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Sunday, September 27, 2009

The G20 and Why Export Dependency And Global Imbalances Matter

With the timing of the latest G20 meeting set to coincide with the run-in to the German elections acrimonious debate has not been absent, but even as the passions generated by the arrival of voting day subside, it is clear that just beneath the surface their lie some simmering problems which simply will not go away. Despite the fact that nothing is really on the table that will make that much difference in the short run, I think the structural transformation that they are carrying out at G20 level is going to be very important in the longer term in finding eventual solutions.

According to Bertrand Benoit in the Financial Times the G20: "will endorse a report from the Financial Stability Board that calls for bonuses to be linked to the long-term success of financial companies and not excessive risk taking." Well this of course sounds absolutely fine. I have absolutely no objection, but we need to understand that from a macro economic point of view it is virtually irrelevant, with the added detail that the implications are that a recovery in growth will be slower yet less risky. Evidently the issue of why there has been so much liquidity floating around (and this has been the heart of the problem) has little to do with bank bonuses and salaries.

Having interest rates near zero in a significant part of the developed world for an extended period of time - the inevitable consequence of having such a huge excess in global savings - means the the money will still be there, very cheaply, for people to do just whatever they want with it. They might, for example, like to buy Hungarian forint denominated assets, as Deutsche Bank analysts have been advising them to do, and try to find out just how long it takes them to push the economy of that small country right off the edge of the precipice on which it is presently so perilously perched. Or they might like to do something similar with the Russian Ruble, and see if they can block Bank Rossii from being able to move towards a floating currency. Or, if they are really short of interesting ideas, they might like to buy the South African Rand to see just how far out of line you can push the currency in a country which is suffering its worst recession in a couple of decades. Of course, all of this is not that risky for those who understand the finer arts of Forex trading, and the banks who lend them the money will run little risk. The risk here is for the poor people who live in Hungary's and South Africa's of this world. Risk in these cases is, of course, massive.

The banks are also being pressurised to raise their capital ratios. While this is always well-advised in the boom times, it only makes matters worse in a downturn. The current drive to make banks less leveraged and safer may well have the perverse consequence of reducing money balances in the short term. At least this is what Tim Congdon from International Monetary Research argues. This process simply "strengthens the deflationary forces in the world economy, and that increases the risks of a double-dip recession in 2010," he says.

Meanwhile everyone will continue to drive full speed ahead on open ended stimulus programmes, without being altogether clear what it is they are trying to stimulate (see the Spanish case if you don't believe me). "The G20 will call for extraordinary fiscal and monetary stimulus to be continued until “a durable recovery is secured”". But, and here comes the rub, it will also call on countries to act together to ensure more balanced economic growth in future, with surplus countries – China, Germany, Japan and oil exporters – urged to raise domestic demand and deficit countries asked to reduce budget and trade deficits once the world has secured a recovery.

This is evidently the sensitive point which has had everyone from Peer Steinbrück and Angela Merkel, to the newly elected members of the DJP in Japan and the governing elite in China twitching away furiously in recent days. The leaders of these countries have become nervous, since they feel they are being blamed for something they haven't done, and naturally they are lashing back.

They need not worry so much, these exhortations will also be to no real avail. In order to see why, let's take a quick tour through the real heart of the problem.

Who Runs The Current Account Deficits

According to the current director of the US president’s National Economic Council, Larry Summers, writing in an academic paper published in 1990, the United States economy was set to run current account deficits for a period of 15 years, with the consequence that more than 6 percent of U.S. assets would be owned by foreigners by 2010. However, as he saw it, high saving during the subsequent 15 years would result in the generation of current account surpluses and a reduction in foreign capital ownership to 3.5 percent. After 2025, or so the analysis ran, the rapid increase in the number of elderly, would once again lead the United States to run current account deficits.

Since this forecast seems to come so near to describing a process we are now seeing unfolding before our very eyes – in a world where many hold economists can see nothing at all coming – we might like to ask ourselves how anyone could have known so much so far in advance? The answer to this strange questioin is Larry Summers used a very simple model to arrive at his “predictions”, a model based on the life cycle saving and borrowing mechanism, the description of which was to lead Italian economist Franco Modigliani to win a Nobel in 1995. Summers and his co-authors simply applied the individual Life Cycle model to a whole population, and as it appears came up with a fairly plausible outcome.

Everyone is evidently only too well aware that all developed societies are ageing (some, of course, more rapidly than others), but what many observers do not seem to grasp is that this ageing process has very concrete and forseeable economic consequences, consequences which have now been captured in a whole generation of economic models, and which are described in the accompanying chart prepared by my colleague Claus Vistesen.

As can be seen from the chart, as the demographic transition – identified in age bands following the nomenclature of the Swedish demographer Bo Malmberg - advances median population ages move steadily upwards, producing in their wake a whole series of economic phenomena, phenomena which tend to impact directly on the domestic consumption and the current account balance of a national economy. The thick blue line shows what happens to the current account as a given country moves through the age bands. Initially there is a tendency to sharp deficits and severe economic crises, such as are very characteristic of low income, high fertility, developing economies like Ecuador or Pakistan. Then, as societies develop socially and economically the tendency toward deficit remains, only this time on a more mature, and seemingly more stable, basis as seen most evidently in recent years in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain and France, who all have population median ages in the 35 to 40 range.

But then something strange happens as population median ages rise past the 40 mark, and especially as they age past 42. The current account suddenly swings into the positive zone, and this can be seen in the real world in countries like Germany, Japan and Sweden, where the ageing population effect means that domestic consumption becomes steadily weaker, and if we look at the second (purple) line in the chart, which illustrates the level of export dependency, we can see that while this is weak at the lower median age ranges (due to the momentum derived from stronger domestic-credit boom dynamics), it steadily grows at the higher median ages.

So, is there any empirical evidence for this phenomenon you may ask? Well just look at Germany, Japan and Sweden, and how the recent collapse in demand for their exports produced by the global crisis sent the economies in these countries spiralling downwards. On the other hand, during periods of economic boom, strong surplus countries need to find an outlet for the savings they accumulate. Hence the large current account deficit countries in the East of Europe, for example, were funded by Austrian, Swedish and German banks. The question we should be asking is not why banks in these countries were so stupid as to lose so much money, rather it is why they had so much money to lose in the first place. That is, why were their populations saving so much, and why were profitable domestic outlets for such savings insufficient? Once we can get hold of this, we can start to see one of the reasons why there have been such large global imbalances in the first place.

One of the problematic aspects of this situation, looking at the chart, is there there is no steady state (or cyclical correction) mechanism at work here, since there is not, to use the jargon, homeostatis, and the need to export (the export dependency purple line) simple heads off exponentially towards infinity, while the level of deficit does the same in the opposite direction. The reason that the need to export moves exponentially upwards is that median age doesn’t just move up from one level to another, and sit there, but keeps climbing steadily upwards, and the more it rises, the less “bang for the buck” in GDP growth you get from any given level of exports. This is the situation we are seeing now in Germany and Japan, and this is why they will struggle mightily to pull themselves out of the present recession, and why the whole situation is evidently not sustainable. So, if the countries in question don’t do something, and do something now, to stop median ages rising too rapidly, more crises like the one we are presently living through are evidently guaranteed.

This way of thinking about things is sure to form, in my opinion, one piece in the new, post-crisis, macro mindset that will emerge. Of this I have no doubt, since the present crisis is all about imbalances, and this is one simple and straightforward model for thinking about and understanding them. Basically one group of people - the current account surplus countries (China, Japan, Germany, Sweden) - were afloat with money, and spent their time rather recklessly lending it to another group of people - the current account deficit crowd ( the United States, Iceland, Ireland, the UK, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, the Baltics, Hungary and New Zealand etc, etc) - who needed to fund their deficit habit, and who did so by equally recklessly borrowing the money. So if you want to understand the banking crisis, you need, as the US economist Brad Setser would say, to follow the money and find source of all those surpluses and deficits.

And all of this helps us understand not only the crisis, but also the problems we are going to have getting out of it, since as Larry Summers noted over lunch with the FT’s Chrystia Freeland “‘The global imbalances have to add up to zero and so, if the US is going to be less the consumer importer of last resort, then other countries are going to need to be in different positions as well.’

As Freeland highlighted, on this possibility, Summers was absolutely bullish, and understandably so. “The very great enthusiasm for accumulating reserves that one saw globally is likely to be a smaller factor over the next decade than it has been in recent years” he predicts this time. And so too is economic growth (going to be a smaller factor over the next decade), Edward Hugh rapidly adds, since with everyone looking to export their way out of trouble, we have to ask, as Nobel Economist Paul Krugman pointed out, the tricky question about just who the customers with the current account deficits are now going to be to enable all those much needed exports. The current talk of a simple and straightforward recovery for the global economy is misleading, and a long hard road lies ahead for all of us.

