Wednesday, November 25, 2015

25/11/15: Nama: That Gift Horse's Mouth...

Back in June this year, I posted about 10 most egregious cases of apparent mis-pricing of assets relating to Nama sales:

Now, we can add a new one. Per Irish Times report (

“Blackstone, the world’s biggest private equity firm, is on track to make a profit of €43 million on two office buildings it bought in Dublin’s south docklands only two years ago. The company has agreed sale terms at €123 million for the Bloodstone Building and an adjoining block on Britain Quay – 54 per cent more than the €80 million paid for them towards the end of 2013.”

In other words, we have vulture fund that bough completed properties two years back and managed to squeeze 54% appreciation out of them by doing virtually nothing new, adding virtually no new value. And Nama added zero value to the buildings as well as it got them off Sean Dunne in fully completed form.

The cherry on the cake (for Blackstone) is that it bought the above buildings for roughly EUR100 million, along with a third building: Hume House on Pembroke Road in Ballsbridge. Blackstone is yet to sell Hume House. So Blackstone actual returns on Nama purchase will be going up and up.

The Irish Times article also references another Nama ‘deal’ for the taxpayers. “Early in 2013, King Street Capital bought the Bishop’s Square office building on Kevin Street for €65 million and last January it sold it on to Hines, the international property company, for €92.5 million – a price rise of more than 42 per cent.”

That would be the deal described here:

So between these two ‘deals’, Irish taxpayers have foregone collective EUR70 million. Thanks, Nama!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

24/11/15: Over-skilled & Under-Employed: Welcome to the Brave New World of Europe

Irish policymakers are keen telling us that jobs creation has been robust and of high quality in recent years. Which, thus, begs a question: why does OECD data show Ireland as having one of the most severe mismatches between workforce skills and employment?

Apparently, based on OECD data, Irish economy is not exactly offering jobs on par with our fabled skills. And, apparently, based on OECD data, our illustrious workforce holds a big untapped potential for productivity gains that are not being realised by the inflows of MNCs and FDI and domestic economy jobs creation to-date.

OECD doesn't quite offer an Ireland-specific explanation of this paradox, but it does offer an insight as to why the same phenomenon plagues virtually all of Europe:

Apparently, the quality of firms (or their systems for allocating Human Capital or both) in Europe is just not up to par. It turns out that the Irish disease of underemployment is a European disease.

This is especially tragic, given that we have a huge over-skilling present in the economy - in basic terms, our skills levels are too high for what our economy is capable of absorbing:

Few years ago, I quipped in my Sunday Times (now defunct) column that we are heading for Unemployed PhDs crisis. It looks like we have arrived.

So welcome to the Brave New World where years in education and training and years of on-the-job experience count for zilch when it comes to affording pensions, savings and investments.

24/11/15: Captured Economics and the Victim State

Per Simon Wren-Lewis: “…Perhaps the problem at the heart of the Eurozone is that economic policy advice in Germany has been effectively captured by employers' interests, and perhaps the interests of banks in particular.” (source here)

For one caveat: economics as profession has been largely captured by the state.

The European states are, of course, themselves have been captured by corporatist interests, including (but not limited to) those of big businesses and banks. One can make a similar argument about other (non-European) states too. Which makes the capture of economists by business only a part of that more corroded chain, and not an exclusive part. Otherwise, how can one explain that it is State-employed economists and State-aligned economists (with State boards positions and State research contracts) that so vocally defend the very same corporate welfare that Simon Wren-Lewis seems to correctly worry about?

My view on the subject was covered here:

In simple terms, enough whitewashing the State as a victim of business interests - instead, time to see the State as a willing participant in a corporatist system that allows capture of policy development and implementation mechanisms and institutions by vested interests that define the State.

24/11/15: Europe's Dead Donkey of Productivity Growth

Remember the mythology of European productivity miracles:

  1. The EU is at least as competitive as the U.S. (with Lisbon Agenda completed, or rather abandoned);
  2. The EU growth in productivity is structural in nature (i.e. not driven by capital acquisition alone and not subject to cost of capital effects); and
  3. The EU productivity growth is driven by harmonising momentum (common markets etc) at a policy level, with the Euro, allegedly, producing strong positive effects on productivity growth.
Take a look at this chart from Robert J. Gordon's presentation at a recent conference:
The following observations are warranted:
  • EU convergence toward U.S. levels of productivity pre-dates major policy harmonisation drives in Europe and pre-dates, strongly, the creation of the Euro;
  • EU productivity convergence never achieved parity with the U.S.;
  • EU productivity convergence was not sustained from the late 1990s peak on;
  • The only period of improved productivity in the EU since the start of the new millennium was associated with assets bubble period (interest rates and credit supply).
Darn ugly!

