Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Daily Economics Update 24/03/2009


I tried to resist commenting too much on Brian Cowen's remarks today concerning the extended borrowing he envisions for Ireland Inc in 2009. I tried, but this is simply an extraordinary statement from a person who is
  • either clearly not capable of thinking straight in the crisis or
  • from a politician, so cynical and obsessed with self-preservation that he is willing to preemptively surrender this nation's hope for economic survival in order to throw another bone to his political cronies.
Either way, Cowen today has managed to achieve nearly impossible in virtually a single breath:
  • Putting Ireland closer to fiscal insolvency - by enhancing the (already significant) uncertainty as to how much he will borrow in 2009 (and through 2013) and on which terms (will Ireland be forced to continue borrowing short, front loading 2011-2013 deficits to finance Brian's 'Partners' today?);
  • Destroying his own reputation by telling the world that he cannot be trusted on any of his future policy pronouncements (undoing his own pre-commitment to keep the deficit under 10% he stated that no budgetary projection, including yet to be published mini-Budget, from this Government can be trusted);
  • Showing that this Government will flip flop not only on soft targets (e.g promises not to tax us to death), but also on hard ones (including his commitments to the EMU);
  • Destroying whatever hopes the ECB and the EU Commission might have had that this Government can be a responsible participant in the EMU;
  • Forcing the bonds markets into a situation where, from now on, no pricing of Irish debt paper can be conducted on a basis of rational valuation.
Only 3 weeks ago, Cowen was fully committed to keeping 2009 borrowing under 9.5% of GDP. He is now telling the world that this was all a matter for him to change his mind over. Perhaps the only reason for such an extraordinary statement I can think of is that possibly (I am speculating here), Cowen saw preliminary figures from the Exchequer revenue for March. Even then, there has to be a real 'nuke' in these figures to justify such a public humiliation of this economy in the eyes of the developed world.

Cowen said in his address that he is not willing to sacrifice the real economy on the altar of public finances. Coming from him, this is rich. Cowen and his Government
  • raised taxes in October 2008 and again in December 2008, and is going to raise them in April - 3 times in 7 months - amidst the wholesale collapse of the real economy (incidentally, these tax hikes were necessitated by the decisions on run-away train of public current expenditure growth that he adopted during his tenure as the Minister for Finance);
  • raised VAT and other taxes directly impacting businesses, employment and public economic welfare, as his incompetent Minister for Enterprise sat silently beside him;
  • raised levies, taxes and charges on all workers, including those who lost their jobs and then cynically turned around to wage an oratorical crusade about 'equality' and 'shared pain';
  • paid public sector wage increases and then clawed some of these back, posturing as if a heroic leader who broke the mold 'to do the right thing';
  • got in bed with trade unions in the Summer 2008 to produce a partnership agreement that committed the private sector taxpayers to servitude to public sector wage demands;
  • once again cowardly moved into the new Partnership Talks last night as an excuse to surrender his policy making authority;
  • presided over a largely failed set of actions on the banks that shored up (temporarily) Irish Developers Country Club at the expense of the real economy;
  • watched idly as the real economy was falling off the cliff between June 2008 and October 2008;
  • made wild promises of reforms and productivity enhancements in the public sector and delivered none;
  • blamed everyone - from Americans to the World - for our economic ills, but not a single time managed to tell the nation that he is sorry for serial errors of judgment his Government committed in only 9 months in power;
  • appointed the most incompetent person imaginable to run the key ministry in charge of our real economy (and no, I do not mean DofF here); and now
  • turned our entire budgeting process into a public farce...
This is really rich!

Richard Brutton put it perfectly when he said today that “The spectacle of a Government thrashing around, unable to set any clear framework for a Budget that is just two weeks away is damaging our international reputation. It is damaging the confidence of markets from whom we hope to borrow €24 billion this year... This Government is destroying its authority to provide ...leadership.”

May I add that it is also destroying the real economy - the same one that Brian Cowen claims to be protecting.


March McKinsey survey of economic conditions is out today, showing that "the percentage of the executives who say economic conditions have gotten worse at the national level hasn’t increased, but fewer than a third expect an upturn this year... 53 percent expect profits to drop in the first half of 2009, and the number expecting to shed workers has jumped eight percentage points in six weeks." Companies that are thought of as being well managed in the downturn are likelier:
  • to be reducing both operating costs and capital spending,
  • not weakening operations a great deal, and
  • "are also likelier than others to be improving productivity".
Here is an interesting one: "overall, the results show that most companies are not actively seeking more cash." So there is no significant demand for credit, then? As I've been saying all along, it is hard to imagine that during the extreme hangover period following the leveraging binge that the corporates have embarked upon in the mid-2000s there will be strong demand for new credit.


Existent sales up, prices up and now new home sales are up as well - what is the world (ok, the US) is turning into? Well, not anything resembling of a bull market, at least not yet. Per data released today, new homes sales were up 4.7% in February relative to the record low (since 1963) reached in January, but sales are still down 43.8% compared to February 2008. I worry that this is not a floor yet, but a slight bounce before further falls. Even if the current level signals an upturn in sales, things are bound to remain testing for a while, as inventory overhang remains enormous. A 2.9% fall in inventories of unsold homes in February still leaves 12.2-months worth of stuff unsold - up full 3 months on February 2008.

But there is more noisy data coming out today - there was an unexpected and a welcome rise in orders for durable goods - the first increase after six-straight-monthly declines. Offsetting the gain in February somewhat was a sharp downward revision to orders in January (from -4.5% in preliminary estimate, to -7.3% decline).

The best piece of analysis on this is on Bloomberg (here). In my own view - setting aside defense spending and consumer stuff - the gains are reflective most likely of amortization cycle (replacement of capital goods delayed during the previous 15 months) than due to capital inventories build up. There is also a strong 'noise' component to the rebound - given the precipitous fall in orders in Q4 2008, when durable goods orders fell at a rate not seen since the late 1950s.

The fact that we are seeing all this volatility in economic series away from the unrelenting downward trend is a good signal. In my view, as I said before, this is a sign that the markets are now seriously testing the floor of this recession. In other words, I now expect similar modest gains in some parameters and stabilization of other parameters through May, followed by the first positive gains in the capital spending and declines in new unemployment claims in June-August. This will put the US economy onto recovery path by mid-Q3-early-Q4.


Anonymous said...

Very well put regarding Cowen's credibility. Last night on the News Brian Lenihan cautioned the opposition to be careful about what they say since the world was watching.

It is clear that FF are well capable of destroying this nations credibility without resorting to an anti democratic musseling of the opposition.

Anonymous said...

Another reason could be due to the prolonged negotiation within the cabinet in the last few weeks. He has realized the cuts cannot be politically achieved and the burden must be shifted to borrowing.

Anonymous said...

It looks like it is now time to give this "government" the boot. The stark reality is that they don't know how to get us out of this hole and the more they meddle the deeper the hole seems to get. At this stage an intervention by the IMF/EU to take control of policy would be surely better than this pathetic kowtowing to vested interests. It looks like those on the inside can't possibly fix the mess they have made.