The economic depression in Greece looks set to continue

A feature of the economic crisis that enfolded in Greece was the fantasy that economic growth would quickly recover. It seems hard to believe now that anyone could have expected the economy to grow at 2% ot so per annum from 2012 onwards but the fans of what Christine Lagarde amongst others called “shock and awe” did. I was reminded of that when I read this from the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday.

Greece has now entered a period of economic growth that puts it among the top performers in the eurozone.

That is to say the least somewhat economical with the truth as this from the Greek statistics office highlights.

The available seasonally adjusted data
indicate that in the 4th quarter of 2018 the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 0.1% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2018.

So actually it may well have left rather than entered a period of economic growth which is rather different. Over the past year it has done this.

in comparison with the 4th quarter of 2017, it increased by 1.6%.

What this showed was another signal of a slowing economy as 2018 overall was stronger.

GDP for 2018 in volume terms amounted to 190.8 billion euro compared with 187.2 billion euro for 2017 recording an increase of 1.9%.

There is a particular disappointment here as the Greek economy had expanded by 1% in the autumn of last year leading to hopes that it might be about the regain at least some of the ground lost in its depression. Now we find an annual rate of growth that is below the one that was supposed to start an up,up and away recovery in 2012. Nonetheless the IMF is playing what for it is the same old song.

We expect growth to accelerate to nearly 2½ percent this year from around 2 percent in 2018. This puts Greece in the upper tier of the eurozone growth table.

Money Supply

This has proved to be a good guide of economic trends in the Euro area so let us switch to the Bank of Greece data set so we can apply it to Greece alone. The recent peak for the narrow money measure M1 was an annual rate of growth of 7.3% in December 2017 and then mostly grew between 5% and 6% last year. But then the rate of growth slowed to 3.8% last December and further to 2.7% in January.

I am sorry to say that a measure which has worked well is now predicting an economic slow down in Greece and perhaps more contractions in the first half of this year. Looking further ahead broad money growth has slowed from above 6% in general in 2018 to 4.2% in December and 3.3% in January. This gives us a hint towards what economic growth and inflation will be in a couple of years time and the only good thing currently I can say is that Greece tends to have low inflation.

The numbers have been distorted to some extent by the developments mentioned by the IMF below but they are much smaller influences now.

 For example, customers are now free to move their cash to any bank in Greece, and the banks themselves have almost fully repaid emergency liquidity assistance provided by the European Central Bank.

The Greek banks

Even in the ouzo hazed world of the IMF these remain quite a problem.

Third, we are urging the government to do more to fix banks, which remain crippled by past-due loans. This will help households and businesses to once again be able to borrow at reasonable interest rates.

They have another go later.

Directors encouraged the authorities to take a more comprehensive, well-coordinated approach to strengthening bank balance sheets and reviving growth-enhancing lending.

There are two issues with this and let me start with how many times can the Greek banks be saved? Money has been poured again and again into what increasingly looks like a bottomless pit. Also considering they think bank lending is weak – hardly a surprise in the circumstances – on what grounds do they forecast a pick-up in economic growth?

Back on the 29th of January I pointed out that the Bank of Greece was already on the case.

An absolutely indicative example can assess the immediate impact of a transfer of about €40 billion of NPLs, namely all denounced loans and €7.4 billion of DTCs ( Deferred Tax Credits).

So the banks remain heavily impaired in spite of all the bailouts and are no doubt a major factor in this.

vulnerabilities remain significant and downside risks are rising……………. If selected fiscal risks materialize, the sovereign’s repayment capacity could become challenged over the medium term.

That would complete the cycle of disasters as about the only bit of good news for the Institutions in the Greek bailout saga is this.

The government exceeded its 2018 primary fiscal balance target of 3.5 percent of GDP,

Moving out of the specific area of public finances we see that money is being sucked out of the economy to achieve this which acts as a drag on economic growth.

The Eurogroup

It does not seem quite so sure that things are going well as it refrains for putting its money behind it at least for now. From Monday.

The finance ministers of the 19-member Eurozone have decided to postpone disbursing 1 billion euros ($1.12 billion) to Greece.

The reason for postponing the payment is that Greece has not yet changed the provisions of a law protecting debtors’ main housing property from creditors to the EU’s satisfaction. ( Kathimerini).

Euro area

The problem with saying you are doing better than the general Euro area is twofold. If we start with the specific then it was not true in the last quarter of last year and if we move to the general Greece should be doing far, far better as it rebounds from the deep recession/depression it has been in. That is not happening.

Also beating the Euro area average is not what it was as this from earlier highlights. From Howard Archer.

Muted news on as German Economy Ministry says economy likely grew moderately in Q1 & warns on industrial sector. Meanwhile, institute cuts 2019 growth forecast sharply to 0.6% from 1.1%, citing weaker foreign demand for industrial goods.

Some have been pointing out that this matches Italy although that does require you to believe that Italy will grow by 0.6% this year.

Comment

Let me shift tack and now look at this from the point of view of how the IMF used to operate. This was when it dealt with trade issues and problems rather than finding French managing directors shifting its focus to Euro area fiscal problems. If you do that you find that the current account did improve in the period 2011-13 substantially but never even got back to balance and then did this.

The current account (CA) deficit was wider than anticipated, reaching 3.4 percent of GDP (though in part due to methodological revisions). Higher export prices and strong external demand were more than offset
by rising imports due to the private consumption recovery, energy price hikes, and the large import share in exports and investment. The primary income deficit widened due to higher payments on foreign investments.

That is quite a failure for the internal competitiveness model ( lower real wages) especially as we noted on January 29th that times were changing there. So the old measure looks grim in fact so grim that I shall cross my fingers and hope for more of this.