But it gets worse. Since the crisis, the EU has implemented, allegedly and reportedly, a menu of 'structural' reforms aiming at improving competitiveness.  Which means that at least since the end of the crisis, we should be seeing improved productivity growth differentials between Europe and the U.S. And the EU case for productivity growth resumption is supported by the massive, deeper than the U.S., jobs destruction during the crisis that took out a large cohort of, supposedly, less productive workers, thereby improving the remainder of the workforce levels of productivity.

Here is a chart from the work by John Van Reenen of LSE:

Apparently, none of this happened:
  • EU structural reforms have been associated (to-date) with much lower productivity growth post-crisis than the U.S. and Japan;
  • EU jobs destruction during the crisis has been associated with lower productivity increases than in the U.S. and Japan;
  • All EU programmes to support growth in productivity, ranging from the R&D supports to investment funding for productivity-linked structural projects have produced... err... the worst outcome for productivity growth compared to the U.S. and Japan.
And the end result?

I know, I know... a Genuine Productivity Union, anyone?...

Saturday, November 21, 2015

21/11/15: Be Kind to Economic Forecasting Dodos...

Oh, spare a kind thought for the economists... crippled by the intellectual feebleness of algebraic (and utterly useless) models and hamstrung by the need to sell 'good news' to naive retail clients pounded by the sell-side 'research', they have it tough in this life. And the things are going to get tougher.

So far, in anticipation of the U.S. Fed hikes, virtually all economics analysts working for sell-side stuff brokers have been declaring their firm conviction that once the Fed raises rates, things are going to be off to a neatly clean start - the U.S. economy will shake off any risks to growth, while the Euro area economy will get a devaluation boost from stronger dollar.

Which, by the way, may or may not happen, but as Reuters article (link here) clearly shows, it wouldn't be the economists crowd that will have any idea what is going to happen.

Here are two charts from Reuters:

Now, give this a thought: 2014 and 2015 were relatively 'trend' years for the U.S. economy. And yet, in both cases, analysts surveyed by Reuters vastly, massively, grossly missed the boat on their forecasts. The dodos did predict back in January 2015 that 1Q 2015 growth will be 2.8%, missing the mark by 3 percentage points. And they did chirp out a forecast of 2.5% growth for 1Q 2014 back in January 2014, missing the reality by a massive 5.4 percentage points.

And to give you some more flavour, here is a summary of IMF forecasts for advanced economies (not just the U.S.):

Which confirms the aforementioned truth: economic forecasts ain't got a clue where the major advanced economies are heading, with or without Fed rate hikes.

It would be laughable, if this was not serious: the same types of economists inhabit the forecasting halls of the Fed, providing 'technical (mis-)guidance' to the FOMC on which the decision to hike rates will be made. In other words, the blind are driving, the deaf are navigating them and we are all the passengers on their happy runaway train.

So buckle up. When Fed hikes rates, things might go smooth or they might go rough - we just don't know. But we do know as much: all these economic forecasters have not a clue what will happen...

Friday, November 20, 2015

20/11/15: For all that growth thinking, say 'Thanks' to the U.S. for leveraging up

While leadership of Ireland ponders the fortunes of our 'globally connected' (yet somehow always exceptional) economy, here is an actual global picture of who drove Europe's (and Ireland's) 'exporting economy' model of economic expansion.

The chart below plots current account imbalances by region as % of global GDP from 1980 through today.

Source here.

Since 1983, there has been only one, that i right, one year (1991) when the U.S. did not run a current account deficit. By converse, since 1994, there have been just four years when the EU run a statistically noticeable current account deficit.

Thus, leveraging of the U.S. economy, including through trade, household demand and corporate tax 'optimisations' was the consistent driving force behind the miracle of European growth (and global growth in general) since at least 1983. Since 2011 - the coincidentally very year of Irish recovery - U.S. deficits and growing deficits from the ROW have been coincident with rising surpluses for the EU.

Table below (compiled using IMF WEO database data) shows cumulated current account balances from 1980 through 2015 for the main groups of economies and the U.S. expressed in billions of euro:

For the readers' convenience, I shaded U.S., Euro area and EU positions. This shows just how dramatic was the acceleration in U.S. deficits position since 1997 compared to 1980-2015, and how symmetrically significant was the acceleration in the EU surpluses.

