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

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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.

 

 

A bond issue does little for the problem of plunging investment in Greece

Today brings a development which will no doubt be trumpeted across the media and it is explained by this from Reuters yesterday,

Greece will return to bond markets with a five-year issue “in the near future, subject to market conditions”, authorities said on Monday.

The sovereign has mandated BofA Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs International Bank, HSBC, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley and SG CIB as joint lead managers for the transaction, according to a regulatory filing to the stock exchange.

The near future is today as we mull that in spite of its role in the Greek economic crisis Goldman Sachs is like the Barnacles in the writings of Charles Dickens as it is always on the scene where money is involved. As to why this is happening the Wall Street Journal explains.

Greece‘s borrowing costs have dropped to a four-month low, and Athens plans to raise up to $3.4 billion in a bond sale.

Although it is not turning out to be quite as cheap as the 3.5% hoped for.

Greece Opens Books For New 5 Year Bond, Initial Guidance For Yield 3.75-3.875% – RTRS Source ( @LiveSquawk)

Why are investors buying this?

The obvious objection is the default history of Greece but in these times of ultra low yields ~3.8% is not be sniffed at. This is added to by the Euro area slow down which could provoke more ECB QE and whilst Greece does not currently qualify it might as time passes. In the mean time you collect 3.8% per annum.

Why is Greece offering it?

This is much more awkward for the politicians and media who trumpet the deal because it is a bad deal in terms of financing for Greece. It has been able to borrow off the European Stability Mechanism at not much more than 1% yield for some time now. Actually its website suggests it has been even cheaper than that.

0.9992% Average interest rate charged by ESM on loans (Q1 2018)

Past borrowing was more expensive so the overall ESM average is according to it 1.62%. So Greece is paying a bit more than 2% on the average cost of borrowing from the ESM which is hardly a triumph. Even worse the money will have to be borrowed again in five years time whereas the average ESM maturity is 32 years ( and may yet be an example of To Infinity! And Beyond!).

So there is some grandstanding about this but the real reason is escaping from what used to be called the Troika and is now called the Institutions. The fact the name had to be changed is revealing in itself and I can understand why Greece would want to step away from that episode.
As we move on let me remind you that Greece has borrowed some 203.8 billion Euros from the ESM and its predecessor the EFSF.

The economy

We can see why the Greek government wants to establish its ability to issue debt and stay out of the grasp of the institutions as we note this from Kathimerini.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced an 11 percent increase in the minimum wage during a cabinet meeting on Monday, the first such wage hike in the country in almost a decade.

Actually the sums are small.

The hike will raise the minimum wage from 586 to 650 euros and is expected to affect 600,000 employees. He also said the government will scrap the so-called subminimum wage of 518 euros paid to young employees.

There are two catches here I think. Firstly in some ways Greece is competing with the Balkan nations which have much lower average wages than we are used to. Also this reverses the so-called internal competitiveness model.

The standard mimimum monthly wage was slashed by 22 percent to 586 euros in 2012, when Greece was struggling to emerge from a recession.

A deeper cut was imposed on workers below 25 years, as part of measures prescribed by international lenders to make the labour market more flexible and the economy more competitive.

Productivity

Here we find something really rather awkward which in some ways justifies the description of economics as the dismal science. Let me start with a welcome development which is the one below.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in October 2018 was 18.6% compared to 21.0% in October 2017 and 18.6% in September 2018 ( Greece Statistics Office)

But the improving labour market has not been matched by developments elsewhere as highlighted by this.

we documented that employment had started to lead output growth in the early days of the SYRIZA government. Since such a policy is unsustainable, we have to include in any consistent outlook that this process reverses and output starts leading employment again – hence restoring positive productivity growth. ( Kathimerini)

That led me to look at his numbers and productivity growth plunged to nearly -5% in 2015 and was still at an annual rate of -3% in early 2016. Whilst he says we “have to include” an improvement the reality is that it has not happened yet as this year has seen two better quarters and one weaker one. We have seen employment indicators be the first sign of a turn in an economy before but they normally take a year or so to be followed by the output indicator not three years plus. This reminds us that Greek economic growth is nothing to write home about.