The tourism and travel sector in Greece grew 6.9 percent last year, a rate that was three-and-a-half times higher than the growth rate of the entire Greek economy, a survey by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has noted.

The survey illustrated that tourism accounted for 20.6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, against a global rate of just 10.4 percent.

This means that one in every five euros spent in Greece last year came from the tourism and travel sector, whose turnover amounted to 37.5 billion euros. ( Kathimerini ).

The Investing Channel

 

 

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UK GDP growth was strong in January meaning we continue to rebalance towards services

This will be an interesting day on the political front but there is also much to consider on the economic one. We have a stronger UK Pound £ this morning with it above US $1.32 and 1.17 versus the Euro which as usual on such days has been accompanied by the currency ticker on Sky News disappearing. We also heard yesterday from the newest member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee Jonathan Haskel. As it has taken him six months to give one public speech I was hoping for a good one as well as wondering if he might have the cheek to lecture the rest of us on productivity?! So what did we get.

Very early there was an “I agree with Mark (Carney)” as I note this.

see for example speeches by (Carney, 2019) and (Vlieghe, 2019)

The subject was business investment which in the circumstances also had Jonathan tiptoeing around the political world but let us avoid that as much as we can and stick to the economics.

First, as has been widely noted, UK investment has been very weak in the last couple of years, especially
during the last year, see for example speeches by (Carney, 2019) and (Vlieghe, 2019) suggesting that Brexit
uncertainty is weighing on business investment. Second, looking at the assets that make up investment
reveals some interesting patterns: transport equipment has been particularly weak, but intellectual property
products (R&D, software, artistic originals) were somewhat stronger. Third, regarding Brexit, as Sir Ivan
Rogers, the UK’s former representative to the EU, has said (Rogers, 2018), “Brexit is a process not an
event”. That process has the possibility of creating more cliff-edges; the length of the
transitional/implementation period, for example. Since the nature of investment is that it needs payback
over a period of time there is a risk that prolonged uncertainty around the Brexit process might continue to
weigh down on investment.

The issue of business investment is that it has been the one area which has been consistently weak since the EU Leave vote. How big a deal is it?

To fix ideas, Table 1 contains nominal investment
in the UK for 2018. As the top line sets out, it was close
to £360bn. Remembering that nominal GDP is £2.1 trillion, this is around 17% of GDP.

Regular readers will know I am troubled as to how investment is defined and to be fair to Jonathan he does point that out. However this is also classic Ivory Tower thinking which imposes an economic model on a reality which is unknown. Have we see a high degree of uncertainty? Yes and that has clearly impacted on investment but what we do not know is how much will return under the various alternatives ahead. Though from the implications of Jonathan’s thoughts the Forward Guidance of interest-rate increases seems rather inappropriate to say the least.

Raghuram Rajan

There has been a curious intervention today by the former head of the Reserve Bank of India. He has told the BBC this.

“I think capitalism is under serious threat because it’s stopped providing for the many, and when that happens, the many revolt against capitalism,” he told the BBC.

The problem is that a fair bit of that has been driven by central bankers with policies which boost asset prices and hence the already wealthy especially the 0.01%.

The UK economy

The opening piece of official data today was very strong.

Monthly gross domestic product (GDP) growth was 0.5% in January 2019, as the economy rebounded from the negative growth seen in December 2018. Services, production, manufacturing and construction all experienced positive month-on-month growth in January 2019 after contracting in December 2018.

Production data has been in the news as it has internationally slowed so let us dip into that report as well.

Production output rose by 0.6% between December 2018 and January 2019; the manufacturing sector provided the largest upward contribution, rising by 0.8%, its first monthly rise since June 2018……In January 2019, the monthly increase in manufacturing output was due to rises in 8 of the 13 subsectors and follows a 0.7% fall in December 2018; the largest upward contribution came from pharmaceuticals, which rose by 5.7%.

We had been wondering when the erratic pharmaceutical sector would give us another boost and it looks like that was in play during January. For newer readers its cycle is clearly not monthly and whilst it has grown and been a strength of the UK economy it is sensible to even out the peaks and troughs. But in the circumstances the overall figure for January was good.

Some Perspective

This is provided by the quarterly data as whilst the January data was nice we need to recall that December was -0.4% in GDP terms. The -0.4% followed by a 0.5% rise is rather eloquent about the issues around monthly GDP so I will leave that there and look at the quarterly data.

Rolling three-month growth was 0.2% in January 2019, the same growth rate as in December 2018.

This seems to be working better and is at least more consistent not only with its own pattern but with evidence we have from elsewhere.Also there is a familiar bass line to it.

Rolling three-month growth in the services sector was 0.5% in January 2019. The main contributor to this was wholesale and retail trade, with growth of 1.1%. This was driven mostly by wholesale trade.

This shows that we continue to pivot towards the services sector as it grows faster than the overall economy and in this instance it grew whilst other parts shrank exacerbating the rebalancing.

Production output fell by 0.8% in the three months to January 2019, compared with the three months to October 2018, due to falls in three main sectors……The three-monthly decrease of 0.7% in manufacturing is due mainly to large falls of 4.0% from basic metals and metal products and 2.0% from transport equipment.

Continuing the rebalancing theme we have seen this throughout the credit crunch era as essentially the growth we have seen has come from the services sector.

Production and manufacturing output have risen since then but remain 6.8% and 2.7% lower respectively for the three months to January 2019 than the pre-downturn gross domestic product (GDP) peak in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2008.

Overall construction has helped also I think but the redesignation of the official construction data as a National Statistic  after over 4 years is an indication of the problems we have seen here. Accordingly our knowledge is incomplete to say the least.

Returning to the production data this was sadly no surprise.

Within transport equipment, weakness is driven by a 4.0% fall in the motor vehicles, trailers and semi-trailers sub-industry.

