deficit

Reading Between The Lines: Why Eurozone Improvement is Being Ignored

Published on the Front Page of Huffington Post Business

Markets have shrugged off improvement in the Eurozone because more is needed for stability. Rising demand for German goods, an improving business climate and stability in Spanish housing should have given markets cause for celebration. However, after the substantial rally we’ve seen, and the headwinds yet to be tackled within the region, caution has crept back into markets.

Absence of Growth and Currency Risk

There is deep concern over Europe’s ability to kickstart growth, as austerity measures dampen economic expansion and a strong euro stifles exports. The increase in demand for German factory goods interestingly was driven by demand within the euro area. Domestic demand was weak and the currency still source of concern abroad. Furthermore, despite an overall improving business climate, uncertainty in the political and economic landscape going forward is causing delay in hiring and investment.

Spain Precarious and Firepower Lacking

Once again hitting the headlines, Spain could derail European stability, as corruption charges are directed at the government while they continue to grapple with a large budget deficit. The latest data points to a possible floor in Spanish housing prices but defaults on bank loans due to the real estate bubble remains elevated and there is only limited further financial aid available directly from the rescue fund. In order to meet its main obligation of lending to struggling countries, additional direct bank aid has been rumoured to amount to less than €100bn, nowhere near enough to contain future turmoil!

Reform and Unity Needed

With France expected to have slipped back into recession, Draghi, the European Central Bank President, is right to warn that the region is not in the clear yet. What’s needed now are structural reform and closer fiscal and political unity. Only with a return of confidence, based on improving fundamentals, can stability return.

rafa-sanudo-euro-crisisstock market

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Will the French and Greek election results change the direction of Europe?

As French and Greek voters make their feeling about spending cuts loud and clear, we ask ourselves – why has there been such a strong swing to anti-austerity/pro-growth, how does this threaten the survival of the euro and is a Greek default still possible? The deepening slump has dampened deficit reduction, the Fiscal treaty hangs in the balance and patience is wearing thin. Crucially, according to voters and investors, time is running out.

Growth vs. Austerity: deepening slump is dampening deficit reduction

Francois Hollande’s victory in the French elections marks a significant change of focus in European politics.  In contrast to the rhetoric delivered up to this point, Hollande wants emphasis of policy to be on growth instead of austerity. Why does he want this? Because the situation is deteriorating. Unless a country grows, their debt burden, as a percentage of a decreasing national output, grows and is therefore harder to manage. As iterated by French Socialist lawmaker Arnaud Montebourg, in an interview with BFMTV “Austerity is everywhere and it’s a complete shipwreck,”.

Portugal and Spain are prime examples. While the Portuguese economy is expected to contract by 3.3% this year, the deepening slump is dampening deficit reduction. In fact, the deficit almost tripled in the first couple of months of this year alone. Spain, similarly, is struggling with a deteriorating debt situation. As almost 1 in 4 are without jobs, unemployment is boosting defaults. Bad loan ratios have reached a 17 year high (see chart below on the right).

 

Survival of the Euro Threatened

However, such a drastic change of attitude could damage the Franco-German Alliance, political progress and the very survival of the euro. This is because for Hollande to promote growth, he is threatening the fiscal treaty, perceived as crucial for keeping the euro together in its current form. The Treaty would create closer consolidation within the European union. Handing over authority for National Budgets to a Supra-National entity could ensure the various moving parts of the region interact better as a whole. However, Hollande disagrees with the primary focus on debt and deficit limits, without any pro-growth measures.

Whilst the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble is ready to discuss initiatives to boost economic growth Merkel has said she will not renegotiate the pact. As her spokesperson asserted, it “has already been signed by 25 out of 27 EU countries”. Instead the likelihood may be a growth pact attached to the fiscal pact. Nevertheless, the problems don’t end there. Firstly, Hollande will have his work cut out for him in an economy that is barely growing, with jobless claims at their highest in 12 years and a rising debt load that keeps France vulnerable. Secondly, can both sides agree what they mean by growth?

Growth by any other name…  

France and Germany disagree strongly on how to achieve growth. Merkel maintains it is through structural reforms – making it easier to fire workers, which would encourage employers to hire, certainly a key aim for the Italian Government. However, Hollande is hesitant and instead wants growth via infrastructure spending. But Germany won’t agree to spending funded by borrowing – exactly opposite to their deficit reduction targets. Therefore, again although rhetoric can be applauded, practical plans remain elusive.

