Monday, May 30, 2016

30/5/16: Aid:Tech Through to the Irish Times Innovation Awards Finals

Some really great news for a start up I have been working with for some time now, Aid:Tech has been selected as one of three finalists in the Fintech category of the Irish Times Innovation Awards:

Per Irish Times citation: "Aid:tech is an Irish start-up tech firm using the Blockchain system to help aid agencies and NGOs control and manage the distribution of international aid. Its system already delivered aid to 500 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The firm’s system significantly overcomes the risk of fraud, a major problem with the distribution of aid funds."

In simple terms, Aid:Tech is the largest blockchain (private blockchain, as opposed to Bitcoin or other e-coins) application for provision of services in international development and aid areas in the world. Aid:Tech platform is now fully developed and ready for engaging with our partners in the global NGO sector. It has been field-tested in a series of trials, including a pilot in Lebanon, mentioned by the Irish Times.

We will be announcing some major forthcoming business and platform news over the next few weeks, so keep an eye out for Aid:Tech.

Last, but not least, all credit for these (and forthcoming) wins is due to our fantastic team!

30/5/16: On-shoring Russian start ups into Ireland

My comment for the Irish Independent on some aspects of the reported increases in Russian tech start ups presence in Ireland:

Must add that the EI are doing excellent job in Russian marketplace in sourcing some really exciting business development opportunities and providing huge support for Irish companies exporting into the market.

Also, note: Ireland Russia Business Association has merged with i-Cham at the beginning of 2016.

30/5/16: ECB's TLTROs, via Expresso

Portugal's Expresso on ECB's TLTROs programme, with quotes from myself (amongst others):

Friday, May 27, 2016

27/5/16: Ifo on the Effects of German Minimum Wage on Internships

Germany's Ifo institute issued the following press release concerning the effects of the recently introduced minimum wage law on internships (emphasis is mine):

"Munich, 27 May 2016 - The new minimum wage law in Germany has eliminated numerous internship positions. This is the result of the latest Ifo Personnel Manager Survey, conducted for Randstad Deutschland, which was published on Friday.

The number of companies offering internships has roughly halved. Before the introduction of the minimum wage, 70% of the companies said they offered voluntary internships, a number which has now fallen to 34%. This is also the case for compulsory internships, where the percentage of companies likewise fell from 62% to 34%.

The decline in internships is evident in companies of all sizes. For companies with more than 500 employees, the proportion of firms with voluntary internships decreased from 88% to 52% and for compulsory internships from 91% to 68%. In companies with fewer than 50 employees, the shares fell from 59% to 26% (voluntary) and from 49% to 21% (compulsory internships).

More than a few human resource managers indicated that because of personnel budget constraints the number of internships offered has been, in part, significantly reduced. Other companies now only offer compulsory internships or have reduced the duration of voluntary internships to three months. Some companies expressed complaints about the additional documentation requirements as well as uncertainty over the distinction between voluntary and mandatory internships.

Excluded from the minimum wage since 1 January 2015 are only internships that are compulsory as part of study or training regulations as well as voluntary internships of up to three months before or during vocational training or higher education. Additional exemptions from the minimum wage are the long-term unemployed for the first six months on the job."

Note: German labour markets are currently relatively tight when it comes to supply of skills, so reductions in internships, if confirmed by other sources, would be even more significant in such a setting.

26/5/16: After the Crisis: Why the Slowdown in Productivity Growth?

My article for Cayman Financial Review 2Q 2016 is out, covering the structural nature of labour productivity growth decline in post-crisis economy: see here pages 66-67 or click on images below to enlarge:

26/5/16: European Reforms: Mostly "No Show" grades

An interesting heat map from Moody's covering the deteriorating pace of reforms in the euro area:

Source: @Schuldensuehner 

The key point is that under the monetary easing created by the ECB, Euro area sovereigns are all slacking off on reforms, especially more politically difficult reforms, such as product markets reforms (9 out of 11 states are in red, none in green), pensions & healthcare reforms and fiscal reforms (5 out of 11 are in read). The best performing countries are, bizarrely, Spain and Italy. Farcically, Ireland apparently does not require reforms to improve efficiency of public administration. Presumably, Moody's analysts never heard of tsunami of public waste unleashed by the likes of HSE and Irish Water.

Take it for what it is - a sketchy top-level view of the reforms landscape and give it a wonder: are ECB policies helping long term sustainability of European institutions or harming it?.. In 23 out of 60 point observations, the reforms have delivered so far 'no or limited progress' and only in 6 out of 60 point observations, the reforms have delivered 'substantial progress'. Go figure...

Thursday, May 26, 2016

26/5/16: Some recent media links to TrueEconomics

Couple of recent links and citations for Trueeconomics blog:

Delighted and really honoured that my comment on the blog has been cited by one of the best opinion writers for Bloomberg View, Leonid Bershidsky, here: are carrying a link to the post from the blog on new behavioural research:

Finland's blog is also linking to my piece on Greece:

Capital Greece citing same:

Meanwhile, my brief chat with Max Keiser on Keizer Report, covering (mostly) Ireland, and some broader european issues, such as ongoing debt crisis:

My article on commodities prices (mostly oil and gas) for Sunday Business Post last week:

My last week appearance on Bloomberg radio covering eurozone growth:

25/5/16: Does the Global Trade Slowdown Matter?

The transition from the Global Financial Crisis, to the Great Recession and to currently fragile recovery has been marked not only by weaker structural growth across the economies and by massive outflows of funds from the emerging markets, but by a dramatic decline in world trade growth. Another stylised fact is that since the onset of the recovery, growth in global trade volumes has been also lagging behind growth in GDP terms.

This has been a puzzling phenomena, inconsistent with the previous recessions. Factually, global trade grew at or below 3 percent in 2012-15, which is below the pre-crisis average of 7 percent (over 1987-2007) and less than the growth of global GDP.

One recent paper (see full citation below) by Neagu, Mattoo and Ruta (2016) attempted to explain this transition to the new global growth environment of relatively subdued global trade growth. Here is a quick summary of their paper.

As chart above shows, there has been a major slowdown in growth in world trade volumes. Per Neagu, Mattoo and Ruta (2016), “proximate explanations of the trade slowdown link it to changes in GDP and, hence, to the fallout of the Global Financial Crisis. While weak global demand matters for trade growth as it depresses world import demand, cyclical factors are not the only determinants of the trade slowdown.”

In simple terms, trade is growing slower than GDP not only because GDP growth is slow itself, but “also because the long-run relationship between trade and GDP is changing. The elasticity of world trade to GDP was larger than 2 in the 1990s and declined throughout the 2000s.” So in simple terms, a 1% change in world GDP used to be associated with 2% change in world trade volumes. It no longer is.

“Among the leading causes of this structural change in the trade-income relationship is a shift in vertical specialization. The long-run trade elasticity increased during the 1990s, as production fragmented internationally into global value chains (GVCs), and decreased in the 2000s as this process decelerated.” In other words, logistic revolution of the 1990s is now over and the low-hanging fruit of improving cost margins on production outsourcing and enhancing delivery efficiencies has been picked, leaving little new momentum to drive growth in trade flows over each unit of increase in global income.

Per Neagu, Mattoo and Ruta (2016), “Economists disagree regarding the implications of the trade slowdown for economic growth (and welfare). Some believe that the slowing down of global trade has no real consequences for economic growth. For instance, commenting on the global trade slowdown, Paul Krugman noted that “The flattening out is neither good nor bad, it’s just what happens when a particular trend reaches its limits”. Others take the opposite view. For instance, in a speech as governor of the Central Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan concluded that “We are more dependent on the global economy than we think. That it is growing more slowly, and is more inward looking, than in the past means that we have to look to regional and domestic demand for our growth.”

