Wednesday, October 29, 2014

29/10/2014: ABN AMRO on Emerging Europe's Economic Woes

ABN AMRO gloomy outlook for Emerging Europe region came out yesterday. Here are some highlights as related to Russian economy:

Over the past months, emerging Europe has increasingly faced headwinds.

Two core factors selected by ABN AMRO for these: Russian economy weaknesses and "weaker-than-expected performance of the eurozone, emerging Europe’s main trading  partner". In particular, "this can for instance be seen in Poland, where exports to the EU have slowed noticeably".

"All in all, according to our emerging Europe GDP tracker, annual growth in the region  fell to 1.1% yoy in Q3, down from 1.3% in Q2, keeping it on a downward path. Within the region, despite its structural outperformance over the past years, the Polish economy seems to be  slowing the most, while growth in the Czech Republic and in Hungary seems to be a bit more resilient."

"Looking further out, though risks remain tilted to the downside, growth should pick up next year. This reflects that we think that somewhere down the road, both Russia and Ukraine should recognise that some form of a diplomatic solution is needed. Alternatively, the conflict could evolve to a ‘frozen conflict’ with fewer economic consequences than currently is the case."

ABN AMRO sees this set of factors giving "room to a slight rebound in Russian GDP growth, though the slide in oil prices poses yet another headwind."

Here's their more detailed analysis for Russia:

And worse for Ukraine:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

28/10/2014: US News & WR: Global University Rankings

US News & World Report published their first global Universities rankings:

And the numbers are pretty much disastrous for Ireland:

No Irish University in top 100. No Irish University in top 1-199. Best ranked Irish university is 210th (TCD). Only one Irish university in top 250. Only two Irish universities in top 300. Only 3 Irish universities in top 500...

Here are the 'neighbourhoods' for TCD:

 For UCD:
 And for UCC:

Nothing else to comment...

See other rankings links here:

28/10/2014: Buffett’s Magic: Cheap Leverage and Risk Control

My new post on Warren Buffett's investment 'style' is available on

Monday, October 27, 2014

28/10/2014: Page 75... ECB Washes Out Its Big Bazooka QE with New NPLs...

In the previous (lengthy) post I covered my view of the ECB stress tests results. But, per chance, you have missed two core points on these, here they are, in a neater summary:

Point 1: Stress tests are weak compared to expectations and independent analysts' estimates of capital shortfall (by a factor of up to or in excess of10:1).

Point 2: Stress tests have raised non-performing loans levels in the euro area banking system by EUR136 billion to EUR879.1 billion or close to 9% of the euro area GDP. The increases were recorded in all categories of loans, which in simple terms means the banks have been under-providing for loans losses across all categories of their core assets.

Now, that puts into perspective the ECB's 'big game all-in' shot for TLTROs and ABS purchases targeting to raise ECB balancesheet exposures by... you've guessed it... EUR1 trillion.

Why, despite improving asset markets, stoic rhetoric of deleveraging and historically low cost of central banks' funds, the NPLs are climbing... and by the end of the ECB's big bazooka firing, that EUR1 trillion is probably will be just about enough to cover the outstanding NPLs. Assuming economy does not tank any more, in which case, it might fall short.

Update: Here's WSJ Blogs analysis of the effects application of the tougher quality tests for Core Tier 1 capital would have had on ECB stress test results:

Sunday, October 26, 2014

26/10/2014: Mind the ECB 'Stress Tests' Gap

The pain of European economy's Japanification is going to be proportionate to the cheering of the ECB 'stress tests' results.

The real problem faced by European economy is that of the depressed domestic demand (investment and consumption). This problem is fuelled by:
1) declining real incomes of those working,
2) continued sky-high numbers of those who are not working (unemployed, discouraged and never-once-employed workers left out in the cold),
3) growing unease amongst older workers about the state of their pensions,
4) rising burden of the state (including state debts),
5) growing pressure of redistribution of income from households and SMEs to politically favoured white elephant projects (e.g. renewables subsidies, large infrastructure spending, farm supports, regional integration etc),
6) un-abating waste at the EU and national levels anchored to corporatist politics selectively rewarding specific interest groups interests at the expense of entrepreneurs, younger workers, ordinary households and domestic firms, and
7) demographic collapse spreading across the continent as populations age and children remain dependent on ever older parents to support their education and transitioning into joblessness.

