MacroScope

UK growth robust so what’s eating David Cameron?

Britain's Prime Minister Cameron arrives at the European Council headquarters ahead of a EU summit in Brussels

British GDP data are forecast to show healthy growth of 0.7 percent in the third quarter.

Britain’s economy is growing at a strong annual clip of around three percent, a pace most euro zone countries could only dream of. But the government is worried that the currency area’s new malaise could take the shine off things in the run-up to May’s general election.

Then there is the stunningly low level of wage and income growth, lower even than Britain’s sluggish level of inflation. This is a robust recovery but how many Britons are feeling it?

With elections increasingly in mind, the ruling Conservative party would not have been happy about some of the headlines from Day One of an EU summit in Brussels.

Climate change was the main business and Germany’s Angela Merkel said the EU will discuss a bridging loan to Kiev next week so that the country can pay in advance for Russian gas deliveries, as Moscow has demanded in return for turning the taps back on. That will come as a relief as any interruption to winter flows to western Europe, via Ukraine from Russia, would have dealt another blow to already struggling EU economies.

EU leaders meet for a gas

France's President Hollande talks with German Chancellor Merkel  during a meeting on the sidelines of a Europe-Asia summit in Milan

A two-day summit of EU leaders is supposed to focus on climate and energy policy including efforts to enhance energy security following the threat of interruptions to gas supplies from Russia.

That is no small issue. Russia and Ukraine have failed so far to reach an accord on gas supplies for the coming winter but agreed to meet again in Brussels in a week in the hope of ironing out problems over Kiev’s ability to pay.

An agreement was reached on the price Ukraine would pay Russia’s Gazprom as long as it paid in advance for the deliveries. But Moscow is still seeking assurances on how Kiev would find the money to pay. It’s likely the EU will have to step in there.

Italian and Greek confidence votes

Greece's PM Samaras addresses the audience during the Economist Conference on "The big rethink for Europe, the big turning point for Greece" in Athens

You wait ages for a no-confidence vote then two come along on the same day. Neither are expected to cause governments to topple.

Greece’s ruling coalition will hold a confidence vote in parliament in an effort to end speculation that the country may be facing snap elections early next year.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras wants to use the vote to gain support for his candidate in a presidential vote. Under Greek law, parliament must be dissolved if a president cannot be elected. The left-wing Syriza party, which has a sizeable lead in opinion polls, has pledged to block Samaras’s pick.

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.

Sanctions tighten

Britain's PM Cameron, Portugal's PM Passos Coelho, Germany's Chancellor Merkel and Finland's PM Stubb attend an EU leaders summit in Brussels

EU leaders failed to get anywhere on sharing out the top jobs in Brussels last night but did manage another round of sanctions against Russia.

This time they will target Russian companies that help destabilize Ukraine and will ask the EU’s bank, the European Investment Bank, to suspend new lending for Russia and seek a halt to new lending to Russia by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

That represents a significant stiffening of its measures though still some way short of the United States which yesterday imposed its most wide-ranging sanctions yet on Russia’s economy, including Gazprombank and Rosneft as well as other major banks and energy and defence companies.

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.

How stiff is EU’s resolve?

Russian troops seized two Ukrainian naval bases, including a headquarters in Sevastopol where they raised their flag. Moscow, continuing to insist it does not control the unbadged militia in Crimea, called for a detained Ukrainian navy commander to be freed, which has now happened. Make of that what you will.

Washington is keeping up the rhetorical pressure. Vice President Joe Biden, in Lithuania, said Russia was travelling a “dark path” to political and economic isolation. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is travelling to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other senior officials. He will move on to Kiev on Friday. 

More potent may be an EU leaders’ summit today and Friday. After subjecting 21 Russians and Crimeans to travel bans and asset freezes, tougher sanctions are already under consideration and minds have also been focused on ending decades of dependence on Russian gas. It’s a long-term project but one that could deal a hammer blow to the Russian economy if it succeeds.

Unsterilised ECB?

Foreign ministerial talks in Paris yesterday made little progress on Ukraine. Russia rejected Western demands that its forces in Crimea should return to their bases and its foreign minister refused to recognise his Ukrainian counterpart. Moscow continues to assert that the troops that have seized control of the Black Sea peninsula are not under its command. The West is pushing for international monitors to go in.

Today, at least some of the focus switches to Brussels where EU leaders will hold an emergency summit with a twin agenda of how to help the new government in Kiev and possible sanctions against Russia. On the latter, Europe has appeared more reticent than Washington not least because of its deep financial and energy ties, none more so than Germany and Britain.

The bloc yesterday offered Ukraine’s new government 11 billion euros in financial aid over the next two years, contingent on it reaching a deal with the IMF. It will also freeze the assets of ousted president Viktor Yanukovich and 17 others seen as culpable for violation of human rights – around 80 people were killed in the capital last month as they protested against Yanukovich’s rule. Kiev caused some market wobbles by saying it would look at restructuring its foreign currency debt.

S&P’s year-end broadside

Any sense of euphoria EU leaders felt about agreeing a plan to underpin Europe’s banks – which should have been muted anyway – may be tempered by S&P’s decision to cut the bloc’s credit rating to AA+ from AAA.

In global terms that’s still rock solid but the rationale – flagging “rising risks to the support of the EU from some member states” has some resonance. On the upside, the agency affirmed its rating of Ireland following its bailout exit and kept its outlook positive. Presumably, S&P is clearing the decks before Christmas because it also reaffirmed the UK’s top notch AAA rating, and reaffirmed South Africa too.

The EU quote packs a punch following a banking union deal where Germany successfully saw off plans for euro zone countries to help each other in tackling problem lenders.

Timber!

A deal on European banking union was finally struck overnight. Already the inquests have begun into how robust it is.

As we exclusively reported at the weekend, EU finance ministers agreed that banks will pay into funds for the closure of failed lenders, amassing roughly 55 billion euros which will be merged into a common pool in 2025. Yes, 2025.

Until then, if there is not enough money, a government will be able to impose more levies on banks. If that does not suffice, it would put in public money and if that is unaffordable, it could seek a bailout from the euro zone’s ESM bailout fund with conditions and stigma attached.