MacroScope

ECB forecasts to contrast with Britain’s

The European Central Bank holds its last rates meeting of the year with some of the alarm about looming deflation pricked by a pick-up in euro zone inflation last week – though at 0.9 percent it remains way below the ECB’s target of close to two percent.

The spotlight, as always, will be on Mario Draghi but also on the latest staff forecasts. If they inflation staying well under target in 2015 (which is quite likely), expectations of more policy easing will gather steam again.

For today, another rate cut after last month’s surprise move would be a huge shock. Launching quantitative easing is anathema to much of the Governing Council unless it was clear a Japan-style downward price spiral was in the offing, which it isn’t. The bank’s vice-president, Vitor Constancio, has said the ECB would only cut the deposit rate it pays banks for holding their money overnight – now at zero – into negative territory in an extreme situation.

So most likely is a repeat of LTRO low-interest long-term loans for banks and even then, not until next year.

The ECB is clearly uncomfortable with the piecemeal progress on banking union and from euro zone governments with their structural reforms. But with banks facing health checks next year, which could throw up some problems, more liquidity would help them over the hump although there is no evidence that last year’s more than 1 trillion euros pumped any more lending into the real economy.

Crisis in Kiev

Ukraine’s shock decision to turn its back on an EU trade deal continues to reverberate with mass rallies on the streets of Kiev in protest at President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision.

To try to defuse tensions, Yanukovich issued a statement saying he would do everything in his power to speed up Ukrainian moves toward the EU. Is this another U-turn or mere semantics? The answer is important.

Kiev must find more than $17 billion next year to meet gas bills and debt repayments. Another sovereign meltdown is far from impossible.
Yanukovich is due to embark on a trip to China. Dare he go? And is the opposition cogent enough to threaten him? The call for a national strike will be an acid test.

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.

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.

Taking the union out of banking union?

Today’s meeting of EU finance ministers will grapple with banking union and next year’s stress tests though with no German government in place, a leap forward is unlikely.

One German official seemed pretty clear yesterday, saying: “We don’t want a mutualisation of bank risks.” That, some would argue, takes the union out of banking union and is certainly a very different approach to the one promised last year when EU leaders were scrambling to keep the euro zone together.

Some experts argue that with the European Central Bank pledging to support euro zone governments come what may, the urgency has been taken out of banking union and that next year’s health checks and cross-border supervision under the ECB is going far enough. Any holes in bank balance sheets can comfortably be filled by creditors and governments.

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.

Brussels looks warily at German surplus

Barring a last minute change of heart, the European Commission will launch an investigation into whether Germany’s giant trade surplus is fuelling economic imbalances, a charge laid squarely by the U.S. Treasury but vehemently rejected by Berlin.

This complaint has long been levelled at Germany (and China) at a G20 level and now within the euro zone too. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta urged Berlin this week to do more to boost growth.

Stronger German demand for goods and services elsewhere in the euro zone would surely help recovery gain traction. The counter argument is that in the long-run, only by improving their own competitiveness can the likes of Spain, Italy and France hope to thrive in a globalised economy.

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.

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.

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.