Tuesday, March 31, 2015

31/3/15: Six out of Seven Signs the US Economy is Weaker in Q1

That economic recovery in the U.S. - the engine for growth in far away places, like Ireland, the hope of the IMF, the beacon of the dream that debt stimulus is a fine way to repair structurally weakened (let alone devastated - as in the Euro area) economies is... err... coughing diesel:

Source: @M_McDonough

In basic terms, five out of six tracked Economic Surprise sub-indices are in the red now, with four of them in the red for some time. And the overall Bloomberg Economic Surprise index is in the red, and has been in the red for most of the Q1. And the overall index is falling in steep ticks... which is not good... not good at all.

31/3/15: Three Strikes of the New Financial Regulation: Part 2: Dubious Economics of FTT

My new post on the mess that is Europe's Financial Transactions Tax is available on LearnSignal blog: http://blog.learnsignal.com/?p=169

31/3/15: The Most Effective QE of all QEs

In the previous post I shared my view of the QE. Here is the best, most succinct summary of the effectiveness of the 'most effective' of all recent QEs: the US example via @Convertbond:

Nails it.

31/3/15: QE for the People

ECB's QE programme launched this month is targeting wrong policy and likely to fuel an already massive bubble in stocks and bonds. It is also unlikely to help generate real economic growth, as it simply transfers more wealth to the financial markets.

Look at the facts: 
  • The Eurozone is suffering from structural stagnation that is driven by the lack of investment, anaemic domestic demand and policies, including taxation and enterprise regulation, that reduce entrepreneurship and make jobs creation and productivity growth (especially Total Factor Productivity) excessively costly.
  • Overall household and corporate indebtedness in the Euro area remain high despite several years of deleveraging.
  • Bank lending markets fragmentation contrasted by booming equity and bond markets shows that the problem is not in the lack of liquidity, but in over-leveraging present in the economy.

Experience in other countries that recently deployed QE shows that current measures by the ECB are unlikely to provide sufficient stimulus to drive growth to the new (and higher) ‘normal’: 
  • Japan, the US, and the UK experiences with QE show that monetary policies are useful to the real economy only when they are combined with either expansionary fiscal policies or real investment increases or both.
  • Even in such cases where QE has been successful, sustainability of QE-triggered growth has been weak in the presence of structural debt overhangs (Japan) and had to rely on structural drivers for growth present prior to the deployment of QE (the UK and the US).
  • In the Euro area, the idea is to combine QE with austerity policies and in the presence of dysfunctional financial markets. Such a program could increase misallocation of resources via bidding up financial assets prices over and above their long term fundamentals-justified levels. 
  • Bank of England created £375bn over the course of its QE programme. By the Bank of England’s own estimates, QE in the UK pushed up share and bond prices by around 20%. But because around 40% of stock market wealth is held by the wealthiest 5% of households, QE has made that wealthiest 5% better off by around £128,000 per household. 
  • You might want to check this post on the potential effects of QE on the real economy: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-03-28/finally-very-serious-people-get-it-qe-will-permanently-impair-living-standards-gener 

In short: the QE, as currently being carried out by the ECB, benefits the less-productive holders of financial assets, not the poor, nor the entrepreneurs, nor the real enterprise.

There is an alternative policy, a policy of “Quantitative Easing for the People”, an idea of distributing QE money directly to the citizens of the Euro area.

This is a more efficient approach for stimulating the real economy precisely because it puts liquidity directly at the point where it is needed most and can be used most efficiently, absent intermediaries, to address real structural problems present in the economy.

The plan is identical to the ECB current plan in terms of funds allocated: €60 billion will be created each month for 19 months. The amount each national central bank will create can also depend on its share of capital in the ECB, just as the current ECB QE programme envisages.

Each Eurozone citizen can receive ca €175 on average each month for 19 months. 
  • The funds are taxable income, so there is a benefit to the Exchequers, allowing the governments to engage in expanded investment programmes or more efficiently close some of the budgetary gaps, while buying more time to implement structural reforms.
  • The funds (net of tax) can be used by households to accelerate debt deleveraging and/or repair their pensions funds and/or fund consumption.
  • As the result, “QE for the People” will stimulate domestic demand (consumption, investment and Government investment), while increasing the rate of debt deleveraging.
  • In addition, “QE for the People” can help improve banks’ balancesheets by increasing loans recovery (as households repay loans). In contrast, ECB QE will not have such an effect as it will be taking off banks balancesheets zero risk-weighted Government bonds.  Thus, “QE for the People” can be seen as a more efficient mechanism for repairing financial system transmission mechanism than ECB own QE policy.
  • The quantum of stimulus implied by the “QE for the People” proposal is significant. Take Ireland, for example. “QE for the People” means annual benefit of around EUR8 billion in direct stimulus (depending on how Ireland's share is estimated). In 2014, Irish Final Domestic Demand grew by EUR6.15 billion. So the direct effect of this measure for just one year would be equivalent to more than full year worth of real economic growth.

19 economists from across Europe and outside signed last week’s FT letter proposing this plan (with some variations) to stimulate the real economy in the euro area. The original letter is available here: http://www.basicincome.org/news/2015/03/europe-quantitative-easing-for-people/

This note posits my personal view of the alternative policy, somewhat at variance with the letter itself on the specific modality of Government involvement in the funding and Government receipt of the QE funds over and above normal tax capture (which I do not support). 

Friday, March 27, 2015

27/3/15: Russia Goes for Fiscal Cuts: Amended Budget 2015

Russian Duma passed (in first reading) amendments to the Budget 2015.

The new Budget is based on average oil price of USD50 pb, with expected GDP growth of -3% against inflation of 12.2% and USD/RUB exchange rate of RUB61.5. These are major revisions to the base assumptions.

Forecast government deficit for 2015 has now widened from RUB431 billion (0.6% of GDP) estimated back in October 2014 to RUB2,700 billion or 3.7% of GDP.

Budget forecast that the economy will contract 3% (to RUB73.5 trillion or USD1.27 trillion) in 2015 is a sharp deterioration on October 2014 estimates for GDP growth of 1.2%. Still, this is very optimistic. Earlier BOFIT forecast Russian economy to contract by more than 4% in 2015 on foot of assumed oil price of USD55 pb, and the Central Bank of Russia estimated 4% drop in GDP for 2015 on foot of USD50-55 pb assumption. See latest forecasts for the Russian economy here http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/03/26315-bofit-latest-forecasts-for.html and for external trade here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/03/26315-russian-imports-outlook-2015-2016.html

In December 2014, budgetary forecasts were for GDP decline of 0.8% and inflation averaging 7.5% with oil at USD80 pb.

The key pressure will fall onto the Russian oil revenues reserves fund (one of the sovereign wealth funds) which currently has liquid assets of USD98 billion, but under the Budget 2015 amendments will see this depleted by USD53 billion by year end.

As expected (see my note linked above), public sector wages were not cut in nominal terms, but surprisingly (analysts expected nominal rises in wages below inflation rate), public sector wages were completely frozen in the amended budget. As expected, pensions rose in nominal terms (5.5% y/y), but the increases fell below expected inflation rate, so real pensions will fall.

