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Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Debt Snowball Problem

OK, just for a change let's start with some math. The increase in a country’s sovereign debt stock to GDP ratio is given by the following formula:

where D is the total debt level, Y is nominal GDP, PD is the primary deficit, i is the average (nominal) interest paid on government debt, y is the nominal GDP growth rate and SF is the stock-flow adjustment.

Now, if like me, you don't especially love maths, you may want to ask "what the hell does this rigmarole mean?".

Well, in simple plain English the above equation - which in fact comes from the recent Danske Bank report on EU Sovereign Debt- means that movements in the critical debt to GDP level depend both on the level of the annual fiscal deficit (the primary deficit, on which so much attention is currently focused in the Greek case) and on changes in the ratio between the value of the stock of debt and the value GDP. The key term is the one in brackets, and it is often referred to as the “snow-ball” effect on debt - the self-reinforcing effect of debt accumulation (or de-cumulation) arising from the difference between the interest rate paid on public debt and the nominal growth rate of the national economy.

Nominal here means GDP values before adjustment for inflation (what is known as current price GDP). So what we can say is that the trajectory of (for example) Greek debt to GDP going forward (and thus the effectiveness of the adjustment programme) depends critically on only three main variables - the rate of deflation/inflation, the rate of GDP growth, and the interest spread charged on Greek bonds. Ideally, Greece needs solid GDP growth, inflation, and a low spread on Greek bonds vis-a-vis German ones. The problem is the Greek Stability Programme may achieve none of these.

In the first place, the attempt to reduce the primary deficit will involve withdrawing some 10% of GDP in government demand from the economy in the space of three years (to go from an annual fiscal deficit of 12.7% a year in 2009 to one of 2.8% in 2012). The Greek government plan projects the economy to shrink by 0.3 per cent this year before rebounding with growth of 1.5 per cent in 2011 and 1.9 per cent in 2012. Most analysts are very sceptical about this forecast, since sustaining any kind of GDP growth under the present circumstances will be hard, and I think the most realistic expectation is that the Greek economy will see some sort of annual contraction during each of the three relevant programme years.

Secondly, to keep the debt GDP level from snowballing Greece needs inflation. But to get GDP growth Greeec needs to restore competitiveness, and this means (given they have no currency of their own) price and wage reductions (ie the so called internal devaluation) so they will have deflation not inflation, or they will not "correct" and move towards GDP growth.

Thirdly, and this one is easier: Greece needs to reduce the bond spread to keep interest rates on the debt as low as possible. This is doable, should Greece be able to convince market participants a viable correction plan is being operated. The ECB could also play a role here. But Monsieur Trichet, in his wisdom, said two things which were relevant in the post-monthly-meeting press conference yesterday. In the first place he said, quite correctly "we are here to help" - which I read as meaning that he is saying to the Greek government that "you take the steps you need to take, and we will help with liquidity", but on the other hand he also said "we will make no exception for individual countries" in setting our collateral rule, which effectively means that (from 1 January 2011) should Greece lose it's A2 status from Moodys (by two notches), the ECB will not be able to accept Greek bonds.

The first statement clearly offers support to the Greek spread, but the second (which might lead people to think they should start to steadily remove Greek sovereign debt from their portfolio) obviously wasn't.

It was hardly surprising then that the yield on the 10-year Greek government bond remained above 6.1% this (Friday) morning, up around 0.2 percentage point from early Thursday. The yield stood some 2.79 percentage points above the yield on the comparable 10-year German bund, the euro-zone benchmark, up about 0.25 percentage point from early Thursday. The spread even widened as far as 2.9 percentage points at one point yesterday, following the ECB meeting, and details of the Greek government's budget plan.

So basically, to make Greek debt to GDP dynamics sustainable, and avoid the snowball effect, my guess is you need two things:

a) to convince investors that Moody's will not downgrade, or some that some other form of support will be offered to the country.

b) some solution to the restoration of competitiveness dilemma. Basically, at the moment the Greek government has no interest in carrying out an internal devaluation, since the deflation impact on the debt formula would simply precipitate the snowball. But if they don't carry it out the economy will not return to growth, and investors will lose confidence and the bond spreads widen again, effectively setting off the snowball via another route.

So there needs to be a quid-pro-quo here, where the EU authorities undertake to restructure Greek debt in some way via the use of (eg) EU bonds (the famous bail-out) should Greece comply with a certain number of specified conditions first. Now many will scream at this point, "well they got themselves into this mess, now let them get themselves out of it". But matters are never that simple. Greek sovereign debt is in part a by-product of the eurosystem experiment, which made the accumulation of such debts at apparently cheap rates of interest possible (although none of those responsible for overseeing the system seem willing to recognise this). The Greek people have to accept their share of responsibility for the mess, and for the behaviour of their elected representatives. But there should be a limit to the "financial penalty" imposed. As Martin Wolf says in the Iceland context:
The final and, in truth, most important question is whether these demands are reasonable. After all, in every civilised country it has long been accepted that there is a limit to the pursuit of any debts. That is why we have introduced limited liability and abolished debtors’ prisons. Asking a people to transfer as much as 50 per cent of GDP, plus interest, via a sustained current account surplus is extraordinarily onerous.
In fact, asked in a Reuters poll carried out between January 11-14 what they felt was the the probability of Greece actually seeking a bailout this year, the median response from around 30 analysts that they would was 20 percent, with the same likelihood being expressed that it would be necessary at some point in the next five years.

