Thursday, April 30, 2015

30/4/15: Consumer Confidence Boom in April... or Hopium by Pints

Ah, that slightly delirious Consumer Confidence data from Ireland keeps getting more and more delirious. April reading for the ESRI-compiled, KBC-sponsored, Consumer Confidence indicator was 98.7, up on 97.8 in March and the second highest reading since January 2005. The highest was in January 2015.

So now we have: on a 3mo average basis, 3 months through March, retail sales shrunk 0.2% in value terms and rose by 1.07% in volume terms. But in 3 months through April 2015 consumer confidence was up 5.7% (we have data lags here, so looking at latest data). And it gets worse: compared to January 1, 2015, retail sales by value are up 1.4%, down by 0.74% in volume, and consumer confidence is up 9.1%.

Hopium deliveries going strong nowadays...

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

29/4/15: China's Debt Pile is Frightening & Getting Worse

Just catching up on some interesting data on China, courtesy of @AmbroseEP, showing debt to GDP ratios for China's real economy:

Now, note that the comparatives are all advanced economies that can carry, normally, higher debt levels. Which makes China's 282% estimated total debt pile rather large.

The chart references as a source data presented in this (see scone chart) but adjusted to reflect RBS estimates. which pushes McKinsey point for China horizontally to the levels close to Greece.

As someone else pointed out, nominal GDP growth in China is apparently now lower than interest on debt.

Meanwhile number of stock market accounts has gone exponential in recent days - using borrowed money (Chinese residents borrowed over Yuan 1 trillion or Euro150 billion worth of cash to pump into stock markets):

Economy is clearly slowing down in China, with conflicting reports and estimates of 1Q 2015 growth suggesting possible contraction in the real economy and domestic demand. (See

At the top of debt chain are local authorities: latest official data shows borrowings by the local authorities were up by almost 50% since the start of H2 2013 to c. 16 trillion yuan. Local authorities debt growth accounts for a quarter of changes in overall domestic debt since 2008. Recently, the IMF warned China that the country overall economic debt is expanding at a faster pace than debt in Japan, South Korea and the U.S. grew before the onset of the Global Financial Crisis.

My view: when this pile of Chinese debt blows, things will get spectacularly ugly, globally.

29/4/15: Irish Retail Sales 1Q 2015

As I mentioned in a related post (, covering monthly data for Irish retail sales, last night, we can take a look at Q1 data comparatives for the sector based on 3mo averages for each corresponding quarter.

Here are the results y/y:

Good news is that overall only two sectors posted declines in Value of retail sales index in 1Q 2015 compared to 1Q 2014. These are both related to the decline in prices of fuel and wholesale prices declines for the Department Stores sales. All categories posted increases in volume of sales.

Large y/y increase in sales were recorded in 1Q 2015 in:

  • Motor Trades: up 22.7% in volume and up 20.6% in value of sales
  • 'Other sales': up 15.8% y/y in volume and up 6.8% in value
  • Books, newspapers, stationery & other: up 13.8% y/y in volume and up 5.7% in value
  • Household equipment: up 11.8% in volume and up 7.1% in value
  • Electrical goods up 11.8% in volume and 6.1% in value

As the result of this, Non food, ex-motors, auto fuel & bars sales rose 8.3% in volume and were up 3.6% in value terms compared to 1Q 2014. Food posted weaker sales growth at 4.2% y/y in volume and 2.3% in value.

Note: Retail Sales Activity Index is a simple average of Value and Volume indices

As chart above shows, in broader categories terms,

  • All Retail sales index of value of sales rose 6.1% y/y in 1Q 2015, while volume of sales index was up 9.9%. Strong showing driven heavily by the motor sales.
  • Core retails sales (ex-motors) were up 1.3% y/y in value terms and up 5.2% in volume terms in 1Q 2015.
  • Stripping out motors, automotive fuel and bars, retails sales rose 2.8% in value terms and were up 6.0% in volume terms. Again, strong showing over the quarter.

Chart below presents 1Q 2015 index reading against pre-crisis peak for 1Q period:

As the chart above clearly shows, the problem of weak retail sales, compared to pre-crisis levels, remains. Only three categories of sales have regained their pre-crisis peaks as of the end of 1Q 2015 in volume of sales terms. No category of sales has managed to regain pre-crisis peaks in value terms.

In discretionary spending categories terms, relating to normal consumption (stripping out auto fuel, food and motors), things remain under water in both volume of sales and value of sales terms. So things are getting better, but remain ugly in the sector.

The picture for 1Q 2015 is consistent with weak, but improving demand side in the economy.

This positive side of the National Accounts story is at risk, as it reflects deflationary environment where households are experiencing improved real incomes on stagnant wages and disposable nominal incomes. Any uptick in inflation can easily derail the recovery in the sector in terms of volumes of sales, if consumers start withdrawing their demand on foot of reduced opportunities for value shopping. Any uptick in inflation coupled with a rise in interest rates will present a double squeeze on consumer demand through reduced real incomes and reduced incomes available to fund consumption after housing and debt financing costs are taken into account.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

28/4/15: Irish Retail Sales: March 2015

So the Spring Statement ( put quite an emphasis on domestic demand growth, while the retail sales data published today is not exactly encouraging.

Stripping out motor sales, and focusing on core retail sales:

  • Seasonally adjusted index for value of retail sales fell from 98.0 in February 2015 to 97.1 in March 2015. March reading is now the lowest  for 6 months and below the 3mo average (1Q 2015 average) of 97.7.
  • Seasonally-adjusted index for volume of retail sales also fell from 107.6 in February to 106.6 in March, posting the lowest reading in 4 months.
  • Meanwhile, Consumer Confidence indicator from the ESRI was up in March at 97.8 compared to February reading of 96.1.

Some more longer-range comparatives: in 4Q 2014, value index was up 0.2% compared to 3Q 2014, but in 1Q 2015 it was down 0.48% on 4Q 2014. In 4Q 2014, volume index was up 0.69% compared to 3Q 2014, but in 1Q 2015 it was down 0.25% on 4Q 2014. Again, as with monthly changes, 1Q 2015 3mo average for consumer confidence index was up 2.54% which is below 3.9% increase in the index for 4Q 2014 compared to 3Q 2014.

Looking at unadjusted series gives us year on year comparatives basis. So again, for core retail sales (ex-motors):

  • Value of retail sales was up 2.34% y/y in March 2015, having previously posted a 0.77% rise in February. A large chunk (just around 1/3rd) of March 2015 increase was down to March 2014 y/y drop of 0.77%. But 2/3rds of March 2015 rise were due to organic growth. Which is good.
  • Volume of retail sales rose robust 6.1% y/y in March 2015, having posted growth of 5.04% y/y in February.
  • On 3mo average basis, 1Q 2015 value index is at 91.2 which is up 1.3% y/y - again, good news, as value index performance has been weak due to weak prices. Volume 1Q 2015 index was up 5.2% y/y. As usual, Consumer Confidence broke the back of both retail sales indicators, rising 15.1% in 12 months through 1Q 2015.

Summary: People are hopping mad with confidence, buying rather more stuff in volume, but only on foot of finding value in prices. This is not too boisterous, but on the net not too bad either. Monthly trends are a bit more concerning with declines in both March figures and 1Q 2015 averages.

I will look at sectoral comparatives in the next post.

28/4/15: There is a Spring... There was a Statement...

This Spring Statement was a lengthy and over-manned delivery of the vintage "A Lot Done. More to Do." 2002 FF slogan. As such, it is inevitable that the Statement ended up sounding like a self-congratulatory pre-electioneering platform announcement with some promises for the future. And you can read the Department document here: in its full glory.

'Entrepreneur' or 'Entrepreneurship' are words not mentioned in the document. Self-employed are cited only once, in reference to timing of tax receipts the Government expects from them. Part-time workers - the crucial category that can drive up ranks of early stage entrepreneurs and can be a source for huge gains in productivity if their skills are increased forward - deserves only two mentions, both relating to the unemployment reductions trends to-date. Quality of jobs creation is un-addressed. And so on...

