‘Wind down’ is not withdrawal but watch negative news flow in the US; treading water is not growth so keep the champagne on ice for Europe; price is not value so beware investor sentiment; falling unemployment is not rising employment so watch the participation rate; and a hiccup is not a correction so keep an eye on an exit…
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.
After disappointing economic growth within the UK fed fears of a ‘triple-dip’ recession, housing market data has added fuel to the fire. Stability is needed for consumers to feel more confident and comfortable spending but instead contraction continues. Outside of London and within the prime real estate market, demand has been driven by a low level of supply and foreign investment. However, outside of this insulated area, property is struggling and banks still have assets to offload which could further maintain downward pressure on prices.
Bold words, high expectations and market rallies. We’ve seen steps in the right direction in Europe, but the 3 features that differentiate the latest bond buying program also highlight its flaws. It’s conditional but hard to police, transparent but uncertain, and unlimited but not long-term. The vicious circle is clear; a country will only get support if its economy deteriorates to the extent they will accept onerous conditions which will cause it to sink deeper into recession. With multiple significant flaws present in current plans, enough has been done to buoy markets but more is needed to support economic progress and bring sufficient confidence back to markets.
“Whatever it takes”
With bold statements come high expectations and Draghi, the European Central Bank President, has been acutely aware of this fact. After claiming he would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, the pressure was on to support this with a decisive plan of action.
Earlier this month he seemed to do just that, promising to launch an unlimited bond-buying program to ease pressure on sovereign borrowing costs. Taken positively by the markets, the Eurostoxx closed up over 2% that day and periphery sovereign bond yields fell on the news alone.
However, the question remains: has this really marked the end of the Eurozone crisis? The rally has taken bank shares and CDSs back to where they stood in March, when markets similarly put faith in cheap 3-year ECB loans, only to be disappointed. Are markets at risk of a correction this time too?
Step in the right direction but we’ve a long way to go
Draghi identified at least 3 ways in which his latest plan would be different from previous bond-buying schemes. However, they also help identify flaws which could come to light if the situation in the Eurozone were to continue to deteriorate significantly:
1. Conditional but hard to police
To allay (German) worries of long-lasting and repeated requests for help, the support provided by the ECB will come with conditions. The ECB will buy bonds of countries that request help, as long as they conform to certain terms. Countries will be charged with specific requirements, e.g. spending cuts, to try and build fiscal discipline so assistance can wind down. The conditional nature of any offer to support a country’s government bonds could however also be cause for concern. It is hard to police. The resultant turmoil that would ensue from a country not only having identified themselves as in need of help, but now having that help withdrawn would extend beyond the country in question. This would therefore be mutually destructive. With investors fleeing from any asset perceived to be exposed to this country as they looked to de-risk portfolios, ECB assets could be damaged, lowering their resolve to enact this punishment.
Moreover, this unintentionally maps out the road to a euro exit. It highlights that once a country that has received a bailout no longer meets specific targets, the rug may be pulled out from underneath it and the resulting pressure could force it out of the euro.
2. Transparent but uncertain
The ECB will be transparent about which country’s bonds they are buying, reducing speculation and giving markets a clearer indication of what’s going on. However, this doesn’t mean the picture would be crystal clear. Uncertainty remains as to the exact level at which bond-buying could be triggered and the conditions that would be put in place.
3. Unlimited but not long term
There is no cap on the amount of bonds that can be bought and therefore it can provide some form of support long into the future. However, this does not equate to a long term solution. Buying bonds is not a substitute for reform or a strategy for economic growth, which Draghi himself stated has “risk to the downside”. Both of which are crucial for the health of Europe and an end to the crisis.
Finally, although not corresponding to anything stated as a benefit of the plan, it was not unanimous. The German Bundesbank President was not in favour of the plan and could still cause trouble. Indeed, it has since been ruled that Germany has the right to vote over every rescue programme. Considering the country’s fondness for austerity, bailout terms could be tougher and either rejected, damage the economy further, or accepted and failed to be followed. The vicious circle is clear; a country will only get support if its economy deteriorates to the extent they will accept onerous conditions which will cause it to sink deeper into recession.
