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.


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).


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.


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%.


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.


What evidence is there for a bond market bubble?

There is a saying that even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut. I am left wondering about this as I note that the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan has posted a warning about bond markets. From Bloomberg.

Equity bears hunting for excess in the stock market might be better off worrying about bond prices, Alan Greenspan says. That’s where the actual bubble is, and when it pops, it’ll be bad for everyone.

Actually that is troubling on two counts. The simplest is the existence of extraordinarily high bond prices and low and in some cases negative yields. The next is that fact that his successors in charge of the various central banks may start pumping more monetary easing into this bubble to stop it deflating and it being “bad for everyone”. Indeed maybe this mornings ECB monthly bulletin is already on the case.

Looking ahead, the Governing Council confirmed that a very substantial degree of monetary accommodation is needed for euro area inflation pressures to gradually build up and support headline inflation developments in the medium term.

Let us look at what he actually said.

“By any measure, real long-term interest rates are much too low and therefore unsustainable,” the former Federal Reserve chairman, 91, said in an interview. “When they move higher they are likely to move reasonably fast. We are experiencing a bubble, not in stock prices but in bond prices. This is not discounted in the marketplace.”

I find it intriguing that he argues that there is no bubble in stock prices which are far higher than when he thought they were the result of “irrational exuberance” . After all low bond yields must be supporting the share prices of pretty much any stock with a solid dividend in a world where investors are so yield hungry that even index-linked Gilts have been used as such.

What is a bubble?

This is hard to define but involves extreme price rises which are then hard to justify with past metrics or measurement techniques. With convenient timing we have seen a clear demonstration of one only this week as something extraordinary develops. From Sky Sports News.

Sky sources: Neymar agrees 5-year-deal at PSG worth £450m, earning £515,000-a-week after tax. More on SSN.

One sign that we are in the “bubbilicious” zone is that no-one is sure of the exact price as I note others suggesting the deal is £576 million. You could drive the whole London bus fleet through the difference. The next sign is that people immediately assure you that everything is just fine as it is normal. From the BBC.

Mourinho said: “Expensive are the ones who get into a certain level without a certain quality. For £200m, I don’t think [Neymar] is expensive.

To be fair he pointed out that there would however be consequences.

“I think he’s expensive in the fact that now you are going to have more players at £100m, you are going have more players at £80m and more players at £60m. And I think that’s the problem.”

Of course Jose will be relieved that what was previously perceived as a large sum spent on Paul Pogba now looks relatively cheap. Oh and did I say that the numbers get confused?

PSG’s total outlay across the initial five-year deal will come to £400m.

If Sky are correct the high property prices we look at will be no problem as he will earn in a mere 8 months enough to buy the highest price flat they could find in Paris ( £18 million). The rub if there is one is that the price could easily rise if they know he is the buyer!

The comparison with the previous record does give us another clue because if we look at the Paul Pogba transfer it has taken only one year for the previous record to be doubled. That speed and indeed acceleration was seen in both the South Sea Bubble and the Tulip Mania.

Perhaps there was a prescient sign some years ago when the team who has fans who are especially keen on blowing bubbles was on the case. From SkyKaveh.

West Ham were close to signing Neymar from Santos in 2010. Offered £25m but move collapsed when Santos asked for more money

Back to bonds

If we look at market levels then the warning lights flash especially in places where investors are paying to get bonds. If we look at the Euro area then a brief check saw me note that for 2 years yields are negative in Germany, France, Belgium, Italy and Spain. For Germany especially investors can go further out in terms of maturity and get a negative yield. Does that define a bubble on its own as they are paying for something which is supposed to pay you?! There are two additional factors to throw in which is that the real yield situation is even worse as over the next two years inflation looks set to be positive at somewhere between 1% and 2%. Also if we look at Spain with economic growth having been ~3% or so a year for a bit why would you buy a bond at anything like these levels?

Another sign of a bubble that has worked pretty well over time is that you find the Japanese buying it. So I noted this earlier from @liukzilla.

“Japanese Almost Triple Foreign Bond Buying in July” exe: buy or + buy => like a double chocolate pie

Here we do get something of a catch as the issue of foreign investors buying involves the currency as well. Whether that is a sign of the Euro peaking I do not know but in a way it shows another form of looking for yield if you can call a profit a yield. Also there is an issue here of Japanese investors buying foreign bonds not only because there is little or no yield to be found at home but also because the Bank of Japan is soaking up the supply of what there is.


If we survey the situation we see that prices and yields especially in what we consider to be the first world do show “bubbilicious” signs. If we look at my home country of the UK it seemed extraordinary when the ten-year Gilt yield went below 2% and yet it is now around 1.2%. Of course the Bank of England with its “Sledgehammer” QE a year ago blew so much that it fell briefly to 0.5% in an effort which was a type of financial vandalism as we set yet again assets prioritised over the real economy. What we are not seeing is an acceleration unless perhaps we move to real yields which have dropped as inflation has picked up.

So far I have looked at sovereign bonds but this has also spilled over into corporate bonds especially with central banks buying them. We have seen them issued at negative yields as well which makes us wonder how that all works if one of the companies should ever go bust. Yet we also need to remind ourselves that there are geographical issues as we look around as Africa has double-digit yields in many places and according to Bloomberg buying short dated bonds in the Venezuelan state oil company yields 152% although the ride would not be good for your heart rate.



Is this the revenge of the bond vigilantes?

The latter part of 2016 has seen quite a change in the state of play in bond markets. If we look at my own country the UK we only have to look back to the middle of August to see a situation where the UK Gilt market surged to an all-time high. This was driven by what was called a “Sledgehammer” of monetary easing according to the Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane.  This comprised not only £60 billion of Gilt purchases and £10 billion of corporate bond purchases but also promises of “more,more,more” later in the year. Not only was this a time of bond market highs it was also a time of what so far at least has been “peak QE” as central planners like our Andy flexed both their muscles (funded of course by a combination of the ability to create money and taxpayer backing) and their rhetoric.

However those who pushed the UK Gilt market to new highs following the Bank of England now face large losses as you see it has fallen heavily since. The ten-year Gilt yield which fell to 0.5% is now 1.5% as the Bank of England’s Forward Guidance looks ever more like General Custer at Little Big Horn with bond vigilantes replacing the Red Indians. Let me switch into price terms which will give you a clearer idea of the scale of what has taken place. There are always issues with any such measure but the UK Gilt which matures in 2030 can be considered as an average. Fresh with his central planning mandate Mark Carney paid 152.7 for it back in mid-August but last week he got a relative bargain at 138 and if today’s prices hold will be paying much less later this week.

This of course means that the Bank of England has made fairly solid losses on this round of QE as we wonder if that is the “Sledgehammer” referred to. So will anyone else who bought with them and I raise this as some may have been forced to buy in a type of “stop-loss” situation as we wait to see if the pain became too much for some pension funds and insurance companies. Such a situation would be a complete failure as we recall central banks are supposed to supervise and maintain free and fair markets which awkwardly involves stopping the very price and yield manipulation that QE relies on.

As we stand the overall Bank of England QE operation will be in profit but of course that has been partly driven by the new round of it! Anyway here is a picture of the Sledgehammer as it currently stands.

What has driven this?

The UK may well have been at least partially a driving force on the world scene in mid-summer but of course the recent player has been the Trump Truck on its journey to the White House. I recall pointing out on here on November 9th that this part of his acceptance speech meant that a new fiscal policy seemed on its way.

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.

It had an immediate impact.

There has been a clear market adjustment to this which is that the 30 year ( long bond) yield has risen by 0.12% to 2.75%.

We have of course more perspective now and this morning that yield has nudged 3.2%. Of course there is ebb and flow but also we have seen a clear trend.

Crude Oil

This has also been a player via its impact on expectations for inflation. This morning the announced deal between OPEC and non-OPEC countries saw the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil rising 5% to around US $57 per barrel. This compares to the recent nadir of around US $42 in early August. There are of course differences in taxation and so on but roughly I would expect this to raise annual consumer inflation by around 0.5%. This time around the effect seems set to be larger as we have so far replaced the price falls of the latter part of 2015 with rises in 2016. Of course the oil price will change between now and the end of 2016 but this gives an idea of the impact as we stand.

There has also been a general shift higher in commodities prices or to be more specific a surge in metals prices which has only partially been offset by the others. The CRB (Commodity Research Bureau) Index opened 2016 in the low 370s and is now 427.

