MacroScope

A first for British politics

Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP drinks a pint of beer in the Gardeners Arms pub in Heywood near Manchester

By this time tomorrow, the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party is likely to be celebrating its first member of the Westminster parliament. Polls have just opened in the deprived seaside town of Clacton where the sitting Conservative lawmaker switched to UKIP and called a vote.

A second member of the ruling Conservative party has now defected to UKIP and will force another by-election before long leaving the party on tenterhooks over who might be next. Many fear they will lose their seats at the May 2015 general election as UKIP splits their vote.

Could that be enough for them to turn on David Cameron? Maybe not but if they did go for a new leader they would inevitably want someone who was more anti-European with all the implications that would have for a planned referendum on EU membership in 2017.

Cameron has a strong argument – that only by keeping him as prime minister will Britons get an in/out EU referendum. To vote UKIP and split the right-wing vote would be to give the opposition Labour party the keys to power. It has not promised an EU vote.

But while some recent opinion polls put the Conservatives marginally ahead, the average of polls puts Labour about four points up.

Euro falling but no impact on inflation yet

Lithuanian 1 euro coins are pictured in the Lithuanian Mint in Vilnius

Euro zone inflation figures are due and after Germany’s rate held steady at 0.8 percent the figure for the currency bloc as a whole could marginally exceed forecasts and hold at 0.4 percent.

One upside for the currency bloc is the falling euro which has broken below its 2013 lows and is down almost nine percent from the peak it hit against the dollar in May. With U.S. money printing about to end next month and speculation intensifying about the timing of a first interest rate rise from Washington, there are good reasons to think that this trend could continue.

If it does, it would push the prices of imports up while making it easier for euro zone countries to sell abroad which should have an upward impact on both growth and inflation. The impact won’t be instant, however, as today’s figures will demonstrate.

Britain to join the fray

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq

The British parliament will vote today on whether UK forces should join U.S.-led air attacks against Islamic State militants. Any action will be confined to Iraq, which has asked for help, not Syria where IS also controls swathes of territory. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a separate vote on that if it comes to it.

Unlike last year when action to stop Syria’s Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against his own people was voted down, all the main parties appear to be broadly in support, probably swayed by the beheading of captives by the Sunni militants.

There shouldn’t be much difficulty arguing that the group poses a threat to Britain and its interests. Iraq’s prime minister said overnight that Baghdad had “credible” intelligence that Islamic State militants plan to attack subway systems in Paris and the United States. The attacks, he said, were plotted from inside Iraq.

Will the guns fall silent?

A Ukrainian serviceman smokes as he sits on an armoured vehicle near Kramatorsk

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the main pro-Russian rebel leader said they would both order ceasefires on Friday, provided that an agreement is signed on a new peace plan to end the five month war in Ukraine’s east.

Talks are due to resume in the Belarussian capital Minsk. On Wednesday, following a string of aggressive statements in previous days, Vladimir Putin put forward a seven-point peace plan, which would end the fighting in Ukraine’s east while leaving rebels in control of territory.

Poroshenko expressed “cautious optimism” about the Minsk talks but given the rebels have advanced rapidly across eastern Ukraine in the past week, backed by what Kiev and NATO say is the support of thousands of Russian troops with artillery and tanks, the balance of interests in calling hostilities off has shifted.

EU cuts off Russian banks, puts ball in Moscow’s court

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

True to its word, the EU agreed sweeping sanctions on Russia yesterday, targeting trade in equipment for the defence and oil sectors and, most crucially, barring Russia’s state-run banks from accessing European capital markets. The measures will be imposed this week and will last for a year initially with three monthly reviews allowing them to be toughened if necessary.

There was no rowing back from the blueprint produced last week – having already agreed to exempt the gas sector – and the United States quickly followed suit, targeting Russian banks VTB, Bank of Moscow, and Russian Agriculture Bank, as well as United Shipbuilding Corp.

That is important. Both sides are striving to shut down alternative sources of capital for Russia’s financial sector although there has already been some reaching out to Asia. Gazprombank held a two-day roadshow with fixed-income investors in Seoul last week.

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.

Tight consensus on China’s growth rate not reflecting real range of opinion

AChina’s economy, even to a non-specialist given a few minutes to stop and think, is clearly extremely difficult to measure.

When your population is 1.4 billion and you are in the midst of an unprecedented government and credit-fuelled expansion in infrastructure on your way to developed economy status, there are plenty of things that may get overlooked.

This is a completely normal set of circumstances in any developing and rapidly-changing economy no matter what methodology is used. Enough to fill tomes has been written on China’s data measurement challenges by commentators, policymakers and academics, not to mention the whole question of whether GDP is a useful way of measuring how any economy is faring.

The Fed’s taper and the question of the “tag-along” $5 billion

By Ann Saphir

Federal Reserve policymakers are expected next week to trim their monthly purchases of bonds by another $10 billion, putting them on track to end the massive program by October or December. So – which will it be, October or December? Some Fed officials are pushing for an answer, and soon.

“I am bothered by the fact that I don’t really know what we are going to do on that,” Narayana Kocherlakota, the dovish chief of the Minneapolis Fed, told reporters last month. “It’s another signal that we are not being as clear about our policy choices as we should be.”

If the Fed continues to taper the program by $10 billion at each meeting, monthly bond purchases will be down to $15 billion by the time of the October policy-setting meeting. Richard Fisher, the hawkish head of the Dallas Fed, told Reuters in late May, “I will vote to end it in October.”

Scrambling to flesh out skeleton Fed board

“It’s about time” was the general reaction when on Thursday the Senate Banking Committee scheduled a vote on Barack Obama’s nominees for the Federal Reserve board. Not that Stanley Fischer, Lael Brainard and Jerome Powell (a sitting governor who needs re-confirmation) have been waiting all that long; it was January that the U.S. president nominated them as central bank governors, and only a month ago that the trio testified to the committee. The urgency and even anxiety had more to do with the fact that only four members currently sit on the Fed’s seven-member board and one of those, Jeremy Stein, is retiring in a month. The 100-year old Fed has never had only three governors, and the thought of the policy and administrative headaches that would bring was starting to stress people out. After all, the Fed under freshly-minted chair Janet Yellen is in the midst of its most difficult policy reversal ever.

“Boy it would be more comfortable if there were at least five governors and hopefully more” to help Yellen “think through these very difficult communications challenges,” said Donald Kohn, a former Fed vice chair. Former governor Elizabeth Duke, who stepped down in August, said one of the Fed board’s strengths is its diversity of members’ backgrounds. “With fewer people you don’t have as many different points of view on policy,” she said in an interview.

The Senate committee votes on the three nominees April 29. But they can’t start the job until the full Democratic-controlled Senate also schedules a vote and gives them the green light.

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.