A Greece Default Still Possible

Uncertainty continues to be a key challenge for Greece as voters in a similar move to the French, overwhelmingly rejected mainstream candidates supporting spending cuts. Crucially, these cuts were aimed at securing bailouts and avoiding a default. Instead, 70 per cent of voters supported parties that promised to tear up the bailout and attempts may be made to negotiate a gradual ”disengagement” from the harshest austerity measures of Greece’s €130 billion ($168 billion) bailout. This keeps the possibility of a Greek default firmly in the picture and until a coalition is formed, a new election next month is possible.

Is time running out?

Will there be enough time for political leaders to regain credibility and encourage Eurozone growth? As confidence wanes, borrowing costs rise and debt burdens risk becoming unsustainable. Worryingly, therefore, patience is running thin. Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s thoughts on a unified Europe as “the vanity of intellectuals, an inevitable failure: only the scale of final damage is in doubt”, the German paper, Die Welt, wrote after the French and Greek elections: “In the end the results are proof that Europe doesn’t work”.

IMF Revelations: The End of European Dominance & The Rise of Emerging Markets?

As “super-injunctions” are labelled “pointless” by the rise of ‘new’ social media sites, the world seems a smaller place for those wanting to hide potential transgressions.  Indeed, such accusations can have broad ramifications as the head of the International Monetary Fund this week steps down from his leadership position. Could this trigger the end of European dominance at the IMF and even pave the way for Emerging Market leaders to acquire a more appropriate size of the power pie?

Jurisdiction Arbitrage: The Super-Injunction Flaw

Last week, an anonymous twitter user exploited a ‘jurisdiction arbitrage’ to name celebrities whose identities are being protected by a series of ‘gagging-orders’. The Twitter site is based in the US and therefore “outside the jurisdiction of the British courts”. Furthermore, not only would the user himself be “difficult to trace” but the number of other users who forwarded on the names and could be charged represented a “mass defiance” and “unlikely” any of them would be pursued. Therefore potential wrong-doers can, for the moment at least, be named and shamed in some form of media. Just how dangerous can these revelations be?

Revelations at The IMF

This week legalities are once again in the headlines as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, (now the former) head of the International Monetary Fund, stands accused of politically damaging indiscretions. Regardless of the outcome of the case, the political impact has been made and focus is on identifying his potential successor.

The European Bias

Historically the IMF Managing Director has been European and the World Bank President American but nowhere in the “Articles of Agreement’ is this mentioned. So where did this bias come from? It dates back to the Bretton Woods conference, where the fund was formed and this informal agreement struck. In the aftermath of World War II, European economic stability played a large part in the health of the world’s economy and voting power reflected the balance of power. The US has a 16.7% share, Germany 5.9% and the UK & France 4.9% each; leaving the ‘door open’ for ‘behind the scenes’ negotiations. Unsurprisingly, since this time, there have been 10 Managing Directors, all of them European.

Flaws of a European Successor

Proponents of a continuation of European dominance point to the IMF’s crucial role in stemming the European Sovereign Debt crisis. A German government spokesman, Christoph Steegmans, maintains that the leader needs to understand “Europe’s particularities”. Interesting then that there has been no talk of electing an official from the Middle East as Egypt requests a $4bn loan to ‘fill its budget gap’. With all the turmoil, doesn’t a leader need to understand the ‘particularities’ of this region too? Instead, focus is on German candidates (including Axel Weber, the former head of the Central Bank who recently withdrew from the race to succeed Trichet as head of the ECB). A favourite amongst pundits is French finance Minister Christine Lagarde. Bank of Canada Governor, Mark Carney has even been given odds of 10-to-1 by a British bookmaker. Gordon Brown’s name has even been thrown into the ring but was quickly opposed by our PM Cameron due to the record budget deficit which continued to build during his tenure. Here lies the crux of the issue, since the EU and ECB have yet to solve the debt crisis, is it time for someone else to have a go?

Opportunity for Developing Markets

The economic balance of power is changing. China has overtaken Japan as the second largest economy and it has been argued that it will surpass the US’s share of global GDP in a decade. Back in 1973, the developing nations asserted more of their power as a group led by Indonesia and Iran vetoed the nomination of a Dutch candidate (seen as too closely aligned to the interests of wealthy nations). With this in mind, candidates from South Africa, Turkey, Singapore, Indonesia, Mexico and a Chinese official who advises the IMF already have been mentioned in the press. Brazil too has contributed to the discussion, as their Finance Minister argues for a “new criteria”. Indeed changes to IMF governance were decided in 2008 and last year, shifting 5.3% of the voting share to emerging markets. Although nothing has yet taken effect. However, with the increased contribution of funding coming from these regions and the negativity within these countries expressed against too much focus on the developed world, change is warranted.