The available seasonally adjusted data
indicate that in the 3rd quarter of 2018 the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) in volume terms increased by 1.0% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2018, while
in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2017, it increased by 2.2%.

If it could keep up a quarterly rate of 1% that would be something but the annual rate is in the circumstances disappointing. After all the decline was from a quarterly GDP of 62 billion Euros at the peak in 2009 whereas it is now 51.5 billion. So the depression has been followed by only a weak recovery.

More debt

I looked at the woes of the Greek banks yesterday but in terms of the nation here is the Governor of the central bank from a speech last week pointing to yet another cost on the way to repairing their balance sheets

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

Comment

Whilst I welcome the fact that Greece has finally seen some economic growth the problem now is the outlook. The general Euro area background is not good and Greece has been helped by strong export growth currently running at 7.6%. There have to be questions about this heading forwards then there is the simply woeful investment record as shown by the latest national accounts.

Gross fixed capital formation (GFCF) decreased by 23.2% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2017.

The scale of the issue was explained by the Governor of the central bank in the speech I referred to earlier.

However, in order to increase the capital stock and thus the potential output of the Greek economy, positive net capital investment is indispensable. For this to happen, private investment must grow by about 50% within the next few years. In other words, the Greek economy needs an investment shock, with a focus on the most productive and extrovert business investment, to avoid output hysteresis and foster a rebalancing of the growth model in favour of tradeable goods and services.

Yet as we stand with the banks still handicapped how can that happen? Also if we return to the productivity discussion at best it will have one hand tied behind its back by as the lack of investment leads to an ageing capital stock. So whilst the annual rate of economic growth may pick up at the end of 2018 as last year quarterly growth was only 0.2% I am worried about the prospects for 2019.

It should not be this way and those who created this deserve more than a few sleepless nights in my opinion.

Greece GDP growth is accompanied by weakening trade and falling investment

Let us take the opportunity to be able to look at some better news from Greece which came from its statistics office yesterday.

The available seasonally adjusted data indicate that in the 3
rd quarter of 2018 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms increased by 1.0% in comparison with the 2
nd quarter of 2018, while in comparison with the 3 rd quarter of 2017, it increased by 2.2%.

So Greece has achieved the economic growth level promised for 2012 in the original “shock and awe” plan of the spring of 2010. Or to be more specific regained it as the 1.3% growth of the second quarter of 2017 saw the annual growth rate rise to 2.5% at the opening of this year before falling to 1.7%. So far in 2018 Greece has bucked the Euro trend but in a good way as quarterly economic growth has gone 0.5%,0.4% and now 1%.

If we continue with the upbeat view there was this on Monday from the Markit PMI business survey of the manufacturing sector.

Greek manufacturing firms signalled renewed growth
momentum in November, with the PMI rising to a six month high. The solid overall improvement in operating
conditions was driven by stronger expansions in output and
new orders. That said, foreign demand was not as robust,
with new export order growth easing to a 14-month low.
Manufacturers increased their staffing numbers further
in November, buoyed by stronger production growth and
domestic client demand.

So starting from a basic level there is growth and it is better than the average for the Euro area with a reading of 54 compared to 51.8. Also there is hopeful news for an especially troubled area.

In line with stronger client demand, manufacturing firms
expanded their workforce numbers at the fastest pace for
three months. Moreover, the rate of job creation was one of
the quickest since data collection began in 1999

Concerns

If we move to the detail of the national accounts we see that even this level of growth comes with concerns.

Exports of goods and services increased by 2.8% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2018. Exports of goods increased by 1.0% while exports of services increased by 3.8%.

This looks good at this point for what was called the “internal devaluation” method where the Greek economy would become more price competitive via lower real wages. But it got swamped by this.

Imports of goods and services increased by 7.5% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2018. Imports of goods increased by 8.3% while imports of services increased by 2.2%.

If we look deeper we see that the picture over the past year is the same. We start with a story of increasing export growth looking good but it then gets swamped by import growth.

Exports of goods and services increased by 7.6% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2017. Exports of goods increased by 7.9%, and exports of services increased by 8.0%…… Imports of goods and services increased by 15.0% in comparison with the 3 rd quarter of 2017. Imports of goods increased by 15.0%, and imports of services increased by 16.0%.

