MacroScope

Russian sanctions … and France

After the EU widened its sanctions to include Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, the commander of Russian paratroopers and two Crimean energy firms, Ukrainian prime minister Yatseniuk is in Brussels today for talks. The EU is looking to shore up the situation to allow national elections to take place on May 25 and, along with Washington, has set any disruption of that vote as a red line.

Vladimir Putin, perhaps fearing significantly tougher sanctions, has belatedly given rhetorical support to the election. Whether it can legitimately take place given the chaos in parts of the country remains an open question.

The latest additions bring to 61 the number of Russians and Ukrainians the EU has slapped with asset freezes and visa bans and for the first time it has targeted companies after foreign ministers agreed to broaden the scope of sanctions. However, only broader trade and financial sanctions would really bite and on that, Washington is much keener than Europe which is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy needs.

Diplomatic sources said France would press ahead with a 1.2 billion-euro contract to sell helicopter carrier ships to Russia because cancelling it would hurt Paris more than Moscow.

After holding a referendum on self-rule which the West and Kiev dismissed as illegal, pro-Moscow rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine called on Monday for their region to become part of Russia. Moscow stopped short of endorsing their bid for annexation. Officials in Donetsk and Luhansk suggested a second vote would be held on joining Russia.

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.

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.

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.