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Thursday, February 26, 2009

US Fiscal Deficit Projected At 12.3% of GDP In 2009

By Edward Hugh: Barcelona

According to the 2009 budget Barack Obama is sending to congress today, the United States will have a $1.75 trillion deficit this year. The figure represents 12.3 percent of estimated gross domestic product, double the previous post-war record of 6 percent in 1983, and the highest level since the deficit totaled 21.5 percent of GDP in 1945, at the end of World War II. It seems the numbers are about to start getting let out of the bag, and it will be interesting to see how the markets react. You can find many more details here.

Now if you look at the chart below (prepared by Lazard for a presentation on consumer deleveraging) you will see that this is not the first time something like this has happened. The earlier peak in US indeptedness occured (of course) between 1930 and 1933, when total debt peaked at 299% of GDP. In fact total debt expanded quite rapidly between 1930 (211% GDP) and 1933, largely as a result of GDP contraction and price deflation (which is why it would be preferable not to see extensive price deflation this time round). As a result, while private sector debt contracted between 1930 and 1933, public sector debt held steady, and rose from 34% of GDP to 72% of GDP (for better viewing click on image, and try zooming in a bit. Sorry, that's the best I can do/suggest).

This is the phenomenon we are seeing now. If the stimulus programme is successful then we might see US debt to GDP stabilising around 2013, since the deficit is expected to remain around $1 trillion for the next two years before starting to decline to $533 billion in 2013, according to budget projections.

So what is likely to happen to prices? Well, if we look at the chart below, we can see that US consumer price inflation was pretty lacklustre right the way through from 1920 to 1940 (that's why I would call the whole interwar epoch a deflationary one), so I guess, if we're lucky, we might get to see some serious inflation around 2020. If history is any guide that is, which ain't necessarily the case, but still.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Russia's Economy Declines At An 8% Annual Rate In January

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Russia’s economy contracted at an annual rate of 8.8 per cent in January, according to the latest statement by the Russian economy minister. This data point, which provides us with the latest confirmation that a very sharp contraction is now taking place in Russia, follows last week's announcement by economic development minister Elvira Nabiullina, economic development minister, that the economy shrank by 2.4 per cent between December and January. Industrial production also fell 16 per cent year-on-year in January, while there was a 17 per cent decline in construction.

It also gives us some indication of the viability of VTB’s Russian GDP Indicator (as posted here) which indicated a year on year rate of contraction of 4 percent in January, down from December’s 1.1 percent decline, and November's 2.1 percent expansion. This is somewhat under the actual reading, but it is an estimate in real time (we got this at the start of February) and it was by far the nearest estimate I have seen. The Russian government is currently forecasting a contraction of only 2.2% for this year, which has to be way, way too optimistic as things presently stand.

In its official estimates, the economy ministry said the global downturn was filtering deeper into the real economy and had begun to weigh heavily on ordinary citizens.

"Among the negative consequences of the deepening crisis, we can now count a notable drop in the population's real income growth (6.7 percent), increasing unemployment and, as a result, falling consumer demand," the ministry said. "The most important reasons for the economic fall of January 2009 is the significant fall in industrial production, the decline in investment activity, a drop in construction and slowing consumer demand."

Among the hardest-hit segments, the ministry cited fertiliser producers, which cut output by 42 percent, while tyre producers reduced their output to almost zero. Car production also fell, by 80 percent, and the ministry cited lack of cheap car loans amid a general decline of personal income and excessive production in 2008. Retail sales and agriculture still remained in positive territory areas which were still growing - at 2.4 percent and 2.6 percent respectively - although they are already down sharply and there is evidently more to come.

Exports fell more than 40 percent to $20.2 billion as the country exported less oil and gas at lower prices, while imports fell by a third to $10.3 billion as a 35 percent rouble devaluation, which continued throughout January, started hitting importers. Consumers of heavy machinery reduced purchases of foreign equipment by 47 percent and food and chemical imports fell by 25 and 29 percent, respectively.

Unemployment Up Sharply

Russia’s unemployment rate rose to 8.1 percent in January, the highest since March 2005. The total number of unemployed rose by 300,000 in the month to 6.1 million people, or 8.1 percent of the working population. This follows an 800,000 rise in December.

Rising unemployment is the “biggest problem” and the “biggest pain” for Russia as it goes through its worst economic crisis in a decade, President Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview on state television on Feb. 15.

The average real (ie inflation adjusted) monthly wage fell an annual 9.1 percent in January to 15,200 rubles ($418.42), the biggest drop since August 1999 when they fell 30.7 percent. Real disposable income fell 6.7 percent.

All of this, of course, has quite serious implications for Russia's public finances, and the budget deficit is now projected to reach 8% of GDP in 2009, according to Nabiullina, who said the figure took into account so-called quasi-budgetary expenditures in the form of subordinated loans to business, which would (in principle) be repaid at a later date. The federal budget for 2009 originally set expenditures at 9.024 trillion rubles ($250 billion at current exchange rates) and revenues at slightly over 10 trillion rubles ($277 billion), but the drop in oil prices has cut the expected income dramatically.

The budget was based on an average oil price of $95 per barrel for the year, but is being recalculated based on a figure of $41 per barrel.

Japan's Exports Collapse In January

By Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Japan’s exports plunged by 45.7 percent year on year in January, producing a record trade deficit, as recessions in the U.S. and Europe, and a sharp downturn in China crushed demand for the country’s machinery, cars and electronics. A drop of this size is truly staggering.

“People are coming to realize that Japan is in deep trouble,” said Hiroshi Shiraishi, an economist at BNP Paribas Securities Japan Ltd. in Tokyo. “Considering what’s happening on the export side, and the implications that has for the domestic economy, the yen is clearly not a buy.”
Japan's trade balance was sent deep into red territory driven, of course, by the 45.7% fall in overall exports to 3.48 trillion yen. As can be seen in the chart below, the yen value of Japanese exports has simply collapsed in recent months.

“The economy already seems to be falling apart,” said Masahiro Eguchi, who manages economic research at Shoko Chukin. Companies are likely to cut production more steeply, he said, and even if they continue to reduce output at the current pace, “many small companies won’t be able to survive.”

Imports, at 4.44 trillion yen, were down 31.7 percent from a year earlier.The declines in both importas and exports widened the trade deficit to 952.6 billion yen ($9.9 billion), the biggest since 1980, the earliest year for which comparable data is available. The drop in export shipments abroad eclipsed the previous record of 35 percent decline set only last month.

Exports to the U.S. fell an unprecedented 52.9 percent from a year earlier, and shipments to Asia and Europe also clocked in their largest-ever declines as the global recession deepened. Shipments to Europe slid 47.4 percent in January from a year earlier, while exports to China fell 45.1 percent and those to Asia dropped 46.7 percent.

Even emerging economy sales in countries like India, Brazil, Vietnam and Russia, which had buoyed up the numbers in the middle of 2008 have fallen rapidly. Exports to India were down by 34.9% year on year, Brazil exports fell 38%, Vietnam 48.4% and Russia 65.5%.

Japan's economy shrank at an annualised rate of 12.7 percent pace in the last quarter, the most since the 1974 oil shock, and it is clear that the worst is yet to come. The consensus forecast at this point is that Japan's economy may shrink by a record 4 percent in the year starting April 1, but even this may now be optimistic. The worst contraction Japan has seen to date was in fiscal 1998, when the economy contracted by 1.5 percent.

And while talk from the Bank of Japan of possible share purchases saw Japanese stocks rebound from quarter-century lows and the yen was trading at its weakest level since last November the Japanese government has still been unable to pass the stimulus package that could help encourage domestic spending in the absence of export demand. Prime Minister Taro Aso is struggling to get approval from the opposition-controlled upper house to spend 10 trillion yen to aid companies and households. But while the politicians dither, Tokyo burns, or almost.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Latvia Downgraded To "Junk" By S&P

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

And the Swedish Krona clearly didn't like the news.

Standard & Poor's Ratings Services today said it had lowered its sovereign credit ratings on the Republic of Latvia to 'BB+/B' from 'BBB-/A-3' and removed the ratings from CreditWatch negative, where they were placed on Nov. 10, 2008. The outlook is negative.......

We believe the necessary process of private sector deleveraging is likely to continue over several years, during which time real incomes will decline, testing Latvia's commitment to both its exchange rate regime and its obligations under the EUR7.5 billion assistance program from the IMF, EU, and other official lenders. The adjustment is made more difficult as external demand for Latvia's key exports continues to decline."

