Monday, August 30, 2010

Charting The Way

Polish Trade

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Odd Couple

The modern world moves at a breathtaking pace, even when most of us find ourselves on holiday. No sooner do we receive, read and start to digest one set of economic data than we find ourselves pushed to think about what the next set will look like. The clearest recent illustration of this undoubted reality is to be found in peculiar twist of events which meant that just as the news reached us that the German economy had expanded at a record rate in the second quarter, at almost the very same moment Federal Reserve officials meeting in Washington decided to significantly downgrade their economic outlook for the United States, saying the “pace of recovery in output and employment had slowed in recent months” and was likely to be “more modest” than anticipated in the near term. But this followed a month of May when it seemed Europe's economies were on the brink of disaster, while over in the United States some sort of recovery was on the cards.

So what is going on here, does the earth switch it’s magnetic pole every six months, with what went up last time round now going down? Or could it possibly be some kind of common thread here, one common factor which unites the unprecedented expansion we have just seen in Germany, and the fears of renewed recession in the United States. Well, as it happens, indeed there could, and it has a name - the Greek debt crisis.

Structural Problems In The Currency Architecture?

So what is the link? Well, the fact of the matter is that we live in a bi-polar world, at least as far as currencies are concerned. Until our current global financial architecture evolves into something more sophistocated, we have two main currencies which rival one another for pride of place in central bank reserves and investment portfolios: the euro and the dollar, and when one of these goes up, the other must come down, and vice versa. It is as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Prior to February, and the outbreak of the European Sovereign Debt Crisis the US economy was seen as the weaker partner, and the euro was priced at a relatively high level. Then the euro slumped (falling at one point from around 135 to 120 to the US dollar in a matter of weeks) as attention focused on what appeared to be significant weaknesses in the Eurozone infrastructure. As a result of the change German exports boomed, while the US economic recovery steadily started to grind to a halt.

And with the rise of the dollar the global economy started to fall back into dangerous - pre crisis – habits. The US trade deficit started to open up again, and one exporting nation after another started to see yet one more time the US market as the global economy's consumer of last resort. Indeed the US June trade statistics reveal the extent to which American consumers are once more sucking in large quantities of imports as their spending power recovers, while weak demand in the rest of the world coupled with the comparatively high dollar has been keeping a brake on American exports.

As the New York Times put it in an editorial, "China is mopping up demand everywhere you look with its artificially cheap supply of goods, while Germany, the world’s other exporting power, is cutting its budget and relying on foreign demand to drive its economic rebound. This isn’t sustainable".

And the numbers prove the point. The United States trade deficit ballooned to $49.9 billion in June, the biggest since October 2008. In July, one month later, China recorded a $28.7 billion trade surplus, the biggest since January 2009. In the first five months of the year, Germany’s trade surplus, driven in large part by demand for machine tools in recovering Asian economies (many of them busily sending exports to the US), rose 30 percent compared with 2009.

And this impression is only confirmed when we come to look at the latest revision for US GDP in the second quarter. According to the revised data, US GDP increased at an annualised 1.6% rate (as compared with the 9% annual rate in Germany), after registering a 3.7% rate in the first quarter, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) today. The second-quarter growth rate was revised down by 0.8 percentage point from the “advance” estimate (of 2.4%), in part as a result of the new data on imports for June. The US Bureau of Economic Analysis report stated that slower GDP growth primarily reflected a surge in imports compared with the previous quarter and a slowdown in inventory investment. In fact, real exports of goods and services increased at a 9.1% rate in the second quarter, compared with an increase of 11.4% in the first, while real imports of goods and services increased by 32.4%, compared with an increase of 11.2% in Q1.

Effectively the American economy is simply too weak to carry this additional load, and is now showing signs of heading back towards recession, forcing the Federal reserve, which only a few months ago was moving towards a tightening in monetary policy to fend off inflation to now re-assert its policy of quantitative easing to avoid any posssibility of a drift towards deflation.

Meanwhile the German economy turns in a 2.2 per cent quarterly growth spurt, unified Germany’s best-ever performance. The annualised 9 per cent growth rate, is, as the Financial Times noted, virtually unprecedented in developed economy terms. Such dramatic changes, rather than reassuring us that all is well, only lead to even more doubts. Is it really desireable for an economy to shoot forward so dramatically, only to fall back again in the second half, which is what almost everyone (Monsieur Trichet included) expects to happen?