In his speech, Mr Noonan said the government is in a position to implement another expansionary Budget this year and every year out to 2020 “if this is deemed prudent and appropriate.” The "if" part - crucial as it may be - is hardly enforceable, once the train of spending rolls out into the station.

The Government deserves credit. The national deficit was reduced from €15 billion to €4.5 billion over 2011-2015. This was achieved with less tax increases and expenditure cuts than forecast at the onset of 2011. Minister Noonan is correct. But much of this was down to good fortunes from abroad. And still is. And, based on the Department of Finance projections still will be, if one to trust their outlook for the exchange rates, exports growth and jobs growth.

Per Minister Noonan, the state has, this year “fiscal space of the order of € 1.2 billion and up to € 1.5 billion… for tax reductions and investment in public services." So, “the partners in Government have agreed that [this] will be split 50:50 between tax cuts and expenditure increases …in Budget 2016.”

Does that make much sense? Well, no. 2014-2015 cumulated decrease in deficit can be broken down into:
- 50% from increased tax revenues,
- 14% to GDP growth,
- 9% to reduction in net Government expenditure and
- 27% other factors.
Jobs creation and wealth creation both require reducing burden of State and taxation on self-employed and early stage entrepreneurs. Who, both, went totally unmentioned in the Spring Statement. Domestic demand growth - that supposed to contribute 2/3rds of 2015 growth and more than 3/4 of 2016 growth - requires reducing household and corporate debt and stimulating domestic investment - preferably not in property sector. These too went un-mentioned in the Spring Statement.

Instead, we got Minister Howlin watershed discovery that the Government creates wealth.

Which is scary and even scarier in the context of missing real wealth creators in the Statement: the Government's role in wealth creation should be to remove itself from managing it as much as possible. But see more on this below.

Minister Noonan warned that returning to the days of “if I have it I’ll spend it” or the “even if I don’t have it I’ll spend it” policy stance taken by the opposition over the past four years, was by far the biggest risk to economic growth and job creation. He might be right, but his plan for expansionary Budgets into 2020 is more of a policy stance consistent with "I might have it, so I'll spend it".

“We must never again repeat the boom and bust economic model. Over the remainder of this decade we expect all sectors of the economy to contribute to growth and employment.”

He is right on this and the Government said much the same over and over again. But it is hard to see any coherent strategy emerging from the Government's numerous reiterations of Jobs and Growth plans and white papers on how broad growth can be delivered. To-date, the Government projected the same policy approach to growth as its predecessor - targeted supports and tax incentives. Not levelling the playing field, getting rid of state inefficiencies, political interference and tax-and-spend redistribution of resources. Note: this is not about redistribution of income. It is about allowing the economy to grow without political meddling and favouritism.

The Spring Statement was not much of a departure from the same. In the statement, the Minister mentions just one 'red line' policy item - the 12.5% corporation tax. Everything else is more of an IOU based on "if - then". Which suggests that this Government has little in terms of new economic growth ideas beyond corporate tax measures.

Mr Noonan said the mistakes that left the country on the verge of bankruptcy in 2010 must never again be repeated. Which begs a question: does Minister Noonan recognise the mistakes, linked to 2010, that this Government also participated in - willingly or not? Banks recapitalisations were carried out in 2011 on foot of 2010 policy decisions. Troika MOU - shaped in 2010 - was implemented by this Government. Bondholders bailouts were completed by the present Government on foot of mistakes made by the previous one.

Minister Noonan also referenced a promise to "give people security around their income and their pensions". But it is very hard to see how this can be achieved, given lack of any serious progress on dealing with legacy debts and the 50:50 split between tax reductions and expenditure increases in Government budgets forward. And on the point of debt, we do have a massive Government debt, now being augmented by the quasi-Government non-Government debt of the likes of Irish Water et al. Remember, expenditure increases do not improve people's incomes and pensions, except for the select few in State employment and contracting. Nor do they improve Government ability to deleverage its own debt.

And on that note, the Department of Finance says little about actual interest rates, but does project relatively benign debt-related costs through 2020. Which might be tad optimistic, given we are currently scraping the bottom of the historical rates barrel. The Department says that "While unlikely in the short term, higher policy-induced interest rates would have a dampening impact on Ireland’s economic activity. Simulations suggest that a 1 percentage point increase in policy interest rates could reduce the level of GDP by almost 2½ percentage points by 2020. This effect is especially pronounced given the large debt overhang. Such a deterioration in the economy would add almost 1 percentage point to the budget deficit by 2020". I know we all 9ok, not 'we' but almost 'all') expect the current interest rates to stay here forever, because, obviously the ECB is not going to raise them any time in the future under the 'new normal' of complete oblivion to the reality. But here's a bad news: current ECB rates are some 300bps below the pre-crisis average. And if we are moving out of crisis, that average is moving closer and closer in time. So for testing that 100 bps rate rise that the DofF did in the Spring Statement: try 300 bps next. And see the whole promise of the golden future go puff in a cloud of smoke.

Moving on through the Statement: it is also hard to spot any serious momentum for pensions reforms that can really be productive in restoring some capability of the private sector workers to secure pensions. The Government has all but abandoned the idea of pensions reforms in the public sector - the biggest drain on pensions resources in the country.

In summary, the Spring Statement is a call to the voters to support the status quo based on the idea that 'our continuity is less painful than opposition's change'. Which, of course, is an equivalent to giving a granny a choice of being mugged by the "Thank you, Mam" lads with school ties or by the rude villains in clowns' wigs. It is a choice. Just not the one many would order on their elections' menu after six years of economic and social bloodletting. 

Irish Times summed this up as "The spring statement can be seen as a political exercise in which Fine Gael and Labour adopt a common fiscal plan for the election campaign to come." (see and my favourite political analyst in this country, summed it up much better: who says: "there was a haunting echo of Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy resonating through the halls of his Department, and with it the emergence of a disturbing - if hardly, at this stage, surprising - sense that in Ireland there is no such thing as a lesson learned, only a lesson observed."

Friday, April 24, 2015

24/4/15: Greek Debt Maturities through 2016

Greek debt maturities out through 2016.

24/4/15: Business Climate: Germany and Euro Area 1Q 2015

The Ifo Business Climate Index for German trade and industry rose to 108.6 points in April from 107.9 points last month based on the latest data. Using historical time series, current reading signals growth in excess of 2%.

However, Q1 2015 was relatively weak for German indicators.

Present situation index for Germany in Q1 2015 was 112.0 against 115.2 a year ago. Expectations for the next 6 months index was 103.9 in Q1 2015 against 106.3 a year ago. Economic Climate index - overall index of activity - in Q1 2015 stood at 107.9 down on 110.6 in Q1 2014.

German performance in Q1 2015 was reflective of a similar trend in the euro area. Euro area present situation index in Q1 2015 was at 117.5 - well below 120.3 recorded in Q1 2014, while 6months forward expectations index was at 109.8 against 119.7 a year ago. Overall, euro area economic climate index finished Q1 2015 at 112.7, which was below 119.9 recorded at the end of Q1 2014.

Unless April reading signals sustained uplift for Q2 2015, things are not exactly exciting.

24/4/15: Migration and Economic Development: CFR Q2 2015

My column for the Cayman Financial Review this quarter covers the issues of economic development and migration: go to page B20-21.

Alternative link, here:

Thursday, April 23, 2015

23/4/15: Why is Investment Weak?

Despite all the QE and accommodative monetary policies, despite all the state funding directed toward new lending supports, and despite unorthodox measures aimed at inducing the banks to lend into the economy, the following took place in the advanced economies over the course of the Great Recession:
1) financing conditions globally have first tightened (during the Global Financial Crisis) and then eased, in majority of the advanced economies reaching the levels of stringency comparable to pr-crisis peak;
2) cost of borrowing fell on pre-crisis levels across all advanced economies with exception of a handful of countries; and
3) investment remains weak.

Want to see the problem illustrated?

Banerjee, Ryan and Kearns, Jonathan and Lombardi, Marco J., (Why) is Investment Weak? (March 2015, BIS Quarterly Review March 2015: ask: What explains this apparent disconnect?

Per authors, "The evidence suggests that, historically, uncertainty about the future state of the economy and expected profits play a key role in driving investment, and financing conditions less so. As a result,
investment after the Great Recession appears to have been broadly in line with what could have been expected based on past relationships. A stronger recovery of investment would seem to depend on a reduction in economic uncertainty and expectations of stronger future growth."