This is not a very high probability at this point, but then when the same sample of analysts was asked about future ratings decisions, some 16 of the 27 analysts involved said they thought Moody's Ratings Service would downgrade its rating from A2 to a below-A rating by the end of the year. This is a much more significant result.

As it happens, I personally don't agree with either verdict, since in the first place Moody's are concerned with long term sustainability, so I doubt they will change their view on that one this year if the Greek government follow an agreed EU programme, while I do think (for the reasons expressed above) that some sort of Greek "bail-out" will be necessary over the next five years (to stop the snowball) if the government does what it has to do.

But all of this only serves to highlight juest how precarious the Greek situation actually is, in particular since the government still haven't accepted the need for internal devaluation, which is the only policy which will really restore growth. With a majority of analysts thinking Moody's will move to a below-A rating by the end of the year, and Monsieur Trichet saying that as of 1 January 2011 the ECB will not accept such bonds as collateral for lending, something, somewhere is likely to give, which is why I think the Greek government should at this very moment be throwing itself into the welcoming arms of the IMF before matters reach the point of no return on the spreads and the debt snowball. To do otherwise would be to risk far greater problems in a future which will not be that far away.

The Italian Lion Sleeps Tonight, And Yet Awhile..........

“If we look at public-sector debt and interest payments, Greece isn’t doing particularly worse than Italy,” Peter Westaway,Chief Economist Europe at Nomura International
To everyone's relief, Italy's economy returned to growth in the third quarter of 2009, following five consecutive quarters of contraction. But that doesn't make the future look or feel any more secure than the recent past, and while an immediate return to a sharp recession isn't likely, it still isn't clear whether the Q3 performance was repeated over the last three months of last year, or whether output remained more or less flat. This does seem to be a more or less a touch and go call, and while the final result will hardly be a shocker one way or the other, my feeling is that we are looking at growth in the region of -0%. That is to say, slight contraction is marginally more likely than slight expansion. So Italy's economy is more or less dormant, but it's debt to GDP ratio is not, and is moving steadily upwards (see the last section of this post), so the lion sleeps tonight, and goes on sleeping, but what will happen tomorrow when she, or rather the financial markets, finally wake up, and discover seems evident, at least to me and Peter Westaway, that in the longer run Italy's sovereign debt problem is every bit a large as the Greek one, although given that most of the debt is in fact held by Italians, the threat to the good functioning of the eurosystem may well be proportionately less.

A "Weak" Recovery

If the most recent past is still clouded in uncertainty, what is a little less in doubt is the sort of rebound we might expect from the Italian economy, since any bounceback will surely be extremely muted to say the least. The Italian economy has been loosing steam for decades now, and only grew by something less than 0.5% per annum over the last - boom - decade. With the working age population declining and ageing, the outlook for the next decade is hardly improved.

My best-guess estimate is that the Italian economy contracted by something like 4.8% in 2009 (just a little less than the 5% German contraction), following a 1% drop in output in 2008. Consenus opinion is mildly optimistic for the year to come, but expectations are modest with the Bank of Italy arguing that what is still the euro region’s third-biggest economy will experience a “weak recovery” this year and a 0.7 percent expansion in 2011. Of course, as with forecasting the weather, the further into the future you move, the greater the level of uncertainty which is attached to any growth estimate, and in current global conditions this is even more the case. The Italian central bank forecast compares with a November projection from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development of 1.1 percent growth this year and 1.5 percent in 2011, while the IMF projects 0.25% growth for 2010 and 0.75% for 2011, and the EU Commission currently project 0.7% for this year and 1.4% for 2011.

Certainly all parties project that internal consumption will remain weak, and what growth they are expecting should be driven by external demand, which, of course, is itself subject to considerable uncertainty as government stimulus after government stimulus is steadily withdrawn. Almost all EU economies are now looking to live from surplus demand in other countries, and like the British working classes in the nineteenth century they can't all surely hope to live from "taking-in each others washing".

More than talking about growth, what we are really talking about is getting back to where we were, since if we look at the level of Italian GDP, it is clear that there has been a sharp drop in output since the start of 2008, and at current rates of growth it will be many years before we get back up to 2007 levels.

Mario Draghi, Governor of the Bank of Italy suggested at the end of last year that it would take four years for the Italian economy to return to its 2007 size. If the recovery is slower than anticipated these four years could easily turn into five or six with fairly serious implications for the Italian sovereign debt dynamic. Indeed, there already appear to be more downside risks emerging than the above forecasts contemplated and I'm inclined to agree with that doyen of Italian economy bank analysts - Unicredit's Marco Valli - when he argues for a likely upper limit to growth this year at around 0.5%, with plenty of scope for it to come in even lower.

Touch and Go In Q4

" We doubt that the pace of growth seen in the third quarter will be maintained in the fourth one: given the weak momentum with which industrial production closed the third quarter (-5.3% monthly in September after +5.8% in August), a substantial deceleration in industrial activity and GDP is likely in the final quarter. However, given that manufacturing surveys keep pointing north, car registrations remain firm and there are increasing signs that services activity is starting to re-gain some traction, we have penciled in flat GDP for the fourth quarter"
Unicredit's Italy Economist, Marco Valli, 23 November 2009

In line with most analyst expectation expectations, the Italian economy expanded by 0.6% between the second and third quarters of 2009, an improvement which was largely driven by a 4.3% quarter on quarter (qoq) rise in industrial output. GDP also benefited from a rebound in exports (+2.5% qoq) and machinery/equipment investment (+4.2%), some growth in private consumption (+0.4%, on strong car registrations) and a moderately positive contribution from inventories (+0.1pp). The evident weakness was construction investment, which continued to fall sharply (-2.1%).

