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Friday, February 26, 2010

Too Soon To Cry "Victory" On Latvia?

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

"Doom-mongers" - the Economist tells us - "are licking their wounds". And why exactly are they licking their wounds? Well for two years now (apparently) they have been telling us that "the struggle to save the lat’s peg to the euro was bound to end in tears". As you could imagine right in the very forefront of these so called doom-mongers is to be found yours very truly (and here), and of course Nobel Economist Paul Krugman (and here).

But while I have never thought of myself as especially adverse to admitting defeat when faced with compelling reasons to do so, just why, we might ask ouselves, should we start to think about licking our wounds right now (and why our wounds, since it is poor old Latvia which has been subjected to all the blood-letting implied by this none-too-convincing "thought experiment" turned reality)?

Well, in the first place, given the dramatic current account correction, Latvia's outlook has been revised from negative to stable by Standard and Poor's rating agency, which means - when you get down to the nitty gritty - that they don't expect any further downward revisions in Latvia's sovereign credit rating in the next six months.

Standard & Poor’s, a rating agency, has raised its outlook on Latvia’s debt from negative to stable (ie, it no longer expects further downgrades). The current account, in deficit to the tune of 27% of GDP in late 2006, is in surplus. Exports are recovering. Interest rates have plunged and debt spreads over German bonds have narrowed (see chart). Fraught negotiations with the IMF and the European Union have kept a €7.5 billion ($10 billion) bail-out on track, in return for spending cuts and tax rises worth a tenth of GDP.
And anyway, Latvia is not as bad as Greece.

Even so, Latvia looks good when compared with Greece. It did not lie about its public finances or use accounting tricks. Strikes have been scanty. Protests are fought in the courts, not the streets. Both Greece and Latvia have had hard knocks, but Greeks became used to a good life that they are loth to give up. Latvians remain glad just to be on the map.
As evidence for just how much better Latvia is doing than Greece the Economist cite the movements in the respective bond spreads, and of course, the extra interest the Greek government has to pay to raise money (with respect to equivalent German bonds) is now marginally more than the extra interest Latvia has to pay, but then Greece has yet to go to the IMF.

But just in case both these arguments seem rather like clutching at straws when compared to the "gravitas" of the situation, there is a "clincher".

"despite a fall in GDP last year of 17.5%, Latvia seems to have achieved
something many thought impossible: an internal devaluation. This meant regaining competitiveness not by currency depreciation but by deep cuts in wages and public spending. In a recent discussion of Greece, Jörg Asmussen, a German minister, praised Latvia for its self-discipline".

Well, I'm sure that having a positive reference from a German minister in a discussion on Greece is a positive sign, but hang on a minute: just what internal devaluation is our author talking about here, and what deep cuts in wages and salaries? According to the latest available data from the Latvian Statistics Office, average wages in Latvia were down 10% in September 2009 over 2008, but since wages in September 2008 were up 6.5% over wages in September 2007, when the Latvian economy was already in deep trouble and wages and prices were already seriously out of line, then they have only actually fallen back some 4.15% over the two year period. I am sure these cuts are painful (a 20% unemployment rate, and young people emigrating is even more painful), but I would hardly call this a "deep cut" yet awhile.

The thing to remember here is the difficult characterists imposed by the presence of a peg. Latvian real wages (when adjusted for inflation) may well have fallen more, but this is to no avail (and simply makes the internal consumption problem worse), since what matters are the Euro equivalent prices of Latvian wages and exports. This is one of the reasons why in these circumstances a peg is such a horrible thing.

And if you're still not very convinced, let's try the Eurostat equivalent data for average hourly wage costs, which had in fact only fallen by 3.5% year on year in the third quarter of 2009.

Why the difference between average wages and average hourly labour costs? Well, given the depth of the recession people are obviously earning less, since they are working less, but this doesn't help overall competitiveness, since what matters here is the hourly cost of each unit of labour. I'm sorry if this is all fairly turgid economic data stuff (yawn, yawn, yawn) but if you want to cry victory, you really do need to check your facts a bit first.

In fact, as I said in my last post, additional evidence from the consumer price index suggests the "internal devaluation" is only working at a hellishly slow pace. Prices were only down by 3.3% in January 2010 over January 2009 according to the latest HICP data from Eurostat.

And while producer prices have fallen a little further - by 6.6% in January over January 2009 - there is still a long long way to go.

Basically there is no doubt that Latvia's great economic fall may be coming to an end, but as I explained in this post here, that is not the same thing at all as resuming growth. To get back to growth Latvia's internal devaluation needs to be driven hard enough and deep enough to generate a sufficient export surplus to drive headline economic growth at a sufficient speed to start creating jobs again. This is not about a fiscal adjustment, it never was, and it is little consolation for Latvia to be compared with Greece and told that they are doing just that little bit better. Cry Victory we are told, and unlease the jobs of war. Would that things were as easy done as said!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Drawing the Right Lessons from an Obscure tale of Obscure Interest rate Swaps

By Claus Vistesen: Copenhagen

The Eurozone's current problems are not mainly a result a of prolifigate and reckless spending of government resources in the Eurozone periphery [1]. Even nobel laureate Paul Krugman has begun to forcefully push this argument arguing that the real source of the malaise is the steady build up internal Eurozone imbalances. I only conditionally agree. As I have argued on several occasions, the key to understand the current situation in the Eurozone is to see the connection between the obvious inflection point reached in the context of the public debt/deficit and the need to correct through an internal devaluation (relative price deflation). The main point is then to recognize that the while the former is definitely a prerequisite for the latter, the process itself (deflation) will only serve to intensify the short term and long term pressure on public finances.

Moreover, the recent flurry in the context of interest rate swaps used by the Eurozone (and other) governments to generate current assets for future liabilites in an effort to massage public deficits only serves to add a further layer of confusion and uncertainty to the fiscal aspect of the situation. More generally, and ever since the inception of EMU the growth and stability pact (SGP) has been critisized for being an ineffective tool to police the need for fiscal soundness in the Eurozone member countries. The re-emerging discussion on on the use of interest rates swaps and other financial instruments by Eurozone member countries only further serves to emphasize this critique. Interestingly and despite the rather massive coverage, many financial market pundits have emphasized this as a non-event because the use of such techniques are not new [2]. I respectfully disagree that this is the main point here even if I agree that the there is no reason, in particular, to point the guns at Goldman Sachs [3] either.

In this way, I think this is in fact quite significant, and I am a bit surprised to see that no-one (bar my regular complice) seems to be getting the main drift here. This is consequently not a question of creative accounting by part of Eurozone debt management offices, but simply a question of drastically poor balance sheet management. Thus, one wonders where we would have been today if these people had actually studied the nature of assets and liabilities of the institutions (i.e. (macro)economies) they were employed to safeguard and how it is affected by things such as a population ageing and the demographic transition rather than studying more or less exotic financial instruments (click on picture for better viewing).

Oh well and before I turn completely Neanderthal on you I am obviously being unfair here. There is nothing wrong with an interest rate swap itself and anyone with even a basic economic intuition can see the clever and sound proposition offered by an interest rate swap in the context of debt issued in foreign currency while your liabilities, obviously, remain in domestic denomination. This would be good balance sheet management then.

What transforms it into poor debt management and essentially poor governance is when those same currency swaps are entered at an exchange rate which is unfavorable to the private market counterparty. The immediate effect is to create a lump sum transfer of funds to the issuer of the underlying debt (e.g. Greece). This is then used to bring down the running deficit or the public debt for the purpose of reducing interest rates. However, it also creates a future liability not recorded in the balance sheet. Felix Salmon provides the best no-nonsense explanation I have seen so far;

How might a deal like this work? Let’s say that Greece issues a bond for $10 billion, which it would then normally swap into euros at the prevailing interest rate, getting $10 billion worth of euros up front. In this case, it seems, the swap was tweaked so that Greece got $11 billion worth of euros up front — and, of course, has to pay just as many euros back when the bond matures. Essentially, it has borrowed $11 billion rather than $10 billion. But for the purposes of Greece’s official debt statistics, it has borrowed only $10 billion: the extra $1 billion is hidden in the swap.

So, why might this be a problem then? Well for a whole host of reasons, but I can think of one in particular.

Essentially, the future liabilities (and assets) of the state finances of Greece, Italy and all other sovereign states ultimately hinges on the demographic transition. At least, this is the case in developed economies where societal structure is largely built upon intergenerational contracts and various forms of pay-go pension and health systems. In this way, trading liabilities into the future for a short term cash flow concretely helps to undermine already eroded public finances. But it gets worse. It creates a mismatch on the balance sheet of the government which is effectively hidden from the market and other stakeholders. More worryingly is then the fact that while these swaps imply long term lump sum liabilities such liabilities can easily be discounted to the present and in the current context with bond vigilanted at large fixing their gaze on the Eurozone sovereigns, long term liabilites may soon turn into current ones if push comes to shove (i.e. this is then what the Titlos affair is all about). This naturally directly undermines whatever credibility the SGP had left, but it also effectively adds uncertainty to a situation which is already beyond difficult for the EU and the Eurozone to handle.

Now, at this point all this is obviously water under the bridge and what is really left now is to slowly but surely try to figure out the extent of the liabilities Eurozone governments have swept under the carpet. As noted, the maturity structure on such instruments mean that while they are not set to payment in the immediate future the implied future liability and its effect on the current stalwart attempts to breathe life back into these economies is likely to make all those neat recovery plans drafted so far worth next to nothing. I would hold this to be particularly true in light of the obvious fact that this is not only something done on the sovereign level, but also on lower levels of governance. It will be interesting indeed to see whether the bond vigilantes will draw the final gasp on this one.

The Right Lesson

At the end of the day the issue of interest rate swaps and other derivatives used by public entities to hide and mask debt is likely going to pass over quickly exactly because it is, as the current choir sings, not news. I understand this dynamic of the market discourse. However, this should not deter a simple macroeconomist from drawing out a longer line of thought.

In this way, I believe that if the Eurozone is going to have a credible future on the back of this mess, it must be equipped with institutions that adamantly establishes a much tighter fiscal coordination mechanism among its member economies. The flurry described above only serves to accentuate this furhter. The SGP should thus be relegated to the eternal dust bin of poor institutional setup where it deserves to be

The idea of a common monetary union was always flawed in a number of ways, but there is also a way forward. Yet, it requires I believe a much more transparent fiscal supranational body to complement the single monetary policy wielded in Frankfurt. Naturally, this will not solve any of the looming problems in the context of how to get and sustain growth faced with a demographic transition locked in towards very rapid ageing. However, it may provide a sound institutional setup on which to start building a future more solid economic edifice.

Many will recoil in horror from this blatant political and Eurofederalist argument. Let them recoil I say, but as an economist I see no other alternative. And that, contrary to blaming Goldman Sachs or emphasizing the fact that it is not news, is exactly the right lesson to draw from an obscure tale of obscure interest rate swaps.


[1] - Someone please look at the future liabilities of Germany!

[2] - See an original source here, this from FT Alphaville, as well as this which is the original academic piece detailing the issue in an Italian context.

[3] - Who has been under much scrutiny by part of the Eurozone finance ministers in the context of a particular swap arranged with Greece back in February 2009 under the notional name of Titlos PLC (all this is very wonkish!)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ukraine's 2010 presidential election: another power struggle to follow?

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

It's official now: Ukraine's former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the pro-Russian Party of Regions, was declared elected President by the former Soviet republic's Central Election Commission on Sunday. Yanukovych prevailed over Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko by a relatively narrow but nonetheless clear margin of just under three-and-a-half percentage points in a runoff election held last February 7; detailed results are available in Ukrainian at the Commission's website and in English at Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in Ukraine.

As previously noted on Ukraine holds an early parliamentary election, Yanukovych ran for the presidency in 2004, and was initially declared the winner over pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko in a highly irregular runoff election. However, the attempted election fraud triggered massive protests in Kiev, which came to be known as the "Orange Revolution" (after Yushchenko's campaign color); in due course, the runoff election results were invalidated, and in a repeat runoff vote Yushchenko prevailed over Yanukovych.

Nevertheless, the past five years have been characterized by a seemingly endless power struggle between President Yushchenko and his successive prime ministers, most notably among them erstwhile Orange Revolution ally Yulia Tymoshenko (who served as Ukraine's head of government in 2005 and again since 2007) and Yanukovych himself (who held office from 2006 to 2007). Beyond free and fair elections and a free press, little else has been accomplished, and Ukrainian voters have become disenchanted with the Orange Revolution politicians - especially President Yushchenko, who ran for re-election but was eliminated in the first round of voting last January 17, coming in an ignominious fifth place with only 5.5% of the vote. To be certain, Mrs. Tymoshenko did much better than expected in both rounds of voting, but in the end the economic legacy of her government - which presided over a severe 15% contraction of the Ukrainian economy last year, in the wake of the global economic crisis - proved too much to overcome.

Although international election observers have praised the conduct of this year's presidential election, Yulia Tymoshenko stubbornly refuses to recognize Viktor Yanukovych as the legitimately elected president: to the dismay of the Western powers, she insists the election was rigged to the tune of million votes - a figure large enough to overturn the official result - and has challenged the election results in court. In fact, Mrs. Tymoshenko's eponymous political bloc has demanded recounts in several eastern regions, even though an analysis of the runoff vote results shows the election was decided not in the east, but in the west.

Since the attainment of independence in 1991, Ukrainian politics have been characterized by a sharp East-West divide: eastern and southern Ukraine are strongly pro-Russian, while the country's western and central regions are just as staunchly nationalist and pro-West. This was the case as well in the 2010 presidential election, as illustrated by the first round and runoff election maps, courtesy of Serhij Vasylchenko:

In the east and the south, Yanukovych swept with 76.9%, while in western and central Ukraine he polled just 23.8%. However, relative to the 2004 repeat runoff election, Yanukovych's share of the vote in the East rose by only 0.5%, whereas in the West he registered a sizable 8.2% increase. Likewise, Yulia Tymoshenko's 17.8% share of the vote in the eastern and southern regions was just slightly smaller than the 19.2% scored by Viktor Yushchenko five years earlier; in some regions where she is demanding a recount, such as Crimea, she actually had a better result than Yushchenko in the repeat runoff. However, the 70.4% of the vote she polled in western and central Ukraine stood well below the 81.1% won by Yushchenko in 2004.

Moreover, regional differences in voter turnout decline may have also helped Yanukovych, if only slightly. In eastern and southern Ukraine, turnout in the 2010 runoff election fell by 7.2%, to 69.4%, while in the western and central regions turnout declined by nine percentage points, to 69.6% (the overall turnout rate stood at 68.8% because only 10.3% of the expatriate voters - whose votes are tallied separately from those cast in Ukraine proper - bothered to take part in the runoff election).

In addition, a record 4.4% of voters cast ballots against all candidates in the runoff election - twice as many as in the first round, and nearly double the figure in the 2004 repeat runoff; as a result, Viktor Yanukovych will become the first president of Ukraine to win office without an absolute majority. Interestingly, the 2.2% increase between rounds in the number of votes against all candidates correlates strongly with the share of the vote for independent businessman Serhiy Tihipko, who came in third place in the first round; there is no significant correlation with the first round vote for President Yushchenko, who called for a vote against all in the recently-held runoff.

Beyond refusing to concede defeat, Yulia Tymoshenko has made it clear that she has no intention to comply with President-elect Yanukovych's request to submit her resignation as prime minister. While her refusal to step down will trigger a vote of no-confidence in Parliament - which she is expected to lose - Mrs. Tymoshenko will nonetheless remain as caretaker head of government until a parliamentary majority coalition nominates a replacement. No single party commands a majority in Ukraine's unicameral Parliament, the Supreme Council, and negotiations leading to the formation of a new government could take weeks, if not months - assuming a new government can be formed at all without having to call an early parliamentary election. As such, Ukraine - which is in desperate need of political stability to deal with its struggling economy - may be in for yet another protracted power struggle.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Just What Is The Real Level Of Government Debt In Europe?

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

“If you don’t fully understand an instrument, don’t buy it.”

To the above advice from Emilio Botín, Executive Chairman of Spain’s Grupo Santander, I would simply add one small rider: Don’t sell it either, especially if you are a national government trying to structure your country’s debt.

In a fascinating article in today's New York Times, journalists Louise Story, Landon Thomas and Nelson Schwartz begin to recount the mirky story of just how the major US investment banks have been able to earn considerable sums of money effectively helping European governments to disguise their growing mountain of public debt.
Wall Street tactics akin to the ones that fostered subprime mortgages in America have worsened the financial crisis shaking Greece and undermining the euro by enabling European governments to hide their mounting debts.

As worries over Greece rattle world markets, records and interviews show that with Wall Street’s help, the nation engaged in a decade-long effort to skirt European debt limits. One deal created by Goldman Sachs helped obscure billions in debt from the budget overseers in Brussels.

Even as the crisis was nearing the flashpoint, banks were searching for ways to help Greece forestall the day of reckoning. In early November — three months before Athens became the epicenter of global financial anxiety — a team from Goldman Sachs arrived in the ancient city with a very modern proposition for a government struggling to pay its bills, according to two people who were briefed on the meeting. The bankers, led by Goldman’s president, Gary D. Cohn, held out a financing instrument that would have pushed debt from Greece’s health care system far into the future, much as when strapped homeowners take out second mortgages to pay off their credit cards.

In fact, concerns about what it is exactly Goldman Sachs have been up to in Greece are not new, and the Financial Times have been pusuing this story for some time, in particular in connection with the investment bank's ill fated attempt to persuade the Chinese to buy Greek government debt (and here, and here). Nor is the fact that the Greek government resorted to sophistocated financial instruments to cover its tracks exactly breaking news, since I (among others) have been writing about this topic since the middle of January - Does Anyone Really Know The Size Of The Greek 2009 Deficit? - following the arrival in my inbox of a leaked copy of the report the Greek Finance Minister sent to the EU Commission detailing the issues.

What is new in today's report from the NYT team is the extent to which they identify the problem as a much more general one, involving more banks and more countries, since "Instruments developed by Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and a wide range of other banks enabled politicians to mask additional borrowing in Greece, Italy and possibly elsewhere". I very strongly suggest that our NYT stalwarts take a long hard look at what has been going on in Spain, and especially at the Autonomous Community level.

So the question naturally arises, just how much in debt are our governments, really? As the NYT team point out, Eurostat has long been grappling with this matter, and as far back as 2002 they found themselves forced to change their accounting rules, in order to try to enforce the disclosure of many off-balance sheet entities that had previously escaped detection by the EU, since up to that point the transactions involved had been classified as asset "sales", often of public buildings and the like. Following advice paid for from the best of investment banks many European governments simply responded to the rule change by reformulating their suspect deals as loans rather than outright sales. As we say in Spain "hecha la ley, hecha la trampa" (or in English, when you close one loophole you open another). According to the NYT authors:

"As recently as 2008, Eurostat.... reported that “in a number of instances, the observed securitization operations seem to have been purportedly designed to achieve a given accounting result, irrespective of the economic merit of the operation.”"

So just what is all the fuss about. Well, in plain and simple terms it is about an accounting item known as "receivables". Now, according to the Wikipedia entry:

"Accounts receivable (A/R) is one of a series of accounting transactions dealing with the billing of a customers for goods and services received by the customers. In most business entities this is typically done by generating an invoice and mailing or electronically delivering it to the customer, who in turn must pay it within an established timeframe called credit or payment terms."

However, as we can learn from another Wikpedia entry, often the use of "accounts receivable" constitutes a form of factoring, and this is where the problems Eurostat are concerned about actually start:

Factoring is a financial transaction whereby a business sells its accounts receivable (i.e., invoices) to a third party (called a factor) at a discount in exchange for immediate money with which to finance continued business. Factoring differs from a bank loan in three main ways. First, the emphasis is on the value of the receivables (essentially a financial asset), not the firm’s credit worthiness. Secondly, factoring is not a loan – it is the purchase of a financial asset (the receivable). Finally, a bank loan involves two parties whereas factoring involves three.

But how does all this work in practice? Well, the World Wide Web is a wonderful thing, since you have so much information near to hand, at just the twitch of a fingertip. Here is a useful description of what are known as PPI/PFI schemes, from UK building contractor John Laing:
A Public Private Partnership (PPP) is an umbrella term for Government schemes involving the private business sector in public sector projects.

The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) is a form of PPP developed by the Government in which the public and private sectors join to design, build or refurbish, finance and operate (DBFO) new or improved facilities and services to the general public. Under the most common form of PFI, a private sector provider like John Laing will, through a Special Purpose Company (SPC), hold a DBFO contract for facilities such as hospitals, schools, and roads according to specifications provided by public sector departments. Over a typical period of 25-30 years, the private sector provider is paid an agreed monthly (or unitary) fee by the relevant public body (such as a Local Council or a Health Trust) for the use of the asset(s), which at that time is owned by the PFI provider. This and other income enables the repayment of the senior debt over the concession length. (Senior debt is the major source of funding, typically 90% of the required capital, provided by banks or bond finance). Asset ownership usually returns to the public body at the end of the concession. In this manner, improvements to public services can be made without upfront public sector funds; and while under contract, the risks associated with such huge capital commitments are shared between parties, allocated appropriately to those best able to manage each one.

And for those still in the dark, Wikipedia just one more time comes to the rescue:

The private finance initiative (PFI) is a method to provide financial support for "public-private partnerships" (PPPs) between the public and private sectors. Developed initially by the Australian and United Kingdom governments, PFI has now also been adopted (under various guises) in Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, and the United States (amongst others) as part of a wider program for privatization and deregulation driven by corporations, national governments, and international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank.

PFI contracts are currently off-balance-sheet, meaning that they do not show up as part of the national debt as measured by government statistics such as the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR). The technical reason for this is that the government authority taking out the PFI contract pays a single charge (the 'Unitary Charge') for both the initial capital spend and the on-going maintenance and operation costs. This means that the entire contract is classed as revenue spending rather than capital spending. As a result neither the capital spend nor the long-term revenue obligation appears on the government's balance sheet. Were the total PFI liability to be shown on the UK balance sheet it would greatly increase the UK national debt.

And here are two more examples of what is involved which were brought to light by a quick Google. First of all, the case of Italian health payments. Now according to analysts Patrizio Messina and Alessia Denaro, in this report I found online from Financial Consultants Orrick:

In the last years many structured finance transactions (either securitisation transactions or asset finance transactions) have been structured in relation to the so called healthcare receivables.The reasons are several. On one side, the providers of healthcare goods and services usually are not paid in time by the relevant healthcare authorities and therefore, in order to gain liquidity, usually assign their receivables toward the healthcare authorities. On the other side, due to the recent legislation that provides for very high interest rates on late payments, the debtors as well as banks and other investors have had the same and opposite interest on carrying out different kind of transactions. In this brief article we will analyse, after a quick description of the Italian healthcare system, some of the different structures that have been used in relation to transactions concerning healthcare receivables and, in particular, we will focus on transactions concerning the so called “raw receivables”, which are lately increasing in the Italian market practice, by analysing the legal means through which it is possible to ascertain/recover such receivables.

This system thus has two advantages (apart from the fact that it effectively hides debt). In the first place the healthcare providers gain liquidity in order to continue to run hospitals, pay doctors, etc, while those who effectively intermediate the transaction earn very high interest rates for their efforts, interest payments which have to be deducted from next years health care provision, and so on.

As the Orrick report points out, Italy’s national healthcare service (servizio sanitarionazionale, “nhs”) is regulated by the legislative decree of December 30, 1992, no. 502 (“decree 502/92”).The reform introduced by decree 502/92, as amended from time to time, provides for a three-tier system for the healthcare service, as outlined below: State level The central government provides a national legislation limited to very general features of the NHS and decides the funds to be allocated to the single regions according to specific criteria (density of population, etc.) for the NHS.

As the Orrick analysts note: "the Healthcare Authorities usually pay the relevant Providers with a certain delay".
Usually, when healthcare funds are allocated, in the national provisional budget, the central government underestimates the amount of healthcare expenditure. Since the central government does not provide regions with enough funds, regions are not able to provide enough funds to Healthcare Authorities, and payments to the Providers are delayed. Since the Providers need liquidity, they usually assign their receivables toward the Healthcare Authorities. To deal with all the above issues, Italian market practice has been developing an alternative system of financing through securitisation and asset finance transactions of Healthcare Receivables.

As the analysts finally conclude:

Despite of the risks concerning the judicial proceedings, Italian market players are still very interested on carrying on securitisation transaction on this kind of asset, principally because Legislative Decree no. 231/02 provides for very high interest rates on late payments (equal to the interest rate applied by ECB plus 7%) - my emphasis

Another technique Eurostat have identified as a means of concealing debt relates to the recording of military equipment expenditure, as described in this report I found dating from 2006. At the time Eurostat were worried about the growing provision of military equipment under leasing agreements. Basically they decided that such provision was debt accumulable.
Eurostat has decided that leases of military equipment organised by the private sector should be considered as financial leases, and not as operating leases. This supposes recording an acquisition of equipment by the government and the incurrence of a government liability to the lessor. Thus there is an impact on government deficit and debt at the time that the equipment is put at the disposal of the military authorities, and not at the time of payments on the lease. Those payments are then assimilated as debt servicing, with a part recorded as interest and the remainder as a financial transaction.

However, a loophole was found in the case of long term equipment purchases:

Military equipment contracts often involve the gradual delivery over many years of a number of the same or similar pieces of equipment, such as aircraft or armoured vehicles, or including significant service components, such as training. Moreover, in the case of complex systems, it is frequently the case that some completion tasks need to be performed for the equipment to be operational at full potential capacity. Some military programmes are based on the combination of several kinds of equipment that may be completed in different periods, so that the expenditure may be spread over several fiscal years before the system, globally considered, becomes fully operational.

In cases of long-term contracts where deliveries of identical items are staged over a long period of time, or where payments cover the provision of both goods and services, government expenditure should be recorded at the time of the actual delivery of each independent part of the equipment, or of the provision of service.

Payment for such items are only to be classifed as debt at the time of registering the actual delivery, which may explain why, if my information is correct, the Greek military as of last December were still officially "testing" two submarines which had been provided by German contractors, since final delivery had still to be formally registered, and the debt accounted.

A lot of information about the kind of things which were going on before the 2006 rule change can be found in this online presentation from Europlace Financial Forum. Here are some examples of private/public sector cooperation in Italy.

And here's a chart showing a list of advantages and possible applications:

Now, at the end of the day, you may ask "what is wrong with all of this"? Well quite simply, like Residential Mortgage Backed Securities these are instruments that work while they work, and cause a lot of additional headaches when they don't. I can think of three reasons why debt aquired in this way in the past may now be problematic.

a) they assume a certain level of headline GDP growth to furnish revenue growth to the public agencies committed to making the payments. Following the crisis these previous levels of assumed growth are now unlikely to be realised.
b) they assume growing workforces and working age populations, but both these, as we know, are now likely to start declining in many European countries.
c) they assume unchanging dependency ratios between active and dependent populations, but these assumptions, as we also already know, are no longer valid, as our population pyramids steadily invert.

Given all this, a very real danger exists that what were previously considered as obscure securitisation instruments, so obscure that few politicians really understood their implications, and few citizens actually knew of their existence, can suddenly find themselves converted into little better than a glorified Ponzi scheme.

And if you want one very concrete example of how unsustainable debt accumulation can lead to problems, you could try reading this report in the Spanish newspaper La Verdad (Spanish, but Google translate if you are interested), where they recount the problems being faced by many Spanish local authorities who are now running out of money, in this case it the village of San Javier they have until the 24 February to pay a debt of 350,000 euros, or the electricity will simply be cut off! The article also details how many other municipalities are having increasing difficulty in paying their employees. And this is just in one region (Murcia), but the problem is much more general, as Spain's heavily overindebted local authorities and autonomous communities steadily grind to a halt.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Estonia's Economy "Only" Contracts By 9.4% in Q4 2009

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Hard on the heals of yesterday's Latvian GDP numbers we now have news that Estonia’s economy shrank at the slowest annual pace in a year at the end of 2009 as a modest recovery in exports and one-time stock-building helped offset the impact of the continuing decline in consumer spending. In fact gross domestic product fell 9.4 percent, which compares with a 15.6 percent drop in the third quarter, and a 16.1 percent decline in the second one. So the recession is evidently easing.

Indeed, startling as it may sound, the economy even grew during the quarter - by a seasonally adjusted 2.6 percent when compared with the third quarter. The news caused some surprise as even the Estonian Finance Ministry had been expecting worse results - an annual contraction of something in the region of 11 to 12 percent. The critical little detail is that the numbers were skewed, since they were affected by a one-off stock- building effect, according to the Finance Ministry, since companies built up their inventories in anticipation of a January tax increase on tobacco, alcohol and motor fuels. As the ministry also added, economic growth will thus see a “negative effect” in the first quarter of 2010 as inventories will inevitably be run down again.

"The alcohol, tobacco and motor fuel excises were applied in the beginning of the year, so the stocks of those products were increased, and that gave a positive move to the GDP in the fourth quarter, but will give a negative influence in the beginning of this year,” according to Andrus Sääsk Head of Macroeconomy at the Ministry of Finance.

No Sign Of Any Real Recovery

So, as we are seeing in the other Baltic States, the recession is gradually winding down, but there is no end to the agony in sight, since structural distortions in the economies produced by the earlier boom will impede any immediate recovery. If we look at retail sales the pattern is similar to what we are seeing elsewhere, and these are now down about 28% from their February 2008 peak.

A similar situation is to be observed in industrial output, which fell back again in December (by a seasonally adjusted 2.2% from November) according to statistics office data. Industrial output is now down 32.5% from the February 2008 peak.

And while exports have picked up slightly from the first quarter 2009 trough, momentum has not been strong enough yet to reverse the deadweight drag of domestic consumption.

The goods trade deficit has improved - indeed the 2009 deficit was the smallest since 1995 - but it is still a deficit, although the country does run a healthy services balance.

And the services balance is what makes the difference in turning the current account deficit into a surplus.

On the other hand unemployment continues to rise, and is the third highest in the European Union (after Latvia and Spain), hitting 15.2% in September - which is the last month for which the Eurostat has data at this point. Indeed statistics regularity and quality is one of the issues which Estonia will need to attend to as part of its general euro ambitions, as the ECB took the trouble to point out recently.

Demographic Issues Also Need To Be Addressed

Estonia's population fell again in 2009 - by 400 - and was estimated by the statistics office to be in the region of 1,340,000 at the end of the year. A falling death rate meant the population decline slowed down over the year, but the number of live births decreased for the first time in eight years (see chart below), raising issues about the longer term impact of the crisis. Some 15,807 live births were registered in total in 2009 - 221 birth less than in 2008.

While the situation is a lot less serious than the one Latvia faces, the downturn in Estonian births is a rather bitter blow for a country where fertility had rebounded substantially from earlier lows, and while the 1.6Tfr was still a long way from population replacement level, the improvement had been a welcome one.

Credit Rating Improvement

Estonia's credit rating outlook was raised this week by Standard & Poor’s, from negative to stable. More than the improvement, what is interesting is the reason given, since the agency cited improving prospects for euro adoption next year. This has both a positive and a negative reading. The positive reading is that S&Ps think Estonia will meet the eurozone membership criteria. The negative one is that the improvement is not due to any underlying change in the country's growth prospects, which are at the end of the day the main area of immediate concern.

Indeed S&Ps have an A- rating, the fourth-lowest investment grade, on Estonia and the move to stable from negative, means the rating is more likely to be left unchanged than raised or lowered. The rating was in fact cut from A last August, and evidently losing the A- rating would give a rather negative signal given that the ECB is about to return to at least one A- as the minimum collateral condition.

“Estonia has stabilized its public finances, which significantly increases its prospects for eurozone accession in 2011,” S&P’s Frankfurt-based Kai Stukenbrock and London-based Frank Gill said in a statement. The “outlook reflects our view of Estonia’s improving economic flexibility and the prospect of near-term eurozone accession against the challenges inherent in adapting the economy to lessen its reliance on external funds.”

Fitch currently has a BBB+ rating on Estonia, and the outlook on this was also raised to stable from negative on February 5. Moody’s Investors Service has an A1 rating on Estonia with a negative outlook.

Euro adoption terms require countries to maintain fiscal deficits below 3 percent of GDP, limit debt to 60 percent of GDP and ensure inflation isn’t more than 1.5 percentage points above the Eurozone average, and Estonia has met all the criteria, according to Prime Minister Ansip speaking yesterday. Whether Ansip's optimism is totally justified or not the EU Commission and the European Central Bank will publish their report assessing Estonia’s readiness to join sometime in May, and (assuming this is favourable) the Ecofin council of EU finance ministers will take the critical decision on entry on June 8.

But as Fitch pointed out when they raised their Estonia outlook, while eurozone membership looks increasingly possible it is not yet certain. Fitch warned in their report that even if Estonia meat all the formal Maastricht reference criteria for euro entry there is still a risk that the European authorities' interpretation of these same criteria could lead them to reject Estonia's application. According to Fitch, in Estonia's case uncertainty surrounded whether the idea of "sustainable price performance" was going to be consistent with the deflation which is to be expected from such a severe recession, after inflation had so recently been in the double digit range. The agency also added that one-off measures taken by the government to reduce the budget deficit in 2009 could also count against it in the EU authorities' judgment of whether the medium-term budget plans are credible.

The first point is an important one I think. If we go back to the 172 page EU Commission document leaked to the German magazine Der Spiegel last month, the EU Stability and Growth Pact is increasingly going to focus on issues surrounding competitiveness as well as on fiscal deficit ones. That is what the whole deabate over the Greek and Spanish economies which EU leaders are engaging in this week is all about. And any country which is not considered to be in completely good health under the SGP criteria is hardly likely to get the green light from the ECB and Ecofin.

It is obvious that the Estonian economy is still suffering from earlier structural distortions which have not yet been corrected. If we come to the consumer price index, this was only down about 2% in 2009, far short of the deflationary adjustment which will be needed to restore growth and competitiveness.

The producer price index has also not moved as far and as fast as will be needed, since it was only down some 3% on the year.

So the sad truth is that, whether from inside or outside the eurozone, despite some extensive and painful sacrifices made in not having government spending to fall back on during an extraordinarily deep recession - but then, as Krugman would say, Estonia's problems were never fiscal ones anyway, they were always competitiveness ones - there is still a long hard road out there in front. Whatever the advantages and disadvantages of the chosen path one thing is for sure, it will be absolutely impossible for the country to leave the job half done.

Chart Wars

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

A new kind of battle is going on out there at the moment. In what must surely be a new twist to the old dialectic of blow against blow argument, a combination of the internet age and sophistocated data management software is adding an additional and striking dimension to the current crisis debate, let's call it the birth of the "charts war". I think you could safely say Paul Krugman kicked off the latest round off, with this simple blog image post.

The Kindom of Spain was not amused, and struck back in their London roadshow (courtesy of Elena Salgado and Manuel Campa) with their own version of the same issue.

Spain, we are informed is not so badly off, since Italy's position is much worse. Even more to the point, adding 3 million or so unskilled workers to the dole queues, and closing down a large chunk of Spain's core construction industry (driving the unemployment rate up to 19.5% in the process) has been extremely beneficial, since cleaning out all those low productivity, unskilled workers has meant that the productive power of the rest looks a lot better (since average productivity of those in work has risen). But isn't this just where the fiscal deficit issue comes in? These workers are still being supported by the rest via the Spanish system of employment benefits, so the productivity improvement (as far as Spain as a whole is concerned) is simply an optical illusion.

This is a point that Krugman could have picked up on but didn't, although he did follow through with a further post full of very revealing charts. The core issue here is that the problem Spain faces, as Paul stresses, is not essentially a fiscal one, a point which may be clearly seen in the following comparison of German and Spanish fiscal deficits over the last decade.

As he shows, Spain had no fiscal problem till the housing boom went bust. No of course, the need to prop up the economy, and support all the "unproductive" labour which doesn't show up in the unit labour costs chart is producing a massive fiscal deficit. Thus the fiscal issue in Spain is a symptom, not a cause. The root of the problem lies in the structural distortions produced by the massive overheating of the economy during the boom years, an overheating which lead to excessive inflation, large-scale dependence on imports, and a complete loss of competitiveness in the non-tradeable sector - a loss of competitiveness which even the Kingdom of Spain accept.The problem with the Spanish argument is that it seems to neglect the rather inconvenient fact that those workers who are deployed in the tradeable sector also eat bread and go to hairdressers and ride in taxis and buy or rent homes just like everyone else. So they themselves need to pay prices set in the non-tradeable sector, and their salaries have to reflect this. Hence a problem in non-tradeables becomes a much more general one. And it shows up, naturally enough, in the current account balance.

Of course, just as there is more than one way to peel an onion, there are a variety of different ways to measure competitiveness (GDP deflator, unit labour costs, etc). My own favourite back-of-the-envelope measure is what is known as the Real Effective Exchange Rate (REER, which shows at roughly what sort of virtual rate the Peseta would trading with the Deutsche-mark (were the two still to exist, of course).

Smokin' Gun

Indeed, analysts at PNB Paribas recently took the REER argument one step further, and showed how, far from addressing the competitiveness issues in Greece and Spain the recent bout of fiscal spending was in fact making the situation worse.

This is a point I have been trying to make in a number of recent posts by using two simple charts. The ECB eased liquidity in the Spanish banking system last June with a massive injection of one year funding.

This money went, via bank purchases of Spanish Treasury Bonds, to fund the government deficit, leading to a large injection of demand into the real economy. But what happened to that demand? Just look at the chart below. The trade deficit started to widen again, as Spaniards availed themselves of their additional spending power to buy yet more foreign products.

So essentially the issues is this one. Spain's economy will not recover, and return to growth till Spanish products become more attractive in price terms, and this only means one thing: some sort of internal devaluation is inevitable, and all the talk about an exclusively fiscal correction is simply an attempt to get rid of the smoke without going to the trouble of extinguishing the fire which is producing it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Latvia's Economy Contracts Almost 18 Percent in Q4 2009

By Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Well, as we say in English, it never rains but it pours. Latvia, which has had the deepest recession of all 27 European Union member states, contracted by nearly 18 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2009. 'Compared to the same period of 2008, gross domestic product (GDP) value has decreased by 17.7 per cent,' according to the national statistics office statement.

The fall was led by a 30-per-cent annual drop in the retail sector. Retail sales are now down by 36% from their April 2008 peak and there is little sign of any turnaround at this point.

Industrial output, which rose slightly over the quarter, fell back again in Deecember (by a seasonally adjusted 4.2%) following a sharp rise in November. Output is still down more than 17% from the February 2008 peak.

Latvian exports were down again in December, making for the second consecutive monthly fall. Despite all the fuss about internal devaluation the CPI was only down by 3.1% in January over January 2009. Prices are still far from being competitive, and no early rebound in export growth is to be expected. Over 2009 as a whole exports - at 3,571.6 mln lats – were down over 2008 by 19.4%, but imports - at 4,633.7 mln lats – fell even further, by 38.4% which is why the trade deficit reduced substantially, but note there was still adeficit. The deficit fell from 225.3 mln Lats in January to 69.7 mln Lats in December. Over 2009 as a whole foreign trade turnover totalled ay 8.2 billion lats, a drop of 31 per cent when compared to 2008.

Unemployment hit 22.8% in December according to Eurostat data, the highest in the European Union.

And even that famed "internal devaluation" seems to be working hellishly slowly. As I say, prices were only down by 3.1% in January 2010 over January 2009 (and probably even less on the EU HICP measure) according to the latest data from the Latvian statistics office.

Even the statistics office statement that GDP actually grew by 2.4 per cent compared to the third-quarter offers cold comfort, since this data is not seasonally adjusted, and the economy will almost certainly be back down again in the first quarter of 2010.

Meanwhile the consequences of this strong recession in Latvia - more and more Latvians are leaving in search of work elsewhere, while fewer and fewer young people feel confident enough to have children (see chart below) - will leave a long scar, which will be hard to heal, and which make the long term future and sustainability of the country even more uncertain.

