MacroScope

Battle lines drawn

Germany's Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schauble speaks during a discussion during the World Bank/IMF annual meetings in Washington

The predictable battle lines were drawn at the G20/IMF meetings in Washington – most of the world urged Europe to do more to foster growth while Germany warned against letting up on austerity. The argument will doubtless be reprised today when euro zone finance ministers meet in Luxembourg.

Given a ghastly run of German data last week and sharp cuts to its growth forecasts by the IMF and Germany’s economic institutes, Berlin’s stance looks increasingly odd but Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble continued to make it abundantly clear he will not countenance any more public spending in the one European country that could really afford it.

Writing cheques won’t fix Europe, he stated bluntly.

If there was anything new it appeared to be the intensity of the response. This from European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi: “For governments that have fiscal space it makes sense to use it. You decide to which countries this sentence applies.”

Jyrki Katainen, the former Finnish premier poised to become the EU’s top official for growth and jobs, said Germany, France and Italy must focus on public investment to revive their economies.

Most outspoken was former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, sharing the stage with Schaeuble. Europe risked sliding into an era of Japan-style deflation without a “substantial discontinuity in policy”, he said. Europe, and Germany in particular, should follow recent advice from the IMF to invest in infrastructure projects.

A first for British politics

Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP drinks a pint of beer in the Gardeners Arms pub in Heywood near Manchester

By this time tomorrow, the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party is likely to be celebrating its first member of the Westminster parliament. Polls have just opened in the deprived seaside town of Clacton where the sitting Conservative lawmaker switched to UKIP and called a vote.

A second member of the ruling Conservative party has now defected to UKIP and will force another by-election before long leaving the party on tenterhooks over who might be next. Many fear they will lose their seats at the May 2015 general election as UKIP splits their vote.

Could that be enough for them to turn on David Cameron? Maybe not but if they did go for a new leader they would inevitably want someone who was more anti-European with all the implications that would have for a planned referendum on EU membership in 2017.

Europe looks again to Draghi

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Surprisingly low take-up at last week’s first round of cheap four-year loans by the European Central Bank begs a number of questions – How low is demand for credit and what does that say about the state of the economy? Are banks cowed by the upcoming stress tests? Does this make an eventual leap to QE more likely?

The ECB is playing up the prospects of a second round in December after the stress tests are finished. But having pledged to add the best part of 1 trillion euros to its balance sheet to rev up the euro zone economy, it can’t have been happy to see only 83 billion euros of loans taken. ECB President Mario Draghi testifies at the European Parliament today.

After narrowly winning a confidence vote in the National Assembly in a manner that doesn’t exactly give him momentum, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls travels to Germany to compare notes on economic reform.

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.

To QE or not to QE?

ECB Vice-President Vitor Constancio testifies to the European Parliament prior to attending the IMF Spring meeting in Washington at the back end of the week along with Mario Draghi and other colleagues. Jens Weidmann, Yves Mersch and Ewald Nowotny also speak today.

There has undoubtedly been a change in tone from the ECB, which is now openly talking about printing money if inflation stays too low for too long (no mention of deflation being the required trigger any more). Even Bundesbank chief Weidmann has done so.

Last week, Draghi made it sound as if really serious thought was being given to how to do it. He raised the prospect of buying private sector assets, rather than government bonds as other central banks have. The question is whether he is trying to talk the euro down or whether the central bank is now more alarmed, and therefore deadly serious.

Lew’s comes to Europe airing concerns

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew moves on to Berlin then Lisbon after spending yesterday in Paris. There, he urged Europe to do more to build up its bank backstops and capital, a fairly clear indication that Washington is underwhelmed by the German model of banking union which has prevailed.

Lew may also press for more German steps to boost domestic demand, after indirectly criticising Berlin for its policies during his last visit in April. If he does, he can expect a robust response from Schaeuble, at least in private.

Lew moves on to Portugal later in the day with Lisbon’s planned exit from its EU/IMF bailout presumably top of the agenda when he meets Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

And more from the ECB…

The bombardment of European Central Bank interventions continues today. ECB chief Mario Draghi addresses the European Banking Congress in Frankfurt and any number of his colleagues break cover elsewhere.

Draghi shepherded a surprise interest rate cut earlier this month and consistently says that other options are on the table though yesterday he said that talk of cutting the deposit rate into negative territory to try and force banks to lend more was people “creating their own dreams”.

Having said that, the prospect of printing money has been raised, at least in principle, and the markets still expect a new round of long-term liquidity pumped into the banking system – a repeat of last year’s LTROs – early next year. Anything more would be hugely difficult for Germany and its fellow travellers to swallow.

Of euro budgets and banks

Euro zone finance ministers meet today and will have one eye on budgetary matters given a Tuesday deadline for member states to send their draft budgets to the European Commission for inspection, and with protracted German coalition talks keeping other meaningful euro zone reform measures on hold.

Most draft budgets are in but we’re still waiting on Italy and Ireland. Dublin will unveil its programme on deadline day. Italy’s situation is more fluid so we may get something today.

Over the weekend, Dublin said it may quit its bailout by the year-end without any backstop in the form of a precautionary credit line. That would rule it out for ECB bond-buying support, which it probably also doesn’t need. But it needs at least the 1.8 percent growth forecast for next year to keep bearing down on debt.

Back from the beach

Back from a two-week break, so what have I missed?

All the big and ghastly news has come from the Middle East but there have been interesting developments in the European economic sphere.
It seems safe to say that Britain’s economic recovery is on track, and maybe more broadly rooted than in just consumer spending and a housing market recovery (bubble?).

Slightly more surprisingly, the euro zone is back on the growth track too with some unexpectedly strong performances from Portugal and France in particular in the second quarter. Latest consumer morale data have been strong and as a result European Central Bank policymakers have begun downplaying thoughts of a further interest rate cut. However, it’s unlikely that all these countries will grow as strongly in the third quarter. Tuesday’s reading of German sentiment via the Ifo index will be key this week.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Germany’s Wolfgang Schaeuble admitting what was widely known but hitherto unacknowledged – that Greece will need more financial help. The real shock was not the news but the source; the assumption had been that no one would whisper a word until the German elections are out of the way in four weeks’ time. Angela Merkel has been notably more circumspect about Greece than her finance minister.

What no crisis?

 

It seems eons since the euro zone finance ministers’ meetings which made such a hash of the Cyprus bailout but they were only two months ago. Monday’s Eurogroup will be altogether less eventful with some of the gathering probably a little jaded having spent part of their weekend at the G7 outside London where the usual differences about growth versus austerity and banking reform were aired.

No one will be sorry for a more routine meeting and there are no icebergs on the horizon but the agenda is still a full one. Featuring will be the economic situation on the basis of the Commission’s latest forecasts, the state of play in Cyprus, the decision already taken to release more bailout money to Greece, the new steps taken by Portugal to fill the gaps in its budget after the country’s top court struck some measures out, a review of European Commission reports on what is ailing Spain and Slovenia and a broad discussion about the merits of the ESM bailout being allowed to recapitalise bank retroactively from next year.

Italy offers a range of bonds at auction worth up to 8 billion euros which should be snapped up given the European Central Bank’s underwriting of the euro zone and Japanese money coursing through the financial system.