The negative outlook reflects the likelihood of a further downgrade later this year or in 2010 if we believe the government is wavering from its economic agenda in a manner that intensifies currency pressures and risks delays in disbursements from official creditors. If the Latvian financial sector retains access to international markets at reasonable cost, economic prospects brighten on the basis of improved competitiveness, fiscal targets are met, and the near-term prospect for Eurozone entry improves, the ratings could stabilize at the current level.

Standard & Poor's also said it had placed its 'A/A-1' sovereign credit ratings on the Republic of Estonia, and its 'BBB+/A-2' ratings on the Republic of Lithuania, on CreditWatch with negative implications. Which means that both of these may be up for downgrades in the not too distant future.

The IMF are about to withdraw to base camp to observe developments from afar, although it is possible that they have laid out their "conditions" for the incoming government, but since they have no effective "interlocutor" it is not clear whether these conditions are going to be completely acceptable or not at this point. Christoph Rosenberg, IMF mission chief to Latvia, issued the following statement today in Riga:

"The program supported by the IMF, the EU, and other bilateral and multinational donors is meant to sustain policies that will put Latvia back on a sustainable path, not particular political parties or coalitions. As long as appropriate policies are in place, such support will continue.

As IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn has said, the IMF will continue its technical work with the Latvian authorities. The IMF mission currently in Riga for the first review of the program has, jointly with a technical team from the European Commission, made a lot of progress in identifying issues that need to be addressed.

The IMF mission will return to Washington at the end of this week and continue its work with the authorities from there. It will be ready to return to Riga and continue the discussions after a new government has taken office."

While EU Economy and Finance Commissioner Joaquin Almunia seems to be hinting that the EU may be "readying up" intervention. Well, if that isn't what he's doing then I am at a total loss to understand what he is up to.

The European Union could have to bail out a member state in financial trouble but such a move is unlikely, especially among countries in the euro zone, EU economic chief Joaquin Almunia said on Monday.

States such as Hungary and Latvia have received assistance from the EU, and other countries within the 27-member bloc might need a financial support programme, said Almunia, who is European economic and monetary affairs commissioner.

"You can't rule out that a country outside the euro currency might come to need this assistance," he said during an economic conference in Madrid. "We don't think we'll get to this position."

Almunia said euro zone countries were better off and less likely to need EU help. "With the euro zone the position is not the same, either in terms of public debt, foreign debt or the ability to react to this recession," Almunia said.

And the cost of Baltic country CDS not surprisingly shot straight up:

The cost of insuring Latvian sovereign debt for five years rose on Tuesday by more than 30 basis points after Standard & Poor's cut the country's sovereign rating to junk.

Five-year credit default swaps (CDS) for Latvia were quoted at a mid-price of 977.4 basis points, according to CMA DataVision, up from their Monday close of 943.7 bps. Five-year CDS for Lithuania hit a record high of 861.7 bps after the S&P move, compared with Monday's 831 bps. For Estonia, five-year CDS rose to 733 from 730.7 bps.
Below is a chart for Latvia's 10-year Eurobond (quoted yield to maturity) maturing on 5 March 2018, it is now trading some 700 bps in the mid (755 in the bid) over the closest (by maturity) German bund. Apart from noting today's market reaction it is possible to see how the spread, after settling down following the IMF-lead deal, has now opened right up again to the level of the previous October highs.

Moody's Investors Service also said today that it can no longer rule out a Lithuanian currency devaluation, although it was at pains to point out that this was not its central scenario. In the course of its annual ratings review Moody's said the following:

"Even though the net benefits of abandoning the currency board would probably be negative, a devaluation can no longer be ruled out in the current environment, but this is not Moody's central scenario,"

Last week Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. warned that Latvia’s weakening economy might force the government to ease its policy of managing the lats, spurring all three Baltic currencies to break their pegs by mid-year producing a fall of anything up to 50 percent to the euro.

“Latvia stands out as the weakest of the three because its external debt is very high and it’s got a big current-account deficit,” said Win Thin, New York-based senior currency strategist at the oldest privately-owned U.S. bank. “The contagion between the three is so strong that if Latvia broke the others wouldn’t be able to resist.”

Standard and Poor's also issued a more general warning today about the parlous state of many of the Eastern economies. In a report titled "Market Dislocation Exposes Vulnerability Of Eastern European Economies," published yesterday the agency stated that the resilience of Eastern European economies seems to be crumbling under the weight of high foreign currency debt and the potential reprioritization of lending among foreign banks.

"The financial crisis that started to hit developed economies after August 2007 did not immediately affect East European economies," said Jean-Michel Six, Standard & Poor's chief economist for Europe. "In fact, through the first half of 2008 their economic prospects still appeared resilient. But in the second half of 2008, the effects of the crisis started to filter through the region and are now gathering momentum."

In particular S&P's singled out the Baltics, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria as especially vulnerable.

The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. For this group the level of economic vulnerability is high. The Baltic states face significant external financing requirements that make them highly vulnerable to a cut-off in capital flows. Each maintains a currency board (except for Latvia), and the pegs to which their currencies are linked remain under heavy pressure, as they have since the middle of last year. Bulgaria's main vulnerability, meanwhile, remains its massive current account deficit. As foreign financing becomes much tighter, the Bulgarian economy is likely to experience a painful period of adjustment in 2009 and 2010, with GDP growing about 1% this year and close to 2% in 2010, and a negative growth scenario cannot be excluded. A similar rationale applies to Hungary, where we expect GDP to decline by 2.5% this year before experiencing a mild recovery of 0.5% in 2010. Romania, once one of the economic high-fliers, is also poised to slow sharply in 2009. After an impressive 7.3% in 2008, we believe GDP growth will plummet to 0.8% this year.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Let The East Into The Eurozone Now!

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

“It’s 20 years after Europe was united in 1989 – what a tragedy if you allow Europe to split again.”
Robert Zoellick, World Bank president, in an interview with the Financial Times

(Click On Image To View Video)

World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, made a call this week - in an interview with the Financial Times - for a European Union-led and co-ordinated global support programme for the economies of Central and Eastern Europe. I agree wholeheartedly, and even if I have, reluctantly, to accept the point made last week by our Economy & Finance Commissioner Joaquin Almunia that our pockets, though deep, are certainly not bottomless (and thus it is probably beyond our means right now to rescue the non-EU Eastern states), I still feel we should make good on our responsibilities to those who are EU members, and to do so by opening the doors of the Eurozone to those who wish to join. Since this proposal is fairly radical, the justification that follows will be lengthy.

This is not a view I have arrived at lightly, but looking at the extent of the problem we now have before us, a problem which is growing by the day, and taking into account the fact that the origins of the economic crisis in the East must surely rest (at least in part) in the decision to make euro participation a condition for EU membership for these countries (a possibility which was subsequently withdrawn in the critical moment, when the going started to turn rough), and then assessing the risk to the Western European banking system which would be posed by simply sitting back and watching it all happen, I think this move is not only the least damaging of the policies we can now follow, it is the in effect the only viable path left to us if we are to keep the eurozone as an integral entity together.

If this proposal were accepted a new set of membership criteria would need to be drawn up, of course, but the underlying principle would have to be one of offering the certainty of entry as guaranteed forthwith, for those who chose to accept. Rules were made to be broken, and nothing should be so inflexible - not even the Maastricht eurozone membership criteria - that it cannot be ammended as circumstances dictate. And at this point even the undertaking that this - like the long awaited US Stimulus programme - was on the table, would be sufficient to provide immediate, and much needed relief. Flirting with doing nothing here is, in my opinion, flirting with disaster, both in the East and in the West.

Existing Maastricht Criteria

Convergence criteria (also known as the Maastricht criteria) are the criteria for European Union member states to enter the third stage of European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and adopt the euro. The four main criteria are based on Article 121(1) of the European Community Treaty. Those member countries who are to adopt the euro need to meet certain criteria.

1. Inflation rate: No more than 1.5 percentage points higher than the three lowest inflation member states of the EU.

2. Government finance:

Annual government deficit: The ratio of the annual government deficit to gross domestic product (GDP) must not exceed 3% at the end of the preceding fiscal year. If not, it is at least required to reach a level close to 3%. Only exceptional and temporary excesses would be granted for exceptional cases.

Government debt: The ratio of gross government debt to GDP must not exceed 60% at the end of the preceding fiscal year. Even if the target cannot be achieved due to the specific conditions, the ratio must have sufficiently diminished and must be approaching the reference value at a satisfactory pace.

3. Exchange rate: Applicant countries should have joined the exchange-rate mechanism (ERM II) under the European Monetary System (EMS) for 2 consecutive years and should not have devaluated its currency during the period.

4. Long-term interest rates: The nominal long-term interest rate must not be more than two percentage points higher than in the three lowest inflation member states.

