MacroScope

EU cuts off Russian banks, puts ball in Moscow’s court

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

True to its word, the EU agreed sweeping sanctions on Russia yesterday, targeting trade in equipment for the defence and oil sectors and, most crucially, barring Russia’s state-run banks from accessing European capital markets. The measures will be imposed this week and will last for a year initially with three monthly reviews allowing them to be toughened if necessary.

There was no rowing back from the blueprint produced last week – having already agreed to exempt the gas sector – and the United States quickly followed suit, targeting Russian banks VTB, Bank of Moscow, and Russian Agriculture Bank, as well as United Shipbuilding Corp.

That is important. Both sides are striving to shut down alternative sources of capital for Russia’s financial sector although there has already been some reaching out to Asia. Gazprombank held a two-day roadshow with fixed-income investors in Seoul last week.

Shares in Russia’s second-largest bank VTB have opened down 3 percent while the broader stock market and the rouble were stable. Russia’s central bank has said it will support the country’s banks if needed. With nearly $500 billion in FX reserves it could clearly do so for quite some time.

Previously Europe had imposed sanctions only on individuals and organisations accused of direct involvement in threatening Ukraine, and had shied away from wider “sectoral sanctions”. But the shooting down of the Malaysian airline changed the political calculus.

Moment of truth for EU sanctions

The logo of Russia's top crude producer Rosneft is seen in Moscow

President Barack Obama and the leaders of Germany, Britain, France and Italy agreed on a conference call last night to impose wider sanctions on Russia’s financial, defence and energy sectors.

EU ambassadors are meeting today and are expected to target state-owned Russian banks and their ability to finance Moscow’s faltering economy.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy has written to EU leaders asking them to authorise their envoys to complete an agreement by the end of today. That would avoid the need for leaders to hold a special summit to approve the sanctions.

EU slowly tightens screw

A coffin of one of the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17 downed over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, is carried from an aircraft during a national reception ceremony at Eindhoven airport

The EU is slowly tightening the screw on Russia, with senior officials proposing yesterday to target state-owned Russian banks in its most serious sanctions so far. Ambassadorial talks on how precisely that is to be done continue today and the measures are likely to be enacted next week.

One key proposal is that European investors would be banned from buying new debt or shares of banks owned 50 percent or more by the state. These banks raised almost half of their 15.8 billion euro capital needs in EU markets last year. That is a big deal and there are increasing signs of investors turning their back on Russia lock, stock and barrel. However, with its giant FX reserves, the central bank can provide dollars to fund external debt for a considerable period of time.

The ambassadors did agree to add more people and entities to the EU’s asset freeze list, using expanded criteria including Russian companies that help to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. The 15 individuals and 18 entities, half of which are companies, will be named today. Russian shares are down about 1 percent in early trade.

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.

EU carve-up

Elected president of the European Commission Juncker is congratulated by European Parliament President Schulz after his election in Strasbourg

EU leaders meet for a summit at which they were supposed to decide who gets which European Commissioner posts – one for each member state – in what will be a huge carve-up, so huge in fact that it may well be that only a very few jobs are decided tonight.

Current best guesses – though they are just guesses – are that despite a willingness among some to play nice with the Brits, Prime Minister David Cameron may lose out again having voted against Juncker at a June summit. He is seeking one of the big economic portfolios; internal market, trade or competition but putting forward a low-profile politician as his point person in Brussels has not that made that any more likely.

Because Juncker, the former Luxembourg premier, is from the centre-right and western Europe, the leaders may look for socialists or women from northern, eastern or southern Europeans for the other two key posts of European Council President and foreign policy chief. Denmark’s Helle Thorning-Schmidt keeps getting mentioned in dispatches for the former though her country is not in the euro zone, while the foreign minister of Italy is the frontrunner for the latter.

Renzi and Schaeuble: Compare and contrast

renzi2.jpgItalian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will spell out to the European Parliament his priorities for Italy’s six-month tenure of the EU presidency.
Emboldened by a strong showing in May’s EU elections, Renzi is pressing for a focus on growth rather than austerity and has even managed to get Germany to talk the talk.

At an EU summit last week, leaders accepted the need to allow member states extra time to consolidate their budgets as long as they pressed ahead with economic reforms. They pledged to make “best use” of the flexibility built into the bloc’s fiscal rule book – not, you will notice, countenancing any change in the rules.

As always in the EU, this will stand or fall on the attitude in Germany. We could get an early reading on that when German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble presents 2015-2018 budget plans. Berlin plans to refrain from any net new borrowing from 2015 for the first time since 1969 and will spend projected higher tax revenues on education and infrastructure.

Clock ticking

Amid all the furore over David Cameron’s failure to block Jean-Claude Juncker for the top EU job at a summit last week, the bloc’s leaders signed a free-trade pact with Ukraine and said they could impose more sanctions on Russia unless rebels de-escalate in the east of the country by Monday.

In turn, Ukraine president Poroshenko extended a ceasefire by government forces until 10 p.m. local time today.

The Russian economy would contract should the West introduce wide-ranging sectoral sanctions but that would not be a “dramatic” situation, Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said over the weekend.

A call to arms

The prospect of U.S. and Iranian intervention in Iraq looms larger.

Baghdad has asked the United States for air support to counter Sunni militants who have seized major cities in a lightning advance that has routed the Shi’ite-led government army. And Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has signalled that Tehran was prepared to intervene to protect Iraq’s great Shi’ite shrines.

As of last night, ISIL fighters were in control of three-quarters of the territory of the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad and some international oil companies were pulling out workers.

Even if the two adversaries find common cause in Iraq, it doesn’t appear to have transferred to negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear programme, for which the West has imposed stiff sanctions.

Common cause for Washington and Tehran in Iraq?

Iraq is going up in flames and there appears to be no question of the West putting boots back on the ground in contrast to 2003 when the United States and Britain invaded to topple Saddam Hussein and set in train a decade of chaos that has now exploded again.

Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite Muslim cleric has urged his followers to take up arms against a full-blown Sunni militant insurgency to topple Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The chances of ISIL militants taking heavily armed Baghdad are slim but that doesn’t mean conflict will not continue and, with Iraqi Kurdish forces seizing control the oil hub of Kirkuk just outside their autonomous enclave in the north, the prospect of the country splitting along sectarian lines is real.

Over the weekend, ISIL’s advance on Baghdad slowed but spread northwest, with Sunni militants seizing Tal Afar, a town close to the Syrian border.

The Fed’s taper and the question of the “tag-along” $5 billion

By Ann Saphir

Federal Reserve policymakers are expected next week to trim their monthly purchases of bonds by another $10 billion, putting them on track to end the massive program by October or December. So – which will it be, October or December? Some Fed officials are pushing for an answer, and soon.

“I am bothered by the fact that I don’t really know what we are going to do on that,” Narayana Kocherlakota, the dovish chief of the Minneapolis Fed, told reporters last month. “It’s another signal that we are not being as clear about our policy choices as we should be.”

If the Fed continues to taper the program by $10 billion at each meeting, monthly bond purchases will be down to $15 billion by the time of the October policy-setting meeting. Richard Fisher, the hawkish head of the Dallas Fed, told Reuters in late May, “I will vote to end it in October.”