MacroScope

PMIs next signpost for ECB

Following a mixed bag of euro zone GDP data last week which showed Germany charging on and Spain holding its own but France stagnating and Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands slipping back into contraction, flash PMI surveys for the euro zone, Germany and France certainly have the power to jolt the markets today.

As things stand, there seems little to dissuade the European Central Bank from loosening policy next month. Five senior sources told us it was  preparing a package of policy options for its early June meeting, including cuts in all its interest rates and targeted measures aimed at boosting lending to small- and mid-sized firms.

Bundesbank chief Jens Weidman speaks later. He told a German newspaper it was not yet certain that action would be taken in June. The three PMI readings are not expected to move much from April with the French numbers lagging those of the euro zone and Germany.

The British and Dutch kick off voting for EU elections today. Most of the bloc’s 28 member states vote over the weekend and no results will be released until Sunday night.

However, the UK also has local government polls, results for which will dribble out overnight and give an early indication of how strongly the UK Independence Party is doing and to what extent it can heap pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to adopt a more extreme position on repatriating powers from the EU and change the dynamics of a planned in-out referendum in 2017.

France flatlining

We get a flood of EU GDP reports today. Germany’s figure, just out, has marginally exceeded forecasts with quarterly growth of 0.8 percent but France is underperforming again and stagnated in the first three months of the year, missing estimates of 0.2 percent growth.

Robust German growth has been driven largely by domestic demand, which could help its European peers with their exports. Where all that leaves the overall euro zone figure, due later, remains to be seen. The bloc is predicted to have expanded by 0.4 percent.

Spain has already come in with 0.4 percent quarterly growth and others could pick up too so once again France is looking like one of the sicker men of Europe. High debtors Italy and Portugal are expected to eke out at least some growth.

Russian sanctions … and France

After the EU widened its sanctions to include Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, the commander of Russian paratroopers and two Crimean energy firms, Ukrainian prime minister Yatseniuk is in Brussels today for talks. The EU is looking to shore up the situation to allow national elections to take place on May 25 and, along with Washington, has set any disruption of that vote as a red line.

Vladimir Putin, perhaps fearing significantly tougher sanctions, has belatedly given rhetorical support to the election. Whether it can legitimately take place given the chaos in parts of the country remains an open question.

The latest additions bring to 61 the number of Russians and Ukrainians the EU has slapped with asset freezes and visa bans and for the first time it has targeted companies after foreign ministers agreed to broaden the scope of sanctions. However, only broader trade and financial sanctions would really bite and on that, Washington is much keener than Europe which is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy needs.

Nearer to the brink

De-escalation?  Forget it. Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels in the east yesterday and Russia launched army drills near the border in response.

The big question now is whether Russian troops will cross into eastern Ukraine following a constant stream of warnings from Moscow about the security of Russian speakers there.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to have a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, following last week’s Geneva accord which aimed to pull things back from the brink. Kerry said yesterday that Russia’s “window to change course is closing” and U.S. President Barack Obama said tougher sanctions were ready to go. There is no question of Western military intervention.

Will French numbers add up?

French President Francois Hollande’s cabinet meets to adopt a new debt reduction plan.

After outlining 50 billion euros of savings for 2015-2017 to help pay for consumer and business tax cuts, the government is due to sign off on already delayed deficit reductions to bring it, eventually, to three percent of output as demanded by Brussels.

The European Commission has taken a dim view of any further relaxation, having previously granted Paris two years extra leeway. The French government insists it will meet its targets but appears to be trying to deliver one message to Brussels and another to its electorate, with domestic politics likely to hold sway.

Five days on, Ukraine accord at risk of unravelling

An international agreement to avert wider conflict in Ukraine, brokered only five days ago, is teetering with pro-Moscow separatist gunmen showing no sign of surrendering government buildings and Kiev and Moscow trading accusations over who was responsible for killings over the weekend.

Washington, which signed last week’s accord in Geneva along with Moscow, Kiev and the European Union, said it would decide “in days” on additional sanctions if Russia does not take steps to implement the agreement. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Kiev where he is expected to announce a package of technical assistance.

So far, markets’ worst fears have not materialized but with thousand of Russian troops massed on the frontier with Ukraine and deadly clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, it would not take much to change that.

A question of gas

Vladimir Putin will meet senior Russian government officials to discuss Russia’s economic ties with Ukraine, including on energy after state-controlled natural gas producer Gazprom said Kiev missed a deadline to pay a $2.2 billion bill.

In previous years, gas disputes between Moscow and Kiev have hurt supplies to Europe. The Ukraine government has said it would take Russia to an arbitration court if Moscow failed to roll back gas price hikes.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russian agents and special forces of stirring separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine, saying Moscow could be trying to prepare for military action as it had in Crimea. Armed pro-Moscow protesters occupied Ukrainian government buildings in two cities in the largely Russian-speaking east.

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”.

To QE or not to QE?

ECB Vice-President Vitor Constancio testifies to the European Parliament prior to attending the IMF Spring meeting in Washington at the back end of the week along with Mario Draghi and other colleagues. Jens Weidmann, Yves Mersch and Ewald Nowotny also speak today.

There has undoubtedly been a change in tone from the ECB, which is now openly talking about printing money if inflation stays too low for too long (no mention of deflation being the required trigger any more). Even Bundesbank chief Weidmann has done so.

Last week, Draghi made it sound as if really serious thought was being given to how to do it. He raised the prospect of buying private sector assets, rather than government bonds as other central banks have. The question is whether he is trying to talk the euro down or whether the central bank is now more alarmed, and therefore deadly serious.

Reasons to do nothing

It’s ECB day and the general belief is that it won’t do anything despite inflation dropping to 0.5 percent in March, chalking up its sixth successive month in the European Central Bank’s “danger zone” below 1 percent.

The reasons? Policymakers expect inflation to rise in April for a variety of reasons, one being that this year’s late Easter has delayed the impact of rising travel and hotel prices at a time when many Europeans take a holiday. Depressed food prices might also start to rise before long.

More fundamentally, they do not see any signs of deflation psychology taking hold, whereby businesses and consumers defer spending plans in the expectation that prices will cheapen.