MacroScope

Putin welcomes Crimea in

Vladimir Putin has told Russia’s Duma that he has approved a draft treaty to bring Ukraine’s Crimea region into Russia and in doing so continues to turn a deaf ear to the West’s sanctions-backed plea to come to the negotiating table.

Overnight, Japan added its weight to the sanctions drive, suspending talks with Moscow on an investment pact and relaxation of visa requirements. EU and U.S. measures have targeted a relatively small number of Russians and Ukrainians but presumably there is scope to go considerably further, particularly if Putin decided to move into eastern Ukraine too.

EU foreign ministers yesterday began discussing how to reduce energy reliance on Russia. That’s a long-term project but one that could deal a hammer blow to the Russian economy if it succeeds.

No short-term action is likely on gas as the EU can’t really do without Russia’s supplies and Moscow cannot afford to turn it off. World markets – and even Russian markets – have shrugged off Crimea’s vote to secede … so far.

In an attempt to show it is engaging, Moscow responded to Western pressure for an international “contact group” to mediate in the crisis by proposing a “support group” of states that would push for recognition of the Crimean referendum and urge a new constitution for rump Ukraine that would require it to uphold political and military neutrality.

One-off or precedent?

Cypriot banks were supposed to reopen today but they won’t and when they do capital controls will be slapped on to prevent money fleeing its borders (was that how the single currency zone and single market was supposed to work?) The controls are supposed to be temporary but the Icelandic experience showed that once imposed they can be devilishly hard to remove. It seems pretty certain that there will be a bank run when the doors are reopened, which is now slated for Thursday.

Dutch Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem gave markets a jolt yesterday. In an interview with Reuters he said in future, the onus would be put on banks to recapitalize and if they couldn’t “then we’ll talk to the shareholders and the bondholders, we’ll ask them to contribute in recapitalising the bank, and if necessary the uninsured deposit holders”. He added that he wanted to get to a situation where the euro zone never needed to use its ESM rescue fund to recapitalize banks directly – a plan that was created last year at the height of the crisis. That all seemed crystal clear but after some adverse market reaction a later statement was put out on his behalf reverting to the earlier line that Cyprus was a one-off case.

So which is it? One-off or precedent? With a banking system eight times the size of its economy and awash with foreign money Cyprus clearly is unlike any of its euro zone peers. But it’s been also clear for some time now that Germany and other northern Europeans don’t want taxpayers to be on the hook for future bailouts and are not keen on using the ESM to recapitalize banks (that was supposed to break the doom loop between weak banks and sovereigns but maybe not any more). German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was explicit after the bailout was agreed in the early hours of Monday morning, saying with the bail-in “we got what we always wanted”. As such, the Bundestag is almost certain to vote for it.

Euro zone week ahead

Italy will continue to cast a long shadow and has clearly opened a chink in the euro zone’s armour. It looks like the best investors can expect is populist Beppe Grillo supporting some measures put forward by a minority, centre-left government but refusing any sort of formal alliance. That sounds like a recipe for the sort of instability that could have investors running a mile. The markets’ best case was for outgoing technocrat prime minister Monti to support the centre-left in coalition, thereby guaranteeing continuation of economic reforms. But he just didn’t get enough votes. Fresh elections are probably the nightmare scenario given the unpredictability of what could result.

The story of the last five months has been the bond-buying safety net cast by the European Central Bank which took the sting out of the currency bloc’s debt crisis. But now it has an Achilles’ Heel. The ECB has stated it will only buy the bonds of a country on certain policy conditions. An unwilling or unstable Italian government may be unable to meet those conditions so in theory the ECB should stand back. But what if the euro zone’s third biggest economy comes under serious market attack? Without ECB support the whole bloc would be thrown back into crisis and yet if it does intervene, some ECB policymakers and German lawmakers will throw their hands up in horror, potentially calling the whole programme in to question.

In other words, until or unless a durable government is formed in Italy which can credibly say and do the right things, the euro zone crisis is back although not yet in the way it was a year ago when break-up looked possible.

Europe and the danger of soft-pedalling

No one really questions Angela Merkel’s supremacy in Germany but losing the key state of Lower Saxony in a Sunday election, albeit by the narrowest of margins, means we’ll have to put on ice proclamations that her re-election for a third term in the autumn is now merely a procession. The centre-left SPD and Greens won the state by a single seat. Merkel and others will speak about the result today. What it probably does affirm is that the Chancellor will be extremely cautious about agreeing to more euro zone crisis fighting measures before the national election is safely out of the way.

We’ve been here before. When the drumbeat of market pressure eases, euro zone policymakers have tended to lose their sense of urgency. Today’s meeting of euro zone finance ministers, the first of the year, could be a case in point. The agenda lists “progress” on Cyprus, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece with no decisions expected.
The meeting is set to anoint Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem as its new chairman after France dropped its objections on Sunday. He will attend the final press conference so it will be interesting to hear his pitch.

The most important area of debate will be the euro zone’s rescue fund and its ability eventually to recapitalize struggling banks directly, thereby breaking the “doom loop” whereby weak governments drive themselves further into debt by propping up listing banks while the lenders are stuffed with that government’s bonds which are liable to lose value. EU leaders seemed pretty clear at last June’s summit that this would be done but there are now suggestions that governments will remain on the hook to at least some extent. That would be a very significant backward step.

