MacroScope

UK growth robust so what’s eating David Cameron?

Britain's Prime Minister Cameron arrives at the European Council headquarters ahead of a EU summit in Brussels

British GDP data are forecast to show healthy growth of 0.7 percent in the third quarter.

Britain’s economy is growing at a strong annual clip of around three percent, a pace most euro zone countries could only dream of. But the government is worried that the currency area’s new malaise could take the shine off things in the run-up to May’s general election.

Then there is the stunningly low level of wage and income growth, lower even than Britain’s sluggish level of inflation. This is a robust recovery but how many Britons are feeling it?

With elections increasingly in mind, the ruling Conservative party would not have been happy about some of the headlines from Day One of an EU summit in Brussels.

Climate change was the main business and Germany’s Angela Merkel said the EU will discuss a bridging loan to Kiev next week so that the country can pay in advance for Russian gas deliveries, as Moscow has demanded in return for turning the taps back on. That will come as a relief as any interruption to winter flows to western Europe, via Ukraine from Russia, would have dealt another blow to already struggling EU economies.

EU leaders meet for a gas

France's President Hollande talks with German Chancellor Merkel  during a meeting on the sidelines of a Europe-Asia summit in Milan

A two-day summit of EU leaders is supposed to focus on climate and energy policy including efforts to enhance energy security following the threat of interruptions to gas supplies from Russia.

That is no small issue. Russia and Ukraine have failed so far to reach an accord on gas supplies for the coming winter but agreed to meet again in Brussels in a week in the hope of ironing out problems over Kiev’s ability to pay.

An agreement was reached on the price Ukraine would pay Russia’s Gazprom as long as it paid in advance for the deliveries. But Moscow is still seeking assurances on how Kiev would find the money to pay. It’s likely the EU will have to step in there.

Franco-German meeting

German Finance Minister Schaeuble and his French counterpart Sapin attend news briefing after talks in Berlin

The big question of the week is whether financial market gyrations continue, worsen or calm. European stocks are being called higher at the open.

Greece has been effectively shut out of the bond market. If it and others on the euro zone’s southern flank come under persistent market pressure, in a way that hasn’t happened for two years, the onus on the European Central Bank to act will grow and grow.

None of the countries likely to be in the firing line appear to qualify for the conditions attached to the ECB’s still-unused OMT bond-buying programme, the legality of which is under review by the European Court of Justice.

French figures under microscope

French Finance Minister Sapin adjusts his tie while seated at the start of debate on France's 2015 budget at the National Assembly in Paris

France will submit its 2015 budget to the European Commission today and, after a respectable period of consideration, it is likely to be thrown right back.

Paris has confirmed it will yet again miss the EU’s debt limits, failing to achieve a budget deficit of three percent of GDP until 2017 four years after it should have done.

EU officials have warned they could use their powers to reject the budget outright – a political humiliation for Paris. French Finance Minister Michel Sapin ruled out substantive changes on Tuesday though he expressed hope that a rift could be avoided.

ECB in the dock

Protestors left some barbed wire in front of the euro sign landmark outside the headquarters of the ECB before its monthly news conference in Frankfurt

The European Court of Justice holds a first hearing on the legality of the European Central Bank’s Outright Monetary Transactions programme. There won’t be anything definitive today but it serves to rekindle debate about the limits of the ECB’s powers.

In February, the German Constitutional Court asked the European Court to rule on the legality of OMT, the mechanism that drew a line under the euro zone crisis when it was unveiled in 2012. The court may give guidance about how best to make a final ruling which is expected in late spring next year.

The scheme has never been deployed because the mere threat of action prompted government borrowing costs to tumble to record lows. Now, the debate is centred on whether the central bank should start printing money to ward off a deflationary downward spiral.

