What is it about RBS and the banks?

A major feature of the credit crunch was the collapse of more than a few banks as a combination of miss pricing, bullish expansionism and arrogance all collided. This led to the economic world-changing as for example the way we now have extremely low ( ZIRP) and in more than a few places negative interest-rates and of course all the QE bond purchases which are ongoing in both the Euro area and Japan. So lower short and long-term interest-rates and that is before we get to the cost of the bailouts themselves. The US and UK acted early but others took longer as my updates on Italy for example explain and describe. It’s Finance Minister ( Padoan ) even had the cheek to boast about not helping its banks which then created ever larger bad loans.

The essential problem is that this is still ongoing as the news from Royal Bank of Scotland overnight tells us.

Royal Bank of Scotland on Tuesday agreed a $500m settlement with New York State over mis-selling residential mortgage-backed securities in the run-up to the financial crisis………..The agreement requires the bank to pay $100m in cash and to provide $400m of consumer relief in New York. It is the latest in a series of settlements with US authorities that has resulted in banks handing over $150bn in payments and fines since the crisis.

This is yet another in a series that feels like rinse and repeat but we are now a decade on from things heading south for RBS as on the 22nd of 2008 what was the largest rights issue ever in the UK took place. The £12 billion cash from that did not even last 6 months as on the 13th of October the UK government stepped in. In other words the documents from that rights issue look to have been about a misleading as they could be along the lines of Sir Desmond Glazebrook in Yes Prime Minister who when asked about the rules replied “They didn’t seem quite appropriate”.

So we have ended up with something that looks like a bottomless pit although as ever it is put PR style.

Ross McEwan, chief executive, said: “We have been very clear that putting our remaining legacy issues behind us is a key part of our strategy.”

Legacy issues indeed and of course a much larger one is on its way.

RBS, part-owned by the UK government, has set aside $4.4bn to deal with residential mortgage-backed security claims in the US and recently revealed its first annual profit in nine years.

This poses its own question as we mull the latest development which is for only one state.

Ian Gordon, an analyst at Investec, said the deal with New York was “a disturbingly large single-state settlement ahead of the main event”.

Any new settlement would add to this.


RBS has been trying to close the door on misconduct issues from the crisis and in 2017 agreed to pay £4.2bn to the US Federal Housing Finance Agency in relation to mortgage-backed securities.

What about the law?

This seems to have been missing from the banking sector and especially in the case of the 2008 rights issue of RBS. However this morning has brought news that you can be jailed for financial crimes. From the BBC.

A group of fraudsters who conned UK consumers out of £37m by selling passports and driving licences through copycat websites have been sentenced to more than 35 years in jail.

The six people, led by Peter Hall and including his wife Claire, operated websites that impersonated official government services.

Perhaps the establishment was upset by the way they were impersonated but we are left with the thought that as the crime was compared to the banks small-scale it could be punished. Along the way something seemed rather familiar though.

 “This was a crime motivated by greed. This group defrauded people so they could enjoy a luxury lifestyle.”

If we actually move to banking crime a somewhat different set of rules seem to apply. Yesterday the Financial Conduct Authority finally banned the man called the Crystal Methodist due to his drug taking proclivities but of course Chair of the Co-op Bank which nearly collapsed.

Mr Flowers was Chair of Co-op Bank between 15 April 2010 and 5 June 2013. The FCA found that Mr Flowers’ conduct demonstrated a lack of fitness and propriety required to work in financial services.

So our first thought is to sing along with the Doobie Brothers.

Gotta keep on pushin’ Mama
‘Cause you know they’re runnin’ late

After all most of us knew there was “trouble,trouble,trouble” as Taylor Swift would out it in June 2013. However when you see what he was banned for it is hard not to let off some steam.

The FCA found that while Chair Mr Flowers:


used his work mobile telephone to make a number of inappropriate telephone calls to a premium rate chat line in breach of Co-op Group and Co-op Bank policies;

and used his work email account to send and receive sexually explicit and otherwise inappropriate messages, and to discuss illegal drugs, in breach of Co-op Group and Co-op Bank policies despite having been previously warned about his earlier misconduct.

In addition, after stepping down as Chair, Mr Flowers was convicted for possession of illegal drugs.

As you can see destroying a bank and causing losses in some cases substantial to a large number of people does not appear on the charge sheet whilst calling a premium rate chat line does.

Helping the economy

We were told the economy would not be able to survive without the banks yet as time has gone on they are still deleveraging. From Which.

In December last year, RBS/Natwest announced that it was closing a staggering 259 bank branches in 2018 – a quarter of its branch network. That included 62 RBS and 197 NatWest branches, plus 11 Ulster Bank branches which were previously announced.

The UK taxpayer will also be grimly observing this as the share price falls another 5 pence at the time of typing this to £2.59 as opposed to the £5.02 paid for its holding.


There are various problems with the state of play. The first is the way that the law pretty much only applies one way regarding the banks. If we misbehave we can expect to be punished sometimes severely. I have no axe to grind with that until we note that it at best intermittently applies to the banks themselves and even less to those at the top of the food chain. For example whilst Santander is perfectly at liberty to pay bonuses which Nathan Bostock would have received at RBS this raises hackles to say the least when it was from the GRG section which wrecked havoc amongst so many small businesses. It seems that bank directors are even more an example of the “precious” than the banks themselves. If we do not make changes how can we expect matters to improve?

When a bank is bailed out we are never told the full truth as this emerges later and sometimes much later as the news today is around a decade after the event. When the truth requires drip feeding well that speaks for itself. Also I note that in the intervening decade this issue goes on and on. From the Financial Stability Board.

The activity-based, narrow measure of shadow banking grew by 7.6% in 2016, to $45.2 trillion for the 29 jurisdictions……..Monitoring Universe of Non-bank Financial Intermediation (MUNFI) – This measure of
all non-bank financial intermediation grew in 2016 at a slightly faster rate than in 2015 to an aggregate $160 trillion.

We need to take care as one day that will rise to a lot of money! Also wasn’t this supposed to have been a problem pre credit crunch?




