MacroScope

Hollande’s moment of truth

This afternoon, French President Francois Hollande will expand upon his New Year announcement that French companies who agree to hire more workers could pay lower labour taxes in return and find themselves less tied up in red tape. Unemployment is running near to 12 percent and Hollande’s vow to get it falling by the end of 2013 fell short.

Unfortunately, the announcement has been eclipsed by his threat of legal action after a French magazine reported he was having an affair with an actress. France tends to overlook its politicians’ peccadilloes but with the economy in a hole, Hollande risks facing the charge that he should be focusing squarely on that.

To complicate matters his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, has been admitted to hospital following the reports. She will stay there for a number of days yet.
Given this is one of only two news conferences that Hollande has promised to give each year it’s hard to see how he can avoid it being hijacked by his personal life. As boxing promoter Don King was fond of saying: there are two chances, slim and none and Slim just left town.

The usual omerta about politicians’ private lives has been broken with opposition UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope calling it disastrous for the image of the presidency.

Even so, the odds are this squall will blow over so the far bigger question is about Hollande’s appetite for economic reforms. He has attracted criticism from abroad for being too timid in his shaking up of the labour market and the welfare state and is hoping this policy will prove to be a game changer.
It is risky. Giving a tax cut to companies means either raising taxes on ordinary people, cutting back state spending or both – not a vote winner any way round. But with his approval ratings at rock bottom, Hollande may feel he has little left to lose. He has already declared it time to stamp out abuses of a generous welfare state, and cut public spending to create room for tax reductions after a series of rises.

New face at the ECB

The European Central Bank held a steady course at its first policy meeting of the year but flagged up the twin threats of rising short-term money market rates and the possibility of a “worsening” outlook for inflation – i.e. deflation.

The former presumably could warrant a further splurge of cheap liquidity for the bank, the latter a rate cut. But only if deflation really takes hold could QE even be considered.
Sabine Lautenschlaeger, the Bundesbank number two poised to take Joerg Asmussen’s seat on the executive board, breaks cover today, testifying to a European Parliament committee. A regulation specialist, little is known about her monetary policy stance though one presumes she tends to the hawkish.

Iran and the EU announced on Sunday that a deal between Tehran and six major powers intended to pave the way to a solution to a long standoff over its nuclear ambitions will come into force on Jan. 20. Thereafter, negotiations will begin on a final settlement. Brent crude has fallen in response. It’s early days but if oil falls significantly this year, that will factor into fears about deflation taking hold in Europe.

Lew’s comes to Europe airing concerns

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew moves on to Berlin then Lisbon after spending yesterday in Paris. There, he urged Europe to do more to build up its bank backstops and capital, a fairly clear indication that Washington is underwhelmed by the German model of banking union which has prevailed.

Lew may also press for more German steps to boost domestic demand, after indirectly criticising Berlin for its policies during his last visit in April. If he does, he can expect a robust response from Schaeuble, at least in private.

Lew moves on to Portugal later in the day with Lisbon’s planned exit from its EU/IMF bailout presumably top of the agenda when he meets Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

That sinking feeling

Euro zone inflation, or deflation, is the focus of the moment.

Germany’s HICP rate fell to 1.2 percent last month, Italy’s hit 0.6 percent and Spain’s just 0.3 in December (not to mention Greece’s -2.9 percent). Today we get the figure for the euro zone as a whole. Forecasts for it to hold at 0.9 percent may now look a little toppy.

It’s too early for any dramatic moves but the European Central Bank, which has a policy meeting on Thursday, may well be pushed into easing policy if inflation refuses to pick up and/or the banks clam up ahead of this year’s health tests.

A shock fall in euro inflation to 0.7 percent prompted an interest rate cut to 0.25 percent in November followed by a chorus of denials that deflation was a threat. ECB chief Mario Draghi adhered to that last week but added that he and his colleagues had to make sure inflation didn’t get stuck in the “danger zone” below one percent.

