MacroScope

Draghi tries to keep show on the road

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The European Central Bank has one of its two offsite policy meetings of the year, in Naples. After a glut of measures last time it’s inconceivable that further action will be taken now but there is plenty to ponder.

A first tranche of cheap four-year loans has been offered to banks in the hope they will lend it on but the take-up was poor. The ECB is playing up the prospects of a second round in December after bank stress tests are out of the way. But having pledged to add the best part of 1 trillion euros to its balance sheet to rev up the euro zone economy, there is a lot of ground to cover.

Draghi will flesh out the ECB’s parallel plan to buy bundled-up loans – asset-backed securities – which has already been viewed with disquiet by Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann. That may be heightened by the realisation that if the ECB is to open the offer to banks across the euro zone, it may have to take in some rather dicey looking collateral from the likes of Greece and Cyprus.

A Reuters poll on Monday showed money market traders on average expect the ECB to buy a total of 200 billion euros of ABS and covered bonds over a year. Draghi has appealed to governments to support the plan by guaranteeing some riskier ABS tranches, but both France and Germany oppose that.

The ECB faces big political and philosophical hurdles to launching full quantitative easing. And there is now another reason to ponder whether it will take the ultimate step, which many in the markets assume is just a matter of time.

Middle East war takes another step

Shi'ite fighters from Mahde Army launch rockets during heavy fighting against Islamic state members at Bo Hassan village, near Tikrit

The United States and some Gulf allies have launched air strikes inside Syria against Islamic State militants.

A combination of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk attack missiles sounds like a formidable barrage so if intelligence about where the militants are is good, a significant blow could have been dealt.

Washington said Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar were involved though their precise role is unclear. It made no mention of European involvement and Britain has said it was not part of it.

Showdown for Hollande

French President Hollande and Finance Minister Sapin take part in the assizes for financing and investment at the Elysee Palace in Paris

The French government faces a confidence vote in the national assembly after President Francois Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, ousted dissident ministers in a signal perhaps that they are prepared to push ahead with unpopular structural reforms to breathe life into a moribund economy.

Rebel lawmakers in Hollande’s Socialist party say they may abstain. On top of the reshuffle, they are angry at Hollande’s policy switch in January to favour tax cuts to business in a bid to revive the economy – a move that has failed to kickstart a flatlining economy.

Hollande looks like he has the numbers to get home but a more profound rebellion could force him to dissolve parliament and call new elections. The Socialists have a one-seat majority in parliament.
Socialist party managers put at 30 the number of hard-left deputies set to abstain. A revolt of that order would allow the government to scrape approval from the 577-seat assembly with support from centre-left allies outside the Socialist Party.

An almighty gamble

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves Downing Street in London

Having woken up to the very real possibility of Scotland going it alone, the leaders of Britain’s main parties have scrapped their parliamentary business and headed north to campaign in what amounts to a huge gamble.

The “No” campaign has been criticized for many things – being too negative (though no is negative by definition), being too aloof, failing to address the hole’s in Alex Salmond’s manifesto. The question is whether it is too late to do anything about it. It is risky to deploy Prime Minister David Cameron who, by his own admission, is not catnip to the Scots.

Labour leader Ed Miliband is anything but a clear vote-winner either. The years when the Labour party ruled Britain with a raft of Scots in senior positions is gone. The party front bench now looks very English.

Over to Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama walks towards Air Force One before departing for Estonia while at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington

Barack Obama is in Estonia before the NATO summit in Wales intending to pressure Vladimir Putin to back off in Ukraine. The rhetoric will be strong – not least about protecting the Baltics under NATO’s umbrella.

But with zero chance of western military action in Ukraine the hope is that economic pain via sanctions will bring Moscow to heel. Existing sanctions are clearly hurting the economy – the rouble has plumbed record lows as capital flees or shuns the country – but that hasn’t stopped Putin so far.

He seems intent not on taking Ukraine over but keeping the rebels sufficiently well armed and supported to keep Kiev off balance and unstable. If that is the intention it has certainly succeeded.

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.

Greeks bearing bonds

Greece will sell its first bond in four years.

We know it will aim to raise up to 2.5 billion euros of five-year paper via syndication and wants to pay less than 5.3 percent – remarkable since only two years ago it was tipped to crash out of the euro zone and yields on 10-year debt peaked above 40 percent on the secondary market. They dropped below six percent for the first time since 2010 on Wednesday.

Athens has no pressing funding needs but wants to test the waters as part of its strategy to cover all its financing from the market by 2016. It still has a mountain to climb and may well need more debt relief from its EU partners to corral a national debt that is not falling much from 175 percent of GDP. 

But for all that, it’s a propitious time to borrow. Peripheral euro zone bond yields have tumbled this year, benefiting from wobbles in emerging markets, and now European Central Bank consideration of printing money has given bond prices a further lift.

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.

Japan-style deflation in Europe getting harder to dismiss

To most people, the idea of falling prices sounds like a good thing. But it poses serious economic and financial risks – just ask the Japanese, who only now finally have the upper hand in a 20-year battle to drag their economy out of deflation.

That front is shifting westward, to the euro zone.

Deflation tempts consumers to postpone spending and businesses to delay investment because they expect prices to be lower in the future. This slows growth and puts upward pressure on unemployment. It also increases the real debt burden of debtors, from consumers to companies to governments.

In many ways, policymakers fear deflation more than inflation as it’s a more difficult spiral to exit. After all, interest rates can only go as low as zero and if that doesn’t kickstart spending, they’re in trouble. Again, just ask the Japanese.

Ireland: bailout poster child, but hardly textbook

Amid the euphoria surrounding Ireland’s removal from junk credit rating status, it’s easy to get swept along by the consensus tide of opinion that the Emerald Isle is the “poster child” for euro zone austerity.

But were another country to find itself in Ireland’s unfortunate financial predicament now, few would suggest it follow the path Dublin took.

The Irish government assumed the entire nation’s private banking sector debt in 2008 after then finance minister Brian Lenihan explicitly guaranteed all bank debt in the country. It was hailed as a masterstroke at the time, but in an instant Ireland’s hands were tied and its options all but evaporated. Even the stuff that posed no systemic risk was put on the government’s – the taxpayers’ – books. This prevented the collapse of the financial system, but at a price: the country’s sovereign debt load almost doubled to around 100% of annual economic output, and in order to do that it was forced to take an €85 billion bailout from international creditors two years later.