Thursday, January 23, 2014

23/1/2014: A Troubled Recovery: Sunday Times, January 12


This is an unedited version of my Sunday Times column from January 12, 2014.


To some extent, the forward-looking data on the Irish economy coming out in recent months resemble the brilliant compositions of Richard Mosse – Ireland's leading artist at the venerable La Biennale di Venezia, 2013 (http://www.richardmosse.com/works/the-enclave/). Mosse show in Venice comprised sweeping photographic landscapes of war-affected Eastern Kongo rendered in crimson and pink hues of hope.

In our case, the rose-tinted hues of improving recent data are colouring in hope over the adversity of the Great Recession, now 6 years in the running. Beneath it all, however, the debt crisis is still running unabated.


This week, Purchasing Manager Indices (PMIs), published by Markit and Investec, signaled a booming Q4 2013 economy. Services PMIs averaged 59.7 over the last quarter of 2013, well above the zero-growth mark of 50. Alas, the Services PMI readings have been showing expansion in every quarter since Q1 2010, just as economy was going through a recession. The latest Manufacturing PMIs averaged 53.6 over the Q4 2013, implying two consecutive quarters of growth in the sector. Sadly, manufacturing activity, as reported by CSO was down substantially year on year through October. Things might have improved since then, but we will have to wait to see the actual evidence of this. Past history, however, suggests this is unlikely: PMIs posted nine months of growth in the sector over the twelve months through October 2013, CSO's indicator of actual activity in the sector printed seven monthly declines. Rosy forward outlook of PMIs is overlaying a rather bleak reality.

But the story of fabled economic growth is not limited to the PMIs alone. Property markets were up in 2013, boosted, allegedly, by the over-exuberance of international and domestic investors, and by the penned up demand from the cash-rich, jobs-holding homebuyers. No one is quite capable of explaining where these cash riches are coming from. Based on deposits figures, Irish property buyers are not taking much of cash out of the banks to fund purchases of South Dublin homes. They might be digging money out of the fields or chasing the proverbial leprechauns’ riches or doing something else in order to pump billions into the property markets. Still, residential property prices are up year on year. Alas, all of these gains are due to Dublin alone: in the capital, residential real estate prices rose 14.5 percent over the last 12 months. In the rest of the country they fell 0.5 percent.

Fuelled by rising rents (up 7.6 percent year on year) and property prices, the construction sector also swelled with the stories of a rebound. Not a week goes by without a report about some investment fund 'taking a bet on Ireland's recovery' by betting long on real estate loans or buildings, or buying into development land banks. Thus, Building and Construction sector activity in Q3 2013 has reached the levels of output comparable with those last seen in Q4 2010. Not that it was a year marked by robust activity either, but growth is growth, right? Not exactly. Stripping out Civil Engineering, building and construction activity in Ireland is currently lingering at the levels compatible with those seen in H2 2011. Worse, Residential Building activity was down year-on-year in Q3 2013. Meanwhile, in line with other PMI indicators, Construction PMI, published by Markit and Ulster Bank, suggests that the sector has been booming from September 2013 on. Again, more data is required to confirm this, but CSO's records for planning permissions show declines in activity across the sector.

The truth is that no matter how desperately we seek a confirmation of growth, the recovery to-date is removed from the real economy we inhabit. As the Q3 2013 national accounts amply illustrated, the domestic economy is still slipping. In the nine months of 2013, personal consumption of goods and services fell EUR734 million in real (inflation-adjusted) terms, while gross domestic capital formation (a proxy for investment) declined EUR381 million. Thus, final domestic demand - the amount spent in the domestic economy on purchases of current and capital goods and services - fell EUR1.3 billion or 1.4 percent. In Q2 2013 Irish Final Domestic Demand figure dipped below EUR30 billion mark for the first time since the comparable records began back in Q1 2008, while Q3 2013 reading was the third lowest Q3 on record.

Beyond Q3, the latest retail sales data for November 2013, released this week, was also poor. Even stripping out the motor trades, core retail sales were basically flat on 2012 levels in both volume and value.


With domestic economy de facto stagnant and under a constant risk of renewed decline, Ireland remains in the grip of the classic debt deflation crisis or a balancesheet recession.