Also I will let you decide for yourselves whether this monthly change is good or bad as it has features of both.

 was a 17.4% rise for weapons and ammunition, the strongest rise since March 2017, when it rose by 25.7%.

Comment

We arrive at what may be a political crossroads with the UK economy having slowed but still growing albeit at a slow rate. There is something of an irony in us now growing at a similar rate to the Euro area although if we look back we see that over the past half-year or so we have done better. That was essentially the third quarter of last year when Euro area GDP growth fell to 0.1% whereas the UK saw 0.6%.

If we look back over the last decade or so it is hard not to have a wry smile at the “rebalancing” rhetoric of former Bank of England Governor Baron King of Lothbury who if we look at it through the lens of the film Ghostbusters seems to have crossed the streams. Speaking of such concepts there was a familiar issue today.

The total trade deficit (goods and services) widened £1.3 billion in the three months to January 2019, as the trade in goods deficit widened £2.4 billion, partially offset by a £1.1 billion widening of the trade in services surplus.

Although we got a clue to a major issue here as we note this too.

Revisions resulted in a £0.8 billion narrowing of the total trade deficit in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2018, due largely to upward revisions to the trade in services surplus.

So in fact we only did a little worse than what we thought we had done at the end of last year. Also one of my main themes about us measuring services trade in a shabby fashion is highlighted yet again as the numbers were revised down and now back up a bit.

In Quarter 4 2018 the trade in services balance contributed £1.1 billion to the upward revision of £0.8 billion in the total trade balance as exports and imports were revised up by £3.3 billion and £2.3 billion respectively.

Pretty much the same ( larger though) happened to the third quarter as regular readers mull something I raised at the (Sir Charlie) Bean Review. This was the lack of detail about services trade. I got some fine words back but note today’s report has a lot of detail about goods trade in 2018 but absolutely none on services.

 

 

A bond issue does little for the problem of plunging investment in Greece

Today brings a development which will no doubt be trumpeted across the media and it is explained by this from Reuters yesterday,

Greece will return to bond markets with a five-year issue “in the near future, subject to market conditions”, authorities said on Monday.

The sovereign has mandated BofA Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs International Bank, HSBC, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley and SG CIB as joint lead managers for the transaction, according to a regulatory filing to the stock exchange.

The near future is today as we mull that in spite of its role in the Greek economic crisis Goldman Sachs is like the Barnacles in the writings of Charles Dickens as it is always on the scene where money is involved. As to why this is happening the Wall Street Journal explains.

Greece‘s borrowing costs have dropped to a four-month low, and Athens plans to raise up to $3.4 billion in a bond sale.

Although it is not turning out to be quite as cheap as the 3.5% hoped for.

Greece Opens Books For New 5 Year Bond, Initial Guidance For Yield 3.75-3.875% – RTRS Source ( @LiveSquawk)

Why are investors buying this?

The obvious objection is the default history of Greece but in these times of ultra low yields ~3.8% is not be sniffed at. This is added to by the Euro area slow down which could provoke more ECB QE and whilst Greece does not currently qualify it might as time passes. In the mean time you collect 3.8% per annum.

Why is Greece offering it?

This is much more awkward for the politicians and media who trumpet the deal because it is a bad deal in terms of financing for Greece. It has been able to borrow off the European Stability Mechanism at not much more than 1% yield for some time now. Actually its website suggests it has been even cheaper than that.

0.9992% Average interest rate charged by ESM on loans (Q1 2018)

Past borrowing was more expensive so the overall ESM average is according to it 1.62%. So Greece is paying a bit more than 2% on the average cost of borrowing from the ESM which is hardly a triumph. Even worse the money will have to be borrowed again in five years time whereas the average ESM maturity is 32 years ( and may yet be an example of To Infinity! And Beyond!).

So there is some grandstanding about this but the real reason is escaping from what used to be called the Troika and is now called the Institutions. The fact the name had to be changed is revealing in itself and I can understand why Greece would want to step away from that episode.
As we move on let me remind you that Greece has borrowed some 203.8 billion Euros from the ESM and its predecessor the EFSF.

The economy

We can see why the Greek government wants to establish its ability to issue debt and stay out of the grasp of the institutions as we note this from Kathimerini.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced an 11 percent increase in the minimum wage during a cabinet meeting on Monday, the first such wage hike in the country in almost a decade.

Actually the sums are small.

The hike will raise the minimum wage from 586 to 650 euros and is expected to affect 600,000 employees. He also said the government will scrap the so-called subminimum wage of 518 euros paid to young employees.

There are two catches here I think. Firstly in some ways Greece is competing with the Balkan nations which have much lower average wages than we are used to. Also this reverses the so-called internal competitiveness model.

The standard mimimum monthly wage was slashed by 22 percent to 586 euros in 2012, when Greece was struggling to emerge from a recession.

A deeper cut was imposed on workers below 25 years, as part of measures prescribed by international lenders to make the labour market more flexible and the economy more competitive.

Productivity

Here we find something really rather awkward which in some ways justifies the description of economics as the dismal science. Let me start with a welcome development which is the one below.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in October 2018 was 18.6% compared to 21.0% in October 2017 and 18.6% in September 2018 ( Greece Statistics Office)

But the improving labour market has not been matched by developments elsewhere as highlighted by this.

we documented that employment had started to lead output growth in the early days of the SYRIZA government. Since such a policy is unsustainable, we have to include in any consistent outlook that this process reverses and output starts leading employment again – hence restoring positive productivity growth. ( Kathimerini)

That led me to look at his numbers and productivity growth plunged to nearly -5% in 2015 and was still at an annual rate of -3% in early 2016. Whilst he says we “have to include” an improvement the reality is that it has not happened yet as this year has seen two better quarters and one weaker one. We have seen employment indicators be the first sign of a turn in an economy before but they normally take a year or so to be followed by the output indicator not three years plus. This reminds us that Greek economic growth is nothing to write home about.

