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Following The Eurozone Economy



Updated: 2015-09-16T21:35:17.991+02:00

 



The Japanisation Of Europe

2014-09-20T12:45:33.424+02:00

By now it should be clear that the monetary experiment currently being carried out in Japan (known as “Abenomics”) is fundamentally different from the kind of quantitative easing which was implemented  in the United States and the United Kingdom during the global financial crisis. In the US and the UK QE was implemented in order to stabilize the financial system, while in Japan, and now the Euro Area (EA) the objective is to end deflationary pressures and reflate economies which are arguably caught in some form of liquidity trap.In particular it is hard not to draw the conclusion that something structural and more long-term is taking place in Japan, and that that something is only tangentially related to the recent global financial crisis. One plausible explanation is that Japan’s long-lasting malaise is not simply a debt deflationary hangover from the bursting of a property bubble in 1992 but rather with the rapid population ageing the country has experienced. If this is the case then the ongoing economic stagnation in Europe may have a lot more to do with the Japan experience than it does with  the recent economic dynamics seen in the UK and the US. The reason for this is simple:  Europe’s population is the second oldest on the planet after Japan’s. Certainly at first sight the similarity is striking, especially when it comes to working age population dynamics.So is the Euro Area the New "Japan"?"Europe is becoming Japanese" is an expression that is being used more and more. People saying this normally point to the fact that German 10 year bund yields recently went under 1% (and hence have started to look like 10 year Japan Government Bonds).But behind this argument lies some kind of "reverse causality". In Japan JGB yields have been driven to very low levels by central bank intervention, with the BoJ now buying a very large share of all new issue bonds. In Europe, on the other hand, the ECB isn't buying Euro Area sovereigns, the markets are in anticipation of QE. So to talk about the Japanisation of Euro Area yields is a little misleading. Bond purchasers and their models are provoking this downward lurch, not the central bank response to weak growth or creeping deflation. To really push Mario Draghi into Japan-style QE in the short term markets would need to move back into risk-off mode on periphery assets, yet there is little appetite to go for what might potentially become another "widowmaker" trade by taking on a powerful central bank. Yet as long as the bond markets remain relatively well behaved Draghi will try to do as little as possible.Another argument used to justify the "Japanisation" of the Euro Area idea carries much more clout, and that is the one being used by Paul Krugman based on working age population dynamics. "If you’re worried that secular stagnation might be depressing the natural real rate of interest (the rate consistent with full employment)”, he told blog readers “and you think that demography is a big factor, Europe looks really terrible, indeed full-on Japanese."Inflation dynamics in Europe also look strikingly similar to those seen in Japan (but with a 20 year lag, see chart below). The basic idea is that working age population dynamics play a big part in determining movements in aggregate demand and hence inflation. This idea received support from a research paper published at the start of August by a group of IMF economists - "Is Japan’s Population Aging Deflationary?" The first part of the paper abstract runs as follows:"Japan has the most rapidly aging population in the world. This affects growth and fiscal sustainability, but the potential impact on inflation has been studied less. We use the IMF’s Global Integrated Fiscal and Monetary Model (GIMF) and find substantial deflationary pressures from aging, mainly from declining growth and falling land prices. Dissaving by the elderly makes matters worse as it leads to real exchange rate appreciation from the repatriation of foreign assets. The deflationary effects from aging are magnified by the[...]



What Is The Risk The Euro Crisis Will Reignite?

2014-09-17T13:58:40.939+02:00

The euro zone crisis is not back -- at least not yet. Recent movements in global markets following concerns about Portugal’s Banco Espirito Santo really had as much to do with market nerves after a long spell of repressed volatility as it did with the state of the bank’s balance sheet. Despite the current calm, everyone knows that volatility will return one day, and no one wants to be caught on the back foot when it does arrive. So the initial response is to hit the “sell” button and then ask questions.Beyond this context, there is a lack of certainty in the market about which way bond yields for the so-called “peripheral” euro zone countries are heading in the near term -- and what exactly the risks associated with holding them really are. Riding the yield compression, in the case of the Portuguese 10-year bond from over 7 percent to under 3.5 percent was a one-way-bet no-brainer once the impact of Draghi’s July 2012 speech became crystal clear.But now yields have started to tick up again, so the advantages of holding in anticipation of further declines become less obvious, while the risks continue to mount. In many ways, the situation is analogous to yen depreciation and the Bank of Japan. The first leg was easy, as the yen fell into the 100 to 105 to USD range. But now it is stuck there, and the debate has become a “will she, won’t she” on further BoJ easing.It is clear the recent European Central Bank decision to launch Targeted Long-Term Refinancing Operations has disappointed. TLTRO's may do something to help ease access to credit in the south in the mid-term, but they will hardly be effective in combating deflation. In particular, we may need to wait more than six months to see any net liquidity impact, since the September and December allocations coincide with earlier LTRO repayments, leaving what Pantheon Macroeconimcs’ Claus Vistesen calls “a potentially worrying ‘air-pocket’ over the next six months where the central bank’s balance sheet continues to contract, making the verbal commitment to easing increasingly difficult to rely on as a sole back-stop."Will we really have to wait till 2015 to see any significant step to try to stop the deflation rot?Digging deeper, and beyond fears about what the coming ECB bank stress tests may turn up, the simple passage of time in itself could complicate things. The recent round of  numbers has had everyone busily revising down their 2014 growth forecasts, and it is obvious that even if outright deflation is avoided inflation will be very, very low. In fact whether or not the Euro Area slumps back into outright recession or not seems to depend more on Vladimir Putin than on the ECB at the moment,But the key point to take away from all this is that nominal GDP over the next couple of years may barely increase, with the knock on consequence that sovereign debt levels in the most indebted countries will surely be jolted onwards and upwards. This is important since all official sector projections have these levels peaking either this year or next, but now these estimates will surely need to be revisited.Second quarter GDP data was horribly bad. France's economy stagnated, but more worryingly for policymakers Germany relapsed (minus 0.2 q-o-q), leaving Spain as the only one of the "big four" to put in a positive growth performance (0.6 q-o-q). While the immediate drag on short-term growth may well be the impact on sentiment of a crisis on the frontier between Ukraine and Russia,  the Euro Area  is now clearly stuck in some form of longer term secular stagnation. The daylight just around the next recovery corner argument rings hollower and hollower with each successive loss of momentum."Europe is becoming Japanese" is an expression you hear more and more. People saying this normally point to the fact that German 10 year bund yields have now gone under 1% (and hence have started to look like 10 year JGBs). But behind this argument lies some sort of version of "reverse causality". In Japan JGB yields ha[...]



Does Portugal Have Its Own “Shortage Of Japanese" Problem?

2013-05-12T21:29:33.957+02:00

In a number of posts recently I have highlighted the impact of declining workforces on economic growth (here, for example, or here, or here) and the way the policies persued to address the Euro debt crisis are having the impact of  accelerating the movement of young people away from the periphery and towards the core (here, or here) thus accelerating the decline in their working populations and exacerbating their growth problem. This issue has been already highlighted strongly in Japan's ongoing crisis, and has to some extent come to be known as the "shortage of Japanese" problem following Paul Krugman's memorable use of this expression to explain  why Japan's economic performance seemed so poor to so many.Recently I came across a post by Portuguese blogger Valter Martins, where he looks in some depth at what is happening in Portugal. Really, despite the use of some technical details his argument is extraordinarily straightforward, in fact it is as elegant as it is simple. What he points out is that population growth rates serve as some kind of "quick and dirty" proxy for GDP growth rates, and growth in working age population serves equally well as a quick proxy for growth in GDP per capita. Any simple growth accounting process breaks growth down into a labour input component and a productivity component, so if your labour component turns negative, even to get the same growth your productivity component has to be greater. For societies that have considerable difficulty raising productivity in the first place this process of working population decline is going to make an already Herculean task even more difficult.In addition Valter picks up a point few researchers seem to have noticed up to now, that working age population in Portugal just surprisingly peaked. Natural population dynamics have long been stationary in Portugal, and emigration has long-standing and deep roots. During the first eight years of this century the population loss caused by emigration (nearly all young educated Portuguese) was masked by the steady influx of immigrants looking for work. But now the country is in deep recession the immigrants aren't coming. Indeed  some are even leaving, while the rate of emigration by Portuguese nationals has accelerated and continues to accelerate, sending working age population (and just as importantly its age distribution) on an increasingly negative path.During the years of austerity we have become familiar with the phenomenon that as fiscal spending is cut growth falls making the achievement of fiscal targets even more difficult. Well something similar seems to be happening with migration movements, as part of the benefit to long term growth that accrues from making structural reforms disappears on the other side of the ledger as the workforce shrinks.   Again we are in danger of running round and round in ever diminishing circles.Reading Valter's post I became impressed with the power of his argument and was struck by the importance of what he had discovered. I therefore took the unusual step of asking him to translate the piece and offering to publish it on my blog. So, without more ado, here is:Is Portugal Facing A “Shortage Of Japanese"?Guest Post by Valter Martins“So, about the slow growth/debt connection: I’ve done a quick and dirty mini-RR for the period 1950-2007 ……focusing only on the G7……and if you look at it, you see that most of the apparent relationship is coming from Italy and Japan……And it’s quite clear from the history that both Italy and (especially) Japan ran up high debts as a consequence of their growth slowdowns, not the other way around.” – Paul Krugman, Reinhart-Rogoff, Continued Despite so much intense debate about the ailment from which Portugal suffers, and the mountain of sacrifices currently being borne by the Portuguese people one fact has gone virtually unnoticed in amongst all the noise - for the first time, at least in the modern era, Portuga[...]



