MacroScope

ECB’s Draghi gives Germans “perverse” lesson

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When Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, told Der Spiegel magazine at the end of last year that “there was this perverse Angst” in Germany that things were turning bad, he caused an outcry in  German media, already suspicious of his policies. What had perhaps slipped by Draghi is that the English word perverse can also mean kinky in German.

Was his outburst really helpful, a German journalist queried during the monthly press conference on Thursday, and the Italian tried to set the record straight.

Scrambling for the right sheet of paper, he started: “First of all, … if I can find the actual definition of perverse in English I’d be very glad, but as usual … anyway there is a difference between perverse and perverted.” The whole room burst into laughter.

“There was a misunderstanding,” Draghi said and explained that he was referring to the German Angst of inflation, which clearly had not materialised as a result of the ECB’s recent policy.

There was another Angst, he continued, turning serious. “That’s the Angst of people who have their pension plans being reduced in capital value by the very low level of interest rates. That’s different thing, that’s a serious problem,” he said.

ECB rate cut expectations to be left deflated

Euro zone inflation has dropped to just 0.8 percent and the core measure is lower still – at 0.7 percent it has fallen pretty consistently over the last year.

Nonetheless, the European Central Bank is likely to sit tight at its policy meeting today. The Bank of England’s rate setters are also meeting but facing a very different set of problems.

It’s probably too early for any dramatic moves but the ECB 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. Today, Mario Draghi is likely to reaffirm its readiness to act.

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.

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.

Ireland at the finishing line

Ireland will officially exit its bailout on Sunday. Not much will happen but symbolically it’s huge and will be used by the EU as evidence that its austere crisis-fighting approach can work. Today, the IMF will confirm Dublin passed the last review of its bailout programme – the final piece in the jigsaw. Finance Minister Michael Noonan is also expected to speak.

For Dublin, this is only the beginning.

Support for the coalition government has slumped with the minority Labour party suffering worst (‘twas ever thus in coalitions).
As a result, Labour is pressing for a loosening of the purse strings while the dominant Fine Gael under premier Enda Kenny seems prepared to bet on a return to growth delivering the votes they need to rule outright after the next election, due by early 2016.

There are already some signs of easing with the government opting for a smaller package of spending cuts and tax hikes in its 2014 budget and the IMF warning planned 2 billion budget cuts planned for 2015 year may not be sufficient. The main benefactor in the polls so far has been Sinn Fein. 

Judgment day for Slovenia

The Slovenian government is poised to publish the results of an external audit of its banks, which will say how much cash the government must inject to keep them afloat. We’ve heard from sources that the euro zone member needs as much as 5 billion euros to recapitalize largely state-owned banks.

The central bank said on Tuesday that sufficient funds were available to an international bailout but, while the euro zone might breathe a sigh of relief, Ljubljana’s problems are far from over. A fire sale of state assets will be triggered and the banks are so embedded into the Slovene economy that deleveraging will cause great damage.

The government may raid its own cash reserves of 3.6 billion euros, hit junior bank bondholders to the tune of 500 million euros and, if necessary, tap financial markets. But all this may just be delaying the inevitable for a country that is expected to wallow in recession until 2015. Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek has called a cabinet meeting and a news conference is tentatively scheduled for 1000 GMT.

Banking disunion

The full Ecofin of 28 EU finance ministers meets after Monday’s Eurogroup meeting of euro zone representatives didn’t seem to get far in unpicking the Gordian Knot that is banking union. Ireland’s Michael Noonan talked of “wide differences”.

The ministers are seeking to create an agency to close euro zone banks and a fund to pay for the clean-up – completing a new system to police banks and prevent a repeat of the bloc’s debt crisis.

But a German official rejected a euro zone proposal unearthed by Reuters that would allow the euro zone’s bailout fund, the European Stability Fund, to lend and help finance the cost of any future bank rescues or wind-ups. Berlin does not want to end up footing the bill for failures elsewhere and is still constrained because a coalition deal to form the next government has yet to win final approval from the Social Democrats.

Union? Don’t bank on it

The Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers meets, followed by the full Ecofin on Tuesday, to try and unpick the Gordian Knot that is banking union.

The ministers are seeking to create an agency to close euro zone banks and a fund to pay for the clean-up – completing a new system to prevent a repeat of the bloc’s debt crisis.

But Germany, which does not want to foot the bill for failures elsewhere, is wary not least because a coalition deal to form the next government has yet to win final approval from the Social Democrats.