Industrial production has been steadily losing momentum in the fourth quarter, and was up only 0.2% in November, on the back of a revised 0.7% increase in October. These rises follow a sharp 4.9% drop in September which means, assuming the upward December output rise is close to that indicated in the last PMI, industrial production in the last three months will be more or less flat in the final quarter when compared with the third, and could even be slightly down.

On the other hand, Italian consumer activity - normally the weak spot in Italian GDP - does seem to have recovered rather during the quarter. Consumer confidence has imporved considerably of late.

And while retail sales have long since stopped their upward trend ...

the retail PMI showed growth in both November and December following 32 consecutive months of decline.

Also services activity has been stronger, with the services PMI registering growth during the fourth the quarter for the first time in many months.

In fact private consumption has been looking up in the last two quarters, and this trend may continue.

However, at some point there will be a deceleration in momentum, since consumption will undoubtedly be negatively affected by the expiration of the car scrapping premium. As Marco Valli puts it: "the extent of the correction in durable goods spending crucially depends on whether the government decides to quit the premium outright (which we regard as unlikely) or opts for a gradual phasing out of the incentive scheme (more likely)". It is worth bearing in mind, however, that even if the current premium scheme were to be fully confirmed for the whole of 2010, the effect on car registrations would be much more restrained than in 2009, due to the fact that most of the earlier pent-up demand has already been met.

Is Italy Export Dependent?

Even if this seems strange to many people, the Italian economy is, in fact, highly export-driven. In this sense Italy is heavily reliant upon the recovery of German demand, and it just thios demand which now seems to be faltering. In Q1 2009, German imports fell 5.4% over the previous quarter, after dropping in Q4 2008, driving Italy's economy further and further down.

Exports amounted to some 28.8% of Italian GDP in 2008. In the third quarter of last year Italian exports grew by 2.5% on the quarter following a 2.5% drop in the previous one, while imports were only up 1.5% following a 2.5% drop in the second quarter. Thus the trade factor was positive for GDP growth. This situation seems set to change in the last quarter. Seasonally adjusted October exports were down, while imports fell less than exports, and if this trend is continued in November and December net trade will in fact be a drag on GDP. To my insufficiently well trained eyes it looks very much like the German car stimulus gave a big boost to Italian industry in August, and that this effect is now waning, even if the domestic Italian stimulus counterbalances to some extent.

Fixed Capital Investment Stimulated By Tax Incentives

Capital spending decisions look little better. Spending on machinery and equipment was up 4.2% quarter over quarter in Q3, but was still down 16.1% on the year, and the relatively strong recent performance is partly due to a tax incentive provided by the Italian government.

Again, Marco Valli points out that investment decisions are likely to remain conservative next year, since levels of corporate indebtedness are still high in an environment where profitability is notably weak. Moreover, extremely depressed capacity utilization rates will unavoidably put a ceiling on business investment. However, Valli suggests that firms will undoubtedly continue to take advantage of the tax bonus on machinery investment to replace old machinery during the first half of the year. When the bonus finally expires in July 2010, it is likely there will be a sizeable capex correction. As a result Unicredit expect machinery investment to drop 0.9% in 2010 following a likely -16% in 2009.

Official Figures Underestimate Unemployment

In November 2009 the Italian unemployment rate reached 8.3% in Novemember, as compared to 7.0% a year earlier. The European Commission expects the annual unemployment rate to rise to 7.8%in 2009 and 8.7% in 2010. The OECD's November 2009 economic outlook also expects Italian joblessness to peak in 2011 at 8.7%.

But the EU harmonised method of calculating unemployemnt rather underestimates the situation in the Italian case, and Italy’s real unemployment rate is significantly higher (around 10.7% according to Bloomberg calculations) once you add-in those workers paid by a fund known as cassa integrazione, or CIG. The CIG pays laid off employees about 80 percent of their salaries for up to two years.

Again Bloomberg calculate that use made by Italian companies’ of the CIG fund quadrupled to almost 1.5 billion euros in 2009 from 365 million euros in 2008. The official cost of the CIG in 2009 will be published in the annual report of INPS (the Rome-based agency that handles the welfare payments) later this year. Under Italian law, businesses suffering from a downturn can lay off permanent employees for as long as two years and take them back when conditions improve. In fact CIG aid can be extended to five years if the government decides that circumstances are “exceptional.”

Difficult Years Ahead If Italy Wants To Consolidate Its Fiscal Position

The overnment's response to the present crisis has been - at least formally - rather moderate due to the need to avoid a substantial deterioration in public finances, given the very high level of already existing government debt in a context of increased global risk aversion. Evidently the Italian government didn't want to draw attention to itself in the way the Greek one has. As a result measures taken to support low-income groups and key industrial sectors have been largely financed by reallocating existing funds, and this is even largely true of the additional stimulus package of 4.5 billion euros, in an effort to "intensify actions against the crisis," according to Minister of the Interior Claudio Scajola in a statement at the time.

However, even given this evident restraint, the EU Commission sill forecast that the government deficit probably widened to 5.3% of GDP in 2009 (from 2.7% in 2008) and remain at around that level in both 2010 and 2011. In comparison to other EU country deficits this is not big beer, but it does need to be situated within the context of the long history of public indebtedness in Italy.

