MacroScope

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.

Moscow shares have fallen in response, with Russia’s largest oil producer Rosneft tumbling 6 percent and dragging other energy, financial and defence firms with it. Vladimir Putin said the U.S. sanctions will take relations with Russia to a “dead end” and damage U.S. business interests in his country.

The EU leaders will reconvene at the end of August to sort out the new faces who will run the European Commission but the difficulty in agreeing names for the top economic jobs and even the European Council president suggests that views of how to put the bloc’s economy right continue to differ.

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.”

Euro zone inflation data to set seal on ECB action

Euro zone inflation – due at 0900 GMT – is forecast to hold at a paltry 0.7 percent in May, in what European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has labelled the danger zone below 1.0 percent for the eighth successive month.

After German inflation fell to just 0.6 percent on the EU measure on Monday, well below forecasts, the bloc-wide figure could also undercut. We already know the Spanish and Italian inflation rates were just 0.2 and 0.4 percent respectively last month. If that comes to pass, any doubts about ECB action on Thursday, which are thin on the ground anyway, must surely be banished.

A clutch of senior sources have told Reuters the ECB was preparing a package of policy options for its meeting on Thursday, including cuts in all its interest rates and targeted measures aimed at boosting lending to small- and mid-sized firms (SMEs).

U.S. growth back in bloom: most accurate Q1 GDP forecasters

PMost are convinced, including Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, that the U.S. economy has already warmed up significantly from a growth deep freeze at the start of the year.

Business inventories were run down to nearly nothing in the first quarter, and were set for a rebound. There also is no sign that consumer spending is about to veer off its recovery path, especially with the job market gradually improving. All of that is likely to underpin better economic growth.

The question is by how much. Growth in the current quarter is forecast to be anywhere from 1.4 percent to 6 percent, according to a Reuters survey of 75 economists taken last week. That is the widest forecast range for U.S. economic growth in all Reuters polls in four years, except for one survey last April.

Putin desperately seeking gas deal

Ukraine seems to be in something of a holding pattern before Sunday’s election though the question of how those polls can be securely conducted in parts of the country where pro-Russian rebels want to secede remains a very live one.

We reported yesterday from Donetsk where officials working to prepare for the May 25 presidential poll described intimidation and threats from separatists which prompted them to shut down their office. The interior minister in Kiev has said it would be impossible to hold “normal elections” in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk which are home to nearly 25 percent of the electorate.

Moscow said yesterday that President Vladimir Putin had ordered Russian forces near Ukraine’s eastern border back to their bases, though NATO and the United States said they saw no sign of a pullback.