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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Why VTB Bank's Russia GDP Indicator Is So Useful

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

This post is partly about Russia, partly about how to follow the present economic crisis on a day to day basis and partly methodological.

So Which Are The Worst Affected Countries In The Present Crisis?

Obviously the simple answer to this question is "all of them", and in particular all those countries who are members of the OECD. Perhaps that is the feature which best defines what is happening this time round (and which separates our present problems from, say, the Asian crisis in 1998) since this is a crisis whose focus has been, and still is, in what are often termed "the advanced industrial" economies, even though some of these are now more services than manufacturing-industry driven. But, come-on, within that ever so long list - which includes each and every member of the OECD (and a goodly number of those who aren't) - who exactly are going to be the worst affected?

Well I don't think I have made any secret on this blog that I think the principal focus of the present crisis is now situated in what Paul Krugman call's Europe's periphery - by which I would mean Central and Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Ireland and the UK. To that list I would simply add those economies who are largely export driven, and who thus suffer most directly from the sharp contraction in global trade. In particular here Germany, Japan and China. My principal guess is that China is really going to be one of the worst case scenarious, and that consensus thinking still has some way to go in catching up with events here. Hong Kong based UOBKayHian have a Q4 estimate for year on year Chinese GDP growth of 6.3% for China (see here), and I think few people other than professional macro economists and bank analysts (and far from all of these if the truth be told) really realise what this means - it means the quarter on quarter rate of expansion was very low indeed, possibly verging on the negative. I'm guessing but it must have been somewhere in an annualised 0 to 2% range. This means we may well see quarter on quarter negative growth in 2009 in China, and that the possibility of a technical recession of two consecutive quarters of negative growth must be over 50% at this point. It wasn't so long ago that the consensus was saying that annual GDP growth which was as high as 6% would be tantamount to a recession!

Societe Generale economist Albert Edwards is one of those who has been drawing our attention to the rapid decline in China's GDP (although I myself had a go here) and he uses one very interesting "proxy" (an indicator which can serve as a rough and ready substitute for something else, in this case movement in GDP) - electricity output. If you look at the 3 month year-on-year moving average for electricity output in China (see chart below) you will see it is already falling, which means that (in all probability) China's GDP is falling, which is just wow!

The history of using electrical output as a convenient proxy where we simply don't have very adequate data has a long and reputable history - going back to the pioneering work of US growth theorist Edward Dennison in the 1960s - but in case you feel that the correlation may not be a good one, here (see below) is a chart from Edwards which shows China GDP and electricity output compared. The fit is obviously not a perfect one, but that isn't the name of the game here, what should be evident is that a drop in electrical output as large as the one we are seeing in China at this point will be reflected in a very sharp reduction in GDP output.

A very similar situation can be seen in the OECD lead indicator for China, and below I produce a chart which compares this indicator for both Spain and China, and Spain we know is having a very strong contraction at this moment in time, but what we can see is that China post August is slowing much more rapidly, and even, looking at the steepness of the month on month drops, may well have started contracting in November. This is obviously all shell shock stuff.

Which takes me on to my next point, how reliable is Chinese data? Well, perhaps I am going to surprise some of you here, but I would day that for my purposes it doesn't really matter, since what interests me is the rate of contraction (or expansion) in Chinese GDP, and not its absolute level. What matters to the rest of the world is not expecially how rich -or poor - China actually is (from a macro economic analysis point of view that is), but how rapidly it is expanding - or contracting - and what the rate of export and reserves growth is. The rest is interesting, but from a nuts and bolts point of view, it constitutes what Boris Vian used to call froth on the daydream. If the official data is rather inaccurate, then it is not unreasonable to assume that the inbuilt biases are the same from one time period to the next (the same point applies to the existence of the so called "informal economy"), and so my message here is - arrived at on the basis of looking at one economy after another in rapid succession - how much we can learn from how little, if only we know what we are looking for that is (I will come back to this point below).

Is Manufacturing Output A Good Proxy For GDP?

Basically, the economies I am arguing are likely to be the worst affected in what we can at least now call “the long recession” - Japan, China, Russia, Germany, East Europe and Spain - all have quite a significant level of dependence on their manufacturing industry (except Spain, but then Spanish services are now neck and necking it with Spanish manuafcturing industry), and it is manufacturing - and especially consumer durable and machinery and equipment manufacturing - which is worst affected by this stage of the credit crunch. In addition all these economies are now about to see "second round effects" across their manufacturing sectors, and this will then feed back into even stronger contractions as domestic purchasing power weakens even further. So I don’t think that in these cases manufacturing is such a bad proxy for what I want to look at, which really is the size of the hole that has just been blown in the side of the collective ship.

Basically, I am also relying on an old macro economists prejudice about the structural importance of industrial activity when all the froth is stripped away. It’s a hunch. I’m playing it, and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, although up to now I think I ain’t doing too bad, if I may say so, since the German and Japanese economies did actually fold right on cue as far as my forecasts went, Spain has turned out to be a nightmare, and the focus of the current global financial crisis has moved to the East of Europe, just as I was anticipating in my posts here and on all those Eastern Europe blogs I maintain.