Beyond Their Ken?

2013-04-28T21:29:03.465+02:00

Spain's economic problems now form part of such a complex web of cause and effect, action and reaction, that it is getting increasingly difficult for laymen, journalists and politicians alike to get to the core of what is actually happening.“To a herd of rams, the ram the herdsman drives each evening into a special enclosure to feed and that becomes twice as fat as the others must seem to be a genius. And it must appear an astonishing conjunction of genius with a whole series of extraordinary chances that this ram, who instead of getting into the general fold every evening goes into a special enclosure where there are oats- that this very ram, swelling with fat, is killed for meat”. – Tolstoy, ‘War and Peace’.After so many false dawns, the recent announcement by Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that the government was revising down its 2013 economic forecast hardly caused a blink among a citizenry that is now completely inured to deception and ready to believe the worst about the intentions of any politician willing to come forward with either good or bad news. The long announced recovery has once more been delayed, and will now be noted not in the last three months of this year, but during the first six of 2014. Naturally, a public which is now totally accustomed to such postponements will not be surprised if this one is far from being the last.In fact, the latest institution to throw a bucket of cold water over the Spanish government’s rose-tinted promises is the IMF. In their latest five-year forecast for Spain they paint a pretty bleak picture of low growth and high unemployment lasting at least all through what is left of the present decade. Mariano Rajoy has already jumped into the fray to take issue with their outlook for 2013, but it is their longer-term forecast which is most interesting and preoccupying. Growth between 2015 and 2018 is now only expected to average around 1.5 percent annually. This would seem to be what the IMF now consider longer-term trend growth to be for Spain, and the most notable thing about the number is that it represents a significant downward revision from their earlier optimism. Even this comparatively low number may still be overly optimistic and may yet come down again – I personally expect NO noticeable recovery as cumulative negative developments more or less cancel out positive ones – but it is certainly much more realistic than anything we have seen from the Fund before. There is no question here of any “V” shaped bounce. That is just a fiction of Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro’s imagination. Naturally, the other side of the coin on this is the consequence for unemployment. With growth so low there will be little in the way of job creation (watch out, pension system sustainability) and unemployment will linger over 20 percent for many years to come – indeed the IMF have 2018 unemployment at 22.9 percent, meaning they don’t expect it to fall below 20 percent come 2020.And there’s another highly interesting detail from the IMF Spain forecast. Even to get that rather low level growth of 1.5 percent a year, the Fund pencil in Spain’s running a fiscal deficit of 5 percent a year all the way through to 2018, with the natural consequence that the debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to reach 110 percent by that point, and that isn’t making allowance for any further bank recapitalisation that will be needed. As I have been arguing since 2008 now, Spain’s sovereign debt simply is not on a sustainable path, and what 1.5-percent growth supported by a 5-percent fiscal deficit means is that there is no structurally adjusted growth going on in the economy at all. As a country you are getting more into debt than any increase in output you generate with the borrowing.A well-oiled crisisAs I have argued in an earlier post, it may well be that the Spanish contraction machine is now so well-greased that it simply continues winding the economy down and down in such a way that thi[...]



Does Emigration Put Spain’s Health and Pensions System At Risk?

2013-03-26T09:55:32.122+01:00

According to the Economist’s Buttonwood, “desperate times require desperate measures”. I am sure this is right, times in Spain are certainly getting desperate and many of the measures being implemented in Brussels, far from representing radical and innovative solutions look much more like continually closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.The issue Buttonwood draws our attention to in the blog post which accompanies this statement is that of migration trends within the Euro Area and the impact these have on trend GDP growth and structural budget deficits in the various member countries. This is an important issue indeed, since such movements seem to be an unforeseen and largely unmeasured by-product of the current monetary and fiscal policy mix being pursued by the EU and the ECB, yet the consequences they have shape the long term future of the whole Eurozone, and with it the sustainability or otherwise of the component states.As I said in my last Spain postOne of the less commented features of Spain’s boom during the early years of this century is the way the arrival of economic migrants fuelled a significant part of GDP growth. The country’s population grew by more than six million (from 40 to 46 million) in the first eight years of the century, raising employment levels in both the formal and the informal economies. Migrants are still arriving, but the balance has now turned negative. According to data from the National Statistics Office, as of last June the net outflow was 20,000 a month and accelerating. That is to say a quarter of a million a year, or a million every four years. And the final numbers will almost certainly be much larger.So a country which already doesn’t have enough people working to pay for its pension system now faces having less and less as time goes by, while the number of pensioners looking to claim will only grow and grow. In part that is the end result of sitting back and watching a 1.3-child-per-woman fertility rate for over 30 years. But to this grave underlying problem is now being added a new and potentially more deadly one. Those leaving are not only migrants who came earlier. Increasingly, young, educated, Spanish people are upping and leaving, and unlike in earlier periods many who go now will never return. Not only is there a massive human capital loss involved here, trend GDP growth is evidently being reduced as the workforce steadily shrinks, while all those unsellable surplus-to-requirement houses become even less sellable. The motivation for the Buttonwood post was a research report published at the end of last week by the European Financial Economist at Jefferies International, Marchel Alexandrovich. Ostensibly his concern is about optimal currency area theory as applied to the Eurozone, but underlying this concern is a further one: that Mario Draghi and his governing council at the ECB may not be living up to their promise. That is to say they may not be doing enough to hold the Euro together. The Outright Market Transactions (OMT) policy was intended to try to remove break-up risk in the capital markets. Despite the fact that the programme has not been made operational, it has worked reasonably well in that capital flight has been brought to a halt and even reversed, the bank deposit base in most countries on the periphery is now rising, and the break-up risk component in national bond spreads has been virtually removed.But as often happens in economic matters, solutions to one problem may inadvertently lead to the creation of another. Avoiding radical debt restructuring on the periphery, and going for a "slowly slowly" correction doesn’t necessarily mean that all other things remain equal. Take the labour market, for example (I have already touched on this whole topic in my recent post on Bulgaria). As Alexandrovich points out one of the pre-conditions for the existence of an optimal currency area is the existence of cross frontier labour mob[...]



When Is A Promise Not A Promise?

2013-03-13T06:23:18.451+01:00

Mario Draghi is proving to be a man of his word. He said he would do whatever he needed to do to hold the Euro together, and - so far so good - he has. Up to now of course some would say his will has not been truly tested, since all he has had to is sit there and twiddle his thumbs, and that has worked. It seems to have been the subliminal symbol the markets were waiting for.But now he has added to his repertoire, and gone one stage further. This time he really did do something. Last Thursday he openly and publicly turned a blind eye to a blatant example of  monetary financing being carried through out there adjacent to  the flagship's starboard bow. Like Nelson peering along the length of his telescope at Trafalgar, he saw no monetary financing activity in Ireland. The reason he didn't see it was because he simply didn't look. Naturally he did tell curious journalists last Thursday that someone one day would do so, but such was his control of the situation  he even feigned  he couldn't remember the date when they would take that look. Nice one Mario.Thus he kept to his promise, while allowing the Irish government to sharply revise down the net present value of one of  theirs.  The really impressive part in the performance was the extraordinarily skillful way in which the ECB's very own Lord High Admiral managed to navigate his flagship through the tiny skiffs of the assembled press corps. At one point he almost taunted them with their own impotence, appealing to some seemingly innate masochistic tendency they share  by giving them a dressing down for the way in which they constantly get things out of proportion while jocularly  drawing their attention to how they were prone to a sort of  “angst of the week” syndrome. It always helps when you want to insult someones intelligence if you start off by saying, "let me tell you a joke."What he had in mind were things like, well you know, the size of the ECB balance sheet (what a thing to fret about), the value of the Euro, the threat of currency break up, deposit flight from the periphery, the hawkish Bundesbank etc etc. The list of causes for such childlike angst could be very, very long. When all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, what on earth could reasonable men and women be doing worrying their silly little heads about so many and such varied topics? These things are better left in the capable hands of the big boys over on the ECB governing council who, self evidently, know exactly what they are doing. Another nice one Mario.Curiously though one "angst of the week" the journalist didn't seem to be suffering from at last Thursday's press conference was whether or not "monetary financing by stealth" might be going on in Ireland. After all, why should they have been, it's such a trivial item. However, surely even those with the shortest of short memories must somehow or another be able to  recall  that notorious Irish Promissory Notes issue. This certainly was fret of the week in February, but had somehow - apart from one isolated question - conveniently slipped off the radar by the time we got to March. But just as a reminder, here's the story so far. February Press ConferenceQuestion: Unfortunately, I have one more question about Ireland. You said that it is a decision of the Irish government and probably the Central Bank of Ireland, and not your problem. But, at some point, I guess it could still be a Eurosystem problem because, as I understand it, the Central Bank of Ireland is now the owner of a promissory note, or something else, maybe government bonds with longer durations, which should be part of the so-called ANFA assets. I know that there are certain rules which cap these assets so, at some point this year, you have to look at that. Do you have any proposals for the Central Bank of Ireland to reduce that?Draghi: You are running too fast, you are running [...]