With multiple significant flaws present in current plans, enough has been done to buoy markets but more is needed to support economic progress further down the line and bring sufficient confidence back to markets.
As markets now price in a full default on 2 year loans, and the next tranche of the bailout hangs in the balance until political chaos abates, the question now seems to be – is an exit from the euro inevitable? The people of Greece are against it, but politicians are threatening it and firms are getting prepared for the possibility. Finally, there is a fear of a run on the banks as deposits fall and the risk other countries may join the ‘default’ bandwagon.
Greeks do not want to leave the Euro
Although 60% of the Greek population view the austerity terms set for them to receive the next tranche of their bailout negatively, more than 7 in every 10 favour staying in euro. The main benefit to the country in the reinstatement of their own currency would be its inevitable depreciation, enabling the economy to regain competitiveness with respect to the (cheaper) price of their goods and services. UBS estimates this would be a 60% change in valuation. However, the bank also estimates borrowing costs would rise by 7%, hitting balance sheets and costing each citizen €11,500 in the first year outside the euro (€4,000 in subsequent years).
…But politicians point to the possibility
Nevertheless, politicians have begun pointing to the possibility of Greece leaving the euro. When faced with a potential referendum being held in Greece, subsequently called off, Sarkozy exclaimed that the “real question is whether Greece remains within Europe or not”. The Luxembourg Prime Minister tried a more diplomatic tact conceding it does not have to remain a member “at all costs”. Whereas Germany’s biggest newspaper far more brutally demanded “no more billions for the Greeks, Greece out of the euro!”
…And firms are starting to prepare
And companies are starting to make preparations for Greece to return to their own currency. Tui, one of Europe’s largest travel companies see Greece leaving the euro as “more than a theoretical possibility” and have accordingly requested the freedom to pay bills in the new currency.
Lack of credibility puts the bailout at risk
A surprise and ultimately rejected call for a referendum and the ensuing political chaos put the next tranche of the bailout at risk. A last ditch attempt at appeasing the people, by putting the acceptance of the tough austerity measures they will have to endure to a vote, led to threats of expulsion from the euro. Subsequently, a coalition government has been formed until early elections can be called and the Prime Minister has stepped down from his position. The rumours that the leader of this new unity interim government, Papademos, wasn’t even in the country at that time doesn’t bode well for a new era of superior management!
Time is short as an €8bn bailout has now been withheld for over a month, until the situation is sorted out. 700,000 public sector employees and 2 million pensioners need to be paid at the end of the month and nearly €3bn for bonds maturing in December from the 19th onwards. However, Greece still has a bloated public sector, refuses to sell or lease more of their assets, misses out on what could amount to €30bn in tax avoidance each year and continues to generate a 10.5% deficit in terms of spending versus income. And with riots on the streets and wage and pension cuts already of 20% and upwards, flexibility to cut more is somewhat limited. Fundamentally of course, this won’t generate growth. With the resulting bailout a short term plug, and the economy still forecasted to shrink by 2.5% next year, the feeling of futility can be understood.
…and there are fears of a run on the banks
Worryingly, Greece deposits fell by €10bn, 6% of current deposits in October alone. And it’s no longer just the wealthy looking to relocate assets to the likes of Switzerland but by people needing the funds to survive. An audit of Greece’s largest banks could reveal in December €15bn of non-performing loans, whilst holding a disproportionally large amount of their own sovereign debt. Greek 2 year yields have risen above 100%, implying investors do not expect these loans to be repaid. It could take €30bn to recapitalise these banks.
… and the risk others may follow
If one country is allowed to renege on its debts, then there is the possibility of others demanding likewise. Ireland could follow suit and demand it is therefore unfair that they have to repay bond holders in full. However, although a possibility, it is not currently a probability. The stark austerity measures being imposed on Greece, and the scrutiny they are now under is enough to put other countries off that option for the moment. Ernst &Young Item Club estimate that a default by Portugal, Ireland & Spain would cause Eurozone output to fall by 6%, in a recessionary environment that’s not a number to take lightly!
Billed as the “most pro-growth budget for a generation”, attacked with the claim the “hurting isn’t working”…
In a growth-starved environment, with inflation figures stoking fears, today’s budget was awaited in eager anticipation. Aiming to simplify our complex tax system, increase competitiveness and boost domestic industry, the politically astute rhetoric rang loud while bottom-line impacts remained mixed. Most crucially as an investor, how has the budget impacted the outlook for investment?
