MacroScope

The numbers don’t lie

Euro zone unemployment figures will emphasize just how far the currency bloc is from recovery while inflation data due at the same time could push the European Central Bank closer to new action. If price pressures drop further below the target of close to but below two percent we’re moving into territory where the ECB has a clear mandate to act, although the consensus forecast is for the rate to push up to 1.4 percent, from 1.2 in April.

Market attention is focused on the ECB cutting its deposit rate – the rate banks get for parking funds at the ECB – into negative territory to try and get them to lend. But will that do much? Despite being in a world awash with central bank money and stock markets in the ascendant, the fact that safe haven bond markets such as Bunds and U.S. Treasuries haven’t sold off much – and are now starting to climb after Ben Bernanke’s hint that the Federal Reserve could soon start slowing its money-printing programme — denotes ongoing nervousness among banks and investors. Data this week showed bank loans to the euro zone’s private sector contracted for the 12th month in a row in April.

Despite the (now waning?) European market euphoria – started by the ECB’s pledge to do whatever it takes to save the euro and given a further shot in the arm by Japan’s dash for growth – the economic numbers look grim. Euro zone unemployment is forecast to edge up to 12.2 percent of the workforce. Last night, official data showed French unemployment hit a new record. Germany is in better shape but even it will barely eke out any growth this year. Retail sales, just out, posted a 0.4 percent fall in April.

French President Francois Hollande takes to the television airwaves during the afternoon, a day after he met Germany’s Angela Merkel, a meeting which laid bare Berlin’s alarm at the sluggish pace of French reform and the Elysee’s irritation at Brussels telling it what to do – not on the face of it a recipe for smooth progress. France was the focus of much of the European Commission’s attention this week.

Hollande pledged to meet his target of balancing the structural budget in 2017 but said it was up to him, not the Commission, how to get there and how to galvanise the economy. Merkel said the two extra years Paris has been given to meet its debt-cutting target had to go “hand in hand” with structural change. In France’s case, that means relaxing labour laws and overhauling the pensions system first and foremost. Back in Berlin, some of Merkel’s acolytes were much more blunt about perceived French shortcomings.

Franco-German motor

Today’s big setpiece is a meeting of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande ahead of a June EU summit which is supposed to lay the path for a banking union. The traditional twin motor of Europe has sputtered – not least because the French economy is so much more sickly than Germany’s – but also because of real differences of opinion.

When the Franco-German relationship was running smoothly, the two countries’ leaders routinely met before EU summits to prepare a joint position which more often than not prevailed (much to the annoyance of some of their partners). But Merkel and Hollande have conspicuously not done so on a number of occasions since the latter took power a year ago.

Hollande wanted a banking union including a structure to wind up failing banks and common deposit guarantee. The latter is already dead in the water and Germany is wary of the liabilities the former might impose upon it. The European Central Bank may have taken euro break-up risk off the table – though its pledge to save the euro is still to be tested – but banking union is still a huge issue. Without it the seeds of a future crisis, or even a revival of this one, will have been sown.

Central bankers everywhere after Bernanke warning

It’s raining central bankers today which is well-timed after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke dropped the bombshell that the Fed could take the decision to begin throttling back its money-printing programme at one of its next few policy meetings. If that’s the case, and it’s not yet a done deal, then it will be the Fed that will move first in that direction, presumably putting further upward pressure on the dollar and send financial markets into something of a spin.

European stock futures look set to open sharply lower – 1.5 percent or more down – buffeted by suggestions that the Fed could soon change tack. Safe haven German Bund futures have opened higher for the same reason, though in a much more measured fashion. One of Bernanke’s colleagues, James Bullard, speaks in London today. Another, Charles Evans, is in Paris.

The European Central Bank has never got into the realms of QE but it did produce the single most important intervention over the past three years. Ten months after his pledge to save the euro fundamentally changed the dynamics of the currency bloc’s debt crisis, ECB chief Mario Draghi returns to the scene of his game-changing promise – London – to deliver a keynote speech. Draghi does not speak until the evening but his colleagues – Weidmann, Noyer, Coeure, Liikanen and Nowotny – all break cover earlier in the day. Draghi has said the ECB is prepared to act further if the economy worsens, having already cut interest rates to a fresh record low this month and ECB chief economist Peter Praet said last night that its toolkit could be expanded if necessary. But what?

Euro zone week ahead

It looks like a week short of blockbusters, particularly today with much of Europe on holiday. But there will be plenty to chew over over the next few days on the state of the euro zone and whether newly-printed central bank money lapping round the world risks throwing things off kilter.

Flash PMIs for the euro zone, Germany and France for May, plus the German Ifo index, follow first quarter GDP data which showed Europe’s largest economy just about eked out some growth but nobody else in the currency bloc did. That trend is likely to be reaffirmed with the harsh winter, having curbed German activity in Q1, allowing for a rebound in sectors like construction in Q2. France and the rest of the pack are unlikely to be so lucky.

For the markets, this leaves all sorts of assets in demand since if the economy worsens, central bank largesse will stay in place for longer and could be enhanced and if recovery finally shows up, well then that’s good for stock markets at least. The only real losers so far have been in the commodities and energy arena. The 500-pound gorilla in the room is how the world economy will cope when the big central banks finally halt and even start to reverse their extraordinary stimulus policies but that looks like a question for 2014 at the earliest. Interestingly, both the IMF and Bank for International Settlements issued warnings about this on the same day.