The Great Portuguese Hollowing Out

2013-03-09T08:06:32.258+01:00

With every passing day Portugal has less and less economy left, while fewer and fewer people remain to try to pay down the debt.As Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva once put it, "A country without children is a nation without a future." He was, of course, referring to his country’s ultra-low birth rate, which is just over 1.3 (Tfr) and has been below replacement level (2.1Tfr) since the early 1980s. In 2012 only just over 90,000 children were born in the country, the lowest number in more than a century – you need to go back to the nineteenth century to find numbers like the ones we have been seeing since the crisis really took hold.But added to this longstanding, yet unaddressed, problem there is now another, just as dangerous, one. High unemployment levels and the lack of job opportunities are leading an ever increasing number of young Portuguese to emigrate. The numbers are large, possibly a million over the last decade, victims of the country’s ridiculously low growth rate – under 1% a year. And the departures are accelerating. Jose Cesario, secretary of state for emigrant communities, estimated recently that up to 240,000 people may have left since the start of 2011.Naturally this is one of the reasons why Portuguese unemployment numbers haven’t hit the Spanish or Greek heights. According to data from the Portuguese Institute of Employment and Professional Training, during the first nine months of last year 24,689 people cancelled their unemployment registration due to a decision to emigrate. This compares with 16,977 in the first nine months of 2011. In September alone, 2,766 people signed off for the same reason, a 49% increase on September of 2011. Yet between January and September Portugal’s EU harmonized unemployment rate rose from 14.7% to 16.3%, suggesting that without so many people packing their bags and leaving the figure would have been significantly higher, and offering some explanation as to why government officials don’t do more to try and stop the flow.Nobel economist Paul Krugman recently suggested that among the ailments Japan was suffering from was a shortage of Japanese. Or put another way Japan’s slow growth is partly a by-product of the country's ageing and shrinking workforce. Looking at the country’s population dynamics Portugal certainly looks a likely candidate to catch this most modern of modern diseases. Not only does Portugal have the key ingredient behind the Japanese workforce shrinkage – long term ultra-low fertility – it has some added issues to boot. Japan may be immigration averse, but its inhabitants aren’t fleeing in droves.Of course, a shortage is always relative to something. Many hold that the planet is overpopulated, and that energy constraints mean fewer people would be better. So shouldn’t we be celebrating all these children who aren’t getting born? Well, no, at least not if you want sustainable pension and health system, and that is what the developed world sovereign debt crisis is all about, how to meet implicit liabilities for an ever older population. One thing Portugal won’t have a shortage of is old people, since the over 65 age group is projected to grow and grow, even as the working population shrinks and shrinks. No wonder the young are leaving, even if the youth unemployment rate wasn’t 38.3%, just think of all the taxes and social security contributions the remaining young people are going to have to pay just to keep the welfare ship afloat. Patriotism at the end of the day has its limits.Unfortunately population flight and steadily rising unemployment aren’t the only problems the country is facing. The economy is also tanking, and getting smaller by the day.Far from the recession getting milder as last year progressed it actually accelerated, and there was a 3.8% output drop in the three months to December in comparison with a year earlier. Naturally, it is[...]



The Shortgage of Bulgarians Inside Bulgaria

2013-02-25T10:16:28.538+01:00

Oh, there's a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, a hole......Wenn der Beltz em Loch hat -stop es zu meine liebe LieseWomit soll ich es zustopfen -mit Stroh, meine liebe LieseAccording to Angela Merkel, speaking in the German city of Mainz in mid February,  European countries struggling with the fallout of the euro-area debt crisis have much to learn from East Germany’s experience with economic overhaul following the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the main she was speaking about the need for reform, something on which we can all agree. “At the beginning of the 21st century", she said, "Germany was the sick man of Europe and that we are where we are today also has to do with reforms we carried out in the past. That’s why we can say in Europe that change can lead to good.”But there was one tiny little detail she forgot to mention. During the post unification period East Germany's population went into melt-down mode. New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kulish put it like this:Unemployment in the former East Germany remains double what it is in the west, and in some regions the number of women between the ages of 20 and 30 has dropped by more than 30 percent. In all, roughly 1.7 million people have left the former East Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall, around 12 percent of the population, a continuing process even in the few years before the economic crisis began to bite.And the population decline is about to get much worse, as a result of a demographic time bomb known by the innocuous-sounding name “the kink,” which followed the end of Communism. The birth rate collapsed in the former East Germany in those early, uncertain years so completely that the drop is comparable only to times of war, according to Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. “For a number of years East Germans just stopped having children,” Dr. Klingholz said.The newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported recently that although 14,000 young people would earn their high school diplomas this year in Saxony, only 7,500 would do so next year. Since 1989, about 2,000 schools have closed across the former East Germany because of a scarcity of children. Now this situation is quite serious, and needs a long term solution, but it is not as serious as what is currently happening to Latvia, or Bulgaria, or a number of the other former communist states. Unless, of course, the lesson Angela would like to draw our attention to is that East Germany managed to salvage something from what would otherwise be population wreckage by sneaking in under the shelter of another state, with a centralized system of support for pensions and health care. Somehow I doubt it, but perhaps this is what we need to think more about. The EU needs a pan European health and pension system, to distribute the burden equitably. This is the conclusion I reached during my last visit to Riga. It isn't just a Euro related issue, it is to do with having a unified labour market, with people able to move to where the jobs exist, and the pay is better. For years people complained about the absence of labour mobility in the EU. Now we have it, the flaw in the institutional infrastructure is obvious.Young people are moving from the weak economies on the periphery to the comparatively stronger ones in the core, or out of an ever older EU altogether. This has the simple consequence that the deficit issues in the core are reduced, while those on the periphery only get worse as health and pension systems become ever less affordable. Meanwhile, more and more young people follow the lead of Gerard Depardieu and look for somewhere where there isn't such a high fiscal burden, preferably where the elderly dependency ratio isn't shooting up so fast.I am sufficiently concerned about this issue, which I think ultimately endangers possibilities of economic reco[...]



Has Spain’s Economic Contraction Now Become Self Perpetuating?

2013-02-24T17:03:10.304+01:00

Spain’s political leaders are in cheerful, almost jubilant, mood at the moment. Economy minister Luis de Guindos, speaking in Davos, declared the tide had turned, and forecast that the Spanish economy would return to growth in the second half of 2013.“The perception of the Spanish economy has improved and will continue to do so over the coming weeks and months,” he told his audience at the World Economic Forum. In similar vein, he told Spanish journalists in Moscow last weekend that Spain's economy no longer being a key theme at G20 meetings was another welcoming sign of the times.As ever, Spain's economy sage is hedging his bets - earth shattering the growth will not be, but grow the economy will, this is his mantra. Put another way, the bottom in Spain's economic collapse has now been passed. From here on in the road may be winding, but it will be up. Perhaps, he suggested, the economy will be stationary in the third quarter, and then we will see growth, albeit ever so slight, in the fourth one. And quite possibly he is right. The core of the issue is not whether the country could see one, or even two, quarters of positive performance, but whether any faltering recovery will be sustained out into the future, through 2014 and beyond. It is here that all the old doubts really emerge. The brunt of the argument which says the country is now about to see a resurgence rests on the idea that Spain’s government have now enacted sufficient reforms to enable the economy to return to a strong growth path. Optimists claim they will, which the skeptics like myself are not convinced at all.Certainly Mr de Guindos can point to occasions where he has carried the argument. Back in October last year, when he told an audience at the London School of Economics that Spain didn’t need a bailout they simply laughed. Four months later it is looking increasingly unlikely that the country will seek additional EU aid in the short term. “Spain doesn’t need any sort of bailout,” he told Bloomberg TV recently, and this time no one laughed.Perhaps the key point here hangs on your interpretation of the word “need”. If paying around 5% on your 10 year bonds is considered to be an acceptable cost for financing your country’s debt – Germany, for example is paying around 1.7% - then there is no need to apply to the EU and trigger ECB bond buying via the Outright Monetary Transactions program. If, on the other hand, you think the country could well benefit from lower funding costs, and the kind of pressure for reform which would be exerted from the outside though a Memorandum of Understanding, then clearly a bailout is needed.Personally I take the latter view, since personally I think the country still has a long way to go in terms of reforms and since it is clear that introducing more measures that bite would be massively unpopular (and especially in the context of all the recent corruption scandals), the shelter provided by a troika driven program would make implementing them a lot easier.Pension reform is a case in point. With the country’s elderly dependency ratio rising rapidly, and the number of people paying contributions into the pension fund going down by the month, the whole system is badly out of balance and urgently needs some deep structural reform. According to estimates provided by EU economics commissioner Olli Rehn at the last Euro Group finance ministers meeting, shortfalls in the pension system added more than 1% to the fiscal deficit in 2012. And without major changes in the system this problem will only get worse. Yet Spain’s political leaders are apparently incapable of addressing this problem in public.Another example is the urgent need to restore additional export competitiveness to the economy. Despite all the claims that the recent labor market reforms need time to work it is a[...]



