The Greek crisis continues on its road to nowhere

Yesterday on my way to looking at the UK Public Finances I pointed out that Greece had a national debt to GDP ratio of 179% at the end of 2016. This came with some cheerleading from the Institutions ( they used to be called the Troika until the name became so damaged) and some of the media about a budget primary surplus of 4.2% of GDP although if we put debt costs back in the surplus shrinks to 0.7%. You may recall that the PSI or Private-Sector Involvement of 2012 was supposed to bring the debt position under control but the ongoing economic depression blew that out of the water as the economy tanked and debt rose.

A consequence of this situation is that as we head to the heights of summer Greece will need yet more funding as it has debt repayments to make. Actually repayments is too strong a word as the debt will in fact be rolled from one Euro area institution to another. Bloomberg updates us on the issue.

The heavily indebted Mediterranean nation needs the next installment of about 7 billion euros ($7.6 billion) to repay lenders in a few months

It always turns out like this as this is a road we have been down more than once.

The IMF says two conditions must be met before it co-finances the country’s ongoing third bailout. First, Athens must agree to a set of credible reforms, particularly of its pension and tax systems. Second, the IMF insists that the euro area ease Greece’s debt burden.

This is all so familiar as we are always told there has been great success on reform yet somehow more is always needed! Also the debt burden needs easing yet again.

Debt relief

The problem here comes from the number below.

The latest figures show Greece’s debt stands at 179 percent of its gross domestic product, or about 315 billion euros….. Currently the country owes about 216 billion euros to the European Stability Mechanism, the euro-area bailout fund (and its predecessor), as well as to other euro-area countries.

At the beginning of the saga Greece faced high interest costs as the theme was as US Treasury Secretary Timmy Geithner pointed out was one of punishment. This only made things worse as the economy shrunk further so the PSI was enacted. The flaw was that the ever-growing amount of debt held by the Euro area and IMF was excluded from any write-down as we muse the first rule of ECB club which is that it must always be repaid. As this ballooned an alternative more implicit rather than explicit debt relief programme was put in place . From the ESM ( European Stability Mechanism).

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

It calculates the savings for Greece as follows.

Thanks to the debt relief measures approved by the Eurogroup, the Greek government saved an equivalent of 49% of its 2013 GDP. This includes savings of 34% of GDP thanks to eased conditions on EFSF loans to Greece.

You may note that Greece is always “saving” money and yet the debt burden gets worse. A clue to that is the section on economic progress which trumpets the current account, fiscal deficit and something which apparently the IMF needs to be told.

Greece has made major progress in carrying out structural reforms – it is the best performing economy in terms of implementing OECD recommendations on structural reforms.

Somehow it misses out what now must be called the Great Economic Depression which has ravaged the Greek economy. Also is this one of the reforms?

The government is preparing to honor a pledge to offer permanent status to civil servants in key posts of the public sector, Kathimerini understands, with legislation boosting their rights expected to head to Parliament soon.

 

Also a board member showed the confusion with this sentence in a speech on the 6th of March.

As the Eurogroup chairman Jeroen Dijsselbloem said, there is no immediate liquidity squeeze over the next months, but that does not mean that Greece does not need money.

Er?

The medicine

In spite of where we stand this remains the same as the FT points out.

Greece agreed this month to adopt measures that would improve its primary budget surplus – before paying debt servicing costs – by 2 per cent of gross domestic product.

It is a bit like the old-fashioned treatment of bleeding the patient where it was reported a success but sadly the patient died isn’t it? As usual the rhetoric is being revved up and last night Prime Minister Tsipras was doing exactly that although I note he has passed the responsibility for the changes to the next government.

The measures would be divided roughly equally between cuts in pensions due to be made in 2019 followed by a sharp reduction of the income tax threshold in 2020. But they could be implemented earlier if the budget surplus target veers off-track.

What is the economic outlook for Greece?

The background is favourable as the overall picture for the Euro area is good. However the business surveys do not seem to have picked this up. From the Markit PMI.

At 46.7 in March, down from 47.7 in February, the latest figure signalled a seventh successive deterioration in Greek manufacturing sector conditions. The rate of decline accelerated from the previous month, and was marked overall. Underlying the latest contraction was a sharp fall in new order intakes

There is a clear difference here with the official data which tells us this for January and February combined.

3.7% (rise) in the Manufacturing Production Index.

The official view is pretty much what it has been for the last five years.

Looking forward, the Bank of Greece expects GDP to grow by around 2.5% in 2017, although a downward revision of the December 2016 forecasts is likely due to the negative carry-over effect of the sharp decline in output in Q4 2016 (attributed mainly to the decline in gross fixed capital formation and government consumption). Downside risks to the economic outlook exist related to delays in the conclusion of the second review of the Programme, the impact of increased taxation on economic activity and reform implementation.

The situation regarding bank deposits in Greece is complex because the definition has changed however I note that the ECB gave Greece an extra 400 million Euros of Emergency Liquidity Assistance last month. So the money which left in 2015 has remained abroad. The latest bank lending survey of the Bank of Greece tells us this.

The demand for total loans remained also unchanged during the first quarter of 2017

Comment

This saga has been an economics version of Waiting for Godot. The price of Godot never arriving has been this.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in January 2017 was 23.5% compared to 24.3% in January 2016 and the upward revised 23.5% in December 2016…….

Yes it has fallen a bit but if we compare to the pre credit crunch low of 7.9% you get an idea of the scale of the issue. Also this now defines long-term unemployment especially for the young ( 15-24 ) where nearly half ( 48%) are unemployed.

