Greece GDP growth is a tactical success but a strategic disaster

Yesterday the Eurogroup made a statement lauding the economic progress made by Greece.

We welcome the confirmation by the institutions that Greece is projected to comfortably meet the primary surplus target of 3,5% of GDP for 2019. We also welcome the adoption of a budget for 2020, which is projected to ensure the achievement of the primary surplus target and which includes a package of growth-friendly measures aimed at reducing the tax burden on capital and labour. Greece has also made significant progress with broader structural reforms, notably in the area of the labour market, digital governance, investment licensing and the business environment.

Actually of course this is another form of punishment beating as we note that the depression ravaged Greek economy will find 3.5% of GDP subtracted from it each year. It is hard not to then laugh at the mention of “growth-friendly” measures. Moving to reform well this all started in the spring of 2010 so why is reform still needed? Indeed the next bit seems to suggest not much has been done at all.

 It will be crucial for Greece to maintain, and where necessary accelerate, reform momentum going forward, including through determined implementation of reforms on all levels. Against this background, we welcome that the Greek authorities reiterated their general commitment to continue the implementation of all key reforms adopted under the ESM programme, especially as regards the reduction of arrears to zero, recruitments in the public sector and privatisations.

Anyway they are going to give Greece some of the interest and profits they have taken off it back.

Subject to the completion of national procedures, the EWG and the EFSF Board of Directors are expected to approve the transfer of SMP-ANFA income equivalent amounts and the reduction to zero of the step-up interest margin on certain EFSF loans worth EUR 767 million in total.

What about the economy?

We have reached the stage I have long feared where any improvement is presented as a triumph. This ignores two things which is how bad matters got and how long it has taken to get here. Or to put it another way Christine Lagarde was right to describe it as “shock and awe” when she was French finance minister but in the opposite way to what she intended.

Manufacturing

This week’s PMI survey from Markit was quite upbeat.

November PMI® survey data signalled a quicker improvement in operating conditions across the Greek manufacturing sector. Overall growth was supported by sharper expansions in output and new orders. Stronger domestic and foreign client demand led to a faster rise in workforce numbers and a greater degree of business confidence.

The reading of 54.1 is really rather good at a time when many other countries are reporting declines although of course the bit below compares to a simply dreadful period.

The rate of overall growth was solid and among the sharpest seen over the last decade.

However there was some good news in a welcome area too.

In response to greater new order volumes, Greek
manufacturers expanded their workforce numbers at a steep pace that was the quickest for seven months.

Also there was some optimism for next year.

Our current forecasts point towards a faster expansion in industrial production in 2020, with the rate of growth expected to pick-up to 1.1% year-on-year.

Sadly though if we look at the previous declines even at such a rate before Maxine Nightingale would be happy.

We gotta get right back to where we started from

Retail Trade

If we switch to the official data we see that the recent news looks good.

The Overall Volume Index in retail trade (i.e. turnover in retail trade at constant prices) in September 2019, increased by 5.1%, compared with the corresponding index of September 2018, while, compared with the corresponding index of August 2019, decreased by 3.9%

So in annual terms strong growth which should be welcomed. But having followed the situation in Greece for some time I know that the retail sector collapsed in the crisis. So we need to look back and if we stay with September we see that the index ( 2015=100) was 144.5 in 2009 and 129.3 in 2010 whereas this year it was 107.3. In fact looking back the peak in September was in 2006 at 167.1 so as you can see here is an extraordinary depression which brings the recent growth into perspective.

Indeed the retail sector was one of the worst affected areas.

Trade

This is one way of measuring the competitiveness of an economy and of course is the area the International Monetary Fund used to prioritise before various French leaders thought they knew better. After such a long depression you might think the situation would be fixed but no.

The deficit of the Trade Balance, for the 9-month period from January to September 2019 amounted to 16,500.5 million euros (18,313.6 million dollars) in comparison with 15,390.6 million euros (18,139.7 million dollars) for the corresponding period of the year 2018, recording an increase, in euros, of 7.2%.

However there is a bright spot which we find by switching to the Bank of Greece.

A rise in the surplus of the services balance is due to an improvement primarily in the travel balance and secondarily in the transport and other services balance. Travel receipts and non-residents’ arrivals increased by 14% and 3.8% year-on-year respectively. In addition, transport (mainly sea transport) receipts rose by 5.5%.

Shipping and tourism are traditional Greek businesses and the impact of the services sector improves the situation quite a bit.

In the January-September 2019 period, the current account was almost balanced, while a €1.4 billion deficit was recorded in the same period of 2018. This development reflects mainly a rise in the services surplus and also an improvement in the primary and the secondary income accounts, which more than offset an increase in the deficit of the balance of goods.