The Dimensions Of The Problem

European governments, the European Union and international financial organizations need to act fast on risks stemming form banks’ exposure in the eastern part of the continent to avert an escalation of the credit crisis, Nomura Holdings Inc. said. East European countries are struggling to refinance foreign- currency loans taken out by borrowers during years of prosperity through 2007, when economic growth averaged at more than 5 percent. The International Monetary Fund, which has bailed out Latvia, Hungary, Serbia, Ukraine and Belarus, warned on Jan. 28 that bank losses may widen as “shocks are transmitted between mature and emerging market banking systems.” “Swift action is needed to restore confidence and prevent trouble” to financial and economic stability in the euro region and emerging Europe, said Peter Attard Montalto, an emerging markets economist at Nomura International in London. “Any move should be quick. The situation has begun to decline more rapidly since the end of last year and there is risk that any action may come too late.”

Robert Zoellick is far from being a lone voice in the wilderness about the current level of risk to the coutries in the East, and indeed precisely those EU banks who have been most active in emerging Europe are now busily trying to convince EU regulators, the European Central Bank and Brussels itself to coordinate new measures to counter the impact of the financial crisis confronting the region. The problem in the East certainly now adds a new dimesion to the problems facing us here in Europe, since West European governments are now being simultaneously hit on a number of fronts, and the situation is become more complicated by the day.

In the first place most West European economies are now either in or near recession, and their domestic banking systems are, to either a greater or a lesser extent, struggling. The West European states are thus, by and large, already feeling stress on their own sovereign borrowing capacities. But, with greater or lesser effectiveness, these countries are still able to increase their debt, even if sometimes the surge in borrowing is very dramatic, as in the case of Ireland, which will see gross debt/GDP shooting up from 24.8% in 2007 to a projected 68.2% in 2010 (EU January 2009 Forecast).

The situation in Eastern Europe is very different, and their economies and credit ratings evidently can't support such dramatic increases in their debt levels. Thus, in the case of those countries with a significant home banking presence, like Latvia's Parex, or Hungary's OTP, the support of external organisations (the IMF, the World Bank, the EU) becomes rapidly necessary when the bank concerned starts to have liquidity problems. But as a result of the consequent bailout the debt to GDP ratio starts to rise in a way which then places even subsequent eurozone membership in jeopardy. Latvia's Debt/GDP is, for example set to rise from around 12% of GDP in 2007 to over 55% in 2010. With a 10% plus GDP contraction already in the works for 2009, it is clear that Latvia's debt to GDP will rise beyond the critical 60% level. Hungary's debt/GDP is already above, and rising. If we don't do something soon, these two countries at least are being launched off towards sovereign default.

But the other half of this particular and peculiar coin turns up again in a rather unexpected way, and that is in the form of those West European banks who have subsidiaries in CEE countries, and who find now themselves faced, not with bailouts, but with ever rising default rates. This difficulty evidently and inevitably then works its way back upstream to the parent bank, and to the home state national debt, as the bank almost inevitably needs to seek support from one West European government, or another (in fact Unicredit, which has difficulty getting money from an already cash-strapped Italian government is talking of applying for support from the Austrian government via its Austrian subsidiary).

Austria is, in fact, a very good case in point here, since, as Finance Minister Josef Proell recently indicated, the country had some 230 billion euros of debt outstanding in Eastern Europe, equivalent to around 70 percent of Austria's GDP. The Austrian daily "Der Standard" have also reported the analysts view that a failure rate of 10 percent in Eastern Europe's debt repayments could lead to serious difficulties for Austria's financial sector. And this is no hypothetical "what if" type problem since the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has estimated Eastern Europe's bad debts could go over 10 percent and could even reach 20 percent in the course of the current crisis. Underlining the mounting concern in Austria, Proell tried last week to convince EU finance ministers to provide 150 billion euros is support to CEE economies as a first step in trying to contain the growing wave of defaults.

The total quantity of debt outstanding is hard to put a precise number on, but the Bank for International Settlements estimated that, as of last September, more than $1.25 trillion had been leant by eurozone banks, and if you add in U.K., Swedish and Swiss bank liabilities the number rises to $1.45 trillion.

Western Europeean banks have a very important market share in the East, ranging from a low of 65 percent in Poland to almost 100 percent in the Czech Republic. This basically means two things, that the region's businesses and consumers are extraordinarily dependent on uninterrupted capital inflows from the West, and that some West European banking systems are extremely sensitive to rising default rates in the East. Of course the problem goes beyond the EU's borders, and while EU bank market shares in the Community of Independent States is rather less significant than in the EU12, due to the still substantial domestic ownership which exists there, exposure to defaults is not unimportant, especially in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and, of course, in Russia itself. Further, there is South East Europe to think about, and countries like Serbia and Croatia.

Large Banks Take The Initiative

Getting near to desperation, some of the largest banks involved - Italy's UniCredit and Banca Intesa, Austria's Raiffeisen International and Erste Group Bank, France's Societe Generale and Belgium's KBC - have launched a common initiative to try to lobby for an EU wide solution to the problem.

UniCredit is the largest lender in Poland and Bulgaria, while Erste is number one in Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with KBC occupying the position in Hungary, Intesa in Serbia, and Raiffeisen in Russia and Ukraine. Hungary's OTP Bank, emerging Europe's number 5 lender and the largest one in its home country, does not formally belong to the group. On the other hand OTP is actively looking for support.

OTP Bank Nyrt., Hungary’s biggest bank, said it’s in talks over a “role” for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as it announced a 97 percent drop in fourth-quarter profit and “substantial” job cuts. As well as a possible EBRD involvement, OTP may also seek funds from Hungary’s emergency loan package from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank to “better serve the economy,” Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Sandor Csanyi said at a press conference in Budapest today. “There’s a chance the EBRD will assume a role in OTP, but I must stress that we plan no issue of new shares,” he said. OTP “doesn’t need to be saved,” Csanyi added.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, while expressing support for the bank initiative, has stopped short of offering concrete assistance or suggesting measures beyond those which are already in place.

The president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Thomas Mirow, wrote in the Financial Times this week the bank proposals "deserve full support as a worsening crisis in emerging Europe will threaten Europe as a whole".

The Austrian government has already announced it is trying to raise support for a general European Union initiative to rescue the region’s banking system. The government has set aside 100 billion euros in cash and guarantees to stabilise its banking sector. Next in line in terms of exposure are Italy ($232 billion), Germany ($230 billion) and France ($175 billion).

Unicredit is publicly rather dismissive of the problem (as can be seen from the slide below which from a presentation they gave earlier this week, please click on image to see better), but Italian investors are far from convinced by their arguments, as witnessed by the fact that their stock has plunged 41 percent this year, and by the fact that they were forced to sell 2.98 billion euros in 50 year bonds this week to shore up their Tier I capital after investors only bought about 4.6 million shares, or 0.48 percent, from their most recent rights offer. UniCredit, which said last month it is considering asking for government assistance, has also been disposing of assets to raise money and it plans to pay shareholders their dividends in yet more shares. Nationalisation of banks to supply credit lines to the private sector is one hypothesis currently being studied by Silvio Berlusconi, according to a Financial Times report this morning.

(Click on image for better viewing)
The Austrian proposal includes funds from the European Investment Bank, the European Central Bank and the EU Cohesion Fund. The Austrian government has offered money of its own and has been urging Germany, France, Italy and Belgium as well as the EU itself to contribute. One feature, however, stands out in all of the proposals which have so far been advanced: they are loan based-support. What Soros calls the "tricky question" of fiscal allocation from Europe's richer member states has not so far been raised, but it will be, since it will have to be.

And of course, Austria's concern is far from being altruistic, as Austria's economy and sovereign debt stability depend on finding a solution. It is hardly surprising to learn that credit-default swaps linked to Austrian government debt soared this week - by 39 basis points to a record 225 - on concern the country will need to bail out the domestic banks itself as they report losses and writedowns linked to eastern European investments. Erste, which said last week that full-year profit probably slumped by almost 26 percent, is in talks with the government to get 2.7 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in state aid. RZB has asked for 1.75 billion euros.

The European Central Bank on the other hand, seems reluctant to extend emergency financial help to crisis-hit countries beyond the 16-country eurozone. The ECB did not have “a mandate to be a regional United Nations agency”, Yves Mersch, governor of Luxembourg’s central bank, recently told the Financial Times. Such comments reveal the level of resistance which exists within the ECB’s 22-strong governing council to the idea of offering financial support to countries outside the zone.

