MacroScope

Ukraine inching back to the brink

Pro-Moscow protesters in eastern Ukraine took up arms in one city and declared a separatist republic in another yesterday and the new build-up of tensions continues this morning.

The Kiev government has launched what it calls “anti-terrorist” operations in the eastern city of Kharkiv and arrested about 70 separatists. Moscow has responded by demanding Kiev stop massing military forces in the south-east of the country.

Russia’s own forces remain massed just over the border and Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov said Moscow was attempting to repeat “the Crimea scenario”.

Washington has warned Vladimir Putin against moving “overtly or covertly” into eastern Ukraine and said there was strong evidence that pro-Russian demonstrators in the region were being paid.

There is also a standoff over gas. Kiev appears to have made no payments to Gazprom, missing a deadline last night to reduce its $2.2 billion debt. Gazprom has not said what action it may take. In previous years, gas disputes between Moscow and Kiev have hurt supplies to Europe.

Austerity fatigue – the financial world’s latest fad phrase

From the U.S., we’ve had lots of talk of tapering. In Europe, the latest fad phrase in the financial world is “austerity fatigue”.

It’s a strange euphemism, somehow disconnected from reality. More than 19 million euro zone citizens were out of work during May, roughly equivalent to the combined populations of Belgium and Austria. Youth unemployment is on the wrong side of 50 percent in Greece and Spain.

Fatigue here really means growing desperation, a public railing against rounds of budget cuts and rocketing unemployment in euro zone countries.

Portugal crisis to test ECB´s strategy

Portuguese bond yields surged to more than 8 percent as a government crisis prompted investors to shun the bailed-out country, raising concerns about another flare-up in the euro zone debt saga.

The resignation this week of two key ministers, including Finance Minister Vitor Gaspar who was the architect of its austerity drive, tipped Portugal into a turmoil that could derail its plan to exit its bailout next year.

Portuguese bond yields surged to levels near which it was forced to seek international aid two years ago. The sell-off spread to Italian and Spanish debt markets, but was not as pronounced there.

A change of tack

Today sees the release of the European Commission’s annual review of its members’ economic and debt-cutting policies. It’s a big moment.

This is the point at which we get confirmation that France, Spain, Slovenia and others will be given more time to get their budget deficits down to target. We already know that France will get an extra two years, while Spain will get another two extra years (to 2016) to bring back its deficit below 3 percent. That comes on top of the 1-year leeway given last year.

This is the austerity versus growth debate in action. But let’s be clear, whatever the rhetoric, this is anything but an end to austerity. What it is, is an invitation to cut more slowly for longer. And in return, there will be extra pressure to press ahead with structural reforms to make economies more competitive and help create jobs. Spain already has, France has barely started and it is there that a lot of the concern rests. If Europe’s second largest economy fails to revitalize itself it will be a big blow to the EU project and further erode France’s political ability to drive it in tandem with Germany.

It never rains…

The British government faces another potentially thorny day with the International Monetary Fund delivering its annual review of the UK economy. If David Cameron has a consistent policy, it’s that the only way to get Britain back on its feet is to cut spending and debt. Trouble is, we know the IMF doesn’t agree and advocates a more growth-fostering approach. Finance minister George Osborne has changed rhetorical tack in response but is walking a tightrope as a result.

This comes at a time when there are distinct signs that Cameron’s Conservative party is unraveling and not just over Europe. Unless he gets a grip soon, who knows what further concessions may be made on an EU referendum which could push Britain further towards the exit door. It remains unlikely that the coalition government will fall apart before 2015 elections, not least because the junior, pro-EU Liberal Democrat partners face electoral evisceration according to the polls. It’s even less likely that Cameron will be toppled by fractious members of his party. But it’s no longer impossible.

Britain’s LibDem deputy prime minister will take the unusual step of holding a news conference to say the coalition will hold together until 2015. Another big flashpoint looms this summer with the government’s spending review where hardline Conservatives will push for big welfare cuts and the LibDems will resist. Former foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, the man who did more than anyone else to end Margaret Thatcher’s reign, says Cameron is losing control of his party. From the other side of the political divide, Peter Mandelson says he has to lead not follow. Hard to argue with either of them.

There is no sovereign debt crisis in Europe

Evidence that Europe’s austerity policies are not working was in ample supply this morning. The euro zone as a whole is now in its longest recession since the start of monetary union. France has succumbed to the region’s retrenchment. Italy’s GDP slump is now the lengthiest on record. And Greece, still in depression, shrank another 5.3 percent in the first quarter.