And the first evidence of this can be found in the latest quarterly US current account data. The deficit narrowed in the second quarter to $98.8 billion, the lowest level since 2001, reflecting a smaller shortfall in trade of goods as imports and exports both decreased. This is far from being a linear process, and the U.S. trade deficit was up again in July, rising 16.3% over June to hit $32.0 billion, according to Commerce Department data. Despite the fact that imports rose sharply in July on the back of the stimulus programme, total trade activity is still well below last year's level, and the trade deficit with China was $20.42 billion compared with $25.01 billion in July 2008.

In addition US bank loans have been falling fast, and were down at an annual pace of almost 14% in the three months to August (from $7,147bn to $6,886bn). The M3 "broad" money supply, watched as an early warning signal of where the economy will be a year or so later, has been falling at a 5% annual rate. There is absolutely no sign of an imminent sharp rebound in US domestic demand, and little likelihood of a continuing strong current account deficit. The most likely path is for the deficit to steadily close of its own accord as the stimulus programem which is still supporting it is steadily withdrawn. Well, this is what the world wanted, and this is what it is now going to get. So everyone should be happy, I guess.

And while the deficit countries close them down, there is little liklihood of the surplus countries taking their place. It is like telling these countries, you know, you really should have had more children 30 years ago. Do people really think these countries can simply invent policies at the snap of a finger and convince citizens who are worried about the stability of their pension system to spend more now, just because it is in the interest of the global economic system? And what policies exactly. Buy one and get another one for free from the central bank?

But coming back to the G20, as I said at the outset, what I think really matters at this point is that our policymakers have set up a problem for themselves to solve, and they have also set up a structure through which they may solve it. And that is something. Now in all likelihood we will continue to thrash around trying-out false solutions for the next two or three years, but then maybe, just maybe, they will all be ready to talk about what we really might do. And here's the good news, there is another planet out there waiting to be exported to. And the planet has a name - the Emerging Economies. So all we have to do now is work out is a sensible and responsible framework (the so called "supportive environment") through which cheap credit can be channeled into these countries, without that is producing the kind of boom-busts we just saw in the Baltics, Romania and Bulgaria. Not a little task, but not an impossible one either.

(1) An Aging Society: Opportunityor Challenge? - written with David M. Cutler (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), James M. Poterba (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Loise M. Sheiner (Harvard University) and published in Brookings Papers On Economic Activity, 1990.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

As Hungary's "Correction" Heads For A Dead End, Time For A Change Of Course?

Hungary's economic correction still fails to convince. Indeed I am not the only one who remains unconvined by the viability of what is currently taking place it seems, since according to the opposition supporting local daily newspaper Magyar Hírlap, none other than the Hungarian Prime Minister himself may be having doubts, as he is reportedly thinking of leaving the helm of the struggling ship placed under his charge before the next general election, which is scheduled to take place sometime early next year.

If this version of events is ultimately confirmed it will only add to the IMFs growing problems out East, since events in Latvia are not going at all according to their liking - see FT Alphaville's Izabella Kaminska's "Another Latvian wobble" of last Friday - and indeed Latvia’s government rapidly cobbled together another 275 million lati ($575.6 million) in spending cuts for 2010 yesterday after EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia called on Latvia on Friday to “renew a national consensus”, and Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis paid a flying vist to Brussels, following a parliamentary vote against sending a real-estate tax bill through to the committee stage, implicitly rejecting part of an agreement with the IMF and EU. How many times this year does that now make it that the national consensus has had to be urgently renewed under directives from either Washington or Brussels, could someone please remind me?

Further, Hungary's main opposition party - Fidesz - which looks well-positioned to win next year's general elections, are threatening to rewrite the current ever-so-carefully written 2010 budget when they comes to powe next year, according to the latest statements from party president Viktor Orban.

"This (the IMF text, EH) is the most dangerous budget of the past 20 years ... never before has a budget put hundreds of. thousands, or even millions of Hungarian families at such grave risk," Orban told private broadcaster Hir TV in an interview late on Friday. "This budget will not remain in place, we will draw up another one instead," said Orban, a former prime minister, adding that if in power, his government would create one million new jobs in 10 years.

Well, things certainly do not look good either for Gordon Bajnai or for the EU Commission/IMF team who are behind the budget. Perhaps that is why the IMF's representative in Hungary, Iryna Ivaschenko, told national news agency MTI yesterday that while the government was committed to its 2010 fiscal targets, there were economic and implementation risks on the nature of which she declined to elaborate.

As Political Pressures and Bad Loans Mount, While The Economy Retreats Underground, It Is Hard To See How The "Correction" Can Work

Clearly the above mentioned report about the PMs intentions does come from a rather biased source, but it is interesting to note that credibility is being given to it by normally more impartial sources like Portfolio Hungary, and as they themselves point out there has been no outright denial of the suggestion from government sources.

Perhaps even more astonishing was the statement by the Hungarian Finance Minister Peter Oszko to Dow Jones Newswire on Friday that the most difficult reforms to address economic imbalances have now been completed. "I believe the most difficult part of our job is done - our package creates not only short-term but mid- and long-term fiscal balances" he said. I say astonishing, since as far as I personally can see (take a look for yourself at the charts below) the changes that are needed haven't even begun yet. The whole emphasis have been on cutting the deficit, with little serious thought being given about how the Hungarian economy can get back to growth - which is the only real way the fiscal balances can become stable - all that seems to have happened is a 5% VAT hike to squeeze domestic consumption even further, and some compensatory tax changes on the other side to stimulate employment, but the real economic imbalances have been left untouched. A supply side micro-economists paradise, whisper the words "long term steady state growth" to yourself three times, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.

However, the underlying mirky political realities may soon burst their way into the parlour room, to disrupt this happiest of happy families. Indeed everything may well now hinge on getting the budget through parliament and then disrcetely leaving by the side entrance, since Magyar Hirlap suggest that the Hungarian Parliament may well be dissolved directly after the vote on the 2010 budget - which is currently scheduled for 30 November. Apparently everyone's calculations have been thrown awry by the early re-election of José Barroso, and the imminent reappointment of the EU Commission. Plenty of food for thought here.

The paper also suggests that Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai now totally accepts that the forthcoming electtions are inevitably lost - the only bit of realism I can see in all this - and as a consequence seeks to have them advanced to February from the currently probable date of April or May.

In this way Bajnai would be able to offer himself to replace the present Hungarian representative László Kovács, who is currently Commissioner for Taxation and the Customs Union. Bajnai, it will be remembered, has only been Prime Minister since last April, but then, with these sort of techniques it doesn't take that long to put a country straight, now does it?

Advancing elections in a situation where the present budget proposals are massively unpopular may make perfect sense according to a certain democratic political logic, but the economics lying behind the idea must be making people in Washington and Brussels throw up their arms in despair.

More evidence to back the idea that the current programme is not working came in the latest report released by the committee which monitors the long term legalisation of Hungary's underground economy. The process is not only not advancing - it has been thrown into reverse gear, it seems.

According to Committee president, and Central Statistical Office analyst, Csák Ligeti some HUF 100 billion (EUR 369.17 million) in tax revenues were lost in the first half of the year due to a ressurgence in the growth of the black economy. In his report he noted, by way of contrast, that during the previous two years the state budget had received around HUF 200-250 billion (EUR 738.1-922.6 million) in extra revenue due to the "whitening" process initiated in the autumn of 2006 as part of a programme to correct the large fiscal deficits the country was running.

On another front, the IMF warned last week that while Hungary's banking sector had so far weathered the crisis reasonably well - thanks to the multilateral rescue programme - and now has sufficient capital buffers, asset quality still looks set to deteriorate steadily due to weakness in the domestic economy, and especially rising unemployment. This, of course, is another good reason why they should have been including a rapid return to export lead growth in the correction strategy, since obviously if you simply sit back and wait to see what happens, there will be no big surprise - the percentage of Non Performing Loans will just go up and up.

"Developments in the banking sector have been positive; so far so good, and in line with one of the main objectives of the (IMF) program to preserve financial stability," Iryna Ivaschenko, the IMF's resident representative in Hungary, told Down Jones in an interview on Thursday.

However she immediately added that the IMF projects the amount of non-performing loans, which stood at a "still moderate" 4.8% of overall loans at the end of June, "will peak and at least double in the first quarter of 2010,".

This IMF warning follows a Standard and Poor's one at the end of August. The financial profile of Hungarian banks is set to weaken over the near term as a result of the country's ongoing recession, the weak and volatile national currency, and pressure on funding, according to the S&P report.

The report, which was entitled "Banking Industry Country Risk Assessment: Hungary", followed the recent decision by Standard & Poor's to revise its ranking of the Hungarian banking system to reflect increased economic risks in the country (BBB-/Negative/A-3) and structural weaknesses in the country's economy and banking industry.