Do they they think it’s all over?

Is everything falling into place to at least declare a moratorium in the euro zone debt crisis?

Well the ESM rescue fund getting a go-ahead from Germany’s consitutional court and the Dutch opting to vote for the two main pro-European parties, following Mario Draghi’s confirmation last week that the European Central Bank would buy Spanish and Italian bonds if required, means things are starting to look a little rosier.

The risks? Next spring’s Italian election, and what sort of government results, casts a long shadow and it is just about conceivable that Spain could baulk at asking for help, given the strings attached, although the sheer amount of debt it needs to shift by the end of the year will almost certainly force its hand. If the Bundesbank mounted a guerrilla war campaign against the ECB bond-buying programme it could well undermine its effectiveness. That is a big if given broad German political support for the scheme. Key countries remain deep in recession with little prospect of returning to growth because of the imperative to keep eating away at their debt mountains, which could eventually trigger a dramatic public reaction. France could well get dragged into that category.

Get me to the court on time

Another blockbuster chapter in the euro zone epic.

Top billing today goes to Germany’s constitutional court, which is expected to give a green light to the euro zone’s permanent rescue fund, the ESM, albeit with some conditions imposed in terms of parliamentary oversight. The ruling begins at 0800 GMT. If the court defied expectations and upheld complaints about the fund, it would lead to the mother of all market sell-offs and plunge the euro zone into its deepest crisis yet.

Without the ESM, the European Central Bank’s carefully constructed plan to backstop the euro zone would be in tatters. It has said it will only intervene to buy the bonds of the bloc’s strugglers if they first seek help from the rescue fund and sign up to the strings that will be attached. The first rescue fund, the EFSF, could perhaps fill this role for a while but its resources are now threadbare, so without the ESM, markets would scent blood.

The Dutch go to the polls but with the hard-left Socialists seemingly losing support, the ruling Liberal party and moderate centre-left Labour are  neck-and-neck and look likely to form a coalition government committed to tight debt control and, more importantly, to the euro zone. So unless voters are lying to pollsters, some of the drama has leached out of this particular saga although it could take some considerable time to put a coalition together.

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.

Slow slow quick quick slow

Euro zone finance ministers meet later today to try and put flesh on the bones of the EU summit agreement 10 days ago. The trouble is there probably won’t be enough meat for markets which failed to rally significantly after the summit deal and are now unnerved by fresh signs of global slowdown.
Friday’s weak U.S. jobs report is the latest evidence to rattle investors so there is unlikely to be any let-up.

Spanish 10-year yields are back above seven percent. Madrid is fortunate not to face a heavy debt issuance month but August is a bit more demanding so time is short to turn things around. Italy’s Mario Monti said on Sunday the euro zone ministers must act now to lower borrowing costs and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy more dramatically said the credibility of the entire European project rests here. He continues to do his bit, pledging on Saturday to produce further deficit-cutting measures, probably on Wednesday. They could include a VAT hike and cuts to public sector benefits.

The Eurogroup is unlikely to dramatically change the terms of trade. It has a lot on its agenda – the proposed bailout of Spanish banks of up to 100 billion euros, a much smaller bailout of Cyprus as well as firming up the summit agreement that the euro zone’s rescue fund should be tasked with intervening on the bond market to bring borrowing costs down and, once a cross-border banking supervision structure is in place (another highly ambitious plan which is supposed to take shape in an even more ambitious six months), to be allowed to recapitalize banks directly.

EU summit aftermath

After the EU summit exceeded expectations the more considered verdict of the markets will dictate in the short-term, certainly until the European Central Bank’s policy meeting on Thursday. Previous summit deals crumbled pretty quickly buying only a few days or even hours of market relief.

After strong gains on Friday, Asian stocks are up modestly and European shares have edged higher. However, German Bund futures are nearly half a point higher, so something’s got to give and more often than not it’s the stock market that thinks again. So maybe Friday’s rally was a one-off.

For it to have any legs, the ECB may well have to come up with something on Thursday, and a quarter-point rate cut – widely priced in – may not be enough. ECB policymaker Asmussen is already out saying Greece must should not loosen its bailout programme, Spain can restore confidence with a bank recap plan that builds in a large margin for error and dismissing calls for the ESM rescue fund, which comes into being next week, to get a banking licence so it could draw on virtually unlimited ECB funds. That all sounds fairly uncompromising.

Pre-summit discord

There is an unusually public level of disagreement going into a key euro zone meeting. EU leaders aren’t helping to foster a sense of united purpose which could calm investors a little.

Yesterday, Germany’s Angela Merkel said Europe would not share debt liability as long as she lived. Maybe she was playing to a domestic audience, but if she means it, one of the main planks of a structure that could eventually solve this crisis has just been reduced to ashes. On the other side of the fence, Italy’s Monti said he was in no mood to rubber stamp any conclusions in Brussels. He said the summit promised to be “very difficult”. Spain’s Rajoy is in accord with him.

There may be movement in other areas though with Merkel’s coalition parties suggesting the ESM rescue fund could lend direct to banks, which would remove the stigma from the Spanish government of having to ask for aid and may explain why Madrid has been dragging its feet over a bank bailout of up to 100 billion euros, waiting for something better to come along.