In fact tourism has played an absolute blinder for both the trade position and the economy.

In January-September 2019, the balance of travel services showed a surplus of €14,032 million, up from a surplus of €12,507 million in the same period of 2018. This development is attributed to an increase, by 14.0% or €1,976 million, in travel receipts, which were only partly offset by travel payments, up by 28.0% or €450 million.

GDP

Today has brought the latest GDP data from Greek statistics.

The available seasonally adjusted data indicate that in the 3rd quarter of 2019 the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) in volume terms increased by 0.6% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2019, while
in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2018, it increased by 2.3%.

The story here is of export driven growth which provides some hope. The domestic economy shrank with consumption 0.4% lower and investment 5% lower on a quarterly basis whereas there was this on the external side.

Exports of goods and services increased by 4.5% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2019……….Imports of goods and services increased by 0.6% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2019.

Comment

At first it looks extraordinary that the Greek domestic economy could shrink on a quarterly basis but then of course we need to remind ourselves that the fiscal policy described at the beginning of this article is extraordinarily contractionary. So in essence the recovery seems to be depending rather a lot on the tourism industry. I also note that if we look at the Euro area data there is an unwelcome mention in the employment section.

The largest decreases were observed in Lithuania (-1.2%), Romania (-1.1%), Finland (-0.5%) and Greece (-0.3%).

Not what you would hope for in a recovery period.

Switching to an idea of the scale of the depression we see that in the latest quarter GDP was 49 billion Euros, compared to the previous peak in the spring of 2007 of 63.3 billion Euros ( 2010 prices). So more than 12 years later still nearly 23% lower. That is what you call a great depression and at the current rate of growth it will be quite some time before we get right back where Greece started from.

 

Do not forget Greece is still in an economic depression

Today I intend to look at something which I and I know from your replies many of you have long feared. This is that the merest flicker of better news from Greece will be used as a way of obscuring the fact that it is still in an economic crisis. At least I think that is what we should be calling an economic depression. So let me take you straight to the Financial Times.

Today, on the face of things, the emergency is over and the outlook is bright. The authorities have lifted capital controls, imposed four years ago. Greece’s 10-year bond yield touched an all-time low in July. Consumer confidence is at its highest level since 2000. Elections in July produced a comfortable parliamentary majority for New Democracy, a conservative party committed under prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to a well-designed programme of economic reform, fiscal responsibility and administrative modernisation.

Firstly let me give the FT some credit for lowering its paywall for a bit. However the latter sentence is playing politics which is an area they have got into trouble with this year on the subject of Greece but I will leave that there as I keep out of politics.

As to the economics you may note that the first 2 points cover financial markets rather than the real economy and even the first point is a sentiment measure rather than a real development. If we work our way through them it is of course welcome that capital controls have now ended although it is also true that it is troubling that they lasted for more than four years.

Switching to Greek bonds we see that they did indeed join the worldwide bond party. I am not quite sure though about the all-time July low as you see it is 1.31% as I type this compared to being around 1% higher than that in July! Perhaps he has not checked since it dipped below 2% at the end of July which is hardly reassuring. As to why this has happened other than the worldwide trend there are 2 other factors. Firstly there is the way that the European Stability Mechanism has changed the debt envelope as the quote from Karl Regling below shows.

 In total, Greece received almost €290 billion in financial support, of which €205 billion came from the EFSF and the ESM.

So the Greek bond yield is approaching what the ESM charges. Another factor is they way that it has confirmed my “To Infinity! And Beyond!” theme as the average maturity was kicked like a can to 42.5 years. Next is a factor that I looked at on the 9th of July and Klaus also notes.

The general government primary balance in programme terms last year registered a surplus of 4.3% of GDP, strongly over-performing the fiscal target of 3.5% of GDP.

This is awkward for the political theme of the article as it was achieved by the previous government. Also let me be clear that whilst this is good for bond markets there is a big issue for the actual economy as 4.3% of demand was sucked out of it which is a lot is any circumstance but more so when you are still in an economic depression.

So it is a complex issue which to my mind has seen Greek bond yields move towards what the ESM is charging which is ~1%. Maybe the ECB will add it to its QE programme as well as whilst it does not qualify in terms of investment rating it could offer a waiver.

Greek Consumer Confidence

I have to confess referring to a confidence signal does set off a warning klaxon. But let us add in this from the Greek statistics office.