"Hungary's significant external financing needs, which stem from high public-sector leverage and large external imbalances, represent a structural weakness that exposes the economy to the tight and expensive funding conditions in global markets," according to Standard & Poor's credit analyst Harm Semder, who wrote the report.

The report argues that nonperforming loans and depressed recovery rates are likely to cause a material rise in credit losses, which will in turn subdue bank profits and capital through 2011.

Credit risk is heightened by the rapid growth of unseasoned loans - particularly commercial real estate mortgages - over the past five years and a significant increase in loans denominated in foreign currency that lack the foreign currency revenues to service them.

The report estimates that cumulative gross problematic assets, which include restructured loans and repossessed collateral, could increase to 25%-40% of total loans during the course of the current domestic recession. It further suggests that the eventual recovery will be slow.

Which Way To Turn?

The entire situation in Hungary vis-a-vis wages, employment and inflation continues to be preoccupying. The country is in the midst of a huge correction, and depends on improving exports in order to attain economic growth.

Yet the correction is not proceeding as planned. Inflation - at an annual rate of 5% in August, is far too high in contrast to benchmark German inflation which remained negative in August (minus 0.1% ) to be recovering competitiveness. Real wages have continued to rise, and only sneaked into negative territory for the first time in over six months in July - with a 1.1% drop in the benchmark ex-bonus hourly rate in the private sector. Total employment is falling slowly, but even this process masques an important shift towards public sector employment, as the number of public employees has risen substantially in recent months while the number of employees in the private sector has continued to fall - exactly the opposite of what was meant to be happening. Meanwhile the country continues to get ever deeper in debt thanks to the relatively generous financing conditions offered by the EU and the IMF. The point is where does this all end? Where is the correction here?

The National Bank of Hungary is struggling to find an adequate monetary response. The bank lowered its benchmark interest rate by 50 bp to 8% last week, but this still represents a real interest rate of around 3%.

The move followed a surprise 100-bp rate cut at the end of July. While a month ago, the market was expecting 50 bp easing, this time there was no real surprise. As for the future, the National Bank of Hungary release uses standard central bankspeak that intentionally remains ambiguos and guarantees the Bank Council is not committed in any particular direction. As long as there is no change in the international environment over the coming months, the the Council will be most likely having to decide whether to cut a further 50 bp or more.

So while the bank has evidently eased policy considerably, monetary conditions are evidently still far too tight to stimulate dynamic activity in the private sector, which is almost literally wilting on the vine at the present time.

Meanwhile, in a further sign that the recession is settling in for the long haul, Hungarian retail sales extended their decline to 29 months in June as IMF/government measures to narrow the budget deficit continued to sap consumer spending.

True Love In The Eternal Embrace?

Well, despite the fact that many may think the expression "eternal triangle" in the present context refers to the Hungarian government, the EU Commission and the IMF, they would be wrong since one convenient way of thinking about what just happened in Hungary could be to use another kind of eternal triangle the one developed in Nobel Economist Paul Krugman’s model of the same name, which postulates that when it comes to tensions within the strategic trio formed by exchange rate policy, monetary policy, and international liquidity flows, maintaining control over any one implies a loss of control in one of the other two.

In the case of the Central Europe “four”, Poland and the Czech Republic opted for maintaining their grip on monetary policy, thus accepting the need for their currency to “freefloat” and move according to the ebbs and flows of market sentiment. As it turns out this decision has served them remarkably well, since the real appreciation in their currencies which accompanied the good times helped take some of the sting out of inflation, while their ability to rapidly reduce interest rates into the downturn has lead to currency depreciation, helping to sustain exports and avoid deflation related issues.

The other two countries (Hungary and Romania), to a greater or lesser degree prioritised currency stability, and as a result had to sacrifice a lot of control over monetary policy, in the process exposing themselves to the risk of much more violent swings in market sentiment when it comes to capital flows. Having been pushed by the logic of their currency decision towards tolerating higher inflation, they have seen the competitiveness of their home industries gradually undermined, and as a consequence found themselves pushed into large current account deficits for just as long the market was prepared to support them, and into sharp domestic contractions once they were no longer disposed so to do.

A second problem which stems from this “initial decision” has been the tendency for households in the latter two countries to overload themselves with unhedged forex loans, a move which stems to some considerable extent from the currency decision, since in order to stabilise the currency, the central banks have had to maintain higher than desireable interest rates, which only reinforced the attractiveness of borrowing in forex, which in turn produced lock-in at the central bank, since it can no longer afford to let the currency slide due to the balance sheet impact on households. Significantly the forex borrowing problem is much less in Poland than it is in Hungary or Romania, and in the Czech Republic it is nearly non-existent.

The third consequence of the decision to loosen control on domestic monetary policy has been the need to tolerate higher than desireable inflation, a necessity which was also accompanied by a predisposition to do so (which had its origin in the erroneous belief that the lions share of the wage differential between West and Eastern Europe is an “unfair” reflection of the region’s earlier history, and essentially a market distortion). The result has been, since 2005, a steady increase in unit wage costs with an accompanying loss of competitiveness, and an increasing dependence on external borrowing to fuel domestic consumption.

So, if we look at the current state of economic play in the four countries, we find two of them (Hungary and Romania) undergoing very severe economic contractions - to such a degree that in both cases the IMF has had to be called in. At the same time both of them are still having to “grin and bear” higher than desireable inflation and interest rates. In the other two countries the contraction is milder, the financial instability less dramatic, and both inflation and domestic interest rates are much lower. Really, looked at in this light, I think there can be little doubt who made the best decision.

Hungarian GDP - The Big Slide

While wages and prices more or less steadily wend there way upwards, we have no hurry hear, you understand, GDP has been in freefall. Year on year it was down an annual 7.5% in Q2 (and a seasonally adjusted 2% from the first quarter) . The Hungarian government currently expects the economy to contract 6.7 percent this year, in the largest drop in outout since 1991. My view is that we have a total policy trap in operation here, since neither monetary or fiscal policy are available to an adequate degree (even after today's change interest rates are still at 8%), and there is thus little support available to put under the economy at this point. The only way to break the circle in my opinion is to violently kick start exports by letting the forint drop, bringing down interest rates, and restructuring all those CHF loans.

If, instead of browsing over all those diplomatic statements we look at what is going on on the ground, then we find that private sector employment is now well down, by 9.2% y-o-y in July. While in the same month industrial output was down 19.4% over a year earlier. Something just doesn't seem to be working as it should be here.

Unbalanced Movements In Employment

Not surprisingly given the strength of the contraction total employment fell back again, for the second consecutive month, in July, and stood at was 2.657 million. There were 1.803 million in the private sector and 765 thousand in the public sector. Total employment was thus down 4.4% over July 2008.

Private sector employment is well down in Hungary, by 9.2% y-o-y in July.

On the other hand, public sector employment has been chugging away on the up and up, due to job creation under the short term stimulus programme, courtesy indirectly of the IMF, who have permitted a larger than anticipated budget deficit.

But don't get me wrong, it's not the stimulus I am quibbling about here, it is what it is being used for, and the absence of a realistic plan. It's easy enough to run up debt, especially when the EU Commission and the IMF guarantee you, but its a lot harder to pay it down again later, and Hungarian debt to GDP now looks set to go through the 80% of GDP level in 2010. So, the outcomes we are seeing simply don't seem to me to be producing a large enough structural change in the right direction. On the other hand, even this public sector employment boost now seems to have started to turn, since even public sector employment fell back on the month in July - for the first time in six months - although it was still up 5.6% year on year.

Hungary's gross average ex bonus private sector real wages entered negative territory in June, for the fisrt time in over six months, and fell at annual rate of minus 1.1 percent.

Real public sector wages continue to fall sharply, and contracted by an annual 11 percent year-on-year in July following a 13.4 percent contraction in June - although some of the volatility here is the result of a changed system of payment for the additional (13th) month's salary. What is happening in Hungary is really an obvious example of "sticky wages" if ever there was one as far as I can see, since employment in the private sector is falling, and unemployment rising, so you would expect the opposite effect to operate, and real wages to be falling sharply at this point. According to Erika Molnarfi of the stats office, the upward drift in average private sector salaries is the outcome of a sharp decline in production workers which was not accompanied by a decline in administrative workers, exactly the opposite result to that you want to see.

Inflation Stubbornly High

Far from the current recession leading to a significant downward shift in wages and prices, real wages had been rising continuously until July, while Hungary's consumer prices were still running year on year at 5% in August - up from 3.7% in June due to the VAT effect, and still far to high to start restoring competitiveness. . If the current trend continues, and the HUF remains in the region of its current euro parity, then Hungary's agony looks set to continue unabated well into 2010.

