MacroScope

Escalation in Crimea

Worrying escalation in Crimea. Interfax reports Russian servicemen have take over a military airport in the Russian-speaking region of Ukraine and armed men are also patrolling the airport at Crimea’s regional centre of Simferopol.
Kiev has condemned the moves as an “armed invasion”.

There has been no bloodshed and there are more constructive noises from Moscow to weigh in the balance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his government to continue talks with Ukraine on economic and trade relations and to consult foreign partners including the IMF and the G8 on financial aid.

This is a developing theme from Moscow, military muscle flexing on the one hand while making encouraging noises about an aid package for Ukraine on the other. The interesting thing is this is the first time Putin has put his name to the call for financial help. Which impulse will prevail is the $64 million question. 

The United States has told Russia to demonstrate it was sincere about its promise not to intervene in Ukraine.

Italian shuffle

The decision by one of Silvio Berlusconi’s key allies to break from his party and back Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s fragile coalition appears to have shored up the Italian government with a final vote on expelling the media magnate from public life looming large.

Berlusconi said on Saturday his rump centre-right party had split from the coalition but did not have the numbers to bring it down.
Angelino Alfano, interior minister and deputy premier, said all five of the centre-right ministers under his umbrella would stay in the government but there is still plenty of disagreement within the coalition about the 2014 budget and doubts about Letta’s ability to push through meaningful economic reforms.

Letta is speaking at a conference “Charting the Way Ahead” today. On Sunday, economy minister Fabrizio Saccomanni said he wanted to accelerate public spending cuts following Friday’s criticism of the draft budget by the European Commission, which it said could break the bloc’s debt rules.

Forever blowing bubbles?

UK finance minister George Osborne is speaking at a Reuters event today, Bank of England Deputy Governor Charlie Bean addresses a conference and we get September’s public finance figures. For Osborne, there are so many question to ask but Britain’s frothy housing market is certainly near the top of the list.

The government is extending its “help to buy” scheme at a time when house prices, in London at least, seem to be going through the roof (no pun intended). Property website Rightmove said on Monday that asking prices for homes in the capital jumped 10.2 percent in the last month alone.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has suggested the Bank’s Financial Policy Committee should cap house price inflation at 5 percent a year. A Bank of England policymaker retorted that it wasn’t down to his colleagues to regulate prices.

Beware the Bundesbank

German newspaper Handelsblatt has got hold of a confidential Bundesbank report to Germany’s constitutional court, which sharply criticized the European Central Bank’s bond-buying plan. This could be very big or it could be nothing.

Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann has made no secret of his opposition to the as yet unused programme and since the mere threat of massive ECB intervention has driven euro zone bond yields lower for months there is no urgency to put it into action. But the OMT, as it is known, is by far the single biggest reason that markets have become calmer about the euro zone, so anything that threatens it could be of huge importance.

The key point is not the Bundesbank’s stance but how the Constitutional Court responds. It is due to consider OMT in June. Through the three-year debt crisis, when Berlin has reluctantly crossed red lines it has had to get the court’s approval. So far, it has always been forthcoming, though sometimes with strings attached. But if it took the Bundesbank’s assertion that bond-buying could “compromise the independence of the central bank” at face value, it is almost certain to have a long hard look. We already know that the court is a potential stumbling block to banking union as it has ruled that any future euro mechanisms would only be in order if Germany’s maximum liability was clearly defined.

The morning after the night before

After some perplexingly negative initial market reaction to the Draghi gambit everything turned around. European stocks leapt nearly 2.5 percent yesterday and Asian shares are set to bank their biggest daily gain in six weeks. Italian and Spanish borrowing costs have fallen markedly.

The fact that the ECB has set no limit on how many bonds it might buy marks this scheme out as very different to its predecessor but we’ve seen many false dawns before so it behoves us to keep an eye on what might prevent ECB President Mario Draghi drawing a line under nearly three years of debt crisis.

       1. Could Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann, who remains strongly opposed, quit as his predecessor did last year? Very unlikely for now though there could be a later confrontation, on which more below. It was notable how many of Angela Merkel’s political lieutenants were deployed in public to back Draghi yesterday, although the German press have taken an altogether more negative view which could inflame German public opinion.

Euro zone gymnastics

Sometimes, a week away from the fray can bring perspective. Sometimes, you miss all hell breaking loose.
My last day in the office saw European Central Bank President Mario Draghi utter his “we will do whatever it takes” to save the euro declaration. The markets took off on that, only to sag when the ECB didn’t follow through at last Thursday’s policy meeting.

In fact, it was never that likely that the ECB would rush to act, particularly since Draghi’s verbal intervention had started to push Italian and Spanish borrowing costs lower and the troika of lenders was still musing over Greece. But it seems to me that, despite German reservations, the ECB president has shifted the terms of trade, something market action is beginning to reflect.

There can be little doubt now that the ECB will intervene decisively if required – and the removal of that doubt takes away the main question that has kept markets on edge every since a bumper first quarter evaporated. Yes, there are caveats – notably the fact that Draghi said the ECB would only step in if countries first request assistance. With that will come conditionality and surveillance but it seems highly unlikely that Spain, for example, will be required to come up with any further austerity measures given what it is already doing. Spanish premier Rajoy seemed to soften Madrid’s opposition to seeking help last week, though he said he wanted to know precisely what the ECB might do in return. Until now, seeking sovereign aid has been a taboo for Spain. If that’s changed, it’s also big news.

Get me to the court on time

Markets were a little unnerved yesterday by concern that Germany’s top court may take a long time to rule on complaints lodged against the euro zone’s permanent bailout fund, the ESM, which was supposed to come into effect this week. Finance Minister Schaeuble urged the constitutional court to reach a speedy decision. The judges are not expected to block it but Germany’s president says he won’t sign it into law without the court’s go-ahead. A minor delay will pose no problem. A lengthier one could jolt investors.

The head of the court raised the possibility of a review taking take two to three months. That could create a dangerous vacuum though he stressed that was just one option. Schaeuble is just out again saying he hopes for a verdict before the autumn.

Bundesbank head Weidmann said even rapid ratification may not stop the crisis escalating further. With only a maximum 500 billion euros (100 billion of which is earmarked for Spain’s banks) at its disposal, the ESM looks ill-equipped to tackle the bond market head on. When the European Central Bank intervened last year to lower Italian borrowing costs it was spending 13/14 billion euros a week. And even then, it bought only temporary leeway.

Today in the euro zone

Top billing of the day probably goes to Germany’s Merkel and Italy’s Monti meeting in Rome, though it is quite late in the day.  The Italian premier remains the austerity poster boy, in contrast to Spain’s Rajoy who was partially let off the hook by Brussels last night for abandoning his deficit target, though he was told to split the difference between the first target and his new, looser goal.

While trying to avoid a blizzard of numbers, Spain was supposed to land a deficit of 6 percent of GDP last year and 4.4 this, en route to the main target of 3.0 percent in 2013. Rajoy’s new government announced that last year the deficit had in fact swelled to 8.5 percent of GDP and as such he would only aim for 5.8 percent this year while sticking to next year’s goal. The Eurogroup told him last night to aim for 5.3 this year, cutting some significant slack but, but by demanding more cuts than Rajoy wanted to deliver, probably avoiding serious market disquiet about Spain becoming the new Greece – forever missing its targets – and undermining the bloc’s new fiscal pact while the ink is barely dry.

Nonetheless, the net result is likely to be to drag Spain deeper into recession this year. Looking at bond yield spreads, the markets don’t smell blood yet.