What is going on with the banks of Italy?

Yesterday saw something of a familiar theme as we were told this by Fabrizio Pagani, the chief of staff at Italy’s Ministry of Economy and Finance.


You would be forgiven for thinking not only what again? But also experiencing some fatigue after being told it so often. Less than twelve hours later something else that is rather familiar turned up.


So they weren’t fixed for long it would seem! According to Bloomberg who had the interview we had another hostage to fortune as well from him.

“The story of Italian non-performing loans is over,” Pagani said.

He sounds so much like Finance Minster Padoan doesn’t he? In reality even those who are friendly to such ideas have doubts.

As you can see even Spain which was criticised for acting slowly in fact was 3/4 years ahead of Italy we note that the Italian problem got worse during this period. In fact Spain is in the process of repaying the ESM ( European Stability Mechanism) the money it borrowed for this.

Spain made the request for the repayment on 30 January 2018. One repayment will be for €2 billion, and is planned for 23 February 2018. The size of the second repayment will be €3 billion, and is scheduled for May 2018.

So in total this has happened.

Between December 2012 and February 2013, the ESM disbursed €41.3 billion to the Spanish government for the recapitalisation of the country’s banking sector……….Following the two repayments, Spain’s outstanding debt to the ESM will stand at €26.7 billion.

So Spain is exiting the procedure as Italy begins it and as is so usual Italy is doing it in its own way. For example in the tweet picture above the phrase bail in is used when in fact what it has done have had the features of bailouts as well. Also is this good or simply kicking the can somewhere else?

Investors also snapped up more than 100 billion euros ($123 billion) in non-performing Italian bank loans last year, which has helped reduce the level of net bad debt across the sector by more than a third.

Some may think that this may be more like vultures on their prey.

This month, Bob Diamond and Corrado Passera, the former bosses of Barclays Plc and Intesa Sanpaolo SpA, joined forces to shop for a lender to smaller Italian companies.

Monte Paschi

It too was in the news yesterday as Bloomberg told us this.

Fabrizio Pagani, the chief of staff at Italy’s Ministry of Economy and Finance, told Bloomberg News that Monte Paschi is in the picture for mergers after taking substantial steps to clean up its balance sheet since its rescue and introduce new management practices.

Who wants to merge with a zombie? I am reminded of what my late father used to tell me which is that more than a few takeovers and mergers only exist because the muddle the figures for a year or to. I can see why the Italian state might be keen as they did this.

A sale of Monte Paschi would cap a saga that saw Italy’s third-biggest bank, an icon of national finance, become engulfed by bad debts, criminal cases, and 6.7 billion euros in losses in the last two years. The government salvaged it as part of a 8.3 billion-euro recapitalization that strained ties between the country and the European Union over bailout rules.

Italy paid some 6.49 Euros a share as opposed to the 3.18 as I type this as we mull how the “substantial steps” have been ignored by the market which has more than halved the share price? We also learnt something from its bond issue in January. From the Financial Times.

Despite the low rating, the bond sale was three times subscribed and priced at a yield of just 5.375 per cent, confirming Monte Paschi’s ability to tap markets after its 2017 recapitalisation,

“Just 5.375%”? As in Europe these days that feels like riches beyond imagination! Especially if you note this.

The Italian government will provide a guarantee to the investment grade rated senior notes in this securitisation, which Monte Paschi will “retain” on its books.

I also thought that the bailout fund Atlante was pretty much out of cash.

It is able to derecognise the non-performing loans, however, because the riskier “mezzanine” and junior notes are being sold to the Italian Recovery Fund………..
While this fund — formerly known as Atlante — is private, it is part of a government-led initiative to clean up the Italian banking sector, and has far lower return targets than typical distressed debt buyers.

Anyway the share price reflects something rather different from the rhetoric as I note that according to Il Populista our old friend Finance Minister Padoan is on the case again.

The state will remain in Mps “for a few years”. Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan told the unions to add that “giving a number would be wrong and counterproductive for the markets”.

Giving wrong numbers has never bothered him before as I note this description of him which may be a quirk of Google translate.

The Minister of Economy, without shame,


Today has brought news that swings both ways for the Italian banks as we have got the data which determines the interest-rate for TLTRO II so it was not a surprise to see this.

The annual growth rate of adjusted loans to non-financial corporations increased to 3.4% in January, from 3.1% in December.

Of the new 24 billion Euros some 20 billion was for less than a year but presumably long enough to fulfil the ECB criteria with the Italian banks to the fore.

January net lending flows to the non-financial private sector were particularly strong in Germany and Italy (second largest in over 10 years). ( @fwred )

Yet so far they have gained little as the annual gain from this according to @fwred is 769 million Euros for the Spanish banks but 0 for the Italian ( Portuguese and Dutch) ones. Perhaps the last-minute dash will make a difference.

Veneto Banks

The collapse of Veneto Banca and Banca Popolare di Vicenza. last year led to many financial problems in the area. In banking terms this happened.

The two Veneto banks were wound down in June, with the state guaranteeing losses of up to €17bn, after the European Central Bank declared the lenders as failing. Intesa was handed as much as €4.8bn to help preserve its capital ratios from any adverse impact from the deal. ( FT)

Yet as this from IlFattoQuotidiano.it  in January shows the pain for many businesses and savers continues.

He finally gave up. But it took six hours of negotiation because the former Romanian bricklayer Marin Halarambie, 59, agreed to move his car from the entrance of the historic Veneto Banca headquarters in Montebelluna. Christmas Day had arrived to stage a very personal protest, as the bankruptcy of the bank cost him a loss of about 125 thousand euros.


This is a particularly Italian saga where official boasting about the lack of bank bailouts met a brick wall of bank collapses later. Even worse the problem deteriorated as they looked the other way. On this road equity investors suffered – who can forget Prime Minister Renzi telling people Monte Paschi was a good investment ? – and so did the savers who were encouraged to invest in the “safe” bank bonds.