The available seasonally adjusted data
indicate that in the 3rd quarter of 2018 the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) in volume terms increased by 1.0% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2018, while
in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2017, it increased by 2.2%.

If it could keep up a quarterly rate of 1% that would be something but the annual rate is in the circumstances disappointing. After all the decline was from a quarterly GDP of 62 billion Euros at the peak in 2009 whereas it is now 51.5 billion. So the depression has been followed by only a weak recovery.

More debt

I looked at the woes of the Greek banks yesterday but in terms of the nation here is the Governor of the central bank from a speech last week pointing to yet another cost on the way to repairing their balance sheets

An absolutely indicative example can assess the immediate impact of a transfer of about €40 billion of NPLs, namely all denounced loans and €7.4 billion of DTCs ( Deferred Tax Credits).

Comment

Whilst I welcome the fact that Greece has finally seen some economic growth the problem now is the outlook. The general Euro area background is not good and Greece has been helped by strong export growth currently running at 7.6%. There have to be questions about this heading forwards then there is the simply woeful investment record as shown by the latest national accounts.

Gross fixed capital formation (GFCF) decreased by 23.2% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2017.

The scale of the issue was explained by the Governor of the central bank in the speech I referred to earlier.

However, in order to increase the capital stock and thus the potential output of the Greek economy, positive net capital investment is indispensable. For this to happen, private investment must grow by about 50% within the next few years. In other words, the Greek economy needs an investment shock, with a focus on the most productive and extrovert business investment, to avoid output hysteresis and foster a rebalancing of the growth model in favour of tradeable goods and services.

Yet as we stand with the banks still handicapped how can that happen? Also if we return to the productivity discussion at best it will have one hand tied behind its back by as the lack of investment leads to an ageing capital stock. So whilst the annual rate of economic growth may pick up at the end of 2018 as last year quarterly growth was only 0.2% I am worried about the prospects for 2019.

It should not be this way and those who created this deserve more than a few sleepless nights in my opinion.

The ESM is being made ready to lead the next set of Euro area bailouts

Yesterday saw something of a change in the way that the Euro area would deal with a future crisis. A special purpose vehicle or SPV that was created in response to the post credit crunch crisis is expanding its role. This is the ESM or European Stability Mechanism which was the second effort in this area as the initial effort called the European Financial Stability Fund or EFSF turned out to be anything but that. However that was then and this is now at let me explain the driving force behind all of this which the EFSF highlighted in a press release on the 9th of this month.

The European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) raised €4 billion today in a new 5-year benchmark bond, completing the EFSF’s funding needs for 2018………..The spread of the 0.20% bond, maturing on 17 January 2024, was fixed at mid swaps minus 13 basis points, for a reoffer yield of 0.258%. The order book was in excess of €5.3 billion.

As you can see it can borrow on extraordinarily cheap terms as it borrows at 0.26% for five years. Back in the day there were questions as to what interest-rate these collective Euro area institutions would be able to borrow at? We now know that they have been able to borrow if not at Germany;s rate ( it was around -0.15% on that day) at what we might consider to be a Germanic rate. Or as Middle of the Road put it.

Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep chirp

In a way it is extraordinary but amidst the turmoil these two vehicles which whilst they still have differences are treated by markets pretty much as they are one have been able to do this. From the 2017 annual report.

The ESM has a strong financial capacity. The EFSF
and the ESM together have disbursed €273 billion in
loans since inception. The ESM has an unused lending
capacity of €380 billion, after taking into account
the maximum possible disbursements to Greece.

As you can see there is still plenty of ammunition in the locker and once the Euro area switched course from punishing nations ( too late for Greece) it allowed it to trumpet things like the one below.

As a result of ESM and EFSF lending terms, our five beneficiary countries saved a total of €16.6 billion in debt service payments in 2017, compared to the assumed market cost of funding. Greece alone saved €12 billion last year, the equivalent of 6.7% of the country’s GDP.

Yet it is in fact a geared SPV which is another of its attractions until of course the day that really matters.

to ensure the preservation of the paid-in capital of €80.4 billion.1 This money was paid in by the 19 euro area countries, and is by far the largest paid-in capital of any IFI.

Okay so what changes are planned?

This was explained on Friday in Les Echos by ESM Chair Klaus Regling.

The ESM will play a more important role in financial crisis management together with the European Commission. At the beginning of the crisis, there was the troika consisting of the Commission, the ECB and the IMF. With the third programme for Greece in 2015, the ESM was added and it became a quartet. In the future, in principle, a tandem composed of the Commission and the ESM will deal with assistance programmes for countries in financial difficulty. The IMF and the ECB will play a less important role than 8 years ago.

The IMF move seems sensible on two counts. Firstly it should never have got itself involved in the Euro area in the first place as it has a balance of payments surplus. Secondly and this is of course interrelated to the first point the Euro area cannot always rely on it having a French managing director. The ECB may be more subtle as we mull whether its (large) balance sheet will be deployed in other roles? As an aside it is hardly a sign of success if you have to keep changing the names.

The banks

As we know “the precious” must always be protected in case anyone tries to throw it into Mount Doom. There are obvious issues in Greece to be dealt with.

Both Piraeus Bank and the National Bank of Greece dropped to all time record lows today. ( h/t @nikoschrysoloras )

Actually Piraeus Bank has dropped another 5% today so he could rinse and repeat his message. It seems that the triumphant last bailout is going the way of the previous triumphant bailout. Also there is my old employer Deutsche Bank which has got near to breaking the 8 Euro barrier today which will help to bring the Germans on board. Adding to the fear about its derivatives book is the allegation that some US $150 billion of the Danske money laundering scandal went through the books of  DB’s US subsidiary. Sometimes this sort of thing gets really mind-boggling as we observe the period when Danske had a bigger market capitalisation than DB partly driven by money laundering that was facilitated by DB. Do I have that right?