As I argued in the paper on the European Capital Markets Union (CMU) proposal here: - you might think that lack of investment is because markets for credit supply are dysfunctional. But you can also think of the demand side: if there is no growth prospect ahead, why invest in new capacity? And taking the second view, the prescription for solving the problem is: growth. Which requires improved prospects for investors, entrepreneurs, SMEs and, above all else - households.

23/4/15: Ireland 'Crazy Jumping' Stats: Producer Prices March 2015

In the world of 'Crazy Jumping' stats, Ireland is in the league of its own. Reach no further than out to the Irish Producer Prices. In annual terms, factory prices are up 9.5% in March 2015 y/y, almost double the 5.2% rise in the year to February 2015.

What is going on? Oh, currency valuations (prices are up in euros while exports markets are priced in all sorts of stuff) plus MNCs that can freely adjust prices they charge to Irish operations. Thus, "In the year there was an increase of 11.9% in the price index for export sales …and a decrease of 3.3% in respect of the price index for home sales." Basic pharmaceuticals prices (largest contributor to y/y price change) are up 14.5% y/y, Printing and Reproduction of Recorded Media - aka ICT software etc - jumped up 19.5%, Computer, electronic and optical products (second largest contributor to y/y price change) prices up 19%.

And in m/m terms, "the most significant changes were increases in Computer, electronic and optical products (+5.2%), Basic pharmaceutical products and pharmaceutical preparations (+4.6%) and Other food products including bread and confectionery (+2.9%), while there were decreases in Dairy products (-1.0%) and Other Manufacturing including Medical and Dental Instruments and Supplies (-0.2%)."

Now, resurgent Building and Construction industry. Based on factory gate prices things are not exactly surging yet. "All materials prices [for Building and Construction industry] increased by 1.4% in the year since March 2014. The most notable yearly changes were increases in Stone (+14.7%), Hardwood (+12.3%) and Glass (+6.4%), while there were decreases in Other Structural steel (-4.0%), Concrete blocks and bricks (-3.3%) and Ready mixed mortar and concrete (-2.6%)."

So things are booming up in MNCs - predominantly on foot of accounting… err… forex valuations side. And they are slogging up in Building & Construction, and in capital goods side (prices up 1.2% y/y). Domestic economy producers, overall, are deflating, still. 

Meanwhile, "The price of Energy products decreased by 11.3% in the year since March 2014, while Petroleum fuels decreased by 10.7%." Did you notice any of these decreases in your electricity and gas bills? No, me neither.

But all looks rather pretty hyperbolic in growth terms when one uses 'one-closed-eye-on-reality' trick:

23/4/15: Skills and Employment: 1950-2010 Data

A very interesting study, titled "Labor Market Polarization Over the Business Cycle" by
Christopher L. Foote and Richard W. Ryan ( from the Boston Fed postulates that "Job losses during the Great Recession were concentrated among middle-skill workers, the same group that over the long run has suffered the most from automation and international trade." This is what is known as occupational polarisation - the disappearance of mid-range skills and low-end skills jobs and growth in higher skilled occupations.

The study finds "that middle-skill occupations have traditionally been more cyclical than
other occupations, in part because of the volatile industries that tend to employ middle-skill workers. Unemployed middle-skill workers also appear to have few attractive or feasible employment alternatives outside of their skill class, and the drop in male participation rates during the past several decades can be explained in part by an erosion of middle-skill job opportunities."

One hell of a chart illustrating the above across longer time horizon:

Shares of Employment for Four Occupational Groups:

23/4/15: Where the Bad of Deflation Looks Good...

You know the theory of the 'Bad of Deflation' - I wrote about it before... the story goes as follows: if prices fall, and consumers expect them to continue to fall, then rational consumers will withhold their demand, delaying their purchases in anticipation of lower price in the future. The result will be: reduced demand today, lower investment by the firms in future production, lower investment in innovation, stagnation, layoffs, recession... locust... fire balls falling from the skies and pestilence of the kind that only Central Bankers can save us from.

You also know my response to this, especially in the current macroeconomic conditions: falling prices support household real incomes and increase households' ability to finance debt and debt deleveraging, while sustaining at least some semblance of civilised demand.

But don't take my word for this. Here is a handy chart plotting... deflation in the price of hard drives:

It's source is here:

Do let me know if you know of any evidence that demand for hard drives has been 'delayed' by consumers or that innovation has 'stopped' in fear of lower prices/returns by companies, or if you have seen locust swarming around...

23/4/15: Two links to read on Greece today

Two articles worth reading today on Greece:

Meanwhile, here is a reminder, via OpenEurope, of the mountains of debt and liabilities coming due:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

22/4/15: Rosatom back at play in Hungary and Finland

Just about a month a go I wrote about the Euratom rejection of the Russo-Hungarian Paks nuclear reactor deal ( The latest news, however, appear to indicate that someone somewhere in the basement of some Brussels building woke up and smelled the roses.

It looks like Paks deal is back on, though no idea as of yet what is happening with its modalities:

Which means the next step is Finland's Fennovoima: where Russia already put aside USD1 billion for construction of the Hanhikivi NPP (stage 1):

22/4/15: Europe is Japanified

Europe has been Japanified, already, for some years now, including in terms of expectations forward...

Source: Author own calculations based on data from the IMF WEO database, April 2015

End of arguments...

22/4/15: Some morning links on Greek crisis

Greek crisis is accelerating once again, predictably, given the deadlines and debt redemptions looming. So what's worth reading on the subject this am?

Start with @FT's Martin Wolf and his "Mythology that blocks progress in Greece". It is good… as a summary of key myths surrounding Grexit. But...

Myth 1: "A Greek exit would help the eurozone" and Wolf view is that it is not so because with Grexit "euro membership would cease to be irrevocable. Each crisis could trigger destabilising speculation." Now, sort of yes, Martin. But by the same token, is irrevocable - no matter what - euro a good thing? Is it stabilising to know that euro is purely political currency with membership irrespective of economic and financial realities? Is it better for a city to keep town walls shut for doctors in a plague?

Myth 2: "A Greek exit would help Greece". Here Wolf is on the money… again, sort of. "Stable money counts for something, particularly in a mismanaged country." Really? Stable money in a mismanaged economy? Is that possible? Ever heard of real effective exchange rates and internal devaluations? So much for 'stable', then. Would it not be more helpful to devalue both across real and nominal margins, rather than force all pain into internal devaluation channel?

Myth 3: "It is Greece’s fault. Nobody was forced to lend to Greece." Yeah, true… sort-ish… No one was forced, but many were incentivised to lend to Greece, including by idiotic EU (and international) risk-weighting rules on sovereign debt. Wolf is right that in 2010, "Rather than agree to the write-off that was needed, governments (and the International Monetary Fund) decided to bail out the private creditors by refinancing Greece. Thus, began the game of “extend and pretend”. Stupid lenders lose money. That has always been the case. It is still the case today." Which is an argument in favour of a default. Perhaps managed default or as I call it - assisted. But default alone won't do much to correct for internal mispricing of risk and real mispricing in the economy. That requires devaluation, so back to Myth 2 above.

Myth 4: "Greece has done nothing." Agree with Wolf here. Greece has done quite a bit. But I am a bit puzzled: "Indeed, one of the tragedies of the impasse over the conditions for support is that the adjustment has happened. Greece does not need additional resources." Really? Oh, ok, then - if Greece does not need additional resources, soldier on, what's the fuss?

Myth 5: "The Greeks will repay" - Agree with Wolf - this is a sunk cost fallacy. "What is open is whether the Greeks will devote the next few decades to repaying a mountain of loans that should never have been made." This is on the money.

Myth 6: "Default entails a Greek exit." Ok, agree again. But I must add here that if we do have default and no exit, then by Myth 1 analysis by Wolf, the euro will be a currency where "Each crisis could trigger destabilising speculation". You can't have a cake and eat it, Martin.

