MacroScope

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.

Moscow, meanwhile, has big problems of its own having admitted its failure to diversify its economy will lead to a far lower level of growth than had been expected all the way out to 2030. Putin has conceded for the first time that Russia’s economic problems are home-grown.

Ditto for Ukraine. Will it have to hand over its best assets in return for Russian help? Only a few hundred million euros of EU money is on the table so far but we know the IMF and the World Bank are quietly watching too.

Auto-pilot QE and the Federal Reserve’s taper dilemma

 It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

When the U.S. Federal Reserve launched its third round of quantitative easing, or QE3, it was hailed as an “open-ended” policy that would last as long as needed. Most important for investors, the pace of the bond buying – which started at a somewhat arbitrary $85 billion per month – would be “data dependent.” Especially throughout the spring, officials stressed they were serious about adjusting the dial on QE3 depending on changes in the labor market and broader economy. But as the unemployment rate dropped to 7.3 percent last month from 8.1 percent when the program was launched in September, 2012, the bond-buying has effectively been on auto-pilot for 14 straight months.

Now, some are wondering whether the decision not to at least tinker with the program has made the first so-called taper a bigger deal than it needed to be. “When you don’t react to small changes in the data with small changes in the policy then the markets tend to read more into it when you do change policy,” St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said last week after a speech in Arkansas. “It makes policy a little more rigid than it maybe should be.”

Bullard, who in June cited falling inflation when he dissented against a Fed policy decision to stand pat, continued:

ECB cacophony

A round of European Central Bank policymakers speeches this week can be boiled down to this. All options, including money-printing, are on the table but it will be incredibly hard to get it past ECB hardliners and neither camp sees a real threat of deflation yet.

Reports that the ECB could push deposit rates marginally into negative territory in an attempt to force banks to lend have been played down by our sources, not least because it would distort the working of the money market.

Today, ECB chief Mario Draghi speaks at a Berlin conference. Bundesbank head Jens Weidmann, who opposed this month’s cut in the main interest rate along with about a quarter of the Governing Council, will also be there as will Angela Merkel.

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.

Another backhand volley from forward guidance

Forward guidance is quickly proving to be rather backward.

While it’s a favourite game of every punter who’s not paid to make predictions to trash the track record of those who are, just about everyone who follows the European Central Bank was stunned by the timing of its decision to cut rates on Thursday.

In the days beforehand, a handful of forecasters began speculating after news of a collapse in inflation that the ECB might fire what could be their last shot on standard monetary policy using interest rates in a long time.

But the vast majority were caught off guard by the ECB’s refinancing rate cut to a record low of 0.25 percent. Even those who thought it might do so didn’t think it would until December. The quick, violent fall in the euro showed it.

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.

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.

The limits of Federal Reserve forward guidance on interest rates

The ‘taper tantrum’ of May and June, as the mid-year spike in interest rates became known, appears to have humbled Federal Reserve officials into having a second look at their convictions about the power of forward guidance on interest rate policy.

Take James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Fed. He acknowledged on Friday that the Fed’s view of the separation between rates guidance and asset purchases had not been fully accepted by financial markets. “This presents challenges for the Committee,” he noted.

A decision to modestly reduce the pace of asset purchases can still leave a very accommodative policy in place to the extent forward guidance remains intact.

A question of liquidity

The Federal Reserve’s decision to keep printing dollars at an unchanged rate, mirrored by the Bank of Japan sticking with its massive stimulus programme, should have surprised nobody.

But markets seem marginally discomfited, interpreting the Fed’s statement as sounding a little less alarmed about the state of the U.S. recovery than some had expected and maybe hastening Taper Day. European stocks are expected to pull back from a five-year high but this is really the financial equivalent of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. The Fed’s message was little changed bar removing a reference to tighter financing conditions.

However, the top central banks have sent a signal that they think all is not yet well with the world – the Fed, BOJ, European Central Bank, Bank of England, Bank of Canada and Swiss National Bank have just announced they will make permanent their array of currency swap arrangements to provide a “prudent liquidity backstop” indefinitely.

Romer, taking aim at Fed, advocates ‘regime change’ and a shift to nominal GDP

By Alister Bull

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Christina Romer, former chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and a strong advocate for Janet Yellen to take over from Ben Bernanke as the next chair of the Federal Reserve, slammed the Fed in a lecture last week that accused the U.S. central bank of being too meek and of fighting the wrong battle by being fixated on asset bubbles.

Romer, sometimes touted as a potential candidate to fill one of the 3 vacancies on the Fed’s Board in Washington, or maybe run a regional branch (Cleveland has an opening), also discussed deliberately aiming for 3 or 4 percent inflation, as well as targeting nominal GDP.

One key observation from her remarks was central banks must tackle financial instability head-on. The Greenspan-era disdain for using monetary policy to burst asset bubbles has become a luxury which the post-crisis world can no longer afford: