MacroScope

A first for British politics

Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP drinks a pint of beer in the Gardeners Arms pub in Heywood near Manchester

By this time tomorrow, the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party is likely to be celebrating its first member of the Westminster parliament. Polls have just opened in the deprived seaside town of Clacton where the sitting Conservative lawmaker switched to UKIP and called a vote.

A second member of the ruling Conservative party has now defected to UKIP and will force another by-election before long leaving the party on tenterhooks over who might be next. Many fear they will lose their seats at the May 2015 general election as UKIP splits their vote.

Could that be enough for them to turn on David Cameron? Maybe not but if they did go for a new leader they would inevitably want someone who was more anti-European with all the implications that would have for a planned referendum on EU membership in 2017.

Cameron has a strong argument – that only by keeping him as prime minister will Britons get an in/out EU referendum. To vote UKIP and split the right-wing vote would be to give the opposition Labour party the keys to power. It has not promised an EU vote.

But while some recent opinion polls put the Conservatives marginally ahead, the average of polls puts Labour about four points up.

Italian and Greek confidence votes

Greece's PM Samaras addresses the audience during the Economist Conference on "The big rethink for Europe, the big turning point for Greece" in Athens

You wait ages for a no-confidence vote then two come along on the same day. Neither are expected to cause governments to topple.

Greece’s ruling coalition will hold a confidence vote in parliament in an effort to end speculation that the country may be facing snap elections early next year.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras wants to use the vote to gain support for his candidate in a presidential vote. Under Greek law, parliament must be dissolved if a president cannot be elected. The left-wing Syriza party, which has a sizeable lead in opinion polls, has pledged to block Samaras’s pick.

Middle East war takes another step

Shi'ite fighters from Mahde Army launch rockets during heavy fighting against Islamic state members at Bo Hassan village, near Tikrit

The United States and some Gulf allies have launched air strikes inside Syria against Islamic State militants.

A combination of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk attack missiles sounds like a formidable barrage so if intelligence about where the militants are is good, a significant blow could have been dealt.

Washington said Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar were involved though their precise role is unclear. It made no mention of European involvement and Britain has said it was not part of it.

Osborne stakes out election ground with little fiscal leeway

The annual UK budget is always a big set piece but it’s hard to remember one where there have been fewer advance leaks – indicative of a steady-as-she-goes approach by George Osborne.
Having put so much political capital into reducing the deficit, to switch now at a time when the economy is recovering strongly would be politically risky. And with debt falling only slowly there is little fiscal leeway.

That’s not to say this isn’t a big political moment. Yes there is the finance minister’s autumn statement and another budget before May 2015 elections but this is the moment when the narrative for the economy and Britons’ wellbeing is staked out.

So expect a further increase in the threshold at which income tax starts to be paid, to help the poorer, and measures to boost business investment in an attempt to rebalance the economy.
Osborne will also extend his “help to buy” housing scheme, questionable at a time when property prices are rising strongly. On the thrift front, he will announce details of a ceiling on welfare spending.

Odds on Britain leaving EU shift again

Kiev has appealed for Western help to stop Moscow annexing Crimea, where a referendum on joining Russia will be held on Sunday. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk will take that message to Washington and the United Nations.

The West says the referendum is illegal. U.S. lawmakers are preparing sanctions against Russia and European Union leaders could impose penalties, such as bans on visas for key Russian officials, as early as Monday if Vladimir Putin does not come to the negotiating table. There is no sign that he will and there is no question of western force being deployed.

Germany’s Angela Merkel is in Warsaw for talks with Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Poland has been pressing for more aggressive action while Germany – with its deep economic and energy ties to Russia – is more reluctant. But it appears the EU is moving closer to imposing sanctions.
Ed Miliband, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party, has stated in today’s FT that he would only hold an EU referendum if there was a new transfer of power from London to Brussels.

Something must be done, but what?

With little sign of economic recovery in Europe and governments incrementally loosening their austerity drives (Britain being the exception) the focus turns to the big central banks on our patch and what more they might be able to do to foster some recovery.

With the European Central Bank meeting on Thursday, President Mario Draghi is in Shanghai saying the euro zone is on track for only a “very gradual recovery”. It’s hard to tell at a glance whether that is a rhetorical downgrade of the existing forecast for a pick-up in the second half of the year with downside risks attached. Either way, the pressure on the ECB to act again is growing.