Now, EUObserver on the European salad dressing - sorry, the meetings schedule for resolving Greek crisis. First there was Friday 24th of April as the deadline, now its May 11th summit that is going to be decisive…  Read and laugh - THIS is Europe. ""What are the 70 percent [of the programme] Greece said were acceptable and the 30 percent acceptable? When we have a firm picture of that, we’ll discuss that. But preconditions for having discussions are not there”." All sounding like a dysfunctional family attempting to deal with an unpayable credit card bill amassed by the live-at-home 'prodigal' son… One note, though - this is about meetings to shore up Greece until June. This is NOT about meetings to shore up Greece for 2016-on. In other words, the entire circus is for bridging things through 2015. Thereafter... ah, well, pass the Kool-aid jug, Roger...

Talking of dysfunctional families, one can't avoid the topic of dead-beat parents… And here rolls in the ECB. "ECB to fund Greek banks as long as they stay solvent - Coeure". Coeure is priceless. Apprently, "The European Central Bank will continue to provide liquidity to Greece's banks as long as they remain solvent and have sufficient collateral, ECB Executive Board Member Benoit Coeure" said. Wait, you mean as long as Greek banks continue to have that which they don't have enough of?

"imposing capital controls was "not a working assumption" for the ECB, while speculation about Greece leaving the euro was "out of the question."" But capital controls already ARE a "working" solution, not just an assumption and the ECB is already looking at cutting back Greek banks access to liquidity supports and Constancio did already say that capital controls can be introduced, which is sort of saying that look, Cyprus does exist.

The best bit of Coeure's statement is this: ""In recent days, there has been tangible progress in the quality of the discussions with the three institutions - the ECB, the European Commission and the IMF - which can be built upon," Coeure said." Tangible metrics of quality… only at ECB.

Meanwhile, more news about ECB considering doing what Coeure says they won't do.

May Greek Gods be with Greece today, for the whole Euro area beehive is buzzing with funny stuff… qualitatively and quantitatively "tangibly"...

Meanwhile, some factuals: Greek debt exposures by countries: and across the official sector:

22/4/15: Three Strikes of the New Financial Regulation – Part 5: European Banking Union

My latest post on Financial Regulations innovations courtesy of the European Union is now available on @learnsignal blog: This one starts coverage of the European Banking Union.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

21/4/15: Greece Heading for the Bust?

With capital controls starting to creep in and with a big peak in debt redemptions looming,  as per chart below, Greece is now entering the last stage of pre-default financial acrobatics.


The country bonds yields are now re-tracing previous peaks (more on this here):

Source: @Schuldensuehner 

And as cash transfers from the local governments to the Central Bank (see link above), plus continued depositors flight are blowing an ever widening hole in Greek balance sheets, the ECB is seriously considering to cut substantially Greek banks access to liquidity.  The cut will have to be along the ELA lines (ELA governing rules are available here). Meanwhile, Greek banks' shares are tanking, down some 50% in month and a half.

Here is the end-of-day chart for Greek banks shares index, showing historical low set today
Source: @Schuldensuehner 

and the opening levels for the same:
Source: @ReutersJamie 

All of which has, as a backdrop, pretty ominous (though entirely correct) ECB talk about the options for Greek default.

This is going to be an eventful day or two, folks.

Update 2: Meanwhile in the mondo bizzaro, the ECB is reportedly looking into dual currency regime for Greece. Which sort of makes sense as a transition out of euro area membership, but makes little sense as a tool for retaining Greece in the Euro. Which, in turn, may or may not be an indicator of ECB going the Ifo way. Go figure...

Update 1: A handy chart summing up ECB's 'headache'

Source: @Schuldensuehner 

And as @Schuldensuehner notes: "Grexit costs rise by the minute" as country Target2 liabilities have reached EUR110.4 billion, "mainly driven by ELA for banks".

Source: @Schuldensuehner 

Greek debt exposures by countries: and across the official sector:

Monday, April 20, 2015

20/4/15: Greece moves in with public sector capital [cash] controls

And... we have first round of [long-expected] capital controls in Greece: Per Bloomberg report, this covers term deposits:

Which means... capital controls and an impact [of unknown magnitude so far] on capital spending and multi-annual spending lines, let alone on current spending.

Update: in response to some questions on the above, here is my view of risks arising from the above move by the Greek Government:

  1. This points to a rather desperate situation in terms of cashflow in Greece. With three payments of maturing debt looming, Greek Government is now clearly and openly signaling lack of cash. As such, this move is a potential precondition to a default, although it is not necessarily a signla of such.
  2. Transfer of cash into CB accounts means that the central authorities can have a more direct control over expenditure by the local authorities, which can have a negative impact on payments of current liabilities (e.g. wages, salaries, bonuses, pensions etc) and on some contracts, including capital expenditure and procurement contracts. Non-payments and payments delays to contractors are likely to rise as well.
  3. Over longer term, such procedures can have adverse impact on local authorities investment plans.
  4. Finally, transfer of cash implies reduction in deposits in the commercial banks which are currently experiencing significant private deposits withdrawals. The net impact is to further destabilise banking sector balance sheets. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

19/4/15: Greece In or Out: Ifo ain't caring much

Ifo Institute calculated euro system-wide losses from Greek default under two scenarios: Greece remains in the Euro and Greece exits the Euro.

In basic terms, there is no difference between the two.

And alongside that, called for the annual settlement of euro system liabilities and higher cost of funding within the central banks system. Which would trigger Greek default literally overnight and probably make Grexit total inevitability. In effect, thus, Ifo - a very influential German think tank - is calling for shutting the lid on Greece, comprehensively, and crystalising losses across the Eurozone and Eurosystem.

19/4/15: Three Strikes of the New Financial Regulation: Part 4 – CMU's Economics

My fourth instalment on the latest policy innovation in Finance in the EU, covering the shaky economics of the Capital Markets Union is available on LearnSignal blog:

19/4/15: Higher Firm Leverage = Lower Firm Employment (and Output)

In a recent briefing note on the Capital Markets Union (CMU) (here:, I wrote that the core problem with private investment in the EU is not the lack of integrated or harmonised investment and debt markets, but the overhang of legacy (pre-crisis) debts.

Here is an interesting CEPR paper confirming the link between higher pre-crisis leverage of the firms and their greater propensity to cut back economic activity during the crisis. This one touches upon unemployment, but unemployment here is a proxy for production, which is, of course, a proxy for investment too.

Xavier Giroud, Holger M Mueller paper "Firm Leverage and Unemployment during the Great Recession" (CEPR  DP10539, April 2015, argues that "firms’ balance sheets were instrumental in the propagation of shocks during the Great Recession. Using establishment-level data, we show that firms that tightened their debt capacity in the run-up (“high-leverage firms”) exhibit a significantly larger decline in employment in response to household demand shocks than firms that freed up debt capacity (“low-leverage firms”). In fact, all of the job losses associated with falling house prices during the Great Recession are concentrated among establishments of high-leverage firms. At the county level, we find that counties with a larger fraction of establishments belonging to high-leverage firms exhibit a significantly larger decline in employment in response to household demand shocks."

In short, more debt/leverage was accumulated in the run up to the crisis, deeper were the supply cuts during the crisis. Again, nothing that existence of a 'genuine' capital markets union or pumping more credit supply (debt/leverage supply) into the system can correct.

19/4/15: Russian Current Account Surplus 1Q 2015

Preliminary data for Russian balance-of-payments for 1Q 2015 shows current account surplus slipping to USD24 billion down to just over 3% of GDP over the 12 months through 1Q 2015.

Exports fell 30% y/y in USD terms, on foot of c. 50% drop in Urals grade oil prices. Value of non-oil goods exports was down 13% and the value of goods imports was down 36% in USD terms.

Effective real exchange rate for the ruble was down about 25% y/y in 1Q 2015.

19/4/15: The costs of deflations: a historical perspective

An interesting article from the BIS on the impact of deflation risks on growth and post-crises recovery. Authored by Borio, Claudio E. V. and Erdem, Magdalena and Filardo, Andrew J. and Hofmann, Boris, and titled "The Costs of Deflations: A Historical Perspective" (BIS Quarterly Review March 2015:, the paper looks at the common concern amongst the policymakers that falling prices of goods and services are very costly in terms of economic growth.