The ECB has so far offered loans to Hungary and Poland, but has attached what some consider to be excessively strong conditions on facilities allowing them to borrow up to 5billion and 10billion euros respectively. Mr Mersch, whose views are thought to be widely shared in the ECB, suggested the central bank was worried about setting precedents if it relaxed its stance on helping individual countries. While some euromembers might favour assisting nearby nations, “we must not forget that other people might be sensitive to different countries”.

Who Bails Out The West European Banks In The East?

Governments and EU officials are struggling to formulate a coherent response to the economic and financial turmoil that has started to engulf the eastern part of the old continent. EurActiv presents a round-up of national situations with contributions from its network. Leaders of EU countries from central and eastern Europe will meet on 1 March ahead of an extraordinary summit on the same day with the bloc's other members, it emerged on Thursday (19 January). Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has invited his counterparts from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia for the talks to ensure the 27-nation meeting on the financial crisis is not dominated by the interests of Western member states. See full Euractiv article on background.

The EU has so far provided emergency balance-of-payments assistance to two of the East European member states in difficulty - Hungary and Latvia, and EU ministers did agree in December to more than double the funding available for such emergency lending to 25 billion euros ( so far Hungary has been allocated 6.5 billion and Latvia 3.1 billion). It is also quite probable that such lending will now have to be extended to the two newest southeast European members, Romania and Bulgaria, since their ballooning current account deficits and dramatic credit crunches mean that they are steadily getting into more and more difficulty.

The core of the problem is that the East European economies enjoyed strong credit driven booms, which fuelled higher than desireable inflation and lead to strong foreign exchange loan borrowing which simply bloated current account deficits. Now capital flows into emerging Europe have dried up as the global financial crisis has raised investors' risk aversion and prompted them to dump emerging market assets, leaving foreign-owned banks as the only source of loans for companies and consumers.

Italy's UniCredit, the biggest lender in emerging Europe, warned at the end of January that there was a clear risk of the global credit crunch gripping the region. UniCredit board member Erich Hampel stated at a Euromoney conference in Vienna that the bank was committed to fund its subsidiaries in the CEE countries and would continue to lend, but at the same time made absolutely clear that in order to do this his bank would need government support, whether from Austria, or Poland, or Italy itself.

Hampel said Bank Austria would decide during the first quarter whether to tap the Austrian government's banking stability package for fresh equity. " he said. "Our budget is under discussion now and clearly assumes growth in lending and in funding to the East. "

And according to a report from the Austrian central bank the fact that a relatively small number of Western European groups - including three Austrian ones - own most of the banks in Central and Eastern Europe means that there is the risk of a "domino effect", implying the crisis would spread quickly from one country to another. "How capital flows into (emerging Europe) will develop depends on the financial strength of the parent groups and of the sister banks, and on whether the parents are willing and able to fund their subsidiaries," the bank's half-yearly Financial Stability Report said. "The risks to refinancing are increased by the danger of a domino effect, because a large part of the foreign capital in many countries comes from a relatively small number of Western European banks," .

"What we see is that the emerging European economies have lost all sources of funding but banking," said Deborah Revoltella, chief economist for central and eastern Europe of UniCredit, the region's biggest lender. The task to carry whole economies through a downturn comes at a time when parent banks already face a double challenge: a likely sharp rise in loan defaults at their eastern subsidiaries and more difficult and expensive refinancing for themselves. "The international banks cannot solve this situation," Revoltella said. "They can do their part, and it's fundamental that they do their part but we have to take care of the other sources of funding which are missing now."
And it isn't only Austria who is worried, since Greek central bank governor George Provopoulos warned Greek banks only last Tuesday against transferring funds from the country's bank package to the Balkans, where they have invested heavily.

Regional Risks

In our view GDP growth is like to be negative in all CEE countries this year. In those countries “least” affected by the crisis (i.e. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia) GDP is like to drop at least 2-5%, while those countries worst affected (i.e. the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine) are likely to face double digit declines in GDP. In other words, in terms of expected output lost in the region this is as bad as or even worse than the Asian crisis of 1997-98.
Danskebank - CEE: This Looks Like Meltdown

The problem that the EU has in adressing the situation in the Eastern member states is that what we have on our hands is not only a banking crisis, there is also a strong credit crunch at work, one which is now having a severe impact on the real economies in the region. Most of the economies in the region are already in recession, and those that are not soon will be (I have intersperced a number of relevant graphs throughout this post which should give some general impression of what is happening). Thus these countries are all taking multiple hits at one and the same time.

1/ In the first place they have an economic contraction on their hands, in some cases becuase they are struggling with a steep decline of export demand from western Europe, in others because their externally financed credit boom has now come to a sharp and painful end.

2/. Most countries in the region have some form of foreign currency exposure, although at present this is largely household and corporate rather than sovereign. In a number of countries -notably Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltics this is particularly onerous since most of the mortgages were taken out in euros or Swiss Francs, and the default risk is now rising as their economies either deflate (internal devaluation) or their currencies fall as part of the regional sell-off. The danger is that as the bailouts are implemented at local level this exposure is steadily transferred over to the sovereign level, creating a dangerous dynamic which can endanger future eurozone membership. States which default will be unlikely candidate members.

3/. These countries are also suffering the impact of significant asset writedowns, as those assets bought at very high prices during the boom - some at up to six times their book value - now have to be written down, further weighing on earnings and weakening financial and corporate balance sheets.

4/ Finally there is significant contagion risk. The comparatively small number of foreign lenders involved has lead IMF economists and the credit ratings agencies alike to repeatedly warn of how the risk that a seemingly isolated incident in one country may rapidly spread right across the region.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the whole banking sector and financial system (in the region) rests on the response of parent banks," said Neil Shearing, economist at Capital Economics. "If they withdraw funding it's not very difficult to see how there would be a very severe financial crisis sweeping across the region, and the whole region en masse would have to go to the IMF," he said.

Governments in the region have already taken what measures they can. Most increased deposit guarantees from 20,000 to 50,000 euros following the EU October Paris meeting. Lithuania went further and upped the limit to 100,000 euros, while Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary all now offer unlimited protection. But this begs the question, who guarantees the government guarantees in the event they are called on.

So the problem has now become a very delicate one, since the banks want to maintain their presence in the region even while almost every factor imaginable is working against them. The latest such factor is the threat of credit downgrades for their core business in Western Europe, and Moody’s Investors Service warned only this week that some of Europe’s largest banks may be downgraded because of loans to eastern Europe, a warning which sent Italy's UniCredit to its lowest level in the Milan stock market in 12 years.

Moody’s argues there will be “continuous downward rating pressure” in the region as a result of worsening asset quality and western banks’ reliance on short-term funding. UniCredit’s Bank Austria subsidiary earned almost half its pretax profit from eastern Europe in 2007, Raiffeisen International Bank-Holding almost 80 percent and Austria’s Erste Group Bank more than 60 percent, according to Moody’s.

“The most risky parts of the western European banks’ businesses are in eastern Europe and when you decide to cut risks, you cut back on the most risky assets first,” Lars Christensen, an analyst at Danske Bank A/S in Copenhagen, said by telephone today. “This could add further risk in the region as the economies there may face large current account deficits if funding from western European banks is withdrawn.”

As a result last Tuesday we saw a surge in the cost of protecting bank bonds from default, lead by Raiffeisen International Bank-Holding and UniCredit. Credit-default swaps on Vienna-based Raiffeisen climbed 26 basis points to a record 369 and those for UniCredit soared 23 basis points to an all-time high of 213, according to data from CMA Datavision in London. Credit-default swaps on Erste increased 24.5 to 307, Paris- based Societe Generale rose 6 to 116 and KBC in Brussels was unchanged at 240, according to CMA prices.

The rising cost of insuring against default by a “peripheral” European government is likely to weigh on the euro, according to Merrill Lynch & Co. “This remains an important background negative for the euro,” Steven Pearson, a strategist in London at Merrill Lynch, wrote in a note today. “European banking-sector exposure to Eastern Europe, often via foreign currency lending, is an additional euro negative story that is gaining air-time.” Emerging market central banks may move away from holding European government bonds in their reserves as widening yield spreads between debt of different euro-zone economies makes bonds more difficult to trade, Pearson said.

So Why Would The Euro Help?

Well, in the first place, four of the Eastern economies - Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, are effectively stuck, since their currencies are pegged to the Euro. They are in the unenviable position of being stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place. They are now faced with US depression type economic slumps, and massive internal wage and price deflation all at the same time. Would Euro membership help? Well lets look at what the IMF said in their most recent report on the stand-by loan arrangement for Latvia.

Accelerated adoption of the euro at a depreciated exchange rate would deliver most of the benefits of widening the bands, but with fewer drawbacks. Unlike all other options for changing the exchange rate, the new (euro-entry) parity would not be subject to speculation.