Not only does the German performance seem exaggeratedly large, at the other end, on Europe's periphery, the result was lamentably small. Greece naturally exceeded everyone's expectations, on the downside, with a 1.5 per cent quarterly contraction (a 6 per cent annual rate), but Spain remained at the bottom end of the range, with a 0.2 per cent expansion, as did Portugal. Undoubtedly the Greek contraction will slow as the year advances, but the outlook there continues to be preoccupying. Only today the Greek manufacturing PMI, which showed the contraction in Greece's industrial sector accelerated again in August, has reminded us of just how difficult it is going to be for the country to return to growth, and especially if the external environment now starts to deteriorate.

As the FT's David Oakley said yesterday, in many ways Germany could be said to have had a "good crisis", since the Greek issue pushed the Euro down and German exports up, while the current flight to safety is driving down the yield on German bunds to record lows even as it pushes up the spreads for peripheral Europe sovereigns. Among other imapcts this gives German companies an even greater competitive advantage as their capital costs come down even while those for their competitors go up.

Spreads – which are the additional borrowing premiums countries have to pay over benchmark Bunds – hit a fresh record of 357 basis points in Ireland this week, following problems in Allied Irish bank and a Standard & Poor's downgrade. In Portugal and Spain, spreads have been creeping back up, and are now once more close to their all-time highs. Spain’s 10-year bonds are trading at about 192 basis points above Germany, compared with 57 at the start of the year while Portugal is trading at 333 basis points, compared with 67bp on January 1.

All three economies are experiencing extremely weak growth and Ireland is even flirting with deflation. Higher government borrowing costs can harm economies in a number of ways, from higher borrowing costs for companies to added pressure on a country’s public finances as more is eaten up in interest charges, leaving less for public services and stimulus. Effectively the presence of a large spread differential means that monetary policy is applied unevenly across the Euro Area, despite the "one size for all" objective of the ECB. And doubly so with a credit crunch which means some banks struggle to finance as a backdrop.

And as if all of this wasn't enough, Germany's main competitor in Asia (where German exports have been clocking up large increases) has been effectively KO'd by the flight to safety produced by the Sovereign Debt Crisis. Japan's exchange rate against the USD dollar is now hovering around a 15 year high.

The consequence of this is not hard to predict, while Germany clocks up record exports to China and other parts of the continent, the Japanese "recovery" is gradually grinding to a halt, as the latest manufacturing PMI report only confirms.

We Need To Seriously Address The Imbalances

At the end of the day it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we continue to live in a very unbalanced and essentially economically unstable world, where currency valuations and economic growth rates fluctuate with unnerving rapidity. Not only that, the recent Federal Reserve meeting seems to have constituted some sort of defining moment, the point when everyone finally recognises that the long promised recovery was no longer simply weeks or months away, and that emerging from the trough in which the developed economies find themselves is going to involve a long period of slow and painful effort, one where we will also need time to clean up the mess we have made in cleaning up the original mess, assuming that is that we have the dynamism and energy to do so.

On thing is clear, the old habits won't work any better now than they did before 2007, and external deficits which were not sustainable then will not be sustainable now. So we need a new model, a model in which the emerging markets will have a much larger role to play than ever before. And if we are to move towards a more sustainable future, then we need to move beyond those simplistic headlines stressing the virile nature of Germany's export prowess. There is no doubting the efficacy and competitiveness of many German companies, but for that very reason that country needs to shoulder more of the responsibility for sharing the burden which is involved in finding solutions. Here in Europe we don't only need sacrifices in the South, some of them also need to be made in the north. German industry is enjoying real and tangible benefits (via artificially low interest rates and an undervalued currency) from the mess that the Greeks created for themselves, but in the interest of all European some of those benefits need to be plowed back in again, since if Greece is allowed to fail, no one will be the winner.

Looking farther afield we need to think about how to best aid and abet the emerging economies in their quest for growth and better living standards. Earlier in the crisis I asked Nobel Economist Paul Krugman a question which is very much to the point. “At a time when the financial crisis is generalised across all developed economies - whether because those who borrowed the money now have difficulty paying back, or those who leant it now struggle to recover the money owed them - to which new planet are we all going to export?”

