MacroScope

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.

Last night, Britain’s David Cameron said energy independence and the adoption of technologies like shale gas fracking should shoot to the top of Europe’s political agenda.

EU leaders Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy will promise to remove all tariffs on bilateral trade, according to a draft statement seen by Reuters.

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.

One small step…

EU finance ministers succeeded last night where they failed last Friday and reached agreement on how to share the costs of future bank failures, with shareholders, bondholders and depositors holding more than 100,000 euros all in the firing line in a bid to keep taxpayers off the hook.

Germany and France had been at odds over how much leeway national governments would have to impose losses on those differing constituencies and, as with many EU deals, a compromise was reached whereby some flexibility is allowed.

This is not to be sniffed at. For the first time it sets a common set of rules (albeit with wiggle room built in) to deal with bank collapses but, as we’ve explained ad nauseam in recent weeks, it is only one building block en route to a comprehensive banking union which was promised last year and would amount to the last vital plank in the defences being built around the currency bloc to banish future existential threats.

What’s it all about?

G7 finance ministers meet London on Friday and Saturday. Since they and many more met in Washington only three weeks ago and not much has changed since, it’s tempting to ask what is the point of this British gathering. There have been mutterings from some of the travelling delegations to that effect.

If there is an angle, it is the unusual focus on financial regulation (usually not part of the Group of Seven’s remit) with some feeling that more than four years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, efforts to put in place structures to prevent similar events spinning out of control in future are flagging. That puts the euro zone’s fluctuating plans for a banking union firmly in focus, which in turn puts German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble right in the spotlight.

On Tuesday, he said elements of a banking union would have to be pursued without lengthy and arduous treaty change, something he’d previously said would be necessary. Was that a softening of his position? Er, probably not. More likely, the subtext is that because treaty change takes too long, Berlin will pursue only those elements of banking union that don’t require it – i.e. bloc-wide regulation yes, but forget about a bank resolution mechanism let alone a joint deposit guarantee.

Glimmer of Greek hope

There are signs of headway from Athens where we have just snapped a government source saying the IMF accepts Greek debt is “viable” if it falls to 124 percent of GDP in 2020, rather than the 120 that it had previously decreed was the maximum sustainable level.. The source said fresh measures have been found to reduce debt to 130 percent of GDP by 2020, leaving another 10 billion euros to be covered.

At the latest failed meeting of euro zone finance ministers on Tuesday, we confirmed that the EU/IMF/ECB troika had calculated Greek debt would only fall to 144 percent of GDP in 2020 without further measures, meaning roughly 50 billion euros needed to be knocked of Greece’s debt pile. A report circulated at the meeting concluded (apologies for the number soup) that debt could only be cut to 120 percent of GDP in eight years if euro zone government agreed to take a writedown on their loans, which they will not do for now.

If the IMF will now accept 124 percent as a target that means 20 percentage points of GDP – about 40 billion euros – would have to be lopped off Greece’s debt pile. If they are now only 10 billion short, then measures amounting to 30 billion have been found. It’s hard to believe that could have come from the Greek side which has already slashed to the bone, so maybe some or all of the options we know are on the table — a Greek debt buyback at a sharp discount, lowering the interest rate and lengthening terms on the loans and the ECB foregoing profits on its Greek bondholdings – have been agreed to.

If Greek talks are tough, check out the EU budget

The EU budget summit, which could turn into a marathon as it tries to nail down monies for the next seven years, begins today. With the euro zone repeatedly failing to nail down a Greek deal, the EU would be well advised not to let this negotiation fall apart too. Having said that, there is little sign of great concern in market pricing – presumably the ECB’s pledge to buy government bonds in whatever amount it takes to steady the bloc continues to suppress investor nerves and short sellers.

Net contributors to the budget including Germany, France and Britain want to cut 100 billion euros from the European Commission’s draft budget proposal, but differ over which areas to cut. Meanwhile, the main beneficiaries of EU funding such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic oppose cuts. The meeting is intended to lay the groundwork for political agreement on the budget by EU leaders at their final summit of 2012 in December. It will last two days, maybe more and it could well be that no agreement is reached. Officials say only a cut in real terms – for the first time ever – is likely to do the trick.

Back to Greece and prime minister Samaras will meet Eurogroup chief Juncker in Brussels although he is now largely a passive, angry bystander in this process. While Juncker’s assertion in the early hours of Wednesday morning that a deal was only held up by complex technical matters has some truth to it, there is a far deeper split to be closed.

Spanish waiting game

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy secured an overall majority in regional elections in Galicia over the weekend but in the Basque country, the nationalists were the big winners. These polls have been identified as one reason why Rajoy has held off asking for sovereign aid and Catalan elections still loom next month. Rajoy is likely to have to offer politically poisonous pension reforms in return for outside assistance.

So far, we seem to be no closer to a bailout request, which could then trigger European Central Bank intervention, and with 10-year yields having dropped more than two percentage points from a 7.5 percent peak since Mario Draghi’s vow to do whatever it takes to save the euro, one could reasonably ask why Madrid should be in a hurry. Some officials are saying Spain could quite comfortably wait until the turn of the year, leaving a prolonged period of limbo.

The fact is that if market pressure comes back on, Spain can quickly approach the euro zone’s ESM rescue fund for help and the ECB can pile in thereafter. So what has happened is that a bit of fear has been put back into investors intent on shorting the euro zone periphery to their hearts’ content; fear that wasn’t there until recently. It looks increasingly likely that Madrid would seek a precautionary credit line from the ESM, with conditions attached, which in theory could allow the ECB to buy Spanish bonds without the government actually taking money from the rescue fund. That would be a much easier sell politically.