MacroScope

Will sanctions bite?

Financial markets may view the latest sanctions against Russia as feeble, but the reaction from Moscow – Vladimir Putin threatened to reconsider Western participation in energy deals and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said they were the work of weak politicians – suggests otherwise.

Russia’s top oil producer, Rosneft, will release first-quarter financial results after its boss and close Putin ally Igor Sechin was put on the U.S. sanctions list. Yesterday, energy giant Gazprom – whose chief escaped censure – said further Western sanctions over Ukraine could disrupt its gas exports to Europe and hit its business and shares.

The International Monetary Fund will report on its regular mission to Russia. On Tuesday, the Fund said it was preparing to cut its growth forecast for the second time in a month. Many are now talking about a recession this year and capital outflows exceeded $60 billion in the first quarter.

The other side of the equation is international help for the government in Kiev. The IMF’s board will meet in Washington to consider aid, having provisionally agreed in March to provide a $14 billion-18 billion two-year package, hoping others would bump that up to $27 billion in total. Some of that needs to flow quickly if the country is to avoid defaulting on its debt obligations.

On the ground in eastern Ukraine, separatists took hold of government building in the city of Luhansk and fired on police headquarters. Similar appears to have just happened in the town of Horlivka.

Putin welcomes Crimea in

Vladimir Putin has told Russia’s Duma that he has approved a draft treaty to bring Ukraine’s Crimea region into Russia and in doing so continues to turn a deaf ear to the West’s sanctions-backed plea to come to the negotiating table.

Overnight, Japan added its weight to the sanctions drive, suspending talks with Moscow on an investment pact and relaxation of visa requirements. EU and U.S. measures have targeted a relatively small number of Russians and Ukrainians but presumably there is scope to go considerably further, particularly if Putin decided to move into eastern Ukraine too.

EU foreign ministers yesterday began discussing how to reduce energy reliance on Russia. That’s a long-term project but one that could deal a hammer blow to the Russian economy if it succeeds.

Japan-style deflation in Europe getting harder to dismiss

To most people, the idea of falling prices sounds like a good thing. But it poses serious economic and financial risks – just ask the Japanese, who only now finally have the upper hand in a 20-year battle to drag their economy out of deflation.

That front is shifting westward, to the euro zone.

Deflation tempts consumers to postpone spending and businesses to delay investment because they expect prices to be lower in the future. This slows growth and puts upward pressure on unemployment. It also increases the real debt burden of debtors, from consumers to companies to governments.

In many ways, policymakers fear deflation more than inflation as it’s a more difficult spiral to exit. After all, interest rates can only go as low as zero and if that doesn’t kickstart spending, they’re in trouble. Again, just ask the Japanese.

ECB deflation risk denial has echoes of 2009

Euro zone policymakers like to talk. They often contradict each other at separate speaking engagements on the same day. But they have struck a chorus in recent weeks, asserting that deflation is not a threat.

Members of the ECB Governing Council have been particularly vocal, insisting they will not have to alter policy to counter falling prices.

Jan 9: Mario Draghi says the euro zone may “experience a prolonged period of low inflation” — steering clear of even mentioning the word deflation.

Shock now clearly trumps transparency in central bank policymaking

The days of guided monetary policy, telegraphed by central banks and priced in by markets in advance, are probably coming to an end if recent decisions around the world are any guide.

From Turkey, which hiked its overnight lending rate by an astonishing 425 basis points in an emergency meeting on Tuesday, to India which delivered a surprise repo rate hike a day earlier, central banks are increasingly looking to “shock and awe” markets into submission with their policy decisions.

A wide sample of economists polled by Reuters on Monday already expected a massive rise of 225 basis points by Turkey’s central bank to stop a sell-off in the lira. Instead it doubled the consensus and opted for the highest forecast.

Davos Day Two — Rouhani, Lew and Lagarde

Day one in Davos showed the masters of the universe fretting about Sino-Japanese military tensions, the treacherous investment territory in some emerging markets and the risk of a lurch to the right in Europe at May’s parliamentary elections which could make reform of the bloc even harder.

Today, the focus will be on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (and his main detractor, Israel’s Netanyahu). Presumably he’s there to woo the world of commerce now sanctions are to be relaxed in return for Tehran suspending enrichment of uranium beyond a certain level. Anything he says about Syria’s peace talks, which have so far been more hostile than conciliatory, will instantly be headline news.

Other big name speakers are U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who is going around warning about the threat of European deflation, Australian premier Tony Abbott, who is running the G20 this year, and a session featuring the BRICS finance ministers.

Iran and Japan in focus at Davos

Lots of action in Switzerland today with the annual get-together of the great and good at Davos getting underway and Syrian peace talks commencing in Montreux.

On the latter, few are predicting anything other than failure, a gloom that Monday’s chaotic choreography did nothing to dispel.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon Ban first offered Iran a seat at the table, prompting a threat to pull out by Syrian opposition groups which led to Washington demanding the invitation to Tehran be withdrawn. In the end, Ban did just that.

The release of thousands of photographs apparently showing prisoners tortured and killed by the government reinforced opposition demands that Bashar al-Assad must quit and face a war crimes trial. The president insists he can win re-election and wants to talk about fighting “terrorism.”

Does less QE from the Fed necessarily mean a stronger dollar?

Based on the latest U.S. Treasury flows data, it may be time to ditch the textbook theory that says less monetary stimulus means a stronger currency – at least for now.

The problem may just be that the theory doesn’t fully account for the situation when your largest creditors – and they are very large – are trying to beat you to the market.

The Federal Reserve first hinted in May it would start reducing its bond purchase programme because the U.S. economy is recovering and so is the job market.

Japan’s ‘quadrillion’ feat

The age of the quadrillion is finally here.

After years of being stuck in millions, billions, trillions and other terms that usually come up short of twelve zeros, Japan has broken out, with its debt crossing the magical 15 zero barrier.

Japan’s public debt exceeded 1 quadrillion yen — or 1,000 trillion yen ($10.39 trillion) — for the first time in June, Finance Ministry data showed last week.

Those are eye-popping sums even if you consider that a dollar fetches 96 yen today and the U.S. has a much higher public debt burden in dollar terms.

G8 — plenty to worry about

The week kicks off with a G8 leaders’ summit in Northern Ireland. Syria will dominate the gathering and the British agenda on tax avoidance is likely to be long on rhetoric, short on binding specifics.

But for the economics file, this meeting could still yield big news. For a start, Japanese prime minister Abe is there – the man who has launched one of the most aggressive stimulus drives in history yet has already seen the yen climb back to the level it held before he started.

The financial backdrop could hardly be more volatile with emerging markets selling off dramatically since the Federal Reserve warned the pace of its dollar creation could be slowed.