MacroScope

ECB rate cut expectations to be left deflated

Euro zone inflation has dropped to just 0.8 percent and the core measure is lower still – at 0.7 percent it has fallen pretty consistently over the last year.

Nonetheless, the European Central Bank is likely to sit tight at its policy meeting today. The Bank of England’s rate setters are also meeting but facing a very different set of problems.

It’s probably too early for any dramatic moves but the ECB may well be pushed into easing policy if inflation refuses to pick up and/or the banks clam up ahead of this year’s health tests. Today, Mario Draghi is likely to reaffirm its readiness to act.

A shock fall in euro zone inflation prompted an interest rate cut to 0.25 percent in November followed by a chorus of denials that deflation was a threat. 

Draghi adhered to that last week but added that he and his colleagues had to make sure inflation didn’t get stuck in the “danger zone” below one percent. It’s been there for three months already. Furthermore, lending to euro zone companies shrank at the fastest pace on record in November.

Banking union … timber not steel

A day after she was sworn in for a third term and a day before she attends an EU summit in Brussels, Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech in the Bundestag lower house. She will then head to Paris in the evening for a meeting with French President Francois Hollande. That bilateral could be the moment that the seal is set on banking union, in time for the Thursday/Friday EU leaders summit.

In parallel, the bloc’s 28 finance ministers will meet in Brussels to try and finalise a common position on the detail. “For the acceptance of the euro on financial markets, the banking union is very important,” Merkel said on Tuesday.

For the markets, it will be impossible to look beyond today’s Federal Reserve policy decision which might, or might not, start the process of slowing the pace of money-printing which has been churning out $85 billion a month. But banking union is hugely important too.
Euro zone finance ministers made progress overnight, essentially agreeing the blueprint Reuters reported exclusively over the weekend.

Crisis in Kiev

Ukraine’s shock decision to turn its back on an EU trade deal continues to reverberate with mass rallies on the streets of Kiev in protest at President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision.

To try to defuse tensions, Yanukovich issued a statement saying he would do everything in his power to speed up Ukrainian moves toward the EU. Is this another U-turn or mere semantics? The answer is important.

Kiev must find more than $17 billion next year to meet gas bills and debt repayments. Another sovereign meltdown is far from impossible.
Yanukovich is due to embark on a trip to China. Dare he go? And is the opposition cogent enough to threaten him? The call for a national strike will be an acid test.

The big questions on the UK housing market: what the analysts say

Although UK house prices will head steadily higher in the next two years, analysts polled by Reuters are divided over whether the Bank of England can restrain the market if it overheats. Here’s what they said in the latest Reuters poll, taken this week: How confident are you in the BoE’s ability to moderate the housing market if necessary?

PETER DIXON, COMMERZBANK: “Not very. A cynical interpretation would be that the government wants to see a decent rise in house prices over the next couple of years and would not be best pleased to see the BoE take the steam out of it. Nor is it clear that the BoE has the policy instruments to target the housing market without causing collateral damage elsewhere in the economy. Finally, it would call into question the thrust of policy if Help to Buy is giving to the housing market with one hand whilst the BoE is taking away with another.”

PHILIP LACHOWYCZ, FATHOM FINANCIAL CONSULTING: “Not at all. The Bank of England through the FPC does now have the instruments and mandate to take specific action in the housing market. However, we find it unlikely that it will take any action as it would mean directly working against government policy.”

France, Italy compare notes

French President Francois Hollande is in Rome for talk with Italy’s Enrico Letta. Both have a lot on their minds.

The French economy contracted in the third quarter and Hollande faces a blanket of criticism over his timid economic reforms (although he has pushed through some labour and pension changes).

The French government announced yesterday an overhaul of a complex tax system, hoping it will douse a public backlash against high taxes (which have been favoured over spending cuts so far) which has led to back-pedalling on several plans this year. It will not lower the overall tax burden but is promising a fairer system to be enshrined in the 2015 budget. Whether that does anything to revive its rock-bottom popularity rating remains to be seen. Detail is scant so far.

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.

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.