By providing a stable nominal anchor and removing currency risk, euroization would boost confidence and be associated with less of an output decline than other options.Euroization with EU and ECB concurrence would also help address liquidity strains in the banking system. If Latvian banks could access ECB facilities, then those that are both solvent and hold adequate collateral could access sufficient liquidity. The increase in confidence should dampen concerns of resident depositors and also help stem non resident deposit outflows.

However, this policy option would not address solvency concerns and has been ruled out by the European authorities. If combined with a large upfront devaluation, there would be an immediate deterioration in private-sector solvency, which could slow recovery. Privatesector debt restructuring would likely be necessary. Finally, the European Union strongly objects to accelerated euro adoption, as this would be inconsistent with treaty obligations of member governments, so this option is infeasible.

Basically, devaluating the Lat and entering the euro directly was the IMF's preferred option for Latvia, "euroization with EU and ECB concurrence" was the second option, and keeping the peg and implementing massive internal deflation only the third. The problem was that the EU, in its wisdom felt euro adoption "would be inconsistent with treaty obligations of member governments" - as would I suppose bailing out Austria and Ireland be "inconsistent with treaty obligations of member governments under the Maastricht Treaty. Go tell it to the marines, is what I say!

And this is not just Latvia, but four entire countries (little ones, but still countries) that are effectively being thrown to the wolves here.

Downward Pressure On Currencies, Upward Pressure On Interest Rates

Nor is the position of those with floating currencies - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania - much better, since their currencies are now coming under substantial pressure, and as a result defaults are growing, defaults which will only work their way back upstream to the Western Countries whose banks will have to stand the losses.

At the same time, the risk of a sharper, 1997 Asian-style adjustment cannot be excluded, given the similarities between Asia before the eruption of the crisis there in 1997 and the situation in emerging Europe. Beyond any considerations about valuation, the FX market may overreact as it did during the Asian or Russian crises in 1997 & 1998. To halt the downward spiral of currency depreciation, a substantial rise in interest rates combined with a tight fiscal policy under an IMF programme could be necessary.
Murat Toprak & Gaelle Blanchard, Societe Generale

Obviously there is now a sense of urgency here, and the warning signs are everywhere, for those who know how to read them. According to Zbigniew Chlebowski, the chairman for the Polish ruling party’s parliamentary group speaking in an interview earlier this week, the Polish government has been in official talks with the European Central Bank over joining the pre-euro exchange-rate mechanism “for several days.” So consultations are getting to be fast and furious.

And Hungarian, Polish and Czech government debt, which has been among the highest rated in emerging markets, is now being downgraded by bondholders. Investors are currently demanding 20 basis points more yield to own Hungary’s bonds than similar-maturity Brazilian debt, which is rated four levels lower by Moody’s Investors Service, according JPMorgan bond indexes. The risk of Poland defaulting is currently running at about the same as Serbia, ranked six levels lower by Standard & Poor’s, based on credit-default swap prices, while Czech 10-year bonds yield the most compared with German bunds since 2001.

“Everybody is running for the door,” said Lars Christensen, head of emerging-market strategy at Danske Bank A/S in Copenhagen. “The markets have decided the central and eastern European region is the subprime area of Europe.”

The currencies of these currenciies are tumbling on investor concern the region’s economies are among the most vulnerable to the global credit crisis. Poland’s zloty has fallen 35 percent against the euro since August, the forint - which has fallen around 13% since the start of the year, and about 25% since last August -weakened to a record low of 309.71 this week. At the same time the Koruna hit the lowest level since 2005.

(Chart above - Polish Zloty vs Euro)

The zloty has risen - against the previous trend - by 3.2 percent this week, following a decision by the Finance Ministry to enter the market (on Wednesday) and started selling euros from European Union funds for zlotys. Prime Minister Donald Tusk said yesterday the currency must be defended “at any cost.” The Czech central bank stated it regards the buying and selling currencies to manage the koruna as an “exceptional” tool that it’s resisted using since 2002, with the implication that it may not be able to resist much longer, although interest rate hikes (as practised in Hungary) seem to be the more likely approach in the Czech Republic. Such gains as have been obtained for the zloty are likely to be short lived (intervention is a tool of desperation, not of strength, and rarely has any lasting effect) and they can hardly exhaust EU funding they badly need to spend on stimulus type projects in the face of the downturn defending the indefensible, as Russia has been learning to its cost in another context.

“It [currency intervention ]is for us an exceptional tool at our disposal,” Tomas Holub, head of its monetary policy department, said in a telephone interview today. “Of course it’s one of the potential tools, but so far no decision has been taken in this direction.”

After intervention the only real tool left is interest rate policy, and fear of further currency falls is now acting as a serious brake on monetary policy as the pace of economic contraction gathers speed in one country after another. “A lowering of interest rates at the current levels of the exchange rate is completely out of the debate,” Deputy Governor Miroslav Singer told E15 newspaper earlier this week. “The question is whether to raise, and by how much.”

Really the suggestion that all these countries simply traipse off to the IMF (one after the other) in search of help is shameful. There is simply no other word for it, shameful. As Oscar Wilde put it, losing one child may be an accident, but losing all your children, now that has to be negligence! Let them in, and let them in now, before the whole house of cards collapses on top of each and every one of us.


This article is the second in a series of five I am in the process of writing on ways forward with Europe's financial and economic crisis.

The first was Why We Need EU Bonds.

Subsequent articles will deal with:

a) The need for Quantitative Easing In The Eurozone
b) What might a new Stability and Growth Pact look like?
c) Why as well as rewriting the banking regulations we also need to do something about Europe's demographic imbalances.

Update: The Danskebank View

With which I wholeheartedly agree.

This week the crisis in the CEE markets has intensified dramatically after the publication of a number of reports putting a negative focus on Western European banks’ exposure to the overly leveraged CEE economies. The crisis is clearly developing in an explosive fashion and there is a very clear risk of an Asian crisis style meltdown. The economies in the region are already in free fall, and at least one country – Ukraine – is dangerously close to sovereign default. Rapidly rising concerns have led policy makers across Europe to call for immediate action to avoid a dangerous collapse that potentially could spill into the euro zone. However, policy makers seem very divided on what to do in the current situation.

Earlier this week Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius called for coordinated action from the EU to try to solve the problems in CEE. Later in the week the World Bank’s president Robert Zoellick echoed Kubilius’ cry for help.

However, the EU Commission does not seem very excited about a coordinated effort to avoid meltdown. Rather Joaquín Almunia, EU monetary affairs commissioner, this week said that he would prefer a country-by-country approach to crisis management. In our view, a country-by-country approach to crisis management entails a number of risks, as there is a strong potential for contagion from one CEE country to another due to the significant integration in the financial sector across the region. Therefore, we think that there is urgent need for a more coordinated effort to stabilise the situation– otherwise this crisis will drag out and uncertainty remain elevated for an extended period.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Europe's Economic Contraction Intensifies In February

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Hopes that Europe's battered economies might be about to turn themselves around took another sharp knock today (Friday), as the preliminary flash reading on the purchasing manager survey signaled that activity in both the manufacturing and the services sectors are contracting at a new record pace in February.

The preliminary Markit euro-zone manufacturing purchasing managers index, or PMI, fell to a record low of 33.6 in February from 34.4 in January, while the services PMI also fell to a record low, dropping to 38.9 from 42.2 in January. As a consequence the euro-zone composite PMI reading dropped to its own record low of 36.2 from 38.3 in January. Any reading below 50 on these indexes indicates month on month contraction.

Barring some spectacular (and entirely improbable) turnaround in March it now seems likely that the Q1 GDP contraction will be worse than the Q4 2008 one. If we consider that the eurozone contracted by 0.2% in Q3 2008, and by 1.5% in Q4, then, in my humble opinion, the data we are seeing for this quarter are entirely consistent with a 2% quarterly contraction (or an annualised 8% rate of contraction). Not quite Japan territory yet, but not far behind. And for those who simply don't believe the PMIs can tell you so much, here is Markit's own chart, showing the strong underlying relationship between movements in GDP and the *flash* composite PMI. Pretty impressive I would say.

Germany's Contraction Intensifies

The German service PMI came in at at 41.6, showing the fifth consecutive month of contraction. This was a sharp drop from last months 45.2 reading, and means that the recession is now feeding through from manufacturing to services. The difficult conditions have lead service business owners to hold to the grimmest outlook in the last decade, that is since the index was started. More ominously, the recent data points to a strong reduction in the employment level.

On the other hand February saw the tiniest of upticks in the manufacturing sector, since the PMI came in at 32.2, from January's 32 , the best that can be said here is that the rate of contraction may have stabilised.