Now the economic outlook is better we wait to see what happens next. But there is a clear distinction between my subject of yesterday the Netherlands and Italy and it is this. From January 11th.

According to preliminary estimates, in the third quarter of 2017: the House Price Index (see Italian IPAB) decreased by 0.5% compared with the previous quarter and by
0.8% in comparison to the same quarter of the previous year (it was -0.2% in the second quarter of 2017);

For all the machinations that have gone on Italy has so far been immune from the suggested cure seen so often elsewhere which is to make the banks mortgage assets look stronger via higher house prices. How very Italian! Still the winners here are Italian first time buyers if they can get a mortgage.

Last week Bank of Italy Deputy Governor Panetta gave a speech which in one way suggested he must know some incredibly pessimistic people.

During the financial crisis, Italy’s banking system proved much more resilient than expected by many observers.

But intriguingly he does agree with me that if the buyers of bad loans are getting a good deal this must weaken and not strengthen the banks?

A generalized sale of NPLs on the market would imply a large transfer of resources from banks to buyers.

No wonder Diamond Bob is on the case! Also this is yet again rather familiar.

While the secondary market for NPLs is showing signs of rapid growth, it is still opaque and relatively oligopolistic.


Simultaneous, blanket sales would further depress
market prices, magnifying the gap between the book and market values of NPLs. The result
for banks would be significant losses and reduced capital. This could have unintended effects
on individual banks as well as macroeconomic consequences through a contraction in credit
supply in countries where high NPL stocks are a concern for several banks.





The Netherlands house price boom is yet another form of bank bailout

It has been a while since we have taken a look at the economic situation in what some call Holland but is more accurately called the Netherlands. On a cold snowy morning in London – those of you in colder climes are probably laughing at the media panic over the cold snap expected this week – let us open with some good news. From Statistics Netherlands.

According to the first estimate conducted by Statistics Netherlands (CBS), which is based on currently available data, gross domestic product (GDP) posted a growth rate of 0.8 percent in Q4 2017 relative to Q3 2017. Growth is mainly due to an increase in exports. With the release of data on Q4, the annual growth rate over 2017 has become available as well. Last year, GDP rose by 3.1 percent, the highest growth in ten years.

Indeed the economic growth was something of a dream ticket for economists with exports and investments to the fore.

GDP was 2.9 percent up on Q4 2016. Growth was slightly smaller than in the previous three-quarters and is mainly due to higher exports and investments.

The trade development provides food for thought to those who remember this from 2015.

In a bid to boost trade links with Europe, on the back of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, the Port of Rotterdam has established a strategic partnership with the Bank of China,  (jpvlogistics )

The idea of Rotterdam being a hub for a latter-day Silk Road is obviously good for trade prospects although in terms of GDP care is needed as there is a real danger of double-counting as we have seen in the past.

Exports of goods and services grew by 5.5 percent in 2017……….Re-exports (i.e. exports of imported products) increased slightly more rapidly than the exports of Dutch products.

If we look back for some perspective we see that the Netherlands is not one of those places that have failed to recover from the credit crunch. Compared to 2009 GDP is at 112.7 which means that if we allow for the near 4% fall in that year it is 8/9% larger than the previous peak. Although of course annual economic growth of around 1% per annum is not a triumph and reflects the Euro area crisis that followed the credit crunch.

Labour Market

The economic growth is confirmed by this and provides a positive hint for the spring.

In January 2018, almost 8.7 million people in the Netherlands were in paid employment. The employed labour force (15 to 74-year-olds) has increased by 15 thousand on average in each of the past three months.

Unemployment is falling and in this area we can call the Netherlands a Germanic style economy.

There were 380 thousand unemployed in January, equivalent to 4.2 percent of the labour force. This stood at 4.4 percent one month previously………, youth unemployment is now at a lower level than before the economic crisis; last month, it stood at 7.4 percent of the labour force against 8.5 percent in November 2008.

After the good news comes something which is both familiar and troubling.

Wages increased by 1.5 percent in 2017 versus 1.8 percent in 2016. There was less difference between the increase rates of consumer prices and wages in 2017 than in the two preceding years.

Wage growth fell last year which of course is more mud in the eye for those who persist with “output gap” style economics meaning real wages only grew by 0.1%. 2016 was much better but driven by lower inflation mostly. So no real wage growth on any scale and certainly not back to the levels of the past. One thing that stands out is real wage falls from 2010 to 14 in the era of Euro area austerity.

House Prices

There were hints of activity in this area in the GDP numbers as we note where investment was booming.

In 2017, investments were up by 6 percent. Higher investments were mainly made in residential property.

Later I noted this.

and further recovery of the housing market.

So what is the state of play?

In January 2018, prices of owner-occupied houses (excluding new constructions) were on average 8.8 percent higher than in the same month last year. The price increase was the highest in 16 years. Since June 2013, the trend has been upward.

So much higher than wage growth which was 1.5% in 2017 and inflation so let us look deeper for some perspective.

House prices are currently still 2.0 percent below the record level of August 2008 and on average 24.8 percent higher than during the price dip in June 2013.

One way of looking at this is to add something to the famous Mario Draghi line of the summer of 2012 “Whatever it takes” ( to get Dutch house prices rising again). What it means though is that house prices have soared compared to real wages who only really moved higher in 2016 due ironically to lower consumer inflation. Tell that to a first time buyer!

Wealth Effects

This view has been neatly illustrated by Bloomberg today as whilst the numbers are for Denmark we see from the data above that they apply in principle to the Netherlands as well.

Danes have another reason to be happy: they’re richer than ever before………After more than half a decade of negative interest rates, rising property values in Denmark have left the average family with net assets of 1.9 million kroner ($314,000), according to the latest report on household wealth.


The last time Denmark enjoyed a similar boom was in 2006

If we switch back to the Netherlands its central bank published some research in January as to how it thinks house price growth has boosted domestic consumption.

From 2014 onwards, house prices have been steadily climbing again. The coefficient found for the Netherlands implies that some 40% of cumulative consumption growth since 2014 (i.e. around 6%) can be attributed to the increase in real house prices.