The authors "test the historical link between output growth and deflation in a sample covering 140 years for up to 38 economies. The evidence suggests that this link is weak and derives largely from the Great Depression. But we find a stronger link between output growth and asset price deflations, particularly during postwar property price deflations. We fail to uncover evidence that high debt has so far raised the cost of goods and services price deflations, in so-called debt deflations. The most damaging interaction appears to be between property price deflations and private debt."

But there is much more than this to the paper. So some more colour on the above.

"Concerns about deflation [are] …shaped by the deep-seated view that deflation, regardless of context, is an economic pathology that stands in the way of any sustainable and strong expansion."

Do note that I have been challenging this thesis for some time now, precisely on the grounds of: 1) causality (deflation being caused by weak growth, not the other way around) and 2) link between corporate and household debt and deflation via monetary policy / interest rates channel.

Per authors, "The almost reflexive association of deflation with economic weakness is easily explained. It is rooted in the view that deflation signals an aggregate demand shortfall, which simultaneously pushes down prices, incomes and output. But deflation may also result from increased supply. Examples include improvements in productivity, greater competition in the goods market, or cheaper and more abundant inputs, such as labour or intermediate goods like oil. Supply-driven deflations depress prices while raising incomes and output."

Besides the supply side argument, there is more: "…even if deflation is seen as a cause, rather than a symptom, of economic conditions, its effects are not obvious. On the one hand, deflation can indeed reduce output. Rigid nominal wages may aggravate unemployment. Falling prices raise the real value of debt, undermining borrowers’ balance sheets, both public and private – a prominent concern at present given historically high debt levels. Consumers might delay spending, in anticipation of lower prices. And if interest rates hit the zero lower bound, monetary policy will struggle to encourage spending. On the other hand, deflation may actually boost output. Lower prices increase real incomes and wealth. And they may also make export goods more competitive."

Note: the authors completely ignore the interest cost channel for debt.

Meanwhile, "…while the impact of goods and services price deflations is ambiguous a priori, that of asset price deflations is not. As is widely recognised, asset price deflations erode wealth and collateral values and so undercut demand and output. Yet the strength of that effect is an empirical matter. One problem in assessing the cost of goods and services price deflations is that they often coincide with asset price deflations. It is possible, therefore, to mistakenly attribute to the former the costs induced by the latter."

The BIS paper analysis is "based on a newly constructed data set that spans more than 140 years, from 1870 to 2013, and covers up to 38 economies. In particular, the data include information on both equity and property prices as well as on debt."

The study reaches three broad conclusions:

  • "First, before accounting for the behaviour of asset prices, we find only a weak association between goods and services price deflations and growth; the Great Depression is the main exception."
  • "Second, the link with asset price deflations is stronger and, once these are taken into account, it further weakens the association between goods and services price deflations and growth."
  • "Finally, we find some evidence that high private debt levels have amplified the impact of property price deflations but we detect no similar link with goods and services price deflations." Note: this means that the ECB-targeted deflation (goods and services deflation) is a completely wrong target to aim for in the presence of private debt overhang. Just as I have been arguing for ages now.

Let's give some more focus to the paper findings on debt-deflation links: "Against the background of record high levels of both public and private debt (Graph 7 below), a key concern about the output costs of goods and services price deflation in the current debate is “debt deflation”, ie the interaction of deflation with debt."

"The idea is that, as prices fall, the real debt burden of borrowers increases, inducing spending cutbacks and possibly defaults. This harks back to Fisher (1933), who coined the term.16 Fisher’s concern was with businesses; today the focus is as strong, if not stronger, on households and the public sector. This type of debt deflation should be distinguished from the strains on balance sheets induced by asset price deflations. This interaction has an even longer intellectual tradition and has been prominent in the public debate ever since the re-emergence of financial instability in the 1980s."

Yep, you got it - the entire monetary policy today is based on the ideas tracing back to the 1930s and anchored in the experience that is only partially replicated today. In effect, we are fighting a new disease with false ancient prescriptions for an entirely different disease.

To assess the link between debt and deflation effects on growth, the authors take two measures into account:

  • "One is simply its corresponding debt ratio to GDP." 
  • "The other is a measure of “excess debt”, which should, in principle, be more relevant. We use the deviation of credit from its long-term trend, or the “credit gap” – a variable that in previous work has proved quite useful in signalling future financial distress."

Per authors, "The results point to little evidence in support of the debt deflation hypothesis, and suggest a more damaging interaction of debt with asset prices, especially property prices. Focusing on the cumulative growth performance over five year horizons for simplicity, there is no case where the interaction between the goods and services price peaks and debt is significantly negative. By contrast, we find signs that debt makes property price deflations more costly, at least when interacted with the credit gap measure."

So deflation in asset prices (property bust) is bad when household debt is high. Why?

Per study: "…these results suggest that high debt or a period of excessive debt growth has so far not increased in a visible way the costs of goods and services price deflations. Instead, it seems to have added to the strains that property price deflations in particular impose on balance sheets. …Why could the interaction of debt with asset prices matter and that with goods and services prices not matter, or at least less so? A possible explanation has to do with the size and nature of the corresponding wealth effects. For realistic scenarios, the size of the net wealth losses from asset price deflations can be much larger. Consider, for instance, the 2008 crisis in the United States,... the corresponding losses amounted to roughly $9.1 trillion and $11.3 trillion, respectively. By contrast, a hypothetical deflation of, say, 1% per year over three years would imply an increase in the real value of public and private debt of roughly $1.1 trillion (about $0.4 trillion for households and roughly $0.35 trillion each for the non-financial corporate and public sector). Moreover, the nature of the losses is quite different in the two cases. Asset price deflations represent declines in (at least perceived) aggregate net wealth; by contrast, declines in goods and services prices are mainly re-distributional. For instance, in the case of the public sector, the higher debt burden reflects the increase in the real purchasing power of debt holders."

And herein rests a major omission in the study: following asset (property) busts, accommodative monetary policy leads to a reduced cost of debt servicing for households that suffer simultaneous collapse in their nominal incomes and in their net wealth. This accommodation is deflating the cost of debt being carried. If it is accompanied by goods and services price deflation, such deflation is also boosting purchasing power of reduced nominal incomes. In simple terms, there is virtuous cycle emerging: debt servicing deflation reinforces real incomes support from goods and services deflation.

Now, reverse the two: raise rates and simultaneously hike consumer prices. what do you get?

  1. Debt servicing costs rise, disposable income left for consumption and investment falls;
  2. Inflation in goods and services reduces purchasing power of the already diminished income.

Any idea how this scenario (being pursued by the likes of the ECB) going to help the economy? I have none.

19/4/15: New Evidence: Ambiguity Aversion is the Exception

A fascinating behavioural economics study on ambiguity aversion by Kocher, Martin G. and Lahno, Amrei Marie and Trautmann, Stefan, titled "Ambiguity Aversion is the Exception" (March 31, 2015, CESifo Working Paper Series No. 5261: provides empirical testing of ambiguity aversion hypothesis.

Note: my comments within quotes are in bracketed italics

When an agent makes a decision in the presence of uncertainty, "risky prospects with known probabilities are often distinguished from ambiguous prospects with unknown or uncertain probabilities… [in economics literature] it is typically assumed that people dislike ambiguity in addition to a potential dislike of risk, and that they adjust their behavior in favor of known-probability risks, even at significant costs."

In other words, there is a paradoxical pattern in behaviour commonly hypothesised: suppose an agent is facing a choice between a gamble with known probabilities (uncertain, but not ambiguous) that has low expected return and a gamble with unknown (ambiguous) probabilities that has high expected return. In basic terms, ambiguity aversion implies that an agent will tend to opt to select the first choice, even if this choice is sub-optimal, in standard risk aversion setting.

As authors note, "A large literature has studied the consequences of such ambiguity aversion for decision making in the presence of uncertainty. Building on decision theories that assume ambiguity aversion, this literature shows that ambiguity can account for empirically observed violations of expected utility based theories (“anomalies”)."

