What is happening to the banking sector in Latvia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Bank of Latvia

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

Latvijas Banka continues its business as usual.

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

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

Why is he absent? Bloomberg explains.

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

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

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

What about the economy?

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

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

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

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

Overheating?

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

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

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

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

Also there was this.

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

 

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Why have house prices in Italy continued to fall?

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

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

The Italian Difference

Yesterday morning the official statistics body Istat told us this.

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

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

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

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

A ( space) oddity

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

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

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

House Price Slump

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

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

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

No alarms and no surprises

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

let me out of here

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

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

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

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

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

The banks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another forward guidance fail?

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me on Core Finance

http://www.corelondon.tv/manufacturing-gives-boost-uk-economy/

 

 

 

The link between “currency wars” and central banks morphing into hedge funds

The credit crunch era has brought us all sort of themes but a lasting one was given to us by Brazil’s Finance Minister back in September of 2010. From the Financial Times.

“We’re in the midst of an international currency war, a general weakening of currency. This threatens us because it takes away our competitiveness,” Mr Mantega said. By publicly asserting the existence of a “currency war”, Mr Mantega has admitted what many policymakers have been saying in private: a rising number of countries see a weaker exchange rate as a way to lift their economies.

The issue of fears that countries were undertaking competitive devaluations was something which raised a spectre of the 1920s being repeated. I note that Wikipedia calls it the Currency War of 2009-11 which is in my opinion around 7 years too short as of the countries mentioned back in the FT article some are still singing the same song and of course Japan redoubled its efforts and some with the advent of Abenomics.

The Euro

It was only last week that we looked at the way Germany has undertaken a stealth devaluation ironically in full media view via its membership of the Euro. But also of course if QE is a way of weakening your currency then the ECB ( European Central Bank) has had the pedal to the metal as it has expanded its balance sheet to around 4.5 billion Euros. On this road it has become something of an extremely large hedge fund of which more later but currently hedge funds seem to be fans of this.

If we combine this with the positive trade balance of the Euro area which has been reinforced this morning by Germany declaring a 25.4 billion current account surplus in November we see why the Euro was strong in the latter part of 2017. We also see perhaps why it has dipped back below 1.20 versus the US Dollar and the UK Pound £ has pushed above 1.13 to the Euro as currency traders wonder who is left to buy the Euro in the short-term?

But let us move on noting that a deposit rate of -0.4% and QE of 30 billion Euros a month would certainly have been seen as a devaluation effort back in September 2010.

Turning Japanese

Has anyone tried harder than the Japanese under Abenomics to reduce the value of their currency? We have seen purchases of pretty much every financial asset ( including for newer readers commercial property and equities) as the Bank of Japan balance sheet soared soared to nearly ( 96%) a years economic output or GDP. This did send the Yen lower but in more recent times it has not done much at all to the disappointment of the authorities in Tokyo. Is that behind this morning’s news that the Bank of Japan eased its bond buying efforts? Rather than us turning Japanese are they now aping us gaijin? It is too early to say but it is intriguing to note that December was a month in which the Bank of Japan’s balance sheet actually shrank. Care is needed here as for example the US Federal Reserve is in the process of shrinking its balance sheet but some data has seen it rise.

Perhaps the Bank of Japan should play some George Michael from its loudspeakers.

Yes I’ve gotta have faith…
Mmm, I gotta have faith
‘Cause I gotta have faith, faith, faith
I gotta have faith-a-faith-a-faith

South Korea and the Won

Last week we got a warning that a new currency wars outbreak was on the cards as this was reported. From CNBC.

South Korea’s central bank chief said that the bank will leave its currency to market forces, but would respond if moves in the won get too big. Lee Ju-yeol said the Bank of Korea will take active steps when herd behavior is seen.

Not quite a full denial but yesterday forexlive reported something you are likely to have already guessed.

Bank of Korea is suspected to have bought around $1.5 billion in USD/KRW during currency trading today.

As we wonder what herd was seen in the Won as of course the “Thundering Herd” or Merrill Lynch is no longer with us? Also as this letter from the Bank of Korea to the FT last year confirms Korea does not play what Janet Kay called “Silly Games”.