Primary expenditure looks likely to have risen by more than 4.5% in 2009, significantly faster than planned in the stability programme update submitted to the EU Commission in February 2009. In particular, public sector wage growth is continuing to outpace inflation. In addition, government financed consumption via social transfers grew considerably in 2009 due to a combination of pensions being indexed to the previous-year's inflation, one-off transfers to poor households and the extended coverage of the wage supplementation fund. Capital spending also rose by an estimated 13%, as a result of recovery measures that bring forward some previously agreed investment plans. The only significant item expected to decrease is interest expenditure, which is benefitting from historically low short-term interest rates.

While the strength of the 2009 downturn understandably derailed the three-year budgetary consolidation plan adopted in summer 2008, a marked slowdown in expenditure dynamics is likely in 2010 and 2011, as the government attempts a return to the planned consolidation path. Capital expenditure is set to decrease in both years, while modest increases are projected for current primary expenditure. Interest expenditure is also expected to rise, due to monetary policy decisions at the ECB and the expanding size of the debt itself.

The EU Commission estimate that the gross government debt-to-GDP ratio climbed by almost 9 percentage points in 2009, to around 114.5%, and forecast that it will continue rising to around 118% in 2011. The 2009 increase is overwhelmingly due to the sharp fall in nominal GDP. Looking forward, the EU Commission emphasise that ongoing interaction between high debt-service requirements and Italy's low potential GDP growth rate underlines the importance of raising the primary balance so as to put the very high debt ratio on a declining path once again.

In this context, one of the concerns about Italy's government debt trajectory is the extent of recourse to one-off and make-and-mend measures to keep the state finances afloat. One good example of such a measure are the tax amnesties, a technique which Italian Finance Minister Guilgio Tremonti has had considerable experience with, since in both 2001 and 2003, as part of an earlier Berlusconi government, he enacted similar measures that brought some 20 billion euros back to Italy, with a further 15 billion euros being declared by Italian clients of Lugano banks, though it remained in Switzerland. But the yield the first time round has been dwarfed by the rich harvest this time. Mr. Tremonti recently announced that Italians had declared 95 billion euros in assets under the plan, with some 98% of the money being brought into Italy from offshore sources. The harvest should have added something like 5 billion euros to 2009 Italian tax revenue, and although the plan formally expired on December 15, a further ammnesty period is not ruled out.

In fact the Italian Finance Minister has often come under attack from those who want to see the government taking more decisive action against the economic crisis, but his insistence on fiscal prudence appears to have been justified, given the difficulties currently facing Greece. For once an Italian government can be congratulated for its prudence, and the risk premium on Italian government bond yields was just overcompared with benchmark German bunds is running somewhere around 80 basis points as compared with Greece, where the spread is now over 250 basis points.

Resources are also being acquired from the Trattamento di fine rapporto (TFR), a fund containing contributions paid by employers for employees' severance pay when they retire, leave their jobs or are made redundant. Although there is little doubt that the government will eventually reimburse the money, it is likely that it will have to resort to increased taxation or cuts in expenditure to do so.

So the issue is, that far from using the crisis as a justification for implementing the much needed deep-seated reform, it has instead and once more been used as an excuse for postponing it. I leave you with the words of The Italian economist Francesco Davieri, writing last June in the economics portal VOX EU:
If Italy’s government does not push reform more aggressively – issues like pension reform, the schooling and university system, and the labour market – the most likely scenario is that the Italian economy will return to its usual...[lacklustre]....annual growth after the crisis. This is why postponing reforms in today’s Italy is like consuming a luxury good when you are close to starvation. Today’s Italy just can’t afford it, if it wants to resume faster long-run growth.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Double-Dip Worries In Japan and Germany

Whoever said economists are people who don't ever get anything right?

"Economic growth in Germany probably stagnated in the fourth quarter from the previous three months, the Federal Statistics office said. Still, the figure is “surrounded by uncertainty,” Norbert Raeth, an economist at the office, said in a press conference in Wiesbaden today."

So German GDP was probably more or less flat quarter on quarter between October and December. The figure is surrounded by uncertainty, as I pointed out in this post (Is There A Double Dip Risk In Germany? ), quite simply because German growth numbers at the moment are all about net trade and inventories, with domestic consumption in an entirely secondary role. In fact quarterly movements in private consumption have been slight for some long time now, and it fell 0.9% in the third quarter (making a 0.5 negative impact on growth - see below, the large movement which can be seen between Q4 2006 and Q1 2007 is a distortion produced by the reaction to the 3% VAT increase which came into effect on 1 January 2007).

Imports rebounded in the third quarter, meaning the net trade impact was rather negative, but inventories were built up again (after various quarters of destocking) making a large 1.5 percentage points contribution to a final 0.7 percentage points quarterly growth. Things probably inverted in the fourth quarter, with export levels dropping back in both October and November, while inventories if not actually being run down, most likely were more or less neutral (this is what the IFO survey for the quarter shows) and thus won't count as a massive plus for growth. Eventually the whole inventory story is about second derivatives: when destocking slows down, the second derivative effect, mutatis mutandis, pushes GDP up, and and when restocking slows, this pushes GDP down.

So with nothing substantial to push it up, GDP stagnates. As I started to point out back in mid November:
The question in hand is the Eurozone third quarter growth one, and the story is all about differences (between countries) and these differences in the key cases (France and Germany) are in many ways all about inventories……Now if you look at the chart below, you will see that German growth was in the second quarter was, more than anything, a statistical quirk which resulted from a balancing act between strong swings in inventories and in net trade. In the third quarter, as far as we can see (since we don’t have that ever so important detailed breakdown), this position has quite literally been inverted, as the earlier trade bonus has been eaten away by growth in imports....