According to the authors, “both views have elements of truth but neither may be completely right. On the one hand, the impact of the trade slowdown should not be overstated. Most economies are more open today than they were in the 1990s. In so far as openness per se is associated with dynamic benefits, trade will continue to foster growth. On the other hand, there is a risk of understating the implications of the trade slowdown. If the expansion of trade growth in the 1990s contributed to countries’ economic growth, one may suspect that the flattening of this trend will imply that the contribution of trade to the growth process will be lower.”

So, in summary, then: “Trade is growing more slowly not only because growth of global gross domestic product is lower, but also because trade itself has become less responsive to gross domestic product.”

Neagu, Mattoo and Ruta (2016) go on “to try to investigate the economic consequences of the recent trade slowdown.” The authors focus “…on two channels through which the changing trade-income relationship documented in the literature may affect countries’ economic performance.” These are:

  1. “The demand-side Keynesian concern is that sluggish world import growth may adversely affect individual countries’ economic growth as it limits opportunities for their exports.”
  2. “The supply side (Adam) Smithian concern is that slower trade may diminish the scope for productivity growth through increasing specialization and diffusion of technologies. In particular, a slower pace of GVC expansion may imply diminishing scope for productivity growth through a more efficient international division of labor and knowledge spillovers.”

So what do they find?

Firstly, “preliminary evidence is mixed”:

  • “On the demand side, we find that the elasticity of exports to global demand has decreased for both high-income and developing economies in the 2000s relative to the 1990s.”
  • “We also find that the sensitivity of domestic growth to export growth is higher, and has increased more over time, for developing economies compared to high-income economies.”
  • Both of “these results, however, hold only when we measure exports in traditional gross terms.”
  • “When we use value added exports, which are more relevant for the demand-side mechanism, the change in estimated elasticities is smaller and not statistically significant (although a qualification is that value added trade data are available for a shorter period and fewer countries).”

Secondly, the authors “…try to assess the Smithian concern by focusing on the growth implication of a slowing pace of GVC growth”:

  • “…estimates indicate that increasing backward specialization has a positive impact on labor productivity growth…” 
  • Quantifying “the growth in labor productivity due to the growth in backward vertical specialization”, the authors find that “while this share is not large, as productivity growth is explained by many factors beyond vertical specialization, its contribution has decreased by half in recent years, suggesting that the trade slowdown is a contributing factor of the decrease in productivity growth.”

In the above, note the change from blue lines (positive link between the degree of vertical specialization and productivity growth) to red lines (negative link).

In short, things are pretty bad: both factors - demand slowdown and trade slowdown - are cross-related and linked. Both are reinforcing each other, yielding growth slowdown across both supply side and demand side margins. And the side effect is: the two effects being correlated also at least in part captures productivity slowdown - aka, secular stagnation dimension.

Neagu, Cristina and Mattoo, Aaditya and Ruta, Michele, "Does the Global Trade Slowdown Matter?" (May 13, 2016). World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 7673. Available at SSRN:

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

25/5/16: IMF's Epic Flip Flopping on Greece

IMF published the full Transcript of a Conference Call on Greece from Wednesday, May 25, 2016 (see: And it is simply bizarre.

Let me quote here from the transcript (quotes in black italics) against quotes from the Eurogroup statement last night (available here: Eurogroup statement link) marked with blue text in italics. Emphasis in bold is mine

On debt, I certainly think that we have made progress, Europe is making progress. Debt relief is firmly on the agenda now. Our European partners and all the other stakeholders all now recognize that Greece debt is unsustainable, is highly unsustainable, they accept that debt relief is needed.

Do they? Let’s take a look at the Eurogroup official statement:

Is debt relief firmly on the agenda and does Eurogroup 'accept that debt relief is needed'? "The Eurogroup agrees to assess debt sustainability" Note: the Eurogroup did not agree to deliver debt relief, but simply to assess it. Which might put debt relief on the agenda, but it is hardly a meaningful commitment, as similar promises were made before, not only for Greece, but also for other peripheral states.

Does Eurogroup "recognize that Greece debt is unsustainable, is highly unsustainable"? No. There is no mentioning of words 'unsustainable' or 'highly unsustainable' in the Eurogroup document. None. Nada. Instead, here is what the Eurogroup says about the extent of Greek debt sustainability: "The Eurogroup recognises that over the exceptionally long time horizon of assessing debt sustainability there can be no forecasts, only assumptions, given the sizable degree of uncertainty over macroeconomic developments." Does this sound to you like the Eurogroup recognized 'highly unsustainable' nature of Greek debt? Not to me...

Furthermore, relating to debt relief measures, the Eurogroup notes: “For the medium term, the Eurogroup expects to implement a possible second set of measures following the successful implementation of the ESM programme. These measures will be implemented if an update of the debt sustainability analysis produced by the institutions at the end of the programme shows they are needed to meet the agreed GFN benchmark, subject to a positive assessment from the institutions and the Eurogroup on programme implementation.” Again, there is no admission by the Eurogroup of unsustainable nature of Greek debt, and in fact there is a statement that only 'if' debt is deemed to be unsustainable at the medium-term future, then debt relief measures can be contemplated as possible. This neither amounts to (1) statement that does not agree with the IMF assertion that the Eurogroup realizes unsustainable nature of Greek debt burden; and (2) statement that does not agree with the IMF assertion that the Eurogroup put debt relief 'firmly on the table'.

More per IMF: Eurogroup “…accept the methodology that should be used to calibrate the necessary debt relief. They accept the objectives in terms of the gross financing need in the near term and in the long run. They even accept the time periods, a very long time period, over which this debt has to be met through 2060. And I think they are also beginning to accept more realism in the assumption.

Again, do they? Let’s go back to the Eurogroup statement: “The Eurogroup recognises that over the exceptionally long time horizon of assessing debt sustainability there can be no forecasts, only assumptions, given the sizable degree of uncertainty over macroeconomic developments.” Have the Eurogroup accepted IMF’s assumptions? No. It simply said that things might change and if they do, well, then we’ll get back to you.

Things get worse from there on.

IMF: “We have not changed our view on how the outlook for debt is looking. We have not gone back. We want to assure you that we will not want big primary surpluses.” This statement, of course, refers to the IMF stating (see here) that Greek primary surpluses of 3.5% assumed under the DSA for Bailout 3.0 were unrealistic. And yet, quoting the Eurogroup document: the new agreement “provides further reassurances that Greece will meet the primary surplus targets of the ESM programme (3.5% of GDP in the medium-term), without prejudice to the obligations of Greece under the SGP and the Fiscal Compact.”  So, IMF says it did not surrender on 3.5% primary surplus for Greece being unrealistic, yet Eurogroup says 3.5% target is here to stay. Who’s spinning what?

IMF: “...I cannot see us facing this on a primary surplus that is above 1.5 [ percent of GDP]. I know it's just not credible in our view. And you will see that there is nothing in the European statement anymore that says 3.5 should be used for the DSA. So there, too, Europe is moving.” As I just quoted from the eurogroup statement clearly saying 3.5% surplus is staying.

IMF is again tangled up in long tales of courage played against short strides to surrender. PR balancing, face-savings, twisting, turning, obscuring… you name it, the IMF got it going here.