After The Fat Lady Sings

2012-11-25T16:51:33.133+01:00

Financial journalists across the globe were both surprised and puzzled recently when they heard Christine Lagarde using a strange expression. "You know, it's not over until the fat lady sings, as the saying goes," she told bemused reporters at a press conference in Manilla. Which fat lady, and what does she sing must have been questions going through the heads of many of those present. Further investigation would have lead them to discover that far from this being some new piece of feminine wisdom that the IMF DG wanted to transmit, the phrase in fact comes from the rather male world of business deals and contact-sport-commentators and is generally used to describe closely contested matches, or deals which won’t be struck till the final offer is actually made. Ms Lagarde naturally had other things in mind. She was referring to the state of negotiations surrounding the latest Greek bailout review, prior to the handing over of that long awaited 31.5 billion euro tranche the country so badly needs to meet its ongoing commitments. The curious thing about the holdup in this case is that it isn’t the result of a stand-off between the Troika and the Greek government.  Last week the Greek parliament passed the final set of budget decrees required by the international lenders to enable the transfer. No, in this case the dispute is an “internal affair” between the rival parties which make up the Troika, and in particular between the German government and the IMF. The issue is how to leave Greek finances having at least the appearance of being on a stable and sustainable path, which in this case is defined as attaining a sovereign debt level of 120% of Greek GDP come 2020. Delaying the country’s fiscal objectives by 2 years effectively means putting back the theoretical attainment of that objective by the same amount of time - until 2022. Jean-Claude Juncker was willing, but the IMF is digging its heals in. Any new agreement, Ms Lagarde said as she left Manilla en route for Tuesday’s Brussels EU finance ministers meeting, should be "rooted in reality and not in wishful thinking.” Tut tut, Mr Juncker. So whence this sudden hardening in the Funds position? Well, it may be just a coincidence, but the US elections are now over. Barack Obama need not now preoccupy himself with what a hypothetical exit by Greece from the Euro would do for his campaign. Non-European members of the Fund have long been chaffing at the bit over the extent of the “kid gloves” treatment so many apparently rich countries have been receiving, and have been arguing for a much more independent and tougher approach. Now with the US starting to shift its ground the balance of opinion has clearly changed. Greece’s debt is evidently on an unsustainable path however you look at it. Just getting through to 2020 isn’t enough, since the following decade is going to be very challenging demographically for the struggling country. Greece needs either a much more substantial reduction in its debt levels, or a negotiated exit from the Euro. Realists are now pushing this view, but realists are also pragmatic people, they recognize that Angela Merkel has elections looming in the autumn of 2013, and that she can only go so far at this point. So it is simply the principle of the thing that needs to be established now. We can all get down to the real details once Greece fails another review, possibly towards the end of 2013. What Christine Lagarde did make clear in Manilla is that being “rooted in reality” means is that the best way countries in the Euro Area can send a strong and credible signal they remain committed to Greece’s continuing Euro membership is by agreeing in some way shape or form - the formula doesn't matter - to reduce the debt Athens owes them. As Deutsche Bank analys[...]



El Rosario De La Aurora

2012-11-19T10:57:31.638+01:00

The exact origins of the expression are unknown. They are lost back then, somewhere in the mists of time. But the meaning of the phrase is perfectly intelligible. In Spanish "to end up like the Rosario De L'Aurora" (acabar como el rosario de la aurora), means to end up badly. Very badly. The Rosario in question is a procession (of the kind to be seen in this YouTube video) and aurora here is not a woman's name, but the Spanish word for dawn. According to legend, the procession which gave birth to the phrase was characterised by a dispute which developed into an outright brawl during which all those precious sacred artifacts being carried by the devout got unceremoniously destroyed. One popular theory has it that two rival processions tried to advance in opposite directions down an extremely narrow street, with neither being prepared to give way. Similarities with what is currently happening here in the Euro Area is, of course, entirely coincidental. What with the quantity of alcohol that people wandering the streets in the early hours during fiesta time would likely have consumed, and the fierce rivalry between the two "comparsas", the outcome is surely not that hard to foresee, or that worthwhile explaining. We can leave such details to the imagination of the reader.But moving forward in time, and while again the versions of the story may differ, there seems to be little doubt that Spain's economy is in bad shape. Very bad shape. Such bad shape in fact that, according to Tobias Buck in a recent article in the Financial Times, it has left most of the countries population "bewildered". Bewildered, and increasingly desperate and despairing, or as blogger Matthew Bennett puts it dogged by the feeling that the modern Spain they know and love "is in danger". Indeed if we aren't all careful, the country could end up in a worse state than the one which befell that legendary rosario.You know the Modern Spain you love is in danger.  Thankfully, you can still eat abundant amounts of tasty Spanish ham whilst drinking a decent Rioja, and the Spanish national football team is still beating all-comers at international level—a truly world class achievement—but in your heart of hearts, you know a cataclysmic future outcome is a plausible option for a Spanish society that is struggling to adapt to a new world economically, politically and constitutionally.  What happens to a society when tens or hundreds of thousands of its own citizens abandon the country to go and live and work abroad, with the approval of parents, government ministers and even the king? When record numbers of citizens—25%, nearly 6 million Spaniards—are unemployed, with no economic recovery or new jobs visible anywhere on the horizon? When the 12th largest economy in the world is ranked 136 for ease of starting a new business, behind Burundi, Afghanistan or Yemen?  What happens when Spain’s existing national institutions aren’t capable of offering all of its citizens and residents a prosperous existence, or when political leaders steadfastly refuse to listen to their voters’ repeated cries for change and prefer instead to repeatedly lie to the nation, ignoring their own electoral programmes? Put The Telescope To Your Blind Eye And You Will Surely See Recovery Ahoy!For all the nay-saying to which those who watch the country passing thorough its agony are now subjected on an almost daily basis, there can be no denying one point - better days Spain has surely seen. Despite the constant and repeated assertions that great progress has been made with the reform programme, or that exports are doing just fine it's hard to see evidence for this in the ever longe[...]



Taking A Man At His Word

2012-10-22T17:50:07.562+02:00

Legendary hedge fund supremo Ray Dalio is in ebullient mood. Following a series of moves by Mario Draghi to underpin European government financing Dalio told Bloombergthat, in his opinion, the euro will now “likely” stay together because existing growth constraining austerity measures will henceforth be balanced by money printing over at the European Central Bank. His statement was, of course, a response to ECB President Draghi's save the Euro pledge. This story starts back in July, when Mario Draghi calmly informed a London investors conference that, “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.” Since that time, of course, this gamechanging statement has been qualified and clarified, and re-qualified and re-clarified innumerable times, but still the essence remains unchanged. The ECB President wasn't talking, remember, about any specific programme of bond purchases or exceptional liquidity measures, he was talking about doing "whatever it takes", and Ray Dalio for one is taking him at his word.What Bridgewater's founder was getting at when he made this assessment is that there is now no meaningful limit being placed on what the ECB might eventually do. Naturally there is the mandate to work around, but the mandate can always be changed if Europe's political leaders see fit, and who at this point in the crisis still doubts that if needs must they will see fit.Indeed in many ways it is easier to envision a change in the EU Treaty to tweak the EU mandate than it is to envision one to establish, for example, a full fiscal union. Especially now the ECB has become the in-tray into which all the politically unpalatable and thus unresolvable issues ultimately get dumped. The most recent example of this is the suggestion that Spain applying for a precautionary credit line would be the ideal solution to the country's current dilemma since no money would actually need to change hands, making the move easier to sell to the German parliament.No money would need to change hands because Mr Draghi and his governing council would be stepping up to the plate alone. This outcome looks and feels rather different to the "burden sharing" approach outlined by Mario Draghi during the August ECB press conference.It looks and feels different because it essentially is different, even if the two possible modalities of ESM action were laid out from the start. What wasn't envisioned was that NO ESM money would be used to buy bonds. That the ECB would be acting alone.Of course any talk at this point about the forthcoming Spanish bailout means navigating in an ocean of uncertainty, but as far as we can see at the moment the end result of all the negotiations, crying wolf and procrastinating seems to be that the ESM won't be buying bonds in the primary market.Instead some of the Euro Areas financial institutions (acting as brokers for the ECB) will do so and then re-sell them on to the central bank. This differs in substance from what some have referred to as ECB LTRO-style "QE by stealth" in that the central bank would be owner of the bonds, and not simply holding them as collateral. While adding considerably to central bank risk this procedure is seen as being politically more palatable in the north, and limits the sovereign bond/bank capital "death spiral" many worry about in the south, since it avoids the need for periphery banks themselves to hold more bonds on their balance sheet.But whichever way you look at it we will still see significant bond purchases, thus maintaining a kind of strange fiction that Spain still remains "in the markets". Obviously, without ECB support in the form of LTROs and the OMT the country would be absolutely incapable of financing itself.[...]