We can take the DNB research across national boundaries as well at least to some extent.

The first group comprises the Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, Spain, the United States and the United Kingdom, and the second group includes Italy, France, Belgium, Austria and Portugal.

In economic theory such a boost comes from a permanent boost to house prices which is not quite what we saw pre credit crunch.

Between 2000 and 2008, average real house prices went up by 24% in the Netherlands. Between 2008 and 2014, as a result of the financial crisis, they went down again by 24%.


This is an issue in the Netherlands.

 As gross domestic product (GDP) rose more sharply than debts, the debt ratio (i.e. debt as a percentage of GDP) declined, to 218.8 percent. Although this is the lowest level since 2008, it is still far above the threshold of 133 percent which has been set by the European Commission.

If we look at household debt.

After a period of decline, household debts started rising as of September 2014, in particular the level of residential mortgage debt. The latter increased from 649 billioneuros at the end of September 2014 to 669 billion euros at the end of June 2017.

There is also this bit highlighted by the DNB last October.

Almost 55% of the aggregate Dutch mortgage debt consists of interest-only and investment-based mortgage loans, which do not involve any contractual repayments during the loan term. They must still be repaid when they expire, however. Such loans could cause frictions, for example if households are forced to sell their home at the end of the loan term.


There are a litany of issues here as we see another example of procyclical monetary policy where and ECB deposit rate of -0.4% and monthly QE meet economic growth of around 3%. This means that in spite of the fact that real wages have done little house prices have soared again. The problem with the wealth effects argument highlighted above is that much if not all of it is a wealth distribution and who gave the ECB authority to do this?

Those who own homes in a good location have it made. While other people – especially people who rent their homes and people with bought homes in less favorable locations – fall behind. ( NL Times)

Those who try to be first time buyers are hit hard but a type of inflation that does not appear in the CPI numbers.

The truth is that the biggest gainers collectively are the banks. Their asset base improves with higher house prices and current business improves as we see more mortgage borrowing both individually and from the business sector. We moved from explicit bank bailouts to stealth ones as we see so many similar moves around the world. Banks do not report that in bonus statements do they? This time is different until it isn’t when it immediately metamorphoses into nobody’s fault.






What is happening to the banking sector in Latvia?

This morning has brought yet more news on what appears to be a growing issue which is the banking sector of Latvia. It has been around a decade since Latvia made the economic news as a type of test case for a joint IMF ( International Monetary Fund) and European Union bailout which was caused by this.

Despite the bailout, Latvia suffered the largest decline in economic output of anywhere in the world between 2007 and 2009 – a 24% drop in GDP. Unemployment quadrupled; and that doesn’t include the estimated one in 10 of the workforce who left the country to look for a better life somewhere else. ( The Guardian).

Since then (2014) Latvia abandoned its own currency the Lat and adopted the Euro although it had pegged its currency to the Euro.

This morning has seen the ECB ( European Central Bank) take action.

The Financial and Capital Markets Commission (FCMC) has imposed a moratorium on ABLV Bank, following a request by the European Central Bank (ECB). This means that temporarily, and until further notice, a prohibition of all payments by ABLV Bank on its financial liabilities has been imposed, and is now in effect.

It is that word “temporarily” again as we note that until further notice was sufficient on its own. So how did we get here?

In recent days, there has been a sharp deterioration of the bank’s financial position. This follows an announcement on 13 February by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to propose a measure naming ABLV bank an institution of primary money laundering concern pursuant to Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act.

ABLV has been accused by the US of being linked to North Korea.  As to the scale of the issue there is this.

ABLV Bank has been supervised by the ECB since November 2014, by virtue of the bank being one of the three largest credit institutions in Latvia, as measured by total assets

The ECB may be forgiven for perhaps wishing it was not the supervisor here. Those who hold the ABLV bank bonds totalling US $95 million that mature on Thursday may be forgiven some nervousness too.


Meanwhile as you might expect ABLV itself has found credit hard to come by meaning that the central bank is providing assistance. From the Baltic Times.

“Based on the request from ABLV Bank and a supporting opinion from the Finance and Capital Market Commission, the Bank of Latvia has decided to grant a EUR 97.5 million loan to ABLV Bank against a reliable pledge of highly liquid securities,” the Bank of Latvia said, stressing that the value of the pledge was much higher that the loan amount.

The last bit may be regretted if you think about it and more seems to be on the way.

As reported, ABLV Bank has decided to pledge some securities, asking in return a loan of up to EUR 480 million from the Bank of Latvia, order to stabilize its situation.

Bank of Latvia

This has its own problems as this headline from it yesterday implies.

Latvijas Banka continues its business as usual.

Why announce this and especially on a Sunday? Well it has its own problems.

 during the absence of the Governor, his duties are performed by the Deputy Governor.

Why is he absent? Bloomberg explains.

Latvian authorities prepared to explain the detention of ECB Governing Council member Ilmars Rimsevics by the anti-graft bureau in a weekend of activity culminating in the early-Monday imposition of a payment moratorium on the nation’s third-largest bank.

Officials including Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis and Finance Minister Dana Reizniece-Ozola called on Rimsevics, 52, to recuse himself from his duties as the Baltic state’s anti-corruption office pursued an investigation against him.

This is awkward to say the least as he is unable to lead the rescue effort for ABLV because not only is he under investigation he has been detained, The whole issue of money laundering and corruption is a live one in Latvia partly due to its close connections with Russia. A bit like the Cypriot banking sector we see that one needs to take great care when accepting Russian private money and to this we can add apparent involvement with North Korea which is unlikely to improve anything.

What about the economy?

The latest Bank of Latvia Monthly Development report brought good news.

GDP growth has been very strong in 2017, exceeding forecasts. In the second quarter, GDP grew by 1.4% quarter-on-quarter (according to seasonally adjusted data) but in the third quarter of 2017 – by 1.5%. Thus, annual GDP growth reached 5.8% in the third quarter of 2017 (according to seasonally adjusted data – 6.2%).