Beware the Bundesbank

German newspaper Handelsblatt has got hold of a confidential Bundesbank report to Germany’s constitutional court, which sharply criticized the European Central Bank’s bond-buying plan. This could be very big or it could be nothing.

Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann has made no secret of his opposition to the as yet unused programme and since the mere threat of massive ECB intervention has driven euro zone bond yields lower for months there is no urgency to put it into action. But the OMT, as it is known, is by far the single biggest reason that markets have become calmer about the euro zone, so anything that threatens it could be of huge importance.

The key point is not the Bundesbank’s stance but how the Constitutional Court responds. It is due to consider OMT in June. Through the three-year debt crisis, when Berlin has reluctantly crossed red lines it has had to get the court’s approval. So far, it has always been forthcoming, though sometimes with strings attached. But if it took the Bundesbank’s assertion that bond-buying could “compromise the independence of the central bank” at face value, it is almost certain to have a long hard look. We already know that the court is a potential stumbling block to banking union as it has ruled that any future euro mechanisms would only be in order if Germany’s maximum liability was clearly defined.

Austerity — the British test case

First quarter UK GDP figures will show whether Britain has succumbed to an unprecedented “triple dip” recession. Economically, the difference between 0.2 percent growth or contraction doesn’t amount to much, and the first GDP reading is nearly always revised at a later date. But politically it’s huge.

Finance minister George Osborne has already suffered the ignominy of downgrades by two ratings agencies – something he once vowed would not happen on his watch. And even more uncomfortably, he is looking increasingly isolated as the flag bearer for austerity. The IMF is urging a change of tack (and will deliver its annual report on the UK soon) and even euro zone policymakers are starting to talk that talk. It was very much the consensus at last week’s G20 meeting.

The government can argue that it hasn’t actually cut that hard – successive deficit targets have been missed – and that it does have pro-growth measures such as for the housing market and bank lending. But the inescapable political fact is that Osborne and his boss, David Cameron, have spent three years arguing that they would cut their way back to growth and that to borrow your way out of a debt crisis is madness. In fact, it’s arguably perfectly economically sane, given that if you get growth going, tax revenues rise and will eat away at the national debt pile.

Fading productivity could hurt U.S. job growth

RBC economist Tom Porcelli is such a curmudgeon these days. Still, given that he was one of the few economists that accurately predicted the possibility of a negative reading on fourth quarter GDP, maybe it’s not a bad idea to listen to what he has to say.

This week, he expressed concern about a rapid decline in U.S. productivity – and that was before data showing U.S. nonfarm productivity fell in the fourth quarter by the most in nearly two years.

Productivity declined at a 2 percent annual rate, the sharpest drop since the first quarter of 2011 and a larger fall than the 1.3 percent forecast in a Reuters poll.

Brazil: Something’s got to give

How about living in a fast-growing economy with tame inflation, record-low interest rates, stable exchange rate and shrinking public debt. Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? But Brazil may be starting to realize that this is also impossible.

Inflation hit the highest monthly reading in nearly eight years in January, rising 0.86 percent from December. It also came close to the top-end of the official target, accelerating to a rise of 6.15 percent in the 12 months through January.

That conflicts with key pillars of Brazil’s want-it-all economic policy. The central bank cut interest rates ten straight times through October 2012 to a record-low of 7.25 percent, saying Brazil no longer needed one of the world’s highest borrowing costs. The government also forced a currency depreciation of around 20 percent last year, aiming at boosting exports and stopping a flurry of cheap imports.

From one Fed dove to another: I see your logic

Narayana Kocherlakota, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has made a habit of turning economists’ heads. In September, the policymaker formerly known as a “hawk” surprised people the world over when he suddenly called on the U.S. central bank to keep interest rates ultra low for years to come. This week, Kocherlakota arguably went a step further into “dovish” territory, saying the Fed needs to ease policy even more. He wants the Fed to pledge to keep rates at rock bottom until the U.S. unemployment rate falls to at least 5.5 percent, from 7.8 percent currently – despite the fact that, just last month, the central bank decided to target 6.5 percent unemployment as its new rates threshold.

Kocherlakota’s bold policy stance is probably even more dovish – ie.  more willing to unleash whatever policies are needed to get Americans back to work – than even those of Chicago Fed President Charles Evans and Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren, until now considered the stanchest doves of the central bank”s 19 policymakers.

So in an interview on Tuesday, Reuters asked Rosengren what he thought of Kocherlakota’s plan. Here’s what he had to say:

Japan finally takes Bernanke-san’s advice – 10 years later

This post was based on reporting by Leika Kihara in Tokyo

Japan has crossed the monetary rubicon: the government is actively intervening in the affairs of the central bank, pressuring it to more aggressively tackle a prolonged bout of deflation and economic stagnation. The Bank of Japan is expected to discuss raising its inflation target from the current 1 percent level during its next rate decision on January 21-22.

Overnight, a Japanese newspaper reported the finance ministry and the central bank were considering signing a policy accord that would set as a common goal not just achieving 2 percent inflation but also steady job growth.

Key Japanese policymakers played down the prospect of making the BOJ responsible for stable employment like the U.S. Federal Reserve, but said a 2 percent inflation target will be at the heart of a new policy accord with the central bank.