What is it about GDP in the first quarter these days?

The behaviour of the UK economy so far in 2017 has been something of a hot potato in debate as the numbers swing one way and then the other. Let me give you an example of a ying and yang situation . The downbeat ying was provided last week by the official data on UK retail sales.

The 3 months to March shows a decrease of 1.4%; the third consecutive decrease for the underlying 3 month on 3 month pattern……Looking at the quarterly movement, the 3 months to March 2017 (Quarter 1) is the first quarterly decline since 2013 (Quarter 4).

That was ominous for today’s GDP release as the consumer sector had been part of the growth in the UK economy. Our official statisticians crunched the numbers as to the likely effect.

The 3-month period ending March 2017 coincides with Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2017 of the quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) output estimate. It marks the first negative contribution of retail sales to quarterly GDP growth since Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2013, contributing negative 0.08 percentage points (to 2 decimal places).

However only yesterday there was a yang to the ying from the Confederation of British Industry or CBI.

Retail sales growth accelerated in the year to April, with volumes rising faster than expected, according to the latest monthly CBI Distributive Trades Survey.

Here is some more detail.

59% of retailers said that sales volumes were up in April on a year ago, whilst 21% said they were down, giving a balance of +38%. This outperformed expectations (+16%), and was the highest balance since September 2015 (+49%)…….Sales volumes grew strongly in clothing (+97% – the highest since September 2010), and grocers (+40%). Meanwhile sales volumes decreased in specialist food & drink (-43%) and furniture & carpets (-30%).

If we stay with the specifics of the CBI report its is fascinating to see clothing leading the charge again. Regular readers will recall that this was the state of play last autumn and at that time it was female clothing in particular. So ladies if you have rescued us yet again we owe you another round of thanks. In such a situation you would be the consumer of last resort as well as often the first!

But the issue here is how does this fit with the official data? There is one way it might work and it comes down to the timing of Easter which was later this year than last. Whilst the official data does make seasonal adjustments I have seen this miss fire before. Perhaps the clearest generic example of this is first quarter GDP in the United States which year after year has been lower than the trend for the other quarters hinting at a systematic issue.

House prices

If these have been leading the charge for UK economic growth then this morning’s news will disappoint.

House prices recorded their second consecutive monthly fall in April, while the annual rate of growth slowed to 2.6%, the weakest since June 2013.

The date is significant as it was the summer of 2013 when the Bank of England lit the blue touch-paper for UK house prices with a new bank subsidy programme. The latest version of this called the Term Funding Scheme has risen in size to £57.5 billion.since its inception last August. Looking forwards if we allow for the obvious moral hazard this is hardly especially optimistic.

As a result, we continue to believe that a small increase in house prices of around 2% is likely over the course of 2017 as a whole.

The GDP data

UK gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated to have increased by 0.3% in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2017, the slowest rate of growth since Quarter 1 2016.

This was driven by the retail sales slow down and this.

Slower growth in Quarter 1 2017 was mainly due to services, which grew by 0.3% compared with growth of 0.8% in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2016……The services aggregate was the main driver to the slower growth in GDP, contributing 0.23 percentage points…….The main contributor to the slowdown in services was the distribution, hotels and restaurants sector, which decreased by 0.5%, contributing negative 0.07 percentage points to quarter-on-quarter GDP growth.

The services slow down will have had a big effect because it must be pretty much 80% of our economy by now. Officially it is 78.8%.

Actually much of the economy grew at this sort of rate.

Production, construction and agriculture grew by 0.3%, 0.2% and 0.3% respectively in Quarter 1 2017.

So a slowing on the end of 2016 but here is something to think about. UK GDP growth was 0.2% in the first quarter of 2016 so ironically it is better this year but also was 0.3% in 2015. Are we developing a similar problem to the US where it seems to be something of a hardy perennial situation and if so why?

Looking Forwards

As well as the more optimistic CBI retail sales report there was this from Monday.

The survey of 397 manufacturers found that domestic orders had improved at the fastest pace since July 2014 in the three months to April. Meanwhile export orders recorded the strongest growth in six years, supported by strong rises in competitiveness, particularly in non-EU markets which improved at a record pace.

It is not the only body which is looking forwards with some optimism.

The UK economy slowed sharply in Q1, as signalled by PMI. March rise in PMI suggests Q1 GDP could be revised up from 0.3% to 0.4%………Note that Q1 GDP was based on a forecast of no service sector growth in March. PMI showed strengthening ( Chris Williamson of Markit ).

What about the individual experience?

We have settled on GDP per capita as a better guide and this was frankly poor this time around.

GDP per head was estimated to have increased by 0.1% during Quarter 1 2017.

This adds to an issue which the chart below highlights, guess which of the lines is our more recent experience?

For the people who think that their individual experience has not backed up the claims of improvement there is food for thought in that chart.

Is GDP underecorded?

Tim Worstall wrote a piece for CapX this week telling us this.

For it’s obvious to our own eyes, and when properly adjusted GDP shows it once again, that we’ve all got much richer these recent decades.

Okay why?

The CPI overstates inflation – and thus understates how quickly real incomes are rising……Of course the ONS and others do the best they can but the current estimate is that inflation is overstated by 1 per cent a year. Or real income rises understated by it of course.

There are some interesting points on goods which are free ( WhatsApp for example) and ignored by GDP.  However it completely misses out the cost of housing which in recent times has been a major inflationary force in my mind. Would you rather have housing or the latest I-Pad?

Care is needed as of course there were substantial gains in the past but on this logic we are all much better off than we realise. Really?

Comment

The issue with first quarter growth was also true across the channel as the expectation and then the reality show below.

with 0.6% growth signalled for both Germany and France ( Markit )…….In Q1 2017, GDP in volume terms* slowed down: +0.3%, after +0.5% in Q4 2016 ( France Insee ).