24/5/16: Greek Crisis: Old Can, Old Foot, New Flight

So Eurogroup has hammered out yet another 'breakthrough deal' with Greece, not even 12 months after the previous 'breakthrough deal' was hammered out in August 2015. And there are no modalities to discuss at this stage, but here's what we know:

  1. IMF is on board. Tsipras lost the insane target of getting rid of the Fund; and Europe gained an insane stamp of approval that Greece remains within the IMF programme. Why is this important for Europe? Because everyone - from the Greeks to the Eurocrats to the insane asylum patients - knows that Greece is insolvent and that any deal absent massive upfront commitments to debt writedowns is not sustainable. However, if the IMF joins the group of the reality deniers, then at least pro forma there is a claim of sustainability to be had. Europe is not about achieving real solutions. It is about propping up the PR facade.
  2. With the IMF on board we can assume one of two things: either the deal is more realistic and closer to being in tune with Greek needs (see modalities here: or IMF once again aligned itself with the EU as a face-saving exercise. The Fund, like Brussels, has a strong incentive to extend and pretend the Greek problem: if the Fund walks away from the new 'breakthrough deal', it will validate the argument that IMF lending to Greece was a major error. The proverbial egg hits the IMF's face. If the Fund were to stay in the deal, even if the EU does not deliver on any of its promises on debt relief, the IMF will retain a right to say: "Look, we warned everyone. EU promised, but did not deliver. So Greek failure is not our fault." To figure out which happened, we will need to see deal modalities.
  3. What we do know is that Greece will be able to meet its scheduled repayments to EFSF and ECB and the IMF this year, thanks to the 'breakthrough'. In other words, Greece will be given already promised loans (Bailout 3.0 agreed in 2015) so it can pay back previous extended loans (Bailouts 1.0 & 2.0). There are no 'new funds' - just new credit card to repay previous credit card. Worse, Greece will be given the money in tranches, so as to ensure that Tsipras does not decide to use 'new-old' credit on things like hospitals supplies. 
  4. Greece is to get some debt reprofiling before 2018 - one can only speculate what this means, but Eurogroup pressie suggested that it will be in the form of changing debt maturities. There are two big peaks of redemptions coming in 2017-2019, which can be smoothed out by loading some of that debt into 2020 and 2021. See chart below. Tricky bit is the Treasury notes which come due within the year window of maturity and will cause some hardship in smoothing other debts maturities. However, this measure is unlikely to be of significant benefit in terms of overall debt sustainability. Again, as I note here: Greece requires tens of billions in writeoffs (and that is in NPV terms).
  5. All potentially significant measures on debt relief are delayed until post-2018 to appease Germany and a number of other member states. Which means one simple thing: by mid-2018 we will be in yet another Greek crisis. And by the end of 2018, no one in Europe will give a diddly squat about Greece, its debt and the sustainability of that debt because, or so the hope goes, general recovery from the acute crisis will be over by then and Europeans will slip back into the slumber of 1.5 percent growth with 1.2 percent inflation and 8-9 percent unemployment, where everyone is happy and Greece is, predictably, boringly and expectedly bankrupt.


Funny thing: Greece is currently illiquid, the financing deal is expected to be 'more than' EUR10 billion. Greek debt maturity from June 1 through December 31 is around EUR17.8 billion. Spot the problem? How much more than EUR10 billion it will be? Ugh?..So technically, Greece got money to cover money it got before and it is not enough to cover all the money it got before, so it looks like Greece is out of money already, after getting money.

As usual, we have can, foot, kick... the thing flies. And as always, not far enough. Pre-book your seats for the next Greek Crisis, coming up around 2018, if not before.

Or more accurately, the dead-beaten can sort of flies. 

Remember IMF saying 3.5% surplus was fiction for Greece? Well, here's the EU statement: "Greece will meet the primary surplus targets of the ESM programme (3.5% of GDP in the medium-term), without prejudice to the obligations of Greece under the SGP and the Fiscal Compact." No,  I have no idea how exactly it is that the IMF agreed to that.

And if you thought I was kidding that Greece was getting money solely to repay debts due, I was not: "The second tranche under the ESM programme amounting to EUR 10.3 bn will be disbursed to Greece in several disbursements, starting with a first disbursement in June (EUR 7.5 bn) to cover debt servicing needs and to allow a clearance of an initial part of arrears as a means to support the real economy." So no money for hospitals, folks. Bugger off to the corner and sit there.

And guess what: there won't be any money coming up for the 'real economy' as: "The subsequent disbursements to be used for arrears clearance and further debt servicing needs will be made after the summer." This is from the official Eurogroup statement.

Here's what the IMF got: "The Eurogroup agrees to assess debt sustainability with reference to the following benchmark for gross financing needs (GFN): under the baseline scenario, GFN should remain below 15% of GDP during the post programme period for the medium term, and below 20% of GDP thereafter." So the framework changed, and a target got more realistic, but... there is still no real commitment - just a promise to assess debt sustainability at some point in time. Whenever it comes. In whatever shape it may be.

Short term measures, as noted above, are barely a nod to the need for debt writedowns: "Smoothening the EFSF repayment profile under the current weighted average maturity: Use EFSF/ESM diversified funding strategy to reduce interest rate risk without incurring any additional costs for former programme countries; Waiver of the step-up interest rate margin related to the debt buy-back tranche of the 2nd Greek programme for the year 2017". So no, there is no real debt relief. Just limited re-loading of debt and slight re-pricing to reflect current funding conditions. 

Medium term measures are also not quite impressive and amount to more of the same short term measures being continued, conditionally, and 'possible' - stress that word 'possible', for they might turn out to be impossible too.

Yep. Can + foot + some air... ah, good thing Europe is so consistent... 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

23/5/16: Greek Debt Sustainability and IMF's Pipe Dreams

IMF outlined its position on Greek debt sustainability, once again stressing the fact - known to everyone with an ounce of brain left untouched by Eurohopium injections from Brussels and Frankfurt : Greek debt is currently unsustainable.

Here are some details of the IMF’s latest encounter with reality:

Firstly, per IMF: Greek “debt was deemed sustainable, but not with high probability, when the first program was adopted in May 2010. Public debt was projected to surge from 115 percent of GDP to a peak of 150 percent of GDP, primarily because the expected internal devaluation implied declining nominal GDP while fiscal deficits were expected to add to the debt burden, but also because of the decision to forgo a private sector debt restructuring (PSI).”

Several things to note here. The extent of internal devaluation required for Greece is a function of several aspects of Euro area policies, most notably, lack of functional independent currency that can absorb - via normal devaluation - some of the shocks; lack of will on behalf of the EU to restructure official debt owed by Greece to EFSF/ESM pair of European institutions and to the ECB; and effective capture of virtually all Greek ‘assistance’ funds within the banking sector and external financing sector, with zero trickle down from these sectors funding to the real economy. In other words, there were plenty of sources for Greek debt non-sustainability arising from EU construct and policies.

Secondly, “the much deeper-than-expected recession necessitated significant debt relief in 2011-12 to maintain the prospect of restoring sustainability. Private creditors accepted large haircuts;… European partners provided very large NPV relief by extending maturities and reducing and deferring interest payments; and Fund maturities were lengthened…”

Which, of course is rather ironic. Lack of functional mechanisms for the recovery in the Greek case included, in addition to those internal to the Greek economic institutions, also the three factors outlined above. In other words, de facto, 2011-2012 restructuring of debt was, at least in part, compensatory measures for exogenous drivers of the Greek crisis. The EU paid for its own poor institutional set up.

However, as IMF notes, “European partners also pledged to provide additional debt relief—if needed—to meet specific debt-to-GDP targets (of 124 percent by 2020 and well under 110 percent by 2022). Critically for the DSA, the Greek government at the time insisted — supported by its European partners — on preserving the very ambitious targets for growth, the fiscal surplus, and privatization, arguing that there was broad political support for the underlying policies.”