US Federal Reserve

This has had an influence as well. It contributed to the bond market rally by the way its promises of “3-5” interest-rate rises were replaced by a reality of none so far. Now we face the prospect of this Wednesday’s  meeting thinking that they probably have to do one now to retain any credibility at all. Back on November 9th I wondered if they would and there are still grounds for that as we look at Trump inspired uncertainty and higher bond yields and US Dollar strength. However on the other side of the idea I note that @NicTrades suggesting they could perhaps do 0.5% this week. Far too logical I think!

But as we look back at nearly all of 2016 how much worse could the Forward Guidance of the US Federal Reserve have been?

The Ultras

No not the Italian football hooligans as I am thinking here of the trend that involved countries issuing ever longer dated debt. If we stay with Italy though Mark Jasayoko had some thoughts yesterday on Twitter.

Italy‘s 50year bond issued on Oct 5 is down 11.33% since. = 4yrs of coupons Dear bond bulls, enjoy holding on for the next half century.

Oh Well as Fleetwood Mac would say. There was also Austria with its 70 year bond which pretty much immediately fell and I note that this morning reports of a yield rise approaching 0.1%.  Those who gambled on the ECB coming to the rescue are left with the reality that such long-dated bonds are currently excluded from its QE. As for the 100 year bond issued by Ireland in March the price may well have halved since then.

Perhaps the outer limit of this can be found in Mexico which issued a 100 year Euro denominated bond in March 2015. Of course not even Donald Trump can put a wall around a bond but it puts a chill up your spine none the less.

As we look at the whole environment we see that taxpayers have done well here or more likely governments who will spend the “gains” and investors will have lost. Should the wild swings lead to casualties and bailouts the taxpayer picture will get more complex.


So we have seen a sort of revenge of the bond vigilantes although care is needed as a few months hardly replaces a bear market which in trend terms has lasted for around 3 decades. However there is a real economy effect here and let me highlight it from the United States.

Interest rates on U.S. fixed-rate mortgages rose to their highest levels in more than two years……..The Washington-based industry group said 30-year fixed-rate conforming mortgages averaged 4.27 percent, the highest level since October 2014……..The spike in 30-year mortgage rates, which have risen about 0.50 percentage point since the Nov. 8 election, has reduced refinancing activity.

That effect will be seen in many other countries and we will also see the cost of business loans rise. Also over time governments which have of course got used to ever cheaper borrowing seem set to find that the tie which was forever being loosened is now being tightened. How is the fiscal expansionism recommended by establishment bodies such as the IMF looking now?



Central banks are giving us a “head fake” on more QE bond buying

Today it is time for a journey into what is an old stomping ground of mine which is bond markets. Actually reminders of such things have been about because this week has been the 30th anniversary of the “Big Bang” in the UK which I just made. Let me immediately point out that those 30 years have been an extraordinary bull market for bonds although there have of course been ebbs and flows. It should be a sobering thought for the latter-day central planners at the central banks that prices were rising and yields falling way before they enacted extraordinary monetary policies and QE (Quantitative Easing). However I will throw in one morsel which is that you could argue that the era of inflation targeting by central banks has turned out to be a very good one for bond investors. Frankly beyond most of their dreams. But to quote out new Nobel Lauriet Bob Dylan there are concerns that.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

A Step Back In Time

We only have to go back a few days or so to see an example of a group of investors looking to continue to front run a central bank, in this case the ECB (European Central Bank). From the Financial Times.

This week Austria sold government debt that will not mature until 2086 — highlighting the risk investors are willing to run for positive yields.

Well played to the Austrian taxpayer who saw this happen on their behalf according to Bloomberg.

The nation sold 2 billion euros ($2.2 billion) of the bunds this week, taking advantage of historically low borrowing costs.

How is that going?

A buyer of 10 million euros of the securities saw a paper loss of more than 500,000 euros by the end of Thursday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

As a short-term trade this has turned out to be appalling as you see it will take more than 3 years at the original yield of 1.53% to get that back or if we get a little more technical investors have felt the whiplash of what is called duration.

Its relatively low coupon and long maturity help produce a high duration factor, meaning it’s price is more volatile.

Now market prices change  but as we stand the Austrian taxpayer has played a stormer here and they have not been alone.