Thus there was quite a surge helped by various factors such as the better economic performance of the Euro area and in particular the other Baltic states. Also there was this giving a helping hand.

As Russia’s economic growth was stabilising, Latvia’s exports of goods to Russia grew by 36.6% year-on-year in the first ten months of 2017. The expansion of exports was largely supported by an increase in exports of beverages, machinery and electrical equipment and
pharmaceutical products.


I have given the good side of the coin but here is the ying to that yang.

In the first ten months of 2017, imports of goods grew by 16.0% year-on-year……..The value of imported goods rises at a more rapid pace than that of exported goods, thus
increasing the foreign trade deficit in goods.

Although in a small country particular care is needed with the data.

a significant contribution to the increase in imports of goods came from purchasing Bombardier CS300 aircrafts. Earlier in 2017, the JSC Air Baltic Corporation purchased
seven aircrafts and by the end of 2017 it had eight aircrafts of this kind.

Also there was this.

According to the data provided by real estate enterprises, price hikes of standard apartments displayed no trend toward acceleration in August and September, and the annual rate of increase remained close to 10%.

Prices moving like that make us look at the credit figures where we see this.

In six months of 2017, i.e. from May to October, new loans to households exceeded the respective indicator of 2016 by 7.0%, including loans for house purchase and consumer
credits which increased by 9.5% and 8.8% respectively. Meanwhile, new loans to nonfinancial corporations posted a 15.3% decrease year-on-year.

So plenty of credit for housing but in a familiar development none for business. Also UK readers especially will wonder about housing affordability when we see what could be described as a Latvian Help To Buy.

Moreover, the state aid programme for families with children to purchase housing, implemented by the JSC “Attīstības finanšu institūcija Altum”, will be expanded from 2018. It is envisaged that about 1 000 young specialists up to 35 years of age could receive aid
for house purchase in 2018.


Our trip to the Baltics and Latvia gives us food for thought. An economy growing strongly and expected to put up another strong (4.1%) performance this year. The unemployment rate has fallen to 7% although employment has remained pretty stable as we wonder if some joined the migration abroad that has been seen.

In 2000, Latvia’s population stood at 2.38 million. At the start of this year, it was 1.95 million. No other country has had a more precipitous fall in population — 18.2 percent according to U.N. statistics. ( Politico.eu )

Maybe now some will return although the current banking crisis will hardly provide much encouragement and nor will house prices. One thing we do know is that in banking crises the truth is invariably the first casualty.


The economy of Italy has yet to awaken from its “Girlfriend in a coma” past

The subject of Italy and its economy has been a regular feature on here as we have observed not only its troubled path in the credit crunch era but also they way that has struggled during its membership of the Euro. This will no doubt be an issue in next month’s election but the present period is one which should be a better phase for Italy. Firstly the Euro area economy is doing well overall and that should help the economy via improved exports.

Seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.6% in both the euro area (EA19) and in the EU28 during the fourth quarter of
2017, compared with the previous quarter……..Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 2.7% in the euro area and
by 2.6% in the EU28 in the fourth quarter of 2017…….Over the whole year 2017, GDP grew by 2.5% in both zones.

The impact on the economy of Italy

If we switch now to the Italian economy we find that there has been a boost to the economy from the better economic environment. From the monthly economic report.

Italian exports keep increasing with a positive trend following world trade expansion…….Over the period September-November, foreign trade kept a positive trend
driven by the exports (+2.9%), while the imports increased at a lower pace (+0.6%).

However the breakdown was not as might be expected.

Sales to the non-EU area (+4.6%) contributed positively to the favorable trend in exports and more than the sales to the EU area (+1.5%). In 2017, trade with non-EU countries increased both exports (+8.2%) and imports (+10.8%).

So the export-led growth is stronger outside the Euro area than in it which is not what we might expect as we observe the way that the Euro has been strong as a currency. Effects in this area can be lagged so it is possible via factors such as the J-Curve that the new higher phase for the Euro has yet to kick in in terms of its impact on trade, so we will have to watch this space.


There was some good news on this front in December as the previous analysis had been this.

Taking the average values of September-November, shows that production decreased compared to the previous quarter (-0.2%, ). In the same period all the main industrial groupings recorded a decrease except durable consumer goods (+2.7% compared to the previous quarter).

As you can see that is not what might have been expected but last weeks’ data for December was more upbeat.

In December 2017 the seasonally adjusted industrial production index increased by 1.6% compared with the previous month. The percentage change of the average of the last three months with respect to the previous three months was +0.8.

This meant that the position for the year overall looked much better than the downbeat assessment above.

in the period January-December 2017 the percentage change was +3.0 compared with the same period of

If we move to the outlook for 2018 then the Markit business survey or PMI could not be much more upbeat.

Italy’s manufacturing sector enjoyed a strong start
to 2018, registering the highest growth in output
since early 2011 and one of the greatest rises in
new orders of the past 18 years.

In addition domestic demand was seen adding to the party.

but January data pointed to a growing contribution from within Italy itself.

This leads to hopes for improvement in one of the Achilles heels of the Italian economy.

The response from many manufacturers was to
bolster employment numbers, and January’s survey
indicated the second-strongest rise of employment
in the survey history.

Unemployment and the labour market

At first glance the latest data does not look entirely impressive.

In December 2017, 23.067 million persons were employed, -0.3% over November 2017. Unemployed were
2.791 million, -1.7% over the previous month.

There is a welcome fall in unemployment but employment which these days is often a leading indicator for the economy has dipped too.

Employment rate was 58.0%, -0.2 percentage points over the previous month, unemployment rate was
10.8% -0.1 percentage points over November 2017 and inactivity rate was 34.8%, +0.3 percentage points in
a month.

However if we look back we see that over the past year 173,000 more Italians have been employed and the level of unemployment has fallen by 273,000.  What we are still waiting for however is a clear drop in the unemployment rate which has been stuck around 11% for a while. We are told it has dropped to 10.8% but there has been a recent habit of revising the rate back up to 11% at a later date meaning we have been told more than a few times that it has fallen below it. Sadly much of the unemployment is concentrated at the younger end of the age spectrum.

