MacroScope

Secession vote looms

 

Despite Vladimir Putin’s apparent attempt at rapprochement, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine insist their Sunday referendum on secession will take place, a move which could lead to civil war.

More signs of concern from Washington last night with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urging U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to press Kiev to begin “direct, equitable dialogue” with its restive regions. In turn, Ukraine’s acting president and prime minister proposed a “round table” drawing in political forces and civil groups from all regions with international mediators helping out.

Putin’s motives are, as usual, opaque though it could be he hopes to avoid a third round of western sanctions – which would have to be much tougher – by calling on the separatists to suspend their vote on independence.

Washington and the EU have set any disruption of Ukraine’s May 25 national election as their red line. Putin has belatedly given rhetorical support to that vote. Today, Russia and Ukraine marks the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, a potent day. Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said he suspected Moscow was planning some form of “skirmish” to discredit Kiev.

All this and more will be discussed by Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande today when they meet in the German seaside town of Sassnitz in the German Chancellor’s constituency. They are due to talk to the press at 1500 GMT.

Will sanctions bite?

Financial markets may view the latest sanctions against Russia as feeble, but the reaction from Moscow – Vladimir Putin threatened to reconsider Western participation in energy deals and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said they were the work of weak politicians – suggests otherwise.

Russia’s top oil producer, Rosneft, will release first-quarter financial results after its boss and close Putin ally Igor Sechin was put on the U.S. sanctions list. Yesterday, energy giant Gazprom – whose chief escaped censure – said further Western sanctions over Ukraine could disrupt its gas exports to Europe and hit its business and shares.

The International Monetary Fund will report on its regular mission to Russia. On Tuesday, the Fund said it was preparing to cut its growth forecast for the second time in a month. Many are now talking about a recession this year and capital outflows exceeded $60 billion in the first quarter.

More hope than conviction for euro zone inflation rebound

ECB President Mario Draghi has a friend in euro zone economists of late. They tend to line up and take his view, at least when it comes to forecasting inflation.

There is no serious risk of deflation in the euro zone, nearly every one of them says, and from here onward, euro zone inflation will only be higher than the March trough of 0.5 percent.

That is the line you need to take if you are not yet willing to say that the central bank, which has chopped policy rates all the way to the floor, is more likely than not to print money to get out of the mess.

Talking the talk

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi delivers a speech in Amsterdam which will fixate the markets following his recent statement that a stronger euro would prompt an easing of monetary policy.

Most notably via his Clint Eastwood-style “whatever it takes” declaration the best part of two years ago, Draghi has proved to be peerless in the art of verbal intervention. But even for him there is a law of diminishing returns which may require words to be backed up with action before long. 

In the 12 days since he put the euro firmly on the ECB’s agenda, the currency has actually weakened a little and certainly shied away from the $1.40 mark which many in the market see as a first red line for the euro zone’s central bank. That is probably because investors expect action from the ECB  soon and if so, there are good reasons to think they may be wide of the mark.

Greeks bearing bonds

Greece will sell its first bond in four years.

We know it will aim to raise up to 2.5 billion euros of five-year paper via syndication and wants to pay less than 5.3 percent – remarkable since only two years ago it was tipped to crash out of the euro zone and yields on 10-year debt peaked above 40 percent on the secondary market. They dropped below six percent for the first time since 2010 on Wednesday.

Athens has no pressing funding needs but wants to test the waters as part of its strategy to cover all its financing from the market by 2016. It still has a mountain to climb and may well need more debt relief from its EU partners to corral a national debt that is not falling much from 175 percent of GDP. 

But for all that, it’s a propitious time to borrow. Peripheral euro zone bond yields have tumbled this year, benefiting from wobbles in emerging markets, and now European Central Bank consideration of printing money has given bond prices a further lift.

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.

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.

Good news for Greece?

Unemployment is sky high, national debt is not far short of double the size of an economy which is still shrinking and its ruling coalition has a wafer-thin majority, yet there are glimmers of hope in Greece.

Having finally struck a deal with the EU and IMF to keep bailout loans flowing, Athens is preparing to dip its toe back into the bond market with a five-year bond for up to 2 billion euros.

The government has not said when the syndicated issue might be launched but having mandated banks for the sale the likelihood is sooner rather than later. It’s a remarkably quick return two years after a debt restructuring which was essentially a default.

ECB uncertainty

For European markets, Germany’s March inflation figure is likely to dominate today. It is forecast to hold at just 1.0 percent. The European Central Bank insists there is no threat of deflation in the currency area although the euro zone number has been in its “danger zone” below 1 percent for five months now.

Having appeared to set a rather high bar to policy action at its last meeting, this week the tone changed. Most notable was Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann, normally a hardliner, who said printing money was not out of the question although he would prefer negative deposit rates as the means to tackle an overly strong euro.

That looked like a significant shift although he did stress there was no need for imminent action.

IMF verdict on Ukraine due

G7 leaders didn’t move the dial far last night, telling Russia it faced more damaging sanctions if it took any further action to destabilize Ukraine.
They will also shun Russia’s G8 summit in June and meet ”à sept” in Brussels, marking the first time since Moscow joined the group in 1998 that it will have been shut out of the annual summit.

There were some other interesting pointers. For one, the G7 agreed their energy ministers would work together to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas. Could this lead to the United States exporting shale gas to Europe? A committee of U.S. lawmakers will hear testimony on Tuesday from those who favour loosening restrictions on gas exports.

Sanctions imposed so far may be limited but they are hitting investment and Russia’s currency and stock market. The economy is barely growing and the government said yesterday it now expected net capital outflows of up to $70 billion in the first quarter of the year.