As the band strikes up a familiar tune and we see claims of reform and progress I think this from Elvis is appropriate for Greece.

We’re caught in a trap
I can’t walk out
Because I love you too much baby

Why can’t you see
What you’re doing to me
When you don’t believe a word I say?

We can’t go on together
With suspicious minds
And we can’t build our dreams
On suspicious minds

 

 

A better year for the UK Public Finances ends with a disappointing March

Today we move onto the UK Public Finances but before we do so it is time for some perspective and as so often these days it is Greece that provides it. Let me explain with this from the Financial Times.

Greece’s primary budget surplus – which measures the country’s public finances when excluding debt repayments – hit 4.2 per cent last year, swinging dramatically from a deficit and far outperforming a creditor target of 0.5 per cent for 2016.

This provides two issues of which the first is the way that such data is manipulated, all our finances would be in great shape if we could exclude major repayments and outgoings! If we move to the total numbers we see how misleading this is and on the way learn how much Greece pays on its debt.

Separate figures from Eurostat today showed Greece’s overall public finances were also in healthy shape, boasting a surplus of 0.7 per cent.

My point is that the number above poses a challenge to the view that surpluses on public finances are unreservedly a good thing. On their own they are often a good sign but we need to look at other signals such as the cost.

an economy which has shrunk more than 25 per cent since 2008.

The latest improvement in the public finances that the Institutions are so keen on has come at this price as the Greek statistics agency tells us.

The available seasonally adjusted data1 indicate that in the 4th quarter of 2016 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 1.2% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2016,

The basic lesson of Euro area austerity and the drive for a series of budget surpluses is that it led to a collapse of the economy that is ongoing. A sign of that is the way that the national debt to GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) ratio had risen to 179% at the end of 2016. Indeed if we return to the FT nothing appears to have been learnt.

As it stands, Greece is committed to hit a 3 per cent surplus target for a decade after the end of its rescue in 2018.

A perspective on the UK

A major difference in the UK experience has been that we have seen economic growth. Yes quarterly economic output was initially hit hard as quarterly GDP fell from a pre credit crunch peak of £433.7 billion to £406.3 billion but it has risen since to £470.5 billion. Whilst we saw out budget finances plunge into a substantial deficit the growth has helped us reduce that and in a type of timing irony we reduced it to the Maastricht Treaty maximum of 3% of GDP in 2016. This led to us finally having a smaller deficit than France which was driven by our better economic growth performance. Moving onto our national debt it was at 89.2% of GDP using the European measuring rod.

So the overall experience has been of an improvement except of course it has been much slower than that promised as we were supposed to have a budget surplus by now. Much of that was caused by the fact that the 2 UK governments back then ( Labour and then the Coalition) lived in a fantasy world where the UK economy would grow at 3% per annum whereas 2011 and 12 for example were well below that. Remember the phase when there were concerns about a “triple dip”? Added to that whilst there have been cuts and people affected overall UK austerity has meant more of a reduction in the rate of growth of government spending as opposed to outright cuts.

The fiscal year to 2017

This morning’s update confirms much of the above and let me jump to a signal which we look at as a measure of economic growth.

In the latest full financial year, central government received £674.1 billion in income; including £507.0 billion in taxes. This was around 6% more than in the previous financial year.

So we see that the situation here indicates economic growth although we need to subtract a bit over 1% for the pension related changes to some National Insurance contributions rates. So far so good.

If we move to expenditure then as we note that year started with very little inflation there were increases in real terms.

Over the same period, central government spent £698.6 billion; around 2% more than in the previous financial year.

The combination of the two led to better news for the UK as shown below.

This meant it had to borrow £52.0 billion; £20.0 billion less than in the previous financial year (April 2015 to March 2016).

Meaning that we are now comfortably within the Maastricht criteria for this.

Initial estimates indicate that in the financial year ending March 2017 (April 2016 to March 2017), the public sector borrowed £52.0 billion or 2.6% of gross domestic product (GDP).

Let me present the improvement in a way that is against one of the media themes of these times. The theme that we do not tax companies faces a reality that half of the annual improvement came from higher Corporation Tax revenue. Of course there are tax dodging companies around…….

What about March itself?

The latest monthly data was more of a disappointment.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) increased by £0.8 billion to £5.1 billion in March 2017, compared with March 2016;

There were several factors at play here and let me start with one which will be in the back ground as we see inflation rise. That is that debt costs in March rose by £700 million due presumably to higher RPI ( Retail Price Index) based repayments. In addition to this Income Tax revenues fell and VAT receipts only nudged higher.

Care is needed on the monthly data but we may be seeing another sign of UK economic growth fading a bit here. This is of course consistent with other data such as the way that annual retail sales growth fell to 1.7% in March.

National Debt

The UK uses its own measure of this which in an episode of the television series, Surprise! Surprise! gives an answer lower than the international standard.

Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) was £1,729.5 billion at the end of March 2017, equivalent to 86.6% of gross domestic product (GDP); an increase of £123.5 billion (or 3.0 percentage points as a ratio of GDP) on March 2016.

On its measure the Bank of England with its bank friendly policies is responsible for a debt burden of some 5.9% of GDP.

Comment

This has been a long journey for the UK economy and we have already travelled beyond the promised end point which was a budget surplus. On this road we have seen economic growth but also rises in our national debt. Whilst the establishment talk has been of headwinds there is very little talk of the role played but the very low-level of government bond yields which have been reinforced by £435 billion of purchases by the Bank of England. This was reinforced in 2015/16 by the lower rate of inflation which kept our index/inflation linked debt costs low. The inflation gains are currently being reversed.