Before Austria’s 70-year offering, Italy, France, Belgium and Spain had sold half-century debt this year in syndicated deals — which are co-ordinated by banks.

The UK has in fact a history in this area and sold a 39 year Gilt in August and has had several goes at a 30 year one both this month and last. In fact around 4 years ago I was interviewed on Russia Today about a possible 100 year Gilt which seemed cheap then (for taxpayers) and would be even cheaper now.

This from the FT shows how brains have been scrambled by what has been taking place.

Luke Hickmore at Aberdeen Asset Management says the prices for long-dated debt look “shocking, yet at the same time they still make sense in the current environment”.

Another perspective has just been sent to me on Twitter from John Murray about the 70 year Austrian bonds.

How long’s a lifetime?

What has changed?


This returns me to my subject of Wednesday which was on the rising trajectory for inflation ( oh and if I may be so bold I did point out what a bad deal that Austrian bond was). If we stick with the inflation issue take a look at this from Germany this morning.

Now this is only a relatively minor amount of inflation but if you wished to match it to your yield then you would have to buy a thirty-year bond. Those with bonds up to the nine-year maturity would be facing negative yields as well as the inflation.

Fiscal Policy

There have been various hints of looser fiscal policy around the world. Perhaps the clearest has come from Japan where Prime Minister Abe has launched yet another stimulus although as ever some of it was in fact pre-existing. Also the UK seems to be heading that way if the latest public finances numbers were any sort of guide. The IMF started its campaign in April 2015.

fiscal policy can contribute substantially to macroeconomic stability, through the workings of automatic stabilizers. By doing so, fiscal policy can also unlock significant growth dividends.

Hard to believe that in the Euro area it did exactly the reverse isn’t it? My advice is never to buy any tyres or brakes from the IMF as the screeching U-Turns will have damaged them.

Central Banks

These have of course fed the most recent stage of the bond market boom with their interest-rate cuts and indeed their bond buying for which they invented a long impressive sounding name, Quantitative Easing. As of the end of last week the ECB for example had spent some 1.3 trillion Euros on buying the sovereign bonds of its constituent nations and the buyers of the 70 year Austrian bond no doubt had their eye on additions to the 27.9 billion Euros spent on Austrian bonds.

Now though we see that those trying to front-run such purchases are facing issues such as the supposed ECB Taper where fewer bonds would be purchased going forwards. Also the Bank of Japan seems to be replacing action with ever more rhetoric and open mouth operations. Even the Bank of England faces the issue of claiming a “sledgehammer” is appropriate for an economy which has just seen quarterly growth of 0.5% as opposed to what it told us in August.

Their current levels, if sustained, would be consistent with a contraction in output in Q3

This has led to concerns that there will be less QE and hence fewer opportunities to front-run central banks. This has been added to by the US Federal Reserve repeating its regular routine from 2016 of claiming that a second interest-rate increase is just around the corner, the same corner it has been just around since last December! We will find out a little more on that front perhaps when we get the new GDP report later.


The simple fact is that central banks have driven sovereign bond markets to completely the wrong set of prices and created a false market. This has dangers in addition to the obvious one as they have broken the economic signals and links that used to be at play. It has added to the junkie style culture where we need ever large doses of the “medicine” but the fact we regularly need another hit provides its own critique.

In my opinion they are presently trying to address this by providing a head fake. The ECB with its taper rumours and the Bank of Japan with its new strategy want yields higher for a bit. Then they will follow the model set out by the Swedish Riksbank yesterday.

Prior to the monetary policy meeting in December, the Executive Board is prepared to extend the purchases of government bonds……..The repo‐rate path now also reflects a greater probability that the rate could be cut further.

In other words they are still singing along to Trouble by Coldplay.

Oh, no, what’s this?
A spider web, and I’m caught in the middle,
So I turned to run,
The thought of all the stupid things I’ve done,

And I never meant to cause you trouble,
And I never meant to do you wrong,
And I, well, if I ever caused you trouble,
Oh no, I never meant to do you harm.

So whilst buyers of that 70 year Austrian bond exposed their investors to a barrel load of risk they may yet be bailed out by ever more QE. At which point the Jedi Mind Tricks of the central bankers will be exposed.


How is fiscal policy affected by negative yielding bonds?