The overall volume index in retail trade (i.e. turnover in retail trade at constant prices) in June 2019, increased by
2.3%, compared with the corresponding index of June 2018……..The seasonally adjusted overall volume index in June 2019, compared with the corresponding index of May 2019, increased by 2.5%.

So there has been some growth. However there is a but and it is a BUT. You might like to sit down before you read the next bit. The volume index in June was 103.5 which compares to 177.7 in March 2008 and yes you did read that right. I regularly point out that monthly retail sales numbers are erratic so let me also point out that late 2007 and early 2008 had a sequence of numbers in the 170s. Even worse this century started with a reading of 115.4 in January 2000.

So we have seen a little growth but not much since the index was set at 100 in 2015 and you can either have a depression lasting this century or quite a severe depression since 2008 take your pick. Against that some optimism now is welcome but does not really cut it in my opinion.

Economic growth

There is a reference to it.

Even before these clouds appeared on the horizon, however, Greece was not rebounding from the debt crisis with the vigour of other stricken eurozone economies such as Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

That is one way of putting a level of GDP that has fallen 18% this decade. In 2010 prices it opened this decade with a quarterly performance of just over 59 billion Euros whereas in the second quarter of this year it was 48.3 billion. I am nit sure that “clouds on the horizon” really cover an annual growth rate struggling to each 2% after such a drop. Greece should be rebounding but of course as I have already pointed out the dent means that 4.3% of economic activity was sucked out of it last year. So no wonder it is an L-shaped and not a V-shaped recovery. At the current pace Greece may not get back to its previous peak in the next decade either.

Comment

There are some references to ongoing problems in Greece as for example the banks.

A second factor is the fragility of Greece’s banks. By the middle of this year, they were burdened with about €85bn in non-performing loans. To some extent, however, liquidity conditions are now improving.

Not mentioned is the fact that according to the Bank of Greece more than another 40 billion Euros needs writing off. From January 19th.

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

That brings us to another problem which is that the debt was supposed to fall from 2012 onwards whereas even now there are plans for it to grow. So whilst the annual cost has been cut to low levels the burden just gets larger.

Also there has been a heavy human cost in terms of suicides, hospitals not being able to afford drugs and the like. It has been a grim run to say the least. The ordinary Greek did not deserve anything like that as they were guilty of very little. The Greek political class and banks were by contrast guilty of rather a lot. The cost is an ongoing depression which looks like it will continue for quite some time yet. After all I welcome the lower unemployment rate of 17% but also recall that such a rate was considered quite a disaster on the way up.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see ( Queen)

 

What economic situation faces the new Greek government?

There was a link between the two main news stories on Sunday. Those who feel the main aim of the original Greek bailout was to allow European banks to exit the country will have had a wry smile at the ongoing travails of Deutsche Bank. Also the consequences of that bailout are still being felt in Greece which may vote for political change but finds itself continuing to be in troubled economic times. From Kathimerini.

Crucially, asked to what extent the creditors would be open to a reduction to fiscal targets, Regling said the 3.5 percent of GDP target Greece has committed to is a “cornerstone of the program,” adding that it’s “very hard to see how debt sustainability can be achieved without that.”

This was a reminder that via the fiscal target some 3.5% of economic activity each year will be taken out of the economy to help reduce the size of the national debt. A bit like driving a car with the handbrake on. It also gives us a reminder of the early days of the Greek crisis where a vicious circle was set up as austerity shrank the economy which meant that more austerity was required and repeat. Accordingly Greece was plunged into what can only be described as a great depression. Putting it another way the Greek economy is now 18.8% smaller than it was as 2010 opened.

Another disturbing feature is the weakness of the current recovery. I have written throughout this saga about my fear that what should be a “V-Shaped” recovery has been an “L-Shaped” one. So after a better 2017 ( which was essentially the second quarter) we find ourselves reviewing not much growth.

The available seasonally adjusted data indicate that in the 1st quarter of 2019 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms increased by 0.2% in comparison with the 4th quarter of 2018, while in comparison with the 1st quarter of 2018, it increased by 1.3%

So if there is a recovery impetus it is finding that its energy is being diverted away by the primary surplus target.

Trade Problems

Yesterday we got the latest trade data for Greece and this matters because it is a test of what has become called the internal competitiveness model. This was produced for the Euro area crisis because there was no devaluation option as the official view is that the Euro is irreversible. Thus the wages of the ordinary Greek had to take the whole strain of whipping the economy back into shape. How has that gone?

