MacroScope

ECB aftermath; how firm is opposition to QE?

After the European Central Bank opened its toolbox and deployed pretty much everything it had left, bar printing money, the question is if and when QE becomes a live possibility.

ECB chief Mario Draghi pointedly said at his monthly news conference that all policy options had not been exhausted.
German resistance to such a move will remain, however, and Draghi’s deputy, Vitor Constancio, has already intimated that it will take until late this year to judge whether the latest gambits have made a difference before moving onto the next stage.

Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann is already out today saying the ECB has ventured onto new ground and that governments need to treat the move as a wake-up call to continue with economic reforms. He added that there was a risk that long-term inflation expectations could be de-anchored – ECB speak for deflation.

ECB policymakers Benoit Coeure and Yves Mersch, who can be reasonably said to represent differing ends of ECB opinion, both speak later today as does Finnish central bank chief Erkki Liikanen.

One to ponder: By no longer offsetting the government bonds the ECB bought back during the debt crisis by taking in an equivalent amount in bank deposits each week -  non-sterilisation in central bank jargon – has Draghi essentially crossed the Rubicon in terms of creating money and does that mean the philosophical objections to full-on QE have been surmounted?

We need to talk about Juncker

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt will host Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron and Dutch premier Mark Rutte at his private residence over two days to discuss reforming the EU and ”achieving a more efficient EU that is focused on creating jobs and growth”. 

After EU elections delivered strong returns for far-right and far-left parties, EU leaders say they have recognized the need to refocus on what matters to their people. But at the same time, the orthodox camp is determined to keep bearing down on debt and the bloc’s heads are arguing over who should take the top jobs in Brussels which set the tone.

Cameron is publicly opposed to Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, who he regards as an arch federalist, becoming European Commission President though as the candidate for the centre-right EPP group of  parties which came top in the election he is in pole position.

Signs of European dash for growth

The ripples of EU election results are being felt, no more so than in France where the National Front topped the poll.

The day after the results, Prime Minister Manuel Valls promised further tax cuts for French households. The government is already committed to a 30 billion euros cut in labour taxes to help business but insists all this can be done while meeting its EU deficit commitments.

Brussels has already given Paris an extra two years to get its deficit down to three percent of GDP. Today, the European Commission will produce updated country recommendations.

Juncker’s star fading?

EU leaders didn’t get far last night in addressing the voter backlash dealt to them in European elections but it seems less likely that Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker will end up with Brussels’ top job, a first indication that things are on the move.

Britain’s David Cameron has been determined to block the arch federalist from becoming European Commission president and, after the strong showing by far-right and far-left parties, others also seem to see the need for a newer broom, possibly even Angela Merkel.

Juncker is a veteran of EU politics and is a consummate deal-maker, and as head of the centre-right EPP group which topped the weekend polls should be the heir presumptive. But he is very much of the old school.

Evening of reckoning

EU heads of government and state dine in Brussels this evening to discuss their response to a big slap in the face from the bloc’s electorates.

Italy’s Matteo Renzi, who bucked the trend by winning handsomely as an incumbent prime minister, has the wind in his sails and has pledged to change Europe’s focus towards growth and job creation after years of fiscal austerity in response to the euro zone’s debt crisis.

A French official said President Francois Hollande would back Renzi’s call for more pro-growth policies and tell fellow EU leaders that Europe had reached “the alarm level”. Even Germany’s Angela Merkel – the one who really counts – is talking about Europe’s people not caring about treaty change but job security and prosperity.

Smoke signals from the Bank of England

Given the silence that attends Bank of England policy meetings which result in no change of course, today’s quarterly inflation report is the main chance to hear the latest thinking. Governor Mark Carney will talk to the media for an hour or so after its release.

The ongoing strength of economic data means the odds of a first interest rate rise this year are narrowing and one could certainly come before May 2015 elections, an unwelcome prospect for the government.

The main imponderable is how much spare capacity there is in the economy, which would allow further growth without feeding inflation pressures. There are differing views on that with no one quite sure how much activity was permanently destroyed by the financial crisis.

Secession vote looms

 

Despite Vladimir Putin’s apparent attempt at rapprochement, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine insist their Sunday referendum on secession will take place, a move which could lead to civil war.

More signs of concern from Washington last night with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urging U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to press Kiev to begin “direct, equitable dialogue” with its restive regions. In turn, Ukraine’s acting president and prime minister proposed a “round table” drawing in political forces and civil groups from all regions with international mediators helping out.

Putin’s motives are, as usual, opaque though it could be he hopes to avoid a third round of western sanctions – which would have to be much tougher – by calling on the separatists to suspend their vote on independence.

A question of gas

A Ukrainian soldier sits on top of an APC at a checkpoint outside the city of Slaviansk

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in Washington for talks with Barack Obama after Europe and the United States imposed wider sanctions on Russia.

Obama is already looking ahead to a third round of measures and has hinted at impatience with Europe, saying there had to be a united front if future sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy were to have real bite. At home, the Republicans are accusing him of weakness so will he put pressure on Merkel to move ahead in a way that the European Union has shown it is entirely unready to, at least yet?

The east of Ukraine remains in turmoil with pro-Russian separatists, who have seized civic buildings and police stations in a number of cities and towns, saying Ukrainian forces had launched a big operation to retake the eastern town of Slaviansk. That would mark the first significant military response from the government in Kiev.

Will sanctions bite?

Financial markets may view the latest sanctions against Russia as feeble, but the reaction from Moscow – Vladimir Putin threatened to reconsider Western participation in energy deals and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said they were the work of weak politicians – suggests otherwise.

Russia’s top oil producer, Rosneft, will release first-quarter financial results after its boss and close Putin ally Igor Sechin was put on the U.S. sanctions list. Yesterday, energy giant Gazprom – whose chief escaped censure – said further Western sanctions over Ukraine could disrupt its gas exports to Europe and hit its business and shares.

The International Monetary Fund will report on its regular mission to Russia. On Tuesday, the Fund said it was preparing to cut its growth forecast for the second time in a month. Many are now talking about a recession this year and capital outflows exceeded $60 billion in the first quarter.

To QE or not to QE?

ECB Vice-President Vitor Constancio testifies to the European Parliament prior to attending the IMF Spring meeting in Washington at the back end of the week along with Mario Draghi and other colleagues. Jens Weidmann, Yves Mersch and Ewald Nowotny also speak today.

There has undoubtedly been a change in tone from the ECB, which is now openly talking about printing money if inflation stays too low for too long (no mention of deflation being the required trigger any more). Even Bundesbank chief Weidmann has done so.

Last week, Draghi made it sound as if really serious thought was being given to how to do it. He raised the prospect of buying private sector assets, rather than government bonds as other central banks have. The question is whether he is trying to talk the euro down or whether the central bank is now more alarmed, and therefore deadly serious.