MacroScope

from Lawrence Summers:

Britain and the limits of austerity

The Bank of England is seen in the City of London

The British economy has experienced the most rapid growth in the G7 over the last few months. It increased at an annual rate of more than 3 percent in the last quarter -- even as the U.S. economy barely grew, continental Europe remained in the doldrums and Japan struggled to maintain momentum in the face of a major new valued added tax increase.

Many have seized on Britain’s strong performance as vindication of the austerity policy that Britain has followed since 2010, and evidence against the secular stagnation idea that lack of demand is a medium-term constraint on growth in the industrial world.

Interpreting the British strategy correctly is crucial because of the political stakes in Britain, the question of future British economic policy and, most important, because the British experience influences economic policy debates around the globe. Unfortunately, when properly interpreted, the British experience refutes the austerity advocates and confirms John Maynard Keynes’s warning about the dangers of indiscriminate budget cutting during an economic downturn.

A protester holds a placard during a rally in Trafalgar Square in central LondonStart with the British economy’s current situation. While growth has been rapid recently, this is only because of the depth of the hole that Britain dug for itself. While the U.S. gross domestic product is now well above its pre-crisis peak, in Britain GDP remains below previous peak levels and even short of levels predicted when austerity policies were implemented. Not surprisingly given this dismal record, the debt to GDP ratio is now nearly 10 percentage points higher than forecast, and the date when budget balance is predicted has been pushed back to the end of the decade.

The common excuse offered for Britain’s poor performance is its dependence on financial services. Yet the New York metropolitan area, far more dependent on financial services than Britain, has seen GDP comfortably outstrip its previous peak. Though the euro area has performed poorly, even a casual look at trade statistics confirms that this cannot account for most of Britain’s poor growth.

Ukraine inching back to the brink

Pro-Moscow protesters in eastern Ukraine took up arms in one city and declared a separatist republic in another yesterday and the new build-up of tensions continues this morning.

The Kiev government has launched what it calls “anti-terrorist” operations in the eastern city of Kharkiv and arrested about 70 separatists. Moscow has responded by demanding Kiev stop massing military forces in the south-east of the country.

Russia’s own forces remain massed just over the border and Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov said Moscow was attempting to repeat “the Crimea scenario”.

Is it time for the ECB to do more?

From financial forecasters to the International Monetary Fund, calls for the European Central Bank to do more to support the euro zone recovery are growing louder.

With inflation well below the ECB’s 2 percent target ceiling and continuing to fall, 20 of 53 economists in a Reuters Poll conducted last week said the bank was wrong to leave policy unchanged at recent meetings and should do more when it meets on Thursday.

And the pressure on the ECB to do more has mounted after the preliminary inflation estimate for March was published on Monday. The data showed inflation cooling down further to 0.5 percent, its lowest since November 2009.

Putin welcomes Crimea in

Vladimir Putin has told Russia’s Duma that he has approved a draft treaty to bring Ukraine’s Crimea region into Russia and in doing so continues to turn a deaf ear to the West’s sanctions-backed plea to come to the negotiating table.

Overnight, Japan added its weight to the sanctions drive, suspending talks with Moscow on an investment pact and relaxation of visa requirements. EU and U.S. measures have targeted a relatively small number of Russians and Ukrainians but presumably there is scope to go considerably further, particularly if Putin decided to move into eastern Ukraine too.

EU foreign ministers yesterday began discussing how to reduce energy reliance on Russia. That’s a long-term project but one that could deal a hammer blow to the Russian economy if it succeeds.

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.

from Global Investing:

Ukraine aid may pay off for Kremlin

Ukraine said today it was issuing a $3 billion in two-year Eurobonds at a yield of 5 percent in what seems to the start of a bailout deal with Russia. That sounds like a good deal for Kiev -- its Eurobond maturing next year is trading at at a yield of 8 percent and it could not reasonably expect to tap bond markets for less than that. In addition,  Ukraine is also  getting a gas price discount from Russia that will provide an annual saving of $2.6 billion or so.

But what about Russia? Whether the bailout was motivated by "brotherly love" as Putin claims or by geo-politics, it sounds like a rotten deal for Moscow. The credit will earn it 5 percent on what is at best a risky investment. What's more the money will come out of its rainy day fund which had been earmarked to cover future pension deficits. State gas company Gazprom will have to stomach a 30 percent price cut, which according to Barclays analysts is "a reminder of the risks of Gazprom's quasi-sovereign status."

