The issue of house prices in both Australia and China

Earlier today there was this announcement from Australia or if you prefer the south china territories.

Residential property prices rose 1.9 per cent in the June quarter 2017, according to figures released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)……..Through the year growth in residential property prices reached 10.2 per cent in the June quarter 2017. Sydney and Melbourne recorded the largest through the year growth of all capital cities, both rising 13.8 per cent followed by Hobart, which rose 12.4 per cent.

So we see something which is a familiar pattern as we see a country with a double-digit rate of inflation in this area albeit only just. Also adding to the deja vu is that the capital city seems to be leader of the pack.

However there is quite a bit of variation to be seen on the undercard so to speak.

“Residential property prices, while continuing to rise in Melbourne and Sydney this quarter, have begun to moderate. Annual price movements ranged from -4.9 per cent in Darwin to +13.8 per cent in Sydney and Melbourne. These results highlight the diverse housing market and economic conditions in Australia’s capital cities,” Chief Economist for the ABS, Bruce Hockman said.

The statistics agency seems to be implying it is a sort of race if the tweet below is any guide.

“Sydney and Melbourne drive property price rise of 1.9%” – how did your state perform?

Wealth

There was something added to the official house price release that will lead to smiles and maybe cheers at the Reserve Bank of Australia.

The total value of Australia’s 9.9 million residential dwellings increased $145.9 billion to $6.7 trillion. The mean price of dwellings in Australia rose by $12,100 over the quarter to $679,100.

Central bankers will cheer the idea that wealth has increased in response to the house price rises but there are plenty of issues with this. Firstly you are using the prices of relatively few houses and flats to give a value for the whole housing stock. Has anybody made an offer for every dwelling in Australia? I write that partly in jest but the principle of the valuation idea being a fantasy is sound. Marginal prices ( the last sale) do not give an average value. Also the implication given that wealth has increased ignores first-time buyers and those wishing or needing to move to a larger dwelling as they face inflation rather than have wealth gains.

This sort of thinking has also infested the overall wealth figures for Australia and the emphasis is mine.

The average net worth for all Australian households in 2015–16 was $929,400, up from $835,300 in 2013–14 and $722,200 in 2005-06. Rising property values are the main contributor to this increase. Total average property values have increased to $626,700 in 2015–16 from $548,500 in 2013–14 and $433,500 in 2005-06.

If we look at impacts on different groups we see it driving inequality. One way of looking at this is to use a Gini coefficient which in adjusted terms for disposable income is 0.323 and for wealth is 0.605 . Another way is to just simply look at the ch-ch-changes over time.

One factor driving the increase in net wealth of high income households is the value of owner-occupied and other property. For high wealth households, average total property value increased by $878,000 between 2003-04 and 2015-16 from $829,200 to $1.7 million. For middle wealth households average property values increased by $211,200 (from $258,000 to $469,200). Low wealth households that owned property had much lower growth of $5,600 to $28,500 over the twelve years.

As you can see the “wealth effects” are rather concentrated as I note that the percentage increase is larger for the wealthier as well of course as the absolute amount. Those at the lower end of the scale gain very little if anything. What group do we think central bankers and their friends are likely to be in?

Debt

This has been rising too.

Average household debt has almost doubled since 2003-04 according to the latest figures from the Survey of Income and Housing, released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

ABS Chief Economist Bruce Hockman said average household debt had risen to $169,000 in 2015-16, an increase of $75,000 on the 2003-04 average of $94,000.

The ABS analysis tells us this.

Growth in debt has outpaced income and asset growth since 2003-04. Rising property values, low interest rates and a growing appetite for larger debts have all contributed to increased over-indebtedness. The proportion of over-indebted households has climbed to 29 per cent of all households with debt in 2015-16, up from 21 per cent in 2003-04.

They define over-indebtedness as having debts of more than 3 years income or more than 75% of their assets. That must include rather a lot of first-time buyers.

Younger property owners in particular have taken on greater debt.

Also the statistic below makes me think that some are either punting the property market or had no choice but to take out a large loan.

“Nearly half of our most wealthy households (47 per cent) who have a property debt are over-indebted, holding an average property debt of $924,000. This makes them particularly susceptible if market conditions or household economic circumstances change,” explained Mr Hockman.

So something of an illusion of wealth combined with the hard reality of debt.

Ever more familiar

Such situations invariably involve “Help” for first-time buyers and here it is Aussie style.

In Australia every State government provides first home buyer with incentives such as the First Home Owners Grant (FHOG) ( FHBA)

In New South Wales you get 10,000 Aussie Dollars plus since July purchases up to 650,000 Aussie Dollars are free of state stamp duty.

China

If we head north to China we see a logical response to ever higher house prices.

Local governments are directly buying up large quantities of houses developers haven’t been able to sell and filling them with citizens relocated from what they call “slums”—old, sometimes dilapidated neighborhoods. ( Wall Street Journal).

We have discussed on here more than a few times that the end game could easily be a socialisation of losses in the property market which of course would be yet another subsidy for the banks.

The scale of the program is large, accounting for 18% of floor space sold in 2016, according to Rosealea Yao, senior analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics, and is being partly funded by state policy banks like China Development Bank. ( WSJ)

Will they turn out to be like the Bank of Japan in equity markets and be a sort of Beijing Whale? Each time the market dips the Bank of Japan provides a put option although of course there are not that many Exchange Traded Funds for it to buy these days because it has bought so many already.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here so let me open with a breakdown of changes in the situation in Australia over the last decade or so.

This growth in household debt was larger than the growth in income and assets over the same period. The mean household debt has increased by 83% in real terms since 2003-04. By comparison, the mean asset value increased by 49% and gross income by 38%.

Lower interest-rates have oiled the difference between the growth of debt and income. But as we move on so has the rise in perceived wealth. The reason I call it perceived wealth is that those who sell genuinely gain when they do so but for the rest it is simply a paper profit based on a relatively small number of transactions.

