MacroScope

ECB: talk but no action

EThe European Central Bank holds its monthly policy meeting and after launching a range of new measures in June it’s a racing certainty that nothing will happen this time. However, ECB President Mario Draghi has plenty of scope to move markets and minds in his news conference.

We are still waiting for details of the ECB’s new long-term lending programme which is supposed to be contingent on banks lending the money on to companies and households. Last time they got a splurge of cheap money, the banks largely invested in government bonds and other financial market assets. With euro zone yields now at record lows, the ECB would not like to see a repeat.

Draghi will certainly be asked to clarify what looked like a new attempt at forward guidance. Last month, the ECB offered up new four-year loans to banks, and extended its offer of unlimited liquidity to the end of 2016.

Draghi subsequently said that was a signal that rates could stay at a record low 0.15 percent for longer than previously foreseen. Did he mean until the end of 2016, or even 2018 when the new long-term loans expire?

If so, it would be a brave investor that would take it at face value. Central bank forward guidance has been fraught with difficulty. Item 1 is the Bank of England which only last year was talking about rates staying at record lows into 2016. Now, the consensus is that a first upward move could come this year with house prices going through the roof (excuse the pun).

Clock ticking

Amid all the furore over David Cameron’s failure to block Jean-Claude Juncker for the top EU job at a summit last week, the bloc’s leaders signed a free-trade pact with Ukraine and said they could impose more sanctions on Russia unless rebels de-escalate in the east of the country by Monday.

In turn, Ukraine president Poroshenko extended a ceasefire by government forces until 10 p.m. local time today.

The Russian economy would contract should the West introduce wide-ranging sectoral sanctions but that would not be a “dramatic” situation, Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said over the weekend.

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.

Of Iraq and Ukraine

Barack Obama’s message that any military support for Iraq’s besieged government is contingent on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki taking steps to broaden his Shi’ite-dominated government may be having an impact.

Just hours after Maliki’s Shi’ite allies vowed to boycott any cooperation with the biggest Sunni party and his government had accused Sunni neighbour Saudi Arabia of backing “genocide”, Maliki broadcast a joint appeal for national unity alongside Sunni critics of his Shi’ite-led government.

They have tried and failed to come together before but Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders met behind closed doors and then stood somewhat frostily before the cameras as Maliki’s predecessor read a statement denouncing “terrorist powers” and supporting Iraqi sovereignty.

Common cause for Washington and Tehran in Iraq?

Iraq is going up in flames and there appears to be no question of the West putting boots back on the ground in contrast to 2003 when the United States and Britain invaded to topple Saddam Hussein and set in train a decade of chaos that has now exploded again.

Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite Muslim cleric has urged his followers to take up arms against a full-blown Sunni militant insurgency to topple Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The chances of ISIL militants taking heavily armed Baghdad are slim but that doesn’t mean conflict will not continue and, with Iraqi Kurdish forces seizing control the oil hub of Kirkuk just outside their autonomous enclave in the north, the prospect of the country splitting along sectarian lines is real.

Over the weekend, ISIL’s advance on Baghdad slowed but spread northwest, with Sunni militants seizing Tal Afar, a town close to the Syrian border.