Anyway in the future Klaus Regling may well be stepping in. From his interview with Les Echos.

In June, we agreed that the ESM will provide the backstop. Its volume will be the same as the volume of the Single Resolution Fund. This is being built up with bank contributions and it will reach 1% of bank deposits at the end of 2023, in other words €55 to 60 billion. The decision to use this security net in case the resolution fund is insufficient has to be taken very quickly, even if the parliaments of some countries need to be consulted.

They seem to be hurrying along for some reason…..

 This will be in 2024 at the latest and it could be earlier.

Exactly how can the troubled banking sector which in relative terms is not far off as weak as it was when the credit crunch hit pay for all of this?

Italy

Regular readers will be aware that due to their astonishing track record we take careful note of official denials. Well on the 6th of October the ESM wrote to the Editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The claim that the ESM is guaranteeing Italy’s state debt is wrong. Italy has never lost access to international financial markets. Therefore, Italy has never had a rescue programme with the ESM or its temporary predecessor institution, the EFSF. For the same reason, the ESM has neither guaranteed Italy’s state debt nor has it granted Italy any emergency loans.

Of course not as Italy would have to do as it is told first and presently there is little or no sign of that. But one day…

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here and the likely new role of the ESM is at the top. It is convenient for politicians to pass their responsibilities to technocrats as the latter can take the bad news from a country bailout. However whilst it will need to be approved by the 19 Euro area parliaments these things have a powerful tendency to turn out different to the description on the tin. Just look at the Greek bailout for example.

Whereas the banking moves seem more sotto voce in this but as we seem to be in the middle of if not a crisis a phase where we have seen bank share prices tumble we need to be on alert. It is not just the Euro area girding its loins as for example it was only a few short months ago we were noting plans for more capital for the Bank of England. It is quite an indictment of the bank bailout culture that all these years later we seem to be as David Bowie so aptly put it.

Where’s your shame
You’ve left us up to our necks in it
Time may change me
But you can’t trace time

What has happened to the Greek banks?

This week the Greek banking sector has returned to the newswires. You might think that after the storm and all the bailouts it might now be if not plain sailing at least calmer waters for it. Here is ForeignPolicy.com essentially singing along to “Happy days are here again”

The Greek banking sector has totally transformed as a result of the financial crisis. Legislation, restructuring and recapitalization have led to a sector that is now internationally recognized for its high capitalization levels and for substantial improvements in stability, governance and transparency. As Professor Nikolaos Karamouzis, Chairman of EFG Eurobank and Chairman of the Hellenic Bank Association, states, “we have been through four stress tests – no other system has been stressed as much.”

However even a view drizzled in honey could not avoid this issue.

“The question of non-performing loans in the Greek banking system is a crucial one”.
Panagiotis Roumeliotis, Chairman, Attica Bank…….About €30-35 billion is tied up in the large NPLs of some 100 companies, who are on the books of all the systemic banks.

The problem with taking sponsored content is that it steps into a universe far.far.away.

In a first for the country, Attica Bank recently securitized €1.3 billion of its bad loans. A move that could be copied by others and which its Chairman, Panagiotis Roumeliotis, says will make it “one of the healthiest banks in Greece.” Initiatives like this mean that the country’s targets for reducing NPLs are being met or exceeded.

Also I note a couple of numbers of which the first gives us perspective.

Another big challenge is recovery of deposits, which flew out of the country until restrictions were put in place in 2015. Since then, €8.5 billion has been repatriated.

Whilst that sounds a lot, compared to the decline it is not especially when we consider the time that had passed as the data here takes us to February 2017. Next comes some number crunching which is very useful for someone like me who argued all along for Greece to take the default and devalue route. Which just as a reminder was criticised by those in the establishment and their media supporters are likely to create a severe economic depression which their plan would avoid!

The 4 systemic banks have undergone 4 stress tests and 3 rounds of recapitalization since 2010, for close to €65 billion.

With all that money it is a good job they are so strong. Hold that thought please as we move to a universe beyond, far,far away.

Unlike the subprime banking crisis of other countries, the crisis in Greece wasn’t due to any particular problem in the sector. Rather, it was a consequence of the Greek sovereign debt crisis that created contagion. Coming out of that crisis, though, the sector has been transformed.

Someone seems to have forgotten all those non performing loans already.

Bringing this up to date

If we step forwards in time to the end of August suddenly we were no longer singing along to Sugar by Maroon 5. From Kathimeriini.

Greek banks Alpha and Eurobank posted weak second-quarter results on Thursday, with Alpha swinging to a loss and Eurobank barely profitable as both focus on shrinking their bad debt load.

So not exactly surging ahead and whilst the amount of support from the European Central Bank has reduced considerably we were reminded yesterday that the problem created in 2015 has not yet gone away.

On 9 October 2018 the Governing Council of the ECB did not object to an ELA-ceiling for Greek banks of €5.0 billion, up to and including Wednesday, 7 November 2018, following a request by the Bank of Greece.

The reduction of €0.2 billion in the ceiling reflects an improvement of the liquidity situation of Greek banks, taking into account flows stemming from private sector deposits and from the banks’ access to wholesale financial markets.

So that is good in terms of the reduction but as I pointed out above bad in that some is still required. After all Greece has now left its formal bailout albeit that the institutions still keep a very close watch on it. But even more significant was the next bit.