And for those of you who still remain sceptical that this argument has any validity, even for economies with a heavy industrial dependence, here (one more time) is the Manufacturing PMI/GDP comparison chart for Japan - GDP rates to the left, diffusion index PMI readings to the right (click over image if you can't view too well). Not perfect, but not a bad guide I would say, if you like your football live, and want to see what is going on as it happens and not three to six months later.

And Now For the Russian GDP Indicator

The latest survey data from VTB Bank Europe point to an overall contraction in Russian GDP in December. For an economy that was only months ago growing at a 7% annual rate this sharp contraction is astonishing. The VTB GDP Indicator is derived from the bank's Europe’s PMI surveys of business conditions in the manufacturing and service sectors of Russia. By weighting together the output measures from these surveys, an indicator of total output is produced. Regression analysis is then applied to derive an estimate of GDP growth. The bank itself describes the indicator as follows:

The Russian GDP Indicator has been developed for VTB Bank Europe by Markit Economics to provide a tool to help policymakers and investors monitor economic conditions in Russia. Key features of the Russian GDP Indicator are:

It is available several weeks ahead of official first estimates of GDP (for example, Goskomstat did not release their first estimate of 2005 third quarter growth until December 2005);

It is produced monthly, rather than quarterly, allowing quicker identification of changing business conditions and turning points in the economic cycle;

It is internationally comparable with other GDP Indicators that Markit Economics has launched, including the Eurozone GDP Indicator;

On average, Markit Economics’s GDP Indicators have been more accurate at estimating GDP growth rates than official first estimates (the latter tending to be revised significantly after initial publication)
VTB Bank

In December, the Russian GDP Indicator fell below zero for the first time since March 1999, to -1.1%, from 2.1% in November. Over Q4 as a whole, the GDP Indicator has signalled a year on year expansion of 2.0%.

But this is perfectly consistent with a quarter on quarter contraction, as we can see in the monthly diffusion index GDP chart. So there is no doubt about it as far as I am concerned, the Russia economy contracted in Q4 2008, and really, effectively, the Russian recession has now started.

Further evidence for the slowdown can be found in the fact that unemployment rose 400,000 in November and while retail sales grew at the slowest annual rate in five years. Also in November, real disposable income fell on an annual basis while capital investment growth continued to drop back. The rouble ended 2008 20% lower versus the US dollar and 15% weaker against the euro, while the budget for 2009 remains under threat from falling oil prices.

The most recent official GDP figures from the Federal Statistics Service indicated year on year GDP growth of 6.2% in the third quarter of 6.2%, a figure which was itself a three-year low. This result was rather weaker than the advance trend registered by the GDP Indicator, which averaged 6.8% over the same period. The stronger VTB GDP Indicator may well reflect the absence of construction coverage in the PMI surveys – annual growth of construction value added in Q3 almost halved compared to the previous quarter – and probably also did not fully capture the effect of plummeting oil prices and weakening investment growth, on the other hand it the number is not a bad first estimate at all, and I emphasise, we get it at the end of the month in question.

In fact over the past nine years the official statistics office series and the VTB GDP Indicator have had a pretty close relationship, and the correlation is currently 0.88 (see chart below). Moreover, the Indicator has successfully captured the major peaks and troughs in growth throughout the period, thus I think we need to take the latest PMI based data very seriously indeed.

So How Can You Do So Much With So Little?

Now for the methodological part. Basically I am arguing that really it is possible to make reasonably accurate short term forecasts (longer term ones are always - like the weather - much more problematic) on the basis of very little information, the composite PMI is one key reference point here, followed by consumer and business confidence data to give some idea of the immediate outlook, and then employment data to let you know what may happen six months or so down the line. This, and the inflation data (both producer and consumer prices) are all you really need in your home "Chief Economist" amateur toolbox really in order for you to have as good a chance of getting it right as any very highly paid professional.

But there is something else you also need: a framework in which to organise the information you gather. This is the tricky bit really. The good economist should always be testing, or pressing him- or herself in some way or another. Basically a forecast is based on conformity with empirical fact and with a theoretical framework. The late Sir Karl Popper had something to teach us here.

Famously, Popper used to enter the first class of any course and give his students one of those thrilling little "ice-breaker" exercises. "Observe", he would tell them, and then sit down and start to read his newspaper (I doubt it was L'Equipe, or El Mundo Deportivo, but I'm sure you can more or less imagine the picture). Of course, normally not a lot of time would elapse before one of the bemused students would put their hand up and say, "but please, sir, what do we observe?".

"Exactly", would be Popper's response, and so the course would formally begin, since the simple point he wanted to get across was that simple inductive empiricism doesn't work, you always need a theory, or at least a hypothesis, to get the game started. Which is why some people could probably stare at the charts I have presented here today, and still not notice anything special.

And the other point Popper would draw to the attention of any good practicing economist is that you always need to be trying to prove yourself wrong. It turns out we are not, as Bacon thought, playing a game with nature, we are playing it with ourselves. What exactly am I getting at here?