The total value of imports-arrivals, in May 2019 amounted to 5,230.9 million euros (5,832.8 million dollars) in
comparison with 4,356.6 million euros (5,130.8 million dollars) in May 2018, recording an increase, in euros, of
20.1%…….The total value of exports-dispatches, in May 2019 amounted to 3,044.6 million euros (3,415.5 million dollars) in comparison with 2,955.0 million euros (3,501.2 million dollars) in May 2018, recording an increase, in euros, of 3.0%.

In itself a rise in the import bill may not be bad as it can indicate an economic recovery on its way. Also in these times of trade wars then an increase in exports is welcome. But we need to look further as to the overall position.

The deficit of the Trade Balance, for the 5-month period from January to May 2019 amounted to 9,421.0 million
euros (10,515.9 million dollars) in comparison with 8,086.2 million euros (9,738.3 million dollars) for the
corresponding period of the year 2018, recording an increase, in euros, of 16.5%.

These numbers do not allow for two of the main strengths of the Greek economy so let is put them in.

The rise in the services surplus is attributable to an improvement, primarily in the transport balance and, secondarily, in the travel and other services balances. Transport receipts (mainly sea transports) rose by 9.8%. At the same time, non-residents’ arrivals and the relevant receipts rose by 0.5% and 22.8%, respectively. ( Bank of Greece)

Those numbers are only up to April but we see that even without the grim trade data for May the overall current account was not going well.

In the January-April 2019 period, the current account showed a deficit of €5.1 billion, up by €335 million year-on-year.

Of course the flip side of Euro membership is that the value of the currency is unlikely to take much notice of this as due to Germany’s presence the overall position is of a consistent surplus. But whilst tourism in particular has done well the idea of a net exports surge is just not happening.

Looking Ahead

The Bank of Greece told us this at the beginning of this month.

economic activity is expected to increase by 1.9% in 2019, by 2.1% in 2020 and by 2.2% in 2021, mainly driven by private consumption, business investment and exports.

Those numbers send a chill down my spine because throughout the crisis we have been told that Greece will grow by around 2% per annum. This was supposed to start in 2012 whereas in fact the economy shrank at annual rates of between 4.1% and 8.7%. For now growth via exports seems unlikely to say the least.

The private-sector Markit PMI survey told us this.

Operating conditions in the Greek manufacturing sector
improved moderately in June, with the headline PMI
dipping to its lowest since November 2017. Weighing on
overall growth were slower increases in production and new business.

The reading was 52.4 ( 50 = unchanged)  so slow growth was the order of the day as we note Greece is being affected by a sector that in the Euro area overall is contracting.

Bond Market

There has been a spate of articles pointing out that Greece now has a ten-year yield which is very similar to that of the United States. Actually that is not going quite so well this morning as at 2.17% Greece is 0.1% higher. But it is being used as a way of bathing the situation in a favourable light which has quite a few problems.

  1. Rather than a sign of economic recovery it is a sign of a policy ( primary surplus target) which is sucking growth out of the economy.
  2. Pretty much any yield is being bought these days!
  3. Greece does not have that many government bonds in issue as so much of the debt is now owned by the two Euro area bailout vehicles the ESM and EFSF. They disbursed some 204 billion Euros to Greece and now hold more than half its national debt. It is also why if you look back at the first quote in this piece it is Klaus Regling of the ESM who is quoted.

So rather than success what the bond yield now tells us is that Greece is in a program that the so-called bond vigilantes would love, otherwise known as the primary surplus target. It also has seen the ESM debt kicked like a can to the late 2050s. That is really rather different.

Why would you pay investors 2% or so rather than 1% to the ESM? A blind eye keeps being turned to that question.

It is also why I find it frankly somewhat frustrating when people like Yanis Varoufakis call for QE for Greece as via the ESM It got its own form of it on a much larger scale. Their real problem is that it came with conditions.

Comment

This has been a long sad story perhaps best expressed by Elton John.

It’s sad, so sad (so sad)
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd
It’s sad, so sad (so sad)
Why can’t we talk it over?
Oh it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word

There have been some improvements but the numbers below also highlight the scale of the problem to be faced.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in March 2019 was 18.1% compared to 20.2% in March 2018 and the downward revised 18.4% in February 2019.

If we look back to the pre credit crunch era then the employment rate was around 10% lower than that. Also a youth unemployment rate of 40.4% is considerably improved but if we look at the past numbers we see that not only must so many young Greek’s not have a job but they must have no hope of one. Also it has gone on so long that some will now be in the next category of 25-34.

So the new Greek government has plenty of challenges so let me finish with the main two as seen by the Bank of Greece.

 This is so because, with a public debt-to-GDP ratio of 180%

and

Banks have made progress in reducing non-performing loans (NPLs). More specifically, at end-March 2019, NPLs amounted to €80 billion, down by about €1.8 billion from end-December 2018 and by around €27.2 billion from their March 2016 peak

 

 

What does a Greek bond yield below 3% tell us?

