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Putin’s sabre-rattling wins west’s attention and Biden summit

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If Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy tens of thousands of troops to Ukraine’s border in the past few weeks was driven primarily by a desire to get the west’s attention, he did not have to wait too long for his reward.

Hours after his defence minister on Tuesday admitted Russia had mobilised two armies and three paratrooper divisions to positions close to the conflict-wracked frontier, US President Joe Biden phoned the Kremlin with an offer of a bilateral summit: a long sought-after prize for Putin who craves a seat at the world’s highest negotiating table.

By then, Moscow was only confirming what satellite imagery, social media footage and increasingly frantic statements from Kyiv had indicated: Russia had massed more troops on its western border than at any time since its 2014 invasion of Crimea.

Those 50,000 extra soldiers, scores of tanks and other heavy weaponry spooked Kyiv and other European powers, and sparked a hurried response from Nato and the US amid fears over a potential outbreak of fighting between the two countries. 

But while Russian officials have warned of a conflict that would “end” Ukraine, so far only a barrage of warlike rhetoric has crossed the border, with Russia’s troops merely lurking with intent.

That has led experts to conclude Moscow’s intention was to merely scare its neighbours, test the level of support for Ukraine among Biden’s new administration, and remind the White House of Russia’s leverage in European security.

“Russia sent a clear signal that in the current context of the deterioration of US-Russia relations, Moscow is not prepared to make any more concessions regarding Ukraine,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Russian defence think-tank. “The message was: we either stop where we are now, or we will move forward.”

Ukrainian soldiers near Marinka in the Donetsk region of Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers hold a position on the frontline with Russian-backed separatists near Marinka in the Donetsk region of Ukraine © AFP/Getty Images

Since Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, pro-Russian separatists have fought against Ukrainian forces for control of Donbas, the Ukrainian region on the border with Russia, killing more than 14,000.

Kyiv accuses Moscow of stoking the conflict with weapons, military support and irregular troops. Moscow denies direct involvement but says it has a duty to protect the Russian-speaking population who live there. 

Both sides accuse the other of failing to adhere to the Minsk agreements, a 2015 peace deal, and of constant provocations across the line of contact. Many see frustration at Kyiv as the major factor behind Moscow’s decision to remind its neighbour of its significantly larger military might.

“With the current state of Russia-Ukrainian relations, we have no other tools to influence Kyiv except the threat of force and the use of force. The other diplomatic tools are really limited,” said Pukhov, who is also a member of the Russian defence ministry’s public council.

“Russia does it not because it is cruel by nature, but because it is the only way to exert any pressure or influence on them,” he added.

Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, on Tuesday said the troops had been deployed as part of “appropriate measures” in response to threats from Nato, which he said was preparing to move 40,000 troops and 15,000 weapons to the Russian border.

The Russian troops were conducting exercises “at present”, he said, but “show full readiness and ability to fulfil tasks to ensure the country’s military security”.

Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, suggested that western support for Kyiv had increased the stakes in the Russia-Ukraine conflict by making it increasingly the focal point of broader tension between Moscow and Nato, and thus forcing the Kremlin to take a belligerent stance.

“Thanks to the uncritical and automatic support that Ukraine invariably gets from the US and its allies, Kyiv has the ability to put Russia in what Germans and chess players call Zugzwang,” he said. “Any move a player can or has to take only worsens the player’s position.”

In a move seen as an initiative to calm the situation, Biden on Monday used a telephone call with Putin to “propose a summit meeting in a third country in the coming months”, according to the White House readout of the conversation.

In the call, Biden also “voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up” and “emphasised the United State’s unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

The summit format will also please the Kremlin by effectively cutting Kyiv out of any negotiations, and allow Putin to project the image of two global superpowers deciding the future fate of the conflict.

But a long-term settlement appears unattainable at present, with both sides failing to comply with the terms of the Minsk agreement and wary that any moves to de-escalate could be seized on by the other as an opportunity to extract more leverage. 