As to the position now we face the probability of growth fading a bit in 2017 as real incomes are hit by higher inflation. This will slow any further improvement in the public finances which is a shame after a relatively good year. Let me finish by putting our national debt in perspective because is we use the official number it is some 2.6 years of tax revenue.

 

 

It is always about the banks or in central banker speak “The Precious”

If we look back over the credit crunch era we were told that bailing out the banks would lead us into a better future. The truth nearly a decade later in some cases ( Northern Rock in the UK) is that we see a situation where central banks have enormous balance sheets and low interest-rates dominate with the Euro area and Japan in particular having negative interest-rates. That is most odd in the Euro area as of course we have been told only this morning by the Purchasing Managers indices that growth in France and Germany is strong. So something has changed and is not quite right and if we look we see signs of trouble in the banking industry even after all the bailouts and accommodative monetary policy.

Royal Bank of Scotland

This has turned out to be the doppelgänger of the concept of the gift which keeps on giving. Each year we have had promises of recovery at RBS from whoever is in charge and each year that fades to then be replaced by the same in a so far endless cycle.  Rather like Greece actually. Also the original promise of the UK taxpayer getting their money back seems further away than ever as the price of £2.40 is less than half of what was paid back then. Quite an achievement when we see so many stock markets close to all time highs.

As to the economic effect well claims of benefits have had to face a stream of bad news of which there was more yesterday. From the BBC.

Hundreds of jobs will be lost following a decision to close almost 160 RBS and NatWest branches.

RBS blamed a “dramatic shift” in banking, with branch transactions falling 43% since 2010.

In the same period, online and mobile transactions have increased by more than 400%.

Whilst online and mobile transactions have plainly surged it is also true that all bad news is claimed as somebody else’s fault. If you have a zombie bank wallowing on then you will of course be affected by change especially in this sort of timeframe.

RBS remains still majority-owned by taxpayers following its multi-billion government bailout almost a decade ago.

If we look back to the UK motor industry bailouts were stopped because the business model no longer applied yet that critique seems to have been forgotten. I note that after of course a fair bit of economic pain the motor industry is producing record figures.

Co-op Bank

I wrote about the latest problems of this bank on the 13th of February and this morning I note we have a sort of official denial of trouble in the Financial Times.

Co-Operative Bank says “a number” of suitors have come forward since it announced plans to fin a buyer in February.

This gives rather a different picture to this from Sky News on Tuesday.

Co-op Bank bonds have been trading at little more than 80p in the pound this week, underlining investors’ pessimism that a £400m repayment due in September will be made.

Talk is cheap but apparently those bonds are not cheap enough?! Easy money if you believe the hype especially at a time of low interest-rates and yields.

But you see I warned about this back in February.

The problem in my opinion is that when a bank has trouble the record is simply that so far we have never been told the full truth at the beginning.

And note this from Sky News.

One insider said the Bank of England had hosted a meeting last week at which the Co-op Bank’s problematic pension schemes had been discussed.

The losses of £477 million last year and the announced need for £750 million should there not be a sale are hardly good portents. Back in February I feared the Bank of England might find itself stepping in and that danger has increased in the meantime.

Portugal

My eyes were drawn to this yesterday from Patricia Kowsman of the Wall Street Journal.

Portugal state-owned bank raises EUR500M carrying hefty 10.75% interest. Says 49% of buyers asset managers, 41% hedge funds. Majority in UK.

In these times an interest-rate of 10.75% is extraordinary for a state-owned bank and compares to a ten-year bond yield for Portugal that has been around 4% for a while. Why might this be so?

Also on Wednesday, a group of major international investors that suffered losses on Novo Banco’s senior bonds issued a warning to the Portuguese authorities and indicated that an agreement to minimize those losses would be beneficial to the country. The group, led by BlackRock and PIMCO, said Portugal and Portuguese banks continue to pay the Bank of Portugal’s decision to transfer obligations from the New Bank to BES ‘bad’ at the end of 2015.( Economia)

So a past bailout has caused what Taylor Swift would call “trouble,trouble, trouble” and if we return to Patricia the record of Caixa Geral de Depósitos has been very poor.

Well, it’s a state-owned bank that had a EUR1.86B loss last year, big NPLs, in a country with a v weak banking system ( NPLs are Non Performing Loans)

We find ourselves in a situation where a past bailout ( BES) have made life more difficult for a current one and the Portuguese taxpayer ends up being held over a barrel especially after the European Commission declared this.

CGD will also take actions to further strengthen its capital position from private sources

This bit raised a wry smile.

the Commission analysed the injection of €2.5 billion of new equity into CGD by Portugal and found that it generates a sufficient return that a private investor would have accepted as well.

Can they see the future now? Shall we call it forward guidance…..

Italy

Speaking of forward guidance around this time last year Finance Minister Padoan was telling us that bailouts were not going to be required for Italy’s banks and Prime Minister Renzi was telling us what a good investment the shares of Monte Paschi were. Anyway if we move to this Wednesday Reuters were reporting this.

Italy’s plans to bail out two regional banks pose a tough dilemma to European regulators, who are still considering whether Monte dei Paschi qualifies for state aid, three months after giving a preliminary green light.

Banca Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca said

If they hang on long enough with Monte dei Paschi maybe something will turn up. Oh and there is Unicredit the largest bank which I called a zombie on Sky News about five years ago. It is issuing another 13 billion Euros of shares which further dilutes shareholders who of course have had to dig deep into their pockets before. Also there were plenty of rumours that it was a big recipient from the ECB TLTRO ( cheap money for banks) this week. Looking more generally Frederik Ducrozet of  Bank Pictet thought this.