But there could be positives.

Putin is clearly playing a long game that aims not only at giving the Kremlin tighter political control over Ukraine but also to bring it back into the Russian gas sales orbit and eventually create a bigger trade bloc encompassing Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, says Christopher Granville, managing director of consultancy Trusted Sources in London.

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.

Europe ends year on front foot

Credit where credit’s due, the EU has surprised on the upside over the last 24 hours or so, not only signing off on a revised Greek bailout plan to keep that show on the road and agreeing that the ECB will supervise 150 or more of the bloc’s biggest banks, but then pledging to set up a mechanism to wind down problem banks.

Now, there is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip as they say – not much more is going to be cemented until next autumn’s German elections are out of the way, the ECB only has direct oversight of 5 percent or so of euro zone banks (when we know from the financial crisis that smaller banks can be almost as lethal as the big boys) and there is no indication of how a bank resolution scheme would be funded (perhaps via a financial transaction tax although only 10 or so countries have so far committed to that). Also, direct recapitalization of banks by the ESM rescue fund, to take the burden of indebted states, is unlikely to happen before 2014.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t be churlish. EU leaders are clearly using the window of calm created by the European Central Bank’s pledge to buy euro zone government bonds in whatever size is needed to shore up the currency area in order to press on with the permanent structures which will ensure the bloc’s future. So while Finnish Foreign Minister Alex Stubb’s assertion that the EU is in its best shape for years may be pushing it a little, his follow-up line that if you’d offered them this state of play at the start of the year they’d have snatched your hand off is hard to argue with.

Greek tragedy turns epic

The Greek standoff continues. The Democratic Left, a junior party in the government’s coalition, could not be swayed and said it would vote against labour reforms demanded by the EU and IMF, so a deal putting Greece’s bailout terms back on track remains elusive.

Just as worryingly, Reuters secured an advance glimpse of the EU/IMF/ECB troika’s report on Greece which showed the debt target of 120 percent of GDP in 2020 will be missed (surprise, surprise) and as things stand will come in at around 136 percent. In other words, more money – up to 30 billion euros –  is going to be needed be that via lower interest rates and longer maturities on loans and/or a writedown on Greek bonds held by the European Central Bank and euro zone governments.

We know the IMF is very keen on the latter, believing that is the only way the numbers can be made to add up. We also know that Germany and others are just as resistant. Other schemes, such as Athens using privatization proceeds to buy back bonds, which has inbuilt leverage since it can do so at a quarter of their face value, may yet come into the mix but don’t alone look like they’ll make enough of a dent in Greece’s debt mountain. Athens looks set to get the extra two years it requested to make the cuts demanded of it, which also falls into the “necessary but insufficient” category.

More Greek elections?

Attempts to form a Greek coalition government appear to be running into the sand with no one prepared to dance with the two mainstream parties, New Democracy and PASOK, raising the probability of a fresh round of elections with all the uncertainty that will entail. The far-left Socialist Coalition will have a stab at forming an administration today but doesn’t really have the numbers to do it.

The only plan that looks like it offers a glimmer of hope is that put forward by PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos. He is after a “pro-European” coalition and has pledged to spread the cuts Greece has been ordered to make under its bailout programme over three years not two. If a burst of realpolitik every takes hold in Athens (and it’s worth noting that nearly all the parties say they want to stay in the euro), that could just be enough to get others on board. BUT, Venizelos would then have to go to Brussels to persuade the EU to go along with this relaxation of its targets and, on and off the record, officials lined up yesterday to say there was no prospect of that happening.
And his PASOK was the party that was most badly humiliated at Sunday’s election so it’s hard to see how it has a mandate to rule the Greeks, a majority of whom voted firmly against austerity, even it is in a broad coalition.

So new elections next month are likely which leaves a very compressed timeframe and who knows what political landscape will result second time around. The EU/IMF/ECB troika is supposed to return in June and can’t negotiate on the next bailout tranche if there is no government. In any case, Athens is supposed to find 11 billion euros of extra cuts as part of the aid programme and none of the parties are in a position to do that as things stand.