The ongoing improvement of the liquidity situation of Greek banks reflects the improved condition of the Greek financial system. The recent stock market developments in respect of the banking sector are not related to the soundness of Greek banks and are due to purely exogenous factors, such as rises in interest rates internationally and in Greece’s neighbouring countries in particular.”

We have learnt in the credit crunch era that the blame foreigners weapon is only deployed when things are pretty bad and a diversion is needed. Rather oddly the Financial Times seemed to be giving this some support.

The turbulent conditions have hit European banks across the continent, as declines in the value of banks’ holdings of Italian debt eat away at their capital base in a dangerous spiral known as the ‘doom loop’.

That applies to Italian banks yes and to some extent to others but I rather suspect we would know if Greek banks had been punting Italian bonds on any scale. Yesterday Kathimerini put the  state of play like this.

Greek banking stocks have lost more than 40 percent so far this year, and the selling pressure grew in recent days.

All rather different to the honey coated Foreign Policy article is it not? Also in the rush to blame others some genuine concerns are in danger of being overlooked.

. I disagree with the statement below Greek banks used 23% of their “real” Tier 1 capital reserves to support the reduction of NPEs. DTCs as a % of total regulatory capital are now ~75%. Banks “burned” EUR 6.6bn of “real” CET 1 capital to reduce their NPE’s by EUR 16.8bn. ( @mnicoletos on Twitter )

As you can see the argument here is that the Greek banks are finding that dealing with sour loans is beginning to burn through their capital. Using the numbers above suggests that each 1 Euro reduction in bad debts is costing around 40 cents. We do not know that will be the exact rate going forwards but if we take it as a broad brush suddenly the “high capitalization levels” look anything but and no doubt there are fears that the capital raising begging bowl will be doing the rounds again.

Piraeus Bank

This had tried to steal something of a march on the others but this from Reuters last week says it all.

Piraeus Bank  said plans to issue debt to bolster its capital were on track on Wednesday as Greece’s largest lender by assets faced a near 30 percent share price fall.

Quite why anyone would buy one if its bonds escapes me but that was and may even still be the plan.

Piraeus Bank’s restructuring plan, which it has submitted to supervisors at the European Central Bank, involves the issuance of debt, likely to be a Tier-2 bond, among other measures.

But if you are willing to take the red pill from The Matrix then maybe you might be a believer of this.

analysts said the 29.3 percent fall in its shares to 1.16 euros by 1020 GMT was the result of negative investor sentiment affecting the whole banking sector,

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here but let us do some number crunching. We can start with this from Kathimerini referring to yesterday’s report from Moody’s.

The ratings agency said asset quality remains the main challenge for local lenders, with assets at end-June adding up to 291 billion euros and NPEs at 89 billion euros.

So should the Non Performing Exposures eat up capital at the rate described above that would be another 35 billion Euros or so.  That of course is a very broad brush but one might reasonably think that troubles in that area might be much more of a cause of this than blaming Italy and Turkey.

The banks index has followed up its 24 percent slump in September with a fresh 15 percent decline in the first seven sessions in October, sending the capitalization of the four systemic banks below 5 billion euros between them, from 8.7 billion at the start of the year. ( Kathimerini )

So 69 billion Euros has been poured into them according to Foreign Policy and of course rising for them to be valued at less than 5 billion Euros? As to what they were worth well here you are.

 

Greece still faces a long hard road to end its economic depression

This morning has brought a development that many of you warned about in the comments section and it relates to Greece. So with a warning that I hope you have not just eaten let us begin.

You did it! Congratulations to Greece and its people on ending the programme of financial assistance. With huge efforts and European solidarity you seized the day. ( President Donald Tusk)

There was also this from the European Union Council.

“Greece has regained the control it fought for”, says Eurogroup President as today exits its financial assistance programme. 

There is an element of triumphalism here and that is what some of you warned about with the only caveat being that the first inkling of good news was supposed to be the cause whereas that is still in the mix. So there is an element of desperation about all of this. This is highlighted by the words of the largest creditor to Greece as the European Stability President Klaus Regling has said this and the emphasis is mine.

 We want Greece to be another success story, to be prosperous and a country trusted by investors. This can happen, provided Greece builds upon the progress achieved by continuing the reforms launched under the ESM programme.

What is the state of play?

It is important to remind ourselves as to what has happened in Greece because it is missing in the statements above and sadly the media seem to be mostly copying and pasting it. As you can imagine it made my blood boil as the business section of BBC Breakfast glibly assured us that a Grexit would have been a disaster. Meanwhile the reality is of an economy that has shrunk by around a quarter and an unemployment rate that even now is much more reminiscent of an economic disaster than a recovery.

 The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in May 2018 was 19.5%…..

The youth (15-24)  unemployment rate is 39.7% which means that not only will many young Greeks had never had a job but they still face a future with little or no prospect of one. Yesterday the New York Times put a human face on this.

When Dimitris Zafiriou landed a coveted full-time job two months ago, the salary was only half what he earned before Greece’s debt crisis. Yet after years of struggling, it was a step up.

“Now, our family has zero money left over at the end of the month,” Mr. Zafiriou, 47, a specialist in metal building infrastructure, said with a grim laugh. “But zero is better than what we had before, when we couldn’t pay the bills at all.”

The consequence of grinding and persistent unemployment and real wage cuts for even the relatively fortunate has been this.

A wrenching downturn, combined with nearly a decade of sharp spending cuts and tax increases to repair the nation’s finances, has left over a third of the population of 10 million near poverty, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Household incomes fell by over 30 percent, and more than a fifth of people are unable to pay basic expenses like rent, electricity and bank loans. A third of families have at least one unemployed member. And among those who do have a job, in-work poverty has climbed to one of the highest levels in Europe.

The concept of in work poverty is sadly not unique to Greece but some have been hit very hard.