Investment Conclusion

As ever, economic issues can often lie opposed to equity market movement. But changes (or continuation) of dominance could affect short-term sentiment for various country’s financial markets. Exploit any over-reaction in the short-term whilst remaining focused on quality in the longer-term. The shift of economic power is well underway, let’s see if the political powers play catch up….

Europe and a New Form of ‘Decoupling’ – How to React

The problem with international meetings is politicians are often “more interested in their next job than the next generation” – Anonymous source via Anthony Hilton, Evening Standard

Political turmoil has hit the three largest European economies in recent days. Portugal’s Prime Minister resigned, Merkel’s party was ousted from the most prosperous state in Germany after an almost 58 year uninterrupted rule and at France’s recent election, abstention reached a new high at 54% of the population. What are the main issues to be watching, how are they affecting investments and why is the term ‘decoupling’ now being used to describe countries within the EU?

Headline of Germany's biggest newspaper, Bild, 12 May 2010. Source: http://read.bi/cZa0of

Berlusconi ‘Flirting’ With Protectionism

In reaction to recent French takeovers of Italian companies, Italy is threatening to draft a bill to curtail the trend. France maintains the bill will go beyond measures conceived by Paris and tensions look to worsen as the French EDF, the largest shareholder of Italian energy company Edison prepares to replace the Italian CEO with a French counterpart.  Indeed with David Cameron concerned about maintaining an open and competitive continent, the issue is one to watch. Nevertheless, with a high savings rate and exposure to German and Emerging Market economies, the outlook for Italy remains strong. In a recent auction, the maximum amount of index-linked bonds targeted was sold on Tuesday, €6bn year to date. Domestic demand remains strong.

Spanish Growth Downgraded

Another European country with issues of its own and yet resilient market reaction is Spain. The Central Bank sees a growth outlook of 0.8% for this year, lower than the government’s expectation of 1.3% growth. Unemployment is still among the highest in Europe at ~20% and they are implementing some of the deepest austerity measures to bring their deficit inline with that of France. Nevertheless, markets are forward looking and are reacting well to the aggressive policy implementation. Spreads on Spanish bonds over the equivalent German versions continue to narrow.

Even more worrying is the 43% youth unemployment (as quoted in The Guardian), higher than both Egypt and Tunisia - leading Gregory White at The Business Insider to call Spain "The Next Egypt" http://read.bi/i7fKOu. Source of chart: Miguel Navascues, an economist who spent 30years for the Bank of Spain following a posting for the US http://bit.ly/fDGb6k

Germany Facing a ‘Blocking Majority’

After another disappointing election result, the governing party of Germany could face a ‘blocking majority’ if they lose one more state in the September elections. Inner-party opposition is looking likely to intensify and after abstaining in the UN’s vote on the ‘no fly zone’ over Libya, fears of a return to isolationism have returned. Together this could compound the indecision that has dogged Merkel’s leadership so far. Nevertheless, the country’s deficit is set to fall as low as 2.5% of GDP.

 

Equally applicable for France with their 54% abstention rate as to Germany's indecision - The once opinionated cocktail hour has gone quiet! Source: http://www.zundelsite.org/cartoons/german_party.html

A New ‘Decoupling’

Therefore, the markets are starting to differentiate between countries. Spanish and Italian equity markets are almost 9% higher than they were at the start of the year while others are still struggling.  Most interesting is the lacklustre return of Germany’s equity market despite stronger fundamentals. Although this can be explained by the idea that markets move not by information on an absolute basis but relative to past performance and most crucially – expectations. With this in mind, Italian and Spanish economies are seen to be improving and doing well versus investor-set benchmarks.

The Investment Insight

There are many more hurdles along the way. The yield on Portugal’s 5-year notes surpassed 9% for the first time since Bloomberg records began (1997). The average yield across maturities lies at 4%, but the trend is upwards and once a 6% level is reached, it is argued it will become near impossible to reduce the countries debt-to-GDP ratio. In the immediate future, today’s results of Ireland’s banking stress tests will reveal the additional capital required for adequate solvency. As always, it is wise to maintain context, exploit contagion to your benefit and focus on quality for the longer-term.