This real problem is driving down domestic demand, and with it depressing economy, but also spreading rot across the banks balance sheets.

And yet, despite the obvious and ever-deepening macroeconomic crisis of depressed demand, the ECB stress tests released today provide no insight into what can happen to the banks balance sheets should Japanification set in. Worse, the entire exercise of 'stress tests' is once again not much more than a PR stunt dreamed up by the folks who are 'would be' chief economists for the sell-side equity research.

Here's why.

Back in January 2014, two academics published a preliminary assessment of the Euro area banking union capital shortfalls:

This identified stressed shortfalls estimated at between €82 billion and €176 billion (4% benchmark capital ratio) and €509 billion to €767 billion (7% capital ratio) based on book capital.  Take the average to compare to ECB results: ca EUR295-470 billion. "The market capital shortfall estimates indicate a capital shortfall of €230 billion (4% benchmark capital ratio) or €620 billion (7% capital ratio) for the 41 publicly listed banks". Take the average to compare to ECB results: EUR425 billion.

Worse, "estimates of SRISK or the capital shortfall in a systemic financial crisis (40% market decline over a six-month period) is €579 billion; 41% is due to downside correlation with the market, while 59% is due to the leverage of these institutions." So compare to 20% decline under ECB tests (across property assets, 30% decline) and get roughly half of the above figure at EUR290 billion.

Ugly? Try next: "Capital shortfall estimates when writing down their net non-performing loan portfolios range from €232 billion (using the C Tier 1 ratio and an 8% threshold as in the AQR) and €435 billion (using the tangible equity/tangible assets ratio and a 4% threshold)." Again, average these out at EUR330 billion or so.

And get this: "There is a high rank correlation between the shortfalls based on book and market capital ratio measures [but] no significant correlation between shortfalls calculated using regulatory (i.e. risk-weighted asset-based) capital ratios and shortfalls calculated under market or book capital ratios… this highlights how flawed risk-weighted asset-based measures can be."

Take the conclusion in with a deep breath: "Cross-country variation in our capital shortfall estimates indicate that:

  • French banks are leading each book and market capital shortfall measure, both in absolute euro amounts and relative to national GDP. The capital shortfall ranges from €31 billion (using the equity/asset ratio and a 4% threshold) to €285 billion (using the tangible equity/tangible asset ratio and a 7% threshold). The SRISK stress scenario suggests a shortfall of €222 billion, which corresponds to almost 13% of the country’s GDP.
  • German banks are close seconds, although they benefit from a stronger domestic economy with a higher GDP and a greater capacity for public backstops.
  • Spanish and Italian banks appear to have large capital shortfalls when non-performing assets are fully written down. Both countries account for about a third of the total shortfall after write-downs. Market-based measures such as SRISK amount to about 6.5%–7.6% of the GDP of both countries."

So a close common value for estimated shortfalls, comparable to the ECB tests is around EUR290 billion for 41 listed banks (not 150 tested by EBA/ECB).

Oh dear, now think ECB stress tests: The ECB stress tests found virtually none of the above problems to be present or pressing (see full release here: Instead, the ECB tests estimated shortfall in the banks to be EUR24.6 billion as of December 2013 and that all but EUR9.5 billion of this has been already rectified by the banks.

This is plain mad not only because it is more than 10 times the number averaged out above, but also because the same ECB review found that some EUR136 billion of loans held by the banks as assets should be classed as non-performing. That is an 18 percent hike in one sweeping year. 85% of banks tested had to revise up their bad loans exposures. And this implies that EUR47.5 billion worth of losses is required to bring these 'assets' in line with their true values.

These losses will have to be covered from either more tightening of existent loans costs or via capital raising or by shrinking returns on equity or all of the above. And these losses are at the lower (as noted by independent analysts) end of the range. And these losses are going to impact future capital access by the banks too, as who on earth would want to stake a house on investing in sick banks hiding the true extent of their losses to the tune of 18 percent?!