This is problematic on two counts and the first one is the simple fact that a fair bit of the Greek problem was a trade issue and now I fear that for all the rhetoric the same problem is back. Perhaps that is why we are hearing calls for reform again. Are those the same reforms we have been told have been happening. Also I note a lot of places saying Greek economic growth has been driven by exports which is misleading. This is because it is the trade figures which go in and they are a drag on GDP due to higher import growth. We can say that Greece has been both a good Euro area and world member as trade growth has been strong over the past year but it has weakened itself in so doing.

Investment

An economy that is turning around and striding forwards should have investment growth yet we see this.

Gross fixed capital formation (GFCF) decreased by 14.5% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2018.

Ouch! Time for the annual comparison.

Gross fixed capital formation (GFCF) decreased by 23.2% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2017.

Whilst those numbers are recessionary as a stand-alone they would be signals of a potential depression but for the fact Greece is still stuck in the middle of the current one. For comparison Bank of England Governor Mark Carney asserted that UK investment is 16% lower than it would have otherwise have been after the EU Leave vote so Greece is much worse than even that.

There are issues here around the level of public investment and the squeeze applied to it to hit the fiscal surplus targets. If this from National Bank of Greece in September is to turn out to be correct then it had better get a move on.

A back-loading of the public investment programme, along with positive confidence effects, should provide an additional boost to GDP growth in the H2:2018,

What did grow then?

Rather oddly the other sectoral breakdown we are provided with shows another fall.

Total final consumption expenditure decreased by 0.2% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2018.

But the gang banger in all of this is the inventories category which grew by 1321 million Euros or if you prefer accounts for 2.4% quarterly GDP growth on its own. This is not exactly auspicious looking forwards as you can imagine unless there is about to be a surge in demand. The only caveat is that we do not get a chain-linked seasonally adjusted number.

Comment

As you can see there is plenty of food for thought in the latest GDP numbers for Greece.On the surface they look good but the detail is weaker and in some cases looks simply dreadful. That is before we get to the impact of the wider Euro area slow down. The problem with all of this is that of we look back rather than the 2.1% economic growth promised for 2012 Greece saw economic growth plunge into minus territory peaking twice at an annual rate of 10.2%. Or the previous GDP peak of 60.4 billlion Euros of the spring of 2009 has been replaced by 48 billion in the autumn of 2018.

Meanwhile after the claimed triumphs and reform and of course extra cash the banks look woeful. So of course out comes the magic wand. From the Bank of Greece.

The proposed scheme envisages the transfer
of a significant part of non-performing exposures
(NPEs) along with part of the deferred
tax credits (DTCs), which are booked on bank
balance sheets, to a Special Purpose Vehicle
(SPV). value (net of loan loss provisions). The
amount of the deferred tax asset to be transferred
will match additional loss, so that the
valuations of these loans will approach market
prices. Subsequently, legislation will be
introduced enabling to transform the transferred
deferred tax credit into an irrevocable
claim of the SPV on the Greek State with a
predetermined repayment schedule (according
to the maturity of the transaction).

More socialisation of losses?

 

What has happened to the Greek banks?

This week the Greek banking sector has returned to the newswires. You might think that after the storm and all the bailouts it might now be if not plain sailing at least calmer waters for it. Here is ForeignPolicy.com essentially singing along to “Happy days are here again”

The Greek banking sector has totally transformed as a result of the financial crisis. Legislation, restructuring and recapitalization have led to a sector that is now internationally recognized for its high capitalization levels and for substantial improvements in stability, governance and transparency. As Professor Nikolaos Karamouzis, Chairman of EFG Eurobank and Chairman of the Hellenic Bank Association, states, “we have been through four stress tests – no other system has been stressed as much.”

However even a view drizzled in honey could not avoid this issue.

“The question of non-performing loans in the Greek banking system is a crucial one”.
Panagiotis Roumeliotis, Chairman, Attica Bank…….About €30-35 billion is tied up in the large NPLs of some 100 companies, who are on the books of all the systemic banks.

The problem with taking sponsored content is that it steps into a universe far.far.away.

In a first for the country, Attica Bank recently securitized €1.3 billion of its bad loans. A move that could be copied by others and which its Chairman, Panagiotis Roumeliotis, says will make it “one of the healthiest banks in Greece.” Initiatives like this mean that the country’s targets for reducing NPLs are being met or exceeded.