So as we note the Bank of France was correct we await the US figures wondering what it is about first quarter GDP? For France this is not yet a sequence as last year was better but the UK and US seem trapped in a mire that appears to have a seasonal reappearance.

Looking ahead we were expecting higher inflation to bite on real incomes as 2017 progressed. As we stand a little of the edge of that has been taken off that impact. What I mean by that is the rise of the UK Pound £ to above US $1.29 helps with inflation prospects as does the fall in the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil to below US $52 per barrel. Of course they would need to remain there for this to play out.

Some posted some Blood Sweat & Tears lyrics a while back and they seem appropriate again.

What goes up, must come down
Spinning wheel got to go round
Talkin’ ’bout your troubles, it’s a cryin’ sin
Ride a painted pony, let the spinning wheel spin

The Greek crisis continues on its road to nowhere

Yesterday on my way to looking at the UK Public Finances I pointed out that Greece had a national debt to GDP ratio of 179% at the end of 2016. This came with some cheerleading from the Institutions ( they used to be called the Troika until the name became so damaged) and some of the media about a budget primary surplus of 4.2% of GDP although if we put debt costs back in the surplus shrinks to 0.7%. You may recall that the PSI or Private-Sector Involvement of 2012 was supposed to bring the debt position under control but the ongoing economic depression blew that out of the water as the economy tanked and debt rose.

A consequence of this situation is that as we head to the heights of summer Greece will need yet more funding as it has debt repayments to make. Actually repayments is too strong a word as the debt will in fact be rolled from one Euro area institution to another. Bloomberg updates us on the issue.

The heavily indebted Mediterranean nation needs the next installment of about 7 billion euros ($7.6 billion) to repay lenders in a few months

It always turns out like this as this is a road we have been down more than once.

The IMF says two conditions must be met before it co-finances the country’s ongoing third bailout. First, Athens must agree to a set of credible reforms, particularly of its pension and tax systems. Second, the IMF insists that the euro area ease Greece’s debt burden.

This is all so familiar as we are always told there has been great success on reform yet somehow more is always needed! Also the debt burden needs easing yet again.

Debt relief

The problem here comes from the number below.

The latest figures show Greece’s debt stands at 179 percent of its gross domestic product, or about 315 billion euros….. Currently the country owes about 216 billion euros to the European Stability Mechanism, the euro-area bailout fund (and its predecessor), as well as to other euro-area countries.

At the beginning of the saga Greece faced high interest costs as the theme was as US Treasury Secretary Timmy Geithner pointed out was one of punishment. This only made things worse as the economy shrunk further so the PSI was enacted. The flaw was that the ever-growing amount of debt held by the Euro area and IMF was excluded from any write-down as we muse the first rule of ECB club which is that it must always be repaid. As this ballooned an alternative more implicit rather than explicit debt relief programme was put in place . From the ESM ( European Stability Mechanism).

Moreover, the EFSF and ESM loans lead to substantially lower financing costs for the country. That is because the two institutions can borrow cash much more cheaply than Greece itself, and offer a long period for repayment. Greece will not have to start repaying its loans to the ESM before 2034, for instance.

It calculates the savings for Greece as follows.

Thanks to the debt relief measures approved by the Eurogroup, the Greek government saved an equivalent of 49% of its 2013 GDP. This includes savings of 34% of GDP thanks to eased conditions on EFSF loans to Greece.

You may note that Greece is always “saving” money and yet the debt burden gets worse. A clue to that is the section on economic progress which trumpets the current account, fiscal deficit and something which apparently the IMF needs to be told.

Greece has made major progress in carrying out structural reforms – it is the best performing economy in terms of implementing OECD recommendations on structural reforms.

Somehow it misses out what now must be called the Great Economic Depression which has ravaged the Greek economy. Also is this one of the reforms?

The government is preparing to honor a pledge to offer permanent status to civil servants in key posts of the public sector, Kathimerini understands, with legislation boosting their rights expected to head to Parliament soon.

 

Also a board member showed the confusion with this sentence in a speech on the 6th of March.

As the Eurogroup chairman Jeroen Dijsselbloem said, there is no immediate liquidity squeeze over the next months, but that does not mean that Greece does not need money.

Er?

The medicine

In spite of where we stand this remains the same as the FT points out.

Greece agreed this month to adopt measures that would improve its primary budget surplus – before paying debt servicing costs – by 2 per cent of gross domestic product.

It is a bit like the old-fashioned treatment of bleeding the patient where it was reported a success but sadly the patient died isn’t it? As usual the rhetoric is being revved up and last night Prime Minister Tsipras was doing exactly that although I note he has passed the responsibility for the changes to the next government.

The measures would be divided roughly equally between cuts in pensions due to be made in 2019 followed by a sharp reduction of the income tax threshold in 2020. But they could be implemented earlier if the budget surplus target veers off-track.

What is the economic outlook for Greece?

The background is favourable as the overall picture for the Euro area is good. However the business surveys do not seem to have picked this up. From the Markit PMI.

At 46.7 in March, down from 47.7 in February, the latest figure signalled a seventh successive deterioration in Greek manufacturing sector conditions. The rate of decline accelerated from the previous month, and was marked overall. Underlying the latest contraction was a sharp fall in new order intakes

There is a clear difference here with the official data which tells us this for January and February combined.

3.7% (rise) in the Manufacturing Production Index.

The official view is pretty much what it has been for the last five years.

Looking forward, the Bank of Greece expects GDP to grow by around 2.5% in 2017, although a downward revision of the December 2016 forecasts is likely due to the negative carry-over effect of the sharp decline in output in Q4 2016 (attributed mainly to the decline in gross fixed capital formation and government consumption). Downside risks to the economic outlook exist related to delays in the conclusion of the second review of the Programme, the impact of increased taxation on economic activity and reform implementation.