Youth unemployment rate (aged 15-24) was 32.2%, -0.2 percentage points over the previous month.

So better than Greece but isn’t pretty much everywhere as we again wonder how many of these have never had a job and even more concerning, how many never will?

Sometimes we are told that higher unemployment rates are a consequence of better wages. But is we look at wages growth there does not seem to be much going on here.

The labor market outlook is characterized by the wage
moderation: in 2017 both the index of contractual wages per employee and that of hourly wages increased by +0.6% y-o-y.

On a nominal level that is a fair bit below even the UK but of course the main issue is in real or inflation adjusted terms.

In January 2018, according to preliminary estimates, the Italian consumer price index for the whole nation (NIC) increased by 0.2% on monthly basis and by 0.8% compared with January 2017 (it was +0.9% in December 2017).

So there was in fact a small fall in real wages in 2017 which we need to file away on two fronts. Firstly there is the apparent fact that better economic conditions in Italy are not being accompanied by real wage growth and in fact a small fall. Secondly we need to add that rather familiar message to our global database.

The banks

This is a long running story of how the banking sector carried on pretty much regardless after the credit crunch and built up a large store of non-performing assets or if you prefer bad loans. This has meant that many Italian banks are handicapped in terms of lending to help the economy and some have become zombified. From Bloomberg earlier.

Even after making reductions last year, Italian banks are still weighed down by more than 270 billion euros ($330 billion) of non-performing loans. Struggling households account for almost a fifth of that total, according to the Bank of Italy.

It is hard not to have a wry smile at a proposed solution.

The Bank of Italy says an improvement in the country’s real estate market is helping to reduce the risks for banks.

Whether that will do much good for what has become the symbol of the problem I doubt but here is the new cleaner bailed out Monte Paschi. From Bloomberg on Monday.

The bank, which is cutting about a fifth of its workforce, eliminating branches and plans to sell 28.6 billion euros of bad loans by 2021, posted 501.6 million-euro net loss in the last three months of the year.

How is the bailout going?

The shares were down 2.8 percent at 3.72 euros as of 9:55 a.m. The stock, which returned to trading Oct. 25 after an 10-month suspension, is now valued more than 43 percent below the 6.49 euros apiece paid by Italy for the rescue.

This morning it is 3.44 Euros so the beat goes on especially as we note that pre credit crunch and the various bailouts the equivalent price peak was over 8800.


This issue continues to be ongoing.

The population at 1st January 2018 is estimated to be 60,494,000; the decrease on the previous year was
around 100,000 units (-1.6 per thousand).

Driven by this.

The number of live births dropped to 464 thousand, 2% less than in 2016 and new minimun level ever.

We have seen on the news so often that there is considerable migration to Italy and if we look into the detail we see that not only is it so there is something tucked away in it.

The net international migration in 2017 amounted to +184 thousand, recording a consistent increase on the
previous year (+40 thousand).

Yet Italians themselves continued to leave in net terms as 45,000 returned but 112,000 left which is a little surprising in the circumstances. As to the demographics well here they are.

At 1 January 2018, 22.6% of the population was aged 65 or over, 64.1% was aged between 15 and 64, while
only 13.4% was under 15 years of age. The mean age of the population exceeded 45 years.

The theme is that the natural change has got worse over the past decade rising from pretty much zero to the 183,000 of 2017 but contrary to the news bulletins net immigration is lower as it approached half a million in 2007.


This morning has brought news which will be very familiar to readers of my work which is an Italian economy which seems to struggle to grow at more than around 1% per annum for any sustained period.

In the fourth quarter of 2017 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume measure of Gross
Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 0.3 per cent with respect to the third quarter of 2017 and by 1.6 per
cent in comparison with the fourth quarter of 2016.

As we note a negative official interest-rate ( -0.4%) and a large amount of balance sheet expansion from the European Central Bank the monetary taps could not be much more open. Italy’s government in particular benefits directly by being able to borrow very cheaply ( ten-year yield 2.05%) when you consider it has a national debt to annual GDP ratio of 134.1%. Thanks Mario!

Thus we return on Valentines Day to the “Girlfriend in a Coma” theme of Bill Emmott which is a shame as Italy is a lovely country. Can it change? Let us hope so and maybe the undeclared economy can be brought to task. Meanwhile if you want to take the Matrix style blue pill here is Bloomberg.

ITALY: GDP expanded by 0.3% in 4Q, a bit less than expected. Still, 2017 was the best growth year (+1.5%) since 2010. Shows how broad-based the euro-area recovery has become. A rising tide lifts all boats





Of Bitcoin banks and electricity consumption

This morning opens with yet more Bitcoin headlines and news. I guess it is in keeping with the times that what was so recently a raging bull market should apparently so quickly become a bear one. From Reuters.


Bitcoin traded at $10,968, down 3.7 percent in Asia, after a fall of 16.3 percent on Tuesday, its biggest daily decline in four months.

Just over 24 hours ago it was above US $13,000 and of course in mid-December we saw a peak of over US $19,000.  It is also important to provide some perspective as if we look back a year we see that it was below US $900. Or to put it another way over a year we have quite a bull market and over a month a bear one.

Another way of putting it is shown below.

I think the mean needs to be higher but otherwise we get an attempt to explain human investing psychology with both its flaws and glory. One facet of this which I found particularly troubling came from CNBC just over a month ago.

Bitcoin is in the “mania” phase, with some people even borrowing money to get in on the action, securities regulator Joseph Borg told CNBC on Monday.

“We’ve seen mortgages being taken out to buy bitcoin. … People do credit cards, equity lines,” said Borg, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association, a voluntary organization devoted to investor protection. Borg is also director of the Alabama Securities Commission.

If only Borg had said “resistance is futile”! But he was on the ball in two big respects in that he was warning of a problem should people borrow into a surge and also later he pointed out that “innovation always out runs regulation”. It is hard not to note that the peak we have seen so far came quite quickly.