Sometimes it is good to look at things from another direction so let me start by looking at the current situation through the prism of financial markets rather than the real economy. From @tracyalloway.

Greek government bond yields below 3%

I will return to the why and therefore of this in a moment but let me first move onto the stock market. Here is an article from Forbes from Saturday.

Greece’s stock market rose sharply this week, following a big defeat of the ruling leftist coalition in Regional and Euroelections last Sunday.

The Global Shares X FTSE shares (GREK) have gained 9.10%, as most financial markets around the world lost ground. Banks were particularly strong, leading the rally.

As you can see that was different to many other equity markets and continues stronger performance this year. If we move to the ASE General Index it at 828 is just under its high for the year and is up nearly 9% this year and around 35% on a year ago.

Some Perspective

If we return to the bond market then there are two clear perspectives. The first is that we have yet another day of singing along with the Black-Eyed Peas.

Boom boom boom
That boom boom boom
That boom boom boom
Boom boom boom

We have seen yet another all-time high for the benchmark German bond or bund as the ten-year yield has fallen to -0.21%. That has something of an ominous portent for the world economy if traders are correct. As we note that this time around Greece has joined the party there are nuances.

EFSF financial assistance, part of the second programme, ran from March 2012 through June 2015. In this programme, the EFSF disbursed a total of €141.8 billion, of which €130.9 is outstanding………….Together, the EFSF and ESM disbursed €204 billion to Greece, and now hold more than half of its public debt. ( European Stability Mechanism)

So as you can see there are a lot fewer Greek bonds in circulation than there were, as they have been subsumed into EFSF/ESM system. This has had a consequence for volumes in the market as @Birdyworld points out.

When people are talking about Greek government bond yields it’s worth remembering that it’s basically not a market any more. The average month from 2001-2010 saw 42bn euros in secondary market transactions. The ENTIRE transaction volume 2011-2019 is 29bn euros.

This is a point I remember making back in the early days of the crisis when the ECB was buying Greek bonds to support the market that volumes went off the edge of a cliff. So the bond market does not tell us what it used to.

Also the stock market has improved but when we note it was previously above 5000 we can see that some context is required there too.

Manufacturing

We can continue with something of a positive gloss as we note this from earlier this morning.

The Greek manufacturing sector strengthened further in
May. Production and new order growth remained sharp,
with employment continuing to rise. Domestic and foreign
demand were still resilient as new export orders rose strongly………… Currently, IHS Markit forecasts a 3%
increase in industrial production in 2019, with the rate of
unemployment set to fall to 18.3% by the end of the year.

That was from the Manufacturing PMI release which contrary what you might think was in fact lower at 54.2 as opposed to the previous 56.6. But according to this measure there has been a sustained improvement.

The latest headline PMI figure extended the current sequence of expansion to two years.

However some care is needed because if we look at the official data the numbers have improved so far in 2019 but if we look back the two years to March 2017 we see that output is in fact a little lower than the 104.92 of back then. The current reading of 104.03 is also a fair bit lower than the around 110 of last July.

Trade Problems

This is a crucial area because this was the modus operandi of the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The problem is highlighted by these figures from the Bank of Greece.

In March 2019, the current account deficit came to €1.5 billion, up by €352 million year-on-year, as a result of an increase in the deficit of the balance of goods, and notwithstanding the improved services balance. Additionally, the primary and secondary income accounts deteriorated………..In the first quarter of 2019, the current account deficit came to €3.7 billion, up by €420 million year-on-year, as the improved services balance and primary income account only partly offset a deterioration of the balance of goods and the secondary income account.

When we consider the extent of the economic depression that Greece has been through this is a pretty shocking result. All that pain to still be in deficit. Even worse any sort of stabilisation and maybe improvement seems to come with more imports of goods.

 Imports of goods grew by 6.0% at current prices and 4.1% at constant prices. ( first quarter 2019).

The Greek shipping industry seems to be booming against the world trend but was unable to offset the higher imports.

Sea transport receipts rose by 18.9%.

Money Supply

The good news is that narrow money growth or M1 has been picking up in 2019. However at 6.3% in April it remains below that of the wider Euro area so that is not entirely heartening. The numbers were especially weak around the turn of the year so we cross our fingers for tomorrow’s economic growth release for the first quarter.

Also we need to be cautious as Greece does not have its own money supply so these are numbers which make more assumptions than usual. Central bankers will find something to cheer in this however.