"These and many other theoretical contributions presume a universally negative attitude toward ambiguity. Such an assumption seems, at first sight, descriptively justified on the basis of a large experimental literature… However, …the predominance of ambiguity aversion in experimental findings might be due to a narrow focus on the domain of moderate likelihood gains… While fear of a bad unknown probability might prevail in this domain [of choices with low or marginal gains], people might be more optimistic in other domains [for example if faced with much greater payoffs or risks, or when choices between strategies are more complex], hoping for ambiguity to offer better odds than a known-risk alternative."

So the authors then set out to look at the evidence for ambiguity aversion "in different likelihood ranges and in the gain domain, the loss domain, and with mixed outcomes, i.e. where both gains and losses may be incurred. …Our between-subjects design with more than 500 experimental participants exposes participants to exactly one of the four domains, reducing any contrast effects that may affect the preferences in the laboratory context."

Core conclusion: "Ambiguity aversion is the exception, not the rule. We replicate the finding of ambiguity aversion for moderate likelihood gains in the classic However, once we move away from the gain domain or from the [binary] choice to more [complex set of choices], thus introducing lower likelihoods, we observe either ambiguity neutrality or even ambiguity seeking behavior. These results are robust to the elicitation procedure."

So is ambiguity hypothesis dead? Not really. "Our rejection of universal ambiguity aversion does not generally contradict ambiguity models, but it has important implications for the assumptions in applied models that use ambiguity attitudes to explain real-world phenomena. Theoretical analyses should not only consider the effects of ambiguity aversion, but also potential implications of ambiguity loving for economics and finance, particularly in contexts that involve rare events or perceived losses such as with insurance or investments. Policy implications should always be fine-tuned to the specific domain, because policy interventions based on wrong assumptions regarding the ambiguity attitudes of those targeted by the policy could be detrimental."

Saturday, April 18, 2015

18/4/15: Escaping the Middle Income Trap: Historical Evidence and China's Chances

A very interesting paper from the Asian Development Bank Institute on the topic of the middle income trap (see below) and the debate as to whether China can escape one.

Full paper is available here:

In basic terms, when the economy starts at lower income levels, this usually involves increasing productivity in agriculture - often a dominant sector in a lower income economy - which frees surplus labour and makes it available to industrial activities and services. As manufacturing and industrialisation rise, the economy moves into middle income category.

When surplus labour from agriculture moves into manufacturing, its productivity is low, so naturally, the emerging middle income economies are focused on low wage, low productivity and low value-added manufacturing. As income rises toward middle-income levels, wages also rise. In order to continue growing, the economy requires either to increase quantity of inputs (capital and labour) - a pattern of development known as extensive margin, or it needs to increase quality of its economy activity, raise the value added by workers and capital used - a pattern of development known as the intensive margin.

The problem is that for an economy with relatively fixed (in the short run) workforce, attempting to continue growing on the extensive margin is simply impossible. Instead, the economy needs to switch - at some point - toward producing better quality and higher value-added output.

As the authors remind us, this "requires a shift in the types of products that it makes (shirts to computers), in the value or sophistication of those goods (low quality shoes to designer shoes), and/or in the value-added contribution to end products (electronics assembly to chip manufacturing)… These shifts require increases in the sophistication of technology, an educated workforce, and changes in work organization and motivation."

The authors thus investigate "the situation of middle-income economies around the world. Since 1965, only 18 economies with a population of more than 3 million and not dependent on oil exports have made the transition to being high income. Many more have not been able to move beyond the middle-income stage." In simple terms, the authors confirm existence of a significant middle income trap.

By testing "differences between two groups of economies across a range of growth and development variables", the authors find that "middle-income economies are particularly weak in the following areas: governance, infrastructure, savings and investment, inequality, and quality — but not quantity — of education." In other words, to shift from extensive margin growth to intensive margin growth you need serious institutional, communications and social capital.

With this in mind, the authors then turn to China. "While the size of its economy is large, the PRC is still a developing country with a modest per capita income. Only in the late 1990s did it graduate from low- to middle-income status. As it continues to expand, increasing attention is now focused on whether it will become a high-income country like several of its neighbors in Northeast Asia or, instead, whether it will suffer the fate of Latin America and
Southeast Asia by remaining at the middle-income level of development for decades."

Interestingly, the authors find that China "…already has many of the characteristics of a high income country, the key exceptions being governance and possibly inequality." The best way to look at the paper results relating to China is presented in Table 23, where the authors "developed a ranking system based on the medians" for all the drivers that were found to be significant in helping countries escape the middle income trap. "For each
variable, the economy received three points for being above the median, two points for
being below the median but above the median of the median, and one point for being
below the median of the median. The results were summed and divided by the number
of variables for which there were data for each economy."

The result is below (partial table)

The core conclusion is that China does indeed appear to rank well in terms of key drivers necessary for escaping the middle income trap. Should it continue gaining in the near future in terms of all these factors at the same rate as it has been gaining in the past, China will join the club of the rich nations, not only because of the scale of its economy and population, but also because of the average or median per capita incomes.

18/4/15: Fitch Postpones Russian Ratings Review on Improved Data

As noted yesterday, both Fitch and S&P came out with (well, sort of came out in Fitch case) updated ratings for Russia. I covered S&P ratings here:

Now onto Fitch.

According to the Russian Finance Minister, Anton Siluanov, Fitch postponed formal ratings review and held Russian ratings at BBB- - just a notch above junk grade. Fitch, thus, retains the only non-junk rating for Russia amongst the Big 3 agencies, with S&P at BB+ and Moody's at Ba1. According to Siluanov, the postponement reflects improved data outlook for the Russian economy.

Fitch was the first of the Big 3 to cut Russia’s rating back on January 9 (see Since then, Russian eurobond issue, maturing 2030 posted a 13 percent plus rise. In part, this reflects firming up of the ruble, and to a larger extent - the unprecedented levels of liquidity flowing into sovereign bonds markets worldwide. But in part, improved yields are also reflective of adjusting expectations concerning Russian economy. For example, alongside their February downgrade, Moody's estimated Russian capital outflows for 205-2016 at USD400 billion and Russian GDP was forecast to fall by 8.5%. Current consensus in the markets is that outflows will be closer to USD150-170 billion (on expected debt maturities) and the economy is likely to contract by closer to 4-4.5%.

Capital outflows figures stabilisation has been rather significant, especially given the level of debt redemptions in 1Q 2015 (see here: In 1Q 2015, estimated outflows totalled just USD32.6 billion, compared to USD77.4 billion in 4Q 2014 and with USD48 billion outflows in 1Q 2014. While banks continued to deleverage, non-financial sector was able to roll over much of maturing debt and were repatriating assets into Russia. The net result was inflow of forex into the Ruble market.

Deleveraging in the Russian economy is going at a breakneck pace: in mid-2014 Russian external debt (over 90% accounted for by private sector) stood at just over USD730 billion. By the end of 1Q 2015 estimated external debt has fallen to USD560 billion, implying net debt reductions of USD170 billion over the span of 9 months, well above my earlier estimate of net repayment of USD96.5 billion that excluded Ruble devaluation effects. The USD170 billion estimate includes devaluation of the Ruble and roll-overs when these involved conversion from forex-denominated inter-company loans and equity into Ruble-denominated ones. It is worth remembering that roughly 1/4 of Russian external debt is denominated in Rubles.

When it comes to sovereign ratings, it is also worth remembering that Russian public sector external liabilities amount to less than 10 percent of the total external debt.

Overall, Fitch decision to hold Russian ratings under review is a reflection of the recent improvements in the economic outlook, but also the fragile and early nature of these. As I noted on numerous occasions before, the situation is fragile and the risks to the downside are prominent, so Fitch's more cautious approach to ratings is probably better justified by the current environment.

Friday, April 17, 2015

17/4/15: Conservative to a Surprising Degree: S&P Russia Ratings

Two ratings agencies updated their ratings for Russia today. Here are some highlights:

S&P first (Fitch later, so stay tuned):

S&P kept Russia’s foreign-currency credit rating at BB+ or one step below investment grade with negative outlook. ""We are affirming our 'BB+/B' long- and short-term foreign currency ratings and our 'BBB-/A-3' long- and short-term local currency ratings on Russia".