Growth Alone does not Drive Equity Returns
Much noise has been made over the downgrade of this year’s growth forecast (from 2.1% to 1.7%) but studies carried out to investigate a link between growth and equity returns have come back empty handed. Taking the recession during the early 1990s as an example, during its duration the UK All Share Index increased in value by more than 16%. Furthermore, as I write this article, the FTSE 100 is barely reacting.
Outlook for Stock Pickers Remains Buoyant
The government has picked certain sectors for penalty, others for promotion and the budget will impact companies in different ways. Investors and fund managers able to differentiate and exploit this will be well-placed. The following bullet points give a high level overview highlighting some of the discrepancies:
- TOBACCO duty to rise by 2% above inflation,
- BANKS to not benefit from corporate tax cuts,
- OIL companies to fund the ‘fair fuel stabiliser’,
- SMALL R&D heavy companies will benefit from a 200% tax credit this year,
- private AVIATION hit with a levy,
- home CONSTRUCTION firms to benefit from first-time buyer incentives focused on new builds
In addition, Illogical moves may reverse. Consumption remains under pressure (unemployment still near record high levels) but the outperformance of consumer discretionary over consumer staples has reached almost 50% – illogical since spend on luxury goods should be hit the most. Therefore, there are opportunities for high quality companies with pricing power and strong demand for their goods to play catch up.
Diversifying into Other Currencies Supported
In reference to the recent tsunami in Japan, the Chancellor mentioned the support the UK has provided and, in doing so, confirmed the UK’s aim of building foreign asset reserves. With countries artificially pushing the value of their currencies down (read: Brazil’s $40bn intervention last year and Chile’s $12bn this year) and others keeping theirs low (read: China’s RMB believed to be 40% undervalued), the upside potential when this eventually ends is great. Stan Fischer, the Governor of the Bank of Israel revealed they “are diversifying into currencies which (they) would never have put in the reserves before”, supported by the Governor of the Bank of Canada with his belief that we will see a “multi-polar” system. Watching sterling’s moves today, the currency is off slightly against the dollar but the real moves will be versus emerging market currencies and over the longer term. Following the lead of Central Banks ‘spreading their wealth’, this form of diversification may be prudent.
Promotion of Alternative Schemes
The tax relief on EIS (Enterprise Investment Schemes) and VCT (Venture Capital Trust) investment will be increased from 20% to 30% next year, offering a substantial opportunity for tax efficient investing. More interesting and less noted is the move to allow larger companies to be eligible for the scheme. This has been claimed to reduce risk. To this, a footnote should be added. Lower risk opportunities may be available but the same level of due diligence is required.
Finally, although not strictly an investment, giving to charity now has financial benefits in addition to goodwill. Those who donate may be granted a 10% discount in their inheritance tax bill. Looks like the government may be targeting not just our wallets but our souls.
“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–
- FLAWED LOGIC – what are the real issues?
- 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?
- UNCERTAINTY – what are the political issues?
Portugal – A Disappointing Deficit, Dipping Back Into Recession
- 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
- LOW GROWTH – estimated to only amount to 1.3% for 2010 for an economy expected to fall into recession next yr
- POTENTIAL SOCIAL UNREST – planning to reduce its public workforce
Italy – Saved by its Savings, Economic Exposure but Debt Isolation
- TOO BIG TO BAIL OUT – second largest debt burden after Greece (public debt equates to 120% of GDP)
- 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
- HUGE BAILOUT – amounting to 60% of GDP vs. “only” 47% for Greece
- 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
- 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
- STRUCTURAL LIMITATIONS – “overblown state sector”, “uncompetitive and relatively closed economy”
- SOLVENCY – It has been argued that the bailout package will only prevent Greece from insolvency for ~a year
- CIVIL UNREST – has been seen in response to social program cutbacks
Spain – Pulling a “Sickie”
- 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.
- INTEREST PAYMENTS HAVE JUMPED – Since Oct, yields have jumped from 4% to 5% leading to a larger debt burden as a percentage of GDP
- 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!