MacroScope

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.

Expect ECB President Mario Draghi to state a number of times today that inflation expectations are anchored, although quite how one proves that is an open question.

Nonetheless, the tone coming out of the ECB has shifted perceptibly over the past two weeks after Draghi suggested after the ECB’s March meeting that the bank would either do nothing or take bold action should the threat of deflation loom much larger.

Osborne stakes out election ground with little fiscal leeway

The annual UK budget is always a big set piece but it’s hard to remember one where there have been fewer advance leaks – indicative of a steady-as-she-goes approach by George Osborne.
Having put so much political capital into reducing the deficit, to switch now at a time when the economy is recovering strongly would be politically risky. And with debt falling only slowly there is little fiscal leeway.

That’s not to say this isn’t a big political moment. Yes there is the finance minister’s autumn statement and another budget before May 2015 elections but this is the moment when the narrative for the economy and Britons’ wellbeing is staked out.

So expect a further increase in the threshold at which income tax starts to be paid, to help the poorer, and measures to boost business investment in an attempt to rebalance the economy.
Osborne will also extend his “help to buy” housing scheme, questionable at a time when property prices are rising strongly. On the thrift front, he will announce details of a ceiling on welfare spending.

Data to shape ECB week

Euro zone service sector PMIs and German inflation (with the euro zone number to follow on Tuesday) will lay the ground for the European Central Bank’s first policy meeting of the year.

The surveys are likely to show the currency bloc ended the year on a reasonably robust note with Germany leading the way as always, Italy and Spain showing signs of life and France looking worryingly weak.

Ireland’s reading is already out and has posted its fastest services growth in seven years. Much more importantly for the world, growth in China’s services industries slowed in December, confirming that the world’s second-largest economy lost steam at the end of last year.

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.

Putin’s Ukraine “victory” — pyrrhic?

Ukraine continues to top the European worry list.

Monday demonstrated how quickly the financial side of the equation can spiral out of control. The hryvnia currency slumped and the cost of insuring against Ukrainian default soared, forcing the central bank to intervene and urge its citizens not to spark a bank run.

Having turned its back on the EU, Kiev must find more than $17 billion next year to meet gas bills and debt repayments. Presumably Russia will have to help out if it is not to have a basket case on its doorstep.

Has Vladimir Putin factored that into his diplomacy? He is certainly concerned, describing the protestors who blockaded government buildings on Monday of pursuing pogrom – about as loaded a term as he could choose – engineered by “outsiders”, not revolution.

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.

UK recovery, can you feel it?

Third quarter UK GDP data are likely to show robust growth – 0.8 percent or more, following 0.7 percent in Q2 – more kudos to a resurgent finance minister George Osborne who only a year ago was buried in brickbats.

We can argue about the austerity versus growth debate ‘til the cows come home – there is still a strong case that if the government hadn’t cut so sharply, growth would have returned earlier and debt would have fallen faster. But the fact that the economy is ticking along nicely 18 months before the next election means Osborne has won the argument politically.

And yet, and yet. The opposition Labour party has been nimble in switching its criticism from the government’s debt-cutting strategy to the fact that the economy might be recovering but the vast majority of Britons aren’t feeling it.

Forever blowing bubbles?

UK finance minister George Osborne is speaking at a Reuters event today, Bank of England Deputy Governor Charlie Bean addresses a conference and we get September’s public finance figures. For Osborne, there are so many question to ask but Britain’s frothy housing market is certainly near the top of the list.

The government is extending its “help to buy” scheme at a time when house prices, in London at least, seem to be going through the roof (no pun intended). Property website Rightmove said on Monday that asking prices for homes in the capital jumped 10.2 percent in the last month alone.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has suggested the Bank’s Financial Policy Committee should cap house price inflation at 5 percent a year. A Bank of England policymaker retorted that it wasn’t down to his colleagues to regulate prices.

Right time to pump up UK housing market?

The British government is poised to announce the extension of its “help to buy” scheme for potential home owners.

As of today, any buyer(s) of a property up to a value of 600,000 pounds ($960,000) who can put up a five percent deposit, will see the government guarantee to the lender a further 15 percent of the value so a bank or building society will only be lending on 80 percent of the property’s value. Until now, demands for cripplingly large deposits have shut many prospective buyers out of the market.

The big question is whether now – with property prices rising by around 3 percent nationally and by a heady 10 percent annually in London – is a sensible time to be doing this given Britain’s long history of housing bubbles.

Italy’s High Noon

Silvio Berlusconi’s political future – upon which both Italian and euro zone stability rest to varying degrees – is up for debate when a Senate committee meets on Monday to begin discussions that could end with formal procedures to expel him from the Senate. Talks could last for days.

Members of Berlusconi’s centre-right PDL have threatened to walk out of Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s coalition government if a final vote – due in the Senate in October or maybe November – bars him from political life, following the upholding of his conviction for tax fraud.

One of Berlusconi’s key allies says he has already prepared a video message that could announce a decision to bring down the coalition government.