First, Korea does not manage exchange rates to prevent currency appreciation. The Korean government does not set a specific target level or direction of the exchange rate. The Korean won exchange rate is basically determined by the market, and intervention is limited to addressing disorderly market movements.

Next time lads it would be best to leave this out.

Second, Korea’s current account surplus should not be understood as evidence of its currency undervaluation.

Of course not. Anyway the Won has been strong.

The South Korean currency surged almost 13 percent last year, as an expanding trade surplus and the nation’s first interest-rate increase in six years boosted its allure. (Bloomberg).

Another way of looking at that is to look back over the credit crunch era. We do see that the Won dropped like a stone against the US Dollar to around 1600 but with ebbs and flows has returned to not far from where it began to the 1060s. Of course we can get some more insight comparing more locally and if we look at the real trade-weighted exchange rates of the BIS ( Bank for International Settlements) then there was a case against the Yen in fact a strong one. Compared to 2010= 100 the Japanese Yen was at 73.7 ( see above) but the Won was at 113. However the claim of a strong currency might get the Chinese knocking at the South Korean’s door as the Yuan was at 121.4.

China

Perhaps the Chinese are now on the case as Bloomberg reports.

The yuan, which headed for its biggest drop in two months on the news, is allowed to move a maximum of 2 percent either side of the fixing. Analysts said the change shows China is confident in the yuan’s current trajectory, which has been one of steady appreciation.

Hedge Fund Alert

There are two pieces of good news for the modern theory of central banks morphing into hedge funds around this morning so let us first go to Switzerland.

According to provisional calculations, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) will report a profit in
the order of CHF 54 billion for the 2017 financial year. The profit on foreign currency
positions amounted to CHF 49 billion. A valuation gain of CHF 3 billion was recorded on
gold holdings. The net result on Swiss franc positions amounted to CHF 2 billion

With all that profit the ordinary Suisse may wonder why they are not getting more?

Confederation and cantons to receive distribution of at least
CHF 2 billion

Whilst the SNB behaves like a late Father Christmas those in charge of the ever growing equity holdings at the Bank of Japan may be partying like it is 1999 and having a celebratory glass of sake on this news.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 reaches fresh 26-year high; ( FT)

Meanwhile a not so polite message may be going from the ECB to the Bank of Finland.

The European Central Bank has sold its bonds of scandal-hit retailer Steinhoff , data showed on Monday, potentially suffering a loss of up to 55% on that investment. (Reuters)

Comment

So there you have it as we see that the label “currency wars” can still be applied albeit that the geography of the main outbreak has moved across the Pacific. Actually Japan was always in the game and it is no surprise that its currency twin the Swiss Franc is the other central bank which has become a subsidiary of a hedge fund. That poses a lot of questions should the currency weaken as the Swissy has albeit so far only on a relatively minor scale. There have been discussions so far this year about how bond markets will survive less QE but I do not see anyone wondering what might happen if the Swiss and Japanese central banks stopped buying equities and even decided to sell some?

For all the fire and fury ( sorry) there remains a simple underlying point which is that if one currency declines falls or devalues then others have to rise. That is especially awkward for central banks as they attempt to explain how trying to manipulate a zero-sum game brings overall benefits.

 

What are the economic prospects for Germany?

After looking at the strength of the Euro yesterday it is an interesting counterpoint to look at an economy which would otherwise have a much stronger exchange rate. Whilst the Euro may be in a stronger phase and overall pretty much back to where it began in trade-weighted terms ( 99.26%) it is way lower than where a Deutsche Mark would be. For Germany the Euro has ended up providing quite a competitive advantage as who knows to what level it would have soared as we suspect it would have been as attractive as the Swiss Franc. Rather than an exchange rate of around 1.20 to the US Dollar the equivalent rate would no doubt have been somewhere north of 1.50.

That means that the German economic experience of the credit crunch has seen quite a monetary stimulus if we combine a lower than otherwise exchange rate with the negative interest rate of the ECB ( European Central Bank) and of course the Quantitative Easing purchases of German sovereign bonds. If we look at the latter directly then the purchase of 449 billion Euros of German government bonds must have contributed to the German government being able to borrow more cheaply as we note that the ten-year yield is only 0.46% and that Germany is actually paid to borrow out to the 6 year maturity. This is a factor in Germany running a small but consistent budget surplus in recent times and a national debt which is declining both in absolute terms and in relative terms as at the half-way point of 2017 it had fallen to 66% of annual economic output or GDP. So it may not be too long before it passes the Growth and Stability Pact rules albeit over 20 years late! But let us move on noting a combination of monetary expansionism and fiscal conservatism.

