MacroScope

Britain’s economic sprint probably tripled U.S. growth in Q1

What a difference a year makes.

This time last year, analysts and investors were nearly unanimous in their expectation for a whole lot of nothing from Britain’s economy which, after a valiant leap higher from a spectacularly successful 2012 Olympic Games hosted in London, was back to just bumping along.

Now the UK is looking to clock the best sprint in the G7 for the first three months of a year – and by a wide margin.

The Reuters poll found a consensus for 0.9 percent growth in the UK in the first three months of the year on the quarter before. That would be the best in nearly four years, and just slightly below the Bank of England’s newly upbeat prediction. The data are due on Tuesday.

What’s all the more astonishing is that not only would that be the best expected growth rate in the G7, trailed by Germany at 0.6 percent, but it is triple the equivalent growth rate forecast for the United States.

Poor performance for the U.S. has already been blamed by analysts and the Fed alike on terrible winter weather that pounded the U.S. northeast and stretched beyond the normal geographic boundaries of winter. A rebound from that weakness is already taking hold.

Deconstructing UK job numbers

On the face of it, the good news for the British government keeps on coming. Britain’s economy grew surprisingly fast last year and inflation fell below the Bank of England’s target for the first time in over four years in January. The government this month even got a nod from the International Monetary Fund which only last year criticized its austerity programme.

The latest confidence boost came from jobless figures on Wednesday. Not only did the unemployment rate fall to a five-year low of 6.9 percent but pay growth caught up with  inflation for the first time in nearly four years. That provides Prime Minister David Cameron’s government with another lift ahead of the 2015 elections, after it has come  under fire from the Labour opposition for overseeing a fall in living standards.

But a closer look at the data suggests a more nuanced picture.

Indeed, total pay growth in February reached 1.7 percent – matching the 1.7 percent rise in consumer prices in February and above their 1.6 percent increase in March.

Greeks bearing bonds

Greece will sell its first bond in four years.

We know it will aim to raise up to 2.5 billion euros of five-year paper via syndication and wants to pay less than 5.3 percent – remarkable since only two years ago it was tipped to crash out of the euro zone and yields on 10-year debt peaked above 40 percent on the secondary market. They dropped below six percent for the first time since 2010 on Wednesday.

Athens has no pressing funding needs but wants to test the waters as part of its strategy to cover all its financing from the market by 2016. It still has a mountain to climb and may well need more debt relief from its EU partners to corral a national debt that is not falling much from 175 percent of GDP. 

But for all that, it’s a propitious time to borrow. Peripheral euro zone bond yields have tumbled this year, benefiting from wobbles in emerging markets, and now European Central Bank consideration of printing money has given bond prices a further lift.

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.

Putin welcomes Crimea in

Vladimir Putin has told Russia’s Duma that he has approved a draft treaty to bring Ukraine’s Crimea region into Russia and in doing so continues to turn a deaf ear to the West’s sanctions-backed plea to come to the negotiating table.

Overnight, Japan added its weight to the sanctions drive, suspending talks with Moscow on an investment pact and relaxation of visa requirements. EU and U.S. measures have targeted a relatively small number of Russians and Ukrainians but presumably there is scope to go considerably further, particularly if Putin decided to move into eastern Ukraine too.

EU foreign ministers yesterday began discussing how to reduce energy reliance on Russia. That’s a long-term project but one that could deal a hammer blow to the Russian economy if it succeeds.

Banking — union or disunion

EU finance ministers face 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. Last night, the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers made little progress bar agreeing that they needed to agree quickly.

Intractable issues such as who decides when a bank is failing, how a decision is taken to wind down a failing bank, what is the precise role of the European Central Bank, European Commission and European Parliament 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.

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 too long.

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.

Why UK rates are well below “normal” in one labour market chart

Much ink has been spilled over the past several months over when the Bank of England will eventually raise interest rates from a record low of 0.5 percent, and if they’ll do it before the Federal Reserve does. The pound is trading near a five-year high against a basket of currencies as a result.

BoE Governor Mark Carney and other Monetary Policy Committee members have tried to remind the public and businesses at every chance they are given that a rate rise is still a way off – likely at least a year – and that when it’s time for the central bank to lift rates, it will do so gradually.

Much of the focus until the BoE’s February Inflation Report, published last week, was on the jobless rate and how quickly it has fallen. The latest data show a slight rise to 7.2 percent, so a bit above the 7 percent rate the BoE said it would have to fall below to trigger discussions on rate rises.

Ukrainian tipping point

Violence in Ukraine has escalated to a whole new level. The health ministry says 25 people have been killed in fighting between anti-government protesters and police who tried to clear a central square in  Kiev. The crackdown, it seems, has been launched.

President Viktor Yanukovich met opposition leaders for talks last night but his opponents, Vitaly Klitschko and Arseny Yatsenyuk, quit the talks without reaching any agreement on how to end the violence and said they would not return while blood is being shed.

The opposition are pressing for changes to the constitution which would curb the powers of Yanukovich and allow for the appointment of a technical government. Yanukovich is yet to name a new prime minister. If he names a hardliner, that could prove incendiary.

High unemployment putting the ECB in isolation

 

Unemployment in the euro zone is stuck at 12 percent, an already high rate that masks eye-popping rates in many of its struggling member economies.

But in a press conference lasting one hour, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi mentioned the problem of high unemployment only a few times – satisfied with the central bank’s usual stance of imploring euro zone governments to implement structural reforms to their labour markets, on a case by case basis.

Draghi said:

 … although unemployment in the euro area is stabilising, it remains high, and the necessary balance sheet adjustments in the public and the private sector will continue to weigh on the pace of the economic recovery.