That was before we got the detailed breakdown of Q3 growth. On November 28, following the publication of this data, I went on to argue that:
While a positive contribution to growth was made by goods exports, which were up 4.9% on the previous quarter, imports also rose , and by more than exports (up by 6.5%), and the resulting trade balance had a negative effect on growth of –0.5 percentage points. This was more or less the same as the contribution from household consumption (which was also negative by 0.5 percentage points). But what really, really mattered here - see the chart below - was the inventory build-up which added a staggering 1.5 percentage points to growth., while government final consumption expenditure only increased slightly (+0.1%) over the period and effectively had zero impact on the growth number. So, as I said, it is all about inventories in Q3.

Which lead me to conclude that:

In Q4 it is all going to be about trade. Since if German exports hold up, then the run down in inventories need not be that strong, but if exports don’t sustain momentum in December - and what just happened in Dubai is making me very nervous on that front - then German GDP will almost certainly fall back into negative territory in the fourth quarter. On the other hand, if I am jumping the gun slightly here, and German economic activity does manage to eke out some small increase at the end of the year, then I think a return to negative growth in the first quarter of 2010 is almost guaranteed. That is to say, we have a double dip on the horizon. At least, that is my call. Now it is over to you.

Japan's Recovery Also Fails To Convince

Well, my instincts seem to have been more or less good ones, and just to show that my forecast was not simply a fluke (ie that it is backed by some sort of coherent analysis, one that is testable), I would also draw attention to my "twin" post on Japan - Double Dip Alert In Japan, dated 7 December - where I said:

"Despite recent optimism about the apparent renaisance of growth in the Japanese economy, and the heightened sense of enthusiasm which surrounds the surge in economic activity right across the Asian continent there are considerable grounds for caution about the sustainability of the Japanese recovery itself".

Just two days laters Japan's third quarter results were revised down, sharply (and for most analysts unexpectedly sharply).

JAPAN'S economy grew much less in the third quarter than initially reported, revised government data showed today, as a strong yen and deflation weighed on economic activity by prompting firms to hold off on new investments. The new data revealed that July-September's real gross domestic product grew 0.3 per cent compared with the previous quarter, much slower than the 1.2 per cent expansion reported last month, and worse than analysts' consensus forecast of a 0.6 per cent rise.

Japan may have contracted in the fourth quarter, at this point I'm not sure, given the sharp downward revision in Q3. Certainly Japan’s reliance on exports is simply further underlined by the sharp fall in machinery orders from service companies in November. In fact orders from non-manufacturing companies dropped 10.6 percent (from October) to 380.7 billion yen ($4.15 billion), their lowest level since May 1987. In addition core orders from all industries, an indicator of business investment in three to six months, also fell to a record low.

And the Japan composite Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) shows contraction over the whole October to December period. And the drop was lead by Japanese services. The headline seasonally adjusted PMI posted 42.7 in December, up slightly from 42.3 in the previous month, but still pointing to a marked reduction in business activity amongst Japanese service providers. For Q4 as a whole, the headline index averaged a lower reading than in Q3. So, despite manufacturing data pointing to a faster expansion of output, the Composite Output Index (which mirrors GDP) was stuck at a level succesting a solid reduction in private sector activity. The index, which posted 46.5, has remained below the neutral 50.0 threshold for four successive months.

Where Is The Demand?

So what's the point of all this? Well certainly not to say simply "aren't I clever now". The issues is that (for demographic reasons) the German and Japanese economies are totally export dependent (retail sales in Germany have now peaked, and are in long term historic decline, see chart below), and thus it is unrealistic to expect the global recovery to be lead by an expansion in these economies. The recovery will have to come elsewhere (in France, for a start, but with France alone there is not enough) and the export dependent economies can then "couple" to that dynamic. It is difficult to say whether or not the Japanese economy will show some marginal growth in the fourth quarter, since the Q3 revisions make for a much lower base, industrial output has risen considerably on the quarter, but the important services sector has been contracting.

Essentially, until those heavily indebted economies (the US, the UK, Spain, Ireland, Eastern Europe, etc) who formerly ran current account deficits can find a way back to sustainable growth without the aid of large government stimulus programmes, any general recovery will remain extremely weak. And the German result has, of course, implications for four quarter Eurozone growth. As I said in this earlier summary of the Q3 eurozone performance:

So, going back to my original question, is this a whimper recovery, or are we on the verge of a double dip? I think, basically, it is all down to Germany, and those inventories. If external demand weakens in key customer countries then Germany will fall back into negative growth, and with it the whole "eurozone sixteen economy". Since demand in the South and the East of Europe is hardly going to be strong, given the new found need of countries in those regions to run trade surpluses, my inkling is that just this outcome is now a clear possibilty. So while the consensus at the moment seems to be that France disappoints, my view is that it is the German economy we really should be worrying about.

As Gabriel Stein of Lombard Street Research puts it:

The lack of December data obviously adds an element of uncertainty to current estimates, but it does seem fairly clear that German private consumption continued to fall in Q4 2010. Given a deteriorating global environment – monetary tightening now under way in China, an end to the effects of fiscal stimuli and slower inventory drawdown/modest inventory build-up in the US and the UK – the outlook for German exports is unlikely to be that good, particularly with the euro still strong. This is bad news for Germany and for the entire euro area. A weaker euro could ease some of the pain, but that is all it can do.