The situation regarding bank deposits in Greece is complex because the definition has changed however I note that the ECB gave Greece an extra 400 million Euros of Emergency Liquidity Assistance last month. So the money which left in 2015 has remained abroad. The latest bank lending survey of the Bank of Greece tells us this.

The demand for total loans remained also unchanged during the first quarter of 2017

Comment

This saga has been an economics version of Waiting for Godot. The price of Godot never arriving has been this.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in January 2017 was 23.5% compared to 24.3% in January 2016 and the upward revised 23.5% in December 2016…….

Yes it has fallen a bit but if we compare to the pre credit crunch low of 7.9% you get an idea of the scale of the issue. Also this now defines long-term unemployment especially for the young ( 15-24 ) where nearly half ( 48%) are unemployed.

As the band strikes up a familiar tune and we see claims of reform and progress I think this from Elvis is appropriate for Greece.

We’re caught in a trap
I can’t walk out
Because I love you too much baby

Why can’t you see
What you’re doing to me
When you don’t believe a word I say?

We can’t go on together
With suspicious minds
And we can’t build our dreams
On suspicious minds

 

 

What are the economic prospects for France?

This weekend sees the first stage of the French Presidential elections which seem to be uncertain even for these times. A big issue will be economic prospects which will be my subject of today. But before I do let me send my best wishes to the victims of the terrorist attack which took place in Paris last night. If we move back to the economic situation we can say that the background in terms of the Euro area looks the best it has been for a while. From French Statistics.

In Q1 2017 the Eurozone economy is expected to grow at a similar pace as registered at the end of 2016 (+0.4%), then slightly faster in Q2 (+0.5%) before returning to +0.4% in Q3 2017. The main force behind the expansion in aggregate activity should be private consumption which benefits from the increase in disposable income and favourable labour market conditions and despite the upturn in inflation which is eroding household purchasing power. Moreover investment is forecast to strengthen, driven by improved expectations about near term outlook. Also investment in construction should accelerate. Finally, the positive international environment will likely reinforce external demand growth and exports.

As you can see according to them Goldilocks porridge seems pretty much exactly the right temperature as everything is expected to rise.

What about France itself?

 Some perspective

If we look back 2016 was an erratic year where quarterly economic growth was 0.6%,-0.1%,0.2% and then 0.4%. So whilst it began and ended well there was a near recession in the middle. Overall the growth at 1.1% was in fact less than the 1.2% of 2015 and it does pose a question as that is the level of economic growth which has caused such problems in both Italy and Portugal. Indeed if we look back we see that as 2011 opened quarterly economic output was 509 billion Euros whereas in the last quarter of 2016 it had only risen by 4,4% to 531.6 billion Euros ( 2010 prices).

This lack of economic growth has contributed to what is the major economic problem in France right now.

In Q4 2016, the average ILO unemployment rate in metropolitan France and overseas departments stood at 10.0% of active population, after 10.1% in Q3 2016……Among unemployed, 1.2 million were seeking a job for at least one year. The long-term unemployed rate stood at 4.2% of active population in Q4 2016. It decreased by 0.1 percentage points compared to Q3 2016 and Q4 2015.

The fact so long after the credit crunch hit the unemployment rate is still in double-digits albeit only just echoes here. Also there is the issue of underemployment.

In Q4 2016, 6.2% of the employed persons were underemployed, a ratio decreasing by 0.1 percentage points quarter on quarter, and by 0.4 percentage points over a year. Underemployment mainly concerns people who have a part-time job and wish to work more.

Oh and if we return to the unemployment rate actually 10% is only a reduction because the previous quarter was revised higher. We could improve like that forever and remain at the same level!

The next consequence of slow/low economic growth can be found in the public finances.

At the end of 2016, the Maastricht debt accounted for €2,147.2 billion. It rose by €49.2 billion in 2016 after € +60.2 billion in 2015. It reached 96.0% of GDP at the end of 2016, after 95.6% at the end of 2015.

In essence this has risen from 65% pre credit crunch and the combination of an annual fiscal deficit and slow growth has seen it rise. France seems to have settled on an annual fiscal deficit of around the Maastricht criteria of 3% of GDP so to get the relative debt level down you can see how quickly it would need to grow.

What about prospects?

This morning’s business survey from Markit has been very positive.

The Markit Flash France Composite Output Index, based on around 85% of normal monthly survey replies, registered 57.4, compared to March’s reading of 56.8. The latest figure was indicative of the sharpest rate of growth in almost six years.

The idea that elections and indeed referenda weaken economies via uncertainty may need to be contained in Ivory Towers going forwards.

The numbers provide further evidence that the French private sector remains resilient to political uncertainty around the upcoming presidential election. Indeed, business optimism hit a multi-year high in April, with a number of respondents anticipating favourable business conditions following its conclusion.

Even better there was hope of improvement for the labour market.

Moreover, the rate of job creation quickened to a 68-month peak. Both manufacturers and service providers continued to take on additional staff, with the pace of growth sharper at the former.

However a little caution is required as we were told by this survey that there was manufacturing growth in February as the index was 52.2 but the official data told us this.

In February 2017, output diminished for the third month in a row in the manufacturing industry (−0.6% after −0.9% in January). It decreased sharply in the whole industry (−1.6% after −0.2%). Manufacturing output decreased slightly over the past three months (−0.3%)…..Over a year, manufacturing output also edged down (−0.5%)

Bank of France

In a reversal of the usual relationship the French central bank is more downbeat than the private business surveys as you can see below.

In March, industrial production rose at a less sustained pace than in February.

Whilst it describes the services sector as dynamic I note that its index for manufacturing fell from 104 in February to 103 in March leading to the overall picture described below.

According to the monthly index of business activity (MIBA), GDP is expected to increase by 0,3% in the first quarter of 2017. The slight revision (-0,1 point) of last month estimate does not change the overall perspective for the year.

