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Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Czech Republic, A Classic Case Of Bad Timing?

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

The Czech Republic's economy unexpectedly expanded accelerated in the last quarter of 2007, graowing at the fastest pace in two years, fueled by investment, solid exports and rising employment. Gross domestic product grew at a 7.0 percent annual rate on a seasonally and working day adjusted basis (preliminary data), compared with a revised 6.4 percent in the third quarter, the Czech Statistical Office said today. The Office also announced that the economy grew 6.6 percent in 2007.

The quarterly rate of expansion accelerated from the 1.4% achieved in the third quarter to a full 1.9% in Q4.However it should be noted that the statistics office single out expenditure by health insurance companies, which are classified as part of the general government sector, as contributing to the GDP increase by approximately 0.5 percentage points (ie a good part, if not all, of the acceleration). They suggest that this is probably due to higher demand for health services which remained free till the end of the year and in anticipation of the introduction of medical fees for certain services in 2008. So much of this may well be "one off".

Following the news the koruna had its biggest weekly gain in 5 1/2 years - rising for a fourth succesive week - and at one point was up by as much as 0.7 percent on the day (at 25.080, its highest level ever against the euro), before closing at 25.193 by 4 p.m. in Prague. In the last week it has advanced by 2.4 percent, the fastest rate since June 2002. So far this year the koruna has been the best-performing of the nine European emerging-market currencies, gaining 5.5 percent against the euro.

Household consumption has bolstered the Czech economy's expansion for almost two years now, and is driven by accelerating wage growth, a 30% y-o-y rate of increase in lending and a decade-low jobless rate. The very low number of people now remaining unemployed has given rise to concerns that if the economy should continue to grow as quickly as it is doing currently, then wage-cost driven inflation may get the economy in its grip in the way it has done in other EU10 economies. The average nominal hourly wage in industry rose by 11.3% in December 2007 over December 2006, while the average monthly nominal wage in industry rose by 7.4% in 2007 when compared with 2006.

The extra growth is certainly creating employment, and there were 1.9 percent more people working in the economy during the last quarter of 2007 than there were one year earlier. Still, the statistics office (although it gave no details, for thpse we will have to wait till March) stated that household spending growth slowed in the fourth quarter (retail sales, for which we do now have December figures, rose only at an annual rate of 4.3%), dropping back from the 5.6 percent rate of increase of the previous three months, discouraged perhaps by the 4.4 percent inflation rate experienced over the period.

This change in the structure of Czech GDP growth, with consumer demand accounting for a smaller portion of expansion, and exports and capital investment accounting for more, is fueling central bank optimism that the inflation rate can gradually be clawed back to the mid-point 3 percent target by next year, from the whopping 7.5 percent registered in January.

The bank predicts GDP will grow 4.1 percent this year after an estimated 6.1 percent in 2007, thus being a touch more skeptical than the Finance Ministry who are currently advancing a 4.7 percent growth outlook for this year.

Long Term Structural Problems On The Fiscal Side

There is however still plenty of room for concern about the medium term evolution of the Czech economy. Only last week the European Union reiterated its call for the Czech government to address underlying fiscal pressures linked to the pace of population ageing in the Republic, and stressed that the administration needed to do more to prevent the creation of excessive budget surpluses. The call was made as part of the EU Commission periodic assessment of individual country convergence programmes.

The Czech Republic is by no means the oldest of the EU10 societies, indeed at around 40 the Czech median age is not especially high at this point (even by EU10 standards) - and Slovenia and Bulgaria have higher median ages.

(please click over image for better viewing)

But life expectancy in the Czech Republic is significantly higher than the rest of the group (coming second in this respect only to Slovenia) and hence the weight of pensions expenditure is likely to be greater than in many other states in the region.

As a result of this higher than average EU10 life expectancy, and many years of lowest-low fertility, the Czech population median age is set to rise very rapidly - to around 44 in 2020 - which means that the Czech Republic will soon be older than several West European societies (where there has been higher fertility and more substantial immigration) like France or the UK. And this despite the fact that the Czech Republic has been one of the few EU10 societies to be really proactive on the immigration front in recent years.