According to data collected from credit institutions,(1) nominal apartment prices are estimated to have increased on average by 2.5% year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2018, whilst in 2018 the average annual increase in apartment prices was 1.5%, compared with an average decrease of 1.0% in 2017.

If you want to see a bear market though this has provided it with the overall index being at 60.5 at the end of 2018 where 2007 =100.

Comment

There have been some changes in the Greek situation but some things look awfully familiar. From Kathimerini.

There will be no service on the Athens metro and tram from 9 p.m. on Monday as workers walk off the job to protest understaffing, cutbacks and the privatization of public transport.

Also considering its share price you might think Deutsche Bank would have better things to do than troll Greece.

Greece should not sacrifice the credibility and discipline it has earned with such sacrifice in the past few years to short-term measures, warns Ashok Aram, Deutsche Bank’s regional CEO for Europe.

The Greek economy was sacrificed on the altar of turning the public finances into a sustained surplus. It is hard to believe that it was supposed to return Greece to economic growth ( 2.1% was forecast for 2012) whereas the contraction approached 10% at times. Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I see the media proclaiming the views of those responsible for this as being of any use, but that is the world we live in. But the reality is that after a depression which contracted the economy by around a quarter we still have to look hard for clear signs of a recovery or if you prefer the shape of it is an L rather than a V.

The world can be so upside down at times that we cannot rule out we might see a Greek bond with a negative yield.

Weekly Podcast

I look at why bond yields have dropped so sharply in the past few weeks.

 

UK Austerity and the next Governor of the Bank of England

Today brings into focus an area that has brought good news for the UK over the past couple of years. This has been the improvement in the public finances which rather curiously lagged the period where the economy recorded its fastest economic growth by around 2 years. Also some of the detail along the way has hinted at a better economic situation than that suggested by economic growth measured by Gross Domestic Product or GDP data. This swings both ways in my view as what were called the bond vigilantes will be happier with the state of play. But also those on the other side of the coin who would like more government spending and/or lower taxes would have fiscal room to do so.

Austerity

This has been a matter of debate for some time and let me start by saying there are several ways of looking at this. The harshest would be to actually cut government spending which we have not seen in the UK. Let me add more detail by pointing out that some areas clearly have but overall the story has nor been that as other areas spent more. The more realistic version seems to be restricting government spending in real terms which we have seen some of overall. If we look at it in terms of years then we have recorded on here two main phases firstly from around 2010 when the brakes were applied and from 2012/13 when the pressure on the spending brakes was loosened.

Also there was some tightening on the other side of the fiscal ledger of which the standout was the rise in Value Added Tax or VAT. There was a relatively brief cut from 17.5% to 15% but then a rise to 20% where in spite of the claims of a return to normal it is still at the supposedly emergency rate.

Having established some perspective let us look at this from the IPPR which compared us to these countries “This comprises Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.”.

We find that on average these countries spend 48.9 per cent of GDP on public spending, compared to just 40.8 per cent in the UK. Furthermore, whilst the UK’s spending has fallen by 7 percentage points – from around 47 per cent of GDP to 40 per cent of GDP – since the onset of austerity, the comparable fall across these countries is just 3 percentage points. Moreover, if the UK were to match their current levels of spending tomorrow it would be worth £2,500 per person per year, of which £1,800 would go towards social spending; meaning health, education and social security.

Okay if we break this down we see that the picture is more complex. Let me show you this by looking at the Euro area in total for 2018 for which we got figures yesterday. There the fiscal deficit was a mere 0.5% of GDP with spending at 46.8% and revenue at 46.3%. Furthermore many of the countries in the IPPR list ran fiscal surpluses in 2018

Germany (+1.7%), the Netherlands (+1.5%), Sweden (both +0.9%), Denmark (+0.5%). Austria (+0.1%).

So on that measure they are more fiscally austere than the UK which ran a deficit. As you can see things are more complex than they argue which is hinted at by the way they use tax revenue as a benchmark rather than total revenues which changes the numbers quite a bit. We have numbers for different periods but my 46.3% for the Euro area is rather different to the 41.1% for their sample and looks a swinging rather than a straight ball to me.

Of course spending is not a free good either. Could we match the spending tomorrow? Yes we could if we wished and for a while with bond yields where they are it would at first be no big deal, but even the IPPR realises it would have to come with this.

But in the UK, as IPPR has previously recommended, significant additional revenue could be raised through increasing the rate of corporation tax in line with the European average, reforming income tax but in a way that protects those on low and middle incomes, and changes to the way in which we tax wealth.