My response to him back in January was that maybe we don't need to look so far afield. Many developing economies badly need cheap and responsible credit lines, and access to state-of-the-art technologies, so why not accept the world is changing, and go for some sort of New Marshall Plan, one capable of generating a win-win dynamic which would be in all our interests? At the time the proposal seemed totally unrealistic and unobtainable. Now, with every day which passes it starts to look essential. And who knows, maybe the rise of a number of other major economic powers would help solve that bipolar currency problem which is currently causing our policymakers so many headaches.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bulgarian Things

As the IMF say in their most recent staff report, the present economic crisis raises the question of whether potential output growth in Bulgaria in the years to come is going to be markedly lower than it was during the boom years. As the IMF point out, the current recession was preceded by an investment boom in construction, real estate and the associated financial sectors. Now that the boom (which was always unsustainable, Bulgaria's current account deficit in 2007 hit almost 27% of GDP) is well and truly over in these sectors, the strong associated decline in investment could have large negative effects on output. Moreover, it will take considerable time for the excess labor and resources to be absorbed by other sectors, which suggests that the rate of unemployment may rise and remain higher. Not a uniquely Bulgarian story, but none the less preoccupying for that.

After several years of strong increases (around 6% a year) Bulgarian growth declined sharply in 2009 after the economy was hit hard by the global economic and financial crisis.

Capital inflows, which had been keeping the current account deficit afloat, dropped from a peak of 44 percent of GDP in 2007 to less than 10 percent of GDP in 2009. As a result, investment fell by nearly 30 percent, after rising more than 20 percent annually during the previous two years.

Employment also started to fall, while the unemployment rate rose rapidly, hitting a seasonally adjusted 9% in March and April this year, according to Eurostat seasonally adjusted data.

The question the IMF ask, about whether Bulgaria will be able to return to the high growth rates of 2001–08 is no idle one, since with a shrinking and ageing population, and an external debt which stands at around 110% of GDP, sustainability in the medium term means finding a level of growth which can enable to country to pay down its debt and support its pension and health systems.

Apart from the obvious demographic impediments the country faces, there are other reasons to think that getting back to moderate sustainable growth may be more difficult that it initially appears. In the first place, Bulgaria operates a currency peg with the euro, yet during the boom years the country had very high inflation rates.

As a result a sharp loss in competitiveness occured, a loss which, as the IMF point out, was not accompanied by any substantial corresponding productivity gain.

The other evident consequence of this loss of competitiveness was that the country developed a trade deficit, a deficit which though it has reduced following the collapse of imports still exists. In order to return to sustainable (export lead) growth, this deficit needs to become a surplus.

Growth during the boom years was driven by large capital inflows that fueled strong growth in the non-tradable sector. As capital inflows are likely to stabilize at a level well below that of the boom years, and growth in the non-tradable sector is likely to remain weak at best, growth would only be high if the tradable sector takes over as an engine of growth. And with lower investment, the robust employment growth the country saw during the years 2001–08 will be difficult to reproduce. Much of the strong employment growth was driven by strong growth in the non-tradable sector. Total employment rose by 20 percent during this period, of which 15 percent was the contribution from the construction, real estate, wholesales and financial service sectors.

So the country (like so many others in the East and South of Europe) must now make a major shift from non-tradeables to tradeables, and this in the context of a currency peg (and a significant level of external indebtedness) is not going to be an easy task.

Signs of Recovery

Bulgaria does not publish seasonally adjusted quarter-on-quarter growth numbers, but given that the economy only shrank by 1.5% year-on-year (according to the flash estimate published by the statistics office on August 13), which was the lowest figure recorded since the country entered a recession in the first quarter of 2009 (and down from an annual drop of 5.9% in Q4 2009), the economy does at least seem to have stabilised.

As for the details agriculture contributed to the improvement, with an increase of 1.6 per cent year-on-year, while the services and industrial sectors only declined by 1.7 per cent and 0.3 per cent, respectively. Private consumption, which was one of the main drivers of economic growth in earlier years, was down an annual 7.6 per cent for the quarter, while investment was 1.4 per cent lower. So there has been no real improvement in private consumption, nor should we expect to see any in the near term.

Retail sales seem set on a long steady downward path (similar to that seen in other countries in the region with declining populations) and again, this is unlikely to turn around in any sustained way.