This morning has started with a familiar drumbeat for these times. The ten-year yield in Germany has fallen to a mere 0.022% so not only is it being paid if it issues bonds up to nine years in maturity the benchmark ten-year is on the edge of joining it.Also it is a sign o’ the times that it is now being measured in hundredths. If we move across the border to Switzerland then this happened on Wednesday. From the Financial Times.

The Swiss National Bank has announced it will be selling 13-year bonds, maturing in June 2029, with a zero per cent coupon, its lowest fixed interest rate on record…….It seems likely that investors will be prepared to buy the debt for a guaranteed loss.

Actually as a technical issue let me correct the FT as you only have a “guaranteed loss” if you hold to maturity. In the frenzied world right now you may get a short-term profit. Even if you go out some 30 years then you are struggling to get even a 0.1% yield. I note that the average yield on both German bunds and Swiss bonds is negative which means as a broad brush they are being paid to borrow overall.

Not everybody is in that boat but the ten-year UK Gilt yield dropped to a record low 1.22% and the US Treasury Note ( ten-year) has fallen to 1.67%. So as the FT tells us.

Super low and sub-zero yields, once a source of shock, are becoming a standard part of Europe’s bond markets

I am not sure why they specified Europe as the US yields are historically very low and of course the land of the rising sun or Nihon has a ten-year yield of -0.14%. Oh and speaking of Japan.

Japan PM Advisor Nakahara: Suggests Boosting JGB Purchases To JPY100 Tln Per Year -Should Increase Easing As Soon As Next Week (@livesquawk ).

Or monetary policy meet fiscal policy or if you prefer vice versa.

What about fiscal policy?

The current situation poses some new questions for fiscal policy. There have been people in favour of a fiscal boost all along or to be more accurate more of a fiscal boost as the vast majority of countries run annual deficits. But in a nutshell the past thinking was on the lines of an expansionary policy would lead to high bond yields and possibly much higher ones should it look to be getting too high. The too high was always a bit vague with no specific levels of deficit or national debt. However A threshold did exist in the past for the UK amongst others and we saw for a while the “Bond Vigilantes” sending bond yields in the countries affected by the Euro crisis much higher. It seems extraordinary now to point out that Portugal’s benchmark bonds had a yield in the mid-teens as opposed to the 3% or so that the mainstream media tells us is a crisis now.

There are several issues to this. Let me start with simple bond management where there are two impacts. The most obvious is that it is either cheap to issue or you are paid to do it. The second is a quantity one which is you will be able to sell a lot of bonds to a yield hungry world if you nudge your yields a little higher as the Bond Vigilantes turn into Pac-Men and women. Only countries perceived to be a pretty extreme crisis will be exempt from this.

A Fiscal Boost

This has become extremely fashionable and links back to my article of yesterday when I looked at a speech made by ECB President Mario Draghi.

This is why the ECB has said many times that fiscal policy should work with not against monetary policy, and the aggregate fiscal stance in the euro area is now slightly expansionary.

He is hinting at a welcome for a more expansionary policy which gets a lot clearer if you read between the lines here.

But the orientation of other policies also influences the speed with which output returns to potential. So if other policies are not aligned with monetary policy, inflation risks returning to our objective at a slower pace.

As Mario is stamping the pedal to the metal with his monetary policy he is plainly pushing for an easier fiscal stance which is of course the opposite of past ECB advice. So many central bankers seem to take the words of Margaret Thatcher “U-Turn if you want to” as a strategic plan these days don’t they?

Japan is also switching one of the tenets of Abenomics. You see the initial fiscal and monetary boost was supposed to provide such growth that everything would be better except as the FT reported at the beginning of the month.

Japan’s fiscal situation is the worst among the major industrialised economies.Its government debt exceeds 200 per cent of gross domestic product — worse than Greece.

In fact in the Abenomics fantasy world reality appears to have disappeared.

Mr Abe said during a press conference on Wednesday that he would not change a target of achieving primary balance surplus in fiscal year 2020, but how he can meet this goal is now unclear.

So a fiscal consolidation becomes a fiscal boost but don’t worry as the future is bright! Sadly like in the UK the fiscal future that is bright is 3/4 years away whenever you start from.

Germany Japan and Switzerland

These three countries could undertake a fiscal boost right now and be paid to do so. They would be better off in annual terms by doing so. Firstly let me give you some musical accompaniment to this idea from OMC.