The Czech Republic's budget deficit is now within the EU 3 percent of GDP limit, but this is not the Commission's real concern in this report. Rather what are being raised are longer term structural and sustainability questions. The Czech government should "exploit the likely better-than- expected 2007 budgetary outcome to bring the 2008 deficit below the 3 percent of GDP reference value by a larger margin" the EU said in the report since "The Czech Republic remains at high risk with respect to the sustainability of public finances".

Essentially the EU is criticising the Czech Republic for failing to take advantage of the record economic growth to cut spending, overhaul the pension and health-care systems and reduce the deficit so it may be used as a stabilising cushion in the event of an economic slowdown. The Czech Cabinet has responded to the ongoing criticism from the Commission by amending the tax code, cutting welfare spending and imposing health-care fees. But the Commission is far from satisfied, and in particular they have said the following:

The Czech Republic appears to be at high risk with regard to the sustainability of public finances. The initial budgetary position in the programme is not sufficiently high to stabilize the debt ratio over the long-term. The long-term budgetary impact of ageing is well above the EU average, influenced notably by a substantial increase in pension expenditure as a share of GDP as well as a significant increase in health care expenditure. Implementation of structural reform measures notably in the field of pensions and health care aimed at containing the significant increase in age-related expenditures would contribute to reducing risks to the sustainability of public finances. While initial steps have been made to reform the health care system, reform of the pension system still lacks implementation against a definite timetable.
To date the Czech Cabinet has pledged to trim the public deficit to 2.6 percent of GDP in 2009 and to 2.3 percent in 2010, but given the rate of GDP increase, and the rapid rise in the koruna, a strong move in the direction of a budget surplus would seem to be called for.

The Czech administration, which in 2006 abandoned 2010 as the country's euro-adoption date, has pledged to overhaul the welfare, pension and health-care systems in an attempt to ensure that country is in a position to fulfill the EU fiscal rules after it accepts the common currency. One of the problems being faced is that the ruling coalition lacks a sound majority in the Czech Parliament, and has to rely on two former opposition deputies, which makes progress on serious reform an uphill struggle.

But if it remains substantially unamended, the current pensions system will weigh heavily on state finance during the coming years due to the rapidly increasing number of retired people and the shrinking number of potential contributors. The working age population - 15 to 64 - is set to shrink from around 7.25 million now to around 6.4 million in 2025.

While the elderly dependent population - defined as being over 65 - is set to rise from around 1.5 million currently, to around 2.25 million in 2025.

Now the numbers involved here are not excessively large, and the situation can to some extent be eased by immigration, raising participation rates, and raising the retiremnt age beyond 65. But it is important to note that all the countries in the region are facing - to a greater or a lesser extent - the same problem, so it isn't clear where the migrants are to come from, and if they ultimately will arrive from another continent, then this has implications for the cultural model on which these societies have been based to date. Which is not to say that such an outcome is unattainable, but simply that it is not going to be as easy in practice as it perhaps appears to be on paper.

On the pensions side the current problems are threefold: i) the excessive reliance on a PAYGO system, ii) the high level of contrubutions, iii) the low level of the retirement ages. Pension contributions currently total around 30% of employee earnings, of which 7.5 percentage points are paid by employees and 22.5 points by employers. These contribution levels are among the highest in the OECD, and only Hungary, Italy and Slovakia have higher contribution rates.

Following an earlier reform, the retirement age is gradually being increased from 60 to 63 years for men and from a range between 53-57 years to one between 59-63 for women (with the retirement age depending on the number of children they have had) between now and 2013. But such age increases are clearly far from sufficient. As a result the Czech cabinet agreed last Monday to raise the retirement age and lay the basis for wider pension reforms to secure the system's long-term financial stability.

The cabinet sent a bill to parliament which envisages a gradual increase in the retirement age to 65 by 2030 and an extension of the required length of employment. A further proposed step will follow later which involves moving from the current pay-as-you-go scheme to a partially fund-based system where people save for their own pensions. Czech pension payments are expected to reach 306 billion crowns ($17.34 billion) this year, taking up nearly 30 percent of the national budget, and will grow rapidly as the population ages if nothing is done.