In Search Of Lost Demand

2012-08-14T18:11:38.580+02:00

So here's the 5 trillion dollar trick question. In an interesting article on the limitations of central bank monetary policy in the current environment, Reuter's Alan Wheatly made the following statement which caught my attention. "Central banks are rummaging through their toolkits because, despite slashing interest rates and buying vast quantities of bonds, they have signally failed to revive a global economy hamstrung by heavy debts and weak banks". But thinking about it for a couple of minutes, you could ask yourself why is this so? Why is the global economy hamstrung by heavy debts and weak banks? Or put another way, why doesn't deleveraging happen, and the weight of debt reduce, and why doesn't the economy expand so the weak banks can once more become robust and healthy ones?Short answer, it's the demand side stupid! The longer version was offered by Paul Krugman when he asked the ironic question, "To which planet are we all going to export?" Basically the demand needs to come from somewhere - unless of course you believe that "supply creates its own demand". What makes this crisis different from many of its predecessors is the global extension of the problem. If we were just talking about a few countries (as in the Asian crisis of 1998, which is so often mentioned in this context) then the answer would not be that hard, reduce currency values and export like mad to the non-affected countries. But in the current crisis, almost all developed economies are affected to one degree or another. The to one degree or another part is interesting, but it doesn't form part of what I am driving at here.There are countries which are not so heavily in debt, and which do have a large growth capacity and a huge quantity of so called "pent up" demand - the so called Emerging Economies. But the simple math fails us. If we look at the first chart below the non "advanced" economies have been growing much more rapidly than the advanced ones since around 2002, so the potential is there.But if we look at the second chart, these economies are still only around 40% of global GDP, so it is demand in 40% which is having to pull the other 60% with it. The interesting part is that in the space of a decade these economies have surged from 20% to 40% of the total. If the same trend continues by 2020 they could easily constitute 60%. Then things could be different, since we could have 40% of the total living from exporting to the other, faster growing, 60%. But we aren't there yet, which is why I think this decade will be a transitional one, one during which the developed economies (on aggregate) will struggle to find growth.Nonetheless, emerging markets are growing fast, aided from time to time by an injection of liquidity from the developed world central banks. The IMF still expects the world economy to grow by 3.5% this year. Two issues cast something of a shadow over the immediate outlook. The first is the visible slowdown in Chinese growth, and the other is ongoing concern about the ultimate endpoint of the Eurozone drama in innumerable acts. The key point to appreciate about the second issue  is that with “risk off” due to the European Debt Crisis, even the Emerging Markets are unable to exploit their huge potential for growth. Capital is not flowing into these markets in the way it did following the various rounds of QE in the US and even the LTROs in Europe. These impacts can be seen in the JP Morgan Global Composite PMI chart below.Both QE1 and QE2 were followed by large surges in global activity, and even last November's LTRO from the ECB produced an unexpected turnaround that some would argue has only been putting off the inevitable. Certainly, the force of the LTRO impact wrong footed [...]



The Owl Of Minerva

2012-08-12T20:50:01.743+02:00

Last week was the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the global financial crisis. Not uncoincidentally it was also the fifth anniversary of continually rising unemployment in Spain , since it was in early summer 2007 that seasonally adjusted Spanish unemployment embarked on its steady upward path. And after it started climbing, naturally it hasn't stopped since. Indeed we seem to have at least another year of growing unemployment before us, maybe more. Anyway, as if to celebrate this uncanny anniversary the Spanish government has decided to take the bold step of officially requesting an EU loan to recapitalise the country’s banking system. In addition, part of the money will be used to set up some form of bad bank with the objective of cleaning up some of the toxic property and other assets off the bank balance sheets. Smart moves both of them. Pity the people responsible weren't prepared to accept the need to do this five years ago, when unemployment was only running at 8%, and when the economy and Spain's citizens were better placed to accept the kind of burdens that are now about to be imposed upon them.Just to round the commemorations off, in the August edition of their monthly bulletin the ECB finally let out that dirty little secret than every insider in the know has already discounted.  The Bank have finally accepted that the much heralded Spanish labour reform isn't going to work. At least not as planned. As the Financial Times put it, the Spanish labour market reform approved in February was “far-reaching and comprehensive” but came too late, the ECB implied, saying it “could have proved very beneficial” in avoiding job cuts if the measure had been passed some years ago. Exactly. But once we recognise this point, isn’t that rather leaving the Spanish economy adrift in stormy seas without a rudder? Simply cutting the deficit back and cleaning up bank balance sheets won’t get the economy back to growth.Indeed this habit of continually getting behind the curve, and trying vainly now that the economy is spiralling almost out of control to introduce measures which should have been brought in a decade ago extends well beyond the issue of labour reform. Take reducing the generosity of unemployment benefits. This is also something that should have been done years ago, since the two year allotment really did encourage people to refrain from actively seeking work in times of relatively full employment. But cutting benefits now, as the Rajoy government has just done, when unemployment stands at 25% and rising seems insensitive and even cruel. A government’s job is to introduce policies to create employment, not to cut benefits going to those who cannot find work in an environment where total employment is falling and has been doing so for five years. Quite frankly, if cuts have to be made, better to reduce pensions, but that is political dynamite, so it doesn't happen. Again, reducing the fiscal advantages of home ownership made mountains of sense during the years of the property bubble, but it didn't happen. Now, with around two million housing units (between finished and uncompleted) needing to be found purchasers removing tax benefits on mortgages, increasing VAT rates on property transactions and raising the local property taxes - all of which make buying a homea lot  less desirable - looks very much like trying to shoot yourself in the foot. There is a lot of merit behind the desire to stabilise Spain's public accounts, but shouldn't we also try to remember why the country has this crisis in the first place?Anyway, having recognised that the labour reform comes to late to really change course decisively this deep i[...]



Is The Italian Elephant About To Break Loose Again?

2012-08-11T08:03:44.938+02:00

Market nervousness about Italy has been growing in recent weeks, with the Moody's credit downgrade of the country being only  one of the reasons. A bailout is clearly in the offing, with the only real questions being how and when. While the situation inside his country appears to be deteriorating, Mario Monti has been doing the rounds of European capitals in an attempt to drum up support. While in Helsinki he raised an eyebrow or two when he warned that without a serious plan to bring down interest rates disaffection with the euro in his country could easily grow to dangerous proportions. Crying wolf, or a piece of insider information? Probably a bit of both.Italy is in a deepening recession which has now lasted for over a year. Monti himself  has ruled out the possibility that he could continue in office after next spring's general elections, while at the same time Silvio Berlusconi is constantly hinting that he would not be averse to accepting prime ministerial office again, should his country need him. All of which makes me ask myself just over a year after my "Is Italy, Not Spain, the Real Elephant in the Euro Room?" post, whether in fact the currently chained beast is not about to break its tethers and go for a crockery breaking rumble round the Euro living room.What follows is a summary of a revised version of a presentation I gave in Cortona last autumn. I have put the presentation online here.Low Growth And High Debt, A Highly Combustible CocktailJust as I highlighted in the case of Portugal in my recent post, Italy's problem is long term growth. This is not a passing phenomenon, but one which has been getting steadily worse over decades. Italy has lost growth at a pace of about one percent a year over the last four decades. If the pattern continues Italy GDP will drop over this decade and continue to do so for as far ahead as the eye can see.To give us an idea of what this means, Italian GDP at the end of June was at the same level it first reached in the second quarter of 2003. If the current recession continues as forecast by the Italian government during this year, by December we will be below the GDP level of December 2000, which is another way of saying that it will be below the level first attained some 12 years earlier. If the recession is slightly deeper that the current government forecast, and continues throughout 2013 (certainly not an excluded scenario) we might even arrive at levels first seen in the late 1990s.  In the meantime the country's population will have risen from 57 million to 61 million, hence GDP per capita will have fallen substantially. This is not a situation either to be taken lightly, or one which it will be easy to turn around.There are a variety of reasons for this sharp drop in growth momentum. Some of the reasons are undoubtedly, as I will argue demographic. Others are associated with the loss of international competitiveness experienced by the  Italian economy since entering the European monetary union.Once clear indication of the extent to which the deteriorating growth outlook is associated with cometitiveness loss is to be seen in the correlation between worsening growth performance and the deteriorating current account balance.Double Dip RecessionItaly first fell into recession at the end of 2007 – some months before the other Euro Area countries - and didn’t come out of it again till the start of 2010 , so the economy contracted for two full years. GDP fell by 1.2% in 2008, and by 5.5% in 2009. After an 18 month recovery, the economy again fell into a second “double dip” recession around the middle of 2011, after a sur[...]



What’s Up Doc?