All in, Euro area banks now have a hole of EUR879 billion in non-performing loans, facing losses of some EUR300 billion, plus. Based on already stretched (by extend-and-pretend measures adopted to-date) loss rate on non-performing assets. Oh, dear…

Table below summarises sources of NPL increases by category of assets:

As of the end of 2013, per ECB own assessment, some 1/5 of all major banks were in the position of facing high risk of going bust. Forward nine months into this year - what has changed? Nothing, save for the following factors:

  1. ECB funding became temporarily cheaper (rates down), but LTROs are being replace by higher priced TLTROs and this means cost of funding going slightly up;
  2. Assets valuations have improved on massive monetary stimuli. These being gradually reduced (outside the euro area) is going to depress carry trades that have been helping asset prices boom. Asset values might not fall, but realising these values in the markets forward and counting on their further significant appreciation would be equivalent to taking serious risks.
  3. Real economic conditions have deteriorated. Which is far from being trivial, as in the long run, asset values and availability and cost of funding should start reflecting this reality. Once they start, there'll be pain on balance sheets. 

What are the safety cushions post-ECB tests? Ugh, rather thin. Of 130 banks tested by the ECB, 25 failed, 31 had core capital ratio below 10% - the safety threshold accepted in the markets. 28 more banks were within a 10-11 percent range. Thus, 84 out of 130 banks tested were either in an ICU or on ventilators.

Looking back at the main findings from January 2014 paper by Viral Acharya and Sascha Steffen, what is striking is the position of the German and French banks. ECB found virtually no problems in both countries banking systems (see Table below):

Table: Banks that failed ECB tests

Look at geographic distribution of losses under stressed scenario:

Setting aside the proverbial 'periphery' (and Slovenia) there are virtually no problems in the stress case across the national banking system anywhere, save for Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Even Italian system is within 1 percentage point of the median losses. You have to be laughing, right?

And the above only holds for 57% of all assets of the tested banks. That's right, the AQR exercise did not cover all assets held by the 130 banks tested.

Meanwhile, macroeconomic risks factored in are rapidly becoming not stringent enough. The ECB tests were based on EU Commission forecasts from Q1 2014. Since then, the forecasts have seen consistent downward revisions. Instead of focusing on the risk of deflationary recession and stagnation (Japanification), the risks tested were based on bond markets stress, plus recession.

There is virtually no material deterioration in ECB assessment results for German banks compared to previous tests. How? We can only scratch our heads. In the last 2 years, German economy has gone from moderate growth to slow growth and is heading into stagnant growth.

Emerging markets risks exposures were non-existent in the view of the ECB tests, except via higher interest rates impact spillover from the US (assumed by the ECB). Neither were the risks arising from the global slowdown in trade flows. So here's a kicker, if rates are higher and there is a global slowdown, impact on banks balance sheets will be most likely lower than if rates are low (and with them lending margins), but there is a secular long term growth crisis in the euro area itself. Second order effects will be smaller than first order effects.

All in, the 'stringent' tests carried by EBA and ECB took 150 banks and banks subsidiaries and found that 25 of these were short of EUR24.6 billion in capital: 16.7% of banks failed, average capital requirement per failed bank EUR984 million, average capital required per all banks tested: EUR164 million. Contrast this with 2011 when EBA tested 90 banks, failed 20 of these (failure rate of 22.2% much higher than 16.7% in this round of tests), requiring them to raise EUR26.8 billion in capital which amounts to EUR1.34 billion per failed bank (much higher than ECB stress tests this time around) and EUR298 million per bank tested (much higher than ECB tests). Yet, 2011 tests were labeled a farce by the markets.

Today's tests are no better. If not worse.

Worse because they fail to account for the real risks arising in the Euro area today and worse because they create a false sense of security within the system. Or maybe they do not. In which case the entire exercise is a PR stunt, with ECB having a different and more descriptive picture of what is really happening in the banking sector. Maybe so… in which case, does the whole charade qualify as market manipulation by the soon-to-be super regulators? Take your pick, either the regulators-to-be are wearing rose-tinted glasses, or they are fixing the market. Neither is a pretty option...

26/10/2014: Ireland's trade in goods with BRICS

Summary of the latest trade in goods for bilateral trade between Ireland and BRICS:

Keep in mind: trade balance is what counts in GDP, GNP and GNI calculations. Data above reflects some impact of the Russian counter-sanctions of July 2014.