If we move to the detail we see that if there is to be Taylor Swift style “trouble,trouble, trouble” it does not have to be in the whole market. What I mean by that is that lower wealth groups have gained very little if anything from the asset price rises so any debt issues there are a problem. Also those at the upper end may be more vulnerable than one might initially assume.

High income households were also more likely to be over-indebted. One quarter of the households in the top income quintile were over-indebted compared to one-in-six (16%) low income households (in the bottom 20%).

Should one day they head down the road that China is currently on then the chart below may suggest that those who have rented may be none too pleased.

Never Tear Us Apart ( INXS )

I was standing
You were there
Two worlds collided
And they could never ever tear us apart

Advertisements

Greece reaches a Euro area target or standard

Yesterday saw an announcement by the European Commission back on social media by a video of the Greek flag flying proudly.

The Commission has decided to recommend to the Council to close the Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) for Greece. This follows the substantial efforts in recent years made by the country to consolidate its public finances coupled with the progress made in the implementation of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) support programme for Greece.

It sounds good although of course the detail quickly becomes more problematic.

Greece has been subject to the corrective arm of the Stability and Growth Pact since 2009. The deadline to correct its excessive deficit was extended several times. It was last set in August 2015 to be corrected, at the latest, by 2017.

That reminds us that even before the “Shock and Awe” of spring 2010 Greece had hit economic trouble. It also reminds us that the Euro area has seen this whole issue through the lens of fiscal deficits in spite of calamitous consequences elsewhere in both the economy and the country. I also note that “the corrective arm” is a rather chilling phrase. Here is the size of the change.

The general government balance has improved from a deficit of 15.1% in 2009 to a surplus of 0.7% in 2016

Greeks may have a wry smile at who is left behind in the procedure as one is at the heart of the project, one has been growing strongly and one is looking for the exit door.

If the Council follows the Commission’s recommendation, only three Member States would remain under the corrective arm of the Stability and Growth Pact (France, Spain and the United Kingdom), down from 24 countries during the financial crisis in 2011.

Let us wish Greece better luck than when it left this procedure in 2007. Also let us note some very curious rhetoric from Commissioner Dombrovskis.

Our recommendation to close the Excessive Deficit Procedure for Greece is another positive signal of financial stability and economic recovery in the country. I invite Greece to build on its achievements and continue to strengthen confidence in its economy, which is important for Greece to prepare its return to the financial markets.

Another positive signal?

That rather ignores this situation which I pointed out on the 22nd of May.

The scale of this collapse retains the power to shock as the peak pre credit crunch quarterly economic output of 63.3 billion Euros ( 2010 prices) fell to 59 billion in 2010 which led to the Euro area stepping in. However rather than the promised boom with economic growth returning in 2012 and then continuing at 2%+ as forecast the economy collapsed in that year at an annual rate of between 8% and 10% and as of the opening of 2017 quarterly GDP was 45.8 billion Euros.

Achievements? To achieve the holy grail of a target of a fiscal deficit on 3% of GDP they collapsed the economy. They also claimed that the economy would return to growth in 2012 and in the case of Commissioner Moscovici have claimed it every year since.

A return to financial markets?

Whilst politically this may sound rather grand this has more than a few economic issues with it. Firstly there is the issue of the current stock of debt as highlighted by this from the European Stability Mechanism on Monday.

Holding over 51% of the Greek public
debt, we are by far Greece’s biggest creditor a long-term partner

I note that the only reply points out that a creditor is not a partner.

The ESM already disbursed €39.4 bn to and combining EFSF it adds up to € 181.2 bn.

That is of course a stock measure so let us look at flow.

I am happy to announce the ESM
has today effectively disbursed €7.7 bn to Greece

I am sure he is happy as he has a job for life whether Greek and Euro area taxpayers are happy is an entirely different matter especially as we note this.

Of this disbursement, €6.9 bn will be used for debt servicing and €0.8 bn for arrears clearance

Hardly investment in Greece is it? Also we are reminded of the first rule of ECB ( European Central Bank ) club that it must always be repaid as much of the money will be heading to it. This gives us a return to markets round-tripping saga.

You see the ESM repays the ECB so that Greece can issue bonds which it hopes the ECB will buy as part of its QE programme. Elvis sang about this many years ago.

Return to sender
Return to sender

There is also something worse as we recall this from the ESM.

the EFSF and ESM loans lead to substantially lower financing costs for the country.

Okay why?

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

Indeed and according to a speech given by ESM President Regling on the 29th of June this saves Greece a lot of money.

We have disbursed €175 billion to Greece already. This saves the Greek budget €10 billion each year because of the low lending costs of the ESM. This amounts to 5.6 percent of GDP, and allows Greece the breathing space to return to fiscal responsibility, healthy economic developments and debt sustainability.

No wonder the most recent plans involved Greece aiming for a fairly permanent budget surplus of 3.5% of GDP. With the higher debt costs would that be enough. If we are generous and say Greece will be treated by the markets like Portugal and it gets admitted to the ECB QE programme then its ten-year yield will be say 3% much more than it pays now. Also debt will have a fixed maturity as opposed to the “extend and pretend” employed so far by the ESM.

What if Greece joining the ECB QE programme coincides with further “tapers” or an end to it?

If you wish to gloss over all that then there is this from the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

http://www.ekathimerini.com/219950/opinion/ekathimerini/comment/time-for-greece-to-rejoin-global-markets

Is austerity really over?

There are issues with imposing austerity again so you can say it is now over. I looked at this on the 22nd of May.

The legislation contains more austerity measures, including pension cuts and a higher tax burden that will go into effect in 2019-20 to ensure a primary budget surplus, excluding debt servicing outlays, of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product.

It was noticeable that one of the tax rises was in the amount allowed to be earned before tax which will hit the poorest hardest. But according to Kathimerini yesterday the process continues.