The cost of housing

This is very different to the situation across La Manche ( the Channel) and a world apart from the Canadian position I looked at yesterday.

In Q4 2016, house prices slightly decreased compared to the previous quarter (−0.3%, not seasonally adjusted data) after two quarters of increase. This slight downturn was due to secondhand dwellings (−0.4%). However, the prices of new dwellings grew again (+0.7%).

Indeed some more perspective is provided by the fact that an annual rate of growth of 1.9% is presented as a rise!

Year on year, house prices accelerated further in Q4 2016 (+1.9% after +1.4% in Q3 and +0.7% in Q2). New dwelling prices grew faster (+2.9% y-o-y) than second-hand dwelling prices (+1.8%).

Not much seems to be happening to rents either.

In Q1 2017, the Housing Rent Reference Index stood at 125.90. Year on year, it increased by 0.51%, its strongest growth since Q2 2014.

Just for perspective the index was 124.25 when 2013 began so there is little inflation here.

Comment

There is much that is favourable for the French economy right now. For example the European Central Bank continues with very expansionary monetary policy with an official interest-rate of -0.4% and 60 billion Euros a month of QE bond purchases. The Euro as an exchange-rate is below the level at which it started although only by 6%. So France finds that it gets a boost from very low debt costs as the recent rise in them only leaves the ten-year yield at 0.83%.

So 2017 should be a good one although there is the issue of why other countries have out-performed France. We only have to look south to see a Spain where economic growth has been strong. A couple of years of that would help considerably. But as I type that I am reminded of some of the comments to yesterday’s article especially the one saying house prices in Barcelona are on the march again. To get economic growth these days do we need booming house prices? This leads into my argument that we are calling what is really partly inflation as growth. The catch is that the numbers tell people they are better off but then they find housing ever more expensive and increasingly frequently unaffordable. As we stand France does better here but is that at the cost of higher unemployment?

 

 

 

 

The currency peg problems of the Czech National Bank mount

A regular issue in economic  discussions is of course exchange-rates and their impact. There are strengths and weaknesses in both floating and fixed exchange-rates and today I am going to look at a variant of a fixed exchange-rate. The irony here is that it is caused by another fixed exchange-rate as we see yet another country struggling to cope with the consequences of being a near neighbour to the supermassive black hole that is the Euro project. We have at various times looked at Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland but today it is time to return to the Czech Republic. This feeds into another of my themes which is how do the central planners return to free markets? One issue that has arisen overnight is the one of some “being more equal than others” at such times. From Reuters.

Richmond Federal Reserve President Jeffrey Lacker abruptly left the U.S. central bank on Tuesday after admitting that a conversation he had with a Wall Street analyst in 2012 may have disclosed confidential information about Fed policy options.

The 2012 leak had triggered a criminal investigation after research firm Medley Global Advisors told its clients the details of a key Fed meeting a day before the Fed released its own record of the discussion.

At the Fed’s September 2012 policy meeting, officials laid the groundwork for the massive bond-buying stimulus they were to roll out later that year. Early knowledge of that discussion could have given some traders an unfair edge.

I do like the word “may” because if he did not do it why is he resigning? Also how has this dragged on to as it happens only 6 months before his retirement. Due to the scale of potential gains and losses here there should be a full investigation and maybe a criminal one. Ironically this is one of the few cases of central bank Forward Guidance being accurate which we can file with the foreign exchange dealings of the wife of a past head of the Swiss National Bank and the way the ECB used to privately brief its favourite hedge funds.

The Czech National Bank

Back in 2013 it did this.

The CNB Bank Board decided to use the exchange rate as a monetary policy instrument, and therefore to commence foreign exchange interventions, on 7 November 2013……This means the CNB will not allow the koruna to appreciate to levels it would no longer be possible to interpret as “close to CZK 27/EUR”. The CNB prevents such appreciation by means of automatic and potentially unlimited interventions, i.e. by selling koruna and buying foreign currency.

So a familiar move in that we see another central bank wanting a lower level for its currency. As ever the inflation target is used as cover for what is really yet another version of a competitive devaluation.

A weakening of the exchange rate of the koruna leads to an increase in import prices and thus also in the domestic price level.

Another familiar theme is the promise along the lines of “whatever it takes” or the infinite intervention promise made by the Swiss National Bank.

The CNB can use infinite amounts of koruna to purchase foreign currency, as it itself issues the Czech currency in both paper and electronic form. The CNB is resolved to intervene in such volumes and for such duration as needed to maintain the chosen exchange rate level.

The Czech economy

The labour market is one where the Czech economy has done extremely well according to the latest data. From Czech Statistics.

The general unemployment rate of the aged 15 – 64 years , seasonally adjusted, reached 3.5% in February 2017 and decreased by 0.8 p.p., year-on-year……..The employment rate , seasonally adjusted, reached 73.4% in February 2017 and increased by 1.9 percentage point (p.p.) compared to that in February 2016.

Even rarer was the strong growth in wages seen in 2016.

The continuous demand for labour force exerted pressure on the growth in earnings so the overall average wage increased nominally by 4.2%. The median wage, i.e. the wage of a middle employee determined from a mathematical-statistical model of the wage distribution, increased even more markedly by 6.0%.

They are by far the best labour market figures I have looked at for quite some time so let us continue with the good economic news.

In January 2017, working days adjusted industrial production increased at constant prices by 4.3%, year-on-year (y-o-y). Non-adjusted industrial production was by 9.6% higher. Seasonally adjusted industrial production increased by 3.5%, month-on-month (m-o-m). The value of new orders increased by 7.0%, y-o-y.

The main driver of this was the automobile sector.

manufacture of motor vehicles, trailers and semi-trailers (contribution +3.8 p.p., growth by 18.7%),

With the strong wages and employment data you will not be surprised to see that this morning’s retail sales data was positive as well.