Data to shape ECB week

Euro zone service sector PMIs and German inflation (with the euro zone number to follow on Tuesday) will lay the ground for the European Central Bank’s first policy meeting of the year.

The surveys are likely to show the currency bloc ended the year on a reasonably robust note with Germany leading the way as always, Italy and Spain showing signs of life and France looking worryingly weak.

Ireland’s reading is already out and has posted its fastest services growth in seven years. Much more importantly for the world, growth in China’s services industries slowed in December, confirming that the world’s second-largest economy lost steam at the end of last year.

Timber!

A deal on European banking union was finally struck overnight. Already the inquests have begun into how robust it is.

As we exclusively reported at the weekend, EU finance ministers agreed that banks will pay into funds for the closure of failed lenders, amassing roughly 55 billion euros which will be merged into a common pool in 2025. Yes, 2025.

Until then, if there is not enough money, a government will be able to impose more levies on banks. If that does not suffice, it would put in public money and if that is unaffordable, it could seek a bailout from the euro zone’s ESM bailout fund with conditions and stigma attached.

Banking union … timber not steel

A day after she was sworn in for a third term and a day before she attends an EU summit in Brussels, Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech in the Bundestag lower house. She will then head to Paris in the evening for a meeting with French President Francois Hollande. That bilateral could be the moment that the seal is set on banking union, in time for the Thursday/Friday EU leaders summit.

In parallel, the bloc’s 28 finance ministers will meet in Brussels to try and finalise a common position on the detail. “For the acceptance of the euro on financial markets, the banking union is very important,” Merkel said on Tuesday.

For the markets, it will be impossible to look beyond today’s Federal Reserve policy decision which might, or might not, start the process of slowing the pace of money-printing which has been churning out $85 billion a month. But banking union is hugely important too.
Euro zone finance ministers made progress overnight, essentially agreeing the blueprint Reuters reported exclusively over the weekend.

Decision day for Kiev … and Moscow

Decision day for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich as he heads to the Kremlin seeking a financial lifeline while demonstrators in Kiev gather again to demand he steps down.

Vladimir Putin seems set to agree a loan deal, and possibly offer Ukraine a discount on the Russian natural gas.
It seemed he was the only game in town after an EU commissioner said the bloc was suspending talks on a trade agreement with Kiev. But yesterday, European Union foreign ministers said the door remained open, which in a way makes Yanukovich’s predicament harder.

Does Russia really need this? Politically yes, but economically? Ukraine is seeking help to cover an external funding gap of $17 billion next year and is in no position to pay for its gas.

Germany back in business

Germany’s Social Democrats voted overwhelmingly to join a “grand coalition” with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives. The government will offer broad continuity with some tweaks, the reappointment of Wolfgang Schaeuble as finance minister testifies to that. But could it unlock some euro zone policy doors after three months of limbo?

The big item on the agenda of an EU summit late this week is banking union. What results will dictate whether the seeds of a future financial crisis have been sown. Thanks to our exclusive at the weekend, we know that the latest proposal will see the cost of closing down a euro zone bank borne almost fully by its home country while a euro zone fund is built up over 10 years.

Key euro zone finance ministers will meet in Berlin today (as they did without success 10 days ago) to try and reach agreement in time for the summit. A full meeting of euro zone finance ministers is slated for Wednesday but it could take a bilateral meeting with the newly anointed Merkel and French President Francois Hollande to break the logjam.

Euro zone stock market investors: “Crisis? What crisis?”

European shares will be the best performers next year, according to the latest Reuters poll of more than 350 strategists, analysts and fund managers. Frankfurt’s DAX is already up nearly 20 percent this year and is forecast to rally another 10 percent in 2014.

But the experts in foreign exchange that Reuters surveys each month are also saying that the euro, just above $1.37, and not far off a two-year high against the dollar, will fall.

While both predicted outcomes may turn out to be true, the problem is that the flow of foreign money into European stocks is one of the reasons why the euro has remained so strong.