And Hungarian manufacturing output fell back again in July, and industrial output decreased by 19.4% compared to July 2008. The volume of production was 22.1% lower over the first seven months of 2009 than in the same period of the previous year. The volume of industrial production fell back in July by 0,7% on June according to seasonally and working-day adjusted indices. Industrial export sales declined by 25.2% in the first seven months of 2009 and by 19.8% in July compared to the same period of the previous year, as a result of a sharp fall in external demand.

So Hungary is suffering from a generalised drop in demand - domestic, export, government, and investment - for which it is difficult to see any short term remedy.

Investments fell in the second quarter of 2009 by 4.7% compared to the same period of 2008. In the first half of 2009 investments in the national economy were 6% down over the corresponding period of the previous year. Investments did however increased by 0.4% quarter on quarter, but when we break this down we find that of the 4.7%annual drop in investments in the second quarter those in machinery and equipment fell by 11.6%, while the volume of construction investments – due to investments in dwellings and motorway constructions – grew by 1.1% compared to the same period of 2008. But when we look at the construction data we find that the improvement in construction is all about civil engineering, so any increase in machinery and equipment investment is still some way off at this point.

Evidently the first sign of any real recovery in the Hungarian economy will come when machinery and equipments investments stabilise and even start to increase, since that will be a reflection of the expectation of future demand arriving further down the pipeline, and will be a measure of real employment creating possibilities.

But things don't look set to improve soon, since Hungary's purchasing manager index dropped by 3.4 points to 45.8 points in August, according to the most recent report from the Hungarian Association of Logistics, Purchasing and Inventory Management (HALPIM). The latest data is highly disappointing not only because Hungarian manufacturing has now been contracting for 11 straight months, but because the August eurozone PMI index showed a larger-than-expected pickup. This thus suggests that Hungary is being left behind in the scramble.

Exports Remain Weak, And Imports Are Even Weaker

Hungary recorded its fifth monthly trade surplus in June, coming in at 457,3 million euros slightly below the 490.1 million euros acheived in May but well above the 30.8 million euros of June last year.

Now good news is always good news, but it is important to understand that this result was almost entirely achieved via a dramatic drop in imports, which plunged an annual 30.4 percent in June (following a 32.3 percent decline in May). It is impossible to talk of any marked improvement in exports, since these fell by an annual 21.1 percent, decelerating from the 24.1 percent drop in May, but still very large. While in the short term this substantial drop in imports (and hence rise in the trade balance) is GDP positive, it is very negative for living standards in the longer term, and the whole situation needs to be reversed by a large boost in exports leading imports as the eurozone economy eventually recovers. But to be able to achieve this Hungarian industry needs to do more, much more, to achieve competitiveness.

Over the January-June period, the volume of exports and imports fell by 20 and 25 percent, respectively, compared to the same period of the preceding year. The trade balance showed a surplus of HUF 606 billion (EUR 2,055 million), which meant an improvement of HUF 534 billion (EUR 1,766 million) compared to the surplus of HUF 72 billion (EUR 288 million) in January-June 2008. In January-June 2009, the forint price level of exports and imports both increased by 6 percent, respectively, The forint exchange rate had however weakened by 17 percent with repsect to a basket of leading foreign currencies, and within this by 14 percent to Euro and by more than 30 percent to the dollar. So, if getting the growth needed to drive GDP is the objective, and this is any evidence, then there is still a long long way for the forint to fall.

Over January-June 2009, the export and import volumes of machinery and transport equipment, which constitute 60 percent of exports and nearly 50 percent of imports, fell by and above average 24 percent in the case of exports, and by 27 percent in the case of imports.

Domestic Demand Drifts On Downwards

Construction activity was down by 5.1% in July as compared to July 2008. In the first seven months of 2009, output was down by 2.4%. In comparison June, production fell by 12.2% in July according to indices adjusted for seasonality and working days. This large drop is really only a reflect of the pre VAT introduction surge registered in June.

The two construction sectors are moving in opposite directions at the moment. Within the 5.1% aggregate increase, building construction was down by almost a quarter, while civil engineering works expanded by 19.6%. From the start of the year the construction of new buildings is down by 12.7% while civil engineering works are up by 12.3%.

From the September 2006 peak construction activity as a whole is now down by 27.58%. September 2009 will mark the start of the third year of contraction.

Hungary's retail sales fell by 2.2% in June compared to June 2008, although sales did increase by 0.5% compared to the previous month. Of course, we need to remember in this case that the 5% VAT hike was introduced on 1 July, so it is perhaps surprising that the increase wasn't bigger.

Thus the month on month increase is very misleading, since it was evidently driven by the government decision to raise value-added tax on the first of July - in an attempt to compensate for revenue losses which will be produced by forthcoming reductions in personal income and payroll taxes . So the increase in sales was in fact due to an attempt to avoid the 5% rise in VAT, and we should be ready for a sharp drop in July. Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai is in the process of implementing spending cuts worth 1.3 trillion forint ($6.9 billion) over a period two years in an attempt to keep the budget deficit in check.

While The Central Bank Is Caught In A Policy Trap

Hungary’s central bank cut its benchmark interest rate to the lowest level in 17 months at the end of August to try to help jolt the countryt out of its worst recession in almost two decades. The Magyar Nemzeti Bank lowered the two-week deposit rate to 8 percent from 8.5 percent. Monetary policy makers voted for the 50 basis-point cut with an “overwhelming” majority over a reduction to 7.75 percent according to central bank President Andras Simor. In fact the minutesd showed that the bank cut interest rates by a seven to one majority, with one member voting for a 75 base point cut.

In fact many analysts now see further easing in the pipline, but in taking this stance they need to think about two points.

i) The Hungarian government is still incredibly complacent about the inflation problem, and currently forecasts that inflation will only slow by the end of next year to something just below the central bank's current medium-term target which is itself very complacent.

"We expect inflation to slow from [an annual average of] 4.5% this year to 4.1% in 2010. As for 2010, the December inflation figure may start with a digit 2," Finance Ministry State Secretary Tamas Katona told journalists last week.

In its latest report on inflation, published in August, the National Bank of Hungary projected that inflation will likely dip below the 3% mark from the third quarter of 2010 onward. The central bank's annual inflation forecast is 2.5% on average for the second half of next year.

But if Hungary wants to avoid a substantial devaluation then the internal devaluation needs to operate, and to a significant degree, which makes these current forecasts simply laughable. You wouldn't have thought, given all the complacency that the economy was contracting at around an annual 7% rate.

ii) the key problem for the central bank is the value of the forint - given the level of household exposure to Forex loans. My opinion is that the recent recovery in the currency value has been almost entirely driven by yield differentials, and by self-fulfilling expectations (traders expect the currency to rise), rather than by any change in the underlying economic fundamentals, which as we have seen, has not taken place.

But with consumption sinking, government spending falling and exports insufficiently competitive to drive the necessary surplus, the whole thing is now becoming rather a mess, with no clear economic policy objective in the short term (except, of course, cutting the bfiscal deficit and maintaining a strong exchange rate), while in the long term the emphasis is rightly on increasing exports. But no one has any idea of how exactly to correct prices sufficiently with the CHF mortgages stuck in the middle, and it remains to be seen how the markets will ultimately respond to these rate reductions as and when the wind of risk sentiment changes, as it will.

Basically the problem is the value of the forint. My opinion is that the recent recovery in the currency value (see chart below) has been almost entirely driven by yield differentials, and by self-fulfilling expectations (traders expect the currency to rise), rather than by any change in the underlying economic fundamentals, which as we have seen, has not taken place.

The problem the central bank and the Finance Ministry have to address is the ongoing issue of the mountain of Swiss Franc denominated mortgages.

These have stopped increasing in recent times, but still constitute a serious obstacle to any devaluation of the HUF, due to the non performing loans issue this would create for the banking sector. Not only has money been borrowed against homes for to fund house purchases, it has also been loaned for consumption, so indeed the fact that even these loans are stagnating hardly bodes well in any way for domestic demand.

The result of all this botched policy is that Hungary’s EU harmonised unemployment rate rose to the its highest level in at least a decade in May and has been stick there ever since - and with the rise of unemployment, of course the percentage of impaired loans in the banking sector will also continue to grow. The rate rose to a seasonally adjusted 10.3 percent, the highest since at least 1996 and was still there in July (the latest month for which we have Eurostat data).

And the situation is more likely to deteriorate than improve, with the central bank forecasting lay-offs of around 180,000 across 2009-2010, nearly 5% of the total number of employed, and now even the number of employees in the public sector is starting to fall back.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bank Rossii Eases Further As Russia's Economy Contracts At A Record Rate

Russia’s central bank this week lowered its main interest rates for the seventh time since April 24 - lowering the refinancing rate a further quarter percentage point. The decision came hard on the heels of the announcement that the Russian economy suffered a record economic contraction in the second three months of the year and refelect the growing recognition that the country now faces a painfully slow recovery. Just how painful things might become will form the subject matter of this report.

