MacroScope

The long and winding road to sanctions

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia

If it’s true to its word, the European Union will impose sweeping new sanctions on Russia this week, targeting state-owned Russian banks and their ability to finance Moscow’s faltering economy.

EU ambassadors will continue discussions on the detail of new measures, most significant of which would be banning European investors from buying new debt or shares of banks owned 50 percent or more by the state.

An embargo on arms sales to Moscow and restrictions on the supply of energy and dual-use technologies is also on the table but it looks like restrictions to supplying technology to Russia will include oil but exclude the gas sector.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy wrote to EU leaders asking them to authorise their ambassadors to complete an agreement by Tuesday. That would avoid the need for leaders to hold a special summit to approve the sanctions.

There remains the possibility that some of the proposed measures could be diluted or thrown out but that would amount to a pretty damning indictment of the EU’s resolve, which appears to have been stiffened by the nearly 200 citizens of one of its founding members – the Netherlands – killed in the Malaysian airliner downed over Ukraine.

EU slowly tightens screw

A coffin of one of the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17 downed over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, is carried from an aircraft during a national reception ceremony at Eindhoven airport

The EU is slowly tightening the screw on Russia, with senior officials proposing yesterday to target state-owned Russian banks in its most serious sanctions so far. Ambassadorial talks on how precisely that is to be done continue today and the measures are likely to be enacted next week.

One key proposal is that European investors would be banned from buying new debt or shares of banks owned 50 percent or more by the state. These banks raised almost half of their 15.8 billion euro capital needs in EU markets last year. That is a big deal and there are increasing signs of investors turning their back on Russia lock, stock and barrel. However, with its giant FX reserves, the central bank can provide dollars to fund external debt for a considerable period of time.

The ambassadors did agree to add more people and entities to the EU’s asset freeze list, using expanded criteria including Russian companies that help to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. The 15 individuals and 18 entities, half of which are companies, will be named today. Russian shares are down about 1 percent in early trade.

A dissenting voice

A train carrying the remains of the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17 arrives in Kharkiv

Interesting intervention from former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin late yesterday who warned that Russia risked isolation and having its efforts to modernize derailed.

That sort of internal criticism is rare but Kudrin has done so before without censure which suggests Vladimir Putin is – or has been – willing to hear it. Kudrin added that Moscow should not intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine.

EU foreign ministers came up with more promises of tougher action against Russia without quite showing the colour of their money. Meeting in Brussels they discussed restricting Russian access to European capital markets, defence and energy technology, asking the executive European Commission to draft proposals this week.

Common cause for Washington and Tehran in Iraq?

Iraq is going up in flames and there appears to be no question of the West putting boots back on the ground in contrast to 2003 when the United States and Britain invaded to topple Saddam Hussein and set in train a decade of chaos that has now exploded again.

Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite Muslim cleric has urged his followers to take up arms against a full-blown Sunni militant insurgency to topple Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The chances of ISIL militants taking heavily armed Baghdad are slim but that doesn’t mean conflict will not continue and, with Iraqi Kurdish forces seizing control the oil hub of Kirkuk just outside their autonomous enclave in the north, the prospect of the country splitting along sectarian lines is real.

Over the weekend, ISIL’s advance on Baghdad slowed but spread northwest, with Sunni militants seizing Tal Afar, a town close to the Syrian border.

Nearer to the brink

De-escalation?  Forget it. Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels in the east yesterday and Russia launched army drills near the border in response.

The big question now is whether Russian troops will cross into eastern Ukraine following a constant stream of warnings from Moscow about the security of Russian speakers there.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to have a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, following last week’s Geneva accord which aimed to pull things back from the brink. Kerry said yesterday that Russia’s “window to change course is closing” and U.S. President Barack Obama said tougher sanctions were ready to go. There is no question of Western military intervention.

Talking the talk

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi delivers a speech in Amsterdam which will fixate the markets following his recent statement that a stronger euro would prompt an easing of monetary policy.

Most notably via his Clint Eastwood-style “whatever it takes” declaration the best part of two years ago, Draghi has proved to be peerless in the art of verbal intervention. But even for him there is a law of diminishing returns which may require words to be backed up with action before long. 

In the 12 days since he put the euro firmly on the ECB’s agenda, the currency has actually weakened a little and certainly shied away from the $1.40 mark which many in the market see as a first red line for the euro zone’s central bank. That is probably because investors expect action from the ECB  soon and if so, there are good reasons to think they may be wide of the mark.

Deconstructing UK job numbers

On the face of it, the good news for the British government keeps on coming. Britain’s economy grew surprisingly fast last year and inflation fell below the Bank of England’s target for the first time in over four years in January. The government this month even got a nod from the International Monetary Fund which only last year criticized its austerity programme.

The latest confidence boost came from jobless figures on Wednesday. Not only did the unemployment rate fall to a five-year low of 6.9 percent but pay growth caught up with  inflation for the first time in nearly four years. That provides Prime Minister David Cameron’s government with another lift ahead of the 2015 elections, after it has come  under fire from the Labour opposition for overseeing a fall in living standards.

But a closer look at the data suggests a more nuanced picture.

Indeed, total pay growth in February reached 1.7 percent – matching the 1.7 percent rise in consumer prices in February and above their 1.6 percent increase in March.

Good news for Greece?

Unemployment is sky high, national debt is not far short of double the size of an economy which is still shrinking and its ruling coalition has a wafer-thin majority, yet there are glimmers of hope in Greece.

Having finally struck a deal with the EU and IMF to keep bailout loans flowing, Athens is preparing to dip its toe back into the bond market with a five-year bond for up to 2 billion euros.

The government has not said when the syndicated issue might be launched but having mandated banks for the sale the likelihood is sooner rather than later. It’s a remarkably quick return two years after a debt restructuring which was essentially a default.

Is it time for the ECB to do more?

From financial forecasters to the International Monetary Fund, calls for the European Central Bank to do more to support the euro zone recovery are growing louder.

With inflation well below the ECB’s 2 percent target ceiling and continuing to fall, 20 of 53 economists in a Reuters Poll conducted last week said the bank was wrong to leave policy unchanged at recent meetings and should do more when it meets on Thursday.

And the pressure on the ECB to do more has mounted after the preliminary inflation estimate for March was published on Monday. The data showed inflation cooling down further to 0.5 percent, its lowest since November 2009.

IMF verdict on Ukraine due

G7 leaders didn’t move the dial far last night, telling Russia it faced more damaging sanctions if it took any further action to destabilize Ukraine.
They will also shun Russia’s G8 summit in June and meet ”à sept” in Brussels, marking the first time since Moscow joined the group in 1998 that it will have been shut out of the annual summit.

There were some other interesting pointers. For one, the G7 agreed their energy ministers would work together to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas. Could this lead to the United States exporting shale gas to Europe? A committee of U.S. lawmakers will hear testimony on Tuesday from those who favour loosening restrictions on gas exports.

Sanctions imposed so far may be limited but they are hitting investment and Russia’s currency and stock market. The economy is barely growing and the government said yesterday it now expected net capital outflows of up to $70 billion in the first quarter of the year.