Also I note a couple of numbers of which the first gives us perspective.

Another big challenge is recovery of deposits, which flew out of the country until restrictions were put in place in 2015. Since then, €8.5 billion has been repatriated.

Whilst that sounds a lot, compared to the decline it is not especially when we consider the time that had passed as the data here takes us to February 2017. Next comes some number crunching which is very useful for someone like me who argued all along for Greece to take the default and devalue route. Which just as a reminder was criticised by those in the establishment and their media supporters are likely to create a severe economic depression which their plan would avoid!

The 4 systemic banks have undergone 4 stress tests and 3 rounds of recapitalization since 2010, for close to €65 billion.

With all that money it is a good job they are so strong. Hold that thought please as we move to a universe beyond, far,far away.

Unlike the subprime banking crisis of other countries, the crisis in Greece wasn’t due to any particular problem in the sector. Rather, it was a consequence of the Greek sovereign debt crisis that created contagion. Coming out of that crisis, though, the sector has been transformed.

Someone seems to have forgotten all those non performing loans already.

Bringing this up to date

If we step forwards in time to the end of August suddenly we were no longer singing along to Sugar by Maroon 5. From Kathimeriini.

Greek banks Alpha and Eurobank posted weak second-quarter results on Thursday, with Alpha swinging to a loss and Eurobank barely profitable as both focus on shrinking their bad debt load.

So not exactly surging ahead and whilst the amount of support from the European Central Bank has reduced considerably we were reminded yesterday that the problem created in 2015 has not yet gone away.

On 9 October 2018 the Governing Council of the ECB did not object to an ELA-ceiling for Greek banks of €5.0 billion, up to and including Wednesday, 7 November 2018, following a request by the Bank of Greece.

The reduction of €0.2 billion in the ceiling reflects an improvement of the liquidity situation of Greek banks, taking into account flows stemming from private sector deposits and from the banks’ access to wholesale financial markets.

So that is good in terms of the reduction but as I pointed out above bad in that some is still required. After all Greece has now left its formal bailout albeit that the institutions still keep a very close watch on it. But even more significant was the next bit.

The ongoing improvement of the liquidity situation of Greek banks reflects the improved condition of the Greek financial system. The recent stock market developments in respect of the banking sector are not related to the soundness of Greek banks and are due to purely exogenous factors, such as rises in interest rates internationally and in Greece’s neighbouring countries in particular.”

We have learnt in the credit crunch era that the blame foreigners weapon is only deployed when things are pretty bad and a diversion is needed. Rather oddly the Financial Times seemed to be giving this some support.

The turbulent conditions have hit European banks across the continent, as declines in the value of banks’ holdings of Italian debt eat away at their capital base in a dangerous spiral known as the ‘doom loop’.

That applies to Italian banks yes and to some extent to others but I rather suspect we would know if Greek banks had been punting Italian bonds on any scale. Yesterday Kathimerini put the  state of play like this.

Greek banking stocks have lost more than 40 percent so far this year, and the selling pressure grew in recent days.

All rather different to the honey coated Foreign Policy article is it not? Also in the rush to blame others some genuine concerns are in danger of being overlooked.

. I disagree with the statement below Greek banks used 23% of their “real” Tier 1 capital reserves to support the reduction of NPEs. DTCs as a % of total regulatory capital are now ~75%. Banks “burned” EUR 6.6bn of “real” CET 1 capital to reduce their NPE’s by EUR 16.8bn. ( @mnicoletos on Twitter )

As you can see the argument here is that the Greek banks are finding that dealing with sour loans is beginning to burn through their capital. Using the numbers above suggests that each 1 Euro reduction in bad debts is costing around 40 cents. We do not know that will be the exact rate going forwards but if we take it as a broad brush suddenly the “high capitalization levels” look anything but and no doubt there are fears that the capital raising begging bowl will be doing the rounds again.

Piraeus Bank

This had tried to steal something of a march on the others but this from Reuters last week says it all.

Piraeus Bank  said plans to issue debt to bolster its capital were on track on Wednesday as Greece’s largest lender by assets faced a near 30 percent share price fall.

Quite why anyone would buy one if its bonds escapes me but that was and may even still be the plan.