France Holds Up Slightly Better Than Most

In France, the manufacturing sector (see chart below) gave up on most of January's rebound, and the PMI fell to 35.4 from 37.9 in January, while services (see chart above) slipped to a record low of 40.1 from 42.6 in January. Nonetheless France is visibly performing rather better than Germany, and when all this is over we will have plenty of time to hold the debate as to why that has been.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Why We Need EU Bonds

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Wolfgan Munchau was complaining only last weekend about the extraordinary narrow-mindedness of Europe's economic and political leadership in the face of the current financial and economic crisis, from Ireland in the West to Hungary in the East, and from Greece in the South to Sweden in the North. But more than narrow mindedness what we are faced with is innocence and inability to react, and frankly I am not sure which is worst. I say "innocence" because it is by now abundantly clear that they simply haven't yet grasped the severity of the problems we face (in countries like Spain, or even Germany itself, let alone in the East), and I say inability to react, since they are always and forever moving too little and too late. The initial response to the banking crisis last October was one example (where we saw a landshift-style volte face in the space of only one week) and the way we are now confronting the need to live up to the promises then made about guaranteeing the banking sector, and in particular the "systemic" banks, would be another.

The complete confusion which seems to reign over at the ECB about whether or not the Eurozone can operate some sort of US/Japanese style quantitative easing would be a third.

Only today we are faced with yet another example of how our leaders are meticulously dangling their toes in the icy water where a more seasoned mariner would simply see the need to dive straight in and rescue the drowning man.

It is reported this morning that Germany and France are now contemplating the possibility of bailing-out entire nations, rather than simply individual banks, as European government budget commitments steadily mount-up while their sovereign debt ratings start to buckle under the weight of a growing and deepening European recession.

As reported in my post yesterday (here) German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck became the first senior European politician to broach the topic earlier this week, when he stated that some of the 16 euro area nations are now “getting into difficulties” and may need help, citing Ireland as an example. French officials are also reportedly concerned about how the current "stand alone" sovereign debt situation is leading to widening spreads on Austrian, Irish, Greek and Spanish debt as the cost of insuring against default rises to records. What we have before us is not simply a case of seeing "fiscal irresponsibility" punished, it is a mechanism whereby the eurozone can be peeled apart, and where those states who enter a negative economic growth-bank bailout-fiscal deficit dynamic which means the cost of financing their debt (and thus their bank bailouts) rises so prohibitively that it virtually excludes the possibility of giving further fiscal stimulus to their sinking economies, and does so in such a way that a self reinforcing (and self fulfilling) process may be produced, a process which only leads in one direction and to one conclusion: that of sovereign default.

The problem is that it is not just one or two quarters of negative growth we are talking about here, we are talking of deep depressions, and ones during which deep structural damage can be inflicted on the economies of those states who are hardest hit.

“When push comes to shove Germany, France, the larger players will bail out those smaller peripheral players,” said Alex Allen, chief investment officer of Eddington Capital Management. “You can’t let one part of the system fail because it leads to failure of the whole system.”

European deficits have evidently surged enormously this year as governments are faced with the need to provide funding for the heavily strained banking system and provide some kind of stimulus to their rapidly contracting economies. EU member states have already committed more than 1.2 trillion euros in an attempt to save the banking systems from collapse, and it is evident that a second and possibly larger wave of bailouts may now be imminent.

In particular many of us our now concerned that the eurozone bond market could potentially face a crisis similar to that unleashed by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. As ECB board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi put it earlier this month there’s a “risk that the mistrust that there is today in financial markets” is “transformed into mistrust in states.”

“I would be very reluctant to say: ‘O.K., let Ireland or Greece default, the market will sort it out, punish them for their irresponsibility of the past,’” said Thomas Mayer, co-head of global economics at Deutsche Bank AG in London. “They tried it with Lehman and realized that was not a good idea.”

The Spreads Widen

The gap between the interest rates Greece, Austria and Spain must pay investors to borrow for 10 years and the rate charged Germany yesterday rose to the widest since before they adopted the euro. Credit-default swaps on Ireland rose to a record on Feb. 16, climbing to 378.4 points. Greek credit-default swaps, 270 points on Feb. 16, show a 4.5 percent chance that the country will default in the next 12 months, according to ING Bank NV.

Are Bailout's Possible Under Maastricht?

The simple answer to the above question is most emphatically yes, under article 119 of the Treaty. As follows:

Where a Member State is in difficulties or is seriously threatened with difficulties as regards its balance of payments either as a result of an overall disequilibrium in its balance of payments, or as a result of the type of currency at its disposal, and where such difficulties are liable in particular to jeopardise the functioning of the common market or the progressive implementation of the common commercial policy, the Commission shall immediately investigate the position of the State in question and the action which, making use of all the means at its disposal, that State has taken or may take in accordance with the provisions of this Treaty.

Which in plain English basically means, through you go with your proverbial coach and horses. Indeed they may well have already been driven through, last November, in the case of Hungary.

“The European Commission stands ready to provide a loan of €6.5 billion to Hungary,” the EU executive said in a statement on Wednesday (29 October), adding that “the concrete modalities will shortly be finalised in cooperation with the Hungarian authorities”. Under the plans, the Commission will borrow money from the markets using EU-denominated bonds and then lend it to Hungary, without drawing from the EU budget. The facility is established under Article 119 of the Treaty.It is the first time that Brussels has used the instrument to help an EU country (see background). The facility foresees an overall ceiling of €12 billion of outstanding loans. This funding is limited to EU countries which are not part of the euro zone.

The €12 billion ceiling currently provisioned for in the bond facility has not so far been reached, but it has long been evident that other Eastern EU countries would need to draw from the facility for financial help. Thus it is hardly surprising to learn that French President Nicolas Sarkozy had already proposed raising the ceiling to €20 billion at an EU summit on 7 November.

"I will propose on 7 November that the European Union itself, which has 12 billion available to support a certain number of liquidities and to support a certain number of states, should go up to at least 20 billion (euros) to increase our capacity to respond to the crisis," Sarkozy said, according to Reuters.

As one EU official told journalists at the time "the Commission could also change the regulation and lift the ceiling". Or, in other words, when needs must, it will.

A Little History

The principle of borrowing money from financial markets on behalf of the European Community has previously been applied to grant aid to extra-EU countries, in particular before the 2004 enlargement. Kosovo, Moldova and Georgia are all currently receiving financial help through EU loans raised on the market. In January 1993, Italy, a member of the European Community (the EU's forerunner), was granted an eight billion ECU loan to support its strained balance of payments. Since then, no member state has received financial help through this instrument.

The idea of borrowing money via the issue of EU bonds was first launched by former Commission President Jacques Delors via his 1993 plan for growth, competitiveness and employment. Delors initially wanted EU bonds to fund the European budget. But the majority of member states opposed the idea, fearing it would ultimately increase their expenditure on the Community budget.

Borrowed money has been used by the EU to fund projects in several cases, although the amounts involved have been small. For instance, a 'New Community Instrumentexternal ' was used in the late 70s and early 80s to help regions affected by earthquakes in Italy and Greece. Italy has recently proposed using European bonds to fund key EU projects, but the idea garnered little support

The gateway for the coach and horses is also being prepared on another front, as the Financial Times reports this morning. In this case we are talking about the European Investment Bank, which, according to the FT, is set to lend the European car industry 7 billion euros in the first half 2009 to support the manufacturing of environmentally clean vehicles. This is already a substantial increase on the approximately 2 billion euros a year the bank extended to the industry before the crisis, and there may be more, much more, to come. Pathways are being prepared, even as the wheels on the coach are oiled and the horses' mains groomed.
Philippe Maystadt, the bank’s president for the past decade, revealed the €7bn figure to the Financial Times, as he explained the EIB’s plans to shoulder a bigger financing burden in crisis-hit Europe. Member states have already asked the EIB to increase its annual lending programme by €15bn ($19.2bn, £13.3bn) to €63bn for this year and next in an effort to revive the economy.

So Why The Criticism?

So why, if there behind the scenes so many preparations are now being made did I start this post by saying that more than narrow mindedness, what I felt we were faced with is innocence and an inability to react? Well basically, because I think that Europe's leaders are still in general denial on the scope of this problem. We are not talking simply of little cases, like Greece and Ireland, we are talking about potentially much harder chestnuts to crack, like Spain, and Italy, the UK, and even Germany itself. Remember Germany's economic is now contracting at an almost astonishing pace, and German bonds are getting harder to sell all the time.