How bizarre
How bizarre, how bizarre

There are even a couple of lines from the song for the Bond Vigilantes.

It’s making me crazy
(It’s making me crazy)

So Germany could borrow and boost the Euro area in a way that those who argue against imbalances would consider as Christmas come early. Switzerland could do the same and again boost the Euro area. Japan could join in or to be more specific it could add to its existing fiscal boost and hope that doubling-down again would work and likely be paid to do it.

GDP Linked Bonds

Jens Weidman of the German Bundesbank has highlighted this today.

zero-risk weighting of sovereign debt distorts capital allocation and therefore acts as a drag on growth…..Doing away with sovereign debt as a cluster risk would also pave the way for the orderly restructuring of sovereign debt

At first sight he is saying how silly the current situation is although avoiding the fact that the ECB of which he is (mostly) a voting member has driven it both theoretically and practically. So the suggestion is as follows.

A recent initiative by the Bank of England is pushing for the introduction of standardised GDP-linked bonds. By tying coupon payments, and potentially the principal as well, to a country’s growth rate, investors share both the upside and the downside risk of a country’s economic development.

You may recall this was suggested for Greece back in the day and investors can let out a sigh of relief it never happened as the ongoing economic depression would have made their investments take an ice bath. For Germany right now it would not far off define insanity but there are problems. The Bank Underground blog unwittingly helps us out.


What could go wrong?

Let me throw in another problem which is changes to GDP itself. In the last few years the UK has made several by changing its inflation definition ( worth around 0.5% per annum of “extra” growth) and the ESA 10 changes such as drugs and hookers as well as double counting Research & Development which was worth around 4%. A nice windfall for those in the know?


Negative yielding bonds provide quite a windfall for fiscal policy. There is a flow one which the media mostly ignores but there is the opportunity for a capital one should the 3 main beneficiaries use it. It is not quite a “free lunch” although it would be for a while a lunch that you were paid to eat. What I mean by that is that the national debts would rise and also the bonds would as a minimum have to be refinanced in the future and maybe in some sort of alternative universe – the sort of place where Spock in Star Trek has emotions – be actually repaid.

So thoughts?

Where next for the economy of Saudi Arabia?

A clear economic feature of the last year or so has been the spectacular fall in the price of crude oil. In spite of the recent bounce the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil has fallen by some 51% over the past year to US $49 per barrel. This represents quite a transfer of income and wealth from the producing nations to the consuming ones. I noted an estimate on CNBC a week or so ago of between US $900 billion and US $1.3 trillion which seems on the high side to me. Today I wish to look at the impact on the nation which in oil terms at least is most associated with its price and outlook and that is Saudi Arabia.

The Budget is tightening

In many ways being Saudi Finance Minister must have seemed one of the easiest jobs in the world! After all the price of the country’s main resource crude oil remained with one brief exception over US $100 per barrel from early 2011 to the latter part of 2014. Thus the revenue gushed in. The Persian Gulf Fund put it thus a few years back.

Saudi Arabia has the biggest oil reserves in the world and it is the second largest oil producer after Russia. Oil production gives 40% of the country’s GDP and as much as 80-90% of its budget revenue, which means that Saudi Arabia’s ability to spend money is quite directly associated with oil prices.

According to the International Energy Agency Saudi Arabia produced 13.1% of the world’s oil based hydrocarbon supply in 2013 and was by far the largest exporter in 2012 with some 371 million tonnes or 18.7% of the world total. Of course between then and now has come the shale gas and oil revolution especially in the United States but for quite some time the oil based revenue situation for Saudi Arabia could hardly have been more favourable.

This morning however on CNBC the Saudi Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf said this.

We have built reserves, cut public debt to near-zero levels and we are now working on cutting unnecessary expenses while focusing on main development projects and on building human resources in the kingdom.

He was deliberately vague about what expenses are now considered unnecessary but there is a clear change of emphasis and tenet. Also those who follow the Jim Hacker line of “never believe anything until it is officially denied” will find the next bit to be ominous. From the BBC.

Talking to broadcaster CNBC Arabia, he said the country was in a good position to manage low oil prices.

What about the reserves?