Mrs. Pavlioti, a former supervisor at a Greek polling company, never dreamed she would need social assistance…….The longer she stays out of the formal job market, the harder it is to get back in. Recently she took a job as a babysitter with flexible hours, earning €450 a month — enough to pay the rent and bills, though not much else.

She provided quite a harsh critique of the triumphalism above.

“The end of the bailout makes no difference in our lives,” Mrs. Pavlioti said. “We are just surviving, not living.”

The end of the bailout

The ESM puts it like this.

Greece officially concludes its three-year ESM financial assistance programme today with a successful exit.

The word successful grates more than a little in the circumstances but it was possible that Greece could have been thrown out of the programme. It was never that likely along the lines of the aphorism that if you owe a bank one Euro it owns you but if you owe it a million you own it.

 As the ESM and EFSF are Greece’s largest creditors, holding 55% of total Greek government debt, our interests are aligned with those of Greece……..From 2010 to 2012, Greece received € 52.9 billion in bilateral loans under the so-called Greek Loan Facility from euro area Member States.

That is quite a lot of skin in the game to say the least. Because of that Greece is not as free as some might try to persuade you.

The ESM will continue to cooperate with the Greek authorities under the ESM’s Early Warning System, designed to ensure that beneficiary countries are able to repay the ESM as agreed. For that purpose, the ESM will receive regular reporting from Greece and will join the European Commission for its regular missions under the Enhanced Surveillance framework.

Back on February 12th I pointed out this.

 It is no coincidence that the “increased post-bailout monitoring” is expected to end in 2022, when the obligation for high primary surpluses of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product expires.

As you can see whilst the explicit bailout may be over the consequences of it remain and one of these is the continued “monitoring”. This is a confirmation of my point that whilst there has been crowing about the cheap cost of the loans in the end the size or capital burden of them will come into play.

Borrowing costs will rise

After an initial disastrous period when the objective was to punish Greece ( something from which Greece has yet to recover) the loans to Greece were made ever cheaper.

Thanks to the ESM’s and EFSF’s extremely advantageous loan conditions with long maturities and low-interest rates, Greece saves around €12 billion in debt servicing annually, 6.7% of GDP every year.  ( ESM)

So Greece is now turning down very cheap money as it borrows from the ESM at an average interest-rate of 1.62%. As I type this the ten-year yield for Greece is 4.34% which is not only much more it is a favourable comparison as the ESM has been lending very long-term to Greece. This was simultaneously good for Greece ( cheap borrowing) and for both ( otherwise everything looked completely unaffordable).

For now this may not be a big deal as with its fiscal surpluses Greece will not be in borrowing markets that much unless of course we see another economic downturn. There is a bond which matures on the 17th of April next year for example. Also the ECB did not help by ending its waiver for Greek government bonds which made it more expensive to use them as collateral with it and no doubt is a factor in the recent rise in Greek bond yields. Not a good portent for hopes of some QE purchases which of course are on the decline anyway.

Comment

The whole Greek saga was well encapsulated by Elton John back in the day.

It’s sad, so sad (so sad)
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd.

The big picture is that it should not have been allowed into the Euro in 2001. The boom which followed led to vanity projects like the 2004 Olympics and then was shown up by the global financial crash from which Greece received a fatal blow in economic terms. The peak was a quarterly economic output of 63.6 billion Euros in the second quarter of 2007 (2010 prices) and a claimed economic growth rate of over 5% (numbers from back then remain under a cloud). As the economy shrank doubts emerged and the Euro area debt crisis began meaning that the “shock and awe” bailout so lauded by Christine Lagarde who back then was the French Finance Minister backfired spectacularly. The promised 2.1% annual growth rate of 2012 morphed into actual annual growth rates of between -4.1% and -8.7%. Combined with the initial interest-rates applied the game was up via compound interest in spite of the private sector initiative or default.

Any claim of recovery needs to have as context that the latest quarterly GDP figure was 47.4 billion Euros. This means that even the present 2.3% annual rate of economic growth will take years and years to get back to the starting point. One way of putting this is that the promised land of 2012 looks like it may have turned up in 2018. Also after an economic collapse like this economies usually bounce back strongly in what is called a V-shaped recovery. There has been none of this here. Usually we have establishments giving us projections of how much growth has been lost by projecting 2007 forwards but not here. The reforms that were promised have at best turned up piecemeal highlighted to some extent by the dreadful fires this summer and the fear that these are deliberately started each year.

Yet the people who have created a Great Depression with all its human cost still persist in rubbishing the alternative which as regular readers know I suggested which was to default and devalue. Or what used to be IMF policy before this phase where it is led by European politicians. A lower currency has consequences but it would have helped overall.

 

 

 

 

 

Is Greece growing more quickly than the UK?

Today we return to a long running and grim saga which is the story of Greece and its economic crisis. However Bloomberg has put a new spin on it as follows.

Greece is growing faster than Britain and is outperforming it in financial markets.

Okay so let us take a deeper look at what they are saying. Matthew Winkler who is the Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Bloomberg News, whatever that means, goes on to tell us this.

In a role reversal not even the most prescient dared to anticipate, Greece is growing faster than the U.K. and outperforming it in financial markets. ……..Now that Europe is leading the developed world in growth, productivity and job creation after the euro gained 14.2 percent last year — the most among 16 major currencies and the strongest appreciation since 2003 — Greece is the biggest beneficiary and Britain is the new sick man of Europe.

This is really quite extraordinary stuff isn’t it? Let me just mark that the author seems to be looking entirely through the prism of financial markets and look at what else he has to say.