The government is slashing state expenditure by 500 million euros for next year……..The purge will mainly concern health spending, while credit for salaries and pensions will be increased.

Comment

The background economic environment for Greece is as good as it has been for some time. Its Euro area colleagues are in a good phase for growth which should help exports and trade. According to Markit this is beginning to help its manufacturing sector.

Having endured a miserable start to 2017, the latest survey data is welcome news for Greek manufacturers as the headline PMI pointed to growth for the first time since August last year.

If we look for another hopeful signal it is from this as employment has been a leading indicator elsewhere.

The number of employed persons increased by 79,833 persons compared with April 2016 (a 2.2% rate of increase) and by 23,943 persons compared with March 2017 (a 0.6% rate of increase).

The catch is that in spite of the barrage of official rhetoric about reform that Greek economy has gone -1.1% and +0.4% in the last two quarters with the latter number being revised up from negative territory. But the worrying part is that elsewhere in the Euro area things are much better when Greece should be a coiled spring for economic growth. Let me give you an example from the building industry where it is good that the numbers are finally rising. But you see annual building was 80 million cubic meters in 2007 and 10 million yes 10 million in 2016. That is an economic depression and a half….

 

China faces up to a ratings downgrade

This morning we have received news about the world’s second largest economy. The Ratings Agency Moodys issued this statement.

Moodys Investors Service has today downgraded China’s long-term local currency and foreign currency issuer ratings to A1 from Aa3 and changed the outlook from negative to stable.

As you can see from the statement this was not a complete surprise as the outlook had been negative although in some ways the timing was as not so long ago the IMF had told us this. From Reuters on the 18th of April.

The IMF upgraded its estimate for China’s 2017 growth to 6.6 percent from 6.5 percent, which it made in January. It also raised its forecast for growth next year to 6.2 percent from the previous 6.0 percent.

This added to the upgrade it has given China in January when it had raised the economic growth forecast for 2017 from 6.2%. In fact only on the 9th if this month the IMF had repeated this message.

In China, the region’s biggest and the world’s second largest economy, policy stimulus is expected to keep supporting demand. Although still robust with 2017 first quarter growth slightly stronger than expected, growth is projected to decelerate to 6.6 percent in 2017 and 6.2 in 2018.

 

This slowdown is predicated on a cooling housing market, partly reflecting recent tightening measures, weaker wage and consumption growth, and a stable fiscal deficit.

Although whilst it was relatively upbeat the IMF has warned about credit expansion.

Why did Moodys act?

As the quote from the Financial Times below shows Moodys are concerned about the financial system in China.

“The downgrade reflects Moody’s expectation that China’s financial strength will erode somewhat over the coming years, with economy-wide debt continuing to rise as potential growth slows,” Marie Diron, the agency’s associate managing director for sovereign risk, wrote in an announcement on Wednesday.

Indeed if we look at the statement they expect China to go along at least part of the journey that us westerners have travelled.

While China’s GDP will remain very large, and growth will remain high compared to other sovereigns, potential growth is likely to fall in the coming years. The importance the Chinese authorities attach to growth suggests that the corresponding fall in official growth targets is likely to be more gradual, rendering the economy increasingly reliant on policy stimulus.

Of course their economic growth is officially recorded at higher levels than ours but it looks like the Chinese will have to accept a sort of new normal where economic growth is lower just like we have.

GDP growth has decelerated in recent years from a peak of 10.6% in 2010 to 6.7% in 2016.

If we look at the situation in terms of the national debt to GDP ratio we have looked at for Greece and the UK this week already then it looks as if China is currently in a lot better place.

Moody’s expects China’s direct fiscal debt to reach 40 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of next year and 45 per cent by 2020. ( Financial Times).

However in a development which is very familiar just like us Westerners the Chinese do all they can to keep what is public-sector debt off the official books.

In addition, it notes that China’s reliance on disguised fiscal spending through off-budget special purpose vehicles owned by local governments is likely to persist. The Financial Times reported this month on a confidential World Bank assessment warning of risks from so-called local government financing vehicles.

Moodys are expecting further growth in this area.

Similar increases in financing and spending by the broader public sector are likely to continue in the next few years in order to maintain GDP growth around the official targets.

Let us look at the wider debt burden in China which is something I looked at back on January 5th.

China’s total debt load had reached 255 per cent of GDP by the end of June, up from 141 per cent in 2008 and well above the average of 188 per cent for emerging markets, according to the Bank for International Settlements.

Moodys thinks that this will happen going forwards.

More broadly, we forecast that economy-wide debt of the government, households and non-financial corporates will continue to rise, from 256% of GDP at the end of last year according to the Institute of International Finance. This is consistent with the gradual approach to deleveraging being taken by the Chinese authorities and will happen because economic activity is largely financed by debt in the absence of a sizeable equity market and sufficiently large surpluses in the corporate and government sectors.

I would counsel caution about the use of averages here as not only can they be misleading without an idea of dispersion it could be signalling a group going over the cliff together.

Debt and Demographics

Should debt continue to rise then China will share a problem that is affecting more than a few of the evil western capitalist imperialists. From my article on January 5th.

“In 10 to 15 years, China’s demographic decline will become more prominent, and the labour force will be declining by about 5m people per year,” says Brian Jackson, senior economist at the Beijing office of IHS, a consultancy.

Commodity prices

Mining.com updates us on the trends for Iron Ore.

The Northern China import price for 62% Fe iron ore fines was $61.90 a tonne on Monday, down more than 20% year-to-date on growing fears of an oversupplied market.

There is quite a bit going on as the Chinese increasingly use scrap iron in production but it is hard not to think of the Iron Ore which was used as collateral in financial deals as we looked at some time back.How much of that is in today’s 5% fall in the price of Iron Ore futures is hard to say. Dr.Copper rallied at the end of 2016 after several years of decline but seems to have mostly flat lined in 2017 at around US $2.50.

The outlook

This month’s business surveys recorded something of a slow down.