In February 2017, seasonally adjusted sales in retail trade at constant prices increased by 0.9%, month-on-month (m-o-m). Sales adjusted for calendar effects increased by 4.8%, year-on-year (y-o-y).

Actually with all the good news above the total number for economic activity disappoints but is still solid.

According to a refined estimate, the gross domestic product in the fourth quarter of 2016 increased by 0.4%, quarter-on-quarter (q-o-q), and by 1.9%, year-on-year (y-o-y). The GDP growth for the entire year 2016 was 2.3%.

Looking ahead the manufacturing business surveys look strong so far in 2017.

Inflation

Back on the 10 th of January I highlighted this issue.

Consumer prices in December increased compared with November by 0.3%…….. The year-on-year growth of consumer prices amounted to 2.0%, i.e. 0.5 percentage points up on November. It is the highest year-on-year price growth since December 2012.

Well it isn’t the highest for that period anymore.

Consumer prices in February increased compared with January by 0.4%. This development was primarily due to a rise in prices in ‘food and non-alcoholic beverages’, ‘recreation and culture’. The year-on-year growth of consumer prices amounted to 2.5%, i.e. 0.3 percentage points up on January.

It was a grim month for healthy eaters in particular.

the increase in prices of vegetables by 15.2%, of which prices of potatoes rose by 24.1% and prices of vegetables cultivated for their fruit increased by 28.1%.

We are likely to see a fall in the annual rate in March if the experience elsewhere is repeated but none the less the objective has been reached.

Comment

The Czech economy is in good shape in many respects and quite a few countries would switch circumstances. Economic growth with a very healthy looking labour market although past central bankers might be wondering about responding especially with an interest-rate called “technical zero”. Added to this one could use the phrase “mission accomplished” on the inflation front so how do they respond?

sustainable fulfilment of the 2% inflation target in the future. Sustainable fulfilment of the target following the return to the conventional monetary policy regime is crucial for the timing of the exit from the exchange rate commitment.

The central planners fear an uncertain future and have got cold feet. The catch is that they are applying a very strong economic stimulus to an economy which is doing well so the policy is inappropriate also the countries the Czech Republic trades with will have good reason to wonder how much of the economic activity is being poached from them?

What is the exit strategy and will we see a Swiss National Bank style debacle?

House Prices

A familiar tale comes from the Global Property Guide.

Wow!  The average price of apartments in the Czech Republic surged by 11.87% (11.24% inflation-adjusted) during the year to Q3 2016, the country´s eleventh consecutive quarter of strong price hikes, according to the Czech Statistical Office (CZSO),

The ongoing disaster that is Novo Banco of Portugal

A constant theme of this website is an ongoing consequence of the credit crunch where more than a few banks have not been reformed and are still damaged goods. They are banks which were somewhat presciently sung about by the Cranberries.

Zombie, zombie, zombie

Certainly in that list was Banco Espirito Santo of Portugal which found itself in a spider’s web of corruption and bad loans. This led to this being announced by the Bank of Portugal in August 2014.

The Board of Directors of Banco de Portugal has decided on 3 August 2014 to apply a resolution measure to Banco Espírito Santo, S.A.. The general activity and assets of Banco Espírito Santo, S.A. are transferred, immediately and definitively, to Novo Banco, which is duly capitalised and clean of problem assets.

The point of this was supposed to be that Novo Banco would then be like its name, a New Bank. It would be clean of the past problems and would then thrive and the bad bank elements would be removed. Reuters took up the story.

Novo Banco, or New Bank – will be recapitalised to the tune of 4.9 billion euros by a special bank resolution fund created in 2012. The Portuguese state will lend the fund 4.4 billion euros.

At the time there were various issues as Portugal itself had only recently departed an IMF bailout so was not keen to explicitly bailout BES. Thus the bank resolution fund was used except of course it had nowhere near enough money so the state lent it most of it. These sort of Special Purpose vehicles are invariably employed to try to keep the debt out of the national debt. To be fair to Eurostat that usually does not work but left an awkward situation going forwards where in theory the other Portuguese banks created Novo Banco but in reality the Portuguese taxpayer provided most of the cash.

Novo Banco

As regular readers will be aware investors in Novo Banco later discovered that the word “clean” was a relative and not an absolute term.

The nominal amount of the bonds retransferred to Banco Espírito Santo, S.A. totals 1,941 million euros and corresponds to a balance-sheet amount of 1,985 million euros………This measure has a positive impact, in net terms, on the equity of Novo Banco of approximately 1,985 million euros.

This may have happened just after Christmas 2015 but there was no present here for the holders of these bonds who found them worth zero. To say that institutional investors were unhappy would be an understatement and I will return to this later but for now I just wish to point out that the bill is escalating and also how can a clean new bank have to do this?

The sale of Novo Banco

There were various efforts to sell Novo Banco which went nowhere and of course trust in the Bank of Portugal was damaged by what happened above which added to the misrepresentations issued by it as BES declined. Just over a year ago it published this.

Banco de Portugal has defined the terms of the new sale process of Novo Banco, following the re-launch announced on 15 January 2016.

This January the Lex Column of the Financial Times pointed out why buyers have been in short supply.

Available for purchase: one crippled bank suffering from poor credit quality and high costs. Location: Portugal. Important information: Potential for future damages arising from litigious creditors. The sale prospectus for Novo Banco does not look enticing.

It gets worse.

Quarterly losses since Novo’s creation have averaged €250m. A quarter of all loans are delinquent or “at risk” of being so.

Again we are left wondering exactly how the Bank of Portugal defines the word “clean”?! But whilst the FT thought there were bidders it looks to me that the only player was the appropriately named Lone Star.

Lone Star

What happened late on Friday was summarised by Patricia Kowsman of the Wall Street Journal.

