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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Seeing is Believing, But Stabilising is NOT Recovering

By Edward Hugh: Barcelona

This is one of the key points I have been hammering here on this blog for some weeks now. There is clear evidence of most economies globally "stabilising" at this point, you could even stretch it to say that the "worst is over" - since I doubt we will go back to the dreadful days of December and January (see German manufacturing PMI chart below) - when it was like someone had given a very sharp knock to the whole industrial sector with a large sledgehammer, and of course ultimately the vibrations settle down even if the damage remains.

But to go from this evident fact to drawing the conclusion that a full recovery is now in the works would be a very fast and loose use of both logic and economic theory. Production is falling less slowly (on an annual basis) and even increasing slightly (on a monthly basis) in some countries as orders can no longer simply be met from what are now very depleted inventories.

But as I suggest in this post, upping output to meet current orders is not a recovery, for the win-win dynamic to move us back into a new cycle investment activity has to increase. And on this front there is precious little actual evidence to back the more positive discourse, and indeed the data we are seeing indicate rather the contrary.

When I last wrote we did not have detailed data for Q1 GDP for the eurozone economies , so I took a look at the evidence from Japan, where investment activity slumped massively between January and March (pointing out that there was no good reason why we should expect the situation to be very different in Europe). Japanese business investment was down a record 10.4 percent year on year in the first three months, and a massive 35.5% over the last quarter.

But now we have detailed German Q1 GDP results from the Federal Statistics Office, and we find a very similar picture. Total investment was strongly down (– 7.9% quarter on quarter), while capital formation in machinery and equipment, was 16.2% lower than in the last quarter of 2008, and 19.6% lower than in the first three months of last year.

But all of that is to some extent history. Much more preoccupying - certainly for the "onward-annd-upward-we-go" thesis - is that German plant and machinery orders declined the most on record in April from a year earlier. Orders dropped an annual 58 percent, the most since data collection started in 1950, after falling an annual 35 percent in March, according to the Frankfurt-based VDMA machine makers association in a statement today. Export orders slumped 60 percent while domestic demand dropped 52 percent. So things actually seem to have deteriorated in April with respect to March. No good news this.

Especially when you read the same day an interview with Hans-Joachim Dübel - CEO of Berlin based FinPolConsult, one of the leading and few relatively independent voices in the German housing finance community - where he says: "My guess is that the Landesbanken alone will cause ultimate losses of 8-10% of German GDP, which is real money. Compare that sum with the 5% of GDP costs for the US S&L crisis".