So, in closing, lets just remember that German GDP fell by 5% in 2009, we are now back round the same level we were at in mid 2006 (see chart below), and we are not exactly springing back up to the old levels. That is the measure of the task we have in front of us.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Mr Bean Meets The Three Wise Men

Last Wednesday was Epiphany. In Spain it is also a public holiday - Los Reyes Magos - a festival which celebrates the visit of the three wise men who came from the East to find the infant Jesus. Coincidentally on the eve of Epiphany this year the Moncloa did receive a visit from three wise men, although it is not clear whether they came (as tradition would have it) bearing gifts, or whether they brought with them a list of demands from further East in Europe about what Spain's government ought to be doing to stop its economy falling apart.

Unfortunately, due to a technical fault (some say the website was hacked) there to meet them as they entered the gateway and fired up the browsers on their xmas-new I-Phones was not the Spanish Prime Minister, but a strange interloper, otherwise known as Mr Bean.

As the Financial Times put it in an editorial:

By any standards, it was an unfortunate beginning. Spain’s six-month presidency of the European Union, which got underway this week, appears to have been subject to an attack by computer-hackers. On its first day, web-surfers navigating to the special presidency website found themselves staring at photos of Mr Bean, the hapless British comedy character who (some claim), bears a resemblance to José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister.

But the FT also makes a rather more serious point: "Mr Bean is famous for his stumbles and mishaps – and Spain is also looking accident-prone at the moment." This certainly rings true to me. And as if to confirm the point, Spain's Secretary of State for European Affairs Diego Lopez Garrido stepped forward from behind the curtain yesterday - apparently representing the EU - to warn the Greek government that while coordinatinion within the EU was necessary "there is a limit, which is no bailout." A point which various European officials had spent the best part of the week trying to deny (or at least strongly qualify) following Juergen Stark's unfortunate Italian interview. Evidently news reaches Madrid slowly. The only fortunate thing in all this, is that most people don't know who the hell Diego Lopez Garrido is, and probably it's better that way, although the prospect of a six month Spanish presidency may make this situation hard to sustain.

And then we have the strange visit of the three wise men.

According to reports in the Spanish press José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, chaired, last Tuesday, a meeting in the Moncloa with a number of former politicians who are apparently - according to the press release - considered to be "Europe's wise men": Jacques Delors (former European Commission president), Felipe Gonzalez (former Spanish prime minister), and Pedro Solbes (former Spanish economy minister). Elena Salgado, current Spanish economy minister also attended the meeting. They ostensibly met to discuss ways out of the crisis and plans for “European economic government”. The discussions, which lasted around three hours, were described as being “very useful” and primarily concerned with “strengthening policies for economic coordination” in Europe. Meanwhile, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy has convened an extraordinary EU summit, on 11 February, to discuss economic recovery, where the proposals which Zapatero was discussing with the three wise men will need to be presented.

What could all this mean, I asked myself? For an initiative on this scale, the composition of the meeting was hardly representative. And two of those present - Felipe Gonzalez and Pedro Solbes - while being highly regarded in Brussels, have both been publicly and strongly critical of the economic policy of the present Spanish government, so the conversation would have been far from cordial, to say the least. And what was Delors doing there? It couldn't be, could it, that they were conveying a rather strong message that Spain has to get its act together if it doesn't want to end up where Greece is now. Fortunately some additional light was thrown on the situation by an FT article this morning - the European Union is indeed planning to strengthen policies for economic cordination, but it is planning to do this by giving more power to the EU Council and Commission to apply “corrective measures” against those member states that fail to meet their obligations under a new 10-year plan (yet to be outlined) designed to improve EU competitiveness and bring all that public debt back under control. And the irony of ironies in all this and is that the set of proposals are going to be advanced by non other than José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. That is, the turkey is actually about to propose the menu for xmas lunch.

As the FT puts it: "In a proposal likely to stir controversy among other EU governments, Mr Zapatero said the European Commission should be granted powers to police compliance with the plan, which is expected to be adopted in March and is known as the '2020 strategy'".

Obviously Spain is likely to be the next country after Greece to be on the receiving end of just these very corrective measures? No wonder he was looking so grim before the TV cameras after last Tuesday's meeting. What do you bet we don't hear anything more of this "wise men" initiative, at least until not the next Epiphany.

Meanwhile The Spanish Economy Continues It Long Path Downwards

In the meanwhile signs abound that Spain's economy continues to deteriorate. In the first place Spain's December services PMI is no better than the manufacturing one. And - with a reading of 45 - activity contracted at sharpest pace for five months in December. As (Markit economist) Andrew Harker says:

“The Spanish services economy ends 2009 on a low note, reaching the unwelcome milestone of two years of continuous decline...s in activity. December data provide little indication that conditions will improve in the near future, with new business contracting and employment continuing to fall particularly sharply. The fragility of demand meant that companies were unable to pass on higher input costs to clients, further harming profit margins.”

Retail sales also continue to fall regardless. They were down 1.2% from October (seasonally adjusted) in November.

And they are now down nearly 12% from their November 2007 peak. The pace of decline is slow, but the attrition is constant, and there is no end in sight.

Unemployment Continues To Rise

Of course, I didn't get everything right in 2009. I was right that unemployment would go up and up, but it didn't go up as fast as I had been expecting, and the INEM labour exchange signings came in still just shy of the 4 million mark in December, while I was forecasting back in April that we would hit 4.5 million by the end of the year.