As to Corporation Tax I am dubious as one thing we have learned in the credit crunch era is the way multinationals pretty much choose where they pay tax or if you want the issue in one word, Ireland.

Moving on we see this and again the catch is that in the credit crunch era such Ivory Tower calculations are fine up in the clouds but down here at ground level they have often crumbled.

They find that the cumulative effect of austerity has been to shrink the economy by £100bn today compared to what it would have been without the cuts: that is worth around £3,600 per family in 2019/20 alone.

Today’s Data

The overall picture presented continues to be a strong one.

In the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019), central government received £739.4 billion in income, including £558.6 billion in taxes. This was 5% more than in the previous financial year.

This again hints that the economy has been stronger than the GDP data suggests and follows the labour market theme of rising employment and higher real wages.

On the other side of the ledger the throwing around of the word austerity makes me uncomfortable when we are increasing spending in real terms.

Over the same period, central government spent £741.5 billion, an increase of around 3%.

Well unless you use the RPI as your inflation measure but even then it is roughly flat.

The combination meant this.

Borrowing in the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019) was £24.7 billion, £17.2 billion less than in the previous financial year; the lowest financial year borrowing for 17 years.

Or if you prefer our credit crunch era journey can be put like this.

In the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019), the £24.7 billion (or 1.2% of gross domestic product (GDP)) borrowed by the public sector was less than one-fifth (16.1%) of the amount seen in the FYE March 2010, when borrowing was £153.1 billion (or 9.9% of GDP).

As a single month March was not one for austerity as it looks like departments made sure that they spent their annual budgets so if some potholes were filled in around your locale that is why.

 while total central government expenditure increased by 5.7% (or £3.5 billion) to £65.7 billion.

The explanation is rather bare but if we look at the ledger we see spending on goods and services was up by £1.9 billion. So maybe there was some Brexit stockpiling too.

Comment

The last decade has seen a lot of debate over the concept of austerity involving quite a lot of goalpost moving, so much so that it is fortunate designers give them wheels these days. Whereas we do know what real austerity has been as @fwred made clear yesterday,

Today’s craziest chart goes to Greece, with a primary surplus of 4.4% of GDP in 2018, beating an already insane target of 3.5%. Jaw-dropping for those of us old enough to remember the whole story.

Or as The Nutty Boys put it.

Madness, madness, they call it madness
Madness, madness, they call it madness
I’m about to explain
A-That someone is losing their brain
Hey, madness, madness, I call it gladness, yee-ha-ha-ha

We have seen nothing like that but now face choices ahead as do we copy the Germand and go for a surplus? Or do we now pick out areas where we can spend more? With borrowing so cheap with our ten-year Gilt yield at 1.2% it is not expensive. As ever some care is needed as we have spent in some areas as I note in the IPPR paper than at 7.4% of GDP we spend the same on health as the countries they compare us too which completes something I recall Tony Blair aiming at back in the day.

Meanwhile this has hit the news. I have floated two candidates in Andrew Sentance and Ann Pettifor, but who would you suggest?

Although if Yes Prime Minister has its usual accuracy the choice has already been made and this is just for show

The economic depression in Greece looks set to continue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money Supply

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

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

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

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

The Greek banks

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

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

They have another go later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eurogroup

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

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

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

Euro area

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Investing Channel

 

 

Mario Draghi and the ECB look for more expansionary Euro area fiscal policy

As we travel the journey that is the credit crunch era we pick up some tasty morsels of knowledge along the way. Some were provided by Mario Draghi and the European Central Bank yesterday which announced this.

we decided to launch a new series of quarterly targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO-III), starting in September 2019 and ending in March 2021, each with a maturity of two years. These new operations will help to preserve favourable bank lending conditions and the smooth transmission of monetary policy.

As ever “the precious” otherwise known as the banks is prioritised ahead of everything else. Also I was asked if this meant the ECB “knew something” to which the answer is simple, if they did then they would have done it last summer. But there was a much bigger pivot.

This happens in a context where the debt to GDP ratio in the eurozone is actually falling.

There was a move towards making a broad hint for more fiscal policy or easing here. Mario also went out of his way to point out that borrowing for Euro area governments is very low.

The simple action of maintaining the stock unchanged in this context actually is a continuous easing because interest rates are pushed downward by this action. You can see this because since we decided in June last year, interest rates have gone down, they keep on going down, the term premium is negative, so conditions are very, very accommodative.

Not only that but he intends to keep it that way.

If you add to this what I’ve just said, it’s the chained element of this, of the horizon over which we’ll carry out purchases to keep the stock unchanged moves together with the forward guidance.