The agency claimed that Russian policy makers are struggling to boost growth and the country financial system risks are increasing due to continued external funding drought caused by the sanctions. Per S&P statement, “Our base case assumes that the sanctions on Russia will remain in place over the forecast horizon, absent a resolution of the conflict in Ukraine.”

S&P first pushed Russian ratings below investment grade on January 26, based on the adverse impact of lower oil prices and ongoing sanctions.

The rating came in as expected, though negative outlook might be a touch gloomy for some observers. The reason is that since January, Ruble gained significant ground in value, while capital outflows projections for 2015 improved (in 2014 Russia experienced capital outflows of USD154 billion, and 2015 latest forecast is for outflows of USD90 billion). Ruble trade at 68.0 to USD back on the day of S&P previous decision, today it is around 52 mark. Growth outlook is stabilising, albeit remains highly challenging. Inflation is matching S&P previous expectations, but against lower CBR rates. Ukrainian conflict drags on, for sure, but there is at least a fragile pause in place and if in January new sanctions were looming, today there appears to be no momentum for their introduction. Finally, oil was at around USD48 pb then, at USD55 pb now. Russian authorities have said this week that they may return to foreign borrowing markets in 2016, while expectation in January was that the earliest date we might see Russian issuance in international markets is 2017.

On the higher risks side, March consumer demand appears to have worsened despite improved Ruble exchange rate as preliminary retail sales data shows a 8.7% drop y/y and consumer sentiment index down 14 percentage points on Q4 2014. Economy is expected to post a contraction of 2-4 percent in 1Q 2015. Preliminary data suggests investment declined 5.3% y/y and industrial production is down 0.6%. Inflation is running at 16.8% annualised rate, but that is, actually, a slowdown from over 18% earlier this year.

Still, at 2-4 percent, things in 1Q 2015 are not as bad, and certainly not worse, that full year consensus forecast of 4.1 percent this year. And capital outflows eased significantly in 1Q 2015 to USD32.6 billion from USD77.4 billion in 4Q 2014.

So it is a mixed bag, but crucially, the economy is performing close to previous expectations, with no significant downside surprise between January and today. Which means that it is rather unclear which part of expectations forward warrants 'negative' outlook, given there is already a 'negative' outlook reflected in the affirmed ratings?

S&P tries to explain: “The outlook remains negative, reflecting our view that we could downgrade Russia if external and fiscal buffers deteriorate over the next 12 months faster than we currently expect. We could also lower the ratings if Russia’s monetary policy flexibility were to diminish further.”

But contrasting this, is S&P own outlook published in recent weeks covering key sectors and economic activity. In April 13 note, S&P estimated that 5 largest Russian banking groups have lost USD4-5 billion in 2014 (ca 20-25% of their aggregate operating income) due to their exposure to Ukrainian assets. But forward outlook is not exactly any worse, as S&P said that 2015 losses from the same can be about the same. More significantly, S&P said that they "…estimate that Russian banking groups face aggregated Ukraine-related risks of less than 3% of their aggregated assets…. We nevertheless believe that Russian banks can withstand such costs, and that there will therefore be no rating impact for rated Russian financial groups."

And more. On April 7th, S&P itself upgraded outlook for the Russian economy: S&P own forecasts now expect 2016 growth of 1.9% (as opposed to 0.5% consensus forecasts) and a recession of 2.7% in 2015, as opposed to January 2015 forecast of 0.5% growth in 2015 and zero percent growth in 2016 and against the consensus forecasts cited above.

S&P is not the only research outfit upgrading Russian growth forecasts: JPMorgan revised recently its 2015 forecast from -5% to -4%. Russian official forecasts are also 'stabilising': Ministry of Economic Development forecasts +2.3% for 2016 and +2.5% over 2017 and 2018. CBR forecasts a drop of 3.5–4% in 2015 and growth of +1–1.6% in 2016, rising to 5.5–6.3% in 2017.

The bizarre nature of ratings agencies analysis - including inherent own-contradictions and lags - is one of the reasons why the CBR recently said they are considering gradually abandoning Big 3 agencies ratings for the country banking sector. The move would involve developing internal ratings system and, potentially, relying on other agencies in the mix.

Conclusion: altogether S&P latest ratings make some, but very limited sense and are conservative. So let them be. Russian bonds have been rallying recently and as long as oil stays firm-ish and Ruble does not experience another run, this rally will continue in the medium term. Any adverse repricing of bonds on foot of today's S&P action (and potential downgrade by Fitch) can actually create opportunities for distressed debt buyers, which will firm up prices again. Globally, there is too much money chasing too few bonds, so spike in yields in the short run can be seen by some speculators as an opportunity to pile into Russian paper. 

(Please, do not confuse this with an investment advice, as usual, for I do not do that sort of thing).

17/4/15: Pies in the skies & Irish exports: Jan-Feb 2015

Some interesting numbers on trade in goods for Ireland. As you know, I usually update these series on a quarterly basis - in part due to data volatility, in part due to lack of time. But there is something interesting afoot in the data, so here it is for the first two months of 2015 - subject to future verification of any trend.

Total imports of goods stood at EUR4.563 billion in February 2015, up 11.9% year-on-year, having risen 5.1% y/y in January. This means imports over the first two months of 2015 are up 8.3% y/y. February annual rate of growth in imports was the highest in 9 months.

Meanwhile, exports of goods and services shot to EUR7.937 billion in February, up 16.9% y/y, having posted an increase of 14.2% in January. Again, over the first two months of 2015, exports rose 15.5% y/y.

Trade balance at the end of February stood at EUR3.374 billion, up 24.3% y/y, after posting a 31.4% rise in January. Over January-February 2015, cumulated trade balance is up a whooping 27.7% y/y, and for the December-February 3 months period it is up 31.7% y/y.

These are bizarre and, frankly, unbelievable numbers. Last time we have seen this level of volatility in trade balance to the upside was in August 2012 (for one month only and then, nothing comparable to 41.1% y/y increase registered in December, 31.4% rise in January and 24.3% rise in February).

So something is brewing in the external trade stats. Last year, we had a runaway performance in the National Accounts-registered external trade numbers without having a corresponding rise in the customs reported figures, which was down to 'contract manufacturing' scheme (or whatever you want to call this accounting trick). This time around, either the said scheme is now also polluting our customs trade data or something new is afoot.

The 'new' bit appears to be the 'old' bit - look at the sources of growth in our trade:

and in our trade balance:

In simple terms, ex-Chemicals (pharma), our exports since the start of 2009. Pharma / Chemicals exports are up. Our trade balance in goods, ex-Chemicals is negative. That is right - negative (some 'exporting nation' we are) and pharma trade surplus is vast and on the rise again.

Let's take a slightly more detailed decomposition of movements in trade volumes, cumulated over the last 3 months (December 2014 - February 2015). What do we have?

  • Imports of all goods ex-chemical sectors rose 6 percent year on year, or EUR561mln. Exports of same rose 8 percent or EUR683.6 million. So trade deficit here shrunk by EUR122 million y/y - a good result, but accounting for only 5 percent of the entire gain in trade surplus over the same period across the economy.
  • Imports of chemicals and related products (pharma in broad sense) were up EUR423.4mln or 16% y/y, but exports of same rose EUR2.592 billion or 22% y/y. Trade balance here rose by EUR2.169 billion.
  • So 95% of the trade balance gains in December- February 2015 was down to the category known as Chemicals and related products, n.e.s. (5) and only 5% of the gains were down to the rest of the entire goods-related economy.

And guess what: the 'old' news is truly 'old': the ratio of exports to imports in the economy excluding chemicals sector is falling - steadily, since at least 1995. Meanwhile, the ratio of exports to imports in the chemicals sector, having fallen on foot of patent cliff in 2009-2013 is now rising once again since Q1 2014. Purely as a coincidence, Q1 2014 is when the bogus exports from the 'contract manufacturing' schemes started showing up in the official national accounts data.

Incidentally, the above also explains the miracle of Irish productivity - the massive 'improvements' of which in recent years is nothing more than a pharma (and few other MNCs-dominated sectors, some not included in the goods data and polluting our services data instead) rebalancing into new tax optimisation schemes, post-patent ones.