In a related report (http://beurs.com/2015/03/24/rusland-moet-besparen-maar-wil-niet/60374), Russia is to cut Interior Ministry (police) ranks by 110,000 with 78,700 cuts in 2015. This comes on top of cuts of 180,000 since 2011 - a part of large scale restricting of the police force that also included rebranding of Russian 'militzia' into 'police' and a score of measures aimed at reducing corruption. It is also worth noting that reductions are in line with May 12, 2014 Presidential decree that limits overall level of employment by the Interior Ministry to 1.1 million - at the time, this meant reductions of 180,000.

And reserves are still going to run low (http://www.themoscowtimes.com/article.php?id=517902)...

Despite the aggressive measures, in my opinion, Russia still needs some positive upside in the economy to meet the budgetary targets. My view is that even if oil prices reach an average of USD55-60 pb in 2015, the deficit is likely to be around 3.5-3.7%, so with Budget amendments penciling in USD50 pb price, things are very tight and prone to adverse risks. The good news - state sectors' wage inflation (running in 20% territory over recent years) will be scaled back via inflation and nominal freezes. Bad news is, this too is unlikely to be enough. 

27/3/15: That Russian Liberal Opposition: Facts Piling Up...

Recently, I wrote about the sorry state of the Russian liberal democratic opposition (http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/03/21315-two-pesky-facts-and-russian.html) and Putin's strong showing in public ratings. Here is another data set, this time reflecting this week's data:

Q: Imagine that next Sunday there will be presidential election in Russia. Which politicians would you give your vote to? President Putin's share of the vote:

Source: http://fom.ru/Politika/

Here's the link to longer-dated series: http://bd.fom.ru/pdf/d12ind15.pdf and a snapshot from the same (I omit spoiled votes and those who are not planning to vote):

I have trouble spotting viable liberal opposition that can be supported by a democratic regime change. But may be I am just not seeing something... like it or not, but these are the numbers we have...

27/3/15: Euro Area Growth Indicator up in March, but...

Latest Eurocoin (Banca d'Italia and CEPR) leading growth indicator for euro area economy came in at a slight improvement in March to 0.26 from 0.23 in February, posting the highest reading since July 2014. The average quarterly growth forecast now implied by Eurocoin is at around 0.25-0.3% q/q with the risk to the upside.

This is the first monthly reading since July 2014 that puts Eurocoin into statistically significant growth territory and also the first monthly reading for positive growth momentum based on 6mo moving average.

However, as the chart below indicates, y/y we are still in weak growth territory and, to a large extent, this growth is supported by dis-inflationary momentum, rather than by nominal growth.

Accommodative monetary policer remains the key forward and the ECB remain stuck in the proverbial 'monetary policy corner':

In March, the main factors behind the Eurocoin increase were: an improvement in household and business confidence, plus gains in share prices. In other words, there is no organic driver for growth - both confidence indicators and share prices may have only indirect link to real economic activity.

27/315: Irish Retail Sales: February 2015

Core retail sales for February 2015 (excluding motors):
  • Value of core retail sales in Ireland rose 0.22% y/y in February, having posted 0.67% growth in January - a significant slowdown in growth. 3mo average index for retails sales in value has rise 1.1% y/y in December 2014-February 2015 period compared to the same period a year ago. 6mo average through February 2015 is up 1.23% y/y. This is weak growth at best, given the levels of activity in the sector: 3mo average through February 2015 is down 33.93% on peak and down 3.64% on pre-crisis average.
  • Volume of core retail sales fared, as usual, better, boosted by extremely low inflation in prices. Volume index rose 4.52% y/y in February 2015, after posting 4.61% growth in January 2015 (a slight slowdown in the pace of growth). 3mo average through February 2015 is up 4.8% y/y, and 6mo average is up 4.3% y/y. Still, compared to peak, volume of sales is still 25.3% below pre-crisis highs, although it is up 9.3% compared to the pre-crisis average.

As chart above clearly shows, the divergence between the Consumer Confidence Index and Value of retail sales activity remains in place, while Volume index is co-moving with the Confidence indicator. (more on this below).

Based on links between reported Consumer confidence and actual retail sales, Volume of retail sales is currently trending at relatively average levels (see chart below, green dot marking current reading), while Value indicator is trending well below the average reading consistent with reported Consumer confidence (see light orange dot marking the current reading).

Overall activity in the retail sector, however, is still improving. The chart below shows my own Retail Sector Activities Index (RSAI) that takes into the account trends in volume and value indices, plus the trend in consumer confidence. Currently, the main drivers for this improvement are: deflationary dynamics boosting volumes of sales and still elevated readings for Consumer Confidence.

However, rates of growth in both Volume and Value indicators are weaker than pre-crisis averages and are worryingly weak in Value terms (remember, retail sector profits and employment levels are predominantly the functions of value of sales, not volume of sales):

Finally, onto correlations: table below sums up correlations for each index, showing negative correlations between Consumer Confidence Index and Value and Volume of Retail Sales indices for the period from June 2008 through present (from the start of the crisis). It is worth noting that correlations have moved into positive territory from around 2012 on, although the latest readings suggest some temporary weakening of these.

Conclusions: setting aside Consumer Confidence readings, value and volume of retail sales indices are rising. However, as in previous months, increases in volume of sales are not matched by increases in value of sales, suggesting that overall sector activity improvements are driven primarily by deflationary price dynamics and only in the second order by improving demand. According to Consumer Confidence, we have been back in 2007 levels of activity since the start of Q2 2014. This is simply not supported by the annualised growth rates recorded in both Volumes of sales and Values of sales. Meanwhile, the levels of sales indices remain deeply below their pre-crisis peak readings and in value of sales terms, below pre-crisis average.

I will look at sub-sector decomposition of the retail sales indices performance once we have data for March, so we can strip out monthly volatility and look at quarterly comparatives.

27/3/15: Debt, Glorious Debt, Deluge of Debt... and Negative Yields

In the article on global debt woes forthcoming in one of the financial letters I contribute to in April, I will be looking more in depth at the problems brewing in the global asset markets. But for now, couple of interesting (additional) points.

According to Pictet, the share of global debt that is trading at negative yields has now risen to 8% of the total debt outstanding. For the Euro markets, 19% of all debt traded is now negative yielding, for debt denominated in Swedish SEK - 33% and for for Swiss CHF denominated debt - 44%.

If this is not enough to raise your hair, here is what investors think of the bonds markets:
Source: @lebullmarche
Per above, two core concerns are now taking over the worry-ranks for institutional investors: valuations bubble in bonds markets (up from 17% to 30% between January and March 2015) and Supply and quality of issuance of new debt (up from 6% in January to 26% in March).

27/3/15: Inching toward default: Ukraine CDS

Ukraine default scenarios (and debt restructuring) is now in the front line news, especially with IMF declaring then un-declaring its distaste for Russian position on EUR3 billion debt Ukraine owes Moscow that is due this year: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/27/ukraine-crisis-imf-idUSL2N0WS1FO20150327. So much so, even Reuters are confused...

But here's the markets absent any confusion: Ukraine CDS are now trading with implied probability of default of 98.2%.

Source: @Schuldensuehner 

Which is, at this stage, only a question of whether or when the ISDA call the default.