Dallas-based Lone Star will inject €1 billion ($1.07 billion) in Novo Banco for a 75% stake, while a resolution fund supported by the system’s banks will hold the remainder. The setup could ultimately leave Portuguese taxpayers exposed to losses, which is what the country’s central bank had tried to avoid when it imposed a resolution on the lender almost three years ago.

Actually they are only paying 750 million Euros up front with the rest by 2020. But as we number crunch this there are a lot of problems.

  1. The nearly 2 billion Euros of bonds written off do not seem to have made the situation much better.
  2. The Portuguese Resolution Fund put in 4.9 billion Euros for a bank which is now apparently worth 1 and 1/3 billion.

The Resolution Fund took steps last September to cover this.

the maturity date of the loan will be adjusted so as to ensure that it will not be necessary to raise special contributions,

I would like to take you back to August 2014 when it told us this.

Therefore this operation will eventually involve no costs for public funds………..This applies even in exceptional cases, such as this one, in which the State is called upon to provide temporary financial support to the Resolution Fund, as that support will later be repaid (and remunerated through payment of interest) by the Fund.

The use of the word “temporary” was a warning as its official use is invariably the complete opposite of that to be found in a dictionary. Also I am reminded of my time line for a banking collapse.

5. The relevant government(s) tell us that they are stepping in to help the bank but the problems are both minor and short-term and are of no public concern.

6. The relevant government(s) tell us that the bank needs taxpayer support but through clever use of special purpose vehicles there will be no cost and indeed a profit is virtually certain.

Back in August 2014 we were told this. From Reuters.

“The plan carries no risk to public finances or taxpayers,” Carlos Costa, the central bank governor, told reporters in a late night news conference in Lisbon.

Litigation

You might think that things could not get much worse. Yet apparently they continue to do so. From Reuters.

Blackrock and other asset management institutions are seeking an injunction this week to block the sale of Portugal’s Novo Banco to U.S. private equity firm Lone Star.

Okay why?

The bond transfer had caused losses of about 1.5 billion for ordinary retail investors and pensioners

Comment

A critique of the banking bailouts has been the phrase “privatisation of profits and socialisation of losses ” and we see this at play here. Whilst there is a veil of a Special Purpose Vehicle ( the Resolution Fund) the Portuguese taxpayer has had to borrow money to back most of it. It is plain that we were not told the truth or anything remotely like the truth when a “clean” bank was created. As no cash at all has been returned from the sale of Novo Banco – the funds are to boost bank capital – they are left hoping that one day the money will be repaid except they have been diluted by a factor of four.

Let us take a happy scenario where Novo Banco now does well the majority of the gains will go to Lone Star and a minority to the Resolution Fund. So the minor stakeholder gets the majority of the returns? Oh and even worse the Fund is backing another sector of potential losses. From the Algarve Daily News.

In a statement issued today, PS party leader Carlos César says MPs “should know in detail all the preparatory and contractual aspects of the sale operation” – bearing in mind the State has no say in the bank’s management, but is guaranteeing to underwrite extraordinary losses of up to €4 billion.

In a happy scenario the other Portuguese banks will be likely to be able to put some extra money into the Resolution Fund but of course many of them have their own problems and the Portuguese economy could do with them backing it.

And a bad scenario? Well look at the sums above……..

 

 

 

Can the economy of Italy throw off its past shackles?

It is time to take another look at how the economy of Italy is performing and first let me point out that the backdrop is good. What I mean by that is that the outlook for the Euro area is currently rather good with this being reported by Markit at the end of last week.

Eurozone economic growth gathered further momentum in March, according to PMI® survey data, reaching a near six-year high…….The March flash PMI rounds off the best quarter for six years and signals GDP growth of 0.6% in the first quarter

That has been followed this morning by better news on the inflation front for March as lower petrol and diesel prices have pulled back both Spanish and some German regional inflation from the February highs this morning. Actually Spanish inflation seems very volatile and therefore difficult to read but this month’s picture seems lower than last even allowing for that. But overall there seem to be some economic silver linings around albeit that there was a cloud or two as the credit data lost some momentum.

What about Italy?

The sentiment numbers here released yesterday were positive as well.

With regard to the consumer survey, the confidence climate index grew in March 2017 from 106.6 to 107.6……With reference to the business surveys, the composite business confidence climate index (IESI, Istat Economic Sentiment Indicator) increased from 104.3 to 105.1.

However there was something rather Italian in all of this good news as I note this.

while the personal and current components worsened from 102.1 to 101.0 and from 104.7 to 104.5

Whilst the outlook is favourable it does not seem to have impacted so far on Italians themselves.

What about industry?

On Tuesday the Italian statistics office served up a swerving serve that Roger Federer would be proud of as its headline showed both industrial turnover (1.9%) and new orders (8.6%) rising. But if we look deeper as there were 21 days this year as opposed to 19 last we see this.

In January 2017 the seasonally adjusted turnover index decreased by -3.5% compared to the previous month (-2.3% in domestic market and -5.4% in non-domestic market)……..In January 2017 the seasonally adjusted industrial new orders index decreased by -2.9% compared with December 2016 (-6.6% in domestic market and +2.6% in non-domestic market).

So it was a bad January meaning that quarterly growth fell to 1.7% for turnover and 0.8% for new orders.

If we look for context of the Italian problem we see some of it in the underlying index which was set at 100 in 2010 and has now risen to 100.3. If we look further we see another sign as the growth has been export-led (121.7) whereas the domestic market has fallen to 91.5. Thus the domestic numbers are more depressionary than recessionary.

If we move to production we see that it fell by 0.5% in January leaving it at 93.8% of the level seen in 2010.

Retail Sales

If we look at the latest data we see that the better sentiment has yet to impact here.

