MacroScope

Strongly vigilant?

An alarming drop in euro zone inflation – to 0.7 percent from 1.1 percent – throws today’s European Central Bank policy meeting into very sharp relief. Not since the central bank cut interest rates in May has it been under such scrutiny.

No policy change is likely, and “sources familiar” are already talking down the threat of deflation. But the central bankers, who are mandated to target inflation at close to 2 percent, will be alarmed at the sight of price pressures evaporating. One need look no further than Japan to see the damage deflation can do, often for many years.

We reported last week that a strengthening euro has also come onto the ECB’s radar, given it could depress both growth and inflation, and that there are three camps – one wanting an interest rate cut (which we know was discussed at the last meeting), another preferring to keep the option open of another long-term liquidity flood for the banking system as was done last year, and a third wanting to do nothing.

The euro has since dropped quite sharply, it should be noted, but unless inflation starts picking up a little, the likelihood of some action before long grows significantly. Our latest poll of 59 economists predicted the ECB would inject more liquidity into the banking system, probably early next year. That was conducted before the last inflation figures came out and the odds on a rate cut to 0.25 percent are now tumbling fast. The December meeting, when the ECB will produce updated growth and inflation forecasts, is a more likely date.

Today, expect Mario Draghi to indulge in some robust verbal intervention – warning that he and his colleagues stand ready to act and still have an arsenal at their fingertips. He has not tended to indulged in the coded wordplay of his predecessor, Jean-Claude Trichet, but watch out for a dusting off of the “strong vigilance” phrase which in years gone by indicated a rate move slightly further down the road (though in Trichet’s days it signalled a rate rise not cut).

Take-off has been delayed

Euro zone services PMIs and German industry orders data will offer the latest snapshot of the currency bloc’s economy which the European Commission now forecasts will contract by 0.4 percent this year and grow just 1.1 percent in 2014 – hardly escape velocity, in fact barely taxiing along the runway.

We know from flash readings for the euro zone and Germany that service activity expanded but at a slower rate last month. France’s reading crept back into expansionary territory for the first time since early 2012. Any revisions to those figures will be marginal leaving the focus more on Italy and Spain for which we get no preliminary release.

Italy’s service sector has been growing of late, according to the PMIs, while Spain’s has still been shrinking though at a slower pace. German industry orders posted a surprise 0.3 percent drop in August and are forecast to have grown by 0.5 percent in September.

It’s all Greek

The EU/IMF/ECB troika is due to return to Athens to resume a review of Greece’s bailout after some sparring over budget measures.

Greece’s president and prime minister have said they will not impose any further austerity measures and hope that their ability to run a primary surplus will persuade its lenders to cut it some more slack on its bailout loans to make its debt sustainable. The EU and IMF say there will be a fiscal gap next year that must be filled by domestic measures, be they further wage and pension cuts or tax increases.

We had a round of brinkmanship last week with EU officials saying they weren’t going to turn up because Athens had not come up with plausible ways to fill a 2 billion euros hole in its 2014 budget. But on Saturday, the European Commission said the review was back on after the Greek government came up with fresh proposals.

A question of liquidity

The Federal Reserve’s decision to keep printing dollars at an unchanged rate, mirrored by the Bank of Japan sticking with its massive stimulus programme, should have surprised nobody.

But markets seem marginally discomfited, interpreting the Fed’s statement as sounding a little less alarmed about the state of the U.S. recovery than some had expected and maybe hastening Taper Day. European stocks are expected to pull back from a five-year high but this is really the financial equivalent of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. The Fed’s message was little changed bar removing a reference to tighter financing conditions.

However, the top central banks have sent a signal that they think all is not yet well with the world – the Fed, BOJ, European Central Bank, Bank of England, Bank of Canada and Swiss National Bank have just announced they will make permanent their array of currency swap arrangements to provide a “prudent liquidity backstop” indefinitely.

Italy versus Spain

Italy will auction up to 6 billion euros of five- and 10-year bonds after two earlier sales this week saw two-year and six-month yields drop to the lowest level in six months. Don’t be lulled into thinking all is well.

After Silvio Berlusconi’s failure to pull down the government, Prime Minister Enrico Letta has some time to push through economic reforms, cut taxes and spending. But already the politics look difficult and the central bank said yesterday that government forecasts for 1.1 percent growth next year and falling borrowing costs were overly optimistic.

Bank of Italy Governor Ignazio Visco and Economy Minister Fabrizio Saccomanni will speak during the day.

Beware the bias in euro zone forecasts (again)

Next time you ask an economist a question about the euro zone, be sure to enquire where their head office is based.

London? New York? Expect a pessimistic response on euro zone matters.

Frankfurt? Paris? Happier days are coming soon for the currency union.

So that’s oversimplifying matters slightly – but as we’ve seen time over, institutions based outside the euro zone are likely to be gloomier about its prospects, and those based inside it are more likely to look on the bright side.

That pattern was clear to see in this week’s Reuters poll on the euro zone’s vulnerable quartet – Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

Spanish sums

Spanish third quarter GDP figures tomorrow are likely to confirm the Bank of Spain’s prediction that the euro zone’s fourth largest economy has finally put nine quarters of contraction behind it, albeit with growth of just 0.1 percent.

Today, we get some appetizers that show just how far an economy with unemployment in excess of 25 percent has to go. Spanish retail sales, just out, have fallen every month for 39 months after posting a 2.2 percent year-on-year fall in September, showing domestic demand remains deeply depressed. All the progress so far has come on the export side of the balance sheet.

Spain’s public deficit figures, not including local governments and town halls, are also on the block. The deficit was 4.52 percent of GDP in the year to July and the government, which is aiming for a 6.5 percent year-end target, says it is on track.

The Italian Job

Italy has dropped out of the spotlight a little following the protracted political soap opera surrounding Silvio Berlusconi. But it remains perhaps the euro zone’s most dangerous flashpoint.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta now has some time to push through economic reforms, cut taxes and spending in an effort to galvanize activity. But already the politics look difficult.

Italy’s three main unions are to strike over the government’s 2014 budget plan. Former premier Mario Monti resigned as head of his centrist party after it supported the budget which he viewed as way too modest, lacking in meaningful tax cuts and deregulation.

Humdrum summit

A two-day EU summit kicks off in Brussels hamstrung by the lack of a German government.

Officials in Berlin say they want to reach a common position on a mechanism for restructuring or winding up failing banks by the end of the year but with an entire policy slate to be thrashed out and the centre-left SPD saying the aim is to form a new German administration with Angela Merkel’s CDU by Christmas, time is very tight.

On banking union, a senior German official said Berlin had no plans to present an alternative plan for how a resolution fund might work at the  summit and reiterated Berlin’s stance that national budget autonomy for winding up banks could not be outsourced.

Stress, stress, stress

The European Central Bank will announce the methodology which will underpin the stress tests of about 130 big European banks next year.

It is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Come up with a clean bill of health as previous discredited stress tests did and they will have no credibility. So it is likely to come down on the side of rigour but if in so doing it unearths serious financial gaps, fears about the euro zone would be rekindled and there is as yet no agreement on providing a common backstop for the financial sector.

France, Spain and Italy want a joint commitment by all 17 euro zone countries to stand by weak banks regardless of where they are. Germany, which fears it would end up picking up most of the bill, is worried about the euro zone’s rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism, helping banks directly without making their home governments responsible for repaying the aid.