Extrapolating from the share of each country in previous operations, Italy and Spain would account for at least 60% of total TLTROs holdings.

Greece

The official mantra has been along the lines of D-Ream’s “Things can only get better” and yet this happened this week. From the Bank of Greece.

On 22 March 2017 the Governing Council of the ECB did not object to an ELA-ceiling for Greek banks of €46.6 billion, up to and including Wednesday, 5 April 2017, following a request by the Bank of Greece.

The increase of €0.4 billion in the ceiling reflects developments in the liquidity situation of Greek banks, taking into account private sector deposits flows.

In a situation where we keep being told the Greek economy is improving?

Comment

This is like an economic version of the never-ending story. Proclamations of success and triumph are followed by “move along please, nothing to see here” and then well you know! In addition to the bailouts there are other schemes to help the banks. For example the cheap loans offered by the Bank of England under its Term Funding Scheme have now reached some £47.25 billion. If we move to Europe I note that Bank Pictet think this.

In aggregate, the maximum subsidy from those long-term loans at a negative rate is EUR3bn on an annual basis, compared with a total cost of the ECB’s negative deposit rate of around EUR5.5bn (a number that will grow to over EUR8bn as QE continues).

As you can see some of it is hidden or to be more precise not generally known. The biggest critique is simply the “lost decade” for the banking sector we seem trapped in and we learnt explicitly from the chief economist of the Bank of England earlier this week that different rules apply to his “Precious”. From Chris Giles of the Financial Times.

why does the chief econ of BoE think banks accounting for a third of the productivity puzzle is peanuts?

When people look away though banks seem to return to type.

Credit Suisse Group AG increased its bonus pool 6 percent…….The bank is increasing its bonus pool for the first time since 2013 in spite of a second consecutive annual loss.

 

Reuters

After posting this I note that a long post from Reuters has a different perspective to mine.

Banks used to have a cosy relationship with Britain’s government. Now they say they are struggling to be heard as the country prepares to leave the EU…….

 

Or perhaps not albeit from a different corner.

Senior bankers expected special treatment from the government after Britain voted to leave the EU. They expected ministers to champion their cause, above other industries,

 

 

The claims of Grecovery turned into a continuing economic depression for Greece

Today has started with something that has become all to familiar over the past 7 or so years. From Kathimerini.

Greek farmers protesting against bailout-related income cuts are clashing with riot police outside the agriculture ministry in central Athens.

Police fired tear gas to prevent farmers from forcing their way into the ministry building, while protesters responded by throwing stones.

This is of course the human side of the austerity regime which has been applied to Greece again and again and again.

Protesters are angry at increases in their tax and social security contributions, part of the income and spending cuts Greece’s left-led government has implemented to meet bailout creditor-demanded budget targets.

Yet sadly there is also a theme where some as in those at the higher echelons of society are more equal than others. From Keep Talking Greece.

Greece’s ministers, lawmakers, mayors and other high-ranking public officials are able to enjoy generous tax reductions reaching up to 2,000 euros per year.

Even worse this was tucked away in a 2016 bill which did this.

The provision was included in the law to decrease or even cut the poverty allowance to thousands of low-pensioners.

Many of the problems could have been avoided if Greece had found a way to tax the wealthy. Yet they seem to continue on their not very merry way.

It appears that the former head of gas grid operator DESFA, Sotiris Nikas, granted himself a promotion that boosted his retirement lump sum by 100,000 euros to 258,000 euros, ( Kathimerini)

What about economic growth?

There was a familiar pattern to those who have followed the Greek economic depression as  From Keep Talking Greece.

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

Reality was not a friend to Mr. Tsipras as soon after the Greek statistics office released this.

The available seasonally adjusted data1 indicate that in the 4th quarter of 2016 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 1.2% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2016, against the decrease of 0.4% that was announced for the flash estimate

Which meant this.

In comparison with the 4th quarter of 2015, it decreased by 1.1% against the increase of 0.3% that was announced for the flash estimate of the 4th quarter.

If we look at the pattern then it has turned out to be what economists call an “L” shaped recovery or in fact no recovery at all. What I mean by this is that the Greek economy as measured by GDP (2010 prices) peaked at 63.3 billion Euros as the output for the second quarter of 2007 and then fell to  46 billion Euros per quarter as 2013 started and is still there. Remember all those who proclaimed that so-called “Grecovery” was just around the corner? Well it was a straight road and in fact had a gentle decline as the latest quarter had a GDP of 45.8 billion Euros. Thus the Greek economic depression over the last decade has involved a contraction of economic output of 28%.

If you prefer that in chart form here it is.

Yet the Institutions as the Troika are now called stick their collective heads in the sand.From Amna on the 7th of February.

The recent IMF report saying that Greece’s debt load is unsustainable was “unnecessarily pessimistic,” Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem said on Tuesday.

The banks

Where an economy is really in trouble then we can find a banking system which has had a type of heart attack and the Greek banking system did as Kathimerini points out.

the huge pool of NPLs ( Non Performing Loans) in Greece that now add up to 107 billion euros after their increase by 1.5 billion in the first couple of months of 2017.

As to the deposits in the banks they have yet to regain the losses of 2015. Care is needed about the many claims that bank deposits have plunged again as the numbers has seen some ch-ch-changes with the order of 6 billion Euros removed. Any way the recent peak at 179.1 billion Euros for domestic residents the the summer of 2014 compares with 130..9 billion Euros in January.

The main growth industry for Greek banks seems to be this.