What I hadn't anticipated adequately I think was extent to which the stimulus programme would generate labour intensive employment, and the degree to which people could be moved over from unemployment into training courses, etc. Then again, most of the earlier waves of unemployment came from people on temporary contracts that were terminated, and now the people to go will be in permanent forms of employment, and evidently dismissing people with such contracts (unless the company simply goes bankrupt) is a much more laborious and costly process. Still, according to the Labour Force Survey methodology as supplied to Eurostat the 4.5 million milestone has now been passed, and onwards and upwards we go.

Certainly the numbers may not have gone up quite as much as I expected, but a rise of 794,640 in the number of unemployed over the last year however (while less than the 2008 increase) is hardly to be sneezed at. In fact unemployment was up 25.4 per cent in 2009.

And more bad news on unemployment again today, since even if Spain provides only quarterly data on the unemployment rate, the European Union statistics agency Eurostat give a monthly, seasonally corrected number, which stood at 19.4 per cent in November, the second highest rate in the whole EU bloc behind Latvia. And youth unemployment is far worse, with Spain now facing the real prospect of having a "lost generation", since unemployment among people aged from 16 to 24 is now 43.8 percent, the highest in Europe, and more than double the overall rate. The increase in unemployment among young people has been especially traumatic, with the rate jumping from 17.5 percent three years ago to the current level. And here again Spain stands out even among other European countries with problematic economies. In Greece, for example, the youth unemployment rate is 25 percent, while Ireland’s is 28.4 percent and Italy’s is 26.9 percent.

Month on month the number of people seeking jobless benefits rose by 54,657 in December from November, or by 1.4 per cent. Spain has said it wants to make the fight against unemployment one of the key planks of it EU presidency, but the Spanish government are the only ones who still foresee a return to falling jobless rates in Spain before the end of 2010. Both the EU Commission and the IMF don't see any easing in current levels even in 2011. The simple reason for this is that even the most favourable forecasts for economic growth in the Spanish economy over this period will be weak, and then if you allow for productivity improvements, then the rise in output simply won't be sufficient to generate employment.

And if you accept a more downside estimate like mine, then the unemployment level won't even stagnate, it will continue to rise. Maybe we won't see 25% in the first half of 2010, but we certainly could in the second half.

No Deflation In 2009

Unemployment wasn't the only thing I didn't get quite right last year. I don't know how many of you remember the price list from my local bar I posted last January (see below), well I have to report it is exactly the same this January. The price of a coffee and croissant hasn't gone up, but it also hasn't come down, as I was suggesting it might. In fact Spanish 12-month inflation was 0.9 per cent on the year, suggesting that prices are rising (in general) rather than falling.

So you could say, whatever happened to your "deflation scare"? Well basically, it has been put on ice. But it will come back. If we look at what the EU are proposing in Greece, it is not only a reduction in the current fiscal deficit, it is a restoration of competitiveness. This correction of the external balances and restoration of competitiveness will also be a core part of the 2020 plan. What this means effectively means is internal devaluation. And using the same logic it is clear that it is just this policy which the new "co-ercive" economic coordination introduce in Spain under the "2020 (vision) strategy" - using those very powers which José Luis Zapatero is himself now proposing.

Basically, the fact prices rose in 2009 is not good news, it is simply a symptom of the inability of Spain's economy and society to correct itself unaided. Fortunately, it looks as if Spain may now be about to receive exactly the kind of help it is so badly in need of. Socorro, Socorro.....

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ten New Year Questions For Paul Krugman

I have an interview with Paul Krugman in today's edition of La Vanguardia (in Spanish). Below I reproduce the English original. As will be evident, there are many topics about which Paul and I are far from being in complete agreement. But on one topic we are in complete harmony: the diffficult situation which now faces Spain, the need for internal devaluation, and the threat which continuing inaction on the part of Spain's current leaders represents for the future of the entire Eurozone.


Edward Hugh: In your NYT article "How Did Economists Get It All So Wrong", you state what I imagine for many is the obvious, that few economists saw our current crisis coming. The Spanish economist Luis Garicano even made himself famous for a day because he was asked by the Queen of England the very question I would now like to put to you: could you briefly explain to a Spanish public why you think this was?

Paul Krugman: I think that what happened was a combination of two things. First, the academic side of economics fell too much in love with beautiful mathematical models, which created a bias toward assuming perfect markets. (Perfect markets lead to nice math; imperfect markets are a lot messier). Second, the same forces that lead to financial bubbles – prolonged good news tends to silence the skeptics – also applied to economists. Those who rationalized the way things were going gained credibility until the day things fell apart.


E.H. : The late Sir Karl Popper used to contrast what he regarded as science with ideologies like Marxism and Psychoanalysis, because there seemed to be no way whatever of consenually agreeing with their practitioners a series of simple tests which would enable their theories to be falsified. Some critics of neoclassical economics - including Popper's heir Imre Lakatos - have expressed similar frustrations. Do you think we economists are, as a profession, up to the challenge of formulating testable hypotheses in such a way that the public at large might come to have more confidence in what we are up to, or are we a lost cause?

P.K.: I really don’t think that’s a helpful way to pose this question. Economics is about modeling complex systems, and as such the models are always less than fully accurate. What economists do need, however, is some demonstrated ability to get big things right. They had that after the Great Depression, when Keynesian economics clearly made sense of both the depression and the wartime recovery. But now the profession needs to get back on track.