Domestic demand is likely to remain flat to downwards for some considerable time, as the numbers for household and corporate borrowing (which are not moving upwards at all) tend to confirm.

Despite an increase in exports and continued decline of imports, the trade gap for the second quarter was expected to be 4.2 per cent of GDP.

Long Term Growth Trend Headed Way Down

As the IMF stress, potential growth in Bulgaria is surely set to decline further in the longer term. Bulgaria faces a serious problem of aging population. The median age is now through the critical 40 barrier, and headed on up towards the 45 range, in a country where male life expectancy is some 10 years below the West European average.

Bulgaria's population has been falling for a decade now, and is projected to decline by a further 28 percent between 2008 and 2060, while the old age dependency ratio would exceed 60 percent in 2060.

This population drop is already affecting the working age population, which is already in decline, and is forecast to fall by an additional 25 percent over the
next 50 years.

As a result, the EU 2009–12 Convergence Programme is forecasting a steady decline in potential growth to 0.3 percent in 2050, and this even with a totally unrealistic (in what will then be such an old population) labor participation rate of 70 percent. Personally, I think these numbers are way, way to optimistic, and all of this is badly in need of calibration based on what is already happening in ageing societies like Germany and Japan.

And Bulgaria has another handicap: the large number of Bulgarians who now live and work abroad. The worrying thing is that we don't know how many such workers there are, since the migration data from Bulgarian statistics hardly acknowledges they exist (same situation in Latvia, see this study), using the argument that only those who officially inform them they are emigrating count as migrants.

So how do we know they exist, because these migrants send home remitances, and the World Bank attempts to track them. According to World Bank data (and my calculations), migrants sent home remittances to the order of an estimated 5.3% of GDP in 2009. Not small beer this at all.

But what, you may ask is a country with rising external debt (the IMF is assuming the CA deficit continues to 2015, at least)and falling and ageing population doing exporting its workforce? A good question. And why is no one seemingly concerned about this issue? Another good question. And why are neither the EU Commission and the IMF raising the problem in the studies of the country. Oh, there are no shortage of questions here.

So, Bulgaria as a country is certainly not short of problems. What with the evident demographic ones, and the limitations of the currency peg, it is hard to see how they are soluable. To put it bluntly, Bulgarian industry only accounts for some 18% of GDP (in value added terms). If we assume as a rule of thumb that about 50% is geered to the domestic market, then this means that Bulgarian GDP is going to have to leverage itself forward through growth in about 10% of its output, while other sections shrink. A difficult, if not impossible task.

And there are more problems. As the IMF point out, Bulgaria’s fiscal situation is challenging, since the earlier revenue boom has come to an end, while expenditure pressures are considerable. The pre-crisis revenue boom, was fuelled by higher receipts on goods and services on the back of Bulgaria’s rapid domestic demand growth, but returning to pre-crisis revenue levels will be a major challenge, not only because the economy is expected to recover slowly but also because the growth pattern will need to shift, with less contribution from domestic demand and more contribution from the external sector, which will result in lower tax revenues. And since Bulgaria's treasury is stongly dependent on VAT, and exports evidently don't attract VAT, the situation becomes even more difficult.

In the short term the debt to GDP ratio is pretty low (15% only in 2009), but any faltering in the peg at some point, and that could change quickly.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Spain's National "Dinero B"

Well, before we go any further, I would like to make clear that what we are talking about here is not anything illegal, or even irregular (things like this must be going on in almost all Euro Area countries even as I write). Bending of the rules? Perhaps. Taking them to their limit? Certainly.

What Spain's central, local and regional government does is take advantage of loopholes in Eurostat accounting regulations to generate debt that really is debt, but is not classified as such according to the Eurostat excess deficit criteria. Areas in volved are debts on the balance sheets of state (or regionally, or locally) owned companies, overdue payments for receivables (very common practice in Spain), and public private partnership type leaseback arrangements. None of these are (typically) classified as debt, though they do all have to be paid at some point, which means there is a stream of revenue (flow) impact rather than a debt stock one (unless and until Eurostat changes the rules). Which means that while they do not impact that critical debt to GDP number, servicing these liabilities does exaccerbate the annual fiscal deficit one. Which is why ultimately bringing Spain's fiscal deficit under control will almost certainly prove to be much harder work than it seems.

