MacroScope

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”.

Washington has warned Vladimir Putin against moving “overtly or covertly” into eastern Ukraine and said there was strong evidence that pro-Russian demonstrators in the region were being paid.

There is also a standoff over gas. Kiev appears to have made no payments to Gazprom, missing a deadline last night to reduce its $2.2 billion debt. Gazprom has not said what action it may take. In previous years, gas disputes between Moscow and Kiev have hurt supplies to Europe.

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.

Is it time for the ECB to do more?

From financial forecasters to the International Monetary Fund, calls for the European Central Bank to do more to support the euro zone recovery are growing louder.

With inflation well below the ECB’s 2 percent target ceiling and continuing to fall, 20 of 53 economists in a Reuters Poll conducted last week said the bank was wrong to leave policy unchanged at recent meetings and should do more when it meets on Thursday.

And the pressure on the ECB to do more has mounted after the preliminary inflation estimate for March was published on Monday. The data showed inflation cooling down further to 0.5 percent, its lowest since November 2009.

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 stumps up for Ukraine

The International Monetary Fund has announced a $14-18 billion bailout of Ukraine with the aim of luring in a total of $27 billion from the international community over the next two years.

Ukrainian officials say they need money to start flowing in April. The U.S., EU and others in the G7 would row in behind an IMF package, helping Ukraine meet its debt obligations and begin the process of rebuilding. In total, Kiev has talked about needing $35 billion over two years so they are pretty close.

A comprehensive slate of economic, energy and financial reforms have been attached and the Fund appears to be content that whatever hue of government is in charge after May elections will adhere to the programme.

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.

Obama twists, EU sticks

Washington has seriously upped the ante on Vladimir Putin by slapping sanctions on some of his most powerful allies.

Now on the U.S. blacklist are Kremlin banker Yuri Kovalchuk and his Bank Rossiya, major oil and commodities trader Gennady Timchenko and the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, linked to big contracts on gas pipelines and at the Sochi Olympics, as well as Putin’s chief of staff and his deputy, the head of military intelligence and a railways chief. Most have deep ties with Putin and have grown rich during his time in power.

The EU has predictably acted more cautiously, adding a further 12 names to the list of Russian and Crimean officials already hit with travel bans and asset freezes, cancelling an EU-Russia summit and starting preparatory work on broader financial and trade sanctions – “stage 3” which Angela Merkel said would be triggered if Putin escalated the crisis any further.

Last-ditch talks on Crimea

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet in London, a last chance by the look of it to make diplomatic headway before Sunday’s Crimean referendum on joining Russia which the West says is illegal.

Kerry said he would present “a series of options that are appropriate in order to try to respect the people of Ukraine, international law, and the interests of all concerned” and that sanctions would be imposed against Moscow if the referendum went ahead.

A full NATO meeting will take place in Brussels with the Russian and Ukrainian ambassadors invited. There is no sign yet of Vladimir Putin coming to the negotiating table.

Unsterilised ECB?

Foreign ministerial talks in Paris yesterday made little progress on Ukraine. Russia rejected Western demands that its forces in Crimea should return to their bases and its foreign minister refused to recognise his Ukrainian counterpart. Moscow continues to assert that the troops that have seized control of the Black Sea peninsula are not under its command. The West is pushing for international monitors to go in.

Today, at least some of the focus switches to Brussels where EU leaders will hold an emergency summit with a twin agenda of how to help the new government in Kiev and possible sanctions against Russia. On the latter, Europe has appeared more reticent than Washington not least because of its deep financial and energy ties, none more so than Germany and Britain.

The bloc yesterday offered Ukraine’s new government 11 billion euros in financial aid over the next two years, contingent on it reaching a deal with the IMF. It will also freeze the assets of ousted president Viktor Yanukovich and 17 others seen as culpable for violation of human rights – around 80 people were killed in the capital last month as they protested against Yanukovich’s rule. Kiev caused some market wobbles by saying it would look at restructuring its foreign currency debt.

A small step back?

A reported 0300 GMT deadline, which Russian forces denied had been issued, for Ukraine’s troops to disarm in Crimea or face the consequences has passed without incident and in the last hour President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops that took part in military exercises in western Russia to return to base.

That has helped lift the euro but the situation remains incredibly tense. Russia’s stock market is up a little over two percent and the rouble has found a footing but they are nowhere near clawing back Monday’s precipitous losses.

The West may have no military card to play – and its ability to impose meaningful sanctions is untested as yet – but the markets reminded Putin in no uncertain terms yesterday that there is a price to pay for war mongering.