Well, Popper wasn't the first to do this, but he did notice that there was a simple problem with inductive empiricism, in that, no matter how many observations you make you can never actually "prove" a theory, since the next observation may well come along (you know, that black swan in Australia) and knock your whole edifice over. Popper was possibly the first, however, to notice that there is a logical asymmetry lying around in all this, since you can faslify a proposition (or hypothesis, or theory, or law), since the first bit of counter evidence you get should at least start you thinking that something may not be completely aright - although, of course, the first piece of counter evidence should never lead anyone to abandon their theory or hypothesis. But it should set you thinking.

The knack then is, and this is what every worthwhile and halfway serious economist should be trying to do, to try and decide what sort of evidence would make you change your mind, and would lead you to first modify, and then abandon, your theory. And I think if you can't spell out what it is that would lead you to modify and change your framework, that is if you can't spell out a body of facts and events which would lead you to seriously change your mind, then you are probably not doing serious economics at all, but playing round with some variant or other of what Popper would have called ideology.

And just in case anyone out there is asking themselves what the relevance of all this final homily is to what went before, well...

If China doesn't get a level of GDP output well below the consensus in 2009, then I've got something pretty wrong somewhere. If Germany's stimulus programme works by bringing domestic demand back to life before external events enable exports to expand again ditto. If Japan doesn't go shooting straight off back into a serious bout of deflation the same (and if Germany and Spain don't follow suit at least in the short term then there is something here I am not getting right). And of course, if Russia doesn't have a very nasty bout of depression economics in 2009, and if Eastern Europe generally is not the most seriously affected region then I think I really do have something, somewhere upside down (due to the very unusual demographics). Oh, and yes, if Turkey ends up as badly off as the rest of the CEE economies I would not be methodologically happy at all, not at all.

And why do I say this, well here is what I said in a post entitled Turkey, Emerging Markets and the Coming Global Credit Crunch - published on Global Economy Matters on 5 September 2007, that is about three weeks after all that sub-prime "turmoil" broke out.

In a much quoted paper - published back in 2004 by two UCLA economists (Schneider and Tornell, full reference below) - it was argued that:

In the last two decades, many middle-income countries have experienced boom-bust episodes centered around balance-of-payments crises. There is now a well-known set of stylized facts. The typical episode began with a lending boom and an appreciation of the real exchange rate. In the crisis that eventually ended the boom, a real depreciation coincided with widespread defaults by the domestic private sector on unhedged foreign-currency-denominated debt. The typical crisis came as a surprise to financial markets, and with hindsight it is not possible to pinpoint a large “fundamental” shock as an obvious trigger. After the crisis, foreign lenders were often bailed out. However, domestic credit fell dramatically and recovered much more slowly than output.

In starting off with this quote I really want to draw attention to two things.

First off, the way in which the current sub-prime liquidity problem in the banking sector of many developed economies is now steadily extending itself into a credit crunch in several emerging market economies. We are now beginning to see a clear and all too familiar pattern. There has been a lot of talk about the Asian crisis, and evidently there are some similarities with the pre 1998 situation, especially, as I shall be arguing over the coming days, in the emerging economies of Eastern Europe.

Secondly there is the "typical crisis came as a surprise to financial markets" argument, since it puzzles me why exactly this should be, or better put, why it should be assumed as a "stylised fact" about currency crises that such major events are in principle not forseeable. I find this very hard to accept. Are we really so inept we are not able to see trouble coming when it finally does come? Is economic theory really so useless in the face of complex "on the ground" facts. Something inside me resists this view. We ought to be able to see things coming, even if we need to distinguish between the where and the when. What I mean is that it should be possible, if the theories you are working with are worth any sort of candle, to pinpoint the areas of likely vulnerability. On the other hand, given that often seemingly random events precipitate the ultimate unwind, it is pretty well impossible to say in advance which random event will turn out to be the detonator on any given occassion.

The sub prime debt issue in the US is a good case in point here, since only at the start of August the Federal Reserve were assuring everyone that problems associated with the US housing market were well under control, while obviously they weren't and aren't, and equally obviously, now, such problems will be seen from the vantage point of hindsight to have played a key role in the events which are now unfolding before our eyes.

So even with this caveat, and with due regard for the well known problem of human fallibility, lets see if this time any of us are able to do just that bit better than normal, and in attempting to see things coming lets see if we can learn something which may make us better able to handle and foresee macro economic problems in the future.

This post is about Turkey, and it may be surprising in the light of what I have just said if I now go on to suggest that it is precisely the fact that Turkey may not be so badly ensnared in the trouble which is brewing (I mean no one, but no one, will escape completely scott free) as some other emerging economies (and I am talking here about some key members of the EU10 accession countries, and for reasons explained in this post)which may well be of interest.

So summing up, I don't accept that economics is not an empirically grounded science that is incapable of making testable forecasts, not for a moment I don't. And if you do the sort of economics that turns out to be absolutely useless when it comes to making forecasts, then you should be asking yourself what it is about the theoretical framework you are using that leads to this situation, asking yourself what would need to be the case for a part of what you hold dear to be falsified, and get out there having a go at falsifying it.