MacroScope

Evening of reckoning

EU heads of government and state dine in Brussels this evening to discuss their response to a big slap in the face from the bloc’s electorates.

Italy’s Matteo Renzi, who bucked the trend by winning handsomely as an incumbent prime minister, has the wind in his sails and has pledged to change Europe’s focus towards growth and job creation after years of fiscal austerity in response to the euro zone’s debt crisis.

A French official said President Francois Hollande would back Renzi’s call for more pro-growth policies and tell fellow EU leaders that Europe had reached “the alarm level”. Even Germany’s Angela Merkel – the one who really counts – is talking about Europe’s people not caring about treaty change but job security and prosperity.

Her prescription of focusing on competitiveness, growth and jobs doesn’t sound a million miles away from what Renzi is saying though they come from very different starting points. With France languishing and Renzi suddenly ascendant, it begs the question whether he and the German leader could provide the twin impetus to move the EU forward. Traditionally, only Germany and France in tandem have managed to do so.

Merkel’s intervention begs a further question — whether the further integration that most economists say the euro zone needs to underpin the single currency is a priority, or even possible, if institutional reform is now on the back burner.

PMIs next signpost for ECB

Following a mixed bag of euro zone GDP data last week which showed Germany charging on and Spain holding its own but France stagnating and Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands slipping back into contraction, flash PMI surveys for the euro zone, Germany and France certainly have the power to jolt the markets today.

As things stand, there seems little to dissuade the European Central Bank from loosening policy next month. Five senior sources told us it was  preparing a package of policy options for its early June meeting, including cuts in all its interest rates and targeted measures aimed at boosting lending to small- and mid-sized firms.

Bundesbank chief Jens Weidman speaks later. He told a German newspaper it was not yet certain that action would be taken in June. The three PMI readings are not expected to move much from April with the French numbers lagging those of the euro zone and Germany.

Elusive China gas deal

Vladimir Putin is well into his second and final day of a trip to China during which he was hoping to sign a long-sought gas deal with Beijing. There’s no sign of white smoke so far and if the Russian president leaves empty handed it would be a serious blow.

Gazprom has repeatedly said negotiations are in their final stages but it seems there has been no agreement yet on price and Moscow may have to lower its sights given the prospect of it losing business in Europe, which has been spooked into considering how to secure its energy needs elsewhere in future, has rather strengthened Beijing’s negotiating hand.

There has been a lot of talk in Russia about a pivot to the east but some analysts say that could never fully compensate for lost business with the West and if the China gas deal which could be worth $400 billion or more does not come to pass the strategy will look hollow. Late on Tuesday, a Putin spokesman said negotiators from both countries have been unable to bridge differences on price.

Putin desperately seeking gas deal

Ukraine seems to be in something of a holding pattern before Sunday’s election though the question of how those polls can be securely conducted in parts of the country where pro-Russian rebels want to secede remains a very live one.

We reported yesterday from Donetsk where officials working to prepare for the May 25 presidential poll described intimidation and threats from separatists which prompted them to shut down their office. The interior minister in Kiev has said it would be impossible to hold “normal elections” in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk which are home to nearly 25 percent of the electorate.

Moscow said yesterday that President Vladimir Putin had ordered Russian forces near Ukraine’s eastern border back to their bases, though NATO and the United States said they saw no sign of a pullback.

Why EU elections can matter

Some interesting action over the weekend: in a foretaste of this week’s EU elections, Greece’s leftist, anti-bailout Syriza party performed strongly in the first round of local elections on Sunday, capitalizing on voter anger at ongoing government austerity policies.

If it did even better in the EU polls it could threaten the ruling coalition and tip Greece back into turmoil just as there are signs that it has turned the corner.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney sounded dramatically more alarmed about Britain’s housing market, saying it posed the biggest risk to the economy and harboured deep structural problems.

France flatlining

We get a flood of EU GDP reports today. Germany’s figure, just out, has marginally exceeded forecasts with quarterly growth of 0.8 percent but France is underperforming again and stagnated in the first three months of the year, missing estimates of 0.2 percent growth.

Robust German growth has been driven largely by domestic demand, which could help its European peers with their exports. Where all that leaves the overall euro zone figure, due later, remains to be seen. The bloc is predicted to have expanded by 0.4 percent.

Spain has already come in with 0.4 percent quarterly growth and others could pick up too so once again France is looking like one of the sicker men of Europe. High debtors Italy and Portugal are expected to eke out at least some growth.

Bank of England sticks to its view and analysts, some defiantly, stick to theirs

Bank of England governor Mark Carney gestures during the bank's quarterly inflation report news conference at the Bank of England in LondonMark Carney has delivered what is probably the clearest message on the trajectory of interest rates from the Bank of England for a very long time.

There was no more  talk of “forward guidance”, but the guidance was pretty clear: no change to the view, on track for a first rate hike in a very gradual series, starting around a year from now. Nothing to see here.

There were a few grey areas, notably whether wage inflation will pick up significantly (it hasn’t yet) and if the elusive appearance of meaningful British productivity growth ever takes place (which will prevent the labour market from generating too much inflation).

Smoke signals from the Bank of England

Given the silence that attends Bank of England policy meetings which result in no change of course, today’s quarterly inflation report is the main chance to hear the latest thinking. Governor Mark Carney will talk to the media for an hour or so after its release.

The ongoing strength of economic data means the odds of a first interest rate rise this year are narrowing and one could certainly come before May 2015 elections, an unwelcome prospect for the government.

The main imponderable is how much spare capacity there is in the economy, which would allow further growth without feeding inflation pressures. There are differing views on that with no one quite sure how much activity was permanently destroyed by the financial crisis.

Nearer to the brink

De-escalation?  Forget it. Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels in the east yesterday and Russia launched army drills near the border in response.

The big question now is whether Russian troops will cross into eastern Ukraine following a constant stream of warnings from Moscow about the security of Russian speakers there.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to have a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, following last week’s Geneva accord which aimed to pull things back from the brink. Kerry said yesterday that Russia’s “window to change course is closing” and U.S. President Barack Obama said tougher sanctions were ready to go. There is no question of Western military intervention.

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.