Basically the big problem with moving from PAYGO to partially funded schemes is maintaining the payments from the PAYGO system during the transition. As a way of trying to get round this problem the government proposes to set up a fund fed by income from privatisations, with the idea being that the shortfall caused in the old system by the payment diversion into would be made up from the reserve fund. Many Czechs already have private pensions savings, which are supported by government subsidies and tax breaks, but the volume is too low to support them in retirement. The average Czech state pension is 9,111 crowns ($515.9) per month, about 42 percent of the average salary.

Bad Timing or Bad Decisions?

So much for the longer term issues, but the real danger facing the Czech economy at the present time is that a number of faulty short-term decisions, and a certain tardiness in reform coupled with an unhelpful external environment, may well cost the Czech Republic dear in the longer term.

In the first place the recent decision to raise administered prices in January has produced a sharp 2% hike in the annual inflation rate (from 5.4% in December to 7.5%in January). In particular the government raised value-added tax on basic items such as food to 9 percent (up from 5 percent), and introduced a 30 koruna ($1.71) fee for doctor's visits. In total the health service increases added 0.5% to the annual inflation rate. The price of electricity also went up 9.5 percent and natural gas 7.8 percent. State-controlled rents jumped 18.9 percent from their December level.

So the danger is that the application of such measures in an environment where growth is strong, and possibly even above capacity, and the labour market is extremely tight, may simply lead to an ongoing process of second round effects, where wage rises to compenate for inflation (or over and above the inflation rate) simply add more fuel to the underlying inflation dynamic. In order to try and avoid this outcome the central bank will undoubtedly continue raising interest rates. The bank has already raise rates five times since last June - at quarter point intervals (with the last raise being on the 8 February - and the current rate is at 3.75%. The prospect of the bank doing just this, coupled with the comparatively high rate of GDP growth, is already pushing - as we have seen above - the koruna ever onward and upward. If, as now seems likely, the Czech base interest rate should pass an ECB refi rate which was on the way down as the eurozone economy slows, then this upward pressure on the koruna might well accelerate, and the central banks attempts to restrain inflation with conventional monetary policy might well prove thwarted.

Added to this problem of inflation and a rising koruna, is the associated one of the evolution of the Czech trade balance. While the Czech Republic has so far enjoyed a fairly healthy goods trade surplus, this does not come by divine fiat, and changes in relative prices can erode the situation quite rapidly. Exports in December were up 5.2 percent year on year down down substantially from the 20 percent rate in November and the smallest figure in the whole of 2007. For the time being this is simply a seasonal blip, but the whole Czech external trade situation will now need monitoring carefully, and in particular given that the German economy now seems to be slowing, and the Czech economy is inter-locked with Germany (31% of the CRs exports went to Germany in 2007) to a very high degree.

In this context the position of the fiscal deficit of the Czech administration takes on even more importance. As indicated above, the Czech Republic's budget deficit is certainly likely to fall with the EU limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product this year, although the deficit may in fact widen to 2.95 percent of GDP from an estimated 1.9 percent in 2007. The original goal for 2007 was 4 percent of GDP, so the outcome is, in terms of the EU convergence process, not especially bad. But in terms of the current short and medium term macro environment, the projected level of deficit is certainly fraught with risk. Ideally the objective for 2008 should be a budget surplus. This would act as a brake on excessive growth as the koruna rises (since capital funds into the CR in search of yield will definitely increase in the short term) and both the surplus and the newly higher interest rates would provide something of a cushion should further deterioration in the external environment (and especially in Germany) lead the Czech economy to start to slow too rapidly. However, as noted above, the extent of the danger does not seem to be appreciated, and we are still looking at a deficit in the 2 to 3% range. The risk that this may provoke excess inflation which will be hard to eradicate later is real and present, and hence the evolution of the Czech CPI will need to be monitored closely, especially given that January's large base effect is now built in for the whole of 2008. We can only realistically expect inflation to start to come seriously down as we get towards the autumn, and only then if.......