Oh dear, per IMF, therefore (and of course the Fund is correct here), the idiocy of shooting Greece in both feet was of not only European making, but also of Greek making. No kidding: Greek own Governments have insisted (and continue to insist) on internecine, unrealistic and outright stupid targets that even the IMF is feeling nauseous about.

“Serious implementation problems caused a sharp deterioration in sustainability, raising fresh doubts about the realism of policy assumptions, especially from mid–2014. The authorities’ hoped-for broad political support for the program did not materialize…  causing long delays in concluding reviews, with only 5 of 16 originally scheduled reviews eventually completed. The problems mounted from mid-2014, with across-the-board reversals after the change of government in early-2015. Staff’s revised DSA—published in June 2015—suggested that the agreed debt targets for 2020-2022 would be missed by over 30 percent of GDP.”

This is clinical. Pre-conditions for August 2015 Bailout 3.0 were set by a combination of external (EU-driven) and internal (domestic politics-driven) factors that effectively confirmed the absolute absurdity of the whole programme. Yes, the IMF is trying to walk away now from sitting at the very same table where all of this transpired. And yes, the IMF deserves to be placed onto the second tier of blame here. Blame is due nonetheless, as the Fund could have attempted to seriously force the EU hand on changing the programme on a number of occasions, but it continued to support the Greek programme, broadly, even while issuing caveats.

But give a cheer to the Tsipras’ Government utter senility: “Critically, …the new government insisted—like its predecessor—that it could garner political support for the necessary underlying reforms.”

And now onto new stuff.

Per IMF’s today’s note: “developments since last summer suggest that a realignment of critical policy and DSA assumptions can no longer be deferred if the DSA is to remain credible. While there certainly has been progress in some areas under the new program that was put in place in August 2015 with support by the ESM, and growth and primary balance out-turns last year were better than expected, the government has not been able to mobilize political support for the overall pace of reforms that would be required to retain the June 2015 DSA’s still ambitious assumptions of a dramatic, rapid, and sustained improvement in productivity and fiscal performance. In all key policy areas—fiscal, financial sector stability, labor, product and service markets—the authorities’ current policy plans fall well short of what would be required to achieve their ambitious fiscal and growth targets.”

Pardon me here, but I seriously doubt the primary problem is with the Greek Government inability to mobilize political support. Actually, the real problem is that the entire framework is so full of imaginary numbers, that any Government in any state of political leadership will have zero chance at delivering on these projections. Yes, the Greeks are blessed with a Government that would’t be able to replace a battery in a calculator, but now, even with fresh batteries no calculator would be able to solve the required growth equations.

So, we have the IMF conclusion: “Consequently, staff believes that a realignment of assumptions with the evident political and social constraints on the pace and scope of adjustment is needed”. In more common parlance, the IMF has to revise its model assumptions as follows:

Primary surplus (aka - austerity):  The IMF recognizes that current tax rates are already too high in Greece (that’s right, the IMF actually finds Greek tax targets to be self-defeating), while expenditure cuts have been ad hoc, as opposed to structural. Thus, with “…tax compliance rates falling precipitously and discretionary spending already severely compressed, staff believes that the additional adjustment needed to allow Greece to run sustained primary surpluses over the long run can only be achieved if based on measures to broaden the tax base and lowering outlays on wages and pensions, which by now account for as much as 75 percent primary spending… This suggests that it is unrealistic to assume that Greece can undertake the additional adjustment of 4½ percent of GDP needed to base the DSA on a primary surplus of 3½ percent of GDP.”

This is bad. And it is direct. But IMF wants to make an even stronger point to get through the thick skulls of Greek authorities and their EU masters: “Even if Greece through a heroic effort could temporarily reach a surplus close to 3½ percent of GDP, few countries have managed to reach and sustain such high levels of primary balances for a decade or more, and it is highly unlikely that Greece can do so considering its still weak policy
making institutions and projections suggesting that unemployment will remain at double digits for several decades.” ‘Heroic’ efforts - even in theory - are not enough anymore, says the IMF. I would suggest they were never enough. But, hey, let’s not split hairs.

So to make things more ‘realistic’, the IMF estimates that primary surplus long run target should be 1.5 percent of GDP - full half of the previously required. Still, even this lower target is highly uncertain (per IMF) as it will require extraordinary discipline from the current and future Greek governments. Personally, I doubt Greece will be able to run even that surplus target for longer than 5 years before sliding into its ‘normal’ pattern of spending money it doesn’t have.

Growth (aka illusionary holy grail of debt/GDP ratios):  “Staff believes that the continued absence of political support for a strong and broad
acceleration of structural reforms suggests that it is no longer tenable to base the DSA on the assumption that Greece can quickly move from having one of the lowest to having the highest productivity growth rates in the eurozone.”

Reasons for doom? 

  1. “…the bank recapitalization completed in 2015 was not accompanied by an upfront governance overhaul to overcome longstanding problems, including susceptibility to political interference in bank management. …in the absence of more forceful actions by regulators, and in view of the exceptionally large level of NPLs [non-performing loans] and high share of Deferred Tax Assets in bank capital, banks will be burdened by very weak balance sheets for years to come, suggesting that they will be unable to provide credit to the economy on a scale needed to support very ambitious growth targets.” There are several problems with this assessment. One: credit creation is unimaginable in the Greek economy today even if the banks were fully reformed because there is no domestic demand and because absent currency devaluation there is also no external demand. Two: despite a massive (95%+ of all bailout funds) injection into the banking sector, Greek NPLs remain unresolved. In a way, the EU simply wasted all the money without achieving anything real in the Greek case.
  2. lack of structural reforms in the collective dismissals and industrial action frameworks “and the still extremely gradual pace at which Greece envisages to tackle its pervasive restrictions in product and service markets are also not consistent with the very ambitious growth assumptions”.

So, on the net, “against this background, staff has lowered its long-term growth assumption to 1¼ percent… Here as well the revised assumption remains ambitious in as much as it assumes steadfastness in implementing reforms that exceeds the experience to date, such that Greece would converge to the average productivity growth in the euro-zone over the long-term.”

So how bad are the matters, really, when it comes to Greek debt sustainability?

Per IMF: “Under staff’s baseline assumptions, there is a substantial gap between projected
outcomes and the sustainability objectives … The revised projections suggest that debt will be around 174 percent of GDP by 2020, and 167 percent by 2022. …Debt is projected to decline gradually to just under 160 percent by 2030 as the output gap closes, but trends upwards thereafter, reaching around 250 percent of GDP by 2060, as the cost of debt, which rises over time as market financing replaces highly subsidized official sector financing, more than offsets the debt-reducing effects of growth and the primary balance surplus”.