The Euro area

Unlike some of the countries we look at and Greece and Italy come to mind particularly the Euro era has been good for the German economy. It opened in 1999 with GDP of 87.7 ( 2010 = 100)  which rose to a peak of 102.6 at the opening of 2008. Like so many countries there was a sharp fall ( 4.5% in the opening quarter of 2009) but the difference is that the economy then recovered strongly to 113.8 in the third quarter of last year. You can add on a bit for the last quarter of 2017 if you like. But the message here is that Germany has recovered pretty strongly from the effect of the credit crunch. Indeed once you start to allow for the fact that some of the economic output in 2008 was false in the sense that otherwise how did we have a bust? You could argue that it has done as well as it did before and maybe better in absolute terms although of course that depends on where you count from. In relative terms the doubt disappears.

Looking Ahead

Yesterday’s Markit PMI business survey could hardly have been much more bullish.

“2017 was a record-breaking year for the German
manufacturing sector: the PMI posted an all-time
high in December, and the current 37-month
sequence of improving business conditions
surpassed the previous record set in the run up to
the financial crisis.

Although there was an ominous tone to the latter part don’t you think?! We have also learnt to be nervous about economic all-time highs. Moving back to the report we see that the German trade surplus seems set to increase further if this is any guide.

Notably, the level of new business received from abroad
rose at the joint-fastest rate in the survey history,
with anecdotal evidence highlighting Asia, the US
and fellow European countries as strong sources of
new orders for German manufacturers.

This morning we saw official data on something that has proved fairly reliable as a leading indicator in the credit crunch era. From Destatis.

In November 2017, roughly 44.7 million persons resident in Germany were in employment according to provisional calculations of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). Compared with November 2016, the number of persons in employment increased by 617,000 or 1.4%.

The rise in employment has been pretty consistent over the past year signalling a “steady as she goes” rate of economic growth. It has also led to a further fall in unemployment which is also welcome.

 Adjusted for seasonal and irregular effects, the number of unemployed stood at 1.57 million. It was down by roughly 14,000 people on the previous month. The adjusted unemployment rate was 3.6% in November 2017.

Much better than the Euro area average and better than the UK and US but not Japan which is the leader of this particular pack.

Wages

The next issue is to look at wage growth which as we see so often these days seems to be stuck somewhere around 2% per annum even in countries recording a good economic performance. We have seen plenty of reports of wage growth picking up and maybe you could make a case for it rising from 2% to 2.9% over the past year or so but the catch comes if we look back a quarter as it was 2.9% then!

So real wage growth has been solid for these times in Germany since the opening of 2014 but the truth is that it has been driven by lower inflation rather than any trend to higher wages. In what we consider to be the first world wage growth these days seems to be singing along with Bob Seeger and his Silver Bullet Band.

You’re still the same
Moving game to game
Some things never change
You’re still the same

We therefore find ourselves in another quandary for economics 101 which is that economic improvement no longer seems to be accompanied by any meaningful increase in wage growth. A paradigm shift so far anyway. The official data is only up to the half-way point of last year but according to the Bundesbank “Wage growth remained moderate in the third quarter of 2017” so a good 2017 was accompanied by lower real wage growth as far as we know and this from last week will hardly help.

The inflation rate in Germany as measured by the consumer price index is expected to be 1.7% in December 2017. Compared with November 2017, consumer prices are expected to increase by 0.6%. Based on the results available so far, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that, on an annual average, the inflation rate is expected to stand at 1.8% in 2017.

On this road expansionary monetary policy has a contractionary consequence via its impact on real wages and inflation targets should be lowered. Meanwhile it will be party time at the Bundesbank towers as this is quite close to the perfect level of inflation or just below 2%.

Comment

Let us welcome the economic good news from 2017 and the apparent immediate prospects for 2018. We can throw in that the Euro era has turned out to be good for Germany overall as the lower exchange rate cushioned the effect of the credit crunch and helped it continue this.

