MacroScope

EU slowly tightens screw

A coffin of one of the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17 downed over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, is carried from an aircraft during a national reception ceremony at Eindhoven airport

The EU is slowly tightening the screw on Russia, with senior officials proposing yesterday to target state-owned Russian banks in its most serious sanctions so far. Ambassadorial talks on how precisely that is to be done continue today and the measures are likely to be enacted next week.

One key proposal is that European investors would be banned from buying new debt or shares of banks owned 50 percent or more by the state. These banks raised almost half of their 15.8 billion euro capital needs in EU markets last year. That is a big deal and there are increasing signs of investors turning their back on Russia lock, stock and barrel. However, with its giant FX reserves, the central bank can provide dollars to fund external debt for a considerable period of time.

The ambassadors did agree to add more people and entities to the EU’s asset freeze list, using expanded criteria including Russian companies that help to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. The 15 individuals and 18 entities, half of which are companies, will be named today. Russian shares are down about 1 percent in early trade.

The United States said Russia was firing artillery across its border to target Ukrainian military positions. It also said there was evidence the Russians intended to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers to separatist forces.

Russia’s central bank holds a policy meeting but is unlikely to give the economy much respite on the monetary policy front.
Last month, the central bank cut its growth forecast for the year to 0.4 percent and that was before sanctions were tightened by both the United States and European Union. But with inflation still well above its 5 percent target for 2014, the scope to lower interest rates looks somewhere between slim and none.

EU on Russia sanctions: slowly, slowly

Ukraine's President Poroshenko and Dutch ambassador to Ukraine Klompenhouwer commemorate victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 outside the Dutch embassy in Kiev

EU foreign ministers meet to decide how precisely to deploy sanctions agreed 10 days ago to hit Russian companies that help destabilise Ukraine and to block new loans to Russia through two multilateral lenders.

The EU foreign ministers are tasked with preparing a first list of people and entities from Russia that would be targeted. The number of individuals and companies to be penalized is up for grabs so there is scope to adopt a tougher posture.

The public statements of EU leaders have made it sound like a more dramatic move is possible. Could that be the “sectoral” sanctions that Washington has pushed for which could deliver a really serious blow to the already flatlining Russian economy? Well no, not yet. That would require another summit of leaders. The next one is set for the end of August although an emergency meeting is not out of the question and today’s meeting could give a nod in that direction.

Acid test of EU’s resolve over Russia

Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

EU leaders said over the weekend they would be prepared to impose tougher sanctions on Russia, giving Vladimir Putin one more chance to douse the violence in eastern Ukraine and help investigators do their work at the site of the crashed Malaysian airliner or face the consequences.

A statement from the British government said Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Francois Hollande agreed on a telephone call that their ministers should be ready to announce a fresh round of sanctions at a meeting of the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council on Tuesday.

There is already scope to toughen measures announced last week to hit Russian companies that help destabilise Ukraine and to block new loans to Russia through two multilateral lenders. The EU foreign ministers are tasked with preparing a first list of people and entities from Russia that would be targeted. The number of individuals and companies to be penalized is up for grabs.

A turning point?

Emergencies Ministry members work at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

Could the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine be a fundamental turning point in the crisis that has pitted Russia against the West? And if so which way – towards rapprochement or a further escalation?

Kiev accused militants fighting to unite eastern Ukraine with Russia of shooting down the Boeing 777 carrying nearly 300 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with a Soviet-era ground-to-air missile. Leaders of rebels in the Donetsk People’s Republic denied any involvement, although around the same time their military commander said his forces had downed a smaller Ukrainian transport plane.

A Ukrainian Interior Ministry official took to Facebook shortly after the plane came down, saying that rebels had used a Buk anti-aircraft system given to them by Russia, and appealed to the West to act. That doesn’t make the situation much clearer since Russia, Ukraine and the separatists all probably have the missile in their arsenals.

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.

New EU takes shape

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The new EU aristocracy will be put in place this week with the European Parliament to confirm Jean-Claude Juncker as the next European Commission President today and then EU leaders gathering for a summit on Wednesday at which they will work out who gets the other top jobs in Brussels.

Although Juncker, who will make a statement to the parliament today which may shed some light on his policy priorities, is supposed to decide the 27 commissioner posts – one for each country – in reality this will be an almighty horse-trading operation.

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.

Draghi vs Weidmann

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European Central Bank President Mario Draghi makes a lengthy appearance in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He will doubtless reassert that the ECB would start printing money if necessary but, as we reported last week, policymakers are fervently hoping they won’t have to and that a raft of measures announced in June will do enough to lift the economy and inflation.

Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann fired another broadside over the weekend, saying rates were too low for Germany and policy should remain expansive for no longer than absolutely necessary.

With less than a week to run to the July 20 deadline for a deal, Iran and the six world powers are miles apart on Tehran’s nuclear programme. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday major differences persist – largely over uranium enrichment —  with Iran and Tehran did not demur.

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.

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.