A handy chart to compare current assessment against June 2015 bombshell that almost exploded the Bailout 3.0

As a result of the above revised estimates/assumptions: a “substantial reprofiling of the terms of European loans to Greece is thus required to bring GFN down by around 20 percent of GDP by 2040 and an additional 20 percent by 2060,…based on a combination of three measures..:

  • Maturity extensions: An extension of maturities for EFSF, ESM and GLF loans of, up to 14 years for EFSF loans, 10 years for ESM loans, and 30 years for GLF loans could reduce the GFN and debt ratios by about 7 and 25 percent of GDP by 2060 respectively. However, this measure alone would be insufficient to restore sustainability.
  • …Extending the deferrals on debt service further could help reduce GFN further by 17 percent of GDP by 2040 and 24 percent by 2060, and …could lower debt by 84 percent of GDP by 2060 (This would imply an extension of grace periods on existing debt ranging from 6 years on ESM loans to 17 and 20 years for EFSF and GLF loans, respectively, as well as an extension of the current deferral on interest payments on EFSF loans by a further 17 years together with interest deferrals on ESM and GLF loans by up to 24 years). However, even in this case, GFN would exceed 20 percent by 2050, and debt would be on a rising path.
  • To ensure that debt can remain on a downward path, official interest rates would need to be fixed at low levels for an extended period, not exceeding 1½ percent until 2040. …Adding this measure to the two noted above helps to reduce debt by 53 percent of GDP by 2040 and 151 percent by 2060, and GFN by 22 percent by 2040 and 39 percent by 2060, which satisfies the sustainability objectives noted earlier”.

So, in the nutshell, to achieve - theoretical - sustainability even under rather optimistic assumptions and with unprecedented (to-date) efforts at structural reforms, Greece requires a write-off of some 50% of GDP in net present value terms through 2040. Still, hedging its bets for the next 5 years, the IMF notes: “Even under the proposed debt restructuring scenarios, debt dynamics remain highly sensitive to shocks.”

In other words, per IMF, with proposed debt relief, Greece is probabilistically still screwed.

Which, of course, begs a question: why would the IMF not call for simple two-step approach to Greek debt resolution:

  • Step 1: fix interest on loans at zero percent through 2040 or 2050 (placing bonds with the ECB and mandating the ECB monetizes interest on these bonds payable by EFSF/ESM et al). Annual cost would be issuance of ca EUR 2 billion in currency per annum - nothing that would add to the inflationary pressures in the euro area at any point in time;
  • Step 2: require annual assessment of Greek compliance with reforms programme in exchange for (Step 1).

Ah, yes, I forgot, we have an ‘independent’ ECB… right, then… back to imaginative fiscal acrobatics.

One has to feel for the Greeks: screwed by Europe, screwed by their own governments and politically ‘corrected’ by the IMF. Now, wait, of course, all the upset must be directed toward getting rid of the latter. Because the former two cannot be anything else, but friends…

Monday, May 23, 2016

23/5/16: Oil Exporting Countries: Sovereign Risk Metrics

Credit Suisse on fiscal woes of oil exporters:

As a reminder, here are projected 2016 sovereign debt levels across the main oil exporting countries:

Source: IMF

Followed by gross deficits:

Source: IMF

And adding current account balances:

Source: IMF

Now, the list of main oil exporters via in 2015:

  1. Saudi Arabia: US$133.3 billion (17% of total crude oil exports)
  2. Russia: $86.2 billion (11%)
  3. Iraq: $52.2 billion (6.6%)
  4. United Arab Emirates: $51.2 billion (6.5%)
  5. Canada: $50.2 billion (6.4%)
  6. Nigeria: $38 billion (4.8%)
  7. Kuwait: $34.1 billion (4.3%)
  8. Angola: $32.6 billion (4.1%)
  9. Venezuela: $27.8 billion (3.5%)
  10. Kazakhstan: $26.2 billion (3.3%)
  11. Norway: $25.7 billion (3.3%)
  12. Iran: $20.5 billion (2.6%)
  13. Mexico: $18.8 billion (2.4%)
  14. Oman: $17.4 billion (2.2%)
  15. United Kingdom: $16 billion (2%)
Taking out advanced economies and using the data plotted in three charts above, here are the rankings of each oil exporting country in terms of their sovereign risks (the lower the score, the lower is the risk):

23/5/16: Government Deficits and European 'Rules'

Germany's Ifo Institute prepared a handy table of historical records for EU member states with respect to satisfying the deficit 'break' rule of 3% of GDP (note, I added some side calculations to the original table for averages and for % of years in violation, based on each country accession year):

Enjoy the fact that with exception of Luxembourg, Estonia and Sweden, and adjusting for recession-related causes also Denmark, no country in the EU has managed to fully satisfy the Maastricht criteria.

22/5/16: House Prices & Household Consumption: From One Bust to the Other

In their often-cited 2013 paper, titled “Household Balance Sheets, Consumption, and the Economic Slump” (The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 128, 1687–1726, 2013), Mian, Rao, and Sufi used geographic variation in changes house prices over the period 2006-2009 and household balance sheets in 2006, to estimate the elasticity of consumption expenditures to changes in the housing share of household net worth. In other words, the authors tried to determine how responsive is consumption to changes in house prices and housing wealth. The study estimated that 1 percent drop in housing share of household net worth was associated with 0.6-0.8 percent decline in total consumer expenditure, including durable and non-durable consumption.

The problem with Mian, Rao and Sufi (2013) estimates is that they were derived from a proprietary data. And their analysis used proxy data for total expenditure.

Still, the paper is extremely influential because it documents a significant channel for shock transmission from property prices to household consumption, and thus aggregate demand. And the estimated elasticities are shockingly large. This correlates strongly with the actual experience in the U.S. during the Great Recession, when the drop in household consumption expenditures was much sharper, significantly broader and much more persistent than in other recessions. As referenced in Kaplan, Mitman and Violante (2016) paper (see full reference below), “… unlike in past recessions, virtually all components of consumption expenditures, not just durables, dropped substantially. The leading explanation for these atypical aggregate consumption dynamics is the simultaneous extraordinary destruction of housing net worth: most aggregate house price indexes show a decline of around 30 percent over this period, and only a partial recovery towards trend since.”

With this realisation, Kaplan, Mitman and Violante (2016) actually retests Mian, Rao and Sufi (2013) results, using this time around publicly available data sources. Specifically, Kaplan, Mitman and Violante (2016) ask the following question: “To what extent is the plunge in housing wealth responsible for the decline in the consumption expenditures of US households during the Great Recession?”

To answer it, they first “verify the robustness of the Mian, Rao and Sufi (2013) findings using different data on both expenditures and housing net worth. For non-durable expenditures, [they] use store-level sales from the Kilts-Nielsen Retail Scanner Dataset (KNRS), a panel dataset of total sales (quantities and prices) at the UPC (barcode) level for around 40,000 geographically dispersed stores in the US. …To construct [a] measure of local housing net worth, [Kaplan, Mitman and Violante (2016)] use house price data from Zillow…”

Kaplan, Mitman and Violante (2016)findings are very reassuring: “When we replicate MRS using our own data sources, we obtain an OLS estimate of 0.24 and an IV estimate of 0.36 for the elasticity of non-durable expenditures to housing net worth shocks. Based on Mastercard data on non-durables alone, MRS report OLS estimates of 0.34-0.38. Using the KNRS expenditure data together with a measure of the change in the housing share of net worth provided by MRS, we obtain an OLS estimate of 0.34 and an IV estimate of 0.37 – essentially the same elasticities that MRS find. …Overall, we find it encouraging that two very different measures of household spending yield such similar elasticity estimates.” The numerical value differences between the two studies are probably due to different sources of house price data, so they are not material to the studies.

Meanwhile, “…the interaction between the fall in local house prices and the size of initial leverage has no statistically significant effect on nondurable expenditures, once the direct effect of the fall in local house prices has been controlled for.”

Beyond this, the study separates “the price and quantity components of the fall in nominal consumption expenditures. …When we control for …changes in prices, we find an elasticity that is 20% smaller than our baseline estimates for nominal expenditures.” In other words, deflation and moderation in inflation did ameliorate overall impact of property prices decline on consumption.