As the Washington based CEPR argue "the depth of the recession and the difficulty of recovery are attributable in large part to the decision to maintain the country’s overvalued fixed exchange rate, because it prevents the government from pursuing the policies necessary to restore economic growth". Maybe next time someone will learn the lesson before tragedy strikes, and not afterwards.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Greece Gets The Green Light, But Will It All Work?

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Well, as reported over the weekend on this blog, the EU Commission did in fact demand "more sacrifices" from the Greek people, and in the end Prime Minister Papandreou had to make a last minute TV appearance to explain to his incredulous listeners that the time had come "to take brave decisions here in Greece just as other countries in Europe have also taken....We all have a debt and duty towards our homeland to work together at this difficult time to protect our economy." I thought that that time had come last November, but evidently I was precipitate in my judgement, but now it has finally arrived, although I ould note that hope does spring eternal, and that even now not everyone is 100% convinced.

When Adreas Papandreou said Greece needed the same brave decisions others have taken I presume he was in fact referring to Latvia, Hungary and Romania.

More than the measures themselves, what is interesting about the Brussels acceptance speech were the series of measures put in place to monitor and control Greek economic policy. As the Financial Times put it, the EU puts Athens under close scrutiny.

"The European Commission, the guardian of Europe’s fiscal rules, struck out into uncharted territory by placing Greece’s economic and budgetary policies under closer surveillance than has yet been applied to a eurozone country."

In fact the European Commission has put Athens on an unprecedentedly short leash, since there is to be a mid-March interim progress report, a further one in mid-May, and quarterly updates thereafter. In addition, an infringement procedure was also launched against Athens for "failing in its duty to report reliable budgetary statistics".

The Commission recommendations will now be forwarded to EU finance ministers for possible approval on 15-16 February. If endorsed, it will be the first time that a eurozone member country will be put under such strict surveillance.

And the agreed measures are obviously far from being the end of the road, since the EU executive only conditionally approved Greece's three-year fiscal plan and warned further cuts in public sector wages would be required (that dreaded internal devaluation) if, as many economists believe, the measures so far announced prove to be insufficient to generate the economic growth which will be needed to meet the steep deficit-reduction targets. Thus the die is cast, and Greece will not, as I recommended, be going to the IMF. Such a move is now seen as superflous, since the EU Commission is steadily transforming itself into a local "mini-version" of the Fund in order to try to handle the cases of those countries who show continuing reluctance in implementing those much needed deep structural reforms. I only hope the Commission have the will to follow this through with all the determination that is needed, since if Greece do now finally go to the IMF for help it will surely now be as an ex-member of the Eurogroup.

Not that this weeks session was entirely accident free. Retiring Economy Commissioner Joaquin Almunia gave yet another example of how clumsy he can at times be, by declaring that "En esos países (Greece, Portugal and Spain), observamos una pérdida constante de competitividad desde que son miembros de la zona euro" (a "continuous" loss of competitiveness), which appeared in the English language press as: "Almunia Says South Europe Has ‘Permanent’ Competitiveness Loss". It isn't clear to me from this distance whether he was speaking in English and his core message got "lost in translation", or whether he thought the speech out in Spanish, and the faux pas is down to his advisers. Either way the damage was done, causing even more problems than needed - according to data from CMA datavision, Credit Default Swaps were up on Spanish Sovereign Debt to 151 bps, or up 18.24 on the day. Portugal CDS also rose sharply on the day - 28.47 bps to 195.80.

As Deutsche Bank's Jim Reid said after the announcement:

Clearly aggressive fiscal tightening can look plausible on paper but the reality is that the path will be full of potential roadblocks. Future strike action will be sign of how prepared the general population is to take the hard medicine. The jury must still be out on this and the market will look to exploit any set backs. However in the short-term the market does seem to have lined up an alternative target.
So the jury still is very much out on just how viable the GDP targets being offered by the Greek government really are. George Papaconstantinou, Greece’s finance minister, may have told the Financial Times that he expected a return to economic growth from the middle of this year - boosted, he said, by strength in the shipping and tourism industries and the “hidden power of consumers” in the shadow economy. But saying this is one thing, and achieving it is another. Growth across Europe will at best be modest this year - let's say between 0.5% to 1% of GDP at the most optimistic - with labour markets week everywhere, so I think it is rather unrealistic to expect a tourist boom going much beyond the one we saw (or didn't see) last year, and the same goes for shipping, which is a sector where surplus capacity still abounds. As for those affluent Greek consumers he is talking about, we have to hope they all dig deep into their wallets, and that each and every one of them now insists on a VAT valid invoice!

But so far there is not much sign of this, and retail sales are actually falling steadily (see chart below). In fact I seriously doubt we are going to see much support from internal consumption at this point. Greece is all about exports now, but where are they going to come from? And how is the country going to get a trade surplus big enough to achieve the sort of economic growth they are talking about without a much stronger internal devaluation?

Industrial output has been falling for some time.

And the latest January PMI only served to underline how Greece was becoming detached from the recovery elsewhere.

Commenting on the Greece Manufacturing PMI survey data, Gemma Wallace, economist at Markit said:

“The onset of the new year brought little hope of a near-term recovery in Greek manufacturing. Accelerating contractions in new orders, output and employment caused the headline PMI to sink to an eight-month low. Meanwhile, firms were struggling to cover rising costs, as strong competition and unfavourable demand conditions rendered them unable to raise charges.

Eurozone unemployment hit 10% for the first time in December, underlining the extent to which the timid economic recovery has yet to translate into job creation. Spain's jobless rate rose to nearly 20%, and Ireland, which like Spain has also been hard hit by a housing downturn, saw its jobless rate climb to 13.3% from 13%. As is normal Eurostat didn't have data on the jobless rate in Greece, where, as Market Watch point out, statistics are notoriously hard to come by. The lastest - EU comparable - number we have is for October, but at this point such a data point is the next best thing to useless. A similar situation exists in the construction sector, we have no clear idea of what is happening since the Greek statistics office simply to not supply comparable data to Eurostat.

Meanwhile the drama in the bond markets looks set to trundle on:

Greece's acute problem is the need to raise financing to allow it to roll over maturing debt in April and May, while preserving sufficient cash to fund current expenditure. We estimate an additional funding need of at least €30bn by May. The concentration of maturing debt is unusual, but even if this immediate source of stress can be overcome, the funding profile for coming years remains demanding. The next three months will have a heavy bearing on the profile that is followed, but whatever happens, Greece and other peripheral euro area countries will still suffer from a chronic need to improve productivity, raise national savings and cut government borrowing.
Christel Aranda-Hassel, Director, European Economics, Credit Suisse.

An all the doubt continue as to whether, with the fiscal retrenchment process and the competitiveness correct Greece can manage to achieve the debt to GDP reductions promised in their Stability Programme. As Credit Suisse's Giovanni Zanni puts it, previously

Nominal GDP growth was systematically higher than the average rate of interest paid on the government’s debt. The implication was that the government could run significant fiscal deficits and still reduce the debt-to- GDP ratio. It did not exploit that advantage significantly, however, and the Greek government’s debt ratio fell only slightly over the period. Things have changed drastically since last year. Nominal growth fell to 0% in 2009. Although it should recover from 2009 lows, we think it will remain subdued relative to the recent past. Even if Greek sovereign credit spreads versus Germany fall back somewhat from the peaks reached last week, it seems extremely unlikely that the favourable dynamics of the past will reappear anytime soon. As such, there are few options open to the government other than to move the primary balance into surplus – a surplus that is sufficient to first stabilise the debt-to-GDP ratio and then push it downwards.

This primary surplus seems a very, very long way off at this point. And Greek bonds fell again yesterday, pushing the premium investors demand to hold 10-year securities instead of German bunds up by 12 basis points to its highest level in a week. The move followed news that Greece’s biggest union had approved a mass strike while tax collectors began a 48-hour walkout. The Greek 10-year yield jumped 8 basis points to 6.76 percent as of 11:45 a.m. in London. The difference in yield, or spread, with benchmark German bunds was at 365 basis points. It widened to 396 basis points on Jan. 28, the most since before the euro’s debut in 1999.

And Citicorp warns that investors may well continue to cut their holdings of Greek bonds amid skepticism the government can overcome public hostility to budget cuts.