The Caixin China Composite PMI™ data (which covers both manufacturing and services) signalled a further slowdown in growth momentum at the start of the second quarter. This was highlighted by the Composite Output Index posting 51.2 in April, down from 52.1 in March, and the lowest reading for ten months.

The ratio between the numbers here and official levels of economic growth are very different to what we see in the west but any slow down will not be welcome.

Comment

There are a few things to consider here. Firstly we are unlikely to see much of a fall in bond prices and rises in yields in response to this as used to happen. The Chinese bond market is almost entirely ( ~ 96% ) domestically owned making it rather like Japan meaning that any selling by foreign investors is not that likely to be significant. Also these days central banks mostly intervene to stop such things don’t they?

Moving onto the economy we see that monetary conditions are the issue and for this to end well the Chinese will have to make a much better job of dealing with a credit boom than we did in the west. Will they be able to continue to tighten policy if economic growth slows further? As to outflows of money we are regularly assured these days that they have pretty much stopped but to my mind there is a worrying signal which is the continuing rise in the price of bitcoin.

The average price of Bitcoin across all exchanges is 2326.72 USD ( @bitcoinprice )

Finally these things are not the same without an official denial are they? From Xinhua News.

China’s Finance Ministry on Wednesday dismissed a decision by international rating agency Moody’s to downgrade China’s long-term local currency and foreign currency issuer ratings.

 

Greece, how long can it keep going like this?

Today’s topic reminds me of the famous quote by Karl Marx.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

Sadly Karl did not tell us what to do on the 4th,5th and 6th occasions of the same thing as I note the news from Reuters on Friday.

The legislation contains more austerity measures, including pension cuts and a higher tax burden that will go into effect in 2019-20 to ensure a primary budget surplus, excluding debt servicing outlays, of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product.

This sounds so so familiar doesn’t it which of course poses its own problem in the circumstances. This continues if we look at the detail.

The income tax exemption is reduced to 5,600-5,700 euros from 8,600 euros to generate revenues of about 1.9 billion euros. The lower threshold will mean an increased tax burden of about 650 euros for taxpayers.

Up to 18 percent cuts in main and supplementary pensions and freezing of benefits thereafter until 2022. The cuts will result in savings of 2.3 billion euros.

I do not know about you but if I was raising taxes in Greece I would not be raising them on the poorest as lowering the lower income tax threshold will hit them disproportionately. After all it was the very rich who helped precipitate this crisis by not paying tax not the poor. But the underlying principle’s are pretty much what we have seen since the spring of 2010 especially if we add in this part.

Sale of stakes in railways, Thessaloniki port, Athens International Airport, Hellenic Petroleum and real estate assets to generate targeted privatization revenue of 2.15 billion euros this year and 2.07 billion euros in 2018.

This reminds me of the original target which was for 50 billion Euros of revenue from privatisations by 2015. As you can see the objectives are much smaller now after all the failures in this area and of course these days assets in Greece have a much lower price due to the economic depression which has raged for the last 7 years. Back then for example the General Index at the Athens Stock Exchange was around 1500 as opposed to just below 800 now suggesting that this is yet another area where Greek finances are chasing their tail.

The same result?

Last week saw yet more sad economic news from Greece.

The available seasonally adjusted data indicate that in the 1 st quarter of 2017 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 0.1% in comparison with the 4 th quarter of 2016, while it decreased by 0.5% in comparison with the 1 st quarter of 2016. ( Greece Statistics).

This meant that yet another recession had begun which will be a feature of the ongoing economic depression. Another feature of this era has been the official denials an example of which from the 8th of March is below.

Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was confident that the times of recession were over and that “Greece has returned back to growth” as he told his cabinet ministers……..After seven years of recession, Greece has returned to positive growth rates he underlined.

He was not alone as European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici was regularly telling us that the Greek economy had recovered. This means that as we look at the period of austerity where such people have regularly trumpeted success the reality is that the Greek economy has collapsed. The scale of this collapse retains the power to shock as the peak pre credit crunch quarterly economic output of 63.3 billion Euros ( 2010 prices) fell to 59 billion in 2010 which led to the Euro area stepping in. However rather than the promised boom with economic growth returning in 2012 and then continuing at 2%+ as forecast the economy collapsed in that year at an annual rate of between 8% and 10% and as of the opening of 2017 quarterly GDP was 45.8 billion Euros.

What is astonishing is that even after all the mishaps of 2015 with the bank run and monetary crisis there has been no recovery so far. The downwards cycle of austerity, economic collapse and then more austerity continues in a type of Status Quo.

Again again again again, again again again again

The Time Problem

The problem here is simply how long this has gone on for added to the fact that things are still getting worse or at best holding station in economic output terms. This means that numbers like those below have become long-term issues.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in February 2017 was 23.2% compared to 23.9% in February 2016 and the downward revised 23.3% in January 2017.

It is nice to see a fall but falls at the rate of 0.9% per annum would mean the unemployment rate would still be around 20% at the end of the decade following the “rescue” programme which I sincerely hope is not the “shock and awe” that Christine Lagarde proclaimed back then. If we move to the individual level there must be a large group of people who now are completely out of touch with what it means to work. I see a sign of this in the 25-34 age group where unemployment was 30.4% in February compared to 29.3% in the same month in 2012. This looks like a consequence of the young unemployed ( rate still 47.9%) simply getting older. As the female unemployment rate is higher I dread to think what the situation is for young women.

Meanwhile tractor production continues its rise apparently according to the German Finance Minister.

Schaeuble: Reforms Agreed By Greece Are Remarkable, Goal Is To Get Greece Competitive, It Is Not There Yet ( @LiveSquawk )

It reminds me of last summer’s hit song “7 Years” but after all this time if we had seen reform things would be better. The fact is that there has been so little of it. Putting it another way the IMF ( International Monetary Fund) has completely failed in what used to be its objective which was helping with Balance of Payments crises. Even after all the economic pain described above the Bank of Greece has reported this today.

