MacroScope

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.

Russia provides up to a third of the EU’s energy needs. Sweeping sanctions will inflict pain on the imposers too – on London’s dominant financial centre, on German commerce, on Italian energy security. Are they up for it? And will France give up on its 2.1 billion euros contract to sell helicopter carriers to Moscow?

French President Francois Hollande may have given a first sign of movement last night, saying a decision on whether to deliver a second Mistral carrier to Russia will depend on Moscow’s attitude over the Ukraine crisis. For the second delivery to be cancelled, EU sanctions would have to be decided at the level of heads of state and government, a French government official said. London is talking up the prospect of a defence export ban while saying it would be prepared for its financial sector to take a hit.

Elusive China gas deal

Vladimir Putin is well into his second and final day of a trip to China during which he was hoping to sign a long-sought gas deal with Beijing. There’s no sign of white smoke so far and if the Russian president leaves empty handed it would be a serious blow.

Gazprom has repeatedly said negotiations are in their final stages but it seems there has been no agreement yet on price and Moscow may have to lower its sights given the prospect of it losing business in Europe, which has been spooked into considering how to secure its energy needs elsewhere in future, has rather strengthened Beijing’s negotiating hand.

There has been a lot of talk in Russia about a pivot to the east but some analysts say that could never fully compensate for lost business with the West and if the China gas deal which could be worth $400 billion or more does not come to pass the strategy will look hollow. Late on Tuesday, a Putin spokesman said negotiators from both countries have been unable to bridge differences on price.

Why EU elections can matter

Some interesting action over the weekend: in a foretaste of this week’s EU elections, Greece’s leftist, anti-bailout Syriza party performed strongly in the first round of local elections on Sunday, capitalizing on voter anger at ongoing government austerity policies.

If it did even better in the EU polls it could threaten the ruling coalition and tip Greece back into turmoil just as there are signs that it has turned the corner.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney sounded dramatically more alarmed about Britain’s housing market, saying it posed the biggest risk to the economy and harboured deep structural problems.

A question of gas

A Ukrainian soldier sits on top of an APC at a checkpoint outside the city of Slaviansk

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in Washington for talks with Barack Obama after Europe and the United States imposed wider sanctions on Russia.

Obama is already looking ahead to a third round of measures and has hinted at impatience with Europe, saying there had to be a united front if future sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy were to have real bite. At home, the Republicans are accusing him of weakness so will he put pressure on Merkel to move ahead in a way that the European Union has shown it is entirely unready to, at least yet?

The east of Ukraine remains in turmoil with pro-Russian separatists, who have seized civic buildings and police stations in a number of cities and towns, saying Ukrainian forces had launched a big operation to retake the eastern town of Slaviansk. That would mark the first significant military response from the government in Kiev.

To QE or not to QE?

ECB Vice-President Vitor Constancio testifies to the European Parliament prior to attending the IMF Spring meeting in Washington at the back end of the week along with Mario Draghi and other colleagues. Jens Weidmann, Yves Mersch and Ewald Nowotny also speak today.

There has undoubtedly been a change in tone from the ECB, which is now openly talking about printing money if inflation stays too low for too long (no mention of deflation being the required trigger any more). Even Bundesbank chief Weidmann has done so.

Last week, Draghi made it sound as if really serious thought was being given to how to do it. He raised the prospect of buying private sector assets, rather than government bonds as other central banks have. The question is whether he is trying to talk the euro down or whether the central bank is now more alarmed, and therefore deadly serious.

IMF verdict on Ukraine due

G7 leaders didn’t move the dial far last night, telling Russia it faced more damaging sanctions if it took any further action to destabilize Ukraine.
They will also shun Russia’s G8 summit in June and meet ”à sept” in Brussels, marking the first time since Moscow joined the group in 1998 that it will have been shut out of the annual summit.

There were some other interesting pointers. For one, the G7 agreed their energy ministers would work together to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas. Could this lead to the United States exporting shale gas to Europe? A committee of U.S. lawmakers will hear testimony on Tuesday from those who favour loosening restrictions on gas exports.

Sanctions imposed so far may be limited but they are hitting investment and Russia’s currency and stock market. The economy is barely growing and the government said yesterday it now expected net capital outflows of up to $70 billion in the first quarter of the year.

A glimmer of hope in Kiev

A glimmer of hope in Ukraine?

Let’s not count our chickens after 75 people were killed over the past two days but President Viktor Yanukovich’s people are saying an agreement on resolving the crisis has been reached at all-night talks involving the president, opposition leaders and three visiting European Union ministers.
A deal is due to be signed at 1000 GMT apparently although no details are as yet forthcoming. There has been no word from the EU ministers or the opposition so far.

Even if the violence subsides and some sort of political agreement is reached (a huge if), there is potential financial chaos to deal with despite Russia’s only partially delivered pledge of $15 billion to bail its neighbour out.

Standard & Poor’s has cut Ukraine’s sovereign rating for the second time in three weeks, saying the political situation has deteriorated substantially, posing an increased risk of default. The rating is now deep in junk territory at ‘CCC’ and with a negative outlook, meaning further cuts are likely.

ECB quandary

Another round of European Central Bank speakers will command attention today with disappearing inflation fuelling talk of further extraordinary policy moves.

Chief economist Peter Praet, who last week raised the prospect of the ECB starting outright asset purchases (QE by another name) if things got too bad, is speaking at Euro Finance Week in Frankfurt along with Vitor Constancio and the Bundesbank’s Andreas Dombret, while Joerg Asmussen makes an appearance in Berlin.

We know a quarter of the ECB Governing Council didn’t want to cut interest rates (a move which Praet proposed) two weeks ago and more glaring differences could be about to emerge. Printing money would be hugely difficult for German policymakers and their allies to countenance.

Nigeria’s mighty economy

In a world of slowing growth (China), minimal growth (United States) and outright recession (Britain),  it is startling to hear that Nigeria’s economy is likely to shoot up by 40 percent in the second quarter this year. Yep. Forty percent. Four – O.

An investigation by Reuters Lagos correspondent Chijioke Ohuocha came up with this staggering figure — which if borne out will lift Nigeria close to continental rival South Africa and raise it about 10 places on the IMF’s global list to around 3oth.

This mighty rise, however, is not actually because Nigeria has had a sudden spurt of growth. You can read Chijioke’s exclusive story here, but the gist is that the country is changing the base year for its GDP calculation to 2009 from its current 1990.  One big reason is that data is better; another that it is more modern, taking in things like  mobile phones and the internet, for example. It is the latter, and things like it,  that have built up growth over thr years.

Scams from Abuja to Reykjavik

It suffered the collapse of its currency, economy and banking system so being invoked in a version of the notorious Nigerian email scam is one of the smaller humiliations endured by Iceland.

The confidence trick, which has roots in the 18th century, usually involves an email from someone claiming to be either a deposed African dictator or a Nigerian lawyer, promising a sum of money in return for help to access a substantial fortune.

But the latest spam email making its rounds purports to be from Iceland, one of the highest profile sovereign casualties of the global financial crisis. This version of the email is supposedly from a “devoted christian (sic)” from Iceland”, a widow seeking help to access $6 million in a Canadian bank left to her by her husband who worked for an oil giant for 19 years.