Battle lines drawn

Germany's Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schauble speaks during a discussion during the World Bank/IMF annual meetings in Washington

The predictable battle lines were drawn at the G20/IMF meetings in Washington – most of the world urged Europe to do more to foster growth while Germany warned against letting up on austerity. The argument will doubtless be reprised today when euro zone finance ministers meet in Luxembourg.

Given a ghastly run of German data last week and sharp cuts to its growth forecasts by the IMF and Germany’s economic institutes, Berlin’s stance looks increasingly odd but Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble continued to make it abundantly clear he will not countenance any more public spending in the one European country that could really afford it.

Writing cheques won’t fix Europe, he stated bluntly.

If there was anything new it appeared to be the intensity of the response. This from European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi: “For governments that have fiscal space it makes sense to use it. You decide to which countries this sentence applies.”

Shocking German figures

A new Mercedes AMG GT super sports car rim is seen during a factory tour for journalists at the Mercedes AMG headquarters in Affalterbach

After a stunning fall in German industrial orders for August – the 5.7 percent monthly drop was the largest since the global financial crisis raged in 2009 – industrial output for the same month has just plunged by 4.0 percent, also the biggest fall in five years.

After Europe’s largest economy shrank in the second quarter there had been hope of a pick-up in the following three months but the thrust of recent data suggests it will be lucky to achieve any expansion at all.

At the same time, the government – particularly finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble – vehemently rejects calls from euro zone and G20 peers for greater efforts to get growth going.

French budget to fire EU growth debate

hollande5.jpg

France is unveiling its 2015 budget right now and it’s not making pretty reading, confirming that Paris will not get its budget deficit down to the EU limit of three percent of GDP until 2017, years after it should have done.

The health minister has said the welfare deficit is expected to run nearly one billion euros over budget this year and data on Tuesday showed France’s national debt hit a record high in the second quarter, topping two trillion euros for the first time. It will near 100 percent of GDP next year.

All this is predicated on growth picking up and the proportion of national income going on public spending will fall only glacially.
French President Francois Hollande and Italy’s Matteo Renzi are leading a drive to use the maximum amount of flexibility within EU rules to allow a bit more spending or lower taxes to get growth going – French Finance Minister Michel Sapin has just said the pace of budget consolidation in the euro zone must be adapted to reflect the reality of a stagnant economy.

Renzi and Schaeuble: Compare and contrast

renzi2.jpgItalian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will spell out to the European Parliament his priorities for Italy’s six-month tenure of the EU presidency.
Emboldened by a strong showing in May’s EU elections, Renzi is pressing for a focus on growth rather than austerity and has even managed to get Germany to talk the talk.

At an EU summit last week, leaders accepted the need to allow member states extra time to consolidate their budgets as long as they pressed ahead with economic reforms. They pledged to make “best use” of the flexibility built into the bloc’s fiscal rule book – not, you will notice, countenancing any change in the rules.

As always in the EU, this will stand or fall on the attitude in Germany. We could get an early reading on that when German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble presents 2015-2018 budget plans. Berlin plans to refrain from any net new borrowing from 2015 for the first time since 1969 and will spend projected higher tax revenues on education and infrastructure.

Osborne stakes out election ground with little fiscal leeway

The annual UK budget is always a big set piece but it’s hard to remember one where there have been fewer advance leaks – indicative of a steady-as-she-goes approach by George Osborne.
Having put so much political capital into reducing the deficit, to switch now at a time when the economy is recovering strongly would be politically risky. And with debt falling only slowly there is little fiscal leeway.

That’s not to say this isn’t a big political moment. Yes there is the finance minister’s autumn statement and another budget before May 2015 elections but this is the moment when the narrative for the economy and Britons’ wellbeing is staked out.

So expect a further increase in the threshold at which income tax starts to be paid, to help the poorer, and measures to boost business investment in an attempt to rebalance the economy.
Osborne will also extend his “help to buy” housing scheme, questionable at a time when property prices are rising strongly. On the thrift front, he will announce details of a ceiling on welfare spending.