The foreign trade balance showed a surplus of 18.9 billion euros in October 2017. In October 2016, the surplus amounted to 18.8 billion euros.

For everyone else there are two problems here. Whilst there are gains from Germany being efficient and producing products which are in worldwide demand a persistent surplus of this kind does drain demand from other countries especially if helped by an exchange rate depreciation of the sort provided by Euro area membership. It was one of the imbalances which fed into the credit crunch and which the establishment told us needed dealing with urgently. So urgent in fact that nothing has happened.

So it looks like Germany will have a good opening to 2017 and first half to the year. But that is as far as we can reasonably see these days and is an answer to those on social media who asked why I did not join the annual forecasts published ( for the UK as it happens) yesterday. If there is to be a cloud in the silver lining then it seems set to come from this.

In the third quarter of 2017, the perceptible expansion
in the broad monetary aggregate M3
continued; the annual growth rate at the end
of the quarter came to 5.1%, remaining at the
level observed over the last two and a half
years ( Bundesbank )

The old rules of thumb may not apply but where is the inflation suggested? Also there is this.

Consumer credit likewise continued to expand
substantially during the period under review,
with its annual growth rate climbing to 6.7%
by the end of September

Those are Euro area figures and the consumer credit growth seems light weight compared to the UK but that is perhaps only because we are an extreme. Moving onto German data there is some specific which seems rather Anglicised.

Once again, loans for house purchase were a
decisive driver of growth in lending to households.
However, their quarterly net increase has
already been relatively constant for several
quarters, meaning that at 3.9%, their annual
growth rate remained unchanged on the year.

The old theories of overheating risks cannot be fully applied because so far at least the wages element has disappeared but that does not mean that some of the other parts have done so. After all procyclical monetary policy usually ends in tears for someone.

The future

With the caveats expressed above this does make one stop and think.

 

The Euro rally has ignored the monetary policy of the ECB

Firstly let me welcome your all to 2018 and wish you a Happy New Year. Although those getting ready for the new Mifid ( ii ) rules still feel a little hungover. This bit looks good.

Brokers will be driven to move transactions in a wide range of securities onto open, regulated platforms, limiting unreported broker-to-broker deals that have been the traditional way to trade things such as commodities, bonds and energy.

This bit however begs more than a few questions.

Europe’s new rules require research to be sold and billed separately. This is very disruptive — as banks and brokers struggle to comply, fund managers rethink how they operate and analysts find themselves forced to prove their worth.

Am I alone in thinking that for more than a few this will prove to be a struggle?

The Euro

If we move to news then in financial markets our attention is attracted to thresholds and we are seeing a period of Euro strength as it rallies above 1.20 versus the US Dollar.

Of course this phase also involves a period of US Dollar weakness on the other side of the coin. This combination does pose a question for what we might call economics 101 as we saw only last month the US Federal Reserve do this.

In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 percent.

So on an interest-rate comparison basis there would be an argument for a higher US Dollar as not only is the ECB ( European Central Bank) deposit rate at -0.4% it has no  current plans to raise it and its President Mario Draghi has hinted several times that there may be no rise in his term. Also there is a difference in terms of QE ( Quantitative Easing) as the US Federal Reserve is beginning to reduce its holdings albeit very slowly whereas the ECB will continue to purchase a further 30 billion Euros a month until at least September. Thus whilst the ECB has reduced the size of its monthly purchases it remains a buyer as the Federal Reserve sells. Back in the day one of the “truths” so to speak of QE was considered to be that it would weaken a currency and yet it is hard not to have a wry smile as we observe exactly the reverse.

Trade Weighted

Actually the pattern here is very similar to that of the chart above showing the US Dollar. The recent rally started in the spring from just below 93 and now is above 99. Whilst there will be individual moves it is time for another wry smile as we note that for all the panics and shocks the Euro is very close to the 100 at which it was first measured in 1999.

As we have looked at several times before this reduces the inflation  trajectory and according to the Draghi Rule from March 2014 will have this impact.

Now, as a rule of thumb, each 10% permanent effective exchange rate appreciation lowers inflation by around 40 to 50 basis points.

This leaves us with something of a conundrum as the ECB is below its inflation target so will now presumably have to run a more easy monetary policy than expected which ordinarily should weaken the Euro, but so far we have seen the reverse.