2012-07-30T12:38:43.785+02:00

According to Wikipedia, Kabuki is a classical Japanese dance-drama known for the stylization of its plot and for the elaborate make-up worn by the key performers. This definition also seems to fit the drama in an unknown number of acts currently being acted out on the European stage by some of the continent’s leading central bank players perfectly. It all started last Thursday when, as surely everyone but my blind and deaf uncle must now know, Mario Draghi made what is widely though to have been an important speech. We will do whatever it takes, as long as it is in the mandate, he is reported as saying. And since stopping anything which could be life-threatening to the Euro dead in its tracks forms part of the bank's mandate under any conceivable interpretation, the ECB now have the widest possible brief within which to circumscribe its actions. The only limitation is that it should be enough, just enough, and no more. As Mario Draghi said, “believe me, it will be enough”. But then on Friday the Bundesbank dark clouds started to loom on the horizon as the Bundesbank appeared to wade into the fray, making a statement which on first reading  seems to have been intended to say “now just hold on a minute there!” As the Irish Independent put it in a headline “The Bundesbank Pushes Against ECB’s Draghi Attempt To Save The Eurozone". Yikes! That sounds dangerous. Someone wants to save the Euro, and with it the entire planet, and someone else wants to stop him. Assuming we are not in James Bond territory here, how can that be? Well, that’s why I say "seem", since digging into the situation a bit, I found it very hard to identify an original source for the statements that were being attributed to that most venerable of German institutions. Certainly there was no trace of anything on the central bank website. If this was a real counter offensive, you would at least expect to see some evidence for it hanging from the bank battelements. Well, as Ludwig Wittgenstein used to say, when you seem to hit bedrock, and even if the blade is a bit bent, don’t let your spade be turned. Just keep on digging. So I did.What I found was a Reuters correspondent who claimed to have been told by a bank spokesman that "The Bundesbank regards central bank purchases of sovereign debt as monetary financing of governments, from which the ECB is prohibited by European law”. "The mechanism of bond purchases is problematic”, the spokesman apparently said, “because it sets the wrong incentives." On the other hand the possibility of the EFSF bailout buying government bonds was viewed as "as less problematic".But then I moved on to Dow Jones News Wires, where I got the weird feeling their journalist had had exactly the same conversation. "Germany’s central bank remains opposed to further government bond purchases by the European Central Bank, but isn’t against using the euro-zone’s temporary rescue fund doing so to drive down soaring sovereign borrowing costs”, a Bundesbank spokesman was said to have told their reporter. Odd, I though that two separate journalists had rung up the bank independently only to have had exactly the same conversation. In order to try and clarify matters – remember markets next week have to decide what the next chapter in the Euro Debt Crisis is going to be, so it isn’t simply pedantic to want to get this one right - I did what every well trained economist does in cases of an emergency - I went back to the original story that caught my eye in the Financial Times, where to my horror I was unable to find any mention of any conversation - imaginary or real - with a bank spok[...]



Portugal - Please Switch The Lights Off When You Leave!

2012-07-15T15:02:26.496+02:00

The recent decision by the Portuguese constitutional court to unwind public sector salary cuts included by the government in its austerity measures has once more given rise to speculation  the country may not meet it's 4.5% deficit target for 2012. The court  - which ruled the non-payment of the two traditional Christmas and Summer salary payments  for the years 2012 through 2014 was unconstitutional -  took the view that since the measure did not also apply to the private sector, it was discriminatory. Whatever view we may take on how the Portuguese Constitution defines "discrimination" the important detail to note is that  the decision will not apply to 2012, and will hence only have the impact of forcing the government to find additional adjustments for 2013 and 2014, or at least a new formulation which allows them to constitutionally cut public sector pay.Nonetheless, despite the fact it will  not affect this years fiscal effort the coincidence of the timing of the court decision with the appearance of a report from the parliamentary commission responsible for monitoring the execution of this years budget only served to heighten nervousness about the possibility that, with unemployment rising more sharply than anticipated and the economic recession still accelerating, this years deficit numbers may not add up as planned. The country is facing a deep ongoing recession with a contraction of the order of 3.5% expected  this year, and the outlook for the second half of the year is no shaping up as though it may well be tougher than the first half. In addition, with the European sovereign debt crisis threatening to cast its long shadow right across next year, it looks increasingly unlikely that the country will be able to go back to the bond markets in September 2013 as planned. So September may well be a good month to make some needed revisions to the existing IMF programme.Portugal is making progress in reducing its fiscal deficit, even if it may fail to precisely meet this years target. But it is not making sufficient progress in reducing external imbalances, and in achieving international competitiveness. As a result sustainable economic growth and stable job creation still seem some years away. In the meantime young educated Portuguese are increasingly upping and leaving the country in the search for a better life elsewhere. This negative dynamic needs to be broken, and Troika representatives instead of repeating the same old policy errors need to take a fresh look, and with an open mind, at the situation.Otherwise Portugal may find itself in the invidious position of complying with most of its immediate programme objectives while leaving the road to sustainable debt and growth levels may fraught - as the IMF itself notes in its April programme review - with almost insurmountable difficulty, thus putting the long term future of the country in doubt. This post - which is a revised and expanded is version of a presentation I recently gave in Brussels - will examine the challenges - both demographic and economic - the country faces in the longer term. You can find the original presentation on Slide Share.So Here’s The ProblemOver the past ten years the Portuguese economy has been virtually stationery. The problem is not, note, simply a Euro one, since the decline started in the mid 1990s, and has never been reversed. Here’s another way of looking at the same issue. Portuguese GDP rose rapidly in the 1990s, and [...]



Neither Grexit, Nor Spexit, It's Fixit or Fexit

2012-07-08T14:09:51.589+02:00

The aftermath to last weeks EU summit has certainly proved to be a damn sight more perplexing than the actual summit itself. Contrary to earlier experiences, this time round the more the details have been "clarified" the more confused we have become.Just what exactly was approved? Will Spain's banks really obtain capital directly from the ESM, and if so, how and when? Is Spain about to get a full bailout? Is Italy? Is there a commitment to bringing down sovereign borrowing costs. And just to top it all of what about Greece, what is the next move, is there any kind of plan?Little wonder then that Spain's 10 year bond yields were once more back over 7% on Friday. Markets had taken the view that while agreement on the details of an ESM bond buying formula and full banking union would obviously take time, surely the ECB would be prepared to do something - another LTRO, reopen the Security Markets Programme - in the meantime. But no, Mario (Draghi this time) was not for turning, and sent the ball straight back into the politicians court.Really I think the markets have gotten a bit ahead of themselves here in expecting instant action, since European decision making works according to its own timeless laws. To reach my conclusions before I draw them, I think it is plain that Spain's bank recapitalisation will be, kicking and screaming, an all Euro Group affair. That is to say the debt sharing the Finnish Finance Minister so desparately fears will take place, even if we take a while to get there. And Spanish and Italian bonds will be bought, even if we need to take a quick look down into the abyss just one more time first. But these measures alone won't save the Euro, only getting the periphery back to growth can do that, and at the moment the suggestion box seems to be empty on that count. Structural reforms alone will work neither far enough nor fast enough. Root Of The ProblemBut if the markets have gotten ahead of themselves in their enthusiasm there are reasons for this. So first a bit of background.The root of the problem here goes back to the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, where an outnumbered Angela Merkel came under general pressure to accept an idea from the other Mario (Monti) to let the bailout funds (ESM, EFSF) buy Spanish and Italian government bonds to bring down borrowing costs. After the meeting the impression was given that Germany had acceded to the pressure and commited itself to the idea of "driving down borrowing costs across the single currency area", indeed the FTs Chris Giles and George Parker even asserted this phrasing to have been in the communiqué: "Eurozone members of the group of G20 leading economies have committed to driving down borrowing costs across the single currency area, according to the communiqué from the summit in Mexico".Reading through the text though, it rather looks as if they had been "had". There is no such mention, and the key reference sentence simply states, "Euro Area members of the G20 will take all necessary measures to safeguard the integrity and stability of the area, improve the functioning of financial markets and break the feedback loop between sovereigns and banks". More anodyne unimaginable. To add insult to injury, further down the body of the text it says: "The adoption of the Fiscal Compact and its ongoing implementation, together with growth-enhancing policies and structural reform and financial stability measures, are important steps towards greater fiscal and economic integration that lead to sustainable borrowing costs"Which is more or less pure Merkelese. So we shou[...]



And Then There Were Six - Is Slovenia Next?