Mar C/A deficit at €1.32 bln from €772.4 mln last year, 3-month C/A deficit at €2.53 bln from €2.37 bln last year ( h/t Macropolis )

QE for Greece

This is being presented as a type of solution but there are more than a few issues here. Firstly the reform one discussed above as Greece does not qualify. But also there is little gain for a country where its debt is so substantially in official hands anyway and the bodies involved ( ESM, EFSF) let Greece borrow so cheaply for so long. In fact ever more cheaply and ever longer as each debt crunch arrives. It would likely end up paying more for its debt in a QE world where it issues on its own and the ECB buys it later! So it could be proclaimed as a political triumph but quickly turn into a financial disaster especially as the ECB is likely to continue to taper the programme.

Also people seem to have forgotten that the ECB did buy a lot of Greek debt but more recently has been offloading it to other Euro area bodies who have treated Greece better than it did. One set of possible winners is holders of Greek government bonds right now who have had a good 2017 as prices have risen and yields fallen and good luck to them. But the media which trumpets this seems to have forgotten the bigger picture here and that if the hedge funds sell these at large profits to the ECB then the taxpayer has provided them with profits one more time.

Comment

So we arrive at yet another Eurogroup meeting on Greece and its problems. It is rather familiar that the economy is shrinking and the debt has grown again to 326.5 billion Euros in the first quarter of this year. There will be the usual proclamations of help and assistance but at the next meeting things are invariably worse. Is there any hope?

Well there is this from Greek Reporter.

The size of Greece’s underground economy — where transactions take place out of the radar of tax authorities — is estimated to be about one quarter of the country’s official GDP, according to University of Macedonia Professor Vassilis Vlachos….. Among the main factors contributing to the shadow economy increase, according to Vlachos, is the citizens’ sense that the tax burden is not distributed fairly and that there is a poor return in term of public services, as well as inadequate tax inspections……Based on the findings of the survey, participation in the shadow economy is at 60 percent for the general population and rises to 71.6 percent among the unemployed.

If he is correct then this is of course yet another fail for the Troika/Institutions. As to the official data there are some flickers of hope such as the recent industry figures and retail sales so let us cross our fingers.

 

Portugal is struggling to escape from its economic woes

Late on Friday (at least for those of us mere mortals who do not get the 24 hour warning) came the news that the ratings agency DBRS had reduced Italy to a BBB rating. These things do not cause the panic they once did for two reasons the first is that the ECB is providing a back stop for Euro area bonds with its QE purchases and the second is that the agencies themselves have been discredited. However there is an immediate impact on the banks of Italy as the Bank of Italy has already pointed out.

Italy’s DBRS downgrade: a manageable increase in funding costs…..Haircuts on collateral posted by Italian banks: the value of the government bonds collateral pool alone would increase by ~8bn. ( h/t @fwred )

However this also makes me think of another country which is terms of economics is something of a twin of Italy and that is Portugal.

When we do so we see that Portugal has also struggled to sustain economic growth and even in the good years it has rarely pushed above 1% per annum. There have also been problems with the banking system which has been exposed as not only wobbly but prone to corruption. Also there is a high level of the national debt which is being subsidised by the QE purchases of the ECB as otherwise there is a danger that it would quickly begin to look rather insolvent. In spite of the ECB purchases the Portuguese ten-year yield is at 3.93% or some 2% higher than that of Italy which suggests it is perceived to be a larger risk. Also more cynically perhaps investors think that little Portugal can be treated more harshly than its much larger Euro colleague.

The state of play

This has been highlighted by the December Economic Bulletin of the Bank of Portugal.

Over the projection horizon, the Portuguese economy is expected to maintain the moderate recovery trajectory that has characterised recent years . Thus, following 1.2 per cent growth in 2016, gross domestic product (GDP) is projected to accelerate to 1.4 per cent in 2017, stabilising its growth rate at 1.5 per cent for the following years.

So it is expecting growth but when you consider the -0.4% deposit rate of the ECB, its ongoing QE programme and the lower value of the Euro you might have hoped for better than this. Or to put it another way not far off normal service for Portugal. Also even such better news means that Portugal will have suffered from its own lost decade.

This implies that at the end of the projection horizon, GDP will reach a level identical to that recorded in 2008.

This is taken further as we are told this.

In the period 2017-19, GDP growth is expected to be close to, albeit lower than, that projected for the euro area, not reverting the negative differential accumulated between 2010 and 2013

You see after the recession and indeed depression that has hit Portugal you might reasonably have expected a strong growth spurt afterwards like its neighbour Spain. Instead of that sort of “V” shaped recovery we are seeing what is called an “L” shaped one and the official reasons for this are given below.

This lack of real convergence with the euro area reflects persisting structural constraints to the growth of the Portuguese economy, in which high levels of public and private sector indebtedness, unfavourable demographic developments and persisting inefficiencies in the employment and product markets play an important role, requiring the deepening of the structural reform process.

After an economic growth rate of 0.8% in the third quarter of 2016 you might have expected a little more official optimism as they in fact knew them but say their cut-off date was beforehand, but I guess they are also looking at numbers like this.

According to EUROSTAT, the Portuguese volume index of GDP per-capita (GDP-Pc), expressed in purchasing power parities represented 76.8% the EU average (EU28=100) in 2015, a value similar to the observed in 2014.

It is at the level of the Baltic Republics, oh and someone needs to take a look at the extraordinary numbers and variation in the measures of Luxembourg!

House Prices

Here we see some numbers to cheer any central banker’s heart.

In the third quarter of 2016, the House Price Index (HPI) increased by 7.6% when compared to the same period of 2015 (6.3% in the previous quarter). This was the highest price increase ever observed and the third consecutive quarter in which the HPI recorded an annual rate of change above the 6%. When compared to the second quarter, the HPI rose by 1.3% from July to September 2016, 1.8 percentage points (p.p.) lower than in the previous period.