Saudi Arabia built up a strong position in terms of foreign exchange reserves which peaked at just under 2.8 trillion Riyals in August 2014. However the figures for July of this year (the latest) show that they have declined to 2.51 trillion Riyals. So plenty left but a hint that not even Saudi Arabia can carry on regardless for ever with a lower oil price.

A pegged exchange rate

Linked into the situation with the reserves is the level of the Saudi Riyal exchange rate which was pegged to the US Dollar at an exchange rate of 3.75 to 1 back in 2003. Here we see one of the weaknesses of a pegged exchange rate as the strong US Dollar has taken the Riyal with it just when it would have fallen and probably considerably in response to the fall in the oil price. An example of this has been the Russian Rouble where it now takes 68 of them to buy one US Dollar as opposed to the 37 of a year ago. Now there are all sorts of consequences from a plummet in your exchange-rate of that size with inflation being the most obvious but the only exchange-rate flexibility Saudi Arabia currently has depends on what happens to the US Dollar via the US economy. I guess they too are wondering what the Federal Reserve will do next week!

There has been speculation that the peg will be abandoned and several times this year it has come under pressure. But as you can see from the size of the reserves about Saudi Arabia can hold it for quite some time if it wishes.

Saudi Arabia has tended to overspend

As the money has flowed in then Saudi Arabia has not really needed to maintain much of a grip on public expenditure. The US-Saudi Arabian Business Council tells us this about last year.

Expenditures, originally estimated at $228 billion (SR855 billion), stood at $293.3 billion (SR1.1 trillion).  This increase is 28 percent above the budgeted level but not significantly higher than the average amount of overspending recorded over the last ten years.  This resulted in a budget deficit of $14.4 billion (SR54 billion) in 2014.

Food for thought there as we note that in what were much more favourable times there was a deficit albeit a small one. This was in spite of the fact that revenues were yet again gushing in.

While the 2014 budget originally envisaged revenues of $228 billion (SR855 billion), they actually amounted to $278.9 billion (SR1.046 trillion).

Many countries including my own would love that revenue situation! But of course the picture for 2015 looks very different if the year to September is any guide to the rest of it.

Saudi Arabia has set a state budget for 2015 with total revenues projected to reach $190.7 billion (SR715 billion) and total spending valued at $229.3 billion (SR860 billion) which is expected to result in a $38.6 billion (SR145 billion) deficit.

If we look at the way that the country overspent last year then one immediately wonders how much of an overspend there will be this and thereby how large the deficit will turn out to be. Last month the IMF pitched in with its estimate on the situation.

A central government fiscal deficit of 19.5 percent of GDP is projected in 2015, and while the deficit will decline in 2016 and beyond as one-off spending ends and large investment projects are completed, it will remain high over the medium-term.

As ever with the IMF it is about to get better! The real question if we look at the obvious political issues in the region is whether Saudi Arabia will feel under pressure to spend even more.

What about issuing bonds?

You can imagine that this has not been a Saudi priority for some time. But as Bob Dylan put it.

Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

More prosaically Trade Arabia puts it like this.

Moreover, for the first time in eight years, the government is also expected to issue local bonds worth SR115 billion ($30.7 billion) through the second half of 2015 to cover around a third of the deficit.

This is underway as just over US $5 billion of bonds were issued a month ago. It is also true that there is plenty of scope to issue them as the IMF points out.

Nevertheless, government debt is very low and was 1.6 percent of GDP at end-2014.


So there are fiscal troubles in Saudi Arabia leaving it with a choice. One is to continue with its spending plans and support GDP growth in a manner similar to Keynesianism. The other is to take the IMF style approach and to cut back in a more austere manner. In some ways the IMF has a cheek as whilst exports have fallen Saudi Arabia has had many years of balance of payments surpluses.

As to the underlying economy it grew by 3.5% last year and have just seen this on the money supply.

Broad money supply (M3) rose by an annualized 10.5 per cent in June, indicating continued expansion of economic activity, said a report in Arab News, which cited NCB’s Saudi Economic Review for August 2015.

However this is also true.

the pace of annual growth has been in deceleration since the beginning of the year,

Thus there is something of a squeeze going on and I am reminded of the lyrics of the Clash.

The oil down the desert way
Has been shakin’ to the top
The Sheik he drove his Cadillac
He went a-cruisin’ down the ville