MacroScope

France, Italy compare notes

French President Francois Hollande is in Rome for talk with Italy’s Enrico Letta. Both have a lot on their minds.

The French economy contracted in the third quarter and Hollande faces a blanket of criticism over his timid economic reforms (although he has pushed through some labour and pension changes).

The French government announced yesterday an overhaul of a complex tax system, hoping it will douse a public backlash against high taxes (which have been favoured over spending cuts so far) which has led to back-pedalling on several plans this year. It will not lower the overall tax burden but is promising a fairer system to be enshrined in the 2015 budget. Whether that does anything to revive its rock-bottom popularity rating remains to be seen. Detail is scant so far.

Several of the big institutional investors featured at the Reuters Investment Summit this week have been distinctly gloomy about France.

Letta seems finally to have seen off Silvio Berlusconi after the media mogul’s party split and half of it pledged to continue supporting the coalition government. But there is still plenty of disagreement about the 2014 budget, let alone the deeper structural reforms that Italy’s economy needs to lift it out of a decade-long malaise.

ECB quandary

Another round of European Central Bank speakers will command attention today with disappearing inflation fuelling talk of further extraordinary policy moves.

Chief economist Peter Praet, who last week raised the prospect of the ECB starting outright asset purchases (QE by another name) if things got too bad, is speaking at Euro Finance Week in Frankfurt along with Vitor Constancio and the Bundesbank’s Andreas Dombret, while Joerg Asmussen makes an appearance in Berlin.

We know a quarter of the ECB Governing Council didn’t want to cut interest rates (a move which Praet proposed) two weeks ago and more glaring differences could be about to emerge. Printing money would be hugely difficult for German policymakers and their allies to countenance.

Italian shuffle

The decision by one of Silvio Berlusconi’s key allies to break from his party and back Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s fragile coalition appears to have shored up the Italian government with a final vote on expelling the media magnate from public life looming large.

Berlusconi said on Saturday his rump centre-right party had split from the coalition but did not have the numbers to bring it down.
Angelino Alfano, interior minister and deputy premier, said all five of the centre-right ministers under his umbrella would stay in the government but there is still plenty of disagreement within the coalition about the 2014 budget and doubts about Letta’s ability to push through meaningful economic reforms.

Letta is speaking at a conference “Charting the Way Ahead” today. On Sunday, economy minister Fabrizio Saccomanni said he wanted to accelerate public spending cuts following Friday’s criticism of the draft budget by the European Commission, which it said could break the bloc’s debt rules.

What is France to do?

It’s euro zone third quarter GDP day and Germany and France are already out of the traps with the latter’s economy contracting by 0.1 percent, snuffing out a 0.5 percent rebound in the second quarter. Growth of 0.1 percent was forecast, not just by bank economists but by the Bank of France too.

Germany failed to match its strong 0.7 percent growth in the second quarter, but expanding by 0.3 percent – in line with forecasts – it is clearly in much better shape.

The Bank of France has estimated stronger growth of 0.4 percent in the final three months of the year but the euro zone’s second largest economy is a growing cause for concern. An OECD report on French competitiveness, released overnight, said it is falling behind southern European countries that have bitten the reform bullet.

French travails

The Bank of France’s monthly report forecasts growth of 0.4 percent in the last three months of the year, up from an anaemic 0.1 percent in the third quarter. That still makes for a fairly doleful 2013 as a whole.

France is zooming up the euro zone’s worry list, largely because of its timid approach to labour and pension reforms. Spain has been much more aggressive and is seeing the benefits in terms of rising exports (and, admittedly, sky-high unemployment). So too has Portugal.

Tellingly, both the Iberian countries have had the outlook on their credit ratings raised to stable in recent days while S&P cut France’s rating to AA from AA+. It remains at a far stronger level but the differing directions of travel are clear.

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.

Strongly vigilant?

An alarming drop in euro zone inflation – to 0.7 percent from 1.1 percent – throws today’s European Central Bank policy meeting into very sharp relief. Not since the central bank cut interest rates in May has it been under such scrutiny.

No policy change is likely, and “sources familiar” are already talking down the threat of deflation. But the central bankers, who are mandated to target inflation at close to 2 percent, will be alarmed at the sight of price pressures evaporating. One need look no further than Japan to see the damage deflation can do, often for many years.

We reported last week that a strengthening euro has also come onto the ECB’s radar, given it could depress both growth and inflation, and that there are three camps – one wanting an interest rate cut (which we know was discussed at the last meeting), another preferring to keep the option open of another long-term liquidity flood for the banking system as was done last year, and a third wanting to do nothing.

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.