Whether you like it or not, Ukraine needs to restructure its debts. Its economy cannot carry the interest burden and it cannot sustain any sort of recovery absent a significant debt writedown. Lending to the country to repay some of these debts is madness of highest order - so much so that even the IMF knows it. Even if Ukraine gets a massive writedown of debt, it will have years of extremely painful reforms ahead of it, and its economic development model will have to be re-written in its entirety. But at least the Ukrainian people will be able to think of this pain as not going to fund foreign legacy lenders. A small consolation, but a necessary one.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

26/3/15: Russian imports outlook 2015-2016

Per BOFIT, Russian imports "will react strongly in 2015, partly dragged down by the economic contraction" and in part by weaker ruble and continued counter-sanctions. Import volumes adjust sharply during Russian recessions: in 2009 imports volumes fell 30% as GDP contracted by 8%. However, current Ruble is in a weaker position than in 2009: "the real exchange rate of the rouble has now depreciated much more than in 2009: it is a quarter weaker than the average rate for 2014. Russia’s income on exports, which dropped by a third in 2009, will deteriorate under the forecast oil price assumption[USD55 pb], by almost a quarter in 2015."

All of this means that Russian "imports will have to adjust to the smaller export income even more than usual [more than in 2009], since it would be difficult to fund a current account deficit in the present situation." It is worth noting that Russian economy does not run current account deficits to smooth out volatility in imports. "The current account last posted a deficit for a short period only, during the crisis of 1998."

Which means that BOFIT projects sharper decline in imports this time around: "import volumes are estimated to fall by a fifth in 2015. [On top of already sharp contraction in 2014]. The decline in imports will level off after 2015 as the economic contraction eases. In addition, the rouble’s real exchange rate will strengthen, since inflation is considerably faster in Russia than in its trading partners (the difference has grown to over 10%). In the absence of shocks which would lead to capital outflows, the rouble’s nominal exchange rate is expected to remain fairly stable, because net capital outflows stemming from e.g. repayment of foreign debt by non-financial corporations and banks will not necessarily exceed the surplus on the current account."

In other words, BOFIT does not expect an external funding crisis to be triggered by the debt redemptions.

"The current account will be bolstered by diminishing imports and a recovery in Russia’s export income resulting from rising oil prices. The recovery in export income will, in turn, create room for an increase in imports."

All of which is consistent with the Government policy: "the Russian Government has increased reactive manual steering in several areas ahead of the recession. Import controls have been intensified, e.g. by raising certain import duties and favouring domestic products in public procurement and also projects of state-owned enterprises. Capital outflows have been restricted by e.g. strengthening banking controls and issuing instructions to state-owned enterprises. Companies have been encouraged to apply targeted price controls, although this has not been widely used, as yet."

Exporters to Russia, especially from the EU, can expect some rough years ahead.

26/3/15: The Second Best Little Country for Electricity Costs Rip-off?..

It's the happiness of the Semi-State: the dysfunctional Irish electricity market.

Here's the latest from the IEA (see full publication here: http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2014.pdf) and an OECD chart summing up the plight of Irish consumers - industrial and household:

Yes, Ireland - the best small country to do business in is the second worst small country to be user of electricity in (after Denmark) and the fourth worst in absolute terms for households. We are also the fifth worst in terms of industry costs of the same, and the second worst small country in terms of industrial users costs.

But, remember, we are the Saudi Arabia of wind… 

26/3/15: BOFIT Latest Forecasts for Russian Economy 2015-2017

BOFIT published their new forecasts for the Russian economy. Here is the summary with my comments:

Pre-conditions: "Russian economic growth has slowed for three years in a row, due to e.g. waning growth in the available labour force, capital and productivity. In addition, a slight decline in export prices, the Ukraine crisis, sanctions, Russia’s counter-sanctions and other negative measures, with the accompanying increase in uncertainty, slowed Russian GDP growth to just over 0.5% in 2014. ...The impact [of oil price drop in H2 2014] began to show in the early months of 2015, with a slight contraction in GDP. Without transient factors, the economy would already have contracted in 2014."

What transient factors supported growth in 2014?

  • "As in 2013, industrial production was partly supported by strong growth in defence spending."
  • "The depreciation in the real exchange rate of the rouble since the early months of 2013 has [created room for some industrial imports substitution], and may also have slightly boosted exports of certain non-energy basic commodities."
  • "The rouble’s strong depreciation led to consumer spending rushes, which kept private consumption growth at some 2%. However, wage growth slowed, as did pension growth. Inflation rocketed (to almost 17% in February) on the back of rouble depreciation and Russia’s counter-sanctions in the form of restrictions on food imports. Consequently, real household incomes contracted in annual terms for the first time since 1999. Aggregate income was underpinned by employment, which remained buoyant for the time being. Household borrowing decreased further."
  • "Steered by the government, investment by most large state enterprises was relatively high. This was, however, insufficient to prevent total investment from falling by some 2%. The net capital outflows of the corporate sector increased, due partly to repayment of foreign debt and considerable constraints in access to foreign funding as a result of domestic uncertainties and external financial sanctions."

External position forward: "Export volumes declined by 2%. Exports of crude oil and gas dwindled markedly, while exports of petroleum products continued to grow at a robust pace. As the fall in ex-port prices steepened, export income in the last months of 2014 was already well over 10% lower (in euro terms) than a year earlier. Import volumes declined by 7% in 2014 and have now been in decline for 1½ years. The decline steepened considerably towards the end of the year."

BOFIT forecasts for 2015 assume oil price at USD55 pb and above and sanctions and counter-sanctions to remain in place "unchanged for a relatively long period".

"The impact of [oil price] change will be profound, since energy exports ac-count for almost a fifth of Russia’s GDP."

Do note: energy exports include not just crude petroleum and natural gas, but also refined products and electricity (including nuclear). This puts the Russian economy into perspective not usually considered in the Western media - the economy is much more diversified than many believe and claim. Further note, energy (total energy, not just oil and gas) accounts for just over 60% of total exports income.

Outlook summary: "...Russian GDP will contract by over 4% in 2015. The high degree of uncertainty will cause a shrinkage in private investment, while private consumption will be cut particularly by rapid inflation. Even though Russian imports have already edged down, they are estimated to fall further, by one fifth, in response to the sharp depreciation of the rouble during the last months of 2014. In 2016–2017, global economic growth and world trade will pick up, and it is assumed the oil price will rise to around USD 65 a barrel. The Russian economy is expected to continue slightly downward, before a slow recovery in 2017. The drop in investment is expected to flatten out towards the end of the forecast period. With real household income remaining low, it will also take time for private consumption to recover. Export volumes will grow at a very subdued pace. Imports will recover after 2016."

All in-line with my own outlook.

Private consumption "…will decrease substantially in 2015, and slightly further in 2016" driven primarily by inflation eroding household incomes and weak prospects for growth in private sector wages in nominal terms and public sector wages expansion below the rate of inflation. Notably, "the government is also seeking to cut the number of public sector employees." BOFIT expects pensions to "barely keep pace with inflation, at best".

Household credit will remain subdued, "even though the debt-servicing burdens stemming from payback of short-term loans will ease gradually. As during the crisis of 2009, savings may be rather substantial."

Public consumption "will decline amid pressures on the central government finances."

Investment "…will dwindle substantially this year and next. Private investment, in particular, will be depressed by a number of uncertainties relating to the ongoing tensions in East Ukraine, uncertain prospects for sanctions and the unpredictability of Russian economic and trade-related measures stemming from possible additional sanctions and recession countermeasures." So no surprises, then.