However, don’t expect anything at its monthly meeting on Thursday, although a further interest rate cut could come this year and there is still talk of cutting the deposit rate – the return banks get for parking funds at the ECB – into negative territory to try and get them to lend. The big question is would that achieve much? Despite being in a world awash with central bank money, there is clearly a reluctance among banks to push money into the real economy. The latest data showed bank loans to euro zone businesses and households contracted for the 12th month in a row in April.

Reform hue and cry

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy meets labour union and business leaders to discuss reforms to pensions and public institutions. After some fairly brutal cutting, Rajoy has grown more cautious. He is negotiating a new formula for calculating pension payoffs but is wary of going further for fear of sparking greater protest. And all the time, recession put the country’s debt targets further out of reach.

There’s still some pretty serious stuff on the table. Rajoy’s cabinet has proposed a “stability factor” for the pension system, which would periodically adjust pay-outs and retirement age based on economic performance, demographics and other factors. The government is also studying a major reform to public administrations that could mean numerous job cuts in the public sector at a time when unemployment is at 27 percent.

The EU has granted France, Spain and others more time to meet their deficit targets in an attempt to foster some growth. But it is also insistent the pace of structural reforms must be stepped up. The French parliament voted through labour reforms on Tuesday which will make hiring and firing somewhat easier. President Francois Hollande will hold a rare news conference having travelled to Brussels yesterday to declare he would use the leeway to boost competitiveness and growth. Details? There were none. The European Commission will spell out its recommendations at the end of the month.

Cameron’s dilemma

Britain’s David Cameron began the day on Monday gently slapping down two Cabinet colleagues who said if they had a vote today, they would opt to leave the EU. It was senseless, he said, to throw in the towel before he had had a chance to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe. He ended it by caving into rebels in his Conservative party who are demanding legislation now to commit to an in/out referendum before the next election.

The 25 year history of the Conservatives and Europe – internecine warfare and successive election defeats as they obsessed about something which figures low on most Britons’ priority list – suggests no good can come of this and if Cameron wins the 2015 election it moves Britain incrementally closer to the EU exit door. The more immediate question is whether Cameron has lanced the boil. Again, history suggests that if you give ground to the eurosceptics they merely demand more. And what the PM’s pro-EU Liberal Democrat coalition partners make of this isn’t hard to imagine which means he might not even have the numbers to get the bill through parliament. One of the leading rebels seized on that point, saying the move could well fail.

The anti-EU fringe party UKIP, which could well not win a single seat at the next election but has seriously spooked the Conservatives with strong showings in recent local elections, must be laughing all the way to the bank. If it can remake the Conservative party in its own image, its job will be done. But just as likely is a split party. The irony of Cameron doing all this while in Washington to bang the drum for an EU/U.S. trade deal is hard to ignore. President Obama pointedly said the British premier should fix its relationship with the EU.  If Cameron believes Britain should remain part of its main trading bloc, as he says he does, he is going to have to start explaining why and that is difficult to imagine.

Britain’s budget conundrum

Budget statements from Britain and Ireland take top billing today with UK finance minister George Osborne cutting an increasingly lonely figure in policymaking circles as an advocate of cutting your way back to growth. While the economic policy room for manoeuvre is limited this is a huge political moment. With elections due in 2015, a feeling of recovery must be entrenched in the public’s mind well beforehand if the Conservatives are to entertain hopes of governing alone next time. So measures now and in the 2013 budget in the spring are the best opportunity to change the game.

Osborne has already said he is sticking to his austerity plan – and having made it the government’s central policy plank he has little choice although the opposition Labour party have staked out the opposite ground and hopes to capitalise. Even so, Osborne is likely to have to admit that he will miss his debt-cutting targets so that the pain will have to last for longer, well into the latter part of this decade.

As the euro zone has shown, without growth cutting debt is nigh on impossible. Osborne came into government in 2010 saying the austerity drive would be complete by the time of the 2015 election. He is expected to say today that it will stretch to 2018. Labour’s significant opinion poll lead is widely seen as “soft” but it might not be for long.

Britain heading for rude awakening?

 UK_DFTEZ0110

 

There is a divisive election ahead for Britain, the threat of a ratings downgrade on its sovereign debt and a deficit that has ballooned into the largest by percentage of any major economy.  UK stocks, bonds and sterling, however, are trundling along as if all were well. What gives?

For a fuller discussion on the issue click here, but the gist is that all three asset classes  are being support by factors that may be masking the danger of a broad reversal. UK equities have been driven higher by the improving global economy, bonds held up by the Bank of England’s huge buying programme and sterling by valuation and the distress of others.

But with the Bank of England’s buying spree due to end soon and the possibility that UK voters won’t give a clear victory to either the Conservatives or Labour, meaning political stalemate, is this set to change?