2012-07-06T17:28:14.828+02:00

Slovenia is in the news. According to press reports (and here) solving the problems which have accumulated in the country's banking system may well mean the country is next in line for some sort of EU bailout assistance. Speculation was fueled last week when ECB Governing Council member and Bank of Slovenia Governor Marco Kranjec said that the country may well eventually need assistance, even if for the moment it will not be necessary. Sounds a lot like the other denials we have heard just before the "happy event"."We do not exclude anything ... but for now this is an entirely hypothetical question," he told his conference audience,"Conditions (in the Slovenian banking sector) are going in the bad direction, but for now I do not see a reason that Slovenia would need to ask for (international) help." He also made the point that "Yields on our (Slovenian) debt are very high but poor availability of (financial) resources is even more worrying," If the bailout materialises (and it seems to me likely it will) this will put the country in the same group as Spain and Ireland, who are to receive EU assistance for their banking sectors (even if Ireland's share is still to be negotiated) as a result of having credit driven construction booms which were incentivised by excessively lax monetary policy at the ECB.In fact during the years prior to 2009 Slovenia consistently ran an inflation rate which was higher than the Euro Area average. At the time we were told these inflation differentials were relatively benign, since they were in part a product of the Balassa-Samuelson effect. Nowadays EU leaders are more willing to accept that these inflation differentials represent a problem, but the sad truth is that the damage is now done.What makes Slovenia interesting despite the fact it is a small country (population circa 2 million) is that it is a relatively new entrant to the euro (2007) and was the first of the Eastern European countries to join the common currency, so there could be important lessons here for others who would like to join in the future. For some years it seemed that the country was one of the Euro project's shining beneficiaries, as living standards shot up, and the country even overtook older members like Portugal. Now it looks as if all that prosperity was at least partially founded on sand, and as the storm clouds gather all that new found wealth seems to slip away and out of sight.Credit And Construction BoomAccording to last years IMF Article IV report, "Slovenia’s economy is gradually recovering following one of the sharpest GDP declines in the euro area during the crisis. Real GDP declined over 10 percent from peak to trough owing to: a sharp decline in external demand; a significant tightening in external credit conditions forcing banks to curtail domestic credit supply; and an abrupt end of a construction and housing price boom". The sharp slump part is certainly valid:But the steady recovery bit, alas, is no longer so, since GDP decined in each of the four quarters in 2011, bringing in a small negative result for the year. The IMF now forecast an additional 1% fall this year, and next year we will see.The issue is that something has gone wrong, badly wrong, in much the same way as it did in Ireland and Spain, even if, thankfully, the scale of the problem is smaller. As the IMF point out the root of the problem was an overheating in domestic demand from the time of the run-in to Euro membership, an overheating which was produced by an inflow of funds from the current account surplus countr[...]



On The Brink Of What?

2012-06-18T08:30:27.983+02:00

This weekend I have been thinking quite a lot about what the world is gonna look like on Monday, and have come to the conclusion that it won't be that different from the way it was last Friday. The big news surprise of the weekend was in fact Greece related  - since the national football team qualified for the quarter finals of the Eurocopa, beating the Russia by a resounding 1-0.Oh yes, they also had elections in Greece, didn't they?The most likely outcome, as far as I can see at the time of writing, is a neck and neck finish between the far left Syriza and the centre right New Democracy, with the key to the resolution of the outcome lying in the fact that whichever party comes first gets a bonus of an additional 50 seats. This will mean that if New Democracy do win, as it seems they have,  they will probably be able to negotiate a deal with the other smaller parties (PASOK, for example) around some sort of face saving formula which will enable a government to be formed and a deal struck with Berlin. On the other hand, if Syriza were to finally win no one has a clue what will happen. The party doesn't want to leave the Euro, but does want to reject the memorandum. The only problem is that the only parties Syriza could form a government with would most likely want out of the Euro too. So Syriza winning by a short head would seem to imply more elections, or... or.... some sort of pact. I vote for the latter. I say this since I think even if Syriza were by some quirk now to win some sort of government or other would still be formed, even if it needs the military to rustle sabres in the background just to get everyone to concentrate on the issues in hand. In the game of brinksmanship which will now be played, Syriza can blackmail Berlin with the threat of instability and disorderly exit (even in opposition), while Berlin can dangle money, lot's of it I imagine, before their eyes, if only they agree to help form a government. The track record says that politicians normally, when faced with a serious punch up or going for the money will normally go for the money.Naturally, the money I am talking here about involves EU funds, not men in black suits carrying suitcases, although if the recent 270 million fine accepted by Siemens for bribing Greek officials to obtain lucrative telecommunication contracts is anything to go by, we shouldn't rule the other possibility out entirely.Actually Angela Merkel has already hinted at this sort of solution. "This is why it is so important that, in the Greek election tomorrow ... a result emerges in which those who form a government in future tell us, yes, we want to keep to the agreements," she told a meeting of party faithful in Darmstadt this weekend, "This is the basis on which Europe can prosper."What the forthcoming Greek government needs to do, then, is say loudly and clearly in public that it will stick to the memorandum. Say in public mind you, not necessarily follow the statement through in practice. The phrase being asked for certainly isn't an Austinian performative, equivalent to saying "I do" in a wedding. In this case uttering the phrase does not constitute implementation. Another example of something which also does not constitute what the British philosopher JL Austin would have termed a performative would be the expression “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of …” which appears on the back of UK bank notes, and is evidently not a promise, or even a lick. It is simply just another way of spilling [...]



Rescue Me

2012-06-22T12:05:37.476+02:00

I guess we will never know whether or not Mariano Rajoy uttered the two magic words so effectively immortalized in song by Fontella Bass that Saturday afternoon in late May as he cruised down the Chicago River in what Spanish media called a "Love Boat" ride, but one thing certainly is now clear, Angela Merkel has finally and definitively accepted Spain into the German embrace. Whether it will be a tender and loving one remains to be seen. What is obviously true is that Spain is in trouble, and needs help. Five years after the Global Financial Crisis broke out unemployment is at 25% of the labour force (and rising), house prices continue to fall, non performing loans continue to rise in the banking sector, bank credit to the private sector is falling, and, as Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro said two weeks ago, the sovereign is having increasing difficult financing itself. Hence the bank bailout. On top of which Spain's economy is once more in recession, a recession which will last at least to the middle of 2013, even on the most optimistic forecasts, and is in danger of falling into the dynamic which has so clearly gripped Greece, whereby one austerity measure is piled onto another in such a way that the economy falls onto an unstable downward path, as austerity feeds yet more austerity. Spains citizens are naturally nervous, anxious and increasingly afraid. Hardly a dynamic which is likely to generate the kind of confidence which is needed for recovery to take root.   The economy is steadily seizing up as the release of pressure (which was previously facilitated through the devaluation mechanism) which it badly needs cannot take place. All the dials move to red, but there is no safety valve available to drain off steam, so the danger of the boiler exploding through the giving way of one joint or another grows with each passing day. No Mea Culpa From The ECB Advocates of the proposed Euro Area debt redemption fund - which would pool all government debt over the 60% of GDP permitted under Maastricht - do so using the argument that we should treat the first ten years of the common currency's existence as a "learning experience". Fine, but what exactly have we learnt? Surely almost everyone who has read at least one article on the Spanish crisis now knows that the issue in Spain is private not public debt. But just how did countries like Spain and Ireland accumulate all this debt? Well one thing should be clear by now, part of the responsibility for the situation lies with the ECB who applied (as they had to) a single size monetary policy even though this was clearly going to blow bubbles in the structurally higher inflation economies. And so it was, Spain had negative interest rates applied all through the critical years, and now we have the mess we have. Back in 2006 inspectors at the Bank of Spain sent a letter to Economy Minister Pedro Solbes complaining of the relaxed attitude of the then governor, Jaime Caruana (the man who is now at the BIS, working on the Basle III rules) in the face of what they were absolutely convinced was a massive property bubble. Their warning was ignored. What could have been done, many say. Well, at least two very simple things could have been done, and well before things got out of hand - on the one hand apply much stricter loan to value and income documentation rules which offering a much higher proportion of fixed interest rate loans (quotas could have been applied), and on the other insist the Spanish government run a much higher[...]



Global Manufacturing Growth Shudders Towards A Halt

2012-06-03T18:21:05.824+02:00

This months manufacturing PMI data only confirm what several months of prior surveys (and now the latest US jobs report) have been telling us, namely that growth in the developed economies is getting scarcer and scarcer, and harder and harder to come by. Following a brief brief period of stabilisation, which lasted roughly from November last year to this January, conditions have been steadily deteriorating in manufacturing sectors across the planet, with the deterioration being lead by an ongoing decline in new export orders. Roped in together through the various trade channels, the worlds industrial base is now, even in the best of cases, barely ekeing out growth, as can be seen in the fact  that the JP Morgan global index registered a mere 50.6 in May, only marginally above the 50 no change level. As the Global report puts it, the main drag on global industry remains Europe, where the Eurozone and UK PMIs fell to three-year lows. PMIs for Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Greece all signalled contractions. Ireland saw a modest expansion, while Austria edged closer to stagnation. But beyond this activity in Eastern Europe weakened, as it did in Asia and the Americas.New business continued to contract, with the rate of contraction especially marked, according to the report, in the case of export orders. Manufacturers in Europe, China and Japan all reported reduced levels of new export business, while growth in new exports slowed sharply in the US.With the world nervously waiting to see how the Greek election process pans out, and where the Spanish government will find the money to recapitalise the country's banks, the slowdown in China is turning out to be a wild card, which simply punds negative feedback into an already difficult situation.Western EuropeMost eyes at the present time are, however, firmly fixed on Europe, and in particular the Euro Area, where the seasonally adjusted Markit Eurozone Manufacturing PMI fell to a near three-year low of 45.1, down from 45.9 in April and little-changed from the earlier flash estimate of 45.0. The Euro Area PMI has now signalled contraction in each of the past ten months.Ireland was the only nation to register accelerating, albeit modestl, expansion, while in Austria - the other country in the Area where manufacturing conditions still improve - the  PMI slipped back and closer to stagnation. All the other Euro nations covered by the survey saw contractions.PMIs for Germany, France and Spain all fell to their lowest levels since mid-2009, while the downturn in the Netherlands accelerated to its fastest in five months. In a pretty symbolic gesture, Greece moved off the bottom of the euro PMI league table for the first time since January 2010 to be replaced by Spain.New export orders fell to the greatest extent since November last year, reflecting both slower global economic growth and lower levels of intra-Eurozone trade. Germany, Spain and Greece all reported especially marked reductions in new export orders.The renewed decline in German activity is particularly significant, given the importance of the German economy in the Euro Area and its dependence on industry. As Tim Moore, senior economist at Markit put it in his report.“Germany’s manufacturing output continued to lurch downwards in May, with the resilience of the first quarter now giving way to the steepest drop in production levels for almost three years. Weaker global econ[...]