Eurobank Financial Planning Services (FPS), is the second bad-loan management firm to obtain a license from the Greek authorities to operate in the local market. It follows the permit issued to Cepal, a joint venture by Alpha Bank and Aktua.

On my way to looking at past house prices I found the Bank of Greece 2008 Interim Report which told us this.

the Greek banking system remains fundamentally sound, safe and stable.

Oh and this.

In the euro area, the situation is less worrying than in the United States as far as financial stability is concerned; however, risks of a deterioration do exist.

House prices

It was only yesterday I was looking at the central role of house prices in the UK economy but in spite of a barrage of measures the ECB ( European Central Bank) has failed to influence them much at all.

According to data collected from credit institutions, nominal apartment prices are estimated to have declined marginally on average by 0.6% year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2016, whilst in 2016 as a whole apartment prices fell on average by 2.2%, compared with an average drop of 5.1% in 2015. ( Bank of Greece )

Ironically that is the sort of medicine which would benefit the UK but for Greece there has been another feature of the economic depression where “apartment prices” have fallen by 40% since 2007.

The shadow economy

The shadow or unrecorded economy has seen a few name changes in recent times but I have been trying to find out more about it in Greece since the crisis began. Yesterday there was a flash of light from Bloomberg.

When Maria’s employer, a large communications company in Athens, gave her additional tasks at one of its new units, it told her she wouldn’t be paid for the work in euros.

“I was informed that this extra payment of 150 euros per month would be in coupons that I can use in supermarkets,” said the 45-year-old, declining to provide her last name for fear of losing her job.

So as the austerity grip tightens more slips through the net.

Payments in kind are among practices companies are using in Greece as they seek to cap payroll costs, undermining efforts to balance the books of the country’s cash-strapped social security system………By some estimates, the so-called black market already accounts for as much as a quarter of Greece’s economy.

What we would like to know is how much the size of the shadow economy has grown. The fact that it has grown seems beyond doubt but how much?

Comment

As the Greek economic depression heads towards the decade mark where even “lost decade” simply does not cut it there have been many themes. A sad one I found in the 2008 Bank of Greece report which told us about structural reform, yes the same structural reform that is still being promised now.

Some time ago I wrote about the “Roads To Nowhere” in Portugal which were empty because of the high tolls charged. Well here is a view on Greece.

It’s often cheaper to fly to Berlin than pay the road tolls for a small car from Thessaloniki (Greece’s 2nd city) to Athens…….The insanely priced and ever growing road toll network in Greece is a major drag on economic development.Roads too expensive for many to use (h/t @teacherdude )

International Women’s Day

Let me mark this with the exchange between Sarah Jane of Sky News and Lord Heseltine.

Lord Heseltine: ‘She’s got a man-sized job to do’ : ‘It’s a woman-size job now’ ( about Prime Minster Theresa May)

This led to some humour from Charlie Reynolds

If I was Michael Heseltine’s mother’s dog I’d watch my step today

 

 

 

 

Greece meets its final countdown one more time

A constant sad theme of this website has been the way that Greece got into economic trouble and then had a so-called “shock and awe” rescue which made everything worse and plunged it into what can now be called a great depression. Last week’s official national accounts detail just continued the gloom.

The available seasonally adjusted data indicate that in the 4 th quarter of 2016 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 0.4% in comparison with the 3 rd quarter of 2016, while it increased by 0.3% in comparison with the 4 th quarter of 2015.

I pointed out last week that the trumpeting of European Commissioner Moscovici only a day before was in very bad taste.

After returning to growth in 2016, economic activity in is expected to expand strongly in 2017-18.

You see Monsieur Moscovici and his colleagues have a serial record of saying a recovery is just around the corner. For example the 0.3% annual increase in GDP compares with 2.9% forecast in the spring of 2015.  There is a familiar theme here because if we look at the forecasts from the spring of 2016 they forecast more or less the same ( 2.7%) for 2017. This repeated failure where an optimistic forecast bears no relationship to reality has gone on since 2012 which was when the original 2010 bailout forecasts told us Greece would return to economic growth and from 2013 onwards would grow by you’ve guessed it by 2%+ per annum. As PM Dawn told us.

Reality used to be a friend of mine
Reality used to be a friend of mine
Maybe “why?” is the question that’s on you mind
But reality used to be a friend of mine.

The truth was that Greece had to be forecast as growing as otherwise the national debt numbers would look out of control and could not be forecast to be 120% of GDP in 2020. That was a farcical benchmark which exploded as it was chosen so as not to embarrass Portugal and Italy who cruised through it anyway. Greece of course blasted through it and the major reason was the economic depression.

The Great Depression

I will keep this simple so GDP in the third quarter of 2008 was the peak for Greece at 60.8 billion Euros and at the end of 2016 it was 44.1 billion Euros. So a decline of 27.5% which certainly qualifies as a Great Depression.

Austerity

Macropolis has pointed out the scale of the austerity applied to Greece and let us start with taxes.

The Greek economy has been burdened with 35.6 billion euros in all sorts of taxes on income, consumption, duties, stamps, corporate taxation and increases in social security contributions. When totting all this up, it is remarkable that the economy still manages to function.

Of course you could easily argue that in more than a few respects it does not function as we switch to the expenditure or spending ledger.

During the same period, the state has also found savings of 37.4 billion euros from cutting salaries, pensions, benefits and operational expenses.

So 5 months worth of economic output at current levels. Also like a dog chasing its tail they cry has gone up for what can be called “Moar, moar”.

The IMF’s Thomsen, now the director of its European Department, recently argued that Greece doesn’t need any more austerity but brave policy implementation. Somehow, though, the discussion has ended up being about finding another 3.5 billion euros in taxes and cuts to pension spending.

