Thursday, May 7, 2009

Economics 08/05/2009: ECB - a bark, but no bite..., Obama's Frying Pen for Ireland

ECB's latest rate cut has a bark, but little real bit...

As we all know by now - the ECB has cut the rate by 25bps to a 'historic' low of 1%. The word 'historic' is suppose to impress us, yet it does not - the US rates are at zero, UK at 0.5%, Japan at 0.1%, Canada at 0.25% and these countries have seen significant devaluations vis-a-vis the Euro and quantitative easing...

Some say - this is the seventh reduction in seven months. "Geez Louise!", as Woody Allen would say. It would have been better if they were to cut the rate once - seven months ago - to 1.25% and not pretend to be 'conservative'. More medicine quickly is what gets the sick back on their feet. Drip-feeding vitamins to a dying patient is not going to do much good. And hence, I am not impressed by today's cut.

More significant was the statement that the ECB delivered alongside the decision. This is worth to be discussed on several fronts:

1) It suggests (and Trichet hinted at the same) that the forthcoming growth data for Q1 2009 is going to be poor. Does ECB know something we don't? My forecast (see April 24 post) was for 1.1% decline - monthly. So quarterly decline of ca 3.3% or more than double on Q4 2008 (-1.6%). Can it be worse? Yes, it can - Germany is forecast to fall 5.6% in 2009, with most of the falling to be done in Q1-Q2 2009. My gut feeling is that no matter what the fall off in Q1 can be (and we will know today), we are now in a 3.5-4% decline territory for Q2 as well. Hold on to your seats, because if this is the case, ECB's posturing that we are at the end of the cuts cycle is a fantasy. Expect a cut to 0.75% in June-July. Why? Because if H1 contraction were to be in a 4-5% territory, we are going to post a similarly deep contraction for the whole year. And that would warrant serious intervention.

So on the net, I must revise my forecast - yet to be quantitatively confirmed (which I will do tomorrow once the Q1 figures are in) - downward, and my feeling is that the full year 2009 figure is now shaping to look like a 4-4.5% fall in the eurozone.

2)Trichet had to mention the 'tentative signs of stabilization' in the economy. Presuming he was not talking about the US, the phrase reflects lack of agreement within the council as to what is taking place in the real economy. This is good news for us, analysts, since we now are no longer alone in not knowing what is going on, but it is bad for the markets. Uncertainty is something that usually spurs the Fed to act, and ECB to stall. Hence, I suspect we will see a month-long pause before another 25bps cut is enacted. Remember, the patient - the euro area economy - is still in ICU...

3)Whether you call it quantitative easing or not, but the plan to purchase €60bn in covered bonds (CBs) is a joke. Brian Cowen alone would burn through that amount in a year (with NAMA - in a blink of an eye). And there are Austria, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain still waiting in line for a handout. CBs are debts backed by cash flows from underlying loans (e.g mortgages). It is the sort-of securitization product, with all the stuff - however toxic, as long as it is paying some sort of interest - bunched in. It does appear that Ireland and Spain are the two leading contenders for the first slot at the new 'ECB pawn brokers' window, as our banks have been shifting all sorts of pesky stuff across their books into the ECB already.

The only question to ask here - what will be the associated terms and conditions? We will know these only about a month from now when ECB actually sketches these. But I suspect Brian Lenihan will be phoning Trichet's people to find out the details starting from tomorrow. After all, survival of the Irish financials and the Exchequer is now hanging by the thread, and Mr Trichet has a pair of sharp scissors at his disposal. Significantly, of course, the ECB's newest plan is to come ahead of NAMA legislation, so here is a question: Is this new CBs-purchasing plan a tailor-made device for Ireland to be tested as a guinea pig in European financial rescue experimentation?

On a bit more positive note, the ECB stretched liquidity provision terms to 12 months. It also added the European Investment Bank to the eligible counterparties list, in effect creating an additional supply of credit - ca €40bn. Now, combined the ECB €60bn, plus the EIB's €40bn are just about covering the borrowing requirements for Biffonomics and Lenihanama.

Obamanomics might, just might, spell a real disaster for Ireland Inc...
It was 100-days in the Hot Seat for Barak Obama last week and, true to his promises to change America, the President has gone for his big pledge: to crack down on the use of offshore tax havens. This time around Ireland will have to do better than sending Mary Coughlan to Washington in order to keep the US taxman at bay.

A key initiative, announced Monday, would partially close a provision that allowed US companies to defer paying taxes on the profits they make on their overseas investments. Another proposed change is to close completely the loophole that allowed companies to treat foreign subsidiaries as non-resident in the US for tax purposes.

A report by the Congressional General Accounting Office found that 83 out of the US top 100 companies have set up subsidiaries in tax havens. Some $20bn in allegedly ‘lost’ annual revenue for Uncle Sam is at stake, as in 2004 – the latest year for which data is available – US MNCs paid just $16bn in Federal tax on foreign earnings of $700bn. That’s an effective rate of tax of ca 2.3%.

Now, an interesting twist in the proposals is to allow deferring tax payments only on R&D investments, so expect Ireland suddenly jump to the top of the league of nations in per capita R&D spending, should the White House plan go through Congress.

It is worth remembering that our much-loved Bill Clinton prepared an even more ambitious plan for shutting down tax havens that would have seen US investment here dry-out like a salty pond in the middle of Sahara. Much-disliked George Bush shelved it, saving our US MNCs-led economy. Now, another Democrat - ah they are such 'friends of Ireland' those Democrats - is going to fry us up crispy...

How're those 4% growth forecasts from DofF looking now?

1 comment:

Another John M said...

The points you raise on the ECB bailout for Ireland and the US moves on taxes leave me wondering if we are looking at another structural deficit in the making? We all know energy costs, labour, real estate and service costs among others have kicked our competitiveness in a particularly sensitive area. All we have left is a low corporate tax rate for multi-nationals. Now the ECB rides in to town to bail out the incompetent geniuses who caused this mess. I just have to wonder what kind of quid pro quo is being discussed in Europe. Tax harmonisation has always been at the top of their agenda. So my guess is that our corporate tax rate will be "brought in to line" with Europe in the nearish future.