Russian and Nato warships have been dispatched to the Black Sea and the western alliance is preparing a number of large military exercises in eastern European states this summer, a move likely to keep tensions simmering. 

“Instead of making Russia behave, the west is adding to the dynamic which might ultimately lead to collision,” said Trenin. “There will be no second coming of Mikhail Gorbachev.”

“Let’s face it: regional war in Europe is again thought of as a possibility on both sides, and this should not make anyone happy. Even in the US, because such a war will not be limited to the Old Continent,” he added. “Fasten your seat belts.”



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Emerging Markets

Tech-heavy Taiwan stock index plunges on Covid outbreak

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Taiwan’s stock market, home to some of the world’s biggest tech companies, suffered one of the largest drops in its history as investors were rocked by a worsening Covid-19 outbreak.

The Taiex fell as much as 8.55 per cent on Wednesday, the index’s worst intraday fall since 1969, according to Bloomberg. It finished down 4.1 per cent.

Construction, rubber, automotive and financials — sectors retail investors had been shifting into from technology in recent months — were the worst hit in the sell-off.

The world’s largest contract chipmaker, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which has a 30 per cent weighting in the index, fell as much as 9.3 before recovering ground to be down 1.9, while Apple supplier Hon Hai Precision Industry, also known as Foxconn, dropped 9.8 per cent before paring losses to be down 4.7 per cent.

While Taiwan’s sell-off was related to domestic Covid-19 problems, it followed recent declines in global markets as investors worried about possible inflationary pressures.

The falls came as Taiwan’s government was expected to partially close down public life to contain a worsening coronavirus outbreak — something the country had managed to avoid for more than a year.

“The reason that triggered the escalated sell-off during the trading session is the new [Covid-19] cases to be reported this afternoon, and probably the raising of the pandemic alert level,” said Patrick Chen, head of Taiwan research at CLSA. “On top of that, the market before today was already at a point where the index was at an inflection point.”

Taiwan’s strict border controls and quarantine system and meticulous contact tracing measures had helped it avoid community spread of Covid-19 until recently.

That success, which allowed Taipei to forego lockdowns, helped boost the local economy, which grew about 3 per cent last year and 8.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2021.

But health authorities announced 16 locally transmitted confirmed cases on Wednesday, for three of which the infection source was unclear — a sign of widening spread in the community. Authorities had confirmed seven untraced cases on Tuesday, and domestic media reported that the government might introduce partial lockdown measures.

President Tsai Ing-wen called on the public to be vigilant but avoid panicking.

Taiwan’s stock market rose almost 80 per cent over the past year, peaking at a historical high late last month. It is now down 8.5 per cent from that mark.

Retail investors have increasingly moved out of technology stocks in recent weeks, reducing the sector’s weight in trading volume from almost 80 per cent at its height to just over 50 per cent.

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China factory gate prices climb on global commodities boom

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The price of goods leaving factories in China rose at the fastest pace in more than three years, on the back of a rally in commodities supported by the country’s economic recovery.

The producer price index rose 6.8 per cent in April year-on-year, beating economists’ expectations and surpassing March’s increase of 4.4 per cent.

The rate was driven in part by comparison with a low base last year in the early stages of the pandemic. But it also reflects a global surge in the prices of raw materials that was first stoked by China and now incorporates expectations of recovering global demand.

While PPI prices in China have leapt, economists suggested there was limited spillover into consumer prices and that the central bank was unlikely to react. China’s consumer price index added just 0.9 per cent in April, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Tuesday, although it touched a seven-month high.

“It tells us that demand at this moment is super strong,” said Larry Hu, head of greater China economics at Macquarie, of the PPI data, although he suggested policymakers would see the increase as “transitory” and “look through it”.

“We’re going to see some reflation trends,” he added.

Signs of tightening in China’s credit conditions have drawn scrutiny from global investors eyeing the prospect of higher inflation as the global economy recovers from the pandemic, especially in the US, which releases consumer price data on Wednesday.