The full extent of the problems in the German banking system, as defaults mount in Spain and Eastern Europe, is yet to be measured. Only today German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet approved a draft bill allowing the state to seize control of property lender Hypo Real Estate Holding AG, paving the way for the first German bank nationalization since the 1930s. And the volume of assets thought to be likely to need to be bought by any bad bank (or banks) created is very large. Hypo's loans alone are thought to total almost 260 billion euros, and numbers in the 400 to 600 billion euro range are being mentioned. So the fear here is not that a German sovereign default is looming, but that German debt may no longer maintain "benchmark" status, and thus the rate of interest the German government may have to pay to maintain its debt may rise, again impeding efforts to help maintain the economy afloat, and almost inevitably biting into the country's already strained health and pension systems.

Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck was quoted by the Frankfurt Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung weekly newspaper as saying he could "not imagine (the establishment of a "bad bank") economically or above all politically". A bad bank would need to be financed with 150 billion to 200 billion euros of taxpayer funds, he said. "How am I supposed to present that to parliament? People would say we are crazy." Steinbrueck said no one could predict whether the rescue fund would need to be expanded given mounting losses at banks, but noted it still had room to distribute more money.

And one last example for today, of how the one half (the Commission) doesn't know what the other half (the Nation State leaders) is up to. Joaquin Almunia (who is so often "really out to lunch" on economic issues, he is, as they say "challenged" by the complexity of macro economics, see for example this post here) has warned that Brussels could take action soon against EU member states which let their budget deficits rise above the 3% threshold (see P O'Neill post here).

The EU's executive arm plans Wednesday to examine the budgetary circumstances of several countries, including France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain, to see whether action is needed. Most of them, notably France, Greece and Spain, have already forecast that their deficits will blow out beyond three percent of gross domestic product (GDP) -- the limit set out in the EU's Stability and Growth Pact.

France, which has called for the EU limit to be eased as governments grapple with the worst economic downturn in decades, has said it expects its deficit to be 3.2 percent GDP in 2008 and 4.4 percent in 2009. Ireland's deficit is expected to blow out to 5.5 percent in 2008, and then 6.5 percent in 2009, with Dublin hoping to bring things back into line in 2011. Spanish authorities expect a deficit of 5.8 percent this year. Germany, Europe's biggest economy, has forecast three percent this year but believes the figure could grow to more than four percent in 2010. Greece, for its part, foresees a deficit of 3.7 percent in 2009. The Netherlands is due to publish its latest figures Tuesday and might just scrape through.

Given the difficult, and unforseen, pressure we are all up against, this is, quite frankly ridiculous. Not that rising fiscal deficits, and rising debt to GDP ratios, are something we should be casual about, but I think what we need is a certain loosening of the rules in the short term, to be followed by a much stricter tightening as we move forward. And do you know the mechanism I would use to discipline the reluctant states when it comes to paying off the accounts run up during the emergency? Why yes, you've got it, the availability of those much-easier-to-finance EU backed bonds.

You see while the first argument in favour of EU bonds may be an entirely pragmatic one, namely that it doesn't make sense for subsidiary components of EU Inc. to be paying more to borrow their money when the credit guarantee of the parent entity can get it for them far cheaper, the longer term argument in favour is that it may well enable the EU Commission to become something it has long dreamed of becoming - an internal credit rating agency for EU national debt. Basically in the mid term the EU bonds system can only work if it is backed by a very strong Lisbon type reform pact for those countries who apply to make use of the facility. This is what now needs to be worked on. And how do we know that that there won't be yet another round of backsliding on all this? Well we don't, this is the risk we just have to take, but sometimes you do need to simply cross your fingers and jump, since the burning building behind you looks none to attractive either, but what we do know is that since there will now be a mechanism whereby the bad behaviour of the few really can penalise the many financially, then there really will be some meaningful incentive to generate a pact, this time, that really has teeth to stop that penalisation taking place.

Ukraine GDP Down 20% Year on Year In January

By Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Well, Paul Krugman certainly got it right on this one, the Great Depression may now reasonably be considered to have arrived in Ukraine. Ukraine's GDP declined 20 percent in January year-on-year, according to Valeriy Lytvytsky chief advisor to the chairman of the National Bank of Ukraine. "The decline in GDP in January was about 20 percent according to my reckoning. It's the biggest drop ever. It's a bad start," he said. According to Lytvytsky the construction and industry sectors have been the hardest hit by the economic crisis.

The Statistics Office don't produce detailed information on the month by month movements in GDP, but using the raw data they do provide I have calculated the monthly growth rates, and have produced the chart below, which gives a pretty clear idea of what has been happening.

Industrial output fell in January for the sixth month in a row, with a 16.1 percent decline between January and December 2008. This was the biggest decrease since January 1994, when there was an 18.6 percent drop. Industrial production in January was 34.1 percent down on January 2008. The year-on-year decline in construction also increased ten-fold, hitting 57.6 percent, Lytvytsky said.

"At the start of last year there was one sector in recession - construction. All the rest were in positive territory. Now only one economic sector is growing - agriculture - with growth of 0.5 percent, within the margin of error. All the other basic industries, which account for about 80 percent of GDP, are contracting."
Valeriy Lytvytsky

Unfortunately this may well be the last month for which I can do this kind of calculation and comparison, since the State Statistics Committee will not be publishing monthly GDP results (as in the past), starting this January and (ironically) as a result of the move to harmonise Ukraine methodology with international-standard, quarterly reporting. I say ironically, since in this case we will be trading short term insight for longer term precision. However, the office will continue publishing monthly results for individual economic sectors like agriculture, industry, construction and transportation, so we maywell be able to invent some kind of "proxy", just to keep an eye on what is happening in more or less real time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Santander's Banif Fund Suspends Payments

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

"I would now expect several eurozone countries with weak banking sectors to get into serious difficulties as the crisis continues. There is a risk of cascading sovereign defaults. If this was limited to countries of the size of Ireland or Greece, one could solve this problem through a bail-out. But solvency risk is not a problem confined to small countries. The banking sectors in Italy, Spain and Germany are increasingly vulnerable."
Wolfgang Munchau, Financial Times, 15 February 2009.
German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck said on Monday euro zone countries would have to pull together if one of them faced a "serious situation," adding that Ireland was in a "difficult situation."
Investors are increasingly concerned that Ireland may default on its national debt as the government pledges more money to help troubled banks, the Sunday Times said. Credit-default swaps on Ireland’s government bonds reached record levels last week as debt investors rate the nation as Europe’s most-troubled economy, the paper said. Ireland has pledged financial help for lenders that would be more than double its annual economic output and the loans held by its banks are more than 11 times the size of its economy, the report said. Credit-default swaps on the five-year sovereign debt of Ireland, which is rated AAA by Fitch Ratings, jumped 49 basis points on Feb. 13 to a record 377, according to CMA Datavision prices. That’s 18 basis points more than the cost to protect the debt of Costa Rica, which Fitch rates BB, or 11 grades lower than AAA, from default.
Bloomberg, 16 February 2009

Well push is, I think, now getting much much nearer to shove time, and we now wait restlessly to know what EU leaders are going to offer in the way of a second round of bank bailouts at the end of this month. As I argue in this post, and as Munchau also suggests, more than sweet words will be needed to honour the commitment made on October 12 2008 in Paris that no "systemic" EU bank would be allowed to fail, as a minimum we need a comprehensive mechanism financed by the issuing of EU bonds.

The most recent and most obvious example of the push coming to shove situation is the announcement by Spain's Banco Santander, yesterday (Monday), that its Banif property fund, the largest of its type in Spain, could not meet the avalanche of redemption requests it had been receiving, and consequently had asked the stock market regulator for permission to suspend payments for up to 2 years.

According to the bank's own statement clients (of whom there are a total of around 50,000) holding 80 percent of the investments, or 2.62 billion euros, had asked to redeem their holdings while what is the eurzone's biggest bank had had to admit that the Banif Inmobiliario Fund FII lacked the cash to facilitate this, and that they, Banco Santander were not going to inject the liquidity necessary to enable the fund so to do.

This decision stands in sharp contrast with the earlier action of Spain's second-biggest bank BBVA who, when faced with a similarly massive demand from clients to redeem their investments at the end of last year, opted to buy 95.6 percent of their 1.57 billion euro fund, which is the second biggest in the Spanish market.

Banif has 67 percent of its assets invested in housing, 18 percent in offices, and 14 percent in commercial property, according to the fund's fourth quarter report. These properties are distribuited around Spain, with heavy concentrations in Madrid, the Balearic Islands and the north-west. Offices and commercial premises are mainly centred in Madrid and Barcelona. The fund's assets lost around 15 per cent of their value between the third and fourth quarters as values were adjusted to reflect price declines. Property sales are in constant decline in Spain - according to figures released yesterday, total sales December home sales were 26 per cent down over December 2007. House prices in Spain fell January on January by around 10% and may fall by a further 20 percent this year according to a report last week fromTasaciones Inmobiliarias SA (TINSA), the country’s biggest property valuer.