The usual canary in the mine of such a crisis is credit supply. Per latest data from the Central Bank, volumes of loans outstanding in the private economy continued to fall through November 2013. Average levels of credit extended to households fell almost 4 percent in Q4 2013 compared to 2012 levels. Loans to non-financial corporations fell some 5 percent over the same period.

Total private sector deposits are up marginally y/y for Q4 2013, but household deposits are down. Thus, recent improvements in the health of Irish banks are down to retained profits and tax buffers being retained by the corporates. Put differently, the canary is still down, motionless at the bottom of the cage.

In this environment, last thing Ireland needs is re-acceleration in business and household costs inflation. Yet this acceleration is now an ongoing threat. Courtesy of the 'hidden' Budget 2014 measures Irish taxpayers and consumers are facing an increases in taxes and state charges of some EUR2,000 per household. Health insurance, water supplies, transport, energy, and a host of other price increases will hit the economy hard.

And after the Minister for Finance takes his share, the banks will be coming for more. The cost of credit in Ireland has been rising even prior to the banks levies passed in Budget 2014. In 3 months through October 2013, interest rates for new and existing loans to households and non-financial corporations were up on average some 19-23 basis points. Deposits rates were down 71 bps. Based on ECB latest statistics, the rate of credit cost inflation in Ireland is now running at up to ten times the euro area average.

In other words, we are bailing in savers and investors, while squeezing consumers and taxpayers.


These trends largely confirm the main argument advanced in the IMF research paper, authored by Karmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff and published last December. The paper argues that in response to the global debt crisis, the massive wave of financial repression is now rising across advanced economies. The authors warn that economic growth alone may not be enough to deflate the debt pile accumulated by the Governments in the advanced economies prior to and during the current crisis. Instead, a number of economies, including are facing higher long-term inflation in the future, and lower savings and investment. The menu of traditional measures associated with dealing with the debt crises in the past, covering both advanced and developing economies experiences, includes also less benign policies, such as capital controls, direct deposits bail-ins, as well as higher taxes and charges.

Ireland is a good example of the above responses. Since 2011 we have witnessed pension funds levies and increases in savings and investment taxes. We also have witnessed state-controlled and taxed sectors pushing prices ever higher to increase the rate of Government revenue extraction. Budget 2014 banks levy is another example. Given the current state of banking services in Ireland, the entire burden of the levy is going to fall onto the shoulders of ordinary borrowers and depositors. Insurance sector was bailed-in, primarily via massive increases in the cost of health cover and reduced tax deductibility of health-related spending.

As Reinhart and Rogoff note, historically, debt crises tend to be associated with a significantly lower growth and are marked by long-run painful adjustments. The average debt crisis in the advanced economies since the WWII lasted 23 years – much longer than the fabled ‘lost decade’ on reads about in the Irish media.

All of which goes to the heart of the today’s growth dilemma in Ireland: while macroeconomic performance is improving, tangible growth anchored in domestic economy is still lacking. The good news i: foreign investors rarely look at the realities on the ground, beyond the macroeconomic headlines. The bad news is: majority us live in these realities.



Box-out: 

This column's mailbox greeted the arrival of 2014 with a litany of sales pitches from various funds managers. All were weighing heavily on ‘hard’ performance metrics, with boastful claims about 1- and 5-year returns. While appearing to be ‘hard’, these quotes present a misleading picture of the actual funds’ performance. The reason for this is simple: end of 2008 – beginning of 2009 represented a bottom of the markets collapse.

Over the last 10 years, annual returns to the S&P500 index averaged roughly 5 percent. This is less than one third of the 15.5 percent annualised returns for the index over the last 5 years. In Irish case, the comparatives are even more striking. Five-year annualised rise in ISEQ runs at around 12 percent. Meanwhile 10-year returns are negative at 1.2 percent.

Since no one likes quoting losses, the industry is only happy to see the dark days of the early 2009 falling into-line with the 5 year metric benchmark: the lower the depth of the depression past, the better the numbers look today.

The problem is that even the ten-year returns figures are often bogus. The quotes, based on index performance, usually ignore the fact that the very composition of the markets has changed significantly during the crisis. This is especially pronounced in the case of ISEQ. In recent years, ISE witnessed massive exits of larger companies from its listings. Destruction of banking and construction sector in Ireland compounded this trend. Put simply, investors should be we weary of the industry penchant for putting forward five-year returns quotes: too often, there's more wishful marketing in these numbers than reality.

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