Why is the Euro in a stronger phase?

A major strategic strength for the Euro is provided by this.

The current account of the euro area recorded a surplus of €30.8 billion in October 2017 (see Table 1). This reflected surpluses for goods (€26.2 billion), primary income(€9.8 billion) and services (€7.3 billion), which were partly offset by a deficit for secondary income (€12.5 billion). ( ECB data).

This continued a pattern which if we look further back is a song with a powerful and consistent beat.

The 12-month cumulated current account for the period ending in October 2017 recorded a surplus of €349.6 billion (3.2% of euro area GDP), compared with one of €363.4 billion (3.4% of euro area GDP) for the 12 months to October 2016.

Whilst balance of payments data remain unreliable as for example we see examples of countries who both think they have a surplus with each other! The Euro area has mostly via Germany run consistent current account surpluses providing support for the currency value.

If economic life was that simple then the Euro would only rise and of course it is not but another factor weighed in during 2017 which was the better economic performance of the Euro area.

We don’t see it as a recovery anymore, but as an expansion. The annual growth rate in the euro area is the strongest for ten years. We expect a GDP growth rate of 2.4% for 2017which by European standards is quite high. Business and consumer confidence are at their highest levels for over 17 years, according to the November reading of the European Commission’s Economic Sentiment Indicator. Seven million jobs have been created in the euro area since mid-2013. ( Benoit Coeure in Caixin General on Saturday).

Indeed he went so far as to imply this is the best period since the Euro began.

The breadth of the expansion in terms of countries and sectors is greater than at any point over the last 20 years.

The better news has been reinforced by the private sector PMI surveys published earlier this morning. From Markiteconomics.

The eurozone manufacturing sector ended 2017 on
a high note. Strong rates of expansion in output, new
orders and employment pushed the final IHS Markit
Eurozone Manufacturing PMI® to 60.6 in December,
its best level since the survey began in mid-1997.

Or as the Black-Eyed Peas would put it.

I got that boom, boom, boom
That future boom, boom, boom
Let me get it now

The outlook looks bright as well/

Forwardlooking indicators bode well for the New Year: new orders rose at a near-record pace, while purchasing
growth hit a new peak as firms readied themselves
for higher production. Meanwhile, job creation was
maintained at November’s record pace.

There was particular optimism for Germany which means the official data series will have to do quite a bit of catching up to play the same song. Also it was nice to see Greece simply recording an expansion as that has been so so rare there.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here but we are seeing a phase where the better economic performance of the Euro area is outweighing relative interest-rates for currency investors. The economic good news is problematic at a time of lower inflation as the ECB continues with both a negative interest-rate and monthly QE at a time of this.

The annual growth rate in the euro area is the strongest for ten years.

There have of course been better decades but even so the ECB is out on something of a limb here. They may yet regret not putting asset prices into the inflation measures and more than a few policymakers may be grateful that the higher Euro is putting a bit of a brake on things.

Meanwhile a stronger Euro is as I pointed out a little while back releasing a little of the pressure on the Swiss Franc as the exchange rate between the two at 1.17 edges its way back to the 1.20 floor of three years ago.

Does every silver lining need a cloud? Well a dark cloud is certainly provided by this from the Financial Times.

Now it says the “restatement of the financial statements of Steinhoff Investment Holdings Limited for years prior to 2015 is likely to be required and investors in Steinhoff are advised to exercise caution in relation to such statements”

The cake trolley at the Bank of Finland will no longer be arriving at the desk of whoever decided that Steinhoff was a good investment for the corporate bond QE programme.

 

 

The problem that Steinhoff poses for both QE and the ECB

Yesterday ECB President Mario Draghi was in bullish mood and in some ways why not as the economy of the Euro area has had a good 2017. He was also able to spread some Christmas cheer by raising the economic growth forecasts.

Draghi: GDP projections: 2.4% in 2017 [2.2% in Sept], 2.3% in 2018 [1.8%], 1.9 in 2019 [1.7%] and 1.7% in 2020

However there was an issue which gave a sour note to proceedings and it came from a topic I looked at on the 7th of this month which is the saga of Steinhoff holdings.

The initial response was one of deflection.

Your second point about the bonds, well, first of all let me say that this programme is one of our policy tools that we consider important – very important – for the attainment of our mandate.

