MacroScope

Brussels looks warily at German surplus

Barring a last minute change of heart, the European Commission will launch an investigation into whether Germany’s giant trade surplus is fuelling economic imbalances, a charge laid squarely by the U.S. Treasury but vehemently rejected by Berlin.

This complaint has long been levelled at Germany (and China) at a G20 level and now within the euro zone too. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta urged Berlin this week to do more to boost growth.

Stronger German demand for goods and services elsewhere in the euro zone would surely help recovery gain traction. The counter argument is that in the long-run, only by improving their own competitiveness can the likes of Spain, Italy and France hope to thrive in a globalised economy.

Berlin says it has more than halved its current account surplus with the euro zone as a share of gross domestic product since 2007. But its global current account surplus is the biggest in the world as a percentage of GDP. It totalled 6.9 percent of GDP last year, higher than the 6 percent threshold that the Commission considers excessive.

One thing is sure; German policymakers will be furious at a time when they are still trying to construct a coalition under Angela Merkel.
As we’ve reported in recent days, the signs are that the next government in Berlin is already heading away from further surrenders of sovereignty. If an in-depth review concluded that the surplus is causing imbalances to Germany’s and Europe’s economy and Germany does not take the recommended steps to fix the problem, the final result can be a fine of 0.1 percent of GDP – which would enrage more than hurt.

Strongly vigilant?

An alarming drop in euro zone inflation – to 0.7 percent from 1.1 percent – throws today’s European Central Bank policy meeting into very sharp relief. Not since the central bank cut interest rates in May has it been under such scrutiny.

No policy change is likely, and “sources familiar” are already talking down the threat of deflation. But the central bankers, who are mandated to target inflation at close to 2 percent, will be alarmed at the sight of price pressures evaporating. One need look no further than Japan to see the damage deflation can do, often for many years.

We reported last week that a strengthening euro has also come onto the ECB’s radar, given it could depress both growth and inflation, and that there are three camps – one wanting an interest rate cut (which we know was discussed at the last meeting), another preferring to keep the option open of another long-term liquidity flood for the banking system as was done last year, and a third wanting to do nothing.

Forward guidance not banking on Scottish independence

There are many unknowns surrounding a Scottish vote in favour of independence at next year’s referendum, a potentially huge event for the British economy. But one that has attracted little attention is what it would mean for UK interest rates.

As part of its forward guidance policy, the Bank of England has promised that it will not consider raising rates from record-low levels until unemployment in the UK – 7.69 percent at the most recent reading – falls to 7 percent. It expects this to happen in late 2016, though some investors think the jobless rate could fall much quicker.

The question is, what would happen to Britain’s unemployment, and consequently interest rates, if Scotland decided to leave the UK? Recent data suggest it would take longer for unemployment to hit the Bank’s threshold and prolong the era of cheap money.

UK recovery, can you feel it?

Third quarter UK GDP data are likely to show robust growth – 0.8 percent or more, following 0.7 percent in Q2 – more kudos to a resurgent finance minister George Osborne who only a year ago was buried in brickbats.

We can argue about the austerity versus growth debate ‘til the cows come home – there is still a strong case that if the government hadn’t cut so sharply, growth would have returned earlier and debt would have fallen faster. But the fact that the economy is ticking along nicely 18 months before the next election means Osborne has won the argument politically.

And yet, and yet. The opposition Labour party has been nimble in switching its criticism from the government’s debt-cutting strategy to the fact that the economy might be recovering but the vast majority of Britons aren’t feeling it.

Humdrum summit

A two-day EU summit kicks off in Brussels hamstrung by the lack of a German government.

Officials in Berlin say they want to reach a common position on a mechanism for restructuring or winding up failing banks by the end of the year but with an entire policy slate to be thrashed out and the centre-left SPD saying the aim is to form a new German administration with Angela Merkel’s CDU by Christmas, time is very tight.

On banking union, a senior German official said Berlin had no plans to present an alternative plan for how a resolution fund might work at the  summit and reiterated Berlin’s stance that national budget autonomy for winding up banks could not be outsourced.

A jobless guide to interest rates

The Bank of England’s decision to peg any move in interest rates to the downward progress of unemployment has invested the monthly figures, due today, with huge importance.

In a nutshell, markets don’t believe the jobless rate will take the best part of three years to fall from 7.7 percent to below 7.0, the point at which the Bank said it could consider raising rates from a record low 0.5 percent. For what it’s worth, the consensus forecast is for the rate to be unbudged at 7.7 in August.

There are some reasons to think the Bank might be right – an ageing population working longer, slack within companies (such as part-time working) which can be ramped back up again before any new hiring takes place – but if markets continue to price in a rate rise early than the Bank expects, then it has de facto policy tightening to deal with.

Right time to pump up UK housing market?

The British government is poised to announce the extension of its “help to buy” scheme for potential home owners.

As of today, any buyer(s) of a property up to a value of 600,000 pounds ($960,000) who can put up a five percent deposit, will see the government guarantee to the lender a further 15 percent of the value so a bank or building society will only be lending on 80 percent of the property’s value. Until now, demands for cripplingly large deposits have shut many prospective buyers out of the market.

The big question is whether now – with property prices rising by around 3 percent nationally and by a heady 10 percent annually in London – is a sensible time to be doing this given Britain’s long history of housing bubbles.

ECB can claim one early victory for forward guidance

The European Central Bank can claim at least one early victory for forward guidance: forecasters have been persuaded by its promise to keep key interest rates low or lower for a long time.

While ECB officials have struggled to talk down rising money market rates that point to an undesirable early tightening of monetary policy, they have had more luck influencing market economists in Reuters polls.

That’s significant because both euro zone central banks and the Bank of England use Reuters polls as a measure of interest rate expectations.

Italian market test

Italy will auction three different bonds, aiming to raise 7.5 billion euros against a volatile domestic backdrop.

A sale of one-year bills on Wednesday saw yields rise, this after the Treasury asked parliament to raise the ceiling on this year’s net debt issuance to 98 billion euros from 80 billion, given the struggle to rein in public finances and a government commitment to pay outstanding bills to firms, which at least could give the economy a boost.

Parliamentarians have a bigger fish to fry in the form of Silvio Berlusconi. A cross-party Senate committee that must decide on whether to bar him from political life drew back from the brink on Tuesday but has caused growing tension between the coalition parties with some of Berlusconi’s allies threatening to pull the shaky government down.

UK unemployment — the monthly monetary policy guide

Of the week’s economic data, today’s UK unemployment stands out since the Bank of England has pegged any move up in interest rates to a fall in the unemployment rate from 7.8 percent to below 7.0. The rate is forecast to have held at 7.8 percent in July.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has struggled to convince markets of his contention that interest rates are unlikely to rise for three years because the jobless rate will fall only very slowly. Interest rate futures – short sterling – spiked higher after last week’s policy meeting which offered no change of direction and no statement.

There are some key imponderables:
1. To what extent UK firms have kept workers on but worked them less (its certainly true that the jobless rate rose less than expected during Britain’s recession), leaving plenty of scope to ramp up as growth returns without hiring large numbers of new staff.
2. The economy is still three percent smaller than it was in 2008 but no one is quite sure how much activity has been permanently lost during the financial crisis so the size of the output gap is uncertain and therefore so is the level of output at which price pressures start to build.
3. Most importantly, with the Federal Reserve poised to act, can a country like Britain possibly divorce itself from the world’s economic superpower as it sets the global terms of monetary policy?