Of course dog’s have the intelligence to eventually tire of chasing their tale whereas the Euro area establishment continue with the same old song.

The official view

The ESM or European Stability Mechanism is the main supplier of finance to Greece these days and its head Klaus Regling has this on repeat.

Then, public creditors eased lending conditions significantly. This reduced the economic value of the country’s debt by around 40 per cent. As a result, Greece enjoys budgetary savings of about €8 billion annually — the equivalent of about 4.5 per cent of gross domestic product — and will continue to do so for years to come.

Sometimes what is true can be misleading. You see it is summed up in the word timing. Greece had an austerity program front loaded onto it and it was hit hard by it as I have described. Later the Euro area changed tack and made the loans much cheaper but by then it was too late as Greece was plunging into an economic depression at a rate exceeding 8% per annum in 2011 and much of 2012.

In spite of the calamitous situation Klaus told the Financial Times in late January  that the future was bright.

Greek debt levels are no longer cause for alarm

Of course Klaus has to churn out such a line in an attempt to distract attention from this.

The European Financial Stability Facility and the European Stability Mechanism, the eurozone’s rescue funds, have disbursed €174 billion to Greece.

This brings me to a point where Bloomberg are to some extent peddling what might be labelled fake news today.

The 2-year yield is now 180 basis points higher than the 10-year yield

You see Greek bond yield twitter if I may put it like that refers to something which exists but is not the source of funding for Greece any more a reflects a market which as I have pointed out many times barely trades. Even Bloomberg points this out.

volumes are low, with just 26 million euros trading during January on the inter-dealer platform.

With volumes so low it is easy for those with vested interests to manipulate such a market.

Trouble ahead

Where a crunch can come is when a bond needs redeeming. This is where all the proclamations to triumph and success met a hard reality of a lack of cash or another form of credit crunch. Eyes are already turning to July on that front.

Greece faces a few maturities in the coming months, but the heavy lifting is in July, when 6.2 billion euros of debt matures.

This is the capital issue I highlighted on the 30th of January.

We can bring in that poor battered can now because the Euro area and the IMF thought they had kicked it far enough into the future not to matter whereas the IMF is now having second thoughts.

The Euro area can talk all it likes about interest repayments but this ignores the fact that it cannot repay the capital which might make Euro area taxpayers mull another of the promises of Klaus Regling.

We would not have lent this amount if we did not think we would get our money back.

In a couple of months time another 1.4 billion Euros is due. This is owed to the ECB and we know that the first rule of it’s debt fight club is that every last cent must be repaid.

The IMF

My theme about the IMF has been that it has been twisted by politicians so that it no longer is an institution dealing with trade balance problems. The Greek data for 2016 bear this out as with all the improvements Greece should be exporting more especially as many of its economic partners had a better economic year.

The total value of exports-dispatches, for the 12-month period from January to December 2016 amounted to 25,411.4 million euros (28,198.4 million dollars) in comparison with 25,879.3 million euros (28,776.8 million dollars) for the corresponding period of the year 2015, recording a drop, in euros, of 1.8%

So simply no as we mull again the lack of economic reform in Greece and note that the trade issue got worse and not better.

The deficit of the Trade Balance, for the 12-month period from January to December 2016 amounted to 18,551.2 million euros (20,310.3 million dollars) in comparison with 17,745.3 million euros (19,439.6 million dollars) for the corresponding period of the year 2015, recording an increase, in euros, of 4.5%.

Comment

Today’s Eurogroup meeting in Greece is being badged as a “last chance saloon” which of course is a phrase that long ago went into my financial lexicon for these times as it occurs so regularly. Still did the band Europe know how much free publicity the future would provide for their biggest hit?

It’s the final countdown.
The final countdown

Meanwhile as its economic prospects are kicked around like a football Greece itself is pretty much a bystander. If only it was a final countdown to a default and devaluation meaning it would leave the Euro. Meanwhile some reports are bizarre as this from the fast FT twitter feed last week proves.

Greece made a stunning exit from three years of deflation and low price growth in January

Greek workers and consumers however will be rueing any rises in prices as we wonder how higher prices in the UK can be a disaster according to the FT but higher prices in Greece are “stunning”?

Podcasts

I have been running a private trial of putting these updates out as podcasts as the world continues to change and move on. I thought I would ask how many of you use podcasts?

Greece is drowning under all the debt its “rescue” brought

After looking at the recent economic success of Spain on Friday, which was confirmed this morning by the official data showing 3.2% GDP growth in 2016 it is time to look at the other side of the Euro area coin. This is a situation that continues to be described by one of the songs of Elton John.

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

This is the situation facing Greece which is on its way back into the news headlines after of course another sequence of headlines proclaiming a combination of triumph and improvement. What is triggering this is some new analysis from the IMF or International Monetary fund and it is all about the debt burden. It is hard not to have a wry smile at this as the IMF has been telling us the burden is sustainable for quite some time in spite of it obviously not being so as I have regularly pointed out in here.

The IMF analysis

The Financial Times has summarised it like this.

Greece faces what is likely to be an “explosive” surge in its public debt levels that within decades will mean it will owe almost three times the country’s annual economic output unless given significant debt relief, the International Monetary Fund has warned in a confidential report.

Not that confidential then! Or perhaps conforming to the definition of it in Yes Prime Minister. Worrying after some better news in relative terms from the World Economic Forum suggesting that Greece was a lot further down the list of national debt per person (capita) than you might think. Japan of course was at the head at US $85.7k per person and intriguingly Ireland second at US $67.1k per person but Greece was a fair way down the list at US $32.1k each. Of course it’s problem is relative to the size of its economic output or GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

If we look at the detail of the IMF report it speaks for itself.