Sadly this remained unchallenged because if you reduce corporate bond yields there is a long and winding road at best to you achieving an inflation target of 2% per annum. This from the ECB August Economic Bulletin is derisory in some respects.

 In pursuing its objective of maintaining price stability, the ECB is mandated to act in accordance with the principle of an open market economy with free competition, favouring an efficient allocation of resources.

How is favouring larger companies by allowing them to fund more cheaply and perhaps for bigger amounts “free competition”? Smaller companies would not consider it to be like that. If you look at the data the issue of an “open market economy” is called into question as well.

CSPP holdings stood at €92 billion as at 7 June 2017, corresponding to around 11% of the CSPP-eligible bond universe.

As the holdings are now 130.2 billion Euros then presumably it owns over 15% now. At what point are markets not open? Also and something that is relevant to the current problem is that the biggest gainers have been companies who are at the riskiest end of the investment grade spectrum. If we allow for an anticipation effect then five-year yields for BBB- companies have fallen from over 3% to more like 1%.  Thus a side -effect is that nearly all the “yield for risk” if I may put it like that has been removed from the “open market” here. Here is a crux of the matter which is that the ECB is subsidising such companies which opens quite a few dangers.

If we return to Mario Draghi we were told this.

 The scope of the programme is not to maximise profits or to avoid losses, so let’s keep this in mind. Having said that, running such big corporate programmes, it’s not unusual that losses may be happening.

Indeed it is going well.

Certainly we have a risk framework which has served us very, very well since the beginning of the existence of the ECB.

Or maybe not.

Certainly if we need to draw lessons we’ll do – we’ll certainly draw lessons from this experience. We are always open to improve, but as I said it’s been very, very good. Also as soon as we got news, we stopped buying.

I should think they did stop buying! “As soon as we got news” is quite a confession if you think about it. Also institutions regularly claim to draw lessons whereas in fact it is a type of kicking it into the long grass tactic as the media hounds move on and the perceived crisis passes.

Next in the deflection playbook is to rubbish existing reports.

Also let me add that the losses that had been reported are by and large exaggerated by a factor of 10 with respect to the actual measure of the losses.

You may note that no actual figure was mentioned in spite of this claim.

 we are different because we are much, much more transparent about our programme.

Anyway the losses are really not very important.

But having said that, having said all this, the losses are there. They are not realised and so the issue is, who’s going to pay for these losses? The answer is that these losses really represent a small digit factor number of our €1.6 billion net interest income we produced last year.

Number Crunching

It looks as though someone has leaked something as the Financial Times is reporting this.

The ECB this year bought parts of a €800m bond issued by Steinhoff and is thought to hold about €130m. The bond is due to mature in early 2025 and has a coupon of 1.875 per cent. The bond was acquired by Finland’s central bank as part of the ECB’s bond-buying programme.

So no Chianti special reserve for the Governor of the Bank of Finland at the ECB Governing Council Christmas party just tap water.

Let me correct a mistake I have made which is that losses and profits in this programme are fully shared by the national central banks as it is part of the 20% below.

The ECB is committed to the principle of risk-sharing, and that’s why 20% of the purchases fall under the regime of full risk-sharing.

Steinhoff

The news here goes from bad to worse.  From the FT.

Steinhoff on Wednesday night announced that the accounting irregularities are not only confined to the most recent fiscal year, which ended on September 30, but reached back into the previous one. “The 2016 consolidated financial statements will need to be restated and can no longer be relied upon,” the company said. On Thursday, Mr Wiese tendered his resignation from the board.

As I type this the share price is 8.4 Rand in Johannesburg a far cry from the 45.65 Rand on the 5th of December and nearly 6% lower today alone.

Ratings Agencies

Who could possibly have expected this?

Bankers said that they were caught off-guard because Steinhoff had enjoyed an investment grade rating from Moody’s. ( FT)

The lesson of the credit crunch era that ratings agencies were if not obsolete holed below the waterline seems to have bypassed not only the ECB but the banks.

Wall Street banks including Bank of America and Citigroup are facing potential losses of more than €1bn on loans made to the billionaire backer of Steinhoff International, the South Africa-based home retailer whose shares collapsed last week after disclosing accounting irregularities.  The banks lent €1.6bn to then Steinhoff chairman Christo Wiese in September 2016, which was secured against €3.2bn worth of Mr Wiese’s shares in the company, according to public documents issued by Steinhoff.

