3 percent in the final quarter of the year, the second quarterly expansion in a row, and may upgrade its forecast for 0.7 percent growth in 2014.

Its borrowing costs have tumbled to four-year lows in a new year bond rally and today Madrid will try to cash in by selling up to 5.5 billion euros of bonds following an above-target sale last week.

Hollande talks the talk

Francois Hollande managed to bat off questions about his private life (how successful he is in holding that line depends on the attitude of the French media which yesterday was nothing but respectful) and focus instead on a blizzard of economic reforms.

Skating past the French president’s call for an Airbus-style Franco-German energy company which left everyone including the Germans bemused, there was some real meat.

Hollande reaffirmed his “responsibility pact” to cut taxes and red tape for companies, saving them 30 billion euros, in return for a commitment to hire more people and increase training.
He also promised a further 50 billion euros in spending cuts in 2015-17 on top of a planned 15 billion this year, saying they could be achieved by making national and local government more efficient while preserving France’s generous social model.

Hollande’s moment of truth

This afternoon, French President Francois Hollande will expand upon his New Year announcement that French companies who agree to hire more workers could pay lower labour taxes in return and find themselves less tied up in red tape. Unemployment is running near to 12 percent and Hollande’s vow to get it falling by the end of 2013 fell short.

Unfortunately, the announcement has been eclipsed by his threat of legal action after a French magazine reported he was having an affair with an actress. France tends to overlook its politicians’ peccadilloes but with the economy in a hole, Hollande risks facing the charge that he should be focusing squarely on that.

To complicate matters his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, has been admitted to hospital following the reports. She will stay there for a number of days yet.
Given this is one of only two news conferences that Hollande has promised to give each year it’s hard to see how he can avoid it being hijacked by his personal life. As boxing promoter Don King was fond of saying: there are two chances, slim and none and Slim just left town.

New face at the ECB

The European Central Bank held a steady course at its first policy meeting of the year but flagged up the twin threats of rising short-term money market rates and the possibility of a “worsening” outlook for inflation – i.e. deflation.

The former presumably could warrant a further splurge of cheap liquidity for the bank, the latter a rate cut. But only if deflation really takes hold could QE even be considered.
Sabine Lautenschlaeger, the Bundesbank number two poised to take Joerg Asmussen’s seat on the executive board, breaks cover today, testifying to a European Parliament committee. A regulation specialist, little is known about her monetary policy stance though one presumes she tends to the hawkish.

Iran and the EU announced on Sunday that a deal between Tehran and six major powers intended to pave the way to a solution to a long standoff over its nuclear ambitions will come into force on Jan. 20. Thereafter, negotiations will begin on a final settlement. Brent crude has fallen in response. It’s early days but if oil falls significantly this year, that will factor into fears about deflation taking hold in Europe.