MacroScope

ECB – stick or twist?

 

The European Central Bank meets today with emerging market disorder high on its agenda.

It’s probably  too early to force a policy move – particularly since the next set of ECB economic and inflation forecasts are due in March – but it’s an unwelcome development at a time when inflation is already uncomfortably low, dropping further to just 0.7 percent in January, way below the ECB’s target of close to but below two percent.

If the market turbulence persists and a by-product is to drive the euro higher, which is quite possible, the downward pressure on prices could threaten a deflationary spiral which ECB policymakers have so far insisted will not come to pass.

But what to do? A small interest rate cut from 0.25 percent to somewhere just above zero is hardly going to be a game changer and the ECB has already said it won’t prime banks with long-term cheap money again unless they commit to lend into the real economy.

With stress tests looming and those same banks being told to deleverage and build up capital that is anything but straightforward though given the downward pressure the bank tests are likely to exert on lending there is certainly a case for an LTRO if banks do commit to pass the money on to businesses.

PMIs on the up

Slowing growth in the Chinese and U.S. factory sectors earlier this week did nothing to soothe frayed market nerves and put a firm focus on today’s service sector PMI surveys in Europe along with the equivalent U.S. report and a weekly jobless number there.

While the world’s two largest economies suffered a hiccup, euro zone factories had their best month since mid-2011 in January. But it is the service sector that dominates in Europe. Flash readings, which are not usually revised much, showed the euro zone services reading hit a four-month high with France lagging Germany again although even its number rose. Today we’ll get the first numbers for Italy, Spain and Britain.

The reports will be the last meaningful pieces of evidence the European Central Bank gets to chew over before Thursday’s policy decision. Emerging market tumult and its possible effect on already vanishing inflation will be bang at the top of its agenda.

Emerging wobbles

This week will go a long way to determining whether a violent emerging market shake-out turns into a prolonged panic or is limited to a flight of hot money that quickly fizzles out.

On our patch, Turkey is under searing pressure, largely of its own making and that is the theme here. Yes, the Federal Reserve’s slowing of money printing is the common factor, prompting funds to quit emerging markets, but it is those countries with acute problems of their own that are really under the cosh.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s purging of the police and judiciary in response to a corruption inquiry that has got uncomfortably close to him has unnerved investors. The central bank, under political pressure, has not raised interest rates but is instead burning through its reserves to defend the lira with only limited success.

A moment of truth for Turkey

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will make his first visit to Brussels for five years where he will meet EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament President Martin Schulz.

The EU has been critical of Erdogan’s response to a sweeping corruption inquiry, clearing out hundreds of police officers and raising concern about a roll-back of reforms meant to strengthen independence of judiciary.

That will put a new round of EU membership talks which began two months ago into a rather tricky light. They had already been delayed after Brussels took a dim view of the way Erdogan cracked down on anti-government demonstrators over the summer.

Spain ascendant?

Spain appears to be on the road to recovery, if you can call it that with around a quarter of the workforce without a job.

The government says growth hit 0.3 percent in the final quarter of the year, the second quarterly expansion in a row, and may upgrade its forecast for 0.7 percent growth in 2014.

Its borrowing costs have tumbled to four-year lows in a new year bond rally and today Madrid will try to cash in by selling up to 5.5 billion euros of bonds following an above-target sale last week.

Hollande talks the talk

Francois Hollande managed to bat off questions about his private life (how successful he is in holding that line depends on the attitude of the French media which yesterday was nothing but respectful) and focus instead on a blizzard of economic reforms.

Skating past the French president’s call for an Airbus-style Franco-German energy company which left everyone including the Germans bemused, there was some real meat.

Hollande reaffirmed his “responsibility pact” to cut taxes and red tape for companies, saving them 30 billion euros, in return for a commitment to hire more people and increase training.
He also promised a further 50 billion euros in spending cuts in 2015-17 on top of a planned 15 billion this year, saying they could be achieved by making national and local government more efficient while preserving France’s generous social model.

Hollande’s moment of truth

This afternoon, French President Francois Hollande will expand upon his New Year announcement that French companies who agree to hire more workers could pay lower labour taxes in return and find themselves less tied up in red tape. Unemployment is running near to 12 percent and Hollande’s vow to get it falling by the end of 2013 fell short.

Unfortunately, the announcement has been eclipsed by his threat of legal action after a French magazine reported he was having an affair with an actress. France tends to overlook its politicians’ peccadilloes but with the economy in a hole, Hollande risks facing the charge that he should be focusing squarely on that.

To complicate matters his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, has been admitted to hospital following the reports. She will stay there for a number of days yet.
Given this is one of only two news conferences that Hollande has promised to give each year it’s hard to see how he can avoid it being hijacked by his personal life. As boxing promoter Don King was fond of saying: there are two chances, slim and none and Slim just left town.

New face at the ECB

The European Central Bank held a steady course at its first policy meeting of the year but flagged up the twin threats of rising short-term money market rates and the possibility of a “worsening” outlook for inflation – i.e. deflation.

The former presumably could warrant a further splurge of cheap liquidity for the bank, the latter a rate cut. But only if deflation really takes hold could QE even be considered.
Sabine Lautenschlaeger, the Bundesbank number two poised to take Joerg Asmussen’s seat on the executive board, breaks cover today, testifying to a European Parliament committee. A regulation specialist, little is known about her monetary policy stance though one presumes she tends to the hawkish.

Iran and the EU announced on Sunday that a deal between Tehran and six major powers intended to pave the way to a solution to a long standoff over its nuclear ambitions will come into force on Jan. 20. Thereafter, negotiations will begin on a final settlement. Brent crude has fallen in response. It’s early days but if oil falls significantly this year, that will factor into fears about deflation taking hold in Europe.

ECB rate cut expectations to be left deflated

Euro zone inflation has dropped to just 0.8 percent and the core measure is lower still – at 0.7 percent it has fallen pretty consistently over the last year.

Nonetheless, the European Central Bank is likely to sit tight at its policy meeting today. The Bank of England’s rate setters are also meeting but facing a very different set of problems.

It’s probably too early for any dramatic moves but the ECB may well be pushed into easing policy if inflation refuses to pick up and/or the banks clam up ahead of this year’s health tests. Today, Mario Draghi is likely to reaffirm its readiness to act.

Lew’s comes to Europe airing concerns

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew moves on to Berlin then Lisbon after spending yesterday in Paris. There, he urged Europe to do more to build up its bank backstops and capital, a fairly clear indication that Washington is underwhelmed by the German model of banking union which has prevailed.

Lew may also press for more German steps to boost domestic demand, after indirectly criticising Berlin for its policies during his last visit in April. If he does, he can expect a robust response from Schaeuble, at least in private.

Lew moves on to Portugal later in the day with Lisbon’s planned exit from its EU/IMF bailout presumably top of the agenda when he meets Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.