MacroScope

Brussels looks warily at German surplus

Barring a last minute change of heart, the European Commission will launch an investigation into whether Germany’s giant trade surplus is fuelling economic imbalances, a charge laid squarely by the U.S. Treasury but vehemently rejected by Berlin.

This complaint has long been levelled at Germany (and China) at a G20 level and now within the euro zone too. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta urged Berlin this week to do more to boost growth.

Stronger German demand for goods and services elsewhere in the euro zone would surely help recovery gain traction. The counter argument is that in the long-run, only by improving their own competitiveness can the likes of Spain, Italy and France hope to thrive in a globalised economy.

Berlin says it has more than halved its current account surplus with the euro zone as a share of gross domestic product since 2007. But its global current account surplus is the biggest in the world as a percentage of GDP. It totalled 6.9 percent of GDP last year, higher than the 6 percent threshold that the Commission considers excessive.

One thing is sure; German policymakers will be furious at a time when they are still trying to construct a coalition under Angela Merkel.
As we’ve reported in recent days, the signs are that the next government in Berlin is already heading away from further surrenders of sovereignty. If an in-depth review concluded that the surplus is causing imbalances to Germany’s and Europe’s economy and Germany does not take the recommended steps to fix the problem, the final result can be a fine of 0.1 percent of GDP – which would enrage more than hurt.

United on banking union?

Reuters reported over the weekend that Angela Merkel’s Conservatives and the centre-left SPD had agreed that a body attached to European finance ministers, not the European Commission, to decide when to close failing banks.

At the risk of blowing trumpets this will make the euro zone weather in the week to come and could open the way for agreement on long, long-awaited banking union by the year-end.

Up to now, Berlin has chafed against the European Commission’s proposal that it should be in charge of winding up banks and the path to a body to act on a cross-border basis looked strewn with obstacles.

Moments difficiles

Breaking news is S&P’s downgrade of France’s credit rating to AA from AA+ putting it two notches below Germany. Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has rushed out to declare French debt is among the safest and most liquid in the euro zone, which is true.

What is also pretty unarguable is S&P’s assessment that France’s economic reform programme is falling short and the high unemployment is weakening support for further measures. There’s also Francois Hollande’s dismal poll ratings to throw into the mix.

As a result, medium-term growth prospects are lacklustre. Euro zone GDP figures for the third quarter are out next week and France is expected to lag with growth of just 0.1 percent.

ECB rate cut takes markets by surprise – time to crack Draghi’s code


After today’s surprise ECB move it is safe to forget the code words former ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet never grew tired of using – monitoring closely, monitoring very closely, strong vigilance, rate hike. (No real code language ever emerged for rate cuts, probably because there were only a few and that was towards the end of Trichet’s term.)

His successor, Mario Draghi, has a different style, one he showcased already at his very first policy meeting, but no one believed to be the norm: He is pro-active and cuts without warning. Or at least that’s what it seems.

Today’s quarter-percentage point cut took markets and economists by surprise.

Take-off has been delayed

Euro zone services PMIs and German industry orders data will offer the latest snapshot of the currency bloc’s economy which the European Commission now forecasts will contract by 0.4 percent this year and grow just 1.1 percent in 2014 – hardly escape velocity, in fact barely taxiing along the runway.

We know from flash readings for the euro zone and Germany that service activity expanded but at a slower rate last month. France’s reading crept back into expansionary territory for the first time since early 2012. Any revisions to those figures will be marginal leaving the focus more on Italy and Spain for which we get no preliminary release.

Italy’s service sector has been growing of late, according to the PMIs, while Spain’s has still been shrinking though at a slower pace. German industry orders posted a surprise 0.3 percent drop in August and are forecast to have grown by 0.5 percent in September.

What’s happened to euro inflation?

New European Commission macro forecasts for the euro zone and the EU have been given added significance by an alarming drop in inflation to 0.7 percent which has heaped pressure on the European Central Bank to ward off any threat of deflation.

There are myriad other questions – Will the Commission predict that Italy will miss its deficit target? What will it say to those countries in bailout programmes – particularly Greece, where the troika returns for a bailout review today, and Portugal? And what about France’s sluggish economy? PMI surveys on Monday showed it is acting as a drag on the euro zone recovery.

Against that backdrop, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will speak at Frankfurt’s St. Paul’s Church, the seat of the first democratically elected parliament in Germany. He is expected to outline the political priorities of the European Union in the months to come and spell out his expectations of a new German government.

It’s all Greek

The EU/IMF/ECB troika is due to return to Athens to resume a review of Greece’s bailout after some sparring over budget measures.

Greece’s president and prime minister have said they will not impose any further austerity measures and hope that their ability to run a primary surplus will persuade its lenders to cut it some more slack on its bailout loans to make its debt sustainable. The EU and IMF say there will be a fiscal gap next year that must be filled by domestic measures, be they further wage and pension cuts or tax increases.

We had a round of brinkmanship last week with EU officials saying they weren’t going to turn up because Athens had not come up with plausible ways to fill a 2 billion euros hole in its 2014 budget. But on Saturday, the European Commission said the review was back on after the Greek government came up with fresh proposals.

Italy versus Spain

Italy will auction up to 6 billion euros of five- and 10-year bonds after two earlier sales this week saw two-year and six-month yields drop to the lowest level in six months. Don’t be lulled into thinking all is well.

After Silvio Berlusconi’s failure to pull down the government, Prime Minister Enrico Letta has some time to push through economic reforms, cut taxes and spending. But already the politics look difficult and the central bank said yesterday that government forecasts for 1.1 percent growth next year and falling borrowing costs were overly optimistic.

Bank of Italy Governor Ignazio Visco and Economy Minister Fabrizio Saccomanni will speak during the day.

Beware the bias in euro zone forecasts (again)

Next time you ask an economist a question about the euro zone, be sure to enquire where their head office is based.

London? New York? Expect a pessimistic response on euro zone matters.

Frankfurt? Paris? Happier days are coming soon for the currency union.

So that’s oversimplifying matters slightly – but as we’ve seen time over, institutions based outside the euro zone are likely to be gloomier about its prospects, and those based inside it are more likely to look on the bright side.

That pattern was clear to see in this week’s Reuters poll on the euro zone’s vulnerable quartet – Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

Spanish sums

Spanish third quarter GDP figures tomorrow are likely to confirm the Bank of Spain’s prediction that the euro zone’s fourth largest economy has finally put nine quarters of contraction behind it, albeit with growth of just 0.1 percent.

Today, we get some appetizers that show just how far an economy with unemployment in excess of 25 percent has to go. Spanish retail sales, just out, have fallen every month for 39 months after posting a 2.2 percent year-on-year fall in September, showing domestic demand remains deeply depressed. All the progress so far has come on the export side of the balance sheet.

Spain’s public deficit figures, not including local governments and town halls, are also on the block. The deficit was 4.52 percent of GDP in the year to July and the government, which is aiming for a 6.5 percent year-end target, says it is on track.