Fiscal side: "…the federal budget deficit is set to grow so large in 2015 (to about 3.5% of GDP) that the government Reserve Fund may be eroded by as much as a half. It is possible that support measures will be implemented using government bonds (as in the bank support operations in December 2014, which amounted to 1.4% of GDP). The support operations can also draw on debtors’ bonds (as in the funding of the state-owned oil giant Rosneft, which was just under 1% of GDP)."

The longer-term outlook is deteriorating: "The foundations of growth are being eroded by the contraction in private investment. Government spending is focused increasingly on defence and pensions, while public investment is subject to the largest cuts."

Chart below summarises forecasts:

Sources: Rosstat, BOFIT Forecast for Russia 2015–2017

26/3/15: The New Financial Regulation – Part 1: The Financial Transactions Tax

My latest post for LearnSignal blog opens a new series - covering the major financial services regulatory headaches in the works. This week: it is Financial Transactions Tax turn: http://blog.learnsignal.com/?p=166

26/3/15: Irish Planning Permissions 2014: The Crisis Drags On

CSO published Q4 2014 figures for Planning Permissions in Ireland, confirming the trend toward de-acceleration in the already weak data.

Here are the details.

On an annual basis:

  • There were 15,724 planning permissions granted in Ireland in 2014 for all types of construction, up 13.11% y/y but still down 1.7% on 2011. Current level of planning permissions is below 2011 reading and is below any year between 1992 and 2011. Historical average from 1992 through 2014 is 33,333 which means current running rate is more than 2 times lower than the average. We are in the third worst year in the series history.
  • Dwellings permissions rose from 3,316 in 2013 to 3,606 in 2014 (+8.7%). 2014 level of activity is below any year from 1992 through 2012. Dwellings permissions granted in 2014 were 24.4% below 2011 levels and represent the second worst year in history of the series. Historical average for 1992-2014 period is for 14,882 dwellings permissions to be granted, which means that in 2014, levels of dwellings-related planning activity was more than 4 times lower than historical average.
  • Excluding dwellings, all other new construction-related permissions granted rose to 4,299 in 2014 from 3,431 in 2013 (+25.3% y/y), and up 45.0% on 2011, but still 77.8% below pre-crisis peak and 1.4 times below the historical average. 2014 was the third worst year in history for these sub-series and only marginally above the second worst year. 
Charts to illustrate:

Key point: given the absurdly low levels of activity in 2013, growth in 2014 is far from impressive. The bottlenecks created in 2010-2014, amounting to cumulative shortfall in planning permissions of 108,820 permissions relative to 1997-2001 average, and for dwellings this shortfall is 82,309 permissions. This shortfall is, put simply, catastrophic and is only increasing, given the current trends to-date.

Next: floor area relating to new permissions:

As shown in the chart above, 
  • Floor area relating to planning permissions granted for all types of construction fell in 2014 to 3,184,000 sqm from 3,338,000 sqm in 2013 (down 4.6% y/y), representing a decline of 21.9% on 2011 levels. Relative to peak, total floor area approved is now down 86.7% and 2014 level of activity is 3.3 times lower than historical average (1992-2014).
  • Planning permissions approved for dwellings had underlying floor area of 1,366,000 sqm, up 4.7% on 1,304,000 sqm approved in 2013.  2014 reading is 89.6% down on pre-crisis peak, and 4.5 times below the historical average activity.
  • Floor area approved for non-dwellings permissions fell from 1,306,000 sqm in 2013 to 1,064,000 sqm (-18.5% y/y) and is down 88.6% on pre-crisis peak. Activity in this area is running 2.9 times lower than historical average.
Key points: 2014 was the worst year on record for the construction permissions activity measured by the total floor area of approvals, with overall square meterage of new permissions approved falling to an absolute historical low. 2014 was the third worst year on record for square meterage approvals for new dwellings construction and the absolute historical low for non-dwellings activity.

Summary of on-peak changes and historical shortfalls below:

Overall, 2014 data on planning permissions suggests little real improvement in the investment pipeline relating to construction sector. This evidence does not support the National Accounts tale of revival in domestic real estate investment and investment in general. According to the National Accounts, building & construction sector activity and Gross Fixed Capital Formation have both been running in excess of 2011 levels in both 2013 and 2014. Yet, there is no corresponding performance in planning permissions terms. This strongly suggests that current construction sector activity relates predominantly to past permissions pipeline, implying downside risk to the sector in the near future; and that our real estate investment 'boom' is driven predominantly by the re-sale markets (flipping of existent capacity, rather than creating new capital stock additions).

26/3/15: De-dollarisation of Russian accounts: media catching up, but risks remain

As I highlighted a week ago here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/03/18315-russian-deposits-dollarisation.html, Russian households are starting de-dolarising their accounts in the wake of some regained confidence in the Ruble and the banking sector:

However, not all is well, still and risks remain. Here is BOFIT analysis of the forward risks relating to oil prices and the banking sector (more on the latest forecasts later on the blog): "If the oil price remains, as assumed, at around USD 55 a barrel, and despite savings decisions, the federal budget deficit is set to grow so large in 2015 (to about 3.5% of GDP) that the government Reserve Fund may be eroded by as much as a half. It is possible that support measures will be implemented using government bonds (as in the bank support operations in December 2014, which amounted to 1.4% of GDP). The support operations can also draw on debtors’ bonds (as in the funding of the state-owned oil giant Rosneft, which was just under 1% of GDP). Where necessary, banks can use both instruments as collateral against even relatively long-term central bank funding. Recourse to the central bank has already become more substantial than ever before."

And more: in the face of oil price risks, "Bank panic situations where households and enterprises withdraw their funds from banks are possible, even though the authorities have intensified banking supervision. On the other hand, the Bank of Russia is ready to take immediate support measures."

All of which means that from the macroeconomic perspective, the current reprieve in dollarisation trends can be temporary. Over the next six months, I still expect continued decline in investment, with private sector capex depressed by a number of factors that are still at play: the Ukrainian crisis, the looming threat of deeper sanctions and oil price risks. State enterprises and larger state banks are likely to continue cutting back on large debt-funded investments and more resources will continue to outflow on redemption of maturing corporate and banking debt. 

So keep that seat belt fastened: the bumpy ride ain't over, yet.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

25/3/15: IMF on Ireland: Risk Assessment and Growth Outlook 2015-2016

In the previous post covering IMF latest research on Ireland, I looked at the IMF point of view relating to the distortions to our National Accounts and growth figures induced by the tax-optimising MNCs.

Here, let's take a look at the key Article IV conclusions.

All of the IMF assessment, disappointingly, still references Q1-Q3 2014 figures, even though more current data is now available. Overall, the IMF is happy with the onset of the recovery in Ireland and is full of praise on the positives.

It's assessment of the property markets is that "property markets are bouncing back rapidly from their lows but valuations do not yet appear stretched." This is pretty much in line with the latest data: see http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/03/25315-irish-residential-property-prices.html

The fund notes that in a boom year of 2014 for Irish commercial property transactions "the volume of turnover in Irish commercial real estate in
2014 was higher than in the mid 2000s, with 37.5 percent from offshore investors." This roughly shows a share of the sales by Nama. Chart below illustrates the trend (also highlighted in my normal Irish Economy deck):

However what the cadet above fails to recognise is that even local purchases also involve, predominantly, Nama sales and are often based on REITs and other investment vehicles purchases co-funded from abroad. My estimate is that less than a third of the total volume of transactions in 2014 was down to organic domestic investment activity and, possibly, as little as 1/10th of this was likely to feed into the pipeline of value-added activities (new build, refurbishment, upgrading) in 2015. The vast majority of the purchases transactions excluding MNCs and public sector are down to "hold-and-flip" strategies consistent with vulture funds.

