MacroScope

Reasons to do nothing

It’s ECB day and the general belief is that it won’t do anything despite inflation dropping to 0.5 percent in March, chalking up its sixth successive month in the European Central Bank’s “danger zone” below 1 percent.

The reasons? Policymakers expect inflation to rise in April for a variety of reasons, one being that this year’s late Easter has delayed the impact of rising travel and hotel prices at a time when many Europeans take a holiday. Depressed food prices might also start to rise before long.

More fundamentally, they do not see any signs of deflation psychology taking hold, whereby businesses and consumers defer spending plans in the expectation that prices will cheapen.

Expect ECB President Mario Draghi to state a number of times today that inflation expectations are anchored, although quite how one proves that is an open question.

Nonetheless, the tone coming out of the ECB has shifted perceptibly over the past two weeks after Draghi suggested after the ECB’s March meeting that the bank would either do nothing or take bold action should the threat of deflation loom much larger.

Sanctions loom for Russia

The European Union, as we exclusively reported yesterday, has agreed on a framework for sanctions against Russia, including travel restrictions and asset freezes, which goes further than many expected. The list of targeted individuals is still being worked on but will be ready for the bloc’s foreign ministers to look at on Monday.

Angela Merkel will speak to the German Bundestag about the standoff with Russia. Merkel has been cautious about imposing anything too tough as she tries to convince Vladimir Putin to agree to a “contact group” that would reopen communications between Moscow and Kiev. But yesterday she said measures would be imposed next week – after a Crimean referendum on joining Russia which the West says is illegal – unless diplomatic progress is made.

There is no sign of Vladimir Putin coming to the negotiating table and no question of western force being deployed. In Washington, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said his government was ready to negotiate over Moscow’s concerns for the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea – a possible diplomatic avenue? The U.N. Security Council will discuss the crisis in an open meeting later.

Spain ascendant?

Spain appears to be on the road to recovery, if you can call it that with around a quarter of the workforce without a job.

The government says growth hit 0.3 percent in the final quarter of the year, the second quarterly expansion in a row, and may upgrade its forecast for 0.7 percent growth in 2014.

Its borrowing costs have tumbled to four-year lows in a new year bond rally and today Madrid will try to cash in by selling up to 5.5 billion euros of bonds following an above-target sale last week.

New face at the ECB

The European Central Bank held a steady course at its first policy meeting of the year but flagged up the twin threats of rising short-term money market rates and the possibility of a “worsening” outlook for inflation – i.e. deflation.

The former presumably could warrant a further splurge of cheap liquidity for the bank, the latter a rate cut. But only if deflation really takes hold could QE even be considered.
Sabine Lautenschlaeger, the Bundesbank number two poised to take Joerg Asmussen’s seat on the executive board, breaks cover today, testifying to a European Parliament committee. A regulation specialist, little is known about her monetary policy stance though one presumes she tends to the hawkish.

Iran and the EU announced on Sunday that a deal between Tehran and six major powers intended to pave the way to a solution to a long standoff over its nuclear ambitions will come into force on Jan. 20. Thereafter, negotiations will begin on a final settlement. Brent crude has fallen in response. It’s early days but if oil falls significantly this year, that will factor into fears about deflation taking hold in Europe.

Italy versus Spain

Italy will auction up to 6 billion euros of five- and 10-year bonds after two earlier sales this week saw two-year and six-month yields drop to the lowest level in six months. Don’t be lulled into thinking all is well.

After Silvio Berlusconi’s failure to pull down the government, Prime Minister Enrico Letta has some time to push through economic reforms, cut taxes and spending. But already the politics look difficult and the central bank said yesterday that government forecasts for 1.1 percent growth next year and falling borrowing costs were overly optimistic.

Bank of Italy Governor Ignazio Visco and Economy Minister Fabrizio Saccomanni will speak during the day.

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.

Event risk

If you’re hankering after “event risk”, look no further. Europe can offer top central bank meetings, front line economic data, a debt auction and more political risk than you can shake a stick at today.

This could be almost a perfect storm of a day after the Federal Reserve said its bond-buying would continue unabated for now and gave no new firm steer as to when it might begin rowing back, although its choice of adjective to describe the pace of growth – modest rather than the previous moderate – could be a hint that it is in less hurry to taper.

Now, it’s the European Central Bank’s turn. Given its forecast for recovery in the second half of the year has some evidence behind it, an interest rate cut is unlikely. Instead, for the second month running, Mario Draghi may have to focus primarily on the backwash from the Fed.

The new reality

The Federal Reserve has spoken and the message seems pretty clear – unless the U.S. economy takes a turn for the worse the pace of money creation will be slowed before the year is out and it will be stopped by mid-2014.

That’s a fairly tight time frame, although interest rates won’t rise for some time after that, and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see a further bout of market volatility is likely, centred again on emerging markets which could suffer big portfolio investment outflows as U.S. bond yields climb.

The markets certainly don’t seem confused, just alarmed. The German Bund future has plummeted by nearly a point and a half to its lowest point since February, mirroring the spike in U.S. Treasury yields. European stocks shed 1.5 percent at the start.

What no crisis?

 

It seems eons since the euro zone finance ministers’ meetings which made such a hash of the Cyprus bailout but they were only two months ago. Monday’s Eurogroup will be altogether less eventful with some of the gathering probably a little jaded having spent part of their weekend at the G7 outside London where the usual differences about growth versus austerity and banking reform were aired.

No one will be sorry for a more routine meeting and there are no icebergs on the horizon but the agenda is still a full one. Featuring will be the economic situation on the basis of the Commission’s latest forecasts, the state of play in Cyprus, the decision already taken to release more bailout money to Greece, the new steps taken by Portugal to fill the gaps in its budget after the country’s top court struck some measures out, a review of European Commission reports on what is ailing Spain and Slovenia and a broad discussion about the merits of the ESM bailout being allowed to recapitalise bank retroactively from next year.

Italy offers a range of bonds at auction worth up to 8 billion euros which should be snapped up given the European Central Bank’s underwriting of the euro zone and Japanese money coursing through the financial system.

Cyprus Plan B – phoenix or dodo?

They’ve only been looking for it for a day but Cyprus’s Plan B has already taken on mythical status. A myth it might remain.

Ideas being floated include nationalizing the pension fund (back of the envelope calculations suggest that will raise less than a billion euros) and issuing bonds underpinned by future natural gas revenues (but no one is really sure how much they are worth). So to avoid default it still looks like the Cypriots may have to return to the bank levy they rejected so decisively in parliament on Tuesday, to raise the 5.8 billion euros the euro zone is demanding in return for a bailout.

Finance minister Sarris is still in Moscow hoping for some change out of the Russians and is out this morning saying discussions are ongoing about banks and natural gas.