In January 2017 the seasonally adjusted retail trade index increased by 1.4% with respect to December 2016 (+2.3% for food goods and +0.8% for non-food goods). The average of the last three months compared to the previous three months was unvaried. The unadjusted index decreased by 0.1% with respect to January 2016.

The underlying index returns us to thoughts of an economic depression as this time an index set at 100 in 2010 compares to 95.7 in January.

Employment and Unemployment

This continues a rather troubled pattern so let us start with the good bit.

The labour input used in the economic system (expressed by the hours worked in the national accounts) increased by 0.4% quarter-on-quarter and by 1.6% year-over-year.

So there is more work around but because of the past pattern it is hard to look past this.

The unemployment rate confirmed at 11.9%, up by 0.2 percentage points after the substantial stability over the four previous quarters.

Some of that is technical as the particpation rate rose reversing for example some of the arguments over the US labour market but it is also true that the previous year saw unemployment rise by 108,000. So we see that this problem is persisting when if we look at other metrics it should not be.

Also we get a clue perhaps as to the current issues with retail sales as we note that real wages are under pressure.

as a result of a 0.2% increase in wages ( in 2016).

 

Population

The numbers for 2016 are out and they tell us this.

The population at 1st January 2017 was estimated to be 60,579,000; the decrease on the previous year was 86,000 units (-1.4 per thousand).

This happened in spite of the growth from migration.

The net international migration in 2016 amounted to +135 thousand, a similar level to that seen in 2015. Compared to the latter it was determined by a higher number of inflows, 293 thousand, and a new record of outflows, for the recent time, equal to 157 thousand.

As we see people are leaving but are being replaced and some presumably mostly by those crossing the Mediterranean.

Also the demographics clock continued to tick. However let me also welcome this as people are living longer.

The mean age of the population at 1st January 2017 was 44.9 years, two tenths more than in 2016.

The banks

This has become a little like the never-ending story. After all what news is there some 3 months down the road after the announcement of a bailout for Monte Paschi. Well according to Bloomberg there are ongoing arguments.

In the view of some ECB Supervisory Board members, while Monte Paschi cleared the hurdles for aid, its viability was bolstered by unrealistic valuations of its bad loan portfolio, the people said. The board gave the all-clear even though the possibility that Monte Paschi sold junior bonds inappropriately to retail investors wasn’t fully reflected in the solvency assessment, they said.

There is also the issue of what will happen to Banca Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca. The official view is that this will be solved “soon” which is a line they also use for Greece.

Also remember the Atlante bailout fund which was supposed to rescue things which rather embarrassingly was followed by Atlante 11 as it needed more funds, how is it going? From Teleborsa.

Intesa Sanpaolo is not prepared to add other loans in the Fund Atlas. It does not leave space for imagination Carlo Messina, CEO of the banking group……..”There is no doubt that today the one to which we must aim is to safeguard the investment made in Atlas “

Perhaps he is worried by this in 24 ORE.

Altogether, as reconstructed by Radiocor Plus, the adjustments made by the top 12 Italian banks that have joined Atlas amounted to 1.01 billion, compared with 1.98 billion actually paid into the fund on December 31 last year (about l ‘ 80% of the 2.45 billion total commitment declared by the main institutions). Less than a year after the birth of the fund, the average write-down was then 51.2% of actual amounts paid.

Comment

As ever there is much to consider and if we look at the forecast of the Bank of Italy against what is for once a favourable backdrop I am reminded of the “Girlfriend in a Coma” theme of Bill Emmott.

We expect GDP to expand, on an annual basis, by 0.9 per cent this year and the next and by 1.1 per cent in 2018 and 2019.

This reinforces my theme that even in the good years Italy manages around 1% economic growth which means that by the time we allow for downturns it is on a road to nowhere. Actually that explains its experience in the Euro area and as the population has grown it has seen GDP per capita fall by around 6%.

If we move to the banking sector we see something very sclerotic which is plainly holding the economy back as we not even the official data shows Non-Performing Loans at 16.24% of the total. If it is true that the Monte Paschi numbers have been “massaged” (again…) then I fear for what the real number is. Yet real reform never seems to actually turn up as we mull another apparently never-ending story.

 

 

It is always about the banks or in central banker speak “The Precious”

If we look back over the credit crunch era we were told that bailing out the banks would lead us into a better future. The truth nearly a decade later in some cases ( Northern Rock in the UK) is that we see a situation where central banks have enormous balance sheets and low interest-rates dominate with the Euro area and Japan in particular having negative interest-rates. That is most odd in the Euro area as of course we have been told only this morning by the Purchasing Managers indices that growth in France and Germany is strong. So something has changed and is not quite right and if we look we see signs of trouble in the banking industry even after all the bailouts and accommodative monetary policy.

Royal Bank of Scotland

This has turned out to be the doppelgänger of the concept of the gift which keeps on giving. Each year we have had promises of recovery at RBS from whoever is in charge and each year that fades to then be replaced by the same in a so far endless cycle.  Rather like Greece actually. Also the original promise of the UK taxpayer getting their money back seems further away than ever as the price of £2.40 is less than half of what was paid back then. Quite an achievement when we see so many stock markets close to all time highs.

As to the economic effect well claims of benefits have had to face a stream of bad news of which there was more yesterday. From the BBC.

Hundreds of jobs will be lost following a decision to close almost 160 RBS and NatWest branches.

RBS blamed a “dramatic shift” in banking, with branch transactions falling 43% since 2010.

In the same period, online and mobile transactions have increased by more than 400%.

Whilst online and mobile transactions have plainly surged it is also true that all bad news is claimed as somebody else’s fault. If you have a zombie bank wallowing on then you will of course be affected by change especially in this sort of timeframe.

RBS remains still majority-owned by taxpayers following its multi-billion government bailout almost a decade ago.

