MacroScope

Will French numbers add up?

French President Francois Hollande’s cabinet meets to adopt a new debt reduction plan.

After outlining 50 billion euros of savings for 2015-2017 to help pay for consumer and business tax cuts, the government is due to sign off on already delayed deficit reductions to bring it, eventually, to three percent of output as demanded by Brussels.

The European Commission has taken a dim view of any further relaxation, having previously granted Paris two years extra leeway. The French government insists it will meet its targets but appears to be trying to deliver one message to Brussels and another to its electorate, with domestic politics likely to hold sway.

French media are reporting the government will raise the official deficit forecast for this year and next to 3.8 percent and 3.0 percent of GDP respectively, which leaves no room for manoeuvre. 

Overnight, there has been some heavily coded criticism from closer to home.

France’s High Council for Public Finances, an audit panel created to offer independent assessment of feasibility of the budget programmes, said the government would raise its growth forecasts to 1.0 percent this year and 1.7 percent in 2015 which it said was realistic for this year but maybe not thereafter. Growth of 2.25 percent is pencilled in for 2016.

Five days on, Ukraine accord at risk of unravelling

An international agreement to avert wider conflict in Ukraine, brokered only five days ago, is teetering with pro-Moscow separatist gunmen showing no sign of surrendering government buildings and Kiev and Moscow trading accusations over who was responsible for killings over the weekend.

Washington, which signed last week’s accord in Geneva along with Moscow, Kiev and the European Union, said it would decide “in days” on additional sanctions if Russia does not take steps to implement the agreement. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Kiev where he is expected to announce a package of technical assistance.

So far, markets’ worst fears have not materialized but with thousand of Russian troops massed on the frontier with Ukraine and deadly clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, it would not take much to change that.

Greeks bearing bonds

Greece will sell its first bond in four years.

We know it will aim to raise up to 2.5 billion euros of five-year paper via syndication and wants to pay less than 5.3 percent – remarkable since only two years ago it was tipped to crash out of the euro zone and yields on 10-year debt peaked above 40 percent on the secondary market. They dropped below six percent for the first time since 2010 on Wednesday.

Athens has no pressing funding needs but wants to test the waters as part of its strategy to cover all its financing from the market by 2016. It still has a mountain to climb and may well need more debt relief from its EU partners to corral a national debt that is not falling much from 175 percent of GDP. 

But for all that, it’s a propitious time to borrow. Peripheral euro zone bond yields have tumbled this year, benefiting from wobbles in emerging markets, and now European Central Bank consideration of printing money has given bond prices a further lift.

A question of gas

Vladimir Putin will meet senior Russian government officials to discuss Russia’s economic ties with Ukraine, including on energy after state-controlled natural gas producer Gazprom said Kiev missed a deadline to pay a $2.2 billion bill.

In previous years, gas disputes between Moscow and Kiev have hurt supplies to Europe. The Ukraine government has said it would take Russia to an arbitration court if Moscow failed to roll back gas price hikes.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russian agents and special forces of stirring separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine, saying Moscow could be trying to prepare for military action as it had in Crimea. Armed pro-Moscow protesters occupied Ukrainian government buildings in two cities in the largely Russian-speaking east.

Ukraine inching back to the brink

Pro-Moscow protesters in eastern Ukraine took up arms in one city and declared a separatist republic in another yesterday and the new build-up of tensions continues this morning.

The Kiev government has launched what it calls “anti-terrorist” operations in the eastern city of Kharkiv and arrested about 70 separatists. Moscow has responded by demanding Kiev stop massing military forces in the south-east of the country.

Russia’s own forces remain massed just over the border and Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov said Moscow was attempting to repeat “the Crimea scenario”.

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.

Reasons to do nothing

It’s ECB day and the general belief is that it won’t do anything despite inflation dropping to 0.5 percent in March, chalking up its sixth successive month in the European Central Bank’s “danger zone” below 1 percent.

The reasons? Policymakers expect inflation to rise in April for a variety of reasons, one being that this year’s late Easter has delayed the impact of rising travel and hotel prices at a time when many Europeans take a holiday. Depressed food prices might also start to rise before long.

More fundamentally, they do not see any signs of deflation psychology taking hold, whereby businesses and consumers defer spending plans in the expectation that prices will cheapen.

Hollande’s search for an elusive winning formula

After a local election drubbing, French President Francois Hollande duly sacked his prime minister last night and tempered his economic reform drive, vowing to focus more on growth and “social justice”. A fuller cabinet reshuffle is expected today.

Interior minister Manuel Valls, anything but a left-wing firebrand whose appointment could stir unrest on the left of the ruling Socialist party, takes the premiership with a mandate to pursue cuts in labour charges for business but also tax cuts to boost consumer spending and employment.

Hollande said France would still cut public spending to pay for a 30 billion euro reduction in labour charges on business, part of a “responsibility pact” with employers he launched in January. But he said Sunday’s elections also showed the need for a “solidarity pact” offering workers tax cuts and assurances on welfare, youth training and education.

Erdogan unfettered

Investors have spent months looking askance at Turkey’s corruption scandal and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s response to it – purging the police and judiciary of people he believes are acolytes of his enemy, U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. But it appears to have made little difference to his electorate.

Erdogan declared victory after Sunday’s local elections and told his enemies they would now pay the price. His AK Party was well ahead overall but the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) appeared close to seizing the capital Ankara. 

Turkey’s lira has climbed in early trade to its strongest level in two months on the basis that at least there is political continuity. But any rally could prove short-lived with the battle between Erdogan and Gulen likely to deepen and a gaping current account gap already making the economy vulnerable to any financial market turmoil, of which there has been plenty.

ECB uncertainty

For European markets, Germany’s March inflation figure is likely to dominate today. It is forecast to hold at just 1.0 percent. The European Central Bank insists there is no threat of deflation in the currency area although the euro zone number has been in its “danger zone” below 1 percent for five months now.

Having appeared to set a rather high bar to policy action at its last meeting, this week the tone changed. Most notable was Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann, normally a hardliner, who said printing money was not out of the question although he would prefer negative deposit rates as the means to tackle an overly strong euro.

That looked like a significant shift although he did stress there was no need for imminent action.