Risks Rising On All Fronts

Bank Rossii cut the refinancing rate to 10.5 percent from 10.75 percent (following a quarter point reduction on August 10), and lowered the repurchase rate charged on central bank loans to 9.5 percent from 9.75 percent, effective from tomorrow. The bank has now cut the rates six times since April 24. Nonetheless Russia’s benchmark refinancing rate is still the second-highest in Europe, after the 12% on offer in Serbia and Iceland - meaning ruble denominated assets remain an attractive carry pair with either Euro or USD, and that with inflation stuck around the 12% mark the problems for central bank monetary policy are legion.

In the report that follows I will argue how the steady and systematic long term mismanagement of Russia's monetary policy has now created a veritable Procrustean bed of problems for Russia's economy and society. Failure to address the underlying inflation problem between 2005 and 2008 meant that large structural distrortions were accumulated in the economy, including a massive problem of commodity export dependence, a problem which effectively turned the country into a veritable disaster waiting to happen if ever there should be a protracted lull in the secular rise in energy prices. That lull has now arrived, and it is not at all clear just for how long we will all need to get to learn to live with it.

In a more or less reasoned analysis Capital Economics suggest that oil prices could fall back to somewhere around $50 a barrel in 2010. If this forecast proves anywhere near correct, the Russian economy is going to be subject to major downside risks, due to the difficulties posed by:

i) financing the fiscal deficit
ii) rising unemployment
iii) growing bad loans in the banking system
iv) refinancing external debt
v) the continuing high level of consumer price inflation and the difficulties this poses for monetary policy at the central bank

Added to all this, the economy will clearly not rebound as easily as many seem to foresee, adding to the risk element on all fronts. The Russian Economy Ministry seem to be getting ahead of themselves at the moment, since following a period when they have tried to get the bad news all out up front, just last week they decided to raise their 2010 forecast to a growth of 1.6 percent - up from the previous 1 percent forecast. This growth, if realised, would follow an anticipated shrinkage of some 8.5 percent this year, based on the September 9 estimate of Economy Minister Elvira Nabiullina that output may grow 3.9 percent to 4.5 percent in the second half of this year compared with the first six months - such strong optimism I find hard to accept, unless the turnround in global economic activity turns out to be much stronger than the one we are currently seeing.

Is The Worst Really Behind Us?

Gross domestic product contracted an annual 10.9 percent in the second quarter, according to the Federal Statistics Service. The headline number represented a worsening in the year on year performance following a 9.8 percent contraction in the first quarter. Evidently the Russian economy has been extremely hard hit by the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression as demand for Russia’s oil, natural gas and metals (around 80% of total ex-CIS exports), and industrial production plunged as companies depleted stocks and struggled to raise funds during the credit crunch.

Manufacturing contracted an annual 18.7 percent in the quarter compared with a 23.5 percent drop in the first quarter, while construction was down 20.5 percent in the period following a 20.9 percent annual decline in the first three months. Retail sales fell an annual 11.3 percent, more than twice the pace of decline in the first quarter when they shrank by 4.9 percent. Capital investment slumped by an annual 23.1 percent in May, the most since December 1998. The Russian government forecasts that GDP may fall by as much as 8.5 percent for all of 2009, following growth of 5.6 percent in 2008 and 8.1 percent in 2007.

Looking Into The Third Quarter

However the contraction evidently eased in the second three months of the year, and while the Russian Statistics Office do not publish seasonally adjusted estimates of quarterly movements in GDP, Neil Shearing at Capital Economics estimates the economy effectively moved sideways, with roughly zero percent growth (plus or minus a tiny fraction on either side). Moving forward into the thirds quarter, the best measure we have of the current activity level is the GDP Indicator compiled for VTB Capital by Markit Economics on the basis of their Composite PMI.

Interestingly, the Indicator moved back intopositive territory in August, posting above the neutral level of 50.0 for the first time since last September. That said, the latest reading of 52.2 suggested only a moderate rate of expansion in activity, and remained well below the long-run series average, while both the contry's services and manufacturing sectors posted equally modest month-on-month gains in activity. So we could say the economy continued to move more or less sideways on the month with the quarterly rate still standing at the slightly negative minus 0.2%.

Now while the GDP indicator continued to show quite a strong year on year contraction in August of minus 3.9%, this was well down on May’s revised record rate of minus 9.9%. So while the Indicator has now spent nine months in negative territory - a longer sequence than the earlier seven-month record run from September 1998 to March 1999 - as companies produce direct for new demand, and government stimulus spending has its effect, the rate of contraction has eased notably. But it is worth noting that the current average rate of decline - minus 6.4% - is much sharper than that seen in the 1998 downturn, while we should be asking ourselves, absent a clear rebound in energy prices, just how sustainable the current improvement is.

Over the second quarter as a whole, the Indicator averaged a revised annual minus 9.2%, far worse than the annual minus 6.2% posted in Q1. The first two quarters of 2009 have seen steeper contractions than in any previous quarter since the current time series began in June 1998. However,the Indicator does show a slower rate of annual decline for Q3 since the average so far, is minus 5.2% over July-August.

Industrial Output Trending Up

Russian industrial production rose for a second consecutive month in July, and the year-on-year decline eased after the central bank cut rates and the government ramped up spending. Output rose 4.7 percent from June, after a 4.5 percent rise the previous month, and on an annual basis declined 10.8 percent compared with 12.1 percent in June, according to the Federal Statistics Service.

VTB’s Russian Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index also advanced in August to 49.6 from 48.4 July.

“Modest production growth was supported by a second successive monthly increase in new orders, which reflected stronger market activity, particularly at home,” the report said. At the same time, “excess resources remained a key feature,”with “employment, backlogs and inventories all continuing to fall.”

In addition Russia’s services sector returned to growth during August. Both the level of activity and amount of new business rose for the first time since last September, resulting in an overall improvement in the business climate. Employment continued to fall, but the rate of job shedding was at its slowest in ten months. Costpressures intensified again, but remained subdued whencompared against the long-run trend for the survey.

The August services PMI rose by 3.7 points, reaching 52.2, ending a ten-month sequence of decline in the service sector. That said, the survey organisers were at pains to point out that the latest figure still pointed to a relatively muted rate of expansion compared to the survey’s long-run trend.

As Unemployment Rises, And Incomes Fall, Domestic Demand Shrinks

Russia's unemployment rate has been declining recently after reaching its highest level in more than 8 years (8.8%) in April. The unemployment rate continued to decrease in August in all Russia’s 47 regions, according to the latest statement from the Russian Ministry of Health and Social Development. Still, the current 8.2% rate is still very high by Russian standards.

Household income which had begun to strengthen following last winters dramatic fall, began to weaken in late spring and was down 5.4% year on year in August, providing additional evidence that the stimulus spending isn't working out exactly as intended.

And so, not surprisingly Russian retail sales dropped the most in almost ten years in July, sliding for a sixth consecutive month, as households cut back spending in response to falling income and limited consumer borrowing possibilities. Sales slid 8.2 percent from a year earlier after declining 6.5 percent in June, according to the Federal Statistics Service.

Inflation Still The Big Bugbear

The best think that can be said about Russian monetary policy instruments is that they are hopelessly ineffictive. Even though August consumer-price growth was probably much lower than July’s 12 percent pace it is still extremely hard to understand how incompetence can have reached such a level that an economy which has been contracting at more than 10 per cent a year can still have double digit consumer proce inflation. There is no other word for it, this is a mess.

Producer prices at least have been falling, and slid again in July for the eighth consecutive month as industrial production slumped and companies competed by discounting products amid waning demand, according to the press release from the State Statistics Service. The price of goods leaving factories and mines was in fact down a record 12.3 percent compared with July 2008 after sliding an annual 9.4 percent in June. The pressure on wages and incomes is thus easy to see. What is not so easy to see is why domestic prices take so long in responding to these signals and the Economic Development Ministry still expects inflation to range from 12 percent to 12.5 percent in 2009 from last year’s 13.3 percent. Stunning!

Now suprisingly one of the biggest problems Russia faces as a result of this very disorderly contraction is a sharp fall in capital investment, which is dropping steadily almost with no relief. Down 18.9% year on year in July.

So, as the Federal government pounds in stimulus after stimulus, while oil prices however in the $70 dollar a barrel range, the country now risks returning to a period of entrenched budget deficits that may threaten its credit rating and lead directly to further ruble devaluation. The country faces “still-substantial risks to public finances due to the severe economic contraction” and financial risks linked to “stress” in the financial industry and liabilities of state-run companies, according to Standard & Poor’s analyst Frank Gill.