E.H.: Comparing the types and levels of indebtedness in the United States as between 1929 and 2007 one factor immediately stands out, the importance in modern times of the financial sector. You have repeatedly drawn attention to this phenomenon, and to how the unbridled growth of the institutions associated with it inevitably sowed the seeds of the problem which eventually came. Is there a road back? Can we reduce the strategic importance of this sector in developed economies and still generate meaningful economic growth?

P.K.: We grew fine for 30 years after World War II with a much smaller financial sector. I think if we tax and regulate the sector, we can replace it with other, more productive uses of resources – everything from manufacturing to health care.


E.H.: Another of the distinguishing characteristics of the global economy over the last decade has been the development of large and sustained imbalances, with the US-China one being only the most publicly visible. Here in Europe we also have strong and notable differences between export driven economies like the German and the Swedish ones and many of those in the South and East which have evolved models based on consumer and corporate indebtedness and import dependence. Do you think we have the policy tools available to address such issues, and if so, where do we start?

P.K.: On the domestic side in advanced countries, financial reform should help reduce debt reliance. As for the developing country capital surpluses, that’s heading for a big confrontation. In the end, either China in particular increases domestic spending, or there will be some kind of at least threatened trade war.


E.H.: One of the standard pieces of economic observation about countries recovering from financial crises is that their recoveries are export driven. This has now almost attained the status of a stylised fact. But as you starkly ask, at a time when the financial crisis is generalised across all developed economies - whether because those who borrowed the money now have difficulty paying back, or those who leant it now struggle to recover the money owed them - to which new planet are we all going to export? Maybe we don't need to look so far afield. Many developing economies badly need cheap and responsible credit lines, and access to state-of-the-art technologies. Do you think there is room for some sort of New Marshall Plan initiative, to generate a win-win dynamic for all of us?

P.K.: Um, no. Not realistically as a political matter. We’ll be lucky if we can get the surplus developing countries to spend on themselves. My guess is that our best hope for recovery lies in environmental investment: taking on climate change could, in terms of the macroeconomic impact, be the functional equivalent of a major new technology.


E.H.: Last December you publicly warned of a burgeoning economic crisis on Europe's outer frontiers. Indeed you even went so far as to state that the center of the present crisis had "moved from the U.S. housing market to the European periphery" - and by periphery here I take it you mean countries like Ireland, Spain, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Baltics. With hindsight, and looking at how Europe sovereign debt, with Greece in the forefront, has suddenly become the "plat du jour" for the financial markets, this seems to have been extraordinarily perceptive. What was it about the situation on Europe's periphery that attracted your attention at such an early stage?

P.K.: Numbers, numbers, numbers. Those huge current account deficits practically screamed “bubble”. In general, it’s been amazing how useful even very rough measures of imbalance have been at predicting crisis, in everything from U.S. housing to Latvia. And that makes it even more amazing how few people recognized the warning signs.


E.H.: One of the most significant recent monetary initiatives - the Euro - is now nearly ten years old. On its fifth birthday Ben Bernanke described it as a "great experiment", do you think this description still fits the case, or is it now possible to start to draw some tentative conclusions?

P.K.: It’s still very much an experiment. We’re only seeing the real downside now, as the eurozone tries to cope with the unwinding of large internal imbalances. Until we see how that goes, the judgment on the euro will remain in doubt.


E.H.: A number of Eurozone economies are currently in some difficulty due to their high general level of indebtedness and a loss of price competitiveness which makes exporting their way out of their problems quite hard. This issue becomes even larger given that these economies no longer have a currency to devalue, In a speech earlier this year in Argentina you said that Spain now had no alternative but to carry out a systematic reduction of prices and wages in order to restore competitiveness. For a Spanish public which is far from convinced that this is the case, could you briefly explain why this is so?

P.K.: Put it this way: for a number of years Spain could pay its way within the eurozone by selling assets, mainly real estate, as the inflow of capital financed a huge housing boom. That allowed Spanish wages to rise relative to those in other European countries. But now the housing boom has gone bust, and the big inflows of money are over. So Spain needs to compete in producing real stuff, such as manufactured goods. And it won’t be able to do that unless it has a major gain in productivity through wage reductions.


E.H.: In the Latvian context the expression "internal devaluation" has been advanced to describe this kind of wage and price correction process. The expression has a very attractive feel about it, but as you recently pointed out in your NYT blog (The Pain In Spain) the changes involved are far from easy to implement, with consequences which are normally none too pleasant for those on the receiving end. Indeed they bear a striking resemblance to what used to be called wage and price deflation in the 1930s. Have we really advanced so little in all these years, or are there now more sophistocated policy instruments available to public authorities to implement such changes in a way that parallels the monetary policy improvements which we have seen in action during the present crisis?

P.K.: I wish I had some clever suggestions. But the essentials of economics change much less than the façade. The truth is that Spain is very much in the same situation as gold-standard countries in the 1930s; in some ways worse, because it lacks the option of using trade policy as a substitute for devaluation. So deflation it must be.


E.H.: Finally, as one decade draws to a close, and another opens, are there any grounds for optimism? You often speak of the return of depression economics, is what we once called the "modern growth era" now decidedly over, or are we simply passing through an interlude, with a new dawn out there waiting for us, somewhere just over the horizon?

P.K.: We will recover eventually. And we have learned some things since the Depression, which was why this hasn’t been nearly as bad. Overall, leadership is better – I’m especially relieved that we have smart, well-intentioned people running my own country, which is a major improvement. So sure, things will improve. But it’s going to be a hard slog.