Welcome to the land where sand castles are sold to visitors as 'de real ting' and pies in the skies are served for desert...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

16/4/15: Newsweek on Russian Economic Recovery

An interesting piece on not-so-tanking Russian economy:

The key point is the same I have been repeating throughout my earlier notes: imports substitution.

The only problem is that absent investment, imports substitution is reversible. To make it sustainable, Russia needs reforms and investment. And the two are in short supply, still.

15/4/15: Official Sector Exposures to Greece

As Greek crisis enters a new turn of the spiral, here are full official sector exposures to Greece by country:
Source: @FGoria 

16/4/15: QE and Negative Rates: It's So Good, It Hurts...

Here is an unedited version of my article for Manning Financial on the upcoming pain in the global markets from the Central Banks activism.

With spring sunshine, the glowing warmth of the overheating bonds markets is bringing about the scent of optimism to the macro-analysts' desks. On March 19th, the NTMA issued EUR500 million worth of 6mo notes with a yield of -0.01%. With a few strokes of the 'buy' keys, the markets welcomed Ireland to the ever-expanding club of nations that enjoy the privilege of being paid to borrow from private investors.

In a way, this is the story of Ireland's recovery distilled to a singular event: with the Government borrowing costs at their historical lows, the memory of the recent crises is fading fast from the pages of our newspapers. Alas, the drivers of this recovery are illusory. All are temporary, none are structural or sustainable, in the long run. In fact, the current markets reprieve is concealing the real dangers for domestic investors – dangers of new asset bubbles and potential future losses.

Take a look at the euro area sovereigns at large.

After years of austerity, 2015 is shaping up to be a year of broadly-speaking neutral public spending. In other words, as the euro area Governments' debt remains sky high, public deficits are unlikely to shrink by any appreciable amount. Why bother with reforms, when you can be paid by the markets to borrow? Aptly, as the chart below shows, European economic policy uncertainty remains at crisis period averages, well above the safety range of pre-crisis years.

European Policy Uncertainty Index  (including period averages confidence intervals)

Source: data from

Although the Government is usually quick to claim credit for the massive improvements in Irish yields, in reality, Dublin has little to do with these. At every point from Q3 2011 through today, large scale declines in the Government cost of borrowing came courtesy of the ECB. The latest gains are no exception: the ECB has just launched a sizeable bonds-buying programme and with it, the quantum of negative yield debt in the global markets has gone from roughly USD3.6 trillion in January to USD4.2 trillion by mid-March. As of now, 19 percent of the Global Bond Index-listed debt is trading in negative rates territory.

This, by far, represents the largest long term challenge for investors and the greatest risk to the global economies. Expansionary monetary policy pursued by the central banks around the world, including the ECB aims to push up economic growth and reduce the risks of deflation. It also attempts to repair the monetary policy transmission mechanism: that cheap ECB-supplied liquidity is being lent by the banks to companies and households in the forms of new credit.


However, from the investors’ perspective, this monetary activism can end up backfiring. For a number of reasons.

Firstly, as shown in Chart 2 below, monetary policy-driven credit expansion is propelling stock markets and debt markets valuations to all-time highs across the advanced economies with absolutely no tangible connection to real fundamentals, such as growth in economic activity, household incomes, employment, and even capital investment. By the very definition of the financial bubbles, current monetary policies activism is inflating returns expectations unanchored in reality.

Secondly, monetary expansion means that households and firms struggling with debt are given a short-run reprieve from facing the true costs of their borrowings. But the day of reckoning awaits in the future. This means that households and corporates are likely to continue engaging in precautionary savings even as the Central Banks drop rates and bonds markets bid the cost of issuing debt down. Meanwhile, households and companies with low debt exposures are likely to save more to offset declines in their returns on deposits. Taken together, these factors are likely to further suppress domestic demand, while setting us up for a major crisis once the cost of debt starts rising in the future.

Thirdly, negative yields are, like all bubble-generating factors, self-reinforcing in their nature. With central banks increasingly charging commercial banks for deposits, banks prefer buying bonds even in the presence of the negative yields. This means that negative policy rates are reinforcing the dysfunctional monetary mechanism, locking in more liquidity into government bonds and driving yields on government paper further down. The resulting increases in bonds prices incentivise commercial banks to gamble on future capital gains by buying even more bonds. This spiral of demand for government debt depresses banks future profitability as investors bid bonds prices up and loads more risk of significant future losses that will materialise once QE policies begin to unwind.

Another pesky side effect of this is the banking sector stability. Negative interest rates on Central Bank deposits lead to lower deposit rates for banks' customers. Banking sector loans-to-deposits ratios rise, making banks more dependent on the shadow banking system for funding and more levered. Interestingly, in the U.S. at least one large bank, J.P. Morgan has already announced that it will be charging customers for large deposits up to 5.5 percent annual fee.

Fourthly, negative rates and yields are increasing the probability of monetary policy misfires - a scenario where one or several Central Banks around the world can tighten policy too fast and/or too early, completely derailing economic recovery. This problem is global and contagious. Investment grade government bonds are effectively substitutes for each other in majority of investment portfolios. As the result, negative yields in the euro area today are keeping yields low in other advanced economies. This is already causing discomfort in the U.S. where dollar rise relative to other currencies is being driven by a combination of two factors: the expected mismatch between U.S. and euro area policy rates, and investors' fear of Fed policy errors over the next 3-6 months.

Fifthly, the demand for negative yield bonds appears to be setting the unsuspecting investors for a fall. In a recent research note, the investment bank Jefferies discovered that much of the demand for such paper comes from indexed funds. Investors in these extremely popular funds simply have no idea that the strategy the funds pursue is not designed for the world where top-rated bonds are paying negative yields. And as funds start posting losses, the same investors are likely to rush for safety into other asset classes – namely equity. Yet, with equities already at historical highs, the safety-minded investors will be left with buying even more assets at bubble valuations.

Sixthly, negative yields on Government bonds are a disaster waiting to happen for insurance, asset management and pension sector as they create huge risks at the heart of these companies long-term investment portfolios. As insurance companies and pensions funds chase the yield, premia will have to rise, risks embedded in pensions portfolios will jump and returns on longer term contracts will fall. As the result, some financial analysts are warning of not only economic, but also political consequences of the monetary policy activism.

The bankers' regulatory body, the Bank for International Settlements is not amused. In a recent statement, Claudio Borio, the head of the BIS monetary and economic department said it is simply impossible to tell how investors, consumers, voters and the governments are going to react to the negative yields and interest rates. "…technical, economic, legal and even political boundaries may well be tested. The consequences should be watched closely, as the repercussions are bound to be significant, on the financial system and beyond," Mr Borio said.


From Irish investors point of view, the risks arising from the euro area negative rates and yields environment are significant.

In a study published in 2005 (, BIS researchers found asset price busts, especially those associated with large property markets adjustments, to have much more painful economic impacts than deflation. The study covered all advanced economies over the period from 1873 through 2004 and included analysis of deflation effects on Government debt and growth. The same results were on firmed by another BIS study published earlier this year (

Global Markets, Irish Problems

Source: Author own calculations based on data from CSO, Central Bank of Ireland and Bloomberg

As of today (see Chart 2), Ireland is still experiencing property prices that are 38 percent below the pre-crisis peak (in Dublin 39 percent), private debt that is, once controlled for sales of mortgages, and Nama and bank loans to non-banking investors, stuck around mid-2005 levels, and growth predominantly driven by the multinational corporations' tax optimisation strategies. In this environment, negative rates are masking the extent of the problems still present in the economy, while euro devaluation, coupled with exports growth concentration in the MNCs-led sectors, are creating a false impression of improved productivity and competitiveness.

For domestic investors, this means that both equity, corporate and government debt markets  in Ireland and across the euro area are simply out of touch with macroeconomic reality on the ground. The global Central Banks-led policies are pushing our traditional investment and pensions portfolios into the high risks, low returns corner, commonly associated with financial assets bubbles. While some speculative exposure to the US and Emerging Markets assets is always welcome, the bulk of investment allocation today should be focused on conservative view of key risks presented by the negative rates and yields environment. Tax planning, portfolio cost minimisation, low gearing and high liquidity of investment allocations should take priority over pursuit of short term yields and capital gains.