According to Gill, if the government fails to rein in the budget shortfall, the credit rating may be cut from its current BBB rating. Russia's budget deficit widened in the first eight months of 2009 to the equivalent of 5.9 percent of GDP, according to Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin following a shortfall of 4.3 percent in the first seven months. The expectation now is that the deficit may come in at around 8.9% of GDP on the whole year.

On the other hand the government stimulus plans involve an average outgoing of between 850 billion rubles ($26.8 billion) and 900 billion rubles a month this year following a 1.5 trillion ruble jumpstart in December. In its attempt to plug the gap the government is drawing on its $85.7 billion Reserve Fund and $90.7 billion National Wellbeing fund, which were built on windfall oil revenue, tin order to pay for an “anti-crisis” program that estimated to be worth about 2.5 trillion rubles ($79 billion) you include the tax breaks, central bank lending and all the other multifarious measures.

With the Reserve Fund expected to be drained by the end of next year, Russia will need turn to international debt markets for the first time since 1998, and is seeking to raise $17.8 billion from investors next year, according to Alexander Kudrin. This will mean the country’s debt to GDP ration - which is still very, very low by international comparisons - will more than double by 2012, growing from 6.5 percent of GDP in 2008 to 16.4 percent by 2012 according to Finance Ministry estimates.

How To Get Out Of the Mess

Well, one way not to solve the problem would be a ruble devaluation according to European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Chief Economist Erik Berglof. Even while recognising that the country has a very difficult couple of years in front of it, Berglof argues “this (devaluation) is the wrong way to think about the recovery in Russia”.

As he says, Russia’s failure to wean itself off its reliance on commodity exports has condemned the country struggling to find economic growth in the face of a large drop in demand for its key export products. “If you want to have a flexible exchange rate, you need to get out of this dependence on commodities,” Berglof said. “It’s a major concern that in the last 10 years Russia has become actually more dependent on commodities. Unfortunately, not much progress has been made.”

Well, this is eaxctly the point, and is why I have been arguing over the last two year about how all those wage increases which the Russian administration seemed to rejoice in (since they bought short term popularity) simply fuelled domestic inflation and in the process did untold damage to domestic competitiveness. However it is evident Russia's industries cannot now simply be transformed overnight, and this is where I find a weakness in Berglofs argument, since some remedy is needed to straghten out the distortions and get of commodity export dependence. But what? If it isn't devaluation, then surely we will need to see very substantial wage deflation in order to attract the now much needed inward foreign investment.

Of course not everyone agrees with Berglof, and the Russian Association of Regional Banks, whose 450 members include the Russian units of Barclays and Citigroup, has called for a devaluation of as much as 30 percent. Billionaire Vladimir Potanin, realist and owner of 25 percent of OAO GMK Norilsk Nickel, said in recent interview with the Russian Newspaper Vedomosti that the “interests of the economy” will lead the currency to depreciate in the “mid term,” allowing exporters to cut costs and modernize production.

Nonetheless energy, including oil and natural gas, accounted for 69.1 percent of exports to countries outside the former Soviet Union and the Baltic states during the first seven months of this year, according to the Federal Customs Service, while metals were responsible for another 12%. So the commodities dependency is massive, and this situation can't be turned round easily.

Getting Carried Away By Global Liquidity?

Bank Rossi are also not 100% convinced by Berglof's reasoning, as witnessed by the fact that they facilitated a 35 percent depreciation in the ruble during the second half of last year (see chart below), and as the collapse in raw material prices and the dramatic change in local credit conditions first pushed Russia's economy into recession the ruble’s trading range was widened to between 26 and 41 against the dollar-euro basket.

However the central bank is now locked on the horns of a massive dilemma, since as risk appetite returns, with it comes the enthusiasm for buying the so called "high yield" currencies - like the South African Rand, the Russian ruble and the Hungarian forint. Instruments denominated in all these currencies offer investors substantial returns at the present time thanks to offering some of the highest interest rates among globally traded currencies.

Indeed buying Russian rubles was one of the key recommendations made by Angus Halkett, currency strategist at Deutsche Bank in London, in a research report published back in April, and the market seems to have followed his advice The so-called carry trade works by investors borrowing in currencies with low interest rates and good prospects of continuing depreciation (the USD at the moment, for example) in order to buy higher-yielding assets, in countries with high domestic interest rates and continuing prospects for ongoing appreciation.

In general, engaging in one or other form of the thousand-and-one-varieties carry trade is pretty standard practice during times when returns for real economic activity are low, and central banks hold down rates and supply liquidity. Indeed we may include here the kind of carry practiced by banks in borrowing from the central banks only to then lend - for a small, but very low risk, interest rate commission - to their national government, who at this stage in the business cycle will normally be running a fiscal deficit. So more than funding recovery, the watchword at the moment is very much "carry on carrying".

But for those on the receiving end, the consequences of so much carry are far from innocuous, since the process simply funds all sorts of economic distortions, and far from allowing normal market corrections to occur, it simply amplifies the problem. And this is exactly what is starting to happen now in Russia. The ruble had its biggest weekly advance in more than three months last week as risk sentiment rose, following industrial output data from China, which is now the world’s second-largest energy user, which simply showed output increased at a faster pace than forecast.

As a result the ruble tends to rise as risk sentiment does, and in particular as economic data exceeds consensus expectations, and the currency has now been on an upward trend since mid-August (see chart below), gaining 0.7 percent to 30.6629 per dollar last Friday alone. This was the highest close since July 27. Over the week as a whole the ruble appreciated 3.1 percent, the most since the week ending May 22. So things are now becoming very detached from the so called "fundamentals" (whatever those might be in the topsy turvy world in which we now live), since it simply is not plausible that the currency should be rising in this way in a country with 12 percent consumer price inflation and which badly needs to move away from commodity export dependency. The only conclusion which could be drawn is that the Russian economy now needs massive structural reforms, and on any imaginable scenario in the world in which I live these are simply not going to be implemented.

Bad Loans About To Surge?

We also need to consider what is going on in the banking system. According to the lastest report from Standard and Poor's Russian banks currently face “increasing system-wide risks” as loan quality deteriorates and borrowers struggle to keeps their heads above water during the record economic contraction.

S&P last week downgraded Bank Vozrozhdenie’s credit rating to B+ from BB- and Alfa Bank, Russia’s biggest private lender, was cut to B+ from BB- as a signal to the industry. As the ratings agency indicated, the inability of Russian companies to continue to make their debt payments will more than likely further stifle lending as banks channel funds into building up their reserves.

“The ratings on Bank Vozrozhdenie broadly reflect the increasing system wide risks in Russia due to the economic recession and deteriorating operating environment,” the S&P analysts said. “The downgrade primarily reflects deteriorating asset quality for Bank Vozrozhdenie, and the entire Russian banking industry, owing to the continuing economic slowdown.”
OAO Sberbank, VTB Group and other lenders are also facing a surge in “troubled assets” that may total $213 billion, according to an earlier Standard & Poor’s report in June - with as much as 38 percent of all assets held by Russian banks possibly becoming problematic by the end of 2011. Russia's banks had already set aside 1.5 trillion rubles ($48.9 billion) in July to cover overdue debt, a monthly increase of 7.6 percent compared to a rise of 6.9 percent in June, according to the last statement from Bank Rossii (Sept. 1).

Sberbank’s provisions for the rising debt reached 388.1 billion rubles, or 7.1 percent of total lending, as of June 30, according to the bank itself. The share of bad loans in the second quarter jumped to 6.4 percent from 3.5 percent in the first quarter, while year-to-date lending by the bank was only up 0.4 percent.

At Bank Vozrozhdenie, S&P's estimate that about 15.7 percent of loans are “under stress,” S&P. The bank, which focuses on lending to small and medium- sized businesses, saw non-performing loans rise to 7.3 percent at the end of the second quarter, compared with 3.4 percent in the first three months of the year.

Overdue bank loans in the system as a whole reached 5.5 percent of total lending in July, compared with 5 percent a month earlier, with overdue corporate loans jumping to 5.3 percent in July from 4.8 percent in June. The bank corporate loan books fell by 0.2 percent in July, while lending to households was down 0.4 percent for the sixth consecutive monthly decline.

Russian Outlook

In this report we have identified how steady and systematic long term mismanagement of Russia's monetary policy how now created a veritable Procrustean bed of problems for Russia's economy and society. Failure to address the underlying inflation problem between 2005 and 2008 meant that large structural distrortions were accumulated in the economy, including a massive problem of commodity export dependence, a problem which effectively turned the country into a veritable disaster waiting to happen if ever there should be a protracted lull in the secular rise in energy prices. That lull has now arrived, and it is not at all clear just for how long we will all need to get to learn to live with it.