The fund calculated that Greece’s debt load would reach 170 per cent of gross domestic product by 2020 and 164 per cent by 2022, “but become explosive thereafter” and grow to 275 per cent of GDP by 2060.

If we switch to Kathimerini we find out the driving force of the deterioration in the debt sustainability analysis.

Greece’s gross financing needs are estimated at less than 20 percent of GDP until 2031 but after that they skyrocket to 33 percent in 2040 and then to 62 percent by 2060.

If we step back for some perspective here we see confirmation of one of my main themes on Greece. This has been that the debt relief measures have made the interest burden lighter but have done nothing about the capital debt burden which has in fact increased in spite of the PSI private-sector debt reprofiling. We can bring in that poor battered can now because the Euro area and the IMF thought they had kicked it far enough into the future not to matter whereas the IMF is now having second thoughts. In short it has looked at the future and decided that it looks none too bright.

The crux of the matter is the amount of the austerity burden that Greece can bear going forwards. Back in May 2016 the IMF expressed its concerns of future economic growth.

Against this background, staff has lowered its long-term growth assumption to 1¼ percent, even as over the medium-term growth is expected to rebound more strongly as the output gap closes.

That will do nothing for the debt burden and will have been entwined with the extraordinary amount of austerity required under the current plans.

This suggests that it is unrealistic to assume that Greece can undertake the additional adjustment of 4½ percent of GDP needed to base the DSA on a primary surplus of 3½ percent of GDP.

As an alternative the IMF suggested something of a relaxation presumably in the hope that Greece could then sustain a higher economic growth rate.

The Euro area view

This was represented last week by Klaus Regling of the European Stability Mechanism or ESM.

I think it’s really important for Greece because it will reduce interest rate risk and improve Greek debt sustainability.

What was that Klaus?

we are dealing here with a bond exchange, where floating rate notes disbursed by the ESM and EFSF to Greece for bank recapitalisation will be exchanged for fixed coupon notes. There are measures related to swap arrangements that will reduce the risk that Greece will have to pay a higher interest rate on its loans when market rates go up………In addition, the EFSF waived the step-up interest rate margin for the year 2017 on a particular loan tranche. A margin of 2% had originally been foreseen, to be paid from 2017 on.

As you can see each time Greece is supposed to pay more they discover it cannot and we need more “short-term” measures which according to Klaus will achieve this.

All this will go a long way in easing the debt burden for Greece over time, according to our debt sustainability analysis. It could lead to a cumulative reduction of the Greek debt to GDP ratio of around 20 percentage points over the time horizon until 2060.

It does not seem a lot when you look at the IMF numbers does it. Also Euro area ministers repeated something which they have said pretty much every year of the crisis, from the FT.

Mr Dijsselbloem, who is also the Dutch finance minister, said that Greece was recovering faster than anyone expected.

Really? What was that about fake news again?

Retail Sales

We can learn a lot from these numbers and let us start with some badly needed good news.

The overall volume index in retail trade (i.e. turnover in retail trade at constant prices) in November 2016, recorded an increase of 3.6%.

Although sadly some of the gloss fades when we note this.

The seasonally adjusted overall volume index in November 2016 compared with the corresponding index  of October 2016 recorded a decrease of 0.2%.

So overall a welcome year on year rise and the strongest category was books and stationery. However perspective is provided if we look at the index which is at 69.7 where 2010 was 100. As that sinks in you get a true idea of the economic depression that has raged in Greece over the period of the “rescue” and the “bailout”. Most chilling of all is that the food beverages and tobacco index is at 55.6 on the same basis leaving us with the thin hope that the Greeks have given up smoking and fizzy drinks.

Also it is far from reassuring to see the European Commission release consumer confidence data for Greece indicating a fall of 3.4 to 67.8.

Comment

There is much to consider here but we find ourselves looking back to the Private-Sector Initiative or debt relief of 2012. I stated back then that the official bodies such as the ECB and IMF needed to be involved as well because they owned so much of the debt. It did not happen because the ECB said “over my dead body” and as shown below what were then called the Troika but are now called the Institutions pursued a course of fake news.

Thanks to Michael Kosmides of CNN Greece who sent me that chart. As we note the fake news let me give you another warning which is that Greece these days depends on its official creditors so news like this from Bloomberg last week is much less relevant than it once was.

The yield on Greece’s two-year bonds surged 58 basis points to 7.47 percent, while those on benchmark 10-year bonds rose 22 basis points to 7.13 percent as of 2:41 p.m in London.

The real issue is that Greece desperately needs economic growth and lots of it. As I pointed out on December 16th.

Compared to when she ( Christine Lagarde of the IMF) and her colleagues were already boasting about future success, the Greek economy has shrunk by 19%, which means that the total credit crunch contraction became 26%

 

 

 

What should we do about the International Monetary Fund?

Yesterday’s events give us an opportunity to look again at one of the longest-running themes of my writing on here. This is the role of the IMF and to do so I would like to take you back to the 8th of June 2010 when I pointed out this.

1. It has plainly changed from an organisation which helps with balance of payments problems to one which helps with fiscal deficits. Whilst this may suit politicians, taxpayers and voters should in my view be concerned about the moral hazard of one group of politicians voting to increase funds available to help another group of politicians which may include themselves.