Decomposing the investment picture, the IMF states that "Investment is reviving but remains low by historical standards, with residential construction recovery modest to date. Investment (excluding aircraft orders and intangibles) in the year to Q3 2014 was up almost 40 percent from two years earlier, led by a rise in machinery and equipment spending."

Unfortunately, we have no idea how much of this is down to MNCs investments and how much down to domestic economy growth. Furthermore, we have no idea how much of the domestic growth is in non-agricultural sectors (remember, milk quotas abolition is triggering significant investment boom in agri-food sector, which is fine and handy).

"But the ratio of investment to GDP, at 16 percent, is still well below its 22 percent pre-boom average, primarily reflecting low construction. While house completions rose by 33 percent y/y in 2014, they remain just under one-half of estimated household formation needs. Rising house prices are making new construction more profitable, yet high costs appear to be slowing the supply response together with developers’ depleted equity and their slow transition to
using external equity financing."

All of this is not new to the readers of my blog.

The key to IMF Article IV papers, however, is not the praise for the past, but the assessment of the risks for the future. And here they are in the context of Ireland - unwelcome by the Ministers, but noted by the Fund.

While GDP growth prospects remain positive for Ireland (chart below), "growth is projected to moderate to 3½ percent in 2015 and to gradually ease to a 2½ percent pace", as "export growth is projected to revert to about 4 percent from 2015". Now, here the IMF may be too conservative - remember our 'knowledge development box' unveiled under a heavy veil of obscurity in Budget 2015? We are likely to see continued strong MNCs-led growth in 2015 on foot of that, except this time around via services side of the economy. After all, as IMF notes: "Competitiveness is strong in the services export sector, albeit driven by industries with relatively low domestic value added." Read: the Silicon Dock.

Here are the projections by the IMF across various parts of the National Accounts:

So now onto the risks: "Risks to Ireland’s growth prospects are broadly balanced within a wide range, with key sources being:

  • "Financial market volatility could be triggered by a range of factors, yet Ireland’s vulnerability appears to be contained. Financial conditions are currently exceptionally favorable for both the sovereign and banks. A reassessment of sovereign risk in Europe or geopolitical developments could result in renewed volatility and spread widening. But market developments currently suggest contagion to Ireland would be contained by [ECB policies interventions]. Yet continued easy international financial conditions could lead to vulnerabilities in the medium term. For example, if the international search for yield drove up Irish commercial property prices, risks of an eventual slump in prices and construction would increase, weakening economic activity and potentially impacting domestic banks." In other words, unwinding the excesses of QE policies, globally, is likely to contain risks for the open economy, like Ireland.
  • "Euro area stagnation would impede exports. Export projections are below the average growth in the past five years of 4¾ percent, implying some upside especially given recent euro depreciation. Yet Ireland is vulnerable to stagnation of the euro area, which accounts for 40 percent of exports. Over time, international action on corporate taxation could reduce Ireland’s attractiveness for some export-oriented FDI, but the authorities see limited risks in practice given other competitive advantages and as the corporate tax rate is not affected."
  • "Domestic demand could sustain its recent momentum, yet concerns remain around possible weak lending in the medium term. Consumption growth may exceed the pace projected in coming years given improving property and labor market conditions. However, domestic demand recovery could in time be hindered by a weak lending revival if Basel III capital requirements became binding owing to insufficient bank profits, or if slow NPL resolution were to limit the redeployment of capital to profitable new loans." Do note that in the table listing IMF forecasts above, credit to the private sector is unlikely to return to growth until 2016 and even then, credit growth contribution will remain sluggish into 2017.

And the full risk assessment matrix:

Oh, and then there is debt. Glorious debt.

I blogged on IMF's view of the household debt earlier here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/03/25315-imf-on-irish-household-debt-crisis.html and next will blog on Government debt risks, so stay tuned.

25/3/15: IMF on Irish household debt crisis

IMF on Irish household debt crisis (from today's Article IV paper):

"Household balance sheets are healing gradually, yet loan distress remains high and over half of arrears cases are prolonged. Households have cut nominal debts by 20 percent from peak through repayments primarily funded by a 4 percentage point rise in their trend savings rate. Debt ratio falls have been large by international standards but debt levels remain relatively high at 177 percent of disposable income. Household net worth has risen 25 percent
from its trough."

One note of caution: IMF statement ignores sales of household debt out of the Central Bank-covered statistics to vulture funds. Furthermore, repossessions, insolvencies, bankruptcies, voluntary surrenders and some mortgages restructurings have also contributed to the reduction in household debt. Thus, not all of the debt reduction is down to organic debt repayment by households.

It is also worth noting that per chart above, Irish household debt is currently at the levels of 2005-2006 - hardly a robust reduction on crisis-peak.

More from the IMF: "A recent survey finds household debts concentrated among families with mortgages, having 2 to 3 children, with the reference person aged 35 to 44, and in the two top income quintiles. Yet, their debt servicing burden is still similar to other groups, reflecting the high share of long-term “tracker” mortgages, with an average interest rate of 1.05 percent at end 2014."

The problem is that the recent survey IMF cites covers data through 2013 only! (http://www.cso.ie/en/media/csoie/releasespublications/documents/socialconditions/2013/hfcs2013.pdf).

Overall issues, therefore, are:

  1. Irish household debts remain extreme relative to disposable income;
  2. Distribution of household debts is adversely impacting the most productive segment of Irish population and the segment of population in critical years for pensions savings; and
  3. Deleveraging of the households is by no means completed and remains exposed to the risk of rising interest rates in the future.

All points I raised before and all points largely ignored by Irish policymakers.

25/3/15: As Bogus Is, Bogus Does... IMF on Irish MNCs-led Growth

The IMF has published its Article IV consultation paper for Ireland and I will be blogging more on this later today. For now the top-level issue that I have been covering for some time now and that has been at the crux of the problems with irish economic 'growth' data: the role of MNCs.

My most recent post on this matter is here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/03/24315-theres-no-number-left-untouched.html

IMF's Selected Issues paper published today alongside Article IV paper covers some of this in detail.

In dealing with the issues of technical challenges in estimating potential output in Ireland, the IMF states that "Irish GDP data volatility and revisions make it difficult to assess the cyclical position of the economy in the short-run. Ireland’s quarterly GDP growth data are among the most volatile of all European Union countries, more than twice the variability typically seen."

The IMF provides a handy chart:

And due to long lags in reporting final figures, as well as volatility, our GDP figures, even those reported, not just projected, are rather uncertain in their nature:

However, as IMF notes: other structural issues with the economy, besides poor reporting timing and quality and inherent volatility, further 'complicate' analysis:

"Multinational enterprises (MNE) accounting for one-quarter of Irish GDP can vary their output substantially with little change in domestic resource utilization. As shown in a recent study, MNEs represent only 2.1 percent of the number in enterprises in Ireland but slightly over half of the value added in the business economy. MNE output swings, sometimes related to sectoral idiosyncratic shocks (e.g., the “patent" cliff” in 2013...), can occur with little apparent change in
domestic resource utilization."