In a more or less reasoned analysis Capital Economics suggest that oil prices could fall back to somewhere around $50 a barrel in 2010. If this forecast proves anywhere near correct, the Russian economy is going to be subject to major downside risks, due to the difficulties posed by:

i) financing the fiscal deficit
ii) rising unemployment
iii) growing bad loans in the banking system
iv) refinancing external debt
v) the continuing high level of consumer price inflation and the difficulties this poses for monetary policy at the central bank

Added to all this, the economy will clearly not rebound as easily as many seem to foresee. The Russian Economy Ministry seem to be getting ahead of themselves here, since only last week they raised their 2010 forecast to 1.6 percent growth from 1 percent. This would follow an anticipated shrinkage of some 8.5 percent this year. Economy Minister Elvira Nabiullina said on Sept. 9 output may grow 3.9 percent to 4.5 percent in the second half of this year compared with the first six months - and this I find hard to accept, unless the turnround in global economic activity turns out to be much stronger than the one we are currently seeing. The consequence of this is that it will still be some years before Russian GDP even gets back to the 2008 level, as Capital Economic's Neil Shearing recently argued (see chart below).

I also agree with Neil that while financing the Russian deficit is unlikely to add to the inflation issues (given the substantial output gap under which the economy currently labours) underlying inflation is bound to remain well above any reasonable comfort zone, and this will complicate policy decisions enormously.

Financing the fiscal deficit - which looks set to top 9% of GDP this year and despite some planned fiscal consolidation is unlikely to fall much below 5% of GDP in2011 - is not a major problem for the government, although the issue of which currency to issue the inevitable bonds in will be, since the likelihood of devaluation at some point remains large - Neil Shearing expects the currency to fall by 10% against its dollar/euro basket over the next six months or so, breaching in the process the current lower bound of the trading range, and this it seems to me is a perfectly reasonable expectation.

Of course, talk at this point of a return to the sort of chaos we saw in 1998 is certainly premature, especially with debt to GDP only just breaking the double digit frontier. But serious issues do lie ahead in 2010, not least of them how to recapitalise Russia's badly wounded domestic banking system, and how to refinance all the outstanding forex denominated corporate debt. Of course, if we are living a fairytale version of Alica in Dynamic Global Recovery land, then demand for Russia's commodity exports will surge again in 2010 and 2011. But what is we aren't, and demand remains muted, or more financial problems break out on Europe's perfifery? Perhaps the prudent investor will be able to spare the time to give just a little thought to the likelihood of this second, and definitely less apetising scenario.

Friday, September 11, 2009

There Is Another Shoe To Drop In The Global Economic and Financial Crisis - And The Focus Will Be On Europe's Perifery

'As far as I am concerned, this is ... the most complex crisis we've ever seen due to the number of factors in play'
Spanish Economy Minister Pedro Solbes speaking to the Spanish radio station Punto Radio September 2008

“‘The global imbalances have to add up to zero and so, if the US is going to be less the consumer importer of last resort, then other countries are going to need to be in different positions as well."
Director of the US president’s National Economic Council Larry Summers, speaking over lunch with the FT’s Chrystia Freeland.

Basically what we now have before us - as Pedro Solbes pointed out before being uncerimoniously defenestrated from the inner circle of the Spanish government - is an extremely complex situation and problem set. The background has evidentally been an unprecedented global financial and economic crisis, but this crisis has affected countries unequally, and it is noteworthy just how many people in what could be called the "weaker" countries have often sought refuge in the global nature of the crisis, rather than asking themselves just what it is exactly about their own particular economy that makes them "weaker", and more vulnerable, and why the crisis has struck more severely "here" rather than "there". Thus there is a great danger that people take refuge in the fact that the crisis is global in order to avoid thinking about the actual reality that faces them. This danger becomes even more of an issue as some countries begin timidly to return to growth, leaving others stuck in the mire - and possibly in danger of bringing the whole pack of cards tumbling down on top of them again. One such danger is evident in China (for which see the numerous warnings from Andy Xie) but others are for me somewhat nearer home, on Europe's periphery. A number of countries in Eastern Europe immediately come to mind - not only the Baltics, but also Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Serbia and Croatia. And in Southern Europe Spain and Greece stand out as in particular need of what Jean Claude Trichet would undoubtedly call "extreme vigilance".

If we leave out Russia (which is arguably a rather special case due to its dependence on energy revenue), then the simple fact of the matter is that what all of these countries had in common during the bubble years was that they were all running large (unrealistically large) current account deficits, which were produced to fuel strong credit driven housing and consumption booms. The crisis has struck all these countries like a shot of lightening for the simple reason that under present conditions such current account deficits are now no longer sustainable.

Now, the only way forward for such countries, as Paul Krugman points out (citing Reinhardt and Rogoff) is to export their way back to growth, and to demonstrate how this might work Krugman produced a simple chart in his Lionel Robbins lectures, which although rather rough and ready does serve the purpose adequately well.

So the central point I wish to make is that all these countries now need to run current account and trade surpluses to generate headline economic growth and to start paying down the external debt they accumulated during the heady years of the boom. Countries are no different to households in this sense. And the wider the current account deficit at the height of the boom, the bigger the correction needed. Without the much needed correction these countries simply will not recover, and we will see the famous "L" shaped recovery. If people think otherwise they are simply deluding themselves.

The situation in the US and the UK is, of course, not that different structurally from that which is to be found in some parts of Eastern and Southern Europe, but it is less extreme, in that the Current Account deficit peaked at between 5% & 6% of GDP. This is still large, and correcting it is going to be one of the very good reasons that the global economiy ISN'T going to return to any kind of strong growth anytime soon, given the strategic importance of the economies concerned.

The UK and the US do, however, have one large and significant advantage over the worst affected countries in South and East of Europe, and this lies in the fact they can issue debt in their own currency, and they can allow that currency to devalue, and that in fact is the road that both these countries are now going down. But remember, the result of this is that US and UK consumers will now play little part in facilitating headline growth in the global economy, since they themselves will now be net savers. But most of the worst affected East European economies are either locked-into currency pegs with the euro (the Baltics and Bulgaria), or cannot devalue very far due to the strong dependence on forex loans (Romania and Hungary) or both. Nor can these countries realistically expect to issue debt in their own currencies. So they are in effect in a very parlous situation, on financial life support from the EU and the IMF, while unable to make sufficient adjustments sufficiently quickly to stop unemployment rising out of hand, and non performing loans piling up in the banking sector.

Which brings us to Southern Europe. Italy is a case apart - since it is "simply" suffering from a kind of ageing-related terminal slow death "Venice style", and thus has a different problem set - in particular, while the Italian government is heavily in debt, Italian households are strong net savers, and thus any eventual default would be largely a "home team" issue. Portugal, Greece and Spain, on the other hand, were all running large CA deficits between 2000 and 2008, and these are deficits are now being forceably closed. But of course, and here comes the rub, these countries don't have their own currency - they have to issue debt in euros, and they can't simply fuel inflation (like they did in the past) since they can't print money, only the ECB can do that, and the ECB is a multi-national not a national institution.

Now people over at the ECB are well aware of this problem, and the bank is facilitating all the liquidity these countries need in the short term, but it is so very important important to understand this only aids liquidity, it does not resolve the solvency-related issues (which the individulal countries have to sort out for themselves) and in fact the short term palliative only adds to long term accumulated debt problem if the breathing space offered is not taken advantage of. And, here comes the problem, since all the available evidence suggests that the correction the ECB would like to be funding is either not taking place, or is taking place too slowly to be of much use. That is, the ECB has the funding capacity, but it does not have the necessary political clout.

Take Spain for example - Spain's external debt is continuing to rising even as I write, while at the same time GDP is falling, and will continue to fall untill we get back to export competitiveness. Worse, nominal GDP (that is current price GDP) is now falling faster than real (inflation-adjusted) GDP, so the value of the debt remains - in money terms - where it is, while GDP shrinks in relation to this absolute reference point - both in real terms, and even more so in nominal terms. I have been following this problem in Japan for the best part of a decade now, and the solution is evidently not an easy one, since - if you take the core core price index - Japan never really came out of deflation after 1998, and land prices are now back at the levels of somewhere in the early 1980s. Needless to say, if this repeats itself in Spain, the mess will not be a pretty one, and the problem for the ENTIRE global financial system will be substantial, due to the counterparty risk element.

So we are really caught on the horns of a dilema here, Spain and other EU periphery countries have to deflate (willingly or unwillingly, they need to carry out what has now come to be known as "internal devaluation") but so long as they fail to do this and to attract sufficient investment for new export industries to turn the economic dynamic around AND as long the rest of the global economy doesn't recover strongly enough with some countries starting to shoulder significant deficits again, then we are all only going to plumb the bottom. Worse, unemployment will continue to mount, and bad debts pressurise the banking system, which is where the next shoe might then not only drop, but be forced right off the foot first.