In a way, all strategy of 'national development policies' talk aside, brutal reality of the years ahead is that unless someone else picks up the U.S. leveraging game, there is little scope for the externally-driven economic models of Europe in the future.

Irish exceptionalist insiders should pause for some thought... perhaps on their way to a fancy state sponsored lunch at the Castle...

20/11/15: Gold's 'Road Back'?

No love for gold from Europe...

20/11/15: The Inversion Debate Isn’t Over: Credit Suisse

A brief Credit Suisse note on corporate inversions, with an honourable mentioning for Ireland: over the story covered on this blog earlier (see background here including further links).

I especially like that little twist on tax optimisation that are inter-company loans: whilst the original inversion leads to a direct negative impact on tax revenues for our trading and investment partners, it adds a cherry on the proverbial cake by reducing companies' tax liabilities even further through lending to U.S.-based business.

OECD compliant, it all is...

20/11/15: U.S. Households' Deleveraging: Painful & Long

An interesting set of charts plotting trends in U.S. household credit arrears over time, courtesy of the @SoberLook

Three things stand out in the above. 

Per first chart, credit cards debt is the only form of credit that saw arrears drop below pre-crisis levels. It also happens to be the form of debt that is easiest to resolve - largely unsecured and easily written down. Mortgages debt arrears - while declining significantly from crisis peak - still remain at levels above pre-crisis averages. Ditto for all other forms of household debt. 

Also per first chart, improving labour markets conditions are doing zilch for student loans arrears. These remain on an upward trend and close to historical highs.

Thirdly, from the second chart, new volumes household credit in arrears in 3Q 2015 are broadly consistent with the situation in the same quarter in 2014, with new arrears falling to 4Q 2007 levels, but still running at levels well above 2003-2006 levels.

This, in an economy characterised by more robust labour markets than those of Europe and by personal insolvency regimes and debt resolution systems more benign than those in Europe. In simple terms: deleveraging out of bad debt is a painful, long-term process. Good luck to anyone thinking that raising rates will do anything but delay it even longer and make the pain of it even greater.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

17/11/15: Irish Rents: Welcome to More Consumer Whacking by Government

In efficient market, pre-announced policy changes get priced into market valuations before the policy change takes place. This was the case with the Gazprom's Nord Stream pipeline (working paper on this is forthcoming) and this is also true for much more liquid markets for rents.

Behold, Irish Government's latest stab at creating policies-driven evidence (or in other words, screw ups):

As expected, Irish landlords were quick to price in future freezes in rents in advance of such freezes coming into force. Which means that already beleaguered Irish renters can now pay even more in rents over an even longer time horizon. Double whacking of consumers by the incompetent policy designers continues unabated...

Monday, November 16, 2015

16/11/15: IG Insights Summit: Markets Outlook

Recently, I took part at the IG Summit in Dublin on a panel covering the future direction of financial markets. Here is the link to the panel video:

Sunday, November 15, 2015

15/11/15: Ifo World Economic Climate Indicator 4Q

Ifo’s World Economic Climate Indicator for 4Q 2015 released recently shows further deterioration in global economic growth conditions, despite all the optimism talk in Europe and the U.S.

Ifo’s headline World Economic Climate index posted a reading of 89.6 for 4Q 2015, down on 95.9 in 3Q 2015 and below 95.0 rearing for 4Q 2014.This is the lowest reading since 4Q 2012 and is well below the 2012-present average of 94.7 and the historical average of 95.0. 4Q 2015 marks second consecutive quarter of declines in index reading.

In terms of key components of the headline index:

  • Present Situation index fell to a low of 86.0 in 4Q 2015 from already unimpressive 87.9 reading in 3Q 2015. This marks the lowest reading since 1Q 2013 and the second consecutive quarterly decline in the index. 
  • Expectations 6 months forward sub-index was down at 93.0 in 4Q 2015 from 103.5 in 3Q 2015 and is below 98.2 reading for 4Q 2014. The index reading is the lowest since 4Q 2012 and is down on 102.1 average reading for the period starting with 1Q 2012. Historical average for the sub-index is at 99.2 which is well above the 4Q 2015 reading.

In summary, global economic activity is once again showing signs of weakness with negative momentum not abating, but accelerating into 4Q 2015 despite massive glut of monetary liquidity and despite sharp reduction in energy costs.