If we look back to the UK motor industry bailouts were stopped because the business model no longer applied yet that critique seems to have been forgotten. I note that after of course a fair bit of economic pain the motor industry is producing record figures.

Co-op Bank

I wrote about the latest problems of this bank on the 13th of February and this morning I note we have a sort of official denial of trouble in the Financial Times.

Co-Operative Bank says “a number” of suitors have come forward since it announced plans to fin a buyer in February.

This gives rather a different picture to this from Sky News on Tuesday.

Co-op Bank bonds have been trading at little more than 80p in the pound this week, underlining investors’ pessimism that a £400m repayment due in September will be made.

Talk is cheap but apparently those bonds are not cheap enough?! Easy money if you believe the hype especially at a time of low interest-rates and yields.

But you see I warned about this back in February.

The problem in my opinion is that when a bank has trouble the record is simply that so far we have never been told the full truth at the beginning.

And note this from Sky News.

One insider said the Bank of England had hosted a meeting last week at which the Co-op Bank’s problematic pension schemes had been discussed.

The losses of £477 million last year and the announced need for £750 million should there not be a sale are hardly good portents. Back in February I feared the Bank of England might find itself stepping in and that danger has increased in the meantime.

Portugal

My eyes were drawn to this yesterday from Patricia Kowsman of the Wall Street Journal.

Portugal state-owned bank raises EUR500M carrying hefty 10.75% interest. Says 49% of buyers asset managers, 41% hedge funds. Majority in UK.

In these times an interest-rate of 10.75% is extraordinary for a state-owned bank and compares to a ten-year bond yield for Portugal that has been around 4% for a while. Why might this be so?

Also on Wednesday, a group of major international investors that suffered losses on Novo Banco’s senior bonds issued a warning to the Portuguese authorities and indicated that an agreement to minimize those losses would be beneficial to the country. The group, led by BlackRock and PIMCO, said Portugal and Portuguese banks continue to pay the Bank of Portugal’s decision to transfer obligations from the New Bank to BES ‘bad’ at the end of 2015.( Economia)

So a past bailout has caused what Taylor Swift would call “trouble,trouble, trouble” and if we return to Patricia the record of Caixa Geral de Depósitos has been very poor.

Well, it’s a state-owned bank that had a EUR1.86B loss last year, big NPLs, in a country with a v weak banking system ( NPLs are Non Performing Loans)

We find ourselves in a situation where a past bailout ( BES) have made life more difficult for a current one and the Portuguese taxpayer ends up being held over a barrel especially after the European Commission declared this.

CGD will also take actions to further strengthen its capital position from private sources

This bit raised a wry smile.

the Commission analysed the injection of €2.5 billion of new equity into CGD by Portugal and found that it generates a sufficient return that a private investor would have accepted as well.

Can they see the future now? Shall we call it forward guidance…..

Italy

Speaking of forward guidance around this time last year Finance Minister Padoan was telling us that bailouts were not going to be required for Italy’s banks and Prime Minister Renzi was telling us what a good investment the shares of Monte Paschi were. Anyway if we move to this Wednesday Reuters were reporting this.

Italy’s plans to bail out two regional banks pose a tough dilemma to European regulators, who are still considering whether Monte dei Paschi qualifies for state aid, three months after giving a preliminary green light.

Banca Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca said

If they hang on long enough with Monte dei Paschi maybe something will turn up. Oh and there is Unicredit the largest bank which I called a zombie on Sky News about five years ago. It is issuing another 13 billion Euros of shares which further dilutes shareholders who of course have had to dig deep into their pockets before. Also there were plenty of rumours that it was a big recipient from the ECB TLTRO ( cheap money for banks) this week. Looking more generally Frederik Ducrozet of  Bank Pictet thought this.

Extrapolating from the share of each country in previous operations, Italy and Spain would account for at least 60% of total TLTROs holdings.

Greece

The official mantra has been along the lines of D-Ream’s “Things can only get better” and yet this happened this week. From the Bank of Greece.

On 22 March 2017 the Governing Council of the ECB did not object to an ELA-ceiling for Greek banks of €46.6 billion, up to and including Wednesday, 5 April 2017, following a request by the Bank of Greece.

The increase of €0.4 billion in the ceiling reflects developments in the liquidity situation of Greek banks, taking into account private sector deposits flows.

In a situation where we keep being told the Greek economy is improving?

Comment

This is like an economic version of the never-ending story. Proclamations of success and triumph are followed by “move along please, nothing to see here” and then well you know! In addition to the bailouts there are other schemes to help the banks. For example the cheap loans offered by the Bank of England under its Term Funding Scheme have now reached some £47.25 billion. If we move to Europe I note that Bank Pictet think this.

In aggregate, the maximum subsidy from those long-term loans at a negative rate is EUR3bn on an annual basis, compared with a total cost of the ECB’s negative deposit rate of around EUR5.5bn (a number that will grow to over EUR8bn as QE continues).

As you can see some of it is hidden or to be more precise not generally known. The biggest critique is simply the “lost decade” for the banking sector we seem trapped in and we learnt explicitly from the chief economist of the Bank of England earlier this week that different rules apply to his “Precious”. From Chris Giles of the Financial Times.

why does the chief econ of BoE think banks accounting for a third of the productivity puzzle is peanuts?

When people look away though banks seem to return to type.

Credit Suisse Group AG increased its bonus pool 6 percent…….The bank is increasing its bonus pool for the first time since 2013 in spite of a second consecutive annual loss.

 

Reuters

After posting this I note that a long post from Reuters has a different perspective to mine.

Banks used to have a cosy relationship with Britain’s government. Now they say they are struggling to be heard as the country prepares to leave the EU…….

 

Or perhaps not albeit from a different corner.

Senior bankers expected special treatment from the government after Britain voted to leave the EU. They expected ministers to champion their cause, above other industries,