MacroScope

Market selloff – blip or new crisis?

A trader watches the screen in his terminal on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York

A two-day summit of EU and Asian leaders, which was going to be most notable for a meeting between the heads of Russia and Ukraine, risks being overtaken by financial market tremors which have spread worldwide.

There’s a good case that markets, primed with a glut of new central bank money, had climbed to levels which the state of the economies that underpin them did not justify. With the Federal Reserve about to turn its money taps off, investors seem to have woken up to poor growth prospects in much of the world.

On the other hand, yesterday’s sell-off was sparked at least in part by some sub-par U.S. data and it’s hard to argue that prospects for the world’s largest economy have suddenly taken a turn for the worse.

For Europe – parts of it at least – this is dangerous. If the market rout continues it will hit already-fragile business and consumer confidence and curb spending and investment. The euro zone will be hoping its final September inflation figures, due this morning, are not revised down from a paltry 0.3 percent.

As tumbling stock markets took many of the headlines yesterday, Greece’s 10-year borrowing costs zoomed close to 8 percent – way above the level that would allow Athens to quit the bailout programme hated by its people and return to financing itself on the markets.

Greek confidence vote

A Greek and an EU flag flutter in front of the temple of the Parthenon during the takeover ceremony of the six-month rotation of Greece's EU Presidency in Athens

Greece’s ruling coalition will hold a confidence vote in parliament this evening in an effort to end speculation that the country may be facing snap elections early next year.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras wants to use the vote to gain support for his candidate in a presidential vote. Under Greek law, parliament must be dissolved if a president cannot be elected. The radical leftist Syriza, which has a sizeable lead in opinion polls, has pledged to block Samaras’s pick.

Athens has begun talks with the EU and IMF inspectors on life after its bailout. The coalition is hoping an exit will rally Greeks fed up with years of austerity, but it faces a series of hurdles in pulling that off, including convincing EU/IMF lenders it can finance itself without problems.

Turkey poised to intervene?

Iraqi Shi'ite militia fighters stand atop destroyed vehicles belonging to Islamic State militants outside Bo Hassan village near Tikrit

Turkey’s parliament has voted to give the government a green light to order military action against Islamic State as the insurgents tightened their grip on a Syrian border town, sending thousands more Kurdish refugees into Turkey.

There is little sign of it being put into imminent use but the vote gives the government powers to order incursions into Syria and Iraq to counter the threat of attack “from all terrorist groups”. By common consent, western air strikes alone are unlikely to vanquish IS and there is a great deal of doubt that Syrian and Iraqi forces can best them on the ground.

Service sector PMI surveys for euro zone member states, Britain and others are forecast to show France and Italy languishing in contractionary territory while Spain achieves quite strong growth.

A reminder that all is not well in the euro zone

Bank of Portugal Governor Costa arrives to read a statement in Lisbon

A reminder that while the euro zone crisis may be in abeyance, it still has the ability to bite.

Portugal will blow 4.4 billion euros of the 6.4 billion euros left from Lisbon’s recently exited international bailout programme shoring up troubled lender Banco Espirito Santo which will be split into “bad” and “good” banks. Junior bondholders and shareholders will be heavily hit.

BES’s tale of woe is so specific that there is no obvious reason to think it will be replicated. But it is a reminder that bank stress tests later this year could throw up other nasties and more immediately the saga leaves Lisbon short of rescue funds should anything else blow up. The bond market is likely to react adversely. The 4.4 billion euros will come in the form of a state loan to a bank resolution fund which the government insists will be paid back.

Will French numbers add up?

French President Francois Hollande’s cabinet meets to adopt a new debt reduction plan.

After outlining 50 billion euros of savings for 2015-2017 to help pay for consumer and business tax cuts, the government is due to sign off on already delayed deficit reductions to bring it, eventually, to three percent of output as demanded by Brussels.

The European Commission has taken a dim view of any further relaxation, having previously granted Paris two years extra leeway. The French government insists it will meet its targets but appears to be trying to deliver one message to Brussels and another to its electorate, with domestic politics likely to hold sway.

Erdogan unfettered

Investors have spent months looking askance at Turkey’s corruption scandal and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s response to it – purging the police and judiciary of people he believes are acolytes of his enemy, U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. But it appears to have made little difference to his electorate.

Erdogan declared victory after Sunday’s local elections and told his enemies they would now pay the price. His AK Party was well ahead overall but the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) appeared close to seizing the capital Ankara. 

Turkey’s lira has climbed in early trade to its strongest level in two months on the basis that at least there is political continuity. But any rally could prove short-lived with the battle between Erdogan and Gulen likely to deepen and a gaping current account gap already making the economy vulnerable to any financial market turmoil, of which there has been plenty.

IMF stumps up for Ukraine

The International Monetary Fund has announced a $14-18 billion bailout of Ukraine with the aim of luring in a total of $27 billion from the international community over the next two years.

Ukrainian officials say they need money to start flowing in April. The U.S., EU and others in the G7 would row in behind an IMF package, helping Ukraine meet its debt obligations and begin the process of rebuilding. In total, Kiev has talked about needing $35 billion over two years so they are pretty close.

A comprehensive slate of economic, energy and financial reforms have been attached and the Fund appears to be content that whatever hue of government is in charge after May elections will adhere to the programme.

IMF verdict on Ukraine due

G7 leaders didn’t move the dial far last night, telling Russia it faced more damaging sanctions if it took any further action to destabilize Ukraine.
They will also shun Russia’s G8 summit in June and meet ”à sept” in Brussels, marking the first time since Moscow joined the group in 1998 that it will have been shut out of the annual summit.

There were some other interesting pointers. For one, the G7 agreed their energy ministers would work together to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas. Could this lead to the United States exporting shale gas to Europe? A committee of U.S. lawmakers will hear testimony on Tuesday from those who favour loosening restrictions on gas exports.

Sanctions imposed so far may be limited but they are hitting investment and Russia’s currency and stock market. The economy is barely growing and the government said yesterday it now expected net capital outflows of up to $70 billion in the first quarter of the year.

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.

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.