Piraeus Bank’s restructuring plan, which it has submitted to supervisors at the European Central Bank, involves the issuance of debt, likely to be a Tier-2 bond, among other measures.

But if you are willing to take the red pill from The Matrix then maybe you might be a believer of this.

analysts said the 29.3 percent fall in its shares to 1.16 euros by 1020 GMT was the result of negative investor sentiment affecting the whole banking sector,

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here but let us do some number crunching. We can start with this from Kathimerini referring to yesterday’s report from Moody’s.

The ratings agency said asset quality remains the main challenge for local lenders, with assets at end-June adding up to 291 billion euros and NPEs at 89 billion euros.

So should the Non Performing Exposures eat up capital at the rate described above that would be another 35 billion Euros or so.  That of course is a very broad brush but one might reasonably think that troubles in that area might be much more of a cause of this than blaming Italy and Turkey.

The banks index has followed up its 24 percent slump in September with a fresh 15 percent decline in the first seven sessions in October, sending the capitalization of the four systemic banks below 5 billion euros between them, from 8.7 billion at the start of the year. ( Kathimerini )

So 69 billion Euros has been poured into them according to Foreign Policy and of course rising for them to be valued at less than 5 billion Euros? As to what they were worth well here you are.

 

Greece still faces a long hard road to end its economic depression

This morning has brought a development that many of you warned about in the comments section and it relates to Greece. So with a warning that I hope you have not just eaten let us begin.

You did it! Congratulations to Greece and its people on ending the programme of financial assistance. With huge efforts and European solidarity you seized the day. ( President Donald Tusk)

There was also this from the European Union Council.

“Greece has regained the control it fought for”, says Eurogroup President as today exits its financial assistance programme. 

There is an element of triumphalism here and that is what some of you warned about with the only caveat being that the first inkling of good news was supposed to be the cause whereas that is still in the mix. So there is an element of desperation about all of this. This is highlighted by the words of the largest creditor to Greece as the European Stability President Klaus Regling has said this and the emphasis is mine.

 We want Greece to be another success story, to be prosperous and a country trusted by investors. This can happen, provided Greece builds upon the progress achieved by continuing the reforms launched under the ESM programme.

What is the state of play?

It is important to remind ourselves as to what has happened in Greece because it is missing in the statements above and sadly the media seem to be mostly copying and pasting it. As you can imagine it made my blood boil as the business section of BBC Breakfast glibly assured us that a Grexit would have been a disaster. Meanwhile the reality is of an economy that has shrunk by around a quarter and an unemployment rate that even now is much more reminiscent of an economic disaster than a recovery.

 The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in May 2018 was 19.5%…..

The youth (15-24)  unemployment rate is 39.7% which means that not only will many young Greeks had never had a job but they still face a future with little or no prospect of one. Yesterday the New York Times put a human face on this.

When Dimitris Zafiriou landed a coveted full-time job two months ago, the salary was only half what he earned before Greece’s debt crisis. Yet after years of struggling, it was a step up.

“Now, our family has zero money left over at the end of the month,” Mr. Zafiriou, 47, a specialist in metal building infrastructure, said with a grim laugh. “But zero is better than what we had before, when we couldn’t pay the bills at all.”

The consequence of grinding and persistent unemployment and real wage cuts for even the relatively fortunate has been this.

A wrenching downturn, combined with nearly a decade of sharp spending cuts and tax increases to repair the nation’s finances, has left over a third of the population of 10 million near poverty, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Household incomes fell by over 30 percent, and more than a fifth of people are unable to pay basic expenses like rent, electricity and bank loans. A third of families have at least one unemployed member. And among those who do have a job, in-work poverty has climbed to one of the highest levels in Europe.

The concept of in work poverty is sadly not unique to Greece but some have been hit very hard.

Mrs. Pavlioti, a former supervisor at a Greek polling company, never dreamed she would need social assistance…….The longer she stays out of the formal job market, the harder it is to get back in. Recently she took a job as a babysitter with flexible hours, earning €450 a month — enough to pay the rent and bills, though not much else.

She provided quite a harsh critique of the triumphalism above.

“The end of the bailout makes no difference in our lives,” Mrs. Pavlioti said. “We are just surviving, not living.”