Friday, October 24, 2014

24/10/2014: Weekly Russian Economy Update

Bofit released some latest data on Russian economy, so here is the summary, with some of additional points by myself.

September economic activity acceleration came as a bit of a surprise.

  • Manufacturing output was up 4% y/y, driven in part by devaluation of the ruble and in part by increased oil refining activity.
  • Defense spending is up 33% y/y in January-September, which also is helping manufacturing orders.
  • Agricultural output is sharply up as harvest hits near-record levels.
  • Consumption is up as retail sales rose 1.7% y/y with non-food sales up 3.5%. Some observers suggest that households are taking out savings to prepare for higher inflation (inflation hit 8.3% in September, sharply up on 8% in August). Since incomes declined in real terms (down to devaluation and inflation), we can assume that this is to some extent true, although banks are not reporting declines in deposits.
  • New car sales shrank 20% y/y in September from 0% y/y in Q1 2014. 
  • But consumption is most likely showing lags relative to the rest of the economy, so we can expect continued deterioration in retail sales into Q1 2015.
  • Decline in fixed capital investment shallowed out by about 2 percentage points, as Bofit notes "thanks to distinctly better development in investment of large energy and transport enterprises than other investment".
  • Meanwhile, construction activity is slowing down from the H1 2014 boom.

Net outcome: the Economy Ministry estimates GDP growth at +0.7 % y-o-y in January–September 2014, with only slight deceleration in the July-September.

This is strong reading, considering some forecasts (e.g. World Bank at 0.5% for 2014). That said, as I noted earlier today, with Central Bank heading into October 31 decision on rates with expected 50-100 bps hike, we might see a sharp decline in the economy in Q4 2014. It would take 0.2% drop in Q4 to get us to WB outlook.

On the other front, everyone who grew tired of focusing on ruble collapse have switched into prognosticating federal budget meltdown on foot of falling oil prices. Yes, Brent fell by a quarter compared to 2014 highs. And Urals followed the trend with prices around USD85/barrel. The chart below (via Bofit) illustrates.

But no, this is not a letdown yet on fiscal side. Here's Bofit analysis: "If the price of crude oil holds at the $85–95 level for a longer time, Russian growth will be much slower than current consensus forecasts predict… Russia’s 2015 federal budget also assumes an average oil price of $100 next year, producing a budget deficit of 0.5 % of GDP. The impact of a lower oil price on Russia’s fiscal balance will still be manageable; the nominal increase in budget revenues from ruble depreciation will in part off-set losses. Prof. Sergei Guriyev estimates public sector finances could withstand an oil price of $80–90 for a couple of years thanks to reserve funds and the weak ruble. Sberbank’s research department has calculated that the current account will remain in surplus next year even if the oil price holds at $85. Export revenues will fall, but also imports will decline substantially on e.g. the weak ruble and impacts from economic sanctions."

How fast Russian imports fall relative to exports? Tough guess, but here's IMF data showing 2009 crisis period:

One thing is clear: the above forecasts by the IMF for 2015 show pretty small reaction in imports. If Russian demand for imports goes negative, it will be down to a number of factors:

  1. Lower ruble leading to imports substitution - which is GDP-enhancing;
  2. Russian sanctions leading to imports substitution - which is GDP-enhancing;
  3. Government contracts shifting to imports substitution (including those with Ukraine, relating to military equipment) - which is GDP-enhancing.

And as 2009 shows, the room for contracting imports is massive: 28.7% y/y in one shot. And IMF is forecasting 2015 decline to be just 0.3% y/y.

24/10/2014: One Ugly with some Ugly Spice... EURO STOXX EPS

It's Friday... ECB is coming up with the banks tests on Sunday... And before then, if you want 'ugly', here's 'ugly':

The above chart plots Earnings per Share, in euro, for S&P500 and for EURO STOXX. It comes via @johnauthers

Now, despite this, you wouldn't believe it, but roughly 68% of European companies reporting earnings this quarterly cycle to-date have been outperforming analysts expectations.

And for some real 'ugly' spice on top of this pizza, the sub-trend decline in the EPS for European stocks has set on roughly H2 2011... something we shall remember when we re-read all the European 'recovery' tripe from 2011 and 2012 and a good part of 2013.