“Although Greece has secured the expected backing from the EU for its latest austerity program, we expect markets to remain very fearful of the potential for the fiscal consolidation process to slide or to be derailed by public dissent,” according to Steve Mansell, director of interest-rate strategy at Citigroup in London. Investors, he said, may be “more prone to lighten exposure on any significant spread tightening moves”.

And it isn't only the bank analysts who are not convinced. According to this article in Le Monde IMF head Dominique Strauss Kahn and his close associate Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of the Brussles based think tank Bruegel also have their doubts:

Celui-ci estime que l'UE n'a ni la vocation, ni les équipes, ni les techniques pour analyser les carences d'un pays et préconiser des remèdes. L'Union n'a pas l'habitude d'affronter l'impopularité des thérapies de choc et pourrait céder aux manifestations de rue. Le FMI peut jouer de sa réputation de dureté pour aider le gouvernement grec à imposer les sacrifices inévitables.

Which in plain English says that they thing the EU Commission has neither the vocation, nor the teams, nor the technical experience to take on a job of this size, and while it is vital that the necessary structures and policy tools are developed, in the meantime the clock is ticking away, and the infection is spreading to the Sovereign Debt of other countries - even as far away as Japan. Basically M. Strauss Kahn seems to feel that the EU Commission is assuming an unnecessarily high risk, and that the Greek dossier should really have been sent to the IMF as a matter of some urgency. I cannot but agree.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Global Manufacturing Continued Its Expansion In January

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

The global manufacturing expansion continued to gather momentum in January. Coming in at 56.1, up from 54.6 in December, the JPMorgan Global Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index registered its highest reading for five and a half years. The latest improvement in overall operating performance reflected accelerated growth of production and new orders, while there was a slight gain in staffing levels for the first time since March 2008.

Production increased for the eighth successive month in January, with the rate of expansion hitting a 69-month high. The improvement in the performance of the United States manufacturing sector was most noticeable. The Institute for Supply Management output index rose by 6.5 points since December to reach its highest level since April 2004.

Elsewhere the position was much more uneven, with West European and Japanese manufacturing having a much more qualified start to 2010, with rates of expansion growth well below the global average, - and in the case of some countries well below. Meanwhile emerging economies like Brazil,India and Turkey continued to show a strong performance.

Asia and Emerging Markets

In Japan activity slowed, although at 52.5, the seasonally adjusted Nomura/JMMA Purchasing Managers’ Index pointed to a moderate improvement in operating conditions in the Japanese manufacturing sector at the start of 2010.

Commenting on the Nomura/JMMA Japan Manufacturing PMI data, Minoru Nogimori, Economist of Financial & Economic Research Centre at Nomura, said:

“The Japan Manufacturing PMI fell 1.3 points to 52.5 in January. It remains above the key dividing line of 50.0, but has continued to fluctuate in recent months. Although the PMI has been holding firm, the sharp rebound phase from February through to August in 2009 has lost steam. Furthermore, the New Export Orders Index fell rapidly, by 3.2 points to 51.5, signaling that the yen’s appreciation has depressed exports which are the main factor behind the current recovery in the Japanese economy. Exports are an important factor of the future of the Where an expansion of production was signalled, panellists generally attributed growth to higher intakes of new orders, which increased for the seventh month running in January. However, the latest improvement in firms’ order books was the slowest in that sequence amid concerns over the sustainability of economic growth. Export sales placed at manufacturers rose again in January, extending the current period of expansion to eight months. Nonetheless, the pace of expansion was the slowest since last June. Anecdotal evidence suggested that increased new business from China and other Asian countries continued to support export growth.

January data signalled that backlogs were depleted at the fastest rate since last June, largely as a result of slower new business growth and a robust rise in output.

Elswhere in Asia, both China and India showed strong expansions. At 57.4, up from 56.1 in the previous month, the headline HSBC China Manufacturing PMI rose to a record high at the start of 2010, signalling a continuing improvement in operating conditions in the Chinese manufacturing sector. The index has now risen more than sixteen points since posting a record low in November 2008. Export sales also rose in January, increasing at a near-record rate. This was in sharp contrast to the severe reductions seen at the beginning of 2009.

Commenting on the China Manufacturing PMI survey, Hongbin Qu, Chief Economist for China at HSBC said:

“Industrial activity continues to accelerate, implying stronger GDP growth in 1Q. But rising input and output prices also point to greater inflationary pressure, which will likely prompt more tightening measures in the coming months.”

The Indian manufacturing sector expanded at fastest pace for nearly one-and-a-half years in January. Climbing to 57.6 in January, its highest level for seventeen months, the seasonally adjusted HSBC Markit Purchasing Managers’ Index signalled a considerable improvement in operating conditions faced by Indian manufacturers. The headline index has now signalled expansion of the sector since April 2009, and at increasing rates for the past two survey periods.

Commenting on the India Manufacturing PMI survey, Robert Prior-Wandesforde, Senior Asian Economist at HSBC said:

“Any lingering concern that India's manufacturing recovery was tailing off should be well and truly put to rest by this strong release. A second consecutive rise in the PMI has taken the series to a new cycle high, consistent with on-going double digit rises in industrial production. The most impressive part of the release was the more than 5 point jump in the new export orders index, which took it to its highest level since October 2007 and indicated that the recovery is by no means dependent on domestic demand alone.

“At the same time, however, price pressures are clearly intensifying. The rate of increase in input prices was the largest since the PMI began nearly 5 years ago, while the survey suggests that companies are more willing to pass on these rises in the form of higher output prices - something which the RBI is unlikely to take too kindly to. Admittedly, the employment index only inched above 50 but it can't be long before job hiring picks up more aggressively.”

Elsewhere among emerging economies, the Brazil performance stood out, with the sector expanding at a considerable pace as shown by the fact the headline seasonally adjusted Brazil Manufacturing PMI climbed to 57.8 in January, its highest level since data were first available in February 2006.

Commenting on the Brazil Manufacturing PMI survey, Andre Loes, Chief Economist, Brazil at HSBC said:

“The Brazilian manufacturing industry expanded at a survey record pace in January. The Manufacturing PMI reached 57.8, up from December’s 55.8, with all five of its components supporting the strong performance of the composite indicator.

“In our view, the particularly strong growth of output, new orders and input stocks – all of them reached series record peaks – indicate further vigorous expansions in manufacturing going forward. Employment also grew faster, but as a variable that normally lags production, its expansion fell short of the three components mentioned above. Last but not least, charges rose, albeit modestly, for the fourth month in a row.

“All in, January’s Brazil Manufacturing PMI confirms the very favorable dynamics of manufacturing activity. This highlights the concern recently expressed by the BCB, that the quick reduction of idle capacity could result in increased inflation pressures.”

While the South African PMI continued to show an increase in activity. The index surged to its highest level in 21 months in January, indicating that a recovery in manufacturing is gathering pace as consumer spending picks up, according to Kagiso Securities who prepared the report. The seasonally adjusted index increased to 53.6 from 52.5 in December. The PMI has now been above 50, which indicates an expansion in factory production, for three consecutive months.

Western Europe

In Europe, solid expansions in output were recorded in Sweden, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, but these were in marked contrast to the deeper recessions in Spain, Ireland and Greece.

The Eurozone PMI hit a two-year high, with France and Germany leading the recovery, while Spain and Greece fell further behind. The headline final Eurozone Manufacturing PMI – a composite index based on measures of production, orders, employment, inventories and supplier performance – posted 52.4 in January, its highest reading for two years. The index value was above both its earlier flash estimate of 52.0 and the final reading of 51.6 posted in December. The level of the PMI has risen in each month since hitting a record low last February and has now remained above the neutral 50.0 mark for four consecutive months.

Commenting on the PMI data, Markit Senior Economist, Rob Dobson said:

“The January final PMI readings confirm that the Eurozone manufacturing sector has built on its positive end to last year, with growth of output and new orders the fastest since mid-2007 and above the earlier flash estimates. However, the recovery is becoming two-track, with Spain and Greece in particular falling further into recession when growth in most of the other nations, led by France and Germany, is accelerating. Manufacturers are also continuing to focus on reducing headcounts and lowering stocks despite gains in output. This suggests that they retain a cautious outlook, especially while sales are still being supported by price discounting.”