What is interesting is the similarity to the position in the UK in some respects as we see that house price growth went positive in 2013 although until now it has been a fair bit lower than in the UK. Of course whilst central bankers may be happy the ordinary Portuguese buyer will not be so pleased as we see yet another country where house price rises are way above economic performance. Indeed a problem with “pump it up” economic theory in Portugal is the existing level of indebtedness.

the high level of indebtedness of the different economic sectors – households, non-financial corporations and public sector – ( Bank of Portugal )

The debt situation

In terms of numbers Portuguese households have been deleveraging but by the end of the third quarter of last year the total was 78.6% of GDP, whilst the corporate non banking sector owed some 110.8% of GDP. At the same time the situation for the public-sector using the Eurostat method was 133.2 % of GDP.

Going forwards Portugal needs new funding for businesses but seems more set to see property lending recover if what has happened elsewhere after house price rises is any guide. Also the state is supposed to be reducing its debt position but we keep being told that.

The banks

It always comes down to this sector doesn’t it? Portugal has had lots of banking woe summarised by The Portugal News here just before Christmas.

The Portuguese state provided €14.348 billion in support to the banking sector between 2008 and 2015, according to a written opinion submitted by the country’s audit commission, the Tribunal de Contas, last year and made public on Tuesday.

That’s a tidy sum in a relatively small country and we see that the banking sector shrunk in size by some 3.4% in asset terms in the year to the end of the third quarter of 2016. In terms of bad debts then we are told that “credit impairments” are some 8.2% of the total although the recent Italian experience has reminded us again that such numbers should be treated as a minimum.

Last week the Financial Times reminded us that the price of past troubles was still being paid.

Shares in Millennium BCP fell by more than 13 per cent in early trading on Tuesday after Portugal’s largest listed lender approved a capital increase of up to €1.33bn in which China’s Fosun will seek to lift its stake from 16.7 per cent to 30 per cent.

Oh and this bit is very revealing I think.

The rights issue, which is bigger than BCP’s market value,

Comment

Let us start with some better news which is from the labour market in Portugal.

The provisional unemployment rate estimate for November 2016 was 10.5%

This represents a solid improvement on the 12.3% of 2015 although as so often these days unemployment decreases comes with this.

These developments in productivity against a background of economic recovery fall well short of those seen in previous cycles……. Following a slight reduction in 2016, annual labour productivity growth is projected to be approximately 0.5 per cent over the projection horizon.

Also there is the issue of demographics and an ageing population which the Bank of Portugal puts like this.

the evolution of the resident population,
which has presented a downward trend,

I like Portugal and its people so let us hope that The Portugal News is right about this.

Portugal has been named as the cheapest holiday destination in the world for Britons this year. The country’s Algarve region came top in the Post Office’s annual Holiday Costs Barometer, which takes into account the average price of eight essential purchases, including an evening meal for two, a beer, a coffee and a bottle of suncream, in 44 popular holiday spot around the world.

That’s an interesting list of essential purchases isn’t it? But more tourism would help Portugal although the woes of the UK Pound seem set to limit it from the UK.

 

 

 

 

6 years down the line and Greece is still arguing with its creditors

A clear candidate for the saddest story and indeed theme of my time on here has been the economic depression inflicted on Greece. If I had my way Christine Lagarde could finish at the current trial she is involved in and then could move onto one with her former Euro area colleagues about proclaiming “shock and awe” for Greece back in 2010. This involved promising an economic recovery in 2012 which in fact turned into an economy shrinking by 4% in that year alone. Compared to when she and her colleagues were already boasting about future success, the Greek economy has shrunk by 19%, which means that the total credit crunch contraction became 26%. I also recall the bailout supporters attacking those like me arguing for another way ( default and devalue) for saying we would create an economic depression which in the circumstances was and indeed is simply shameful. Instead they found an economy on its knees and chopped off its arms too.

A new hope?

We have seen some better economic news from Greece as 2016 has headed towards irs end. An example of this came yesterday.

The unemployment rate was 22.6% compared to 23.1% in the previous quarter, and 24%  in the corresponding quarter of 2015……The number of unemployed persons decreased by 1.8% compared with the previous quarter and by 5.9% compared with the 3rd quarter of 2015.

As an economic signal we need also to look at employment trends.

The number of employed persons increased by 0.9% compared with the previous quarter and by 1.8% compared with the 3rd quarter of 2015.

Thus we see an improvement which backs up the recent information on economic growth.

The available seasonally adjusted data indicate that in the 3 rd quarter of 2016 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms increased by 0.8% in comparison with the 2 nd quarter of 2016…… In comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2015, it increased by 1.8% against the increase of 1.5% that was announced for the flash estimate of the 3rd quarter.

So we have some growth although sadly more of the L shaped variety so far than the V shape one might expect after such a severe economic shock. Another anti-achievement for the program. But there are hopes for next year according to the Bank of Greece.

Specifically, the Bank of Greece expects GDP to grow by a marginal 0.1% in 2016, before picking up to 2.5% in 2017 and further to 3% in 2018 and 2019, supported by investment, consumption and exports.

Let us hope so although we have hear this sort of thing plenty of times before. Indeed those thinking that Fake News is something only from 2016 might like to look back at the officials and their media acolytes who pushed the Grecovery theme around 2013. Also this by the Bank of Greece as its highlight needs to be considered in the light of the economic depression I have described above.

An unprecedented fiscal consolidation was achieved, with an improvement in the “structural” primary budget balance by 17 percentage points of potential GDP over the period 2009-2015, twice as much as the adjustment in other Member States that were in EU-IMF programmes;

Not everything is sweetness and light

The obvious issue is the way that a lost decade ( so far..) has caused something of a lost generation.

the highest unemployment rate is recorded among young people in the age group of 15-24 years (44.2%). For young females the unemployment rate is 46.9%.

Also the Bank of Greece gives us its own fake news unless of course Mario Draghi is wrong at every ECB press conference.