So Mario is pointing out to government’s that if they borrow the ECB will in general be there to help keep borrowing costs low or as we shall see in a bit negative. After all we now live in a world where even Greece can do this.

On Tuesday 5thMarch the Hellenic Republic, rated B1 Moody’s/ B+ S&P/ BB- Fitch/ BH DBRS (stb/ pos/ stb/ pos), priced a €2.5 billion 10-year Government Bond (GGB) due 12th March 2029. The new benchmark carries a coupon of 3.875% and reoffer yield of 3.900%, equating to a reoffer price of 99.796%. Joint bookrunners on the transaction were BNP Paribas, Citi, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs Intl, HSBC and J.P. Morgan. ( Note the past behaviour of Goldman Sachs in relation to Greece seems to be no barrier at all to future business…..)

Why so cheap? Well there are two main factors. One is that it is looking to run fiscal surpluses and the other is that whilst it is not in the ECB QE programme it may well be in a future one and that is looking more likely by the day. As to the economy it is with a heavy heart that I point out this which speaks for itself.

The available seasonally adjusted data
indicate that in the 4 th quarter of 2018 the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 0.1% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2018,
while in comparison with the 4th quarter of 2017, it increased by 1.6%.

Mario also gave us a reminder of the scale of Euro area bond buying so far.

Just to give you an idea, the balance sheet of the ECB is about 42 – 43% of the eurozone GDP. The Fed is about half of it now. In order to keep this stock unchanged, we continue purchasing something in the order of €20 billion a month of bonds.

Here are more hints on the subject with also I think a nod to his home country Italy.

Regarding fiscal policies, the mildly expansionary euro area fiscal stance and the operation of automatic stabilisers are providing support to economic activity. At the same time, countries where government debt is high need to continue rebuilding fiscal buffers. All countries should continue to increase efforts to achieve a more growth-friendly composition of public finances.

Bond Yields

Let us start with the largest Euro area economy with is Germany. We saw bond prices rise and yields fall quite quickly in response to this. The German ten-year yield fell from 0.12% to 0.06% which makes us wonder if we may see another spell of it going negative like it did in the summer and autumn of 2016? It would not take a lot as the nine-year yield is now -0.1%.

So Germany can borrow essentially for nothing should it so choose over a ten-year horizon. That is in nominal terms and if we see inflation in this period then the real cost will be negative. Yet if you read through the cheerleading it is aiming for a fiscal surplus.

The general government budget surplus
will fall from roughly 1½% of GDP in
2018 to roughly 1% of GDP in 2019.
In 2019 and subsequent years, a fiscal
impact will be made in particular by
the priority measures contained in the
Coalition Agreement and other measures.
The implementation of these measures
will reduce the federal budget surplus. ( Draft Budget October 2018).

Although those numbers are already suffering from the TalkTalk critique and on that subject RIP Mark Hollis.

Baby, life’s what you make it
Celebrate it
Anticipate it
Yesterday’s faded
Nothing can change it
Life’s what you make it

Why? Well we have indeed moved on since this as the German economy shrank in the second half of 2018.

which forecasts a real growth rate of 1.8% in both 2018 and
2019. This means that Germany’s economy is expected to keep growing at a pace that slightly exceeds potential output.

Also if we look around we see that European supranational bodies can borrow very cheaply too. Maybe not at German rates but often pretty near. After considering that now let us return to Mario Draghi yesterday.

Now, Philip Lane is an excellent acquisition for the ECB but we are not going to ask him about this Eurobond thing. The Eurobond is again not something that the ECB can force or just decide about; again it’s an inherently political decision. And of course this doesn’t detract at all from the argument that it’s absolutely rational to have a safe asset at European level.

We have seen the Eurobond case made many times and so far Germany keeps torpedoing it, but we also know that in Europe these sort of things tend to happen eventually after of course a forest of denials and rejections.

Comment

We have seen quite a few phases now of the Euro area crisis. For a while it looked like “escape velocity” had been achieved but now we see to be facing many of the same problems with quarterly economic growth having gone 0.1%, 0.2% and looking like being around 0.2% in the first quarter of this year. Although he tried to downplay such thoughts yesterday it is hard not to think of this from Mario Draghi last November.

 I’ll be briefer than I would like to be, but certainly especially in some parts of this period of time, QE has been the only driver of this recovery.

Ironically he is avoiding the subject just as the evidence is pointing that way. For the moment monetary policy is to coin a phrase “maxxed out” although in this instance it is more timing than not being able to do more, as it would be an embarrassing U-Turn. So for now if Euro area government’s and especially Germany were to embark on a fiscal stimulus the ECB would turn its blind eye towards it I think.