MacroScope

All eyes on Putin

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia

Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet his top security officials prior to visiting annexed Crimea on Thursday with members of his government.

One way or another, with Ukrainian government forces encircling the main pro-Russian rebel stronghold of Donetsk, matters are coming to a head. Putin must decide whether to up his support for the separatists in east Ukraine or back off.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops remain camped near the Ukraine border and a Russian convoy of trucks carrying tonnes of humanitarian aid is heading for  eastern Ukraine. Kiev says it would not allow the vehicles to cross into its territory and it and Western governments warned Moscow against any attempt to turn the operation into a military intervention by stealth in a region facing a humanitarian crisis after four months of warfare.

Uneasy allies the United States and Iran have both endorsed Iraq’s new prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, as he called on political leaders to end feuding that has helped allow Sunni militants seize a third of the country. To make the odd couple an odder triumvirate, Saudi Arabia also gave him its backing. Such is the tangled web of Middle Eastern politics.

Abadi still faces opposition from his Shi’ite party colleague Nuri al-Maliki who has refused to step aside after eight years as premier. But Shi’ite militia and army commanders long loyal to Maliki signalled their backing for the change.
Abadi is seen as a far less polarising figure than Maliki and appears to have the blessing of Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite clergy. Late on Tuesday, a suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint near the Abadi’s Baghdad home.

Deconstructing UK job numbers

On the face of it, the good news for the British government keeps on coming. Britain’s economy grew surprisingly fast last year and inflation fell below the Bank of England’s target for the first time in over four years in January. The government this month even got a nod from the International Monetary Fund which only last year criticized its austerity programme.

The latest confidence boost came from jobless figures on Wednesday. Not only did the unemployment rate fall to a five-year low of 6.9 percent but pay growth caught up with  inflation for the first time in nearly four years. That provides Prime Minister David Cameron’s government with another lift ahead of the 2015 elections, after it has come  under fire from the Labour opposition for overseeing a fall in living standards.

But a closer look at the data suggests a more nuanced picture.

Indeed, total pay growth in February reached 1.7 percent – matching the 1.7 percent rise in consumer prices in February and above their 1.6 percent increase in March.

Ukrainian tipping point

Violence in Ukraine has escalated to a whole new level. The health ministry says 25 people have been killed in fighting between anti-government protesters and police who tried to clear a central square in  Kiev. The crackdown, it seems, has been launched.

President Viktor Yanukovich met opposition leaders for talks last night but his opponents, Vitaly Klitschko and Arseny Yatsenyuk, quit the talks without reaching any agreement on how to end the violence and said they would not return while blood is being shed.

The opposition are pressing for changes to the constitution which would curb the powers of Yanukovich and allow for the appointment of a technical government. Yanukovich is yet to name a new prime minister. If he names a hardliner, that could prove incendiary.

High unemployment putting the ECB in isolation

 

Unemployment in the euro zone is stuck at 12 percent, an already high rate that masks eye-popping rates in many of its struggling member economies.

But in a press conference lasting one hour, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi mentioned the problem of high unemployment only a few times – satisfied with the central bank’s usual stance of imploring euro zone governments to implement structural reforms to their labour markets, on a case by case basis.

Draghi said:

 … although unemployment in the euro area is stabilising, it remains high, and the necessary balance sheet adjustments in the public and the private sector will continue to weigh on the pace of the economic recovery.   

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.

What is France to do?

It’s euro zone third quarter GDP day and Germany and France are already out of the traps with the latter’s economy contracting by 0.1 percent, snuffing out a 0.5 percent rebound in the second quarter. Growth of 0.1 percent was forecast, not just by bank economists but by the Bank of France too.

Germany failed to match its strong 0.7 percent growth in the second quarter, but expanding by 0.3 percent – in line with forecasts – it is clearly in much better shape.

The Bank of France has estimated stronger growth of 0.4 percent in the final three months of the year but the euro zone’s second largest economy is a growing cause for concern. An OECD report on French competitiveness, released overnight, said it is falling behind southern European countries that have bitten the reform bullet.

Brussels looks warily at German surplus

Barring a last minute change of heart, the European Commission will launch an investigation into whether Germany’s giant trade surplus is fuelling economic imbalances, a charge laid squarely by the U.S. Treasury but vehemently rejected by Berlin.

This complaint has long been levelled at Germany (and China) at a G20 level and now within the euro zone too. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta urged Berlin this week to do more to boost growth.

Stronger German demand for goods and services elsewhere in the euro zone would surely help recovery gain traction. The counter argument is that in the long-run, only by improving their own competitiveness can the likes of Spain, Italy and France hope to thrive in a globalised economy.

French travails

The Bank of France’s monthly report forecasts growth of 0.4 percent in the last three months of the year, up from an anaemic 0.1 percent in the third quarter. That still makes for a fairly doleful 2013 as a whole.

France is zooming up the euro zone’s worry list, largely because of its timid approach to labour and pension reforms. Spain has been much more aggressive and is seeing the benefits in terms of rising exports (and, admittedly, sky-high unemployment). So too has Portugal.

Tellingly, both the Iberian countries have had the outlook on their credit ratings raised to stable in recent days while S&P cut France’s rating to AA from AA+. It remains at a far stronger level but the differing directions of travel are clear.

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.

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.