In the bond market, Greece is the king of total return (income plus appreciation), handing investors 60 percent since the Brexit vote. U.K. debt securities lost 3 percent, and similar bonds sold by euro-zone countries gained 7 percent during the same period, according to the Bloomberg Barclays indexes measured in dollars. Since March 1, 2012, when the crisis of confidence over Greece was at its peak and its debt was trading at 30 cents on the dollar, Greek bonds have returned 429 percent, dwarfing the 19 percent for euro bonds and 10 percent for the U.K., Bloomberg data show.

Also money is flowing into the Greek stock market.

ETF flows to Europe gained 15 percent and 13 percent to the U.K. during the same period. The Global X MSCI Greece ETF, the largest U.S.-based exchange-traded fund investing in Greek companies, is benefiting from a 35 percent increase in net inflows since the 2016 Brexit vote.

Finally we do actually get something based on the real economy.

The same analysts also forecast that Greece will overtake Britain in GDP growth. They expect Greece to see its GDP rise 2.15 percent this year and 2.2 percent in 2019 as the U.K. grows 1.4 percent and 1.5 percent.

Many of you will have spotted that the Greece is growing faster than the UK has suddenly morphed into people forecasting it will grow quicker than it! This poses a particular problem where Greece is concerned and can be illustrated by the year 2012. Back then we had been assured by the Troika that the Greek economy would grow by 2% on its way to an economic recovery and the UK was back then enmeshed in “triple-dip” fears. Actually there was no UK triple dip and the Greek economy shrank by around 7% on the year before.

GDP growth

According to the Greek statistics office these are the latest figures.

The available seasonally adjusted data
indicate that in the 3rd quarter of 2017 the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) in volume terms increased by 0.3% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2017, while in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2016, it increased by 1.3%.

Thus we see that if we move from forecasts and rhetoric to reality Greece has some economic growth which we should welcome but not only is that slower than the UK in context it is really poor if we look at its record. After the severe economic depression it has been through the economy should be rebounding rather than edging forwards. I have written many times that it should be seeing sharp “V Shaped” growth rather than this “L Shaped” effort.

If we look back the GDP at market prices peaked in Greece in 2008 at 231.9 billion Euros but in 2016 it was only 175.9 billion giving a decline of the order of 24% or 56 billion Euros. That is why it should be racing forwards now to recover at least part of the lost ground but sadly as I have predicted many times it is not. Even if the forecasts presented as a triumph above come true it will be a long long time before Greece gets back to 2008 levels. Whereas the UK economy is a bit under 11% larger and to be frank we think that has been rather a poor period.

Job creation

You may note that there was a shift to Europe leading the world on job creation as opposed to Greece so let us investigate the numbers.

The number of employed persons increased by 94,071 persons compared with November 2016 (a 2.6% rate of increase) and decreased by 9,659 persons compared with October 2017 (a 0.3% rate of decrease).

I am pleased to see that the trend is for higher employment albeit there has been a monthly dip. Actually if we look further the last 3 months have seen a fall so let us hope we are not seeing another false dawn. Further perspective is provided by these numbers.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in November 2017 was 20.9% compared to the upward revised 23.3% in November 2016 and the upward revised 20.9% in October 2017. The number of employed in November 2017 amounted to 3,761,452 persons. The number of unemployed amounted to 995,899 while the number of inactive to 3,242,383.

The first issue is the level of unemployment which has improved but still has the power to shock due to its level. The largest shock comes from a youth unemployment rate of 43.7% which is better than it was but leaves us mulling a lost generation as some seem set to be out of work for years to come and maybe for good. Or perhaps as Richard Hell and the Voidoids put it.

I belong to the Blank Generation, and
I can take it or leave it each time.

Before I move on I would just like to mark the level of inactivity in Greece which flatters the numbers more than a little.

Bond Markets

Last week there was a fair bit of cheerleading for this. From the Financial Times.

Greece has wrapped up the sale of a seven-year bond after a 48-hour delay blamed on international market turbulence, raising €3bn at a yield of 3.5 per cent. The issue marked the first time since 2014 that the country has raised new money. A five-year bond issue last July raised €3bn, about half of which involved swapping existing debt for longer-dated paper.

The problem is in the interest-rate as Greece has got the opportunity to borrow at a much higher rate than it has been doing! Let me hand you over to the European Stability Mechanism or ESM.

The loans, at very low-interest rates with long maturities, are giving Greece fiscal breathing space to bring its public finances in order……..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.

As you can see the two narratives are contradictory as we note Greece is now choosing to issue more expensively at a considerably higher interest-rate or yield. This matters a lot due to its circumstances.

They point to the debt-to-GDP ratio, which stands at more than 180%.

Comment

I would be more than happy if the Greek economy was set to grow more quickly than the UK as frankly it not only needs to be growing much faster it should be doing so for the reason I explained earlier. As someone who has consistently made the case for it needing a default and devaluation I find it stunning that the Bloomberg article claims this is a success for Greece.

 the euro gained 14.2 percent last year — the most among 16 major currencies and the strongest appreciation since 2003

After all the set backs for Greece and its people what they do not need is a higher exchange rate. Finally the better prospects for the Euro area offer some hope of better days but they will be braked somewhat by the higher currency.

The confused narrative seems to also involve claiming that paying more on your debt is a good thing. Awkward in the circumstances to be making the case for sovereignty! But the real issue is to get out of this sort of situation which is sucking demand out of the economy. From Kathimerini.

 It is no coincidence that the “increased post-bailout monitoring” is expected to end in 2022, when the obligation for high primary surpluses of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product expires.

So in conclusion there is a lot to consider here as we wish Greece well for 2018. It badly needs a much better year but frankly also more considered and thoughtful analysis as those who have suffered through this deserve much better. The ordinary Greek was mostly unaware of what their establishment was doing as it fiddled the data and let the oligarchs slip slide away from paying their taxes.