The banks and Bitcoin

However the apparently Bitcoin friendly behaviour of the banks did not last. From the Financial Times on Saturday.

Bitcoin investors trying to channel their new fortunes into UK property are being turned away by mortgage lenders and brokers who fear breaching anti money-laundering regulations.

There was a more specific example.

One public sector worker built up a deposit of £40,000 after investing in bitcoin, said Mark Stallard, a broker and principal at House and Holiday Home Mortgages. But he said he had been unable to arrange a loan because it was hard to prove where the funds had arrived from and to link them to his client.


“The first mortgage lender I rang asked me what a cryptocurrency was,” Mr Stallard said.


“I rang two other lenders and they said they would not touch it. “When I mentioned where the money had come from there was massive reluctance to help or understand the problem. I do not believe the mortgage providers in general are ready for this issue and research tells me that a lot more people will be knocking on our doors with funds made or raised in this fashion.”

There are various issues here as for example the client could say he has made the money by gambling/investing. Of course the latter issue of investing raises the issue of whether capital gains tax is due? So perhaps that is why there is a claimed issue with where the funds arrived from. Mind you the Building Societies Association have a cheek to say the least to say this.

“There is currently no regulation of these electronic currencies, which puts them into the highest risk category in relation to money laundering. In addition, it is well known that such currencies are popular with criminals, who use them to launder the proceeds of crime.”

Apparently you can however pay off your mortgage with Bitcoin profits.

Existing borrowers who want to use their bitcoin profits to pay down mortgage debts are free to do so. Daniel Hegarty, founder of online mortgage broker Habito, said a customer recently cancelled his remortgage application before it was completed, deciding instead to pay off his whole mortgage with his money from bitcoin investments.

So there is quite an inconsistency there as I again have a wry smile at the banking sector accusing others of facilitating money laundering and being popular with criminals!


This is an odd one with the cryptocurrencies.I am sure many of you know more about this than me but there is a clear contradiction in what we are told. Firstly we are regularly told that the trading is anonymous and that is one of the points of the system. Fair enough. But we are also beginning to be told that financial crimes can be spotted so we simultaneously do not know what is happening but we also do?!

Electricity and power

We are getting ever more stories about the energy consumption of Bitcoin as this tweet from John Quiggin suggests.

If mining ended tomorrow, China could reduce its coal consumption by an amount comparable to its entire import of Australian thermal coal (supporting calcs to follow)

Sadly he has not yet provided the mathematics behind this but there have been plenty of other suggestions in the same vein. For example from Bloomberg last week.

Miners of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies could require up to 140 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2018, about 0.6 percent of the global total, Morgan Stanley analysts led by Nicholas Ashworth wrote in a note Wednesday. That’s more than expected power demand from electric vehicles in 2025.

There are plenty of arguments about the numbers but suddenly hydro-electric power seems to be en vogue as this from Bloomberg yesterday suggests.

A Canadian utility has already voiced enthusiasm. Hydro-Quebec has said it’s in “very advanced” talks with miners about relocating to the province and that it envisions the miners soaking up about five terawatt-hours of power annually — equivalent to about 300,000 Quebec homes — from the surplus created by the region’s hydroelectric dams.

If we move onto future power demands of which Bitcoin and the other cryptocurrencies may turn out to be significant I have a question. Are we not going to run out of electricity? My own country has been something of a shambles in providing new power generation as the ultra expensive plans for  a new nuclear point at Hinkley Point demonstrate and yet we are told this. From the BBC today.

Three-fifths of new cars must be electric by 2030 to meet greenhouse gas targets, ministers have been warned.

There have been some movements on infrastructure as for example there are now nine charging points around Battersea Power albeit they seem to be rarely actually used. But in a future where they are used a lot and that is not so inconceivable where is the electricity going to come from? It is not that there has been complete failure as for example I have just checked and wind power is currently providing over 10 GW but of course it relies on the wind blowing. It is helping in this cold snap but what if people wanted to charge their vehicles on a cold windless night? Perhaps that is when Smart Meters will really come into their own and not in a good way.


There is a lot to consider here as we mull two concepts that would have been regarded as separate only a short time ago which are Bitcoin and electricity. Here is another way of looking at it from Chris Skinner.

Part of the problem is, that all those Bitcoin miners are racing to solve the same problem, but only the miner who solves the problem first gets to actually claim the block. All the other miners lose out, and their energy goes to waste. Even with that probability, with 1 Bitcoin at roughly US$20,000, there’s plenty of incentive to try.

There is still a fair bit at US $11000. But unfortunately trying it at home will not work.

Even so, a fairly typical computer with an average type of SHA isn’t going to cut it — a recent estimate was that to mine a single Bitcoin using an average computer would take you around 1,367 years

So you would need something like Carl Sagan’s SETI project. However one way of looking at the message from Alex Hern below would be to think is Hinkley Point a way of nobbling Bitcoin?

The power consumption of bitcoin mining is purely artificial, and its equilibrium is essentially at the level where the cost of all the electricity used is equal in the long run to the value of the bitcoin granted in mining rewards.

The energy problem is simply that renewable sources of electricity are sometimes outside our control whereas things we are shutting down such as coal generation we can control. Yet the potential demands for electricity are rising with no clear plan to provide for them unless of course cold fusion finally works or we find a way of being able to store power efficiently.


Why have house prices in Italy continued to fall?

One of the features of these times is that economic policy is pretty much invariably house price friendly. Not only have central banks around the world slashed official interest-rates thereby reducing variable mortgage rates but many followed this up with Quantitative Easing bond buying which pushed fixed-rate mortgages (even) lower as well. If that was not enough some of the liquidity created by the QE era was invested in capital cities around the globe by investors looking to spread their risks. In addition we saw various credit easing programmes which were designed to refloat even zombie banks and get them back lending again. In my country this type of credit easing was called the Funding for Lending Scheme which did so by claiming to boost business lending but in reality boosted the mortgage market. Looked at like that we see policies which could not have been much more house price friendly.