Lastly, the authors use a much more broadly-based data for consumption from the Diary Survey of the Consumer Expenditure Survey “to estimate the elasticity of total nondurable goods and services” to the consumer expenditure survey counterpart of expenditures in the more detailed data set used for original estimates. The authors “obtain an elasticity between 0.7 and 0.9 … when applied to total non-durable goods and services.”

Overall, the shock transmission channel that works from declining house prices and housing wealth to household consumption is not only non-trivial in scale, but is robust to different sources of data being used to estimate this channel. House prices do have significant impact on household demand and, thus, on aggregate demand. And house price busts do lead to economic growth drops.

Full paper: Kaplan, Greg and Mitman, Kurt and Violante, Giovanni L., "Non-Durable Consumption and Housing Net Worth in the Great Recession: Evidence from Easily Accessible Data" (May 2016, NBER Working Paper No. w22232:

Sunday, May 22, 2016

22/5/16: Lying and Making an Effort at It

Dwenger, Nadja and Lohse, Tim paper “Do Individuals Put Effort into Lying? Evidence from a Compliance Experiment” (March 10, 2016, CESifo Working Paper Series No. 5805: looks at “…whether individuals in a face-to-face situation can successfully exert some lying effort to delude others.”

The authors use a laboratory experiment in which “participants were asked to assess videotaped statements as being rather truthful or untruthful. The statements are face-to-face tax declarations. The video clips feature each subject twice making the same declaration. But one time the subject is reporting truthfully, the other time willingly untruthfully. This allows us to investigate within-subject differences in trustworthiness.”

What the authors found is rather interesting: “a subject is perceived as more trustworthy if she deceives than if she reports truthfully. It is particularly individuals with dishonest appearance who manage to increase their perceived trustworthiness by up to 15 percent. This is evidence of individuals successfully exerting lying effort.”

So you are more likely to buy a lemon from a lemon-selling dealer, than a real thing from an honest one... doh...

Some more ‘beef’ from the study:

“To deceive or not to deceive is a question that arises in basically all spheres of life. Sometimes the stakes involved are small and coming up with a lie is hardly worth it. But sometimes putting effort into lying might be rewarding, provided the deception is not detected.”

However, “whether or not a lie is detected is a matter of how trustworthy the individual is perceived to be. When interacting face-to-face two aspects determine the perceived trustworthiness:

  • First, an individual’s general appearance, and 
  • Second, the level of some kind of effort the individual may choose when trying to make the lie appear truthful. 

The authors ask a non-trivial question: “do we really perceive individuals who tell the truth as more trustworthy than individuals who deceive?”

“Despite its importance for social life, the literature has remained surprisingly silent on the issue of lying effort. This paper is the first to shed light on this issue.”

The study actually uses two types of data from two types of experiments: “An experiment with room for deception which was framed as a tax compliance experiment and a deception-assessment experiment. In the compliance experiment subjects had to declare income in face-to-face situations vis-a-vis an officer, comparable to the situation at customs. They could report honestly or try to evade taxes by deceiving. Some subjects received an audit and the audit probabilities were influenced by the tax officer, based on his impression of the subject. The compliance interviews were videotaped and some of these video clips were the basis for our deception-assessment experiment: For each subject we selected two videos both showing the same low income declaration, but once when telling the truth and once when lying. A different set of participants was asked to watch the video clips and assess whether the recorded subject was truthfully reporting her income or whether she was lying. These assessments were incentivised. Based on more than 18,000 assessments we are able to generate a trustworthiness score for each video clip (number of times the video is rated "rather truthful" divided by the total number of assessments). As each individual is assessed in two different video clips, we can exploit within-subject differences in trustworthiness. …Any difference in trust-worthiness scores between situations of honesty and dishonesty can thus be traced back to the effort exerted by an individual when lying. In addition, we also investigate whether subjects appear less trustworthy if they were audited and had been caught lying shortly before. …the individuals who had to assess the trustworthiness of a tax declarer did not receive any information on previous audits.

The main results are as follows:

  • “Subjects appear as more trustworthy in compliance interviews in which they underreport than in compliance interviews in which they report truthfully. When categorizing individuals in subjects with a genuine dishonest or honest appearance, it becomes obvious that it is mainly individuals of the former category who appear more trustworthy when deceiving.”
  • “These individuals with a dishonest appearance are able to increase their perceived trustworthiness by up to 15 percent. This finding is in line with the hypothesis that players with a comparably dishonest appearance, when lying, expend effort to appear truthful.”
  • “We also find that an individual’s trustworthiness is affected by previous audit experiences. Individuals who were caught cheating in the previous period, appear significantly less trustworthy, compared to individuals who were either not audited or who reported truthfully. This effect is exacerbated for individuals with a dishonest appearance if the individual is again underreporting but is lessened if the individual is reporting truthfully.”

21/5/16: Manipulating Markets in Everything: Social Media, China, Europe

So, Chinese Government swamps critical analysis with ‘positive’ social media posts, per Bloomberg report:

As the story notes: “stopping an argument is best done by distraction and changing the subject rather than more argument”.

So now, consider what the EU and European Governments (including Irish Government) have been doing since the start of the Global Financial Crisis.

They have hired scores of (mostly) mid-educated economists to write, what effectively amounts to repetitive reports on the state of economy . All endlessly cheering the state of ‘recovery’.

In several cases, we now have statistics agencies publishing data that was previously available in a singular release across two separate releases, providing opportunity to up-talk the figures for the media. Example: Irish CSO release of the Live Register stats. In another example, the same data previously available in 3 files - Irish Exchequer results - is being reported and released through numerous channels and replicated across a number of official agencies.

The result: any critical opinion is now drowned in scores of officially sanctioned presentations, statements, releases, claims and, accompanied by complicit media and professional analysts (e.g. sell-side analysts and bonds placing desks) puff pieces.

Chinese manipulating social media, my eye… take a mirror and add lights: everyone’s holding the proverbial bag… 

21/5/16: Euro Area Income per Capita: Is the Crisis Finally Over?

Has euro area recovered from the crisis on a per-capita basis? 

Let’s take a look at the latest data available from the Eurostat, covering the period through 4Q 2015.

Looking at the Nominal gross disposable income per capita first: in 4Q 2015, income per capita in the euro area stood at +6.67 percent premium over the pre-crisis peak (measured as an average of 4 highest pre-crisis quarters) and at +3.86 percent premium to the overall highest pre-crisis quarter reading. This is not new: the measure attained its pre-crisis peak within 6 quarters following the peak quarter (3Q 2008). So by this metric, the answer to the above question is ‘Yes’.

Now, consider Real gross disposable income per capita: in 4Q 2015, real income per capita in the euro area was still down 0.57 percent on pre-crisis peak (based on 4 quarters pre-crisis peak average) and down 0.72 percent on pre-crisis peak quarter. Given the peak quarter was in 1Q 2008, we are now into 31 quarters of a crisis and counting. Notably, due to deflation at the height of the crisis, real disposable per capita income actually reached above the pre-crisis peak in 3Q 2009, and as of 4Q 2015, real disposable income per capita in the euro area is down on that reading some 1.31 percent. So by real (inflation-adjusted) metric, the answer to the above question is ’No’.

Lastly, consider Real actual final consumption per capita: in 4Q 2015, real consumption per capita in the euro area was 0.25 percent below pre-crisis peak (for peak measured as an average of four quarters including the peak quarter); and it is down 0.52 percent on pre-crisis peak quarter. As with real income per capita, we now into 31 quarters of below-peak real consumption, so the crisis goes on, judging by this metric.

