MacroScope

ECB uncertainty

For European markets, Germany’s March inflation figure is likely to dominate today. It is forecast to hold at just 1.0 percent. The European Central Bank insists there is no threat of deflation in the currency area although the euro zone number has been in its “danger zone” below 1 percent for five months now.

Having appeared to set a rather high bar to policy action at its last meeting, this week the tone changed. Most notable was Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann, normally a hardliner, who said printing money was not out of the question although he would prefer negative deposit rates as the means to tackle an overly strong euro.

That looked like a significant shift although he did stress there was no need for imminent action.

Has something changed? Certainly the currency seems to be focusing minds though it’s probably too early for anything dramatic at next week’s policy meeting. With inflation running at just 0.7 percent and the euro near $1.40 – buoyed by emerging market outflows – further currency appreciation would cut import prices in a way that will push inflation lower still.

Weidmann speaks again this afternoon.

China’s Xi Jinping has said little during his week travelling Europe but will hold a news conference with Germany’s Angela Merkel later in the day.
As we reported from sources yesterday, Frankfurt will become the first hub for yuan payment transactions in Europe with the German and Chinese central banks set to seal the deal today. That’s one in the eye for London which has been pushed hard as the yuan offshore trading centre by the British government and will sign its own agreement next week.

G7 test of mettle

Another crunch week in the East-West standoff over Ukraine kicks off today with Barack Obama in the Netherlands for a meeting of more than 50 world leaders at a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands. There, he and his fellow G7 leaders will hold separate talks on Ukraine.

Obama upped the ante on Vladimir Putin last week with sanctions that hit some of his most powerful allies and strayed firmly into Russia’s banking and corporate world. The EU acted more cautiously but is looking at how financial and trade measures would work, getting ready in case Putin escalates the crisis further.

There is certainly no signs of de-escalation. Over the weekend forced Russian troops forced their way into Ukrainian military bases in Crimea and took them over. NATO’s top military commander said Russia had built up a “very sizeable” force on its border with Ukraine and may be eyeing up a region in the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova too.

Banking — union or disunion

EU finance ministers face the mammoth task of finalizing everything on banking union that was set out in principle by their leaders at a December summit, since when not much has happened. Last night, the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers made little progress bar agreeing that they needed to agree quickly.

Intractable issues such as who decides when a bank is failing, how a decision is taken to wind down a failing bank, what is the precise role of the European Central Bank, European Commission and European Parliament and how long it will take to build up a fund from bank levies to pay for failing lenders all have to be sorted out.

Plan A was for the fund to be built up over 10 years and then be pooled but critics say that leaves the bloc’s governments exposed for too long.

When is a war not a war?

Is it war if no shots have been fired? The Ukrainians say so but Moscow, its grip on Crimea now pretty much complete, says it is merely protecting its people. The rest of the world and its financial markets watch on very uneasily.

There is virtually no chance of any western military response after Vladimir Putin declared he had the right to invade his neighbour – NATO  expressed “grave concern” but did not come up with any significant measures to apply pressure on. But there will be a diplomatic and economic price to pay.

The rouble tumbled by 2.5 percent at Monday’s open and the central bank has already acted to try and underpin it, raising its key lending rate by 1.5 percentage points although the Russian economy is already in poor shape. The main Russian stock index has plunged by about 9 percent with Gazprom doing worse than that and safe haven German Bund futures have jumped.

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.

Breakneck speed of events in Ukraine

 

An extraordinary weekend. Ukraine’s President Yanukovich is gone and is probably at large somewhere in the pro-Russian heartlands of the east.

There’s no prospect of his return given how fast events have moved and after his people saw the shameless opulence stored within his country retreat.

Ukraine’s parliament named its new speaker as acting head of state on Sunday and is working to form an interim government by Tuesday, ahead of May 25 elections.

Ukrainian tipping point

Violence in Ukraine has escalated to a whole new level. The health ministry says 25 people have been killed in fighting between anti-government protesters and police who tried to clear a central square in  Kiev. The crackdown, it seems, has been launched.

President Viktor Yanukovich met opposition leaders for talks last night but his opponents, Vitaly Klitschko and Arseny Yatsenyuk, quit the talks without reaching any agreement on how to end the violence and said they would not return while blood is being shed.

The opposition are pressing for changes to the constitution which would curb the powers of Yanukovich and allow for the appointment of a technical government. Yanukovich is yet to name a new prime minister. If he names a hardliner, that could prove incendiary.

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.

High unemployment putting the ECB in isolation

 

Unemployment in the euro zone is stuck at 12 percent, an already high rate that masks eye-popping rates in many of its struggling member economies.

But in a press conference lasting one hour, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi mentioned the problem of high unemployment only a few times – satisfied with the central bank’s usual stance of imploring euro zone governments to implement structural reforms to their labour markets, on a case by case basis.

Draghi said:

 … although unemployment in the euro area is stabilising, it remains high, and the necessary balance sheet adjustments in the public and the private sector will continue to weigh on the pace of the economic recovery.   

ECB – stick or twist?

 

The European Central Bank meets today with emerging market disorder high on its agenda.

It’s probably  too early to force a policy move – particularly since the next set of ECB economic and inflation forecasts are due in March – but it’s an unwelcome development at a time when inflation is already uncomfortably low, dropping further to just 0.7 percent in January, way below the ECB’s target of close to but below two percent.

If the market turbulence persists and a by-product is to drive the euro higher, which is quite possible, the downward pressure on prices could threaten a deflationary spiral which ECB policymakers have so far insisted will not come to pass.