As you can see the highly paid banking analysts have been wrong-footed again, will they bear the sort of responsibility those lower in the pecking order would face? It seems unlikely as after all with a central bank having made a mistake too they may step away from the area. Also banks will make mistakes with their lending but the stand out issue here has been summarised well by a reply to the FT.

Another “wizzkid shop owner” has put all their money in his wife’s name in a unfathomable legal system of a third world country.

There was another warning which is  that my late father regularly used to warn me that whilst some companies genuinely go on buying sprees others do so to cover up existing problems.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here as we mull the official ECB line.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the ECB has adopted a number of unconventional policies that prompted critics to warn that it was about to incur huge losses. The fact is that, ever since its inception, the ECB has continued to make profits

The problem with that is the fact that it has in general been able to enforce this. For example Greece was forced to repay its bonds at par (100) when some form of default would have been far better for it. So the ECB made profits but Greece got more debt. This got so bad that the ECB in fact returned “profits” to Greece. In terms of other purchases it is still buying so newer buys make sure older buys make paper profits. When it comes to sell these bonds there may be a different story.

A four-stage process may apply.

  1. There is nothing to worry about we are making profits.
  2. Something may be happening and we will look into it and learn the lessons..
  3. Maybe we should do something but that is both difficult and dangerous to financial stability.
  4. Perhaps we should have done something but it’s too late now.

Meanwhile there is the issue of subsidising what may be zombie companies and worse. Also markets become ever more controlled and there is a clear bias away from  smaller companies to larger ones ossifying the economic system.

This issue will pop up with other central banks as for example the equity holdings of the Bank of Japan look good partly because it keeps buying. We will learn more when it stops. Also the Bank of England holds bonds on the troubled Maersk which may yet hit trouble although its new “improved” website may hide this.

Update 12.20 pm

Sometimes you really couldn’t make it up.

 

The murky world of central banks and private-sector QE

The last 24 hours has seen something of a development in the world of central bank monetary easing which has highlighted an issue I have often warned about. Along the way it has provoked a few jokes along the lines of Poundland should now be 50 pence land or in old money ten shillings. Actually the new issue is related to one that the Bank of England experienced back in 2009 when it was operating what was called the SLS or Special Liquidity Scheme. If you have forgotten what it was I am sure the words “Special” and “Liquidity” have pointed you towards the banking sector and you would be right. The banks got liquidity/cash and in return had to provide collateral which is where the link as because on that road the Bank of England suddenly had to value lots of private-sector assets. Indeed it faced a choice between not giving the banks what they wanted or changing ( loosening) its collateral rules which of course was an easy decision for it. But valuing the new pieces of paper it got proved awkward. From FT Alphaville back then.

Accepting raw loans would also ensure that securities taken in the Bank’s operations have a genuine private sector demand rather than comprising ‘phantom’ securities created only for use in central bank operations.

In other words the Bank of England was concerned it was being done up like a kipper which is rather different from the way it tried to portray things.

Under the terms of the SLS, banks and building societies (hereafter ‘banks’) could, for a fee, swap high-quality mortgage-backed and other securities that had temporarily become illiquid for UK Treasury bills, for a period of up to three years.

Some how “high-quality” securities which to the logically minded was always problematic if you thought about the mortgage situation back then had morphed into a much more worrying “phantom” security.  Indeed as the June 2010 Quarterly Bulletin indicated there was rather a lot of them.

But a large proportion of the securities taken have been created specifically for use as collateral with the Bank by the originator of the underlying assets, and have therefore not been traded in the market. Such ‘own-name’ securities accounted for around 76% of the Bank’s extended collateral (around the peak of usage in January 2009), and form the overwhelming majority of collateral taken in the SLS.

Although you would not believe it from its pronouncements now the Bank of England was very worried about the consequences of this and in my opinion this is why it ended the SLS early. Which was a shame as the scheme had strengths and it ended up with other schemes ( FLS, TFS) as we mull the words “one-off” and “temporarily”. But the fundamental theme here is a central bank having trouble with private-sector assets which in the instance above was always likely to happen with instruments that have “not been traded in the market.”