Substantial structural reforms have been implemented in the labour and product markets, as well as in public administration.

Trouble,Trouble,Trouble

One way of looking at this comes from the current trend to issue policy statements on Twitter as everyone apes President-Elect Trump. From the IMF on Monday.

debt highly unsustainable; no debt sustainability without both structural reforms and debt relief

Of course we have known that for years and perhaps it might like to talk to the Bank of Greece about structural reforms! The next day we got this.

Debt relief AND structural reforms essential to make ’s debt sustainable & bring back growth.

The IMF has in effect told us that it is no longer willing to join in with the Euro area austerity fanatics.

On the contrary, when the Greek Government agreed with its European partners in the context of the ESM program to push the Greek economy to a primary fiscal surplus of 3.5 percent by 2018, we warned that this would generate a degree of austerity that could prevent the nascent recovery from taking hold. We projected that the measures in the ESM program will deliver a surplus of only 1.5 percent of GDP, and said this would be enough for us to support a program.

There are two main issues here where we see the path of austerity but also debt relief. The latter is a big issue as you see private-sector creditors took their pain in 2012 but the ECB has been unwilling to allow the official creditors to take their share and at most has been willing only to contribute the profits it made on its Greek bond holdings. Profits out of such pain spoke for its past attitude eloquently I think. Going forwards though this is an official creditor issue as they own the vast majority of Greek debt now.

The European Union’s commissioner for economic affairs was quick to respond.

Writing in the Financial Times, Pierre Moscovici rebuffed claims made by senior IMF officials this week that Greece’s debt is “highly unsustainable” and that the country needs further comprehensive tax and pensions reform.

Monsieur Moscovici has made all sorts of ridiculous statements in my time of following this issue such that it makes me wonder if he has any grasp of the concept of truth, which is quite an irony when he goes on to say this.

In this era of ‘post-truth’ politics, it is more important than ever not to let certain claims go unchallenged,

It may not have been the best of times for the main lending vehicle the ESM (European Stability Mechanism) which of course has produced anything but in Greece, to call 2016 “exciting” and predict this ” 2017 will be another exciting year”. Still it does now have a Governor of the Day and a Wheel of Governors which it is rumoured sees the Italian and Greek ones spin into the distance if you get it right or should that be wrong?

Meanwhile there is something rather familiar about 2017.

Compared to previous announcements, this means an increase of, in total, €7 billion. The EFSF funding volumes are increased by €13 billion to execute the short-term measures for Greece.

To give you an idea of the scale here Greece owes the EFSF some 130.9 billion Euros and the ESM 31.7 billion which is part of an 86 billion Euro plan. This means that these days when you see headlines about yields on Greek bonds they are much less relevant as Greece borrows from official sources. Frankly it would immediately be insolvent if it did not.

Comment

There are lots of issues here but let me use the IMF statement to highlight the crux of the matter.

While Greece has undertaken a huge fiscal adjustment, it has increasingly done so without addressing two key problems—an income tax regime that exempts more than half of households from any obligation (the average for the rest of the Euro Zone is 8 percent) and an extremely generous pension system that costs the budget nearly 11 percent of GDP annually (versus the average for the rest of the Euro Zone of 2¼ percent of GDP).

You see this in essence is where the crisis began. An inability to tax, often meaning the better-off, which combined with a generous pension system was also looking like a car-crash relationship. Yet 6 years of reforms later we are at deja vu which the appropriate sorry seems to be the hardest word of Elton John tells us is.

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

Meanwhile the current government has done this as Maria Kagelidou of ITV News tells us.

promises 1.6 million pensioners on less than €850/month will receive one off 13th pension. €300 min. Total €617mil

A nice Christmas gift? In isolation of course but how can Greece afford this? Maria sent me some details which I will omit because they are identifiable but I will simply say that tax payments have been accelerated and it looks like the money has been borrowed from the future one more time.

 

 

 

 

It is time to put Student Loans back in the UK debt numbers

This morning has seen some updated statistics for the amount of debt in the UK released by The Money Charity. In it was something to grab the headlines as this from the BBC shows.

Household debts have spiralled to a whopping £1.5tn in the UK for the first time, new statistics show.

If we go to The Money Charity itself we are told this and apologies for their enthusiasm for capitals.

PEOPLE IN THE UK OWED £1.503 TRILLION AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER 2016. THIS IS UP FROM £1.451 TRILLION AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER 2015 – AN EXTRA £1036.58 PER UK ADULT.

So we cross a threshold and indeed are given a troubling view of the future.

ACCORDING TO THE OFFICE FOR BUDGET RESPONSIBILITY’S JULY 2015 FORECAST, HOUSEHOLD DEBT IS PREDICTED TO REACH£2.551 TRILLION IN Q1 2021.

So debt has risen and is forecast to continue doing so at what must be a faster rate than we have seen. I will look at the position in a moment but we cannot move on without pointing out that the OBR ( Office of Budget Responsibility) forecasts lots of things but even so does not get many right!

Bringing this to a household and individual level

The Money Charity presents us figures for debt per UK household.

THE AVERAGE TOTAL DEBT PER HOUSEHOLD – INCLUDING MORTGAGES – WAS £55,683 IN SEPTEMBER. THE REVISED FIGURE FOR AUGUST WAS £55,523.

And also per person.

PER ADULT IN THE UK THAT’S AN AVERAGE DEBT OF £29,770 IN SEPTEMBER – AROUND 113.7% OF AVERAGE EARNINGS. THIS IS SLIGHTLY UP FROM A REVISED £29,685 A MONTH EARLIER.

It is interesting to see the numbers compared to average earnings but care is needed. A better comparison would be with net or post-tax earnings and even with that there is the issue that as a minimum one has to eat to survive and pay other essential bills.

What does this cost in terms of interest?

Lets take a look at what we are told.