Can This Really Be Europe We Are Talking About?

2012-05-20T22:03:13.645+02:00

In recent days I have been think a lot, and reading a lot, about the implications of Greece's recent election results. At the end of the day the only difference this whole process makes to the ultimate outcome may turn out to be one of timing. If  Alexis Tsipras of the anti bailout, anti Troika, party Syriza won and started to form a government then the second bailout money would undoubtedly be immediately stopped. On the other hand if the centre right New Democracy wins and is able to form a government, as the latest polls tend to suggest, then the country would quite possibly try to conform to the bailout conditions, but in trying it would almost certainly fail, and then the money would be stopped. Before the last election results, it will be remembered, this was the main scenario prevailing. Indeed reports coming out of Greece suggest that the end point may be reached more quickly than even previously thought, since the main impact of recent events is that the reform process in the country has been put on hold, meaning that slippage on implementation by the time we get to June will be even greater than it otherwise would have been. "The only thing we are doing is waiting," said a government official who declined to be named. Another Greek official close to bailout negotiations said ministers in the outgoing cabinet have not been authorised to negotiate with Greece's lenders since the May 6 election. A senior party official said the caretaker government would not publish any decrees and all tender procedures were suspended. Even before the May 6 election, many reforms were put on the backburner to avoid antagonising voters, officials involved in bailout talks say. These include a plan to slash spending by over 11.5 billion euros in 2013-2014, which Greece must agree by late June to meet a key bailout target.Other measures Greece should have taken by the end of June include a plan to improve tax collection by 1.5 percent of GDP in 2013-2014, a review of social spending to identify 1 percent of GDP in savings, and a pay cut for some public sector jobs by an average of 12 percent.One key measure is the budget deficit. Athens was broadly on track in the first quarter with a primary surplus on a cash basis of 2.3 billion euros excluding interest payments on debt, versus a 0.5 billion primary surplus in the same period in 2011.But low value added tax collection and increased transfers to the social security system to offset weak business and employee contributions continue to be soft spots.Another problem - which the EU and IMF will check before giving any green light on the accounts - is government arrears. Unpaid debts to third parties for over 90 days stood at 6.3 billion euros at end-March or 3.1 percent of projected GDP this year, according to economists at EFG Eurobank.EU and IMF policymakers, exasperated by repeated delays on all reform areas over the two years of a first, 110-billion euro bailout, have warned they will not deliver any more aid under the new bailout if Athens veers off the reform track yet again.Looking at the above list, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that it might be in the interests of all concerned for Syriza to win the elections and force the issue. Putting together another weak government that can't implement will only lead to more fudging, and put us back where we are now in three or six months time. Grexit Ahoy?Either way, it is what happens next that leads to all the specul[...]



It's Time to Stop Using Chewing Gum And Chicken Wire In Spain

2012-05-21T22:35:55.053+02:00

"Every leg of the eurozone crisis has been marked by denial of the full scale of the problems. Whether Spain’s authorities have been deceitful or wilfully blind makes little difference at this point. The banks will need more capital; the government will need external help, with all the market uncertainty and strings attached that this implies. And the pain in Spain will only get worse".The top Line, Financial TimesAccording to reports now widely circulating the Spanish press (in Spanish only), the EU is pushing Spain hard to accept EU aid on completion of an independent external evaluation of the problems in the banking sector that is to be conduced by Blackrock Solutions and Oliver Wyman. The evaluation has been imposed on Spain by both the ECB and the EU Commission following doubts about just how faithfully the numbers published by the central bank do reflect the likely losses to be sustained by the Spanish banking system. Following this weeks revelations about the extent of potential losses in Bankia (product of the fusion of a number of savings banks, and one of the country's largest financial institutions by assets) it is not hard to understand why.Not only has the issue placed in doubt the capacity of the country's political and financial leaders to handle a crisis of this magnitude, it has once more raised question marks and doubts about the adequacy of data presented in commercial bank annual accounts. What brought matters to ahead was the publication on Friday 4 May of Bankia's unaudited accounts for 2011 wherein the parent bank BFA still valued Bankia, in its individual accounts, at book value. In fact at the time Bankia was trading at around 0.3 of BV, while listed stakes in companies like Mapfre, NH Hotels, and Indra were by no means fully marked to market. The reason the accounts remained unaudited was that Deloitte, the bank’s auditor during the time of the stock market listing, had refused to sign off on them. In fact, not only is the bank suffering from the falling value of its property assets, it is also feeling the squeeze of the sharp fall in stock prices, which affect the value of its commercial holdings. The country's IBEX 35 Index hit its lowest level since October 2003 this week, and with holdings which some describe as the "jewels in the bank's crown" down sharply, bank capital has taken a hit. Bankia's holdings include a 5.4% stake in the troubled hydrelectric company Iberdrola, which is now only valued at 21 billion Euros, some 40% down from the 35 billion Euro valuation the company had only one year ago. A back of the envelope calculation suggests this drop alone has cost the bank 800 million euros, making it unlikely that a forced asset sale of all holdings  would bring in anything like the 3 billion euros some are estimating. However hard Mr Goirigolzarri, the new CEO, struggles to put a brave face on things ("contra mal tiempo buena cara"), and no one doubts his good will, the battle in front of him is enormous. Estimates in Spain suggest that in addition to the 4.5 billion Euros in Frob loans converted into equity, the bank may need a further 5 billion Euros in capital injection, just to cover the new provisioning requirements.Concern about how the whole financial reform process was being handled by the Bank of Spain  only grew with the acknowledgement by Bankia itse[...]



Global Economy Heading Downhill?

2012-05-08T23:16:23.370+02:00

According to the JP Morgan Global Composite PMI report, "Growth of global economic activity eased sharply to a fivemonth low in April." The authors of the report found that on aggregate across the countries surveyed - 30 across the globe - both new order inflows and job creation fell back, leading them to the conclusion  that "the world economy is set for a softer growth patch heading into midyear". Looking at the chart below, this certainly seems to be the case (the composite index is a measure derived from a weighted average of the manufacturing and services findings).So momentum is weakening across the entire global economy at the present point, not just in say Europe, or China. Global output is still growing but it is growing at an increasingly weaker pace. What could change that? Well QE3 naturally. Why do I say that?  Well look at the three significant surges in the chart. The first coincides with QE1, the second with QE2, and the third, much weaker one, fits in with the so called Operation Twist. This tells us a number of things. In the first place these massive liquidity injections are not self sustaining, ie they give things a hefty push forward but even so they  don't manage to jump start the various economies, especially in the developed world. They work for a bit, and then run out of steam. The fact that they systematically run out of steam tells me, at any rate, that something somewhere is broken, and that re-iterated injections on their own won't sort the problem out.In Japan this very same "something" has now been broken since 1992, and continual liquidity injections and mounting government debt have not made it better. This is not the point to go in depth into what the something is, my story on this is scattered here and there across the various pieces of analysis I write. Suffice it to say that excessive debt and rapid population ageing have to form part of the picture. Both constitute an important drag on growth. But the principal aim of this post  isn't to add to the debate about what it is that broken, it is simply to plead for a recognition that something is, and that, as a result, the situation won't simply "right" itself. This time there is no hidden helping hand.What the various liquidity injections do do is buy time. Some people scorn that, and would rather take their armageddon full face and now. Each to his taste. If I get to die tomorrow and rather than  today I am not ungrateful.Liquidity injections are not quite the same thing as debt generation, although obviously there is a link - injections which involve straight monetisation of government debt (ECB LTRO lending against government guaranteed bank bond collateral in order to enable the bank to buy government bonds, for example) are clearly facilitating the generation of debt. While liquidity provision for its own sake in a deflated economic system is generally positive, debt generation for its own sake isn't necessarily so, since someone, someday, will have to pay it back, and if in the meantime we don't fix the problem (that "something" that is broken) then the somebody may be poorer than we are, in which case we are directly transferring income intergenerationally, from them to us. Debt to buy time for something which won't fix itself is not [...]