24/10/2014: Behavioural Political Economy

A very interesting survey paper on the topic of behavioural drivers of political economy by Schnellenbach, Jan and Schubert, Christian, titled "Behavioral Political Economy: A Survey" (September 30, 2014. CESifo Working Paper Series No. 4988.

From the abstract:

"Explaining individual behavior in politics should rely on the same motivational assumptions as explaining behavior in the market: That’s what Political Economy, understood as the application of economics to the study of political processes, is all about." So far - fine.

However, there is a problem: "In its standard variant, those who played the game of politics should also be considered rational and self-interested, unlike the benevolent despot of earlier models. History repeats itself with the rise of behavioral economics: Assuming cognitive biases to be present in the market, but not in politics, behavioral economists often call for government to intervene in a “benevolent” way. Recently, however, political economists have started to apply behavioral economics insights to the study of political processes, thereby re-establishing a unified methodology. This paper surveys the current state of the emerging field of “Behavioral Political Economy” and considers the scope for further research."

It is a lengthy and solid review, covering some 41 pages. Dense. But absolutely a great read as an introduction into the subject. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

23/10/2014: Irish Residential Property Prices: Q3 2014 data

Latest data for residential properties price index for Ireland is out, covering September. Instead of repeating all the analysis provided elsewhere, here is a look at quarterly data series and longer-term comparatives.

Firstly, on quarterly basis, Q3 2014 ended with index averaging at:

  • 79.1 in Dublin, up strongly on Q2 2014 reading of 72.0. This brings property prices to the levels of Q2 2010 or on pre-crisis comparative basis close to Q4 2002 (80.8).  Year on year prices in Q3 2014 stood 23.9% above Q3 2013 reading, which is a modest increase on Q2 2014 y/y increase of 21.2%.
  • Outside Dublin, index read 71.4 in Q3 2014, marking a rise of 5.8% y/y. In Q2 2014, y/y increase was 2.2%. Outside Dublin prices are currently trending at the levels comparable to Q1 2012 (71.2) and on pre-crisis basis - at the levels between Q2-Q3 2001
  • National prices index is at 76.9, up 14.4% y/y and this compares to a rise y/y of 10.6% in Q2 2014. National prices levels are around Q2-Q3 2011 averages and on pre-crisis basis these are up at the levels of Q2-Q3 2002.
Chart to illustrate:

Rates of growth in prices are worrying, as they were for some time now. Chart below shows y/y increases in price indices for quarterly averages:

The chart above clearly shows that Dublin price increases have been running well above the historical averages for the main periods since Q1 2000. Q3 2014 marks full year since price appreciation in Dublin market has risen above sub-period (2013-present) average and this now becoming a serious issue.

At the same time, long-term level indices suggest that prices remain below historical trends:

So once again, data is showing troubling developments in the rate of price increases in Dublin and below-trend price levels. Based on historical evidence, real price bubble concerns are still outside the scope of index readings by some 25-30 percent. But we are closing that gap very fast.

23/10/2014: BlackRock Institute Survey: EMEA, October 2014

BlackRock Investment Institute released the latest Economic Cycle Survey results for EMEA:

"The consensus of respondents describe Russia, Croatia, Egypt and the Ukraine in a recessionary state, with an even split of economists gauging Hungary and Turkey to be in a recessionary or contraction phase. Over the next two quarters, the consensus shifts toward expansion for Egypt and Turkey"

Red dot represents Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Israel, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia

"At the 12 month horizon, the consensus expecting all EMEA countries to strengthen or remain the same with the exception of Russia and the Ukraine."

Global: "respondents remain positive on the global growth cycle with a net 43% of 37 respondents expecting a strengthening world economy over the next 12 months – an 7% decrease from the net 50% figure last month. The consensus of economists project mid-cycle expansion over the next 6 months for the global economy"

Previous month results are here:

Note: these views reflect opinions of survey respondents, not that of the BlackRock Investment Institute. Also note: cover of countries is relatively uneven, with some countries being assessed by a relatively small number of experts.

23/10/2014: Euromoney Country Risk survey results Q3 2014

Euromoney Country Risk survey for Q3 2014 is out:

Euro area risks are down, but starting to regain upward momentum in recent weeks. Meanwhile, BRICS are struggling, Russia risks deteriorating and overall global environment is not encouraging.