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.

A question of energy

After two days in The Hague, Barack Obama moves on to Brussels for an EU/U.S. summit with Ukraine still casting the longest shadow.

Europe’s energy dependence on Russia is likely to top the agenda with the EU pressing for U.S. help in that regard while the standoff with Russia could give new impetus to talks over the world’s largest free trade deal.

Russia provides around one third of the EU’s oil and gas and 40 percent of the gas is shipped through Ukraine. EU leaders dedicated part of a summit to the issue last week and German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported asking Obama to relax restrictions on exports of U.S. gas.

Sanctions loom for Russia

The European Union, as we exclusively reported yesterday, has agreed on a framework for sanctions against Russia, including travel restrictions and asset freezes, which goes further than many expected. The list of targeted individuals is still being worked on but will be ready for the bloc’s foreign ministers to look at on Monday.

Angela Merkel will speak to the German Bundestag about the standoff with Russia. Merkel has been cautious about imposing anything too tough as she tries to convince Vladimir Putin to agree to a “contact group” that would reopen communications between Moscow and Kiev. But yesterday she said measures would be imposed next week – after a Crimean referendum on joining Russia which the West says is illegal – unless diplomatic progress is made.

There is no sign of Vladimir Putin coming to the negotiating table and no question of western force being deployed. In Washington, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said his government was ready to negotiate over Moscow’s concerns for the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea – a possible diplomatic avenue? The U.N. Security Council will discuss the crisis in an open meeting later.

Odds on Britain leaving EU shift again

Kiev has appealed for Western help to stop Moscow annexing Crimea, where a referendum on joining Russia will be held on Sunday. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk will take that message to Washington and the United Nations.

The West says the referendum is illegal. U.S. lawmakers are preparing sanctions against Russia and European Union leaders could impose penalties, such as bans on visas for key Russian officials, as early as Monday if Vladimir Putin does not come to the negotiating table. There is no sign that he will and there is no question of western force being deployed.

Germany’s Angela Merkel is in Warsaw for talks with Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Poland has been pressing for more aggressive action while Germany – with its deep economic and energy ties to Russia – is more reluctant. But it appears the EU is moving closer to imposing sanctions.
Ed Miliband, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party, has stated in today’s FT that he would only hold an EU referendum if there was a new transfer of power from London to Brussels.

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.

Unsterilised ECB?

Foreign ministerial talks in Paris yesterday made little progress on Ukraine. Russia rejected Western demands that its forces in Crimea should return to their bases and its foreign minister refused to recognise his Ukrainian counterpart. Moscow continues to assert that the troops that have seized control of the Black Sea peninsula are not under its command. The West is pushing for international monitors to go in.

Today, at least some of the focus switches to Brussels where EU leaders will hold an emergency summit with a twin agenda of how to help the new government in Kiev and possible sanctions against Russia. On the latter, Europe has appeared more reticent than Washington not least because of its deep financial and energy ties, none more so than Germany and Britain.

The bloc yesterday offered Ukraine’s new government 11 billion euros in financial aid over the next two years, contingent on it reaching a deal with the IMF. It will also freeze the assets of ousted president Viktor Yanukovich and 17 others seen as culpable for violation of human rights – around 80 people were killed in the capital last month as they protested against Yanukovich’s rule. Kiev caused some market wobbles by saying it would look at restructuring its foreign currency debt.

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.

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.

Cold War chill over Ukraine

Dramatic twist in the Ukraine saga last night with a conversation between a State Department official and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine posted on YouTube which appeared to show the official, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, deliberating on the make-up of the next government in Kiev.

That led to a furious tit-for-tat with Moscow accusing Washington of planning a coup and the United States in turn saying Russia had leaked the video, which carried subtitles in Russian. A Kremlin aide said Moscow might block U.S. “interference” in Kiev.

Nuland is due to give a news conference today after her visit to Kiev.

Vladimir Putin is likely to meet Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in Sochi as the Winter Olympics get underway. It could be awkward for Yanukovich’s opponents if they look like western pawns.