MacroScope

EU carve-up

Elected president of the European Commission Juncker is congratulated by European Parliament President Schulz after his election in Strasbourg

EU leaders meet for a summit at which they were supposed to decide who gets which European Commissioner posts – one for each member state – in what will be a huge carve-up, so huge in fact that it may well be that only a very few jobs are decided tonight.

Current best guesses – though they are just guesses – are that despite a willingness among some to play nice with the Brits, Prime Minister David Cameron may lose out again having voted against Juncker at a June summit. He is seeking one of the big economic portfolios; internal market, trade or competition but putting forward a low-profile politician as his point person in Brussels has not that made that any more likely.

Because Juncker, the former Luxembourg premier, is from the centre-right and western Europe, the leaders may look for socialists or women from northern, eastern or southern Europeans for the other two key posts of European Council President and foreign policy chief. Denmark’s Helle Thorning-Schmidt keeps getting mentioned in dispatches for the former though her country is not in the euro zone, while the foreign minister of Italy is the frontrunner for the latter.

Conservative Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos is seen as favourite to become the permanent head of the Eurogroup caucus of euro zone finance ministers. But it only requires one piece of this house of cards to be pulled for the whole edifice to collapse. The likelihood is that it will be some weeks yet before all the appointments are settled.

The summit will also discuss the latest in Ukraine. The EU agreed last week to add 11 new names to its list of people hit with asset freezes and asset bans, but that was a highly incremental move which in no way suggests it is any closer to imposing the wider trade sanctions that would really hurt. Nonetheless, with capital outflows of $75 billion in the first half of the year and a flatlining economy, Russia is already hurting.

Bank of England, the first mover?

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After the European Central Bank kept alive the prospect of printing money and the U.S. economy enjoyed a bumper month of jobs hiring prompting some to bring forward their expectations for a first U.S. interest rate rise, the Bank of England holds a monthly policy meeting.

There is no chance of a rate rise this time but the UK looks increasingly nailed on to be the first major economy to tighten policy, with the ECB heading in the opposite direction and the U.S. Federal Reserve still unlikely to shift until well into next year. Minutes of the Fed’s last meeting, released yesterday, showed general agreement that its QE programme would end in October but gave little sign that rates will rise before the middle of 2015.

The British economy is growing fast and its housing market has been running red hot – prices in London have shot up nearly 26 percent from a year ago – though the BoE says rate rises are not the first tool to deal with that. Britain’s closely-watched RICS housing survey, released overnight, showed signs that some of the heat is starting to come out with its house price balance easing back.

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.

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.

Sanctions loom for Russia

The European Union, as we exclusively reported yesterday, has agreed on a framework for sanctions against Russia, including travel restrictions and asset freezes, which goes further than many expected. The list of targeted individuals is still being worked on but will be ready for the bloc’s foreign ministers to look at on Monday.

Angela Merkel will speak to the German Bundestag about the standoff with Russia. Merkel has been cautious about imposing anything too tough as she tries to convince Vladimir Putin to agree to a “contact group” that would reopen communications between Moscow and Kiev. But yesterday she said measures would be imposed next week – after a Crimean referendum on joining Russia which the West says is illegal – unless diplomatic progress is made.

There is no sign of Vladimir Putin coming to the negotiating table and no question of western force being deployed. In Washington, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said his government was ready to negotiate over Moscow’s concerns for the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea – a possible diplomatic avenue? The U.N. Security Council will discuss the crisis in an open meeting later.

Escalation in Crimea

Worrying escalation in Crimea. Interfax reports Russian servicemen have take over a military airport in the Russian-speaking region of Ukraine and armed men are also patrolling the airport at Crimea’s regional centre of Simferopol.
Kiev has condemned the moves as an “armed invasion”.

There has been no bloodshed and there are more constructive noises from Moscow to weigh in the balance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his government to continue talks with Ukraine on economic and trade relations and to consult foreign partners including the IMF and the G8 on financial aid.

Ireland: bailout poster child, but hardly textbook

Amid the euphoria surrounding Ireland’s removal from junk credit rating status, it’s easy to get swept along by the consensus tide of opinion that the Emerald Isle is the “poster child” for euro zone austerity.

But were another country to find itself in Ireland’s unfortunate financial predicament now, few would suggest it follow the path Dublin took.

The Irish government assumed the entire nation’s private banking sector debt in 2008 after then finance minister Brian Lenihan explicitly guaranteed all bank debt in the country. It was hailed as a masterstroke at the time, but in an instant Ireland’s hands were tied and its options all but evaporated. Even the stuff that posed no systemic risk was put on the government’s – the taxpayers’ – books. This prevented the collapse of the financial system, but at a price: the country’s sovereign debt load almost doubled to around 100% of annual economic output, and in order to do that it was forced to take an €85 billion bailout from international creditors two years later.

The Iranian thaw

A landmark deal curbing Iran’s nuclear programme in return for a loosening of sanctions appears to be underway, an agreement intended to buy time for a permanent settlement of a decade-old standoff.

Under the deal, Iran must suspend enrichment of uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent. An Iranian official has just said Tehran will start its suspension of uranium enrichment up to 20 percent in a few hours.

EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels and are expected to suspend some sanctions against Iran in line with the Nov. 24 interim agreement if as expected, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog confirms Tehran is meeting its end of the bargain.

EU ratings day: Portugal modest thumbs up, Dutch unscathed, Ireland awaited

Friday is European ratings day since EU rules took force requiring ratings agencies to say precisely when they will make sovereign pronouncements and to do so outside market hours.

S&P has already shifted its outlook on Portugal’s rating from creditwatch negative to negative. The rating remains at BB, one notch below investment grade. That sounds obscure but it’s actually something of a vote of confidence though probably short of what the market had been hoping for.

The ratings agency said it expects Lisbon to meet its budget deficit target this year based “partly on indications that the economy has been showing signs of stabilization since mid-2013” – another fillip as Lisbon tries to follow Dublin out of the bailout exit door this year.

That sinking feeling

Euro zone inflation, or deflation, is the focus of the moment.

Germany’s HICP rate fell to 1.2 percent last month, Italy’s hit 0.6 percent and Spain’s just 0.3 in December (not to mention Greece’s -2.9 percent). Today we get the figure for the euro zone as a whole. Forecasts for it to hold at 0.9 percent may now look a little toppy.

It’s too early for any dramatic moves but the European Central Bank, which has a policy meeting on Thursday, may well be pushed into easing policy if inflation refuses to pick up and/or the banks clam up ahead of this year’s health tests.

A shock fall in euro inflation to 0.7 percent prompted an interest rate cut to 0.25 percent in November followed by a chorus of denials that deflation was a threat. ECB chief Mario Draghi adhered to that last week but added that he and his colleagues had to make sure inflation didn’t get stuck in the “danger zone” below one percent.