China’s PPI index remained mired in negative territory for most of 2020 following the outbreak of coronavirus, but has started to gather momentum this year. Gross domestic product growth in China returned to pre-pandemic levels in the final quarter of 2020.

An industrial frenzy in China has stoked demand for commodities such as oil, copper and iron ore that make up a significant portion of the index and have helped to push it higher. 

Policymakers in China have moved to tighten credit conditions, as well as attempted to rein in the steel sector. Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura, said the relevant question now was “whether the rapid rise of raw materials prices will dent real demand, given pre-determined credit growth”.

Retail sales in China have lagged behind the growth rate of industrial production, putting downward pressure on CPI, which has also been weakened by lower pork prices that rose sharply on the back of African swine fever. Core CPI, which strips out food and energy, rose 0.7 per cent in April 

Julian Pritchard-Evans, senior China economist at Capital Economics, said that producer prices were feeding through into the rebound in consumer prices, but also suggested that pressures on the former were “likely to be mostly transient”.

He added that output prices for durable consumer goods were rising at their fastest level on record.

China’s rapid recovery has been driven by its industrial sector, which has churned out record quantities of steel and fed into a construction boom that policymakers are now trying to constrain. On Monday, iron ore prices hit their highest level on record, while copper prices also surged.



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Iron ore hits record high as commodities continue to boom

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The price of iron ore hit a record high on Monday in the latest sign of booming commodity markets, which have gone into overdrive in recent weeks as large economies recover from the pandemic.

The steelmaking ingredient, an important source of income for the mining industry, rose 8.5 per cent to a record high of almost $230 a tonne fuelled by strong demand from China where mills have cranked up production.

Other commodities also rose sharply, including copper, which hit a record high of $10,747 a tonne before paring gains. The increases are part of a broad surge in the cost of raw materials that has lasted more than a year and which is fanning talk of another supercycle — a prolonged period where prices remain significantly above their long term trend.

The price of timber has also hit a record high as US sawmills struggle to keep pace with demand in the run-up to peak homebuilding season in the summer.

“Commodity demand signals are firing on all cylinders amid a synchronised recovery across the world’s economic powerhouses,” said Bart Melek, head of commodity strategy at TD Securities.

Strong demand from China, the world’s biggest consumer of commodities, international spending on post-pandemic recovery programmes, supply disruptions and big bets on the green energy transition explain the surge in commodity prices.

Commodities have also been boosted by a weaker US dollar and moves by investors to stock up on assets that can act as a hedge against inflation.

The S&P GSCI spot index, which tracks price movements for 24 raw materials, is up 26 per cent this year.

Strong investor demand pushed commodity assets held by fund managers to a new record of $648bn in April, according to Citigroup. All sectors saw monthly gains with agriculture and precious metals leading the way, the bank said.

Agricultural commodities have had an especially strong run owing to rising Chinese demand and concerns of a drought in Brazil. Dryness in the US, where planting for this year is under way, is also adding to the upward rise in prices. Corn, which is trading at $7.60 a bushel and soyabeans at $16.22, are at levels not seen since 2013.

“From a macro economic environment to strong demand and production concerns, the ingredients are all there for the supercycle,” said Dave Whitcomb of commodity specialist Peak Trading Research.

Rising copper and iron ore prices are a boon for big miners, which are on course to record earnings that will surpass records set during the China-driven commodity boom of the early 2000s.

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JPMorgan reckons Rio Tinto and BHP will be the largest corporate dividend payers in Europe this year, paying out almost $40bn to shareholders. Shares in Rio, the world’s biggest iron ore producer, hit a record high above £67 on Monday.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, has crept back up
towards $70 a barrel, which it surpassed in March for the first time in
more than a year, recovering ground lost as the pandemic
slashed demand for crude and roiled markets.

Supply cuts by leading oil producers have helped to bolster the market
as consumption has begun to recover around the world.

While some Wall Street banks have hailed the start of a new supercycle, with some traders talking of a return to $100 a barrel oil, others are less convinced. The International Energy Agency said oil supplies still remain plentiful meaning any talk of a supercycle is premature.



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