The only way in which it would be possible for these countries to attract the necessary investment to be able to start to create employment employment again would be to restore competitiveness, and over the time horizon we should be thinking about this is impossible for them to do via productivity improvements alone: hence the pressing urgency for the "internal devaluation" solution.

And let's not be fooling ourselves here - the main reason those famous government bond "spreads" have all tightened so impressively recently has been the willingness of the ECB to discount the national government bonds which are first purchased by local financial entities and then passed on for discounting at the ECB - a practice one of my Spanish friends calls the "truco del almendruco" (that is, you sell the 10,000 euro new car for 9,995 euros thus changing the key headline digit, giving everyone the impression there has been a large and significant discount, and, oh yes, first of all you need to dump a wheelbarrow load of cash on the banks - in this case on a one year financing basis).

"Between October 2008 and April 2009 MFIs’ net purchases of debt securities issued by the euro area general government sector totalled €217 billion in the context of rapidly declining short-term interest rates. This entirely reversed the net sales of €191 billion observed between December 2005 and September 2008 in the context of rising short-term interest rates."
ECB Monthly Bulletin, June 2009

So what I am saying is that the ECB is effectively conducting expansionary fiscal policy in the Eurozone countries - by buying a large part of the new government debt, a state of affairs which is in fact equivalent to conducting Quantitative Easing via the back door, while the EU/IMF tandem is offering similar support to the key countries in the East. Anatole Kaletsky made a similar point in the Times back in June, when the ECB announced its €442 billion of new cash into the euro money markets in what was the biggest long-term lending operation in the history of central banking and roughly equivalent to half the Fed’s entire monetary expansion in the past 18 months.

The Fed has “monetised” roughly $1 trillion of US Government debt since 2007, if we combine its Treasury and agency bond buying. Meanwhile, the ECB has lent $1.5 trillion to the euro-area banks. But what have the euroland banks done with this new money? They have lent most of it straight to their governments. Indeed, the governments in Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Austria would long-since have gone bust had it not been for the willingness of the commercial banks in these struggling economies to buy unlimited quantities of government bonds with money borrowed from the ECB. And these bond purchases have, in turn, been used as collateral for more ECB borrowings, which could be used to buy more government bonds.

In effect, therefore, the ECB has been lending money by the shed-load to governments, with commercial banks acting merely as a fig leaf for what would otherwise be seen as a blatant monetisation of the most insolvent European countries’ public debt.

Now Anatole only has it half right here, the objective is not to finance dubious government debt in semi-bankrupt countries (Italy, for example), but to enbale those countries who had been running extraordinarily large current account deficits (Spain, Greece and Portugal) to close the deficits gradually (ie without precipitating a dramatic implosion in their economies) by facilitating government borrowing to fill the gap left by domestic and corporate deleveraging. The situation I am trying to describe is perhaps best illustrated by the following chart on Financial Balances prepared by PNB Paribas Chief European Economist Dominic Bryant for a recent research report on Spain.

As households and companies desperately try to save, to put some sort of order back into their balance sheets, government steps in (Krugman's push button "G") to help ease the transition. Such a policy is, of course, all well and good and totally justified (since there is effectively no alternative), so long as the structural transition which such support is meant to facilitate is actually carried through. And this is a big if, especially since most of the evidence we have seen to date suggests it isn't.

And then there is the Irish case, and the proposal to create a "bad bank" (NAMA). According to Minister of Finance Brian Lenihan the Irish State plan to buy up toxic property loans with a current face value of €60 billion and investment property loans with a book value of €30 billion, all in exchange for Government bonds. And how will the Irish government finance a possible €90 billion (or two thirds of 2008 GDP) in bonds? We the government plans to pay the banks in bonds which they can then redeem for cash over at the ECB. Obviosuly there is little other way, with such a high proportion of GDP, but has anyone started to think what will happen if the Spanish exchequer is faced with an equivalent proportional sum to clean up bad loans in Spanish banks. Spain, remember is the only major country where there was a property bubble where the banks have not had a substantial capital injection.

And in my humble opinion the ECB will only be willing and able to continue with this kind of policy for a limited period of time, since they will not be in a position to keep accumulating Irish, Austrian and Southern European bonds ad infinitum, and the sovereign governments won't be able to keep increasing their debt load for ever. Just look, for example at the kind of dynamic Spanish public finances have entered in 2009 (see the acceleration in the cash basis deficit shown for 2009 in the chart below - the evolution is almost exponential, and it still hasn't stopped the haemorrage of jobs out of the economy).

We also need to think about the risk the ECB is running of accumulating substantial capital losses if there is a sovereign debt problem (which there most likely will be at some point if the correction is not carried out) in one of the member states as the size of the ECB position simply grows by the day, and ultimately the German and French taxpayers will have to pay the losses being steadily accumulated, something I feel they will be very reluctant if those in the worst case scenario countries continue to harp on about a global economic and financial crisis whilst effectively doing nothing to put their own house in order.

Precisely this point was raised a while back by Willem Buiter on his Mavercon Blog:

The first vacuum is that there is no single fiscal authority, facility or arrangement which can re-capitalise the ECB/Eurosystem when the Eurosystem makes capital losses that threaten its capacity to implement its price stability and financial stability mandates.

The second related vacuum is that there is no single fiscal authority, facility or arrangement which can re-capitalise systemically important border-crossing financial institutions in the EU or the Euro Area, or provide them with other forms of financial support.

When the Bank of England develops an unsustainable hole in its balance sheet, Mervyn King knows he only needs to call one person: Alistair Darling, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer. If the Fed were to become dangerously decapitalised, Ben Bernanke also needs to call just one person: Tim Geithner , the US Secretary of the Treasury. It is possible that no-one in the US Treasury will pick up the phone, as none of the senior political appointments below Geithner are in place yet, but Geithner clearly would be the man to call.

Whom does Jean-Claude Trichet call if the Eurosystem experiences a mission-threatening and mandate-threatening capital loss? Does he have to make 16 phone calls, one to each of the ministers of finance of the 16 Euro Area member states? Or 27 phone calls, one to each of the ministers of finance of the 27 EU member states whose NCBs are the shareholders of the ECB? I don’t know the answer, and I doubt whether Mr. Trichet does.

Maybe one day all those phones will be ringing, only for the caller to hear that old Elvis automated operator resonse - "no such number, no such zone".

The G20 Needs A Real Rethink And A New Plan

So, coming back to where we started, growth in Germany and France. Such growth is unlikely to be anything like as strong as most commentators and analysts seem to be expecting. France will most likely do rather better than Germany, given that the German economy can't really move forward till other key economies move, due to export dependence. The German economy may well even ultimately contract over 2009 as a whole by more than the Spanish economy, and I expect Germany's problems (like Japan's) to continue well into 2010, simply because both these countries are now very high median age societies which are completely dependent on exports to grow - which means that now that the UK, US, Eastern and Southern Europe are no longer running current account deficits, Germany and Japan are very hard pressed to get the level of trade surplus they so badly need for achieving sustainable headling GDP growth, which brings us back to Krugman's joke about which planet is going to do the importing?

Structurally the previous drivers of growth will now fail to work, since as Krugman suggests, all the former CA deficit countries now need to export and run trade surpluses to grow and straighten out their financial imbalances , and it is not clear which countries can buy all the added output, especially when countries in general are still reducing imports, and certainly not about to open up deficits which would soak up all those new surpluses.

Essentially, I would close by emphasising that I am not a complete catastrophist, since I think there is a mid term solution out there - and that the answer lies in steadily unwinding the global demographic and wealth imbalances, through the economic development of a number of key emerging economies - in a way which would perhaps be similar to the implementation of the Marshall Plan which is what really brought the first great global depression to an end.

The problem is that I think we are still some years away from being able to get any sort of agreement on such a programme - as everyone will have noted the G20 isn't really talking about this yet, although I think they eventually will. In the meantime we all have to stagger forward. And it is the risk of further "events" occuring in countries like Latvia and Spain that make all this staggering onwards and downwards ever so dangerous. In all the key countries involved - the Baltics, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary in the East, and Portugal, Greece and Spain in the South - government support is simply not sufficient to arrest the contraction in Krugman terminology simply hitting the "G" button will not work, and these economies are steadily "imploding" in on themselves, with the result, as I keep stressing, that unemployment inexorably rises, and bad debts simply mount up in the banking system, and if nothing is done to change course the outcome is surely a foregone conclusion.

The principal difference between the East and the South is that in the East governments no longer have the capacity to continue to sustain large deficits, while in the South they continue to be able to do so, though even here they cannot hold out indefinitely. Sometime in late 2010 or early 2011 all of this will, with a horrid and almost deterministic inevitability, all come to a head.

And this is why, I personally take the view that the global financial and economic crisis is far from over. There is another stage yet to come, and the focus of the problem will be Southern and Eastern Europe.