This was my response back then to the way that the Dominique Strauss-Khan who was Managing Director of the IMF at the time allowed it to get involved in the Euro area crisis. There was an obvious issue in a French politician doing this and of course the IMF has continued with French political heads. It worried me at the time on various grounds one of which was that poor third world countries were in essence financing a bailout of a much wealthier area overall which could afford to collectively pay for it. In my opinion the reason for this was that whilst Euro area political leaders ( including the French Finance Minister at the time one Christine Lagarde) were proclaiming “shock and awe” in fact the Euro area response was a mess. The so-called rescue vehicle the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) was anything but which my updates from back then show. Over time they have proved this as it was later replaced with the European Stability Mechanism or ESM.

But the fundamental point here was that a modus operandi which involved balance of payments problems was replaced by a fiscal one. This line could be covered up to some extent in Greece as it also had a balance of payments problem but not for example in Ireland which has surpluses pretty much as often as the UK has deficits!

Greece

This of course has been a debacle for the IMF where whatever reputation it had for economic competence has come a cropper as Greece was plunged even further into recession and in fact has yet to emerge from the economic depression created. This contrasts with the official view which I pointed out on March 30th of this year.

but from 2012 onward, improved market confidence, a return to credit markets, and comprehensive structural reforms, are expected to lead to a rebound in growth.

There was supposed to be economic growth starting in 2012 and then running at around 2.1% for two years and then pick-up to 2.7% in 2015.. Then once that obviously did not happen we got the “Grecovery” theme which did not happen either. Along the way we got a “mea culpa” from the IMF as well as something of a hand brake turn as the advocate of austerity became a fan of fiscal deficits.

However something was wrong and at least some in the IMF knew it’ Let me take you back again to the 8th of June 2010.

Mr.Boutros-Ghali (Egypt’s Finance Minister) went on to give us some idea of one of the areas he feels that trouble and hence further demands for funds might come from. He told the Reuters news agency that Greece’s problems were not over yet and there were doubts about its ability to implement the reforms demanded by the IMF and European Union in return for a 110 billion euro aid package.

 

“We are not out of the woods,” he said in the interview. “The measures they have been required to implement are fairly tough. And there are in some areas doubts whether they are able to continue implementing such tough measures.”

He was of course correct and it is a sad indictment of these times that official sources are still claiming progress on reforms when reality has been very different. After all Greece would not be in the state it is in if they had worked or even been applied. In my opinion there is something worse than the mistakes which is the way that there has been deliberate dissembling and misrepresentation of not only what is going to happen but what is happening at the time.

The implication that the IMF is free

Another feature of IMF aid is the way that it is presented as a type of SPV and sadly not the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle driven mostly by Captain Blue in my and many other’s childhoods. These official SPVs ( such as the EFSF) are off-balance sheet vehicles which allow politicians to obfuscate about the state of play. Back to June 8th 2010 again.

Politicians should stop implying that the help provided by the IMF is in effect free. For example US Treasury Secretary Geithner suggested that moves to expand the IMF “wouldn’t cost a dime”. This is one of those superficially true statements that are very dangerous. If you are liable for something it does not cost anything until it goes wrong. Just to quote the IMF itself there are “doubts” over Greece. Any proper accounting system allows for the possibility of things going wrong. After the experience of the last two years we should know the implication of sticking your head in the sand like an ostrich and assuming there are no problems around…

In other words it is presented as “free” until it isn’t at which point phrases such as “this could not have been reasonably expected” and words such as “counterfactual” are deployed as weapons. Missing from the conversation is how people who were are regularly told are so intelligent and thus need to be paid highly have been wrong again! This of course brings us to the concept of responsibility.

Christine Lagarde

I have been critical of the IMF’s Managing Director quite a few times on the grounds that she has been intimately involved with the disastrous bailout of Greece via her roles as French Finance Minister and Managing Director of the IMF. Not everyone has spotted this as the Financial Time has proved this morning as it reviews her.

a blow to her previously unblemished reputation for managerial competence

But even the FT which appears ever keen to stand firmly behind any establishment vehicle has to admit this.

A conviction for negligence is somewhat at odds with a commitment to “the highest standards of efficiency and technical competence”.

Mind you perhaps something in the past has influenced this.

The Financial Times therefore argued earlier this year that she deserved reappointment for a second term on merit.

Is negligence the new definition of merit? I will have to update my financial lexicon for these times. This next bit is full on internal contradictions and effectively self-critiques.

It found her guilty of negligence because she did not appeal against the eventual decision — but it has not imposed any sentence, and the verdict will not result in a criminal record. Short of full exoneration, this is the mildest possible verdict.

This is an unusual verdict from an unusual court. Politicians who sit on the special tribunal may well have wished to avoid a tougher ruling that would have deterred ministers from making delicate decisions in future.

Comment

There are a litany of issues here. We see yet again that the more important you are the less you are apparently responsible for anything. Someone lower down the scale would have received punishment if they had been found guilty of negligence yet the leader of the world’s major financial organisation apparently can shrug it off. Punishment is for the little people only it would seem.

This leaves the IMF as a whole in an even bigger hole. As the economic world shifts east towards places like India and China it looks ever more like a western and to some extent French fiefdom. At the same time more of its bailouts have gone rogue of which Greece is the most extreme example. The worst part is the way that this is all covered-up and the truth is bent and miss shaped.

The only hope we have is that this statement from the IMF turns out to be like one about a manager from a football club’s board of directors.

In this context, the Executive Board reaffirms its full confidence in the Managing Director’s ability to continue to effectively carry out her duties.

Oh and “outstanding leadership” also needs to go into my financial lexicon for these times. Although we do need perhaps to go through the Looking Glass of Lewis Carroll.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”