In other words, there is little tangible connection between output of many MNEs and the real economy. And the latest iteration of tax optimisation schemes deployed by the MNCs is not helping the matters: "The sharp increase in offshore contract manufacturing observed in 2014 is another example of such a shock. Such shocks to the productivity of the MNE sector may be best treated as shifts in potential GDP, because the result is a change in GDP without any significant change in resource tensions or slack in the

But MNCs are important for Ireland's tax base, right? Because apparently they are not that important for determining real rates of growth. Alas, the IMF has the following to say on that: "Swings in the value added of MNEs contribute substantially to variations in Irish GDP. Yet such swings are not found to have a significant effect on [government] revenues."

How big of an effect do MNCs have on the real economic growth as opposed to registered growth? IMF obliges: "The gross value added excluding the sectors dominated by MNEs behaves quite differently from aggregate GDP in some years. For example, in 2013 it grows by 3 percent at a time when official GDP data
were flat." In other words, the real, non-MNCs-led economy shrunk by roughly the amount of growth in the MNCs to result in near-zero growth across the official GDP.

However, since 2013 (over the course of 2014) a new optimisation scheme emerged as the dominant driver of manufacturing MNCs-led growth: contract manufacturing. IMF Article IV itself contains a handy box-out on that scheme, so important it is in distorting our GDP and GNP figures. Per IMF: "In 2014, multinational enterprises (MNEs) operating in Ireland made greater use of offshore
manufacturing under contract."

A handy CSO graphic illustrates what the hell IMF is talking about:

As covered in the link to my earlier blog post above, "Goods produced through contracted manufacturing agreements are treated differently in the national accounts than in customs measures of trade. As these goods do not cross the Irish border, they are not included in customs data on exports. If, however, the goods remain under the ownership of the Irish company, they are recorded as exports in the national accounts. Payments for manufacturing services and patent and royalty payments are service imports in the national accounts, offsetting in part the positive GDP impact of contracted manufacturing."

And to confirm my conclusions, here is IMF on the impact of contract manufacturing (just ONE scheme of many MNCs employ in Ireland) on Irish growth figures: "Contracted manufacturing appears to have had a significant impact on GDP growth in 2014 although it is difficult to make a precise estimate. Customs data on goods exports rose by 2.8 percent y/y in volume terms in the first nine months of 2014. In contrast, national accounts data on exports rose 12 percent in the same period. The gap between these two export measures can be attributed in part to contracted production, but could also reflect other factors like warehousing (goods produced in Ireland but stored and sold overseas) and valuation effects." Note: I cover this in more detail in my post.

"Assuming conservatively that contract manufacturing accounted for about half of the difference between customs and national accounts data, the implied gross contribution to GDP growth in the first three quarters of 2014 from contract manufacturing is 2 percentage points. However, there is a need to take into account the likelihood that service imports were higher than otherwise, but it is not possible to identify the volume of additional service imports linked to contract manufacturing."

One scheme by MNCs accounts for more than 2/5ths of the entire Irish 'miracle of growth'. Just one scheme!

And now… to the punchline:

Update: Seamus Coffey commented on the 2013 figure for domestic (real) economy cited above with an interesting point of view, also relating to the broader issue of the Contract Manufacturing: http://twishort.com/DTShc and his blogpost on the subject is here: http://economic-incentives.blogspot.ie/2015/03/the-growth-effect-of-contract.html

25/3/15: Irish Residential Property Prices Fell Marginally in February

The residential property price index from CSO covering Irish property markets has posted second monthly contraction in February, falling from 80.3 in January to 80.0 last month. With that, y/y on growth rate in Irish residential property prices has slowed from 15.54% in January to 14.94% in February, the first sub-15% reading since September 2014. In effect, property prices in Ireland have now fallen back to the levels between September and October 2014. Cumulated gains in property prices over the last 24 months are now totalling 24.22% or an annualised gain of 11.46%, outpacing growth in the economy by roughly 5-fold.

Based on Nama valuations formula, residential property prices are now somewhere 18.5% below Nama business model expectations.

Prices of all residential properties excluding Dublin  remained static in February at 74.8, same as in January and up 8.25% y/y, marking a slowdown in the y/y growth from 9.20% recorded in January.

The decline in national prices was driven by Dublin prices, which fell for the second month in a row from 82.2 in January to 81.6 in February. This is the lowest index reading since September 2014 and marks a slowdown in y/y growth rates to 21.43% - the slowest rate of growth since April 2014. Still, cumulated expansion in Dublin residential property prices over the last 24 months is blistering 37.6% (annualised rate of 17.3%).

Within Dublin segment:

  • Houses were the driver to the downside in overall property prices, with houses price index for Dublin standing at 86.0 in February 2015, down from 86.9 in January 2015 and back to the levels of September 2014. Y/y rate of growth in Dublin house prices fell from 21.7% in January to 21.1% in February, although over the last 24 months hose prices in Dublin are still up cumulatively 37.6% (+17.3% annualised). 
  • Apartments prices in Dublin rose in index terms to 72.2 in February from 70.8 in January, erasing the declines that took place during Q3-Q4 2014. Cumulated gains in Dublin apartments prices over the last 24 months stand at 37.5% (+17.3% annualised) and y/y prices are up 24.5% - the fastest growth rate in 3 months.
Few charts to illustrate the above trends:

 Lastly, summary of price changes on pre-crisis peak and y/y:

Despite all the talk about the new bubble in house prices in Ireland, three themes remain true:
  1. Property prices are still far below fundamentals-justified levels. In Dublin, undershooting of long-run (inflation-linked) prices is around 26-27%.
  2. Property price increases are worryingly high, especially in the Dublin segment, warranting some ongoing concern; and
  3. Moderation in property prices and downward correction over the last two months, driven by Dublin (but likely to translate into similar outside Dublin with a lag), predicted on this blog before, is a welcome change. However, I suspect we will see renewed increases in property prices later this year, albeit at rates more sustainable in the longer run.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

24/3/15: There's no number left untouched: Irish GDP, GNP and economy

According to Bloomberg, US companies are stashing some USD2.1 trillion of overseas cash reserves away from the IRS: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-04/u-s-companies-are-stashing-2-1-trillion-overseas-to-avoid-taxes?hootPostID=ffda3e167ae0ebabc3da4188e9bd22de

Ireland is named once in the report in a rather obscure case. Despite the fact we have been named on numerous other occasions in much larger cases. But beyond this, let's give a quick wonder.

1) Last year, exports of goods in Ireland leaped EUR89,074 million based on trade accounts with Q1-Q3 accounts showing exports of EUR66,148 million compared to the same period of 2013 at EUR65,381 million - a rise of 1.01% or EUR767 million. Full year rise was EUR2,075 million. So far so good. Now, national accounts also report exports of goods. These show: exports of goods in Q1-Q3 2013 at EUR69,731 million and exports of goods in Q1-Q3 2014 at EUR78,835 million, making y/y increase of EUR9,104 million. Full year 2014 - EUR108.989 billion a rise of EUR15.98 billion y/y. The discrepancy, for only 3 quarters, is EUR8,337 million or a massive 6.1% of GDP over the same period. For the full year it is EUR19.92 billion or 11% of annual GDP. Much of this difference of EUR19.92 billion was down to 'contract manufacturing' - yet another novel way for the MNCs to stash cash for the bash… IMF estimated the share of contract manufacturing to be at around 2/3rds of the annual rise in Q1-Q3 figures. Which suggests that around EUR7.4 billion (once we take account of imports of goods) of Irish GDP rise in 2014 was down to... err... just one tax optimisation scheme. That is EUR7.4 billion of increase out of EUR8.275 billion total economic expansion in the MiracleGrow state of ours.

2) Last month, Services activity index for Ireland posted a massive spike: overall services activity rose 12.59% y/y, the dynamic similar to what happened in Q2-Q3 last year with goods exports (Q1 2014 y/y +8.2%, Q2 2014 y/y +12.9% and Q3 2014 y/y +17.9%). Even more telling is the composition of Services growth by sectors: wholesales & retail trade sector up 8.83% (a third lower than the overall growth rate), transportation and storage - ditto at 8.4%, admin & supportive services +2.91%. Accommodation and food services posted rapid rise of 14.03% and professional, scientific & technical activities rose 13.97%. Meanwhile, tax optimisation-driven information & communication services activity was up 21.15%. What could have happened to generate such an expansion? Anybody's guess. Mine is 3 words: "knowledge development box" - a non-transparent black-box solution for tax optimisation announced as a replacement for the notorious "double-Irish" scheme. So let's suppose that half of the services sectors growth is down to MNCs and will have an effect on our 'exports'. In Q3 2014 these expanded by 13.4% y/y and in Q2 by 10.8% - adding EUR5,560 million to exports. January data on services activity suggests, under the above assumption, roughly the same trend continuing so far, which by year end can lead to a further MNCs-induced distortion of some EUR11 billion to our accounts on foot of Services sectors exports.

Take (1) and (2) together, you have roughly EUR21-22 billion of annual activity in the export areas of services and goods sectors that is likely (in 2015) to be down to MNCs washing profits through Ireland through just two schemes.

Then there are our factor payments abroad - what MNCs ship out of Ireland, in basic terms. As our total exports of goods and services been rising, the MNCs are taking less and less profit out of Ireland. Chart below sums these up. While profitability of MNCs is rising - a worldwide trend - Ireland-based MNCs remittances of profits are falling as percentage of exports. 2008-2012 average for the ratio of net remittances to exports is 18%, which suggests that even absent any uplift in profit margins, some EUR27.5 billion worth of profits should have been repatriated in Q1-Q3 2014 instead of EUR22.16 billion that was repatriated - a difference of EUR5.36 billion over 3 quarters or annualised rate of over EUR7.1 billion. Factoring in seasonality, the annualised rate jumps to closer to EUR8 billion.

On an annualised basis, for full year 2014, exports of goods and services from Ireland rose y EUR23.28 billion year-on-year, while net exports rose EUR3.784 billion. Meanwhile, profits repatriations (net) rose only EUR719 million. Aptly, for each euro of exports in 2013, Ireland's national accounts registered 74.2 cents in net factor payments abroad. In 2014 this figure hit historical low of 69.1 cent.

My guess is, MNCs have washed via Ireland close to EUR30 billion worth of profits or equivalent of 17.1% of 2013 full year GDP and close to 16.5% of 2014 GDP. Guess what was the GDP-GNP gap in 2013? 18.5 percent. And in 2014? 15.4%. Pretty darn close to my estimates.

Let's check this figure against aggregate differences in 2008-2014 GDP and GNP. The cumulated gap between the two measures, in nominal terms, stands at EUR201.3 billion, closer to EUR204 billion once we factor in seasonality in Q4 numbers to the estimate based on Q1-Q3 data. The above estimate of EUR29.97 billion in 'retained' profits implies, over 7 years a cumulated figure of EUR209.8 billion, or a variance of EUR827-1,200 million. Not much of a margin of error. I'll leave it to paid boffins of irish economics to complete estimates beyond Q3 2014, but you get the picture.

And now back to points (1) and (2) above: how much of the Irish growth in manufacturing and services - growth captured by one of the two exports accounts and by the likes of PMI metrics and sectoral activities indices is real and how much of it is an accounting trick? And what about other schemes run by the MNCs? And, finally and crucially, do note that contract manufacturing and knowledge development box types of tax optimisation schemes contribute to both GDP and GNP growth, thus completing the demolition job on Irish National Accounts. There is not a number left in this economy that is worth reading.

Update: we also have this handy graphic from the BusinessInsider (http://uk.businessinsider.com/us-corporate-cash-stashed-overseas-2015-3?r=US) charting the evolution of U.S. MNCs stash of cash offshore:

Ah, those U.S. MNCs err... FDI... mattresses...

Monday, March 23, 2015

23/3/15: Deflation... Dumbflation... It's Real Purchasing Power That Matters

I have written in the recent past about the bogus debate surrounding the 'threat of deflation' in the euro area. You can see my view on this here in the context of Ireland: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/02/27215-deflation-and-retail-sales.html and here in the broader context: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/02/18215-inflation-expectations-and.html.

And now Bloomberg weighs in with the similar: http://www.bloomberg.com/professional/kc-post/ecbs-failure-reach-inflation-target-blessing/

To quote: "The strengthening recovery [in the euro area] should add some inflationary pressure — although readings are likely to remain in negative territory for some months, with lower energy prices still feeding through the production pipeline. This month, the ECB revised down its 2015 inflation forecast to zero. Assuming nominal earnings grow at the same pace seen over the last few quarters, the upward trend in real pay should persist in 2015.

Households are likely to react — even if with some lag — to the purchasing-power bonus. Household consumption, which makes up about 55 percent of GDP, has been somewhat muted lately, only contributing to growth by an average 0.1 percentage point over the last seven quarters. That’s less than half what it used to bring in during the pre-crisis years. The re-emergence of this large growth driver should help to strengthen the 2015 recovery. Negative inflation is a welcome shortcut, meaning the region doesn’t have to wait for a decline in unemployment to see a revival in domestic consumption."


23/3/15: German Exports-led Recovery and Two BRICs

Because exports-led recovery is the only thing, besides hopium, that sustains the euro area (although there are some rumblings on the horizon of awakening consumers and even corporate investment), here are two charts worth considering:

First up, German exports to China:
Source: @FGoria

Self-explanatory. Next: German exports to Russia:

 Source: @FGoria


Why we need QE? Because even though it is too late to drink water once kidneys have failed, it is patently no more feasible to drink schnapps.

23/3/15: EM Currencies on the rise

Today's week-on-week changes in emerging markets currencies vis-a-vis the USD:

Source: @komileva

And for the Ruble, this with zero CBR interventions.

23/3/15: Credit, Domestic Demand and Investment: Euro Area in Three Charts

Three interesting charts outlining the big themes in Euro area economy:

First the 'limping leg' of the euro recovery: credit. Chart below shows decomposition and dynamics in corporate credit, with Q1 2015 reading so far pointing to a very robust demand for credit, and (even more importantly) credit driven by fixed investment. This should provide some support for Domestic Demand, albeit at the expense of re-leveraging the economy via bank channel (as opposed to leverage-neutral equity or non-bank credit, such as direct debt issuance):

Source: @FGoria

The importance of investment uplift is hard to underestimate in the case of the euro area, as the next chart clearly illustrates:

 Source: @FGoria

And this translates into depressed Domestic Demand (C+G+I bit of the national accounts):

Source: @FGoria

The gap between U.S. and the euro area is understandable. But the gap between Japan and the euro area is truly shocking, once one considers the state of the Japanese economy and the sheer magnitude of monetary stimulus that Japan had to deploy to push its Domestic Demand up from 2011.

In simple terms, the above charts show some revival in the euro area fortunes. In more complex terms, one has to wonder what this revival hinges on. In my opinion, we are seeing a bounce in credit creation that is not sustainable given the state of the global economy (with global trade flows remaining weak) and the conditions of households across the euro area (with domestic consumption and household investment still weak). 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

22/3/15: Ukraine: disastrous growth figures

Ten quarters of shrinking GDP, out of 11 last. Ukraine:

Source: FT

When's the next 'rethink' by the IMF of the debt projections?..

21/3/15: Two Pesky Facts and Russian 'Liberal Democracy' Dream

Here's a problem, folks. Let's take two facts:

  1. Vladimir Putin's approval ratings are currently in the upper 80s: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-03-16/a-year-after-crimea-putin-stands-strong  
  2. Russia ranks as the third country in the world in terms of access to internet: http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/03/19/1-communications-technology-in-emerging-and-developing-nations/

Which gets you thinking.

If Russian public opinion is down to Kremlin propaganda and media control, then how come Russians, enjoying wide access to internet, are not rushing to their web browsers for the alternatives presented  in the Western free press (including in Russian), the independent Russian press (which does exist) and in the new media (which is very rich, diverse and widely available in Russian)?

In the USSR days, when there was no internet and there was no access to foreign publications, media etc and when the Soviet authorities actively suppressed access to foreign broadcasts, while closed borders were enforced for the few who dared to smuggle in foreign press, many Russians tuned to these voices. I grew up regularly listening to the BBC Russian Service and Voice of America and Radio Liberty. Many of my friends and their families did as well. Apparently, today, the survivors of the same channels - available freely - have very little impact on Russian public opinion. Why?

Russian culture is culture of extreme scepticism over authority. Scepticism that borders on cynicism. And Russian culture is a culture of kitchen politics (in modern world perfectly facilitated by social networks and alternative media). Russians have access to these sources at a rate of access that is extremely high and open. And yet their views remain non-liberal in the Western context of this term.

Is today's state of traditional media control reinforcing what is already a prevalent Russian public view: the set of beliefs that are largely consistent with those espoused by the Kremlin? Is it possible that Kremlin is not necessarily actively altering the public opinion, but rather tailoring its own positions to that opinion, while reinforcing existent biases? Can it be that such tailoring of policies is more democratic than the liberal alternative that has no popular support in Russia?

In this, who wags what? The proverbial dog of Moscow, the proverbial tail of the nation or the bone of free media access dangled on the web?

The uncomfortable nature of this problem is that in the West, we are told to believe in the potency of the Russian liberal opposition (which has access to internet and uses it extensively to promote ideas, sketches of policies and even more actively - acts of protest and own image) and that this liberal opposition is democratically anchored. We are told that, were the opposition leaders given a chance, they would win democratic mandate from the people to change and reform Russia. We are told that once Putin is gone, Russia will embrace change led by the liberal opposition. And yet, where is the evidence to support any of this?

I sympathise with the principles and values espoused by some of the opposition leaders (not all, since there is a huge range of views these leaders hold). But, any serious observer of Russian politics and economics will quickly discover that the liberal opposition is incapable of providing a properly designed reforms agenda. I cannot find credibly structured and costed alternative budgets, legislative proposals, regulatory white papers etc - all that we, in the West, tend to associate with functional opposition. The opposition cannot even provide its potential base with a coherent core message, beyond the incessant talk about the need for more democracy, the need for drastic (but unspecified) anti-corruption reforms, and the need for more liberalisation of everything.

While the Russian Government can also be very sketchy on policies impact assessments ex-ante their adoption, at least it provides some data that can be used to measure their effectiveness in the medium term. Russian liberal opposition? Not much, if any.

Western democratic opposition parties publish own policies, own alternative budgets, factually comment on Government policies and produce alternative ideas that are tested in the public domain. Russian liberal opposition is predominantly pre-occupied with promoting itself to its own support base. When personality clashes abate for short periods of time, what is left in the public view is the talk about big ticket changes (opening up to foreign investors, achieving peace and partnership with the West, combatting corruption etc - all good ideas), but no tangible, specific, cost-benefit weighted proposals. The opposition can freely use internet to promote such analysis and proposals. It does not. Instead, it uses the web for sloganeering. An average Russian interested in, say, the expected impact of liberalisation of the domestic monopolies (or near-monopolies) on, say, unemployment is left with vacuum of data, estimates and insight. One cannot expect any, even remotely rational person, to vote for the opposition leaders promoting such a policy, unless that person is fully insulated from any potential fallout from it. Hence, the core support base for the liberals in Russia is... yes, the urban upper middle class

In other words, we, in the West, are being told to trust the dream that has very little basis in reality and feasibility, and despite alleged claims of democratic nature has very little support within the electorate. It all reminds us of the policy that promoted regime change in Iraq as the means for creating a functional democracy there, to be led by the liberal Iraqi opposition. It didn't happen thus, not because we didn't try, but because we couldn't find liberal opposition capable of governing. We based our expectations of Baghdad on a naive dream and we missed the real Baghdad by a mile. Ditto for Cairo, ditto for Tripoli, ditto for Kabul... keep counting.

Yes, Russia is not Iraq - neither philosophically, nor ethically, nor socially, nor economically, nor politically, nor historically, nor culturally, nor geopolitically. In all of these terms it is more complex, statehood and institutionally more developed and stronger. Which means the pretty dreams of the post-regime change nirvana are even more out of touch in the case of Russia than they were in Iraq.

In the Soviet days, people of Russia could have been excused for not actively pursuing the alternative because they didn't know better - they had no access to alternative media, internet and to Western 'voices'. Yet, they desired such access and sought it whenever it was available. Today, Russians support the values represented by Putin, even though they are not actively denied access to alternatives. It is uncomfortable for the Western ideologues of regime change, but it is thus.

Here are some of the opinion polls on public approval ratings for various Russian parties and politicians:

Political parties first:

Yes, the hope of liberal opposition is clearly alive... in the minds of the West, but not in the minds of the Russian voters. About the only two - very remote - democratic choice alternatives per Russian voters are: Communists and LDPR (nationalists). The entire liberal alternative is about powerful enough (if they concentrated all their votes on Moscow alone) to win a couple of seats in the city government.

Politicians next:

And once again, there is no sight of liberal alternatives anywhere in the positive trust territory. And, incidentally, none were present even before the Crimea and during the 'softer' power periods of the Kremlin rule. The entire political spectrum besides Vladimir Putin, even if it were to include Putin's closest allies, does not reach 34% of the voters in terms of trust.

Which brings us back to the first two facts: Russian voters have access to alternatives (even if imperfect, but certainly much wider than their access to the same during the Soviet era); no they do not support any of these alternatives. Firstly, as Hertzen once said: "Who is to blame?" and lastly. as Lenin put it: "What is to be done?"

Just some food for thought...

Update: Here is a 2012 article from WaPo on the weak performance by Russian liberal opposition in the Presidential polls: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russian-opposition-weak-at-polls/2012/10/14/60f7f9a8-1638-11e2-9855-71f2b202721b_story.html