To understand why this is happening, Brown University professor Mark Blyth says it is necessary to forget everything you think you know about the euro zone crisis. The monetary union’s troubles are not, as often depicted, the result of runaway spending by bloated, profligate states that are finally being forced to pay the piper. Instead, argues Blyth, it is merely a sequel to the U.S. financial meltdown that started, like its American counterpart, with dangerously-indebted risk-taking on the part of a super-sized banking sector.

In a new book entitled “Austerity: The history of a dangerous idea,” Blythe writes that sovereign budgets have come under strain primarily because taxpayers of various nations have been forced to shoulder the burden of failed banking systems.

I’ll say it again…

 

European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi felt it necessary yesterday to depart from the script at a ceremony awarding an honorary degree to reiterate his message from last Thursday – that the ECB could cut interest rates again and was looking at pushing the deposit rate which it charges banks for holding their funds overnight into negative territory in an attempt to get them to lend again.

Nothing new in the message obviously but the fact he felt the need to repeat it at a forum at which nobody would expect him to could be telling. Draghi has form here. It was at a pre-Olympics conference in London last July that he delivered his “whatever it takes” to save the euro pledge that fundamentally shifted the terms of the currency bloc’s debt crisis.

That the recession-plagued euro zone economy could do with a shot in the arm is beyond question though Draghi insisted countries must not let up on their debt-cutting. Very different tone from the prime ministers of Italy and Spain who demanded action to cut unemployment though Italy’s Enrico Letta said growth could be boosted without increasing debt.

Taking stock

It’s May Day and most of Europe, barring Britain, is taking a holiday so maybe it’s a day to take stock.

But first, a nervous glance at little Slovenia. Last night Moody’s cut its debt rating to junk, forcing Ljubljana to abandon a planned bond issue which looked set to raise several billion dollars and making a fifth euro zone sovereign bailout much more likely. Given the ham-fisted effort to rescue Cyprus didn’t put markets into a spin, it’s unlikely Slovenia will upset the euro zone applecart but it’s a reminder that this crisis isn’t over and won’t be until the currency bloc gets serious about creating a banking union. Slovenia’s problems, like Cyprus’s, are rooted in the banking sector, which is stifled by about 7 billion euros in bad loans.

One bullet was dodged when the Cypriot parliament narrowly approved its bailout late yesterday, which will avert bankruptcy but at a painful cost.

No Let(ta) up for euro zone

Fresh from winning a vote of confidence in parliament, new Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta heads to Berlin to meet Angela Merkel, pledging to shift the euro zone’s focus on austerity in favour of a drive to create jobs. He may be pushing at a partially open door. Even the German economy is struggling at the moment and the top brass in Brussels have declared either that debt-cutting has reached its limits and/or that now is the time to exercise flexibility. Letta will move on from Berlin to Brussels and Paris later in the week.

France, Spain and others will next month be given more time to meet their deficit targets and Berlin does not seem to object. Don’t expect Merkel to join the anti-austerity chorus but there are some hints of a shift even in Europe’s paymaster. Yesterday, it launched a bilateral plan with Spain to boost lending to smaller companies and said it could be rolled out elsewhere too. Details were very sketchy but something may be afoot. The European Central Bank, expected to cut interest rates on Thursday, is considering something similar although that is far from a done deal.

Forgotten about Cyprus, which only last month had financial markets in a lather and threatened to reignite the euro zone debt crisis? Today, Cypriot politicians vote on the terms of the bailout offered by the euro zone. It should pass but it could be tight. No single party has a majority in the 56-member parliament, and the government is counting on support from members of its three party centre-right coalition which have 30 seats in total.

Beware the Bundesbank

German newspaper Handelsblatt has got hold of a confidential Bundesbank report to Germany’s constitutional court, which sharply criticized the European Central Bank’s bond-buying plan. This could be very big or it could be nothing.

Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann has made no secret of his opposition to the as yet unused programme and since the mere threat of massive ECB intervention has driven euro zone bond yields lower for months there is no urgency to put it into action. But the OMT, as it is known, is by far the single biggest reason that markets have become calmer about the euro zone, so anything that threatens it could be of huge importance.

The key point is not the Bundesbank’s stance but how the Constitutional Court responds. It is due to consider OMT in June. Through the three-year debt crisis, when Berlin has reluctantly crossed red lines it has had to get the court’s approval. So far, it has always been forthcoming, though sometimes with strings attached. But if it took the Bundesbank’s assertion that bond-buying could “compromise the independence of the central bank” at face value, it is almost certain to have a long hard look. We already know that the court is a potential stumbling block to banking union as it has ruled that any future euro mechanisms would only be in order if Germany’s maximum liability was clearly defined.