Here’s a chart to illustrate:

21/5/16: Banks Deposit Insurance: Got Candy, Mate?…

Since the end of the [acute phase] Global Financial Crisis, European banking regulators have been pushing forward the idea that crisis response measures required to deal with any future [of course never to be labeled ‘systemic’] banking crises will require a new, strengthened regime based on three pillars of regulatory and balance sheet measures:

  • Pillar 1: Harmonized regulatory supervision and oversight over banking institutions (micro-prudential oversight);
  • Pillar 2: Stronger capital buffers (in quantity and quality) alongside pre-prescribed ordering of bailable capital (Tier 1, intermediate, and deposits bail-ins), buffered by harmonized depositor insurance schemes (also covered under micro-prudential oversight); and
  • Pillar 3: Harmonized risk monitoring and management (macro-prudential oversight)

All of this firms the core idea behind the European System of Financial Supervision. Per EU Parliament ( “The objectives of the ESFS include developing a common supervisory culture and facilitating a single European financial market.”

Theory aside, the above Pillars are bogus and I have commented on them on this blog and elsewhere. If anything, they represent a singular, infinitely deep confidence trap whereby policymakers, supervisors, banks and banks’ clients are likely to place even more confidence at the hands of the no-wiser regulators and supervisors who cluelessly slept through the 2000-2007 build up of massive banking sector imbalances. And there is plenty of criticism of the architecture and the very philosophical foundations of the ESFS around.

Sugar buzz!...

However, generally, there is at least a strong consensus on desirability of the deposits insurance scheme, a consensus that stretches across all sides of political spectrum. Here’s what the EU has to say about the scheme: “DGSs are closely linked to the recovery and resolution procedure of credit institutions and provide an important safeguard for financial stability.”

But what about the evidence to support this assertion? Why, there is an fresh study with ink still drying on it via NBER (see details below) that looks into that matter.

Per NBER authors: “Economic theories posit that bank liability insurance is designed as serving the public interest by mitigating systemic risk in the banking system through liquidity risk reduction. Political theories see liability insurance as serving the private interests of banks, bank borrowers, and depositors, potentially at the expense of the public interest.” So at the very least, there is a theoretical conflict implied in a general deposit insurance concept. Under the economic theory, deposits insurance is an important driver for risk reduction in the banking system, inducing systemic stability. Under the political theory - it is itself a source of risk and thus can result in a systemic risk amplification.

“Empirical evidence – both historical and contemporary – supports the private-interest approach as liability insurance generally has been associated with increases, rather than decreases, in systemic risk.” Wait, but the EU says deposit insurance will “provide an important safeguard for financial stability”. Maybe the EU knows a trick or two to resolve that empirical regularity?

Unlikely, according to the NBER study: “Exceptions to this rule are rare, and reflect design features that prevent moral hazard and adverse selection. Prudential regulation of insured banks has generally not been a very effective tool in limiting the systemic risk increases associated with liability insurance. This likely reflects purposeful failures in regulation; if liability insurance is motivated by private interests, then there would be little point to removing the subsidies it creates through strict regulation. That same logic explains why more effective policies for addressing systemic risk are not employed in place of liability insurance.”

Aha, EU would have to become apolitical when it comes to banking sector regulation, supervision, policies and incentives, subsidies and markets supports and interventions in order to have a chance (not even a guarantee) the deposits insurance mechanism will work to reduce systemic risk not increase it. Any bets for what chances we have in achieving such depolitization? Yeah, right, nor would I give that anything above 10 percent.

Worse, NBER research argues that “the politics of liability insurance also should not be construed narrowly to encompass only the vested interests of bankers. Indeed, in many countries, it has been installed as a pass-through subsidy targeted to particular classes of bank borrowers.”

So in basic terms, deposit insurance is a subsidy; it is in fact a politically targeted subsidy to favor some borrowers at the expense of the system stability, and it is a perverse incentive for the banks to take on more risk. Back to those three pillars, folks - still think there won’t be any [though shall not call them ‘systemic’] crises with bail-ins and taxpayers’ hits in the GloriEUs Future?…

Full paper: Calomiris, Charles W. and Jaremski, Matthew, “Deposit Insurance: Theories and Facts” (May 2016, NBER Working Paper No. w22223:

21/5/16: Voters selection biases and political outcomes

A recent study based on data from Austria looked at the impact of compulsory voting laws on voter quality.

Based on state and national elections data from 1949-2010, the authors “show that compulsory voting laws with weakly enforced fines increase turnout by roughly 10 percentage points. However, we find no evidence that this change in turnout affected government spending patterns (in levels or composition) or electoral outcomes. Individual-level data on turnout and political preferences suggest these results occur because individuals swayed to vote due to compulsory voting are more likely to be non-partisan, have low interest in politics, and be uninformed.”

In other words, it looks like there is a selection bias being triggered by compulsory voting: lower quality of voters enter the process, but due to their lower quality, these voters do not induce a bias away from state quo. Whatever the merit of increasing voter turnouts via compulsory voting requirements may be, it does not appear to bring about more enlightened choices in policies.

Full study is available here: Hoffman, Mitchell and León, Gianmarco and Lombardi, María, “Compulsory Voting, Turnout, and Government Spending: Evidence from Austria” (May 2016, NBER Working Paper No. w22221:

So can you 'vote out' stupidity?..

Saturday, May 21, 2016

20/5/16: Business Owners: Not Great With Counterfactuals

A recent paper, based on a “survey of participants in a large-scale business plan competition experiment, [in Nigeria] in which winners received an average of US$50,000 each, is used to elicit beliefs about what the outcomes would have been in the alternative treatment status.”

So what exactly was done? Business owners were basically asked what would have happened to their business had an alternative business investment process taken place, as opposed to the one that took place under the competition outcome. “Winners in the treatment group are asked subjective expectations questions about what would have happened to their business should they have lost, and non‐winners in the control group asked similar questions about what would have happened should they have won.”

“Ex ante one can think of several possibilities as to the likely accuracy of the counterfactuals”:

  1. “…business owners are not systematically wrong about the impact of the program, so that the average treatment impact estimated using the counterfactuals should be similar to the experimental treatment effect. One potential reason to think this is that in applying for the competition the business owners had spent four days learning how to develop a business plan… outlining how they would use the grant to develop their business. The control group [competition losers] have therefore all had to previously make projections and plans for business growth based on what would happen if they won, so that we are asking about a counterfactual they have spent time thinking about.”
  2. ”…behavioral factors lead to systematic biases in how individuals think of these counterfactuals. For example, the treatment group may wish to attribute their success to their own hard work and talent rather than to winning the program, in which case they would underestimate the program effect. Conversely they may fail to take account of the progress they would have made anyway, attributing all their growth to the program and overstating the effect. The control group might want to make themselves feel better about missing out on the program by understating its impact (...not winning does not matter that much). Conversely they may want to make themselves feel better about their current level of business success by overstating the impact of the program (saying to themselves I may be small today, but it is only because I did not win and if I had that grant I would be very successful).”

The actual results show that business owners “do not provide accurate counterfactuals” even in this case where competition awards (and thus intervention or shock) was very large.

  • The authors found that “both the control and treatment groups systematically overestimate how important winning the program would be for firm growth… 
  • “…the control group thinks they would grow more had they won than the treatment group actually grew”
  • “…the treatment group thinks they would grow less had they lost than the control group actually grew” 

Or in other words: losers overestimate benefits of winning, winners overestimate the adverse impact from losing... and no one is capable of correctly analysing own counterfactuals.

