MacroScope

EU cuts off Russian banks, puts ball in Moscow’s court

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia

True to its word, the EU agreed sweeping sanctions on Russia yesterday, targeting trade in equipment for the defence and oil sectors and, most crucially, barring Russia’s state-run banks from accessing European capital markets. The measures will be imposed this week and will last for a year initially with three monthly reviews allowing them to be toughened if necessary.

There was no rowing back from the blueprint produced last week – having already agreed to exempt the gas sector – and the United States quickly followed suit, targeting Russian banks VTB, Bank of Moscow, and Russian Agriculture Bank, as well as United Shipbuilding Corp.

That is important. Both sides are striving to shut down alternative sources of capital for Russia’s financial sector although there has already been some reaching out to Asia. Gazprombank held a two-day roadshow with fixed-income investors in Seoul last week.

Shares in Russia’s second-largest bank VTB have opened down 3 percent while the broader stock market and the rouble were stable. Russia’s central bank has said it will support the country’s banks if needed. With nearly $500 billion in FX reserves it could clearly do so for quite some time.

Previously Europe had imposed sanctions only on individuals and organisations accused of direct involvement in threatening Ukraine, and had shied away from wider “sectoral sanctions”. But the shooting down of the Malaysian airline changed the political calculus.

EU slowly tightens screw

A coffin of one of the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17 downed over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, is carried from an aircraft during a national reception ceremony at Eindhoven airport

The EU is slowly tightening the screw on Russia, with senior officials proposing yesterday to target state-owned Russian banks in its most serious sanctions so far. Ambassadorial talks on how precisely that is to be done continue today and the measures are likely to be enacted next week.

One key proposal is that European investors would be banned from buying new debt or shares of banks owned 50 percent or more by the state. These banks raised almost half of their 15.8 billion euro capital needs in EU markets last year. That is a big deal and there are increasing signs of investors turning their back on Russia lock, stock and barrel. However, with its giant FX reserves, the central bank can provide dollars to fund external debt for a considerable period of time.

The ambassadors did agree to add more people and entities to the EU’s asset freeze list, using expanded criteria including Russian companies that help to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. The 15 individuals and 18 entities, half of which are companies, will be named today. Russian shares are down about 1 percent in early trade.

EU on Russia sanctions: slowly, slowly

Ukraine's President Poroshenko and Dutch ambassador to Ukraine Klompenhouwer commemorate victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 outside the Dutch embassy in Kiev

EU foreign ministers meet to decide how precisely to deploy sanctions agreed 10 days ago to hit Russian companies that help destabilise Ukraine and to block new loans to Russia through two multilateral lenders.

The EU foreign ministers are tasked with preparing a first list of people and entities from Russia that would be targeted. The number of individuals and companies to be penalized is up for grabs so there is scope to adopt a tougher posture.

The public statements of EU leaders have made it sound like a more dramatic move is possible. Could that be the “sectoral” sanctions that Washington has pushed for which could deliver a really serious blow to the already flatlining Russian economy? Well no, not yet. That would require another summit of leaders. The next one is set for the end of August although an emergency meeting is not out of the question and today’s meeting could give a nod in that direction.

Acid test of EU’s resolve over Russia

Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

EU leaders said over the weekend they would be prepared to impose tougher sanctions on Russia, giving Vladimir Putin one more chance to douse the violence in eastern Ukraine and help investigators do their work at the site of the crashed Malaysian airliner or face the consequences.

A statement from the British government said Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Francois Hollande agreed on a telephone call that their ministers should be ready to announce a fresh round of sanctions at a meeting of the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council on Tuesday.

There is already scope to toughen measures announced last week to hit Russian companies that help destabilise Ukraine and to block new loans to Russia through two multilateral lenders. The EU foreign ministers are tasked with preparing a first list of people and entities from Russia that would be targeted. The number of individuals and companies to be penalized is up for grabs.

A turning point?

Emergencies Ministry members work at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

Could the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine be a fundamental turning point in the crisis that has pitted Russia against the West? And if so which way – towards rapprochement or a further escalation?

Kiev accused militants fighting to unite eastern Ukraine with Russia of shooting down the Boeing 777 carrying nearly 300 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with a Soviet-era ground-to-air missile. Leaders of rebels in the Donetsk People’s Republic denied any involvement, although around the same time their military commander said his forces had downed a smaller Ukrainian transport plane.

A Ukrainian Interior Ministry official took to Facebook shortly after the plane came down, saying that rebels had used a Buk anti-aircraft system given to them by Russia, and appealed to the West to act. That doesn’t make the situation much clearer since Russia, Ukraine and the separatists all probably have the missile in their arsenals.

Draghi in London

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European Central Bank President Mario Draghi will deliver an evening keynote speech in London – the scene for his game-changing “whatever it takes” declaration in 2012.

He is unlikely to come up with anything so dramatic this time but is clearly trying to convince that the ECB could yet start printing money if required to avert deflation.

Draghi has taken the ECB a long way in terms of radical policies which some of its members have found hard to swallow. But QE could yet prove to be a bridge too far. Shortly after Draghi held out the prospect last week of printing euros to ward off deflation, Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann and his German ECB colleague Sabine Lautenschlaeger mounted a rearguard action.

Juncker begins to fill in the gaps

juncker.jpg

European Commission president-elect Jean-Claude Juncker will hold talks with the various political groupings in the European Parliament as he seeks to develop policy positions. Most interesting would be indications about which way he is bending in the growth versus austerity debate.

Italy’s Matteo Renzi, resurgent after a strong performance in May’s EU elections, is pressing for a focus on measures to get the euro zone economy firing and has even managed to get Germany to talk the talk. But any leeway will be within the existing debt rules, not by writing new ones.

We know from the history of the euro debt crisis that Berlin can only move so far, so fast and only last week it proudly proclaimed it would not be a net borrower of zero next year, for the first time in over 45 years. Having said that it has just passed into law a generous national minimum wage and its labour costs are rising, so there is some rebalancing going on.

Balance tilted in Ukraine?

slaviansk.jpgUkrainian forces pushed pro-Russian rebels out of their stronghold of Slaviansk on Saturday. Its re-capture represents Kiev’s most notable military victory in three months of fighting in which more than 200 Ukrainian troops have been killed as well as hundreds of civilians and rebels.

The regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are likely to be next in the government forces’ crosshairs.

Talks between Iran and the six world powers –  the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – over its disputed nuclear programme stretch through the week, leading up to a July 20 deadline which has been set for a definitive deal.
Most diplomats involved in the talks expect that date to lapse though we reported exclusively that Iran has reduced demands for the size of its future nuclear enrichment programme.

Renzi and Schaeuble: Compare and contrast

renzi2.jpgItalian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will spell out to the European Parliament his priorities for Italy’s six-month tenure of the EU presidency.
Emboldened by a strong showing in May’s EU elections, Renzi is pressing for a focus on growth rather than austerity and has even managed to get Germany to talk the talk.

At an EU summit last week, leaders accepted the need to allow member states extra time to consolidate their budgets as long as they pressed ahead with economic reforms. They pledged to make “best use” of the flexibility built into the bloc’s fiscal rule book – not, you will notice, countenancing any change in the rules.

As always in the EU, this will stand or fall on the attitude in Germany. We could get an early reading on that when German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble presents 2015-2018 budget plans. Berlin plans to refrain from any net new borrowing from 2015 for the first time since 1969 and will spend projected higher tax revenues on education and infrastructure.

A call to arms

The prospect of U.S. and Iranian intervention in Iraq looms larger.

Baghdad has asked the United States for air support to counter Sunni militants who have seized major cities in a lightning advance that has routed the Shi’ite-led government army. And Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has signalled that Tehran was prepared to intervene to protect Iraq’s great Shi’ite shrines.

As of last night, ISIL fighters were in control of three-quarters of the territory of the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad and some international oil companies were pulling out workers.

Even if the two adversaries find common cause in Iraq, it doesn’t appear to have transferred to negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear programme, for which the West has imposed stiff sanctions.