EU Differentiation… The Key Points you should know…

“United we stand; divided we fall” Aesop (Ancient Greek Fabulist and Author of a collection of Greek fables. 620 BC-560 BC)

The problem with the “EU” banner is that it links together economies that are quite different from each other. Much press has been dedicated to the fate of the PIIGS – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain but it is interesting to compare journalistic exposure with economic impact. Greece Ireland and Portugal account for less than 5% of EU GDP. To save you shifting through pages of research – here are the key pertinent points for each economy… The structure follows that of my earlier assessment of the futility of EU bailout mechanisms–

  1. FLAWED LOGIC – what are the real issues?
  2. NOT SOLVING THE PROBLEM – will the economy in question be able to grow enough / will the debt burden be manageable enough so that it will fall as a % of GDP?
  3. UNCERTAINTY – what are the political issues?

Source: "Belgium Joins The PIIGS: And Then They Were Six" - Gavan Nolan, Econotwist The Swapper - learning and understanding the increasingly complex financial world.

Portugal – A Disappointing Deficit, Dipping Back Into Recession

  1. DISAPPOINTING DEFICIT and FOREIGN PRESSURE – Disappointed the market with its deficit reduction plan for this year, amounting to a value for the first 10 months of 2010 which was than for the whole of 2009 and forecasted to exceed the EU limit until at least 2012. Exposed to more foreign pressure with around 70% of its debt is held abroad
  2. LOW GROWTH – estimated to only amount to 1.3% for 2010 for an economy expected to fall into recession next yr
  3. POTENTIAL SOCIAL UNREST – planning to reduce its public workforce

Italy – Saved by its Savings, Economic Exposure but Debt Isolation

  1. TOO BIG TO BAIL OUT – second largest debt burden after Greece (public debt equates to 120% of GDP)
  2. LOW GROWTH

  • HOWEVER: High savings rate, exposure to German and Emerging Market economies, less dependant on foreign creditors and therefore more flexible

Ireland – The Public Prefers a Default

  1. HUGE BAILOUT – amounting to 60% of GDP vs. “only” 47% for Greece
  2. POTENTIAL FOR DEFAULT – 57% of the public believe the country will not be able to support the annual interest payments involved with this debt burden (€5bn over 9 years) and would prefer the government to DEFAULT on its commitments
  3. PROTEST and INTERNATIONAL IMPACT – 50,000 took to streets to protest against the Government’s plan to cut the budget deficit. The UK has £140bn exposure to Irish banks

Greece – Flirting with Insolvency

  1. STRUCTURAL LIMITATIONS“overblown state sector”, “uncompetitive and relatively closed economy”
  2. SOLVENCY – It has been argued that the bailout package will only prevent Greece from insolvency for ~a year
  3. CIVIL UNREST – has been seen in response to social program cutbacks

Spain – Pulling a “Sickie”

  1. UNEMPLOYMENT and a potential for DEFAULT – the highest in the EU at around 20% of the population. A third of private sector debt (€0.6tn) was generated from the housing boom and liable to default.
  2. INTEREST PAYMENTS HAVE JUMPED – Since Oct, yields have jumped from 4% to 5% leading to a larger debt burden as a percentage of GDP
  3. SOCIAL UNREST – Just the other week we saw one of the largest “sickies” thrown by their air traffic workers

Hungary – The Government Can’t Win

Although not within the PIIGS acronym – it is important nonetheless to mention this economy at this point and a great example of the potential impacts to investment. It’s a case that highlights the Government can’t win – if it decides that instead of implementing austerity programs eliciting social unrest, it will instead employ more crowd-pleasing reforms, it will get punished nonetheless….

  • DOWNGRADED – Moody’s has downgraded its debt to the lowest investment grade status. One more downgrade and it changes classification and those restricted to investing in Investment Grade debt only will be forced to sell, regardless of any other factors. Great opportunity to pick up dent at a discount (whilst watching the quality of the issuer!)
  • REASON – Short term (less antagonistic) measures are not sustainable – special taxes and utilising private pension schemes to fill holes! The Government is relying on future growth to afford its pension liability in the future and anyone not transferring to a state pension by end Jan may lose 70% of their pension value.

Contrast with the Core

Just to contast these economies with the one seeming to be driving force behind the union – Germany’s deficit could potentially fall to the 3% EU limit next year

INVESTMENT INSIGHT: When investing in the EU – differentiate between countries!