Full paper is available here: McKenzie, David J., Can Business Owners Form Accurate Counterfactuals? Eliciting Treatment and Control Beliefs About Their Outcomes in the Alternative Treatment Status (May 10, 2016, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 7668:

20/5/16: Migrating Extremism: Long Run Impact on Voters Preferences

What happens when there is a systemic pattern of migration across borders and geographies that captures migration by political extremists?

This is neither a trivial question nor an esoteric one. It is non-trivial, because, to the best of my knowledge, we are yet to have a good understanding of what happens in the aftermath of military and political efforts to curb extremism. Curbing extremism pushes some of it into underground, but if attempts to curb extremism are not uniform across various geographies, it also incentivises selective migration of large numbers of extremists to those locations, where the efforts to curb their ideologies and behaviour are less strong. If so, when such a migration is feasible on large enough scale, asymmetric treatment of extremists across two geographies can lead to a concentration of extremists in that geography where they are treated more leniently.

This is the logic. What about the evidence?

Here is a fascinating study by Ochsner, Christian and Roesel, Felix, titled Migrating Extremists (March 10, 2016) published so far as a CESifo Working Paper (Series No. 5799:

Quoting their abstract (emphasis is mine):

  • "We show that migrating extremists shape political landscapes toward their ideology in the long run
  • "We exploit the unexpected division of the state of Upper Austria into a US and a Soviet occupation zone after WWII. Zoning prompts large-scale Nazi migration to US occupied regions
  • "Regions that witnessed a Nazi influx exhibit significantly higher voting shares for the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) throughout the entire post-WWII period, but not before WWII. 
  • "We can exclude other channels that may have affected post-war elections, including differences in US and Soviet denazification and occupation policies, bomb attacks, Volksdeutsche refugees and suppression by other political parties. 
  • "We show that extremism is transmitted through family ties and local party branches. We find that the surnames of FPÖ local election candidates in 2015 in the former US zone are more prevalent in 1942 phonebook data (Reichstelefonbuch) of the former Soviet zone compared to other parties."
This is pretty much nuclear. Migration of individuals holding extremist beliefs, when systematically biased in favour of a specific location, does lead to concentration of extremist voters and such concentration is robust over time. Big lessons to be learned for today's migration regulation and institutional environment, as well as the systems of incentives and pressures that drive the migrant selection mechanisms.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

17/5/16: US Earnings Recession: Four Quarters Long... but How Much Longer?

Recently, I have been highlighting in my Risk & Resilience course for MBAs at MIIS and on this blog the perils of corporate earnings gaming, including the rather worrying trend toward companies posting negative net cash flows (basically using debt to fund shares repurchases).

Here are two of my lecture slides from two weeks ago:

And to add to the pile of evidence, as 1Q 16 earnings rolled in, the numbers were coming in at a frankly put brutal squeeze: we had the fourth consecutive quarter for the S&P 500 earnings running in the red, with 1Q 16 decline being the steepest since 2008-2009 at 6.3%:

However, some interesting insight on the matter of forward earnings guidance was recently published by the Deutsche Bank Research and here is a link to the article discussing it:

Yes, DB's model for earnings for S&P500 is an interesting one. No, without seeing actual standard econometric tests, I can't tell if it makes any sense in reality or not (just because it has high R-sq means diddly nada without knowing how the residuals behave). And no, I am not sure I am buying the idea of 'all factors in favour' arguments presented by DB Research. I am, however, pretty certain that probabilistically a bet should be for more moderate earnings performance in 2Q compared to 1Q, which of course will prompt DB Research lads cheering confirmation of their own model. So I am skeptical, but... still, the article is worth a read.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

17/5/16: Euro Area Exports of Goods Down in 1Q 2016

Euro area trade in goods data for 1Q 2016 is out today and the reading is poor.

On annual basis (not seasonally-adjusted figures), extra-EA19 exports of goods were down in 1Q 2016 to EUR485.8 billion from EUR492.0 billion a year ago, a decline of ca 1% y/y. Imports - sign of domestic demand and investment - dropped 3%. As the result, EA trade balance for goods trade only rose from EUR46.8 billion in 1Q 2015 to EUR53.9 billion in 1Q 2016.

Out of the original EA12 countries, Ireland was the only one posting an increase in extra-EA19 exports in 1Q 2016 compared to 1Q 2015 (+3%), while the largest decrease was recorded by Greece (-20%) and Portugal (-17%).

On a seasonally-adjusted basis (allowing for m/m comparatives), exports extra-EA19 fell from EUR167.3 billion in February 2016 to EUR165.1 billion in March 2016, reaching the lowest point in 12 months period. Due to an even sharper contraction in imports, trade balance (extra-EA19 basis) rose to EUR22.3 billion from EUR20.6 billion.

More details here: 

17/5/16: Village May 2016: Buzz Wrecked

My article for Village magazine highlighting some longer-term risks for the Irish economy:

Plenty of opportunities to the upside, but risks are material and require careful policy balancing between fiscal prudence, institutional supports for domestically-anchored companies and entrepreneurs, with a concerted effort to move away from the FDI-or-bust policies of the past 30 years.

16/5/16: 1Q 16 GDP growth and other recent stats on Russian Economy

Russian GDP (preliminary estimate) shrunk 1.2% y/y in 1Q 2016, with the rate of contraction in the economy moderating from 3.7% for the full year 2015 and from 3.8% drop recorded in 4Q 2015. So the economy is still shrinking, albeit at a slower pace, and slower, yet, than consensus annual forecast for the decline of 1.7%.

Some interesting developments on inflation front too.

April CPI was up 0.4% m/m and 2.5% y/y which is well below m/m and y/y inflation recorded in April 2015 at 0.5% and 7.9%, respectively. Food inflation was running at 5.3% y/y in April 2016 against 21.9% registered in April 2015. January-April 2016 y/y inflation in food prices was 'only' 6.5% which compares against 22.2% inflation in food prices registered in January-April 2015. HICP inflation for April 2016 was 7.6% y/y and January-April 2016 period HICP inflation was 8.8% y/y, against corresponding figures for April 2015 and January-April 2015 at 17.5% and 16.6%, respectively. Amongst food products: Meat and poultry (-0.2% y/y for the first four months of 2016), Sugar (refined) (-0.2%) and Fruit & Vegetables (-1.9%) registered deflation in prices over the first four months of 2016 compared to 2015. During the corresponding period of 2015, all categories of food products registered double-digits inflation.

Consumer price index evolution in 2015 and 2016 by month
Source: State Statistics Committee

Trend toward much more subdued inflation continued in the first ten days of May 2016, based on preliminary data.

Meanwhile, imports substitution policies are starting to finally show some positive payoffs (albeit, helped heavily by massive ruble devaluations of the recent 18 months):

  • Beef production rose 4.34% in 2015 compared to 2010-2013 average;
  • Pork production was up massive 73.6%
  • Meat products are up 18.8%
  • Fish & sea food however shrink 5.82% in 2015 compared to 2010-2013 average;
  • Milk and milk products output was up 5.99% in 2010-2013 average.

Monday, May 16, 2016

16/5/16: Earnings Surprises and Share Price Impact

A very interesting summary graph from Factset on the impact of earnings performance relative to consensus expectations on share prices

In basic terms, upside to consensus is systemically rewarded, while downside impact decays over time. The chart reflects 5 years worth of data, so capturing the period of declining earnings, where positive surprises should naturally be priced at a premium. The question the data above raises is whether coincident or subsequent shares repurchases provide support to the upside for underperforming firms and/or for outperforming firms.

Remember, recent McKinsey research showed that deviations from consensus forecast do not matter that much when it comes to underwriting longer term returns: