MacroScope

What’s it all about, Mario?

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It’s ECB day and after Mario Draghi’s recent dramatic utterances, expectation for fresh action has grown, expectations which are likely largely to be dashed.

Draghi told the world’s central banking elite in Jackson Hole last month that market inflation expectations were falling markedly and the European Central Bank would use everything in its power to stabilize them in order to avoid a deflationary spiral. He also ripped up central banking orthodoxy by calling for more fiscal spending by governments at the same time as redoubling economic reform efforts. How to read that?

Two possibilities spring to mind. Either Draghi (who has talked with a number of EU leaders recently) thinks he can secure fresh a  commitment on structural reform and can use that to go back to his ECB colleagues to argue they should cross the ultimate Rubicon and start printing money in return.

Or, he is disillusioned with the lack of reform to labour markets, pensions systems etc – which was the oft-forgotten quid pro quo for his game-changing “whatever it takes” pledge two years ago – and thinks the ECB has reached the end of the road in terms of what it can do and is telling the bloc’s governments it is now down to them to foster an economic revival.

Either way, his monthly press conference will be minutely scrutinized to see if he stands by his Jackson Hole remarks – which prompted Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schaueble to ask for clarification – and whether he gives any sort of hint that QE is coming.

Over to Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama walks towards Air Force One before departing for Estonia while at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington

Barack Obama is in Estonia before the NATO summit in Wales intending to pressure Vladimir Putin to back off in Ukraine. The rhetoric will be strong – not least about protecting the Baltics under NATO’s umbrella.

But with zero chance of western military action in Ukraine the hope is that economic pain via sanctions will bring Moscow to heel. Existing sanctions are clearly hurting the economy – the rouble has plumbed record lows as capital flees or shuns the country – but that hasn’t stopped Putin so far.

He seems intent not on taking Ukraine over but keeping the rebels sufficiently well armed and supported to keep Kiev off balance and unstable. If that is the intention it has certainly succeeded.

Jaw jaw and war war

An Ukrainian serviceman is seen next to a sight for a gun near the eastern Ukrainian town of Luhansk

Pro-Russia separatists at talks with representatives from Moscow and the OSCE in Minsk said they would be prepared to stay part of Ukraine if they were granted “special status”, which is unlikely to be acceptable to Kiev.

The talks will continue later in the week and come as the Ukrainian military faced a run of reverses on the battlefield which Kiev says have been engineered by the intervention of at least 1,600 Russian combat troops.

In the latest in a string of setbacks, Ukraine’s military said it had pulled back from defending a vital airport near the city of Luhansk, where troops had been battling a Russian tank battalion. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of “direct and undisguised aggression” which he said had radically changed the battlefield balance. Moscow denies it is involved.

Nearer the brink

A man walks past cutting boards, that have been painted with images of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, at a street store in the center of St. Petersburg

Ukraine is nearer the brink with Russian forces now pretty clearly operating over the border. The past week has seen Ukrainian forces flee in the path of a new rebel advance which Kiev and its western allies says has been directly aided by Moscow’s forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Sunday for immediate talks on “statehood” for southern and eastern Ukraine, though his spokesman tried to temper those remarks, that following an aggressive public showing in which Putin compared the Kiev government to Nazis and warned the West not to “mess with us”.

The deputy leader of the breakaway east Ukrainian region said he would take part in talks with representatives of Moscow and Kiev in Minsk today but did not expect a breakthrough. Russian foreign minister Lavrov is out saying the Minsk talks will aim for an immediate ceasefire without conditions although he also said Ukrainian troops must vacate positions from which they can hit civilian targets. Meanwhile, eight Ukrainian seamen have been rescued, two are still missing, after a patrol boat was sunk by artillery.

Moment of truth in Ukraine

A Ukrainian serviceman guards a checkpoint near Donetsk

Financial markets perked up on Monday after Russia called off military exercises near the Ukraine border but was the confidence well founded?

NATO’s chief told Reuters there was a “high probability” Russia could launch an invasion of Ukraine where the government said it was in the “final stages” of recapturing Donetsk, the main city held by pro-Russian rebels, a battle that could be a decisive turning point in the biggest confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Vladimir Putin must now decide whether to leave the rebels to their fate or step up his support. Thousands of Russian troops are still massed near the border and a Russian convoy of 280 trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Ukraine set off on Tuesday amid Western warnings against using help as a pretext for an invasion.

A reminder that all is not well in the euro zone

Bank of Portugal Governor Costa arrives to read a statement in Lisbon

A reminder that while the euro zone crisis may be in abeyance, it still has the ability to bite.

Portugal will blow 4.4 billion euros of the 6.4 billion euros left from Lisbon’s recently exited international bailout programme shoring up troubled lender Banco Espirito Santo which will be split into “bad” and “good” banks. Junior bondholders and shareholders will be heavily hit.

BES’s tale of woe is so specific that there is no obvious reason to think it will be replicated. But it is a reminder that bank stress tests later this year could throw up other nasties and more immediately the saga leaves Lisbon short of rescue funds should anything else blow up. The bond market is likely to react adversely. The 4.4 billion euros will come in the form of a state loan to a bank resolution fund which the government insists will be paid back.

The Mark and George show

The Mansion House dinner in the City of London is one of Britain’s big set-pieces of the year featuring speeches by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney and finance minister George Osborne.

Carney will be speaking a week before the Bank’s Financial Policy Committee meets and is expected to road test its new tools to calm the housing market. Among other measures, the BoE could recommend caps on the size of home loans granted in relation to a property’s value or a borrower’s salary.

There have been some signs of demand for mortgages slowing of late but London – the real hotspot – is being fuelled by an influx of foreign money which does not require a home loan to buy. The FPC could also suggest the government curbs its “Help to Buy” scheme which helps Britons get on the property ladder.

Euro zone inflation data to set seal on ECB action

Euro zone inflation – due at 0900 GMT – is forecast to hold at a paltry 0.7 percent in May, in what European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has labelled the danger zone below 1.0 percent for the eighth successive month.

After German inflation fell to just 0.6 percent on the EU measure on Monday, well below forecasts, the bloc-wide figure could also undercut. We already know the Spanish and Italian inflation rates were just 0.2 and 0.4 percent respectively last month. If that comes to pass, any doubts about ECB action on Thursday, which are thin on the ground anyway, must surely be banished.

A clutch of senior sources have told Reuters the ECB was preparing a package of policy options for its meeting on Thursday, including cuts in all its interest rates and targeted measures aimed at boosting lending to small- and mid-sized firms (SMEs).

A question of energy

After two days in The Hague, Barack Obama moves on to Brussels for an EU/U.S. summit with Ukraine still casting the longest shadow.

Europe’s energy dependence on Russia is likely to top the agenda with the EU pressing for U.S. help in that regard while the standoff with Russia could give new impetus to talks over the world’s largest free trade deal.

Russia provides around one third of the EU’s oil and gas and 40 percent of the gas is shipped through Ukraine. EU leaders dedicated part of a summit to the issue last week and German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported asking Obama to relax restrictions on exports of U.S. gas.

A small step back?

A reported 0300 GMT deadline, which Russian forces denied had been issued, for Ukraine’s troops to disarm in Crimea or face the consequences has passed without incident and in the last hour President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops that took part in military exercises in western Russia to return to base.

That has helped lift the euro but the situation remains incredibly tense. Russia’s stock market is up a little over two percent and the rouble has found a footing but they are nowhere near clawing back Monday’s precipitous losses.

The West may have no military card to play – and its ability to impose meaningful sanctions is untested as yet – but the markets reminded Putin in no uncertain terms yesterday that there is a price to pay for war mongering.