Banif, which is described in its prospectus as “low risk,” produced a yield of 1.37 percent last year, down from 5.87 percent in 2007, according to the fourth-quarter report, while assets under management fell 4.2 percent in January, according to data published by Inverco, the Spanish asset management association.

Analysts are evidently alarmed by this development and are warning of the immediate danger that this news could spark a a massive demand for redemption from investors in other Spanish real estate funds. There are currently nine such funds in Spain, with assets totalling around 7.25 billion euros under their management.

"I've never seen a case like it," said one fund manager at Madrid brokerage Renta 4, who asked not to be named. "It could trigger a snow ball effect; that's one of the consequences when you start to hear that the biggest (fund) is doing badly".

Santander's property division propose to use 10 percent of the fund's assets - valued at 3.41 billion euros at end-December - to pay investors partial redemptions, saying that if the necessary capital could not be raised through asset sales, it would inject cash itself. The statement also said that should the fund not be in a position to fulfil repayment requests within two years it would wind itself up. Clearly this news was not exactly enthusiastically greeted by the Spanish Bolsa, and Santander stock closed 4 percent lower at 5.49 euros after a sharper sell off in the last 30 minutes of trade. This compares with a 3 percent fall in the DJ European banking index.

“What’s happened is another symptom of deep structural problems facing the Spanish real estate industry, which will take years to resolve,” said Juan Jose Figares, chief analyst at Link Securities in Madrid.

Bad Debts Rising At Santander

Spanish banks, including savings banks and co-operatives, saw bad loans rise by 5.2 percent in December to 59.16 billion euros ($75.49 billion) from 56.12 billion euros in November, Bank of Spain data showed yesterday. The non-performing loans (NPL) ratio for all institutions was 3.3 percent at end-December, compared with 3.13 percent in November, with rates among savings banks the highest, at 3.79 percent, up from 3.63 percent the previous month. The bad debt ratio for commercial banks rose to 2.81 percent from 2.61 percent.

In the case of Santander such loans more than doubled to 14.2 billion euros in 2008 as a recessions in Spain and in the U.K. lead to rising defaults by borrowers. Loan arrears as a percentage of total lending totaled 2.04 percent at the end of December, up from 0.95 percent a year earlier and 1.63 percent in September. The bank added 3.6 billion euros in bad loans in the fourth quarter. The bank stated during the presentation of its full year results that NPLs in the Spanish banking system could rise up to 8 percent in 2009 as the country heads in to its worst recession in 50 years.

Full-year profit fell 2 percent to 8.88 billion euros as the bank booked 350 million euros in costs tied to compensating customers hit by the alleged Madoff fraud.

“The U.K. is a terrible place for a bank to be and Spain is also looking more and more dreadful,” said Lecubarri, who manages about $250 million, in a telephone interview ahead of results. “What’s key for investors is judging how this will keep affecting asset quality.”

Santander has said it will pay 1.38 billion euros to clients hit by losses from investments with Madoff, making it the first bank to offer a settlement in the affair. The bank’s Optimal Investment Services hedge fund unit, based in Geneva, had 2.3 billion euros with Madoff.

Metrovacesa To Be Handed Over To Creditors

Metrovacesa, which is Spain's biggest property firm, will be handed over to its creditors on February 20, slightly later than its main shareholder originally planned, in return for the banks cancelling debt. The Sanahuja family, which has an 81 percent stake in Metrovacesa, have said in a stock market announcement said it will hand over 54.75 percent of the office, mall and housing developer to six creditor banks next Tuesday.

"The arrival of some documentation has been delayed and the entry of the banks is delayed until next Tuesday. The company will also publish (full year) results) on Tuesday," a spokesman for the family said.

The Sanahuja family accumulated between 4 and 5 billion euros in debt through their acquisitions, but got into difficulties when the market turned and banks restricted further lending. As a result of the "handover" BBVA, Santander, Sabadell, Banco Popular, Banesto and Caja Madrid will each take 9 percent of the company. The Spanish banks are thus constantly expanding their property portfolio as the non performing loans pile up.

And The Credit Crunch Continues

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy called on European Union states on Monday to focus efforts on ensuring credit lines were restored to the battered European economy. "The restoration of the supply of credit must be our top priority," they wrote in a letter to the Czech EU Presidency, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters. "We must renew our commitment to a return to sustainable public finances," they added in the letter, which also called for a special summit on the economic crisis later in February.

According to the latest report from Markit economics Spanish manufacturers are being hit the hardest by credit squeeze as the financial crisis deepens and factories swoon into closure. Markit found that more than one in five manufacturing companies in Spain feel the deterioration in credit conditions is hurting their business, while 46 percent reported that credit availability had worsened from three months earlier.

In an attempt to address the problem and provide credit direct to the customer, the Spanish government have now approved a 4.17 billion-euro plan to aid the car industry. The plan involves an injection of 800 million euros this year to improve productivity and 1.2 billion euros which will be made available for consumers to finance new-car purchases. The plan also includes loans for companies and permits manufacturers to delay paying social security taxes. The At the start of the recession the Spanish car industry represented around 6 percent of Spain’s economy and employed more than 350,000 people. Spanish January car sales were down 42 percent from a year earlier, according to the trade group ANFAC.

Action At The EU Level Urgently Needed

I will close this post as I opened it, with a quote from Wolfgang Munchau. Wolfgang suggests that the action which is needed is not going to happen. It could well be he is right, although I personally at this point have not abandoned all hope. But we should be in no doubt, the price of inaction at this point will be high, as high as that which Wolfgang suggests. The EU banking system is in danger, and it is danger not just in Southern European "PIG-like" economies. It is in danger in Germany, it is in danger in the UK. We need a collective response, and we need it now!

The right course would be to solve the underlying problem – to shift at least some of the stimulus spending to EU or eurozone level and, ideally, drop those toxic national schemes altogether and to adopt a joint strategy for the financial sector, at least for the 45 cross-border European banks. But this is not going to happen. It did not happen in October, and it is not going to happen now. As a result of the extraordinary narrow-mindedness of Europe’s political leadership, expect serious damage to the single market in general and the single market for financial services in particular. As for the eurozone, I always argued in the past that a break-up is in effect impossible. I am no longer so sure.


Reuters have a very useful piece of background which gives us a bit of insight into current thinking. Comparisons are being made with what happened after Spain's last recesssion, since banks bougtht up large chunks of the of the property industry during the 1993-95 recession before making up to seven times their original investment by selling them on in the 1997-2007 property bubble. However there are serious question marks over whether a model like this will work this time round, since property prices may simply take a substantial fall, and then prices may well stay low, as happened in Japan after 1992. Certainly current conditions look nothing like Spain in 1994, and the banks' current haste to buy property, rather than allow failing businesses to go bust, is artificially lowering NPL rates now, only to delay future loan losses, losses that will hit sooner or later (my guess is 2011) as it finally sinks in that this is not a normal recession and that there will not be a normal recovery. Santander, for example, bought 2.6 billion euros of property last year at 10 percent under the (official) market rate. The bank argues that had it not swapped that debt for property, loans on 13 percent of those assets would have defaulted.

Spanish banks are returning to property ownership to avoid loading more bad loans on to their balance sheets but the strategy is risky and unlikely to be as profitable as their real estate buying spree 15 years ago. Spain's eight biggest banks last year formed or resurrected property wings that have bought up 7.8 billion euros ($9.9 billion) worth of property from struggling home-owners and developers.

The main threat to Spanish banks has come not from the toxic U.S. mortgage debt that has poisoned U.S. and British institutions, but a rapidly deepening recession propelling their bad loan rate to an expected 7 percent this year and 9 percent in 2010 from 2.8 percent last October, according to the Bank of Spain. Mindful of the need to keep bad loans to a minimum, bankers are doing everything to stop another major developer filing for administration as Spain's biggest house builder Martinsa Fadesa

Not only will creditors likely take years to recover debts from Martinsa but the default also ramped up non-performing loan (NPL) rates as they provisioned 25 percent of the loan, or 250 million euros in the case of No.2 savings bank Caja Madrid. "By buying real estate assets the banks stop loans becoming bad loans. In so doing, the client's debt with the bank is canceled and they avoid not only increasing bad loans, but they also avoid having to make more provisions," said Nuria Alvarez, an analyst at Madrid brokerage Renta 4.