But the West European picture was characterised by two extremes. On the one hand we have France and Sweden, were economic activity is rebounding strongly, and on the other there is Spain and Greece, where the contraction continues, and the outlook seems bleak.

Business conditions in the French manufacturing sector improved for a sixth consecutive month in January. The headline Purchasing Managers’ Index posted 55.4, up from 54.7 in December. The rise in the PMI reflected faster expansions of both output and new orders during the latest survey period, while supplier delivery times lengthened at a sharper rate. Manufacturing production increased for the seventh month running in January. Furthermore, the rate of growth accelerated to the strongest for almost nine-and-a-half years, with over one-third of panellists reporting a rise.

Commenting on the Markit/CDAF France Manufacturing PMI final data, Jack Kennedy, economist at Markit, said:

“The recovery in the French manufacturing sector remained intact at the start of 2010. Output rose at the strongest rate for almost nine-and-a-half years in January, as the rebound from the record contraction seen in early 2009 continued. While domestic demand remained the primary driver of growth, there was also evidence of strengthening export sales, indicating a broad-based expansion. However, staffing levels continued to be cut as manufacturers targeted cost savings and productivity gains at a time when input price inflation reached a sixteen-month high.”

In Sweden, activity simpled roared ahead, and the Silf / Swedbank Sweden Manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index stood at a seasonally adjusted 61.7 in January, well above December's 58.2. The production sub-index surged to 70.2 in January from 59.7 in the previous month. The new orders sub-index climbed to 66.8 from 63.7, with the new export orders sub-index gaining 4.2 points to 62.3. Despite the improvement in new orders and production, employment levels were slashed again. The employment sub-index stood at 49.6, up slightly from 49.5.

In Spain January data pointed to a further deterioration of operating conditions at Spanish manufacturing firms. Both output and new orders fell at faster rates than in the previous month, while employment continued to decrease sharply. Companies offered discounts to clients in an attempt to boost sales, despite input costs rising again during the month.

The seasonally adjusted Markit Purchasing Managers’ Index remained well below the 50.0 no change mark, edging up slightly to 45.3 in January, from 45.2 in December, indicating that business conditions deteriorated for the twenty-sixth successive month. Production contracted for the sixth month running in January, and at a steeper rate than was registered in the previous month. The latest decline reflected a further reduction in new business.

Commenting on the Spanish Manufacturing PMI survey data, Andrew Harker, economist at Markit, said:

“The Spanish manufacturing sector began the new year with output, new orders and employment all continuing to fall. The steepest decline in input buying for seven months highlights the lack of confidence in the sector, with firms reluctant to invest in new stock until sales have been secured. Manufacturers were again forced to cut prices in January as weak demand made it difficult to pass on higher raw material costs to clients.”

Central and Eastern Europe

Turkish manufacturing sector started 2010 on positive footing as output and new orders rose at robust rates. Increased new orders from overseas continued to provide support to expansion of sector, and the growth in employment was sustained. Higher input cost inflation however droves a further rise in output prices. The headline index posted 53.0 in January, indicating a solid improvement of business conditions in the Turkish manufacturing sector. The rate of expansion accelerated since December, and was the strongest in four months.

Commenting on the Turkey Manufacturing PMI survey, Dr. Murat Ulgen, Chief Economist for Turkey at HSBC said:

“The Turkish manufacturing sector has started 2010 with a solid expansion rate, thanks to robust increases in new orders and output. Overall manufacturing activity has also gained traction, breaking the five-month streak of deceleration in the pace of growth since July. Export order growth was also strong, reflective of an improvement in Turkey’s export markets. Manufacturers continued to slash their finished goods inventories in order to partially fulfil rising orders, while backlogs of work were also reduced for the third month. Employment conditions maintained their favourable trend, improving for the eighth consecutive month. On the other hand, the ominous outlook on cost pressures remained intact in January, as input prices continued to rise much faster than output prices, possibly because of soaring raw material prices. This tells us that inflationary pressures are in the pipeline and businesses may pass on rising costs to their end prices when they feel more comfortable about aggregate demand conditions.”

Business conditions in Russia’s manufacturing sector showed tentative signs of recovery at the start of 2010, according to January survey findings from VTB Capital. Output rose for the sixth straight month, and at a faster rate as new orders increased for the first time since last October. Employment continued to fall, but at a much slower rate than the trend pace recorded over late-2008 and 2009. Inflationary pressures strengthened, but remained relatively weak. The headline seasonally adjusted Russian Manufacturing PMI posted above the no-change mark of 50.0 for only the second time in the past eighteen months in January, indicating an overall improvement in operating conditions in the sector. The latest PMI reading reflected stronger positive contributions from the output, new orders and suppliers’ delivery times indices, and less negative effects from the employment and stocks of purchases components. That said, the latest reading of 50.8 signalled only a marginal overall improvement in conditions, and was below the long-run trend of 52.1.

Commenting on the survey, Dmitri Fedotkin, economist at VTB Capital, reported:

“January’s Manufacturing PMI rose to 50.8, the second reading pointing to an expansion across the sector over the past 18 months. The headline number was supported by new orders crossing the no-change 50 level to reach 53.0, while new export orders also rose (50.8). The output index rose to 52.3, pointing to production rising for six straight months and supporting the recent upturn in official statistics. In addition, at 48.2 the employment index improved for the fourth month running with further stabilization expected on the job market. The input price index rose to 61.4 amid higher commodity prices and freight charges while the output price index rose to 54.0 as companies tried to pass rising costs on to customers.”

Hungary's manufacturing purchasing manager index (PMI) jumped 4.4 percentage points to 53.5 points in January 2010, the Hungarian Association of Logistics, Purchasing and Inventory Management (HALPIM) reported on Monday. This marks a halt in the contraction of the manufacturing industry that had started in September 2008. Hungary's manufacturing PMI stood at 53.5 in Jan 10, up by 4.4 ppts from Dec 09. This is the first time since August 2008 when the index is above 50. (The Dec reading was revised upward to 49.1 from 48.5 originally).

HSBC survey data for the Polish manufacturing sector signalled an overall improvement in business conditions in January, in stark contrast to the marked contraction posted one year earlier. The headline HSBC Poland Manufacturing PMI posted 51.0 in January, having been unchanged at a near two-year high of 52.4 in the previous month. Any figure greater than 50.0 represents an overall improvement in business conditions. The PMI remained above its long-run trend of 49.5 in the latest period.

Commenting on the Poland Manufacturing PMI survey, Kubilay Ozturk, economist at HSBC, said:

“The headline PMI remained above break-even in January, but the momentum that prevailed in the last two months of 2009 appears to have lost some steam, with slower expansions in output and new orders. Domestic and external demand continued to improve over the month, albeit at a slower pace, particularly for the former. A decline in the employment index after a long-awaited rise in December confirms the labour market is not out of the woods yet, while the noticeable drop in output prices indicates a benign inflation environment ahead. Overall, the reading is a reminder that a straight-line recovery may not be that likely, although the Polish economy will continue to outperform its regional peers in 2010.”

Czech manufacturing output grew at fastest rate since March 2008 and the latest PMI data compiled by Markit for HSBC showed an overall improvement in business conditions for the third month running in January. Moreover, the rates of growth for both output and new orders accelerated, and were sharper than the averages over eight-and-a-half years of data collection for the survey. Meanwhile, manufacturers shed jobs at a slower pace and continued to cut charges to support sales drives. Supply delays were again registered as firms raised purchasing volumes. The headline HSBC Czech Republic Manufacturing PMI rose to 53.1, signalling a robust overall improvement in business conditions.

Commenting on the Czech Republic Manufacturing PMI survey, Kubilay Ozturk, economist at HSBC said:

“The headline index improved noticeably in the first month of 2010 on the back of a remarkable increase in output and a solid rise in new orders, underlining the uninterrupted improvement in demand. Both external and domestic markets appear to have been on the mend in January, suggesting a wider economic recovery is under way. The latter was also confirmed by a leap in firms’ purchasing volumes over the month. However, subdued increase in EMU manufacturing PMI in January and the downside surprise in a flash estimate for German 2009 growth suggest the impact of fiscal stimuli and car-scrappage schemes in Western Europe may fade earlier than expected, implying recovery may be gradual and bumpy.”