BASED ON SEPTEMBER 2016 TRENDS, THE UK’S TOTAL INTEREST REPAYMENTS ON PERSONAL DEBT OVER A 12 MONTH PERIOD WOULD HAVE BEEN£51.135 BILLION.

If we look at this overall we see that such a number comes from us living in an era of relatively low interest-rates although the 3.4% to 3.5% is nothing like the near zero interest-rate policy that has been applied to UK government debt.  I will break the numbers down in a moment but for now here are some daily and per household numbers.

  • THAT’S AN AVERAGE OF £140 MILLION PER DAY.
  • THIS MEANS THAT HOUSEHOLDS IN THE UK WOULD HAVE PAID AN AVERAGE OF £1,894 IN ANNUAL INTEREST REPAYMENTS. PER PERSON THAT’S £1,013 3.87% OF AVERAGE EARNINGS.

What are the interest-rates paid?

We discover that the vast amount of the debt must be secured or mortgage debt otherwise the interest-rate would not be possible. From the Bank of England.

The effective rate on the stock of outstanding secured loans (mortgages) decreased by 10bps to 2.74% in September and the new secured loans rate fell to 2.27%, a decrease of 4bps on the month. The rate on outstanding other loans decreased by 2bps to 6.76% in September and the new other loans rate decreased by 37bps to 6.65%

The fact that the numbers are decreasing will lower the monthly burden per unit of debt and no doubt would have the Bank of England slapping itself on the back.  However its effective interest-rates series somehow misses what is happening in the world of credit cards and overdrafts so let me help out from its underlying database.

The credit card interest-rate it calculates was 17.94% in October. This is a lot more awkward as you see it was around 15% as we hit the peak of the last boom in the summer of 2007. If we move to the overdraft interest-rate it calculates it was 19.7% October and if we make the same comparison with the summer of 2007 it was around 17.7% or 2% lower back then. Perhaps the soon to be closed staff accounts at the Bank of England have had quite different interest-rates and it occurred to no-one that the wider population was seeing higher as opposed to the officially claimed lower interest-rates. Of course there is an issue of bad debts here but interest-rates of 17.94% and 19.7% when Bank Rate is 0.25% seem to raise the spectre of that of fashioned word usury.

Where is the debt?

Most of it is mortgage debt but as I pointed out last Monday unsecured debt is growing quickly.

OUTSTANDING CONSUMER CREDIT LENDING WAS £188.7 BILLIONAT THE END OF SEPTEMBER 2016.

  • THIS IS UP FROM £176.3 BILLION AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER 2015, AND IS AN INCREASE OF £247.10 FOR EVERY ADULT IN THE UK.

This means that the situation is currently as shown below.

Consumer credit increased by £1.4 billion in September, compared to an average monthly increase of £1.6 billion over the previous six months. The three-month annualised and twelve-month growth rates were 9.6% and 10.3% respectively.

This means the following on a household level.

PER HOUSEHOLD, THAT’S AN AVERAGE CONSUMER CREDIT DEBT OF £6,991 IN SEPTEMBER, UP FROM A REVISED £6,963 IN AUGUST – AND  £462.19 EXTRA PER HOUSEHOLD OVER THE YEAR.

Also just under a third of this is one of the most expensive forms which is credit card debt.

Time for some perspective

Let us take Kylie’s advice and step back in time for some perspective. I have chosen to go back to September 2007 as it was then as Northern Rock went cap in hand to the Bank of England that warning lights of “trouble,trouble,trouble” were flashing.

Total UK personal debt at the end of September 2007 stood at £1,380bn. The growth rate increased to 10.0% for the previous 12 months which equates to an increase of £120bn. Total secured lending on homes at the end of September 2007 stood at £1,163bn. This has increased 10.9% in the last 12 months. Total consumer credit lending to individuals in September 2007 was £217bn. This has increased 5.8% in the last 12 months.

Back then they were much less keen on using capitals! Also I note that unsecured debt was growing much more slowly then.although it was in total more than now.

Now the theme that we cut our lending in this area has a problem. Let mt take you to a 2012 paper on the subject from the Bank of England.

The stock of student loans has doubled over the five years to 5 April 2012 to £47 billion, and now represents more than 20% of the stock of overall consumer credit. With student loans unlikely to be affected by the same factors that influence the other components of consumer credit, the Bank is proposing a new measure of consumer credit that excludes student loans

Consumer credit fell from £207 billion in June 2012 to £156 billion in August. Problem solved at a stroke…oh hang on!

So yes we cut consumer credit but not as much as the unwary might think.

Student Loans

Sadly we do not have a UK series but here are the numbers for England as they are much the largest component.

The balance outstanding (including loans not yet due for repayment) at the end of the financial year 2015-16 was £76.3 billion, an increase of 18% when compared with 2014-15.

The total is growing fairly quickly as indeed we would have expected.

The amount lent in financial year 2015-16 was £11.8 billion, an increase of 11% when compared with 2014-15.

Thus if they went back into the consumer credit numbers we would see a rather different picture.

Comment

So on today’s journey we have reminded ourselves that the comforting official view on UK household and in particular unsecured credit has been strongly influenced by the removal of student loans from it in the summer of 2012. Otherwise today’s headline would be household debts are now circa £1.6 trillion. A bit like the situation with the official consumer inflation measure where the fastest growing sector of owner occupied housing costs somehow got omitted. The UK establishment has been meaning to put it back for over a decade now!

Meanwhile what to measure this against poses its own problems. Some would argue that a higher value for the housing stock via higher house prices makes the mortgage lending even more secure. The catch of course is that the house prices depend on the lending which the Bank of England fired up with its Funding for Lending Scheme in the summer of 2013. If we move to real incomes then in spite of recent growth it is hard to be reassured as according to the official figures we are still 4% below the summer of 2007.

Meanwhile something troubling for the Bank of England nirvana of higher mortgage debt and house prices emerged over the weekend.

A large house price depreciation can be good for economic growth, research finds ( World Economic Forum)