The end of the bailout

The ESM puts it like this.

Greece officially concludes its three-year ESM financial assistance programme today with a successful exit.

The word successful grates more than a little in the circumstances but it was possible that Greece could have been thrown out of the programme. It was never that likely along the lines of the aphorism that if you owe a bank one Euro it owns you but if you owe it a million you own it.

 As the ESM and EFSF are Greece’s largest creditors, holding 55% of total Greek government debt, our interests are aligned with those of Greece……..From 2010 to 2012, Greece received € 52.9 billion in bilateral loans under the so-called Greek Loan Facility from euro area Member States.

That is quite a lot of skin in the game to say the least. Because of that Greece is not as free as some might try to persuade you.

The ESM will continue to cooperate with the Greek authorities under the ESM’s Early Warning System, designed to ensure that beneficiary countries are able to repay the ESM as agreed. For that purpose, the ESM will receive regular reporting from Greece and will join the European Commission for its regular missions under the Enhanced Surveillance framework.

Back on February 12th I pointed out this.

 It is no coincidence that the “increased post-bailout monitoring” is expected to end in 2022, when the obligation for high primary surpluses of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product expires.

As you can see whilst the explicit bailout may be over the consequences of it remain and one of these is the continued “monitoring”. This is a confirmation of my point that whilst there has been crowing about the cheap cost of the loans in the end the size or capital burden of them will come into play.

Borrowing costs will rise

After an initial disastrous period when the objective was to punish Greece ( something from which Greece has yet to recover) the loans to Greece were made ever cheaper.

Thanks to the ESM’s and EFSF’s extremely advantageous loan conditions with long maturities and low-interest rates, Greece saves around €12 billion in debt servicing annually, 6.7% of GDP every year.  ( ESM)

So Greece is now turning down very cheap money as it borrows from the ESM at an average interest-rate of 1.62%. As I type this the ten-year yield for Greece is 4.34% which is not only much more it is a favourable comparison as the ESM has been lending very long-term to Greece. This was simultaneously good for Greece ( cheap borrowing) and for both ( otherwise everything looked completely unaffordable).

For now this may not be a big deal as with its fiscal surpluses Greece will not be in borrowing markets that much unless of course we see another economic downturn. There is a bond which matures on the 17th of April next year for example. Also the ECB did not help by ending its waiver for Greek government bonds which made it more expensive to use them as collateral with it and no doubt is a factor in the recent rise in Greek bond yields. Not a good portent for hopes of some QE purchases which of course are on the decline anyway.

Comment

The whole Greek saga was well encapsulated by Elton John back in the day.

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

The big picture is that it should not have been allowed into the Euro in 2001. The boom which followed led to vanity projects like the 2004 Olympics and then was shown up by the global financial crash from which Greece received a fatal blow in economic terms. The peak was a quarterly economic output of 63.6 billion Euros in the second quarter of 2007 (2010 prices) and a claimed economic growth rate of over 5% (numbers from back then remain under a cloud). As the economy shrank doubts emerged and the Euro area debt crisis began meaning that the “shock and awe” bailout so lauded by Christine Lagarde who back then was the French Finance Minister backfired spectacularly. The promised 2.1% annual growth rate of 2012 morphed into actual annual growth rates of between -4.1% and -8.7%. Combined with the initial interest-rates applied the game was up via compound interest in spite of the private sector initiative or default.

Any claim of recovery needs to have as context that the latest quarterly GDP figure was 47.4 billion Euros. This means that even the present 2.3% annual rate of economic growth will take years and years to get back to the starting point. One way of putting this is that the promised land of 2012 looks like it may have turned up in 2018. Also after an economic collapse like this economies usually bounce back strongly in what is called a V-shaped recovery. There has been none of this here. Usually we have establishments giving us projections of how much growth has been lost by projecting 2007 forwards but not here. The reforms that were promised have at best turned up piecemeal highlighted to some extent by the dreadful fires this summer and the fear that these are deliberately started each year.

Yet the people who have created a Great Depression with all its human cost still persist in rubbishing the alternative which as regular readers know I suggested which was to default and devalue. Or what used to be IMF policy before this phase where it is led by European politicians. A lower currency has consequences but it would have helped overall.