We are able to make this comparison since the Bank of Spain effectively maintains a double entry book keeping system, whereby it keeps one record under the National Financial Accounts of the total debt , while at the same time keeping a separate record of debt as classified for the EU Excess Deficit Procedure.

As we can see in the chart below, total gross government debt in Spain as classified in the Financial Accounts was some 751 billion euros (or around 75% of GDP), as compared with the 585 billion (or around 58% of GDP) in gross debt recognised under the EU excess deficit procedure classification.

Now if we look at the chart below, we will see that the proportion of Spanish national debt which remains outside the Eurostat classification system has risen since the introduction of the euro - from 14 to around 23 per cent - but most of the increase actually took place in the run up to the crisis. So as Spains funding problem has deteriorated, there does not seem to be any direct evidence that this has impacted the level of "non-accounted" debt, it has simply remained the same (in % terms). Of course, as the debt itself has balooned, so too has the "dinero B" part.

In the case of the regions (Spain's Autonomous Communities) the position is not that different - the % has increased from 12% in 2000 to around 25% at the present time - even if there is rather more evidence of "stress" on their finances after the start of 2008 (see chart).

The position of Spain's local authorities is also similar - with the proportion of "non-accounted" debt rising from 14 to about 23% - although again, there is even more evidence of post-crisis financial stress if we look at the gap between the two lines, and how it widens, which is none too surprising when you consider that it is the local authorities who lost the biggest chunk of the financing in the collapse of the construction boom. Indeed, it is my impression that in this case the gap only hasn't widened further due to the fact that very few people are now willing to give any sort of credit to Spain's local authorities.

As I indicate, one of the key forms of kicking the can down the road in terms of public finances, is to delay payment on receiveables (if you are not sure what receivables are, check this wikipedia entry), and the following charts show the relentless use of this procedure in Spain, despite the promise of Spain's government to bring short term credit under control by 2013, there is no sign of this happening to date.

The other big area of "non-accounted" debt, is that accumulated by governmentally owned or "satellite" agencies (who may for example run public transport, or outsourced cleaning services for local authorities). As can be seen from the charts below, this has increased massively since the crisis started.

As I say at the start, none of this debt is hidden, nor is it illegal under Eurostat regulations, so there is nothing (in principle) out of order here. This fact doesn't make the situation any less preoccupying, since one way or another all this debt will have to be paid. What it does, I think, indicate, is a certain "laissez faire" attitude towards fiscal targets on the part of the EU Commission and indeed the IMF (as I argue in this post, it is hard to understand the IMFs own Spain growth forecasts and CA deficit levels if they are not assuming a rather higher level of indebtedness into the future than anyone is prepared to admit right now) . The May measures are deemed to have worked. Europe's Soveregin Debt Crisis is, if not over, at least in abeyance.

Only last week José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, raised the possibility of reversing some of the spending cuts announced in May. In a cautious announcement, which the FTs Victor Mallet reports was apparently aimed at testing the mood of financial markets, Mr Zapatero said the government expected to restore some suspended infrastructure investments if – as the government anticipated – renewed financial stability left room for manoeuvre in the 2011 budget.

“In 10 to 15 days we will be able to give some positive news in relation to restoring investment activity in infrastructure, which will affect most regions and would provide relief, an important boost, to construction companies,” he told a news conference in Mallorca after meeting King Juan Carlos at the monarch’s summer residence.

A €6bn cut in public sector investment was among the biggest austerity measures announced by Mr Zapatero in May to coincide with the EU and IMF announcement of a €750bn financing facility for the eurozone.

Despite the fact that among the evident losers in what was effectively a "U turn" at the ECB in May were the monetary hard-liners like Jürgen Stark and Axel Weber, you obviosuly can't keep a good man down, and European Central Bank Executive Board member Juergen Stark was out again on Monday, warning in the columns of the Financial Times that Europe is set to ramp up economic surveillance to prevent a repeat of the region's recent debt crisis. "A new framework for macroeconomic surveillance will monitor whether national trends are compatible with those that are appropriate for the Union as a whole", he said. "This framework will allow both targeted peer pressure and differentiated and more binding recommendations on follow-up action at the national level."

All I can say looking at the above numbers is, there isn't much sign of any of this being operational yet, but then, as I say, the Jürgen Starks of this world have rather had their noses pushed out of joint in recent weeks.