If we switch to the Euro area we see that this went as far as the ECB declaring a negative deposit rate ( -0.4%) which it still has in spite of these better economic times and a balance sheet totaling 4.5 trillion Euros. This has led to house price recoveries and in particular in two of the countries which had symbolised a troubled housing market which were of course Ireland and Spain. But intriguingly one country has missed out as we were reminded of only yesterday.

The Italian Difference

Yesterday morning the official statistics body Istat told us this.

According to preliminary estimates, in the third quarter of 2017: the House Price Index (see Italian IPAB) decreased by 0.5% compared with the previous quarter and by
0.8% in comparison to the same quarter of the previous year (it was -0.2% in the second quarter of 2017);

The breakdown shows a small nudge higher for new properties that in aggregate is weaker than the fall in price for exisiting properties.

prices of new dwellings increased by 0.3% compared to the previous quarter and by 0.6% with respect to
the third quarter of 2016 (up from +0.3% observed in the second quarter); prices of existing dwellings
decreased by 0.7% compared to the previous quarter and by 1.3% with respect to the same quarter of the
previous year.

Property owners in Italy may be a little jealous of those in Amsterdam who have just seen a 13.5% rise in house prices in the past year.

A ( space) oddity

The situation gets more curious if we note that as discussed earlier the mortgage market has got more favourable. In terms of credit then there should be more around as at the aggregate level the ECB has expanded its balance sheet and we know that Italian banks took part in this at times on a large scale. Whilst the overall process has been an Italian style shambles there have (finally) been some bank bailouts or rather hybrid bailin/outs.

If we move from credit supply to price we see that mortgage rates have been falling in Italy. The website Statista tells us that the 3.68% of the opening of 2013 was replaced by 2.1% at the half-way point of 2017. The fall was not in a straight line but is a clear fall. Another way of putting this is to use the composite mortgage rate of the Bnak of Italy. When ECB President gave his “Whatever it takes ( to save the Euro speech)” in July 2012 it might also have been save Italian house prices as the mortgage rate fell from 3.95% then to 1.98% as of last November so in essence halved.

So if we apply the play book house prices should been rallying in Italy and maybe strongly.

House Price Slump

Reality is however very different as the data in fact shows annual falls. For example 4.4% in 2014 and 2.6% in 2015 and 0.8% in 2016. Indeed if we look for some perspective in the credit crunch era we see the Financial Times reporting this.

In real terms, Italy’s real house prices have been falling consistently since 2007 and are now 23 per cent lower — a drop that has brought the construction and property sectors to their knees.

If we look back to the credit crunch impact and then the Euro area crisis which then gave Italy a double-whammy hit then we see that lower house prices are covered by Radiohead.

No alarms and no surprises

Although existing property owners may be singing along to the next part of the lyric.

let me out of here

What is more surprising is the fact that the economic improvement has had such a different impact on house prices in Italy compared to its Euro area peers.

Italy was the only country in the EU where house prices contracted in the second quarter of last year, according to the latest figures from Eurostat, the EU statistics agency. In contrast, almost two-thirds of EU countries are reporting house price growth of more than 5 per cent. ( FT )

If we look at the house price index we see that as of the third quarter of last year it was at 98.6 compared to the 100 of 2015. So just as Mario Draghi and the ECB were “pumping up” monetary policy house prices in Italy were doing not much and if anything drifting lower. Looking further back we see that the index was 116.3 in 2010 so it has not been a good period of time for property owners in Italy and that does matter because of this.

and in a country where more than 72 per cent of households own their own home

I have to confess I was not previously aware of what a property owning nation Italy is.

The banks

We have looked many times at the troubled banking sector in Italy and we have seen from the numbers above that the property market and the banking sector have been clutching each other tightly in the credit crunch era. Maybe this is at least part of the reason why the Italian establishment has dithered so much over the banking bailouts required as it waited for a bottom which so far has not arrived. This has left the Italian banking sector with 173.1 billion Euros of bad loans sitting on their balance sheets.

Property now accounts for more corporate bad loans than any other sector: 42 per cent compared with 29 per cent in 2011………And for property-related lending the proportion of loans turning bad has been twice as high as in the manufacturing sector, weighing on banks’ €173bn of bad debts. ( FT)

So something of a death spiral as one zombie sector feeds off another as this reply to me indicates.

The trend is getting better for Italian house market but it is a vicious circle: banks’ sales of repossessed property is also contributing to the prolonged house price contraction. The number of real estate units sold via auction increased 25 % in the last 2 years ( @Raff_Perf )

As The Cranberries would say “Zombie, zombie,zombie”

Disposing of bad property loans has also been slower than for other sectors……… In contrast, banks continue to harbour hopes of greater recovery of secured loans to construction and real estate companies. As a result, this lending has remained in limbo for longer.

Another forward guidance fail?


One way of looking at Italy right now is of a property owning democracy which has had a sustained fall in house prices. This of course adds to the fact that on an individual basis economic output or GDP has fallen in the Euro area as output stagnated but the population rose meaning the net fall must now be around 5%. It is hard not to wonder if the “Whatever it takes” speech of Mario Draghi was not at least partly driven by rising mortgage rates in Italy ( pre his speech they went over 4%) and falling house prices in his home country. Along the way it is not only the banking sector which is affected.

Construction has almost halved from its pre-crisis level. ( FT)

That puts the UK’s construction problem I looked ta yesterday into perspective doesn’t it?

Looking ahead we see a better economic situation for Italy as it has returned to economic growth. What this has done if we look at annual house price numbers is slowed the decline but not yet caused any rises. In some ways this is welcome as first time buyers will no doubt be grateful that they have not seen the rises for example seen in much of my home country but if with all the monetary policy effort the results are what they are what happens when the next recession turns up?

Still if you want the bill pill Matrix style there is this from AURA who call themselves real estate experts.

“I would say it’s a mathematical fact: house prices cannot drop more than 30%. I believe that this drop of values is over and it’s now time to buy”. Stefano Rossini, Ceo for MutuiSuperket.it,

Perhaps he has never been to Ireland or more curiously Spain.

Me on Core Finance