The ECB and Steinhoff

Central banks can also get into trouble with assets that have been traded in the market. After all if market prices were always correct they would move much less than they do. In particular minds have been focused in the last 24 hours on this development.

The news that Steinhoff’s long-serving CEO Markus Jooste had quit sent the company’s share price into freefall on Wednesday morning. Steinhoff opened more than 60% lower, falling from its overnight close of R45.65 to as low as R17.57.

Overall, Steinhoff’s share price has dropped more than 80% over the past 18 months. The stock peaked at over R90 in June last year.  ( Moneyweb).

According to Reuters today has seen the same drum beat.

By 0748 GMT, the stock had slid 37 percent to 11.05 rand in Johannesburg, adding to a more than 60 percent plunge in the previous session. It was down about 34 percent in Frankfurt where it had had its primary listing since 2015.

You may be wondering how a story which might ( in fact is…) a big deal and scandal arrives at the twin towers of the ECB or European Central Bank. The first is a geographical move as Steinhoff has operations in Europe and two years ago today listed on the Frankfurt stock exchange. I am not sure that Happy Birthday is quite appropriate for investors who have seen the 5 Euros of then fall to 0.77 Euros now.

Next enter a central bank looking to buy private-sector assets and in this instance corporate bonds.

Corporate bonds cumulatively purchased and settled as at 01/12/2017 €129,087 (24/11/2017: €127,690) million.

One of the ( over 1000) holdings is as you have probably already guessed a Steinhoff corporate bond and in particular one which theoretically matures in 2025. I say theoretically because the news flow is so grim that it may in practice be sooner. From FT Alphaville.

German prosecutors say they are investigating whether Steinhoff International inflated its revenue and book value, one day after the global home retailer announced that its longtime chief executive had quit…The investigators are probing whether Steinhoff flattered its numbers by selling intangible assets and partnership shares without disclosing that it had close connections to the buyers. The suspicious sales were in “three-digit million” euros territory each, according to the prosecutors.

In terms of scale then the losses will not be relatively large as the bond size is 800 million Euros which would mean that the ECB would not buy more than 560 million under its 70% limit but it does pose questions.

they have a minimum first-best credit assessment of at least credit quality step 3 (rating of BBB- or equivalent) obtained from an external credit assessment institution

This leaves us mulling what investment grade actually means these days with egg on the face of the ratings agencies yet again. As time has passed I notice that the “high-quality” of the Bank of England has become the investment grade of the ECB.

The next question is simply to wonder what the ECB is doing here? Its claim that buying these bonds helps it achieve its inflation target of 2% per annum is hard to substantiate. What it has created is a bull market in corporate bonds which may help economic activity as for example we have seen negative yields even in some cases at issue. But there are side-effects such as moral hazard where the ECB has driven the price higher helping what appears to be fraudulent activity.

How much?

For those of you wondering about the size of the losses there are some factors we do not know such as the size of the holding. We do know that the ECB bought at a price over 90 which compares to the 58.2 as I type this. Some amelioration comes from the yield but not much as the coupon is 1.875% and of course that assumes it gets paid.

My understanding of how this is split is that 20% is collective and the other 80% is at the risk of the national central bank. So there may well be some fun and games when the Bank of Finland ( h/t Robert Pearson) finally reports on this.

Comment

There is much to consider here. Whilst this is only one corporate bond it does highlight the moral hazard issue of a central bank buying private-sector assets. There is another one to my mind which is that overall the ECB will have a (paper) profit but that is pretty much driven by its own ongoing purchases. This begs the question of what happens when it stops? Should it then fear a sharp reversal of prices it is in the situation described by Coldplay.

Oh no what’s this
A spider web and I’m caught in the middle
So I turn to run
And thought of all the stupid things I’d done.

The same is true of the corporate bond buying of the Bank of England which was on a smaller scale but even so ended up buying bonds from companies with ever weaker links ( Maersk) to the UK economy. Even worse in some ways is the issue of how the Bank of Japan is ploughing into the private-sector via its ever-growing purchases of Japanese shares vis equity ETFs. At the same time we are seeing a rising tide of scandals in Japan mostly around data faking.

Me on Core Finance

http://www.corelondon.tv/will-bond-yields-ever-go-higher/