Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

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London may top the Hollywood list for cities that it most likes to destroy.  The latest Independence Day movie is one example, but these days, it is quite common for a crumbling London to form the backdrop to a Marvel blockbuster, as super heroes take to the tube on their way to wage war with Norse gods.  Even in that movie franchise that seems to most exemplify US culture, Star Trek, where the American dream spreads across the galaxy, it was London and not New York that formed the centre piece in the most recent movie. Images of King Kong on the side of the Empire State have been replaced by images of the London Eye, or the Palace of Westminster, fallen at the hands of an alien space ship.

If there was a Hollywood destruction index, London would no doubt come top.  Why is that? Is it because of Pinewood studies? Or is it because Hollywood implicitly sees London and not New York as the de facto capital of the world?

Yet, based on the recent EU referendum one could be forgiven for concluding that the rest of the UK doesn’t like London.  Sure, there are good reasons to think that the UK capital will lose out big time to Brexit, but in many parts of the UK it is seen as arrogant. They have longed for it to get its comeuppance, maybe not quite in the way that Hollywood has it happening, in reality, Gerard Butler does not form a part of the narrative, but ‘London has Fallen’ http://gb.imdb.com/title/tt3300542/, does all the same seem to sum up the hopes of some.

As Yanis Varoufakis put it in that indefectible way of his, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/24/brexit-britain-disintegrating-eu-yanis-varoufakis  “the City (whose insufferable self-absorbed arrogance put millions of voters off the EU)” was one of the causes of the Brexit vote.

Some respond with a call for an independent London, a petition on change.org asking the London Mayor to declare London independent, so that it can apply to join the EU, has 175,000 signatures. It seems unlikely many of the people who signed the petition really believe in the idea of an independent London, they signed in protest, just as many people voted in protest in the referendum.

An independent London is about as likely as the football authorities declaring England’s recent euro match against Iceland null and void. Although oddly enough, there may be some sense in a watered down version of an independent London. Certainly the rest of the UK may benefit from London having its own currency, but with taxes paid into the UK exchequer.

The FT recently warned that London’s buoyant Fintech sector may take a major knock from the Brexit vote. After-all, immigrants have had a lot to do with the success of this sector.

Yet maybe in parts of the UK, where economic depression has been the norm for decades, the sorrows of London are seen to be roughly as important as the criteria by which Hollywood chooses cities for the location of blockbuster movies.

But there is something bigger going on.

The clash we are seeing between London and some of the poorer areas of UK is being played out in similar fashion across much of the world.

People in many parts of the UK voted for Brexit because when they heard that the economy would deteriorate, they thought “but, the economy is already awful where I live.” The claim that all those years of hard work, of rebuilding the UK economy, may go into reverse, means little to people who are worse off today than ten years’ ago. Instead, they voted for change.

Yesterday’s FT also ran a story about how the Berlin mayor is grappling with populism.

Wikipedia defines populism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Populism as a “political position which holds that the virtuous citizens are being mistreated by a small circle of elites, who can be overthrown if the people recognise the danger and work together.” Of course in many cases, rebellions against the elite are led by people who are even more elitist.

Even so, it seems that a resentment towards an elite was one of the main drivers of the Brexit vote.

But this same resentfulness percolates across the world, how else do we explain Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Philippine president-elect Rodrigo Duterte, Austria’s near miss with an extreme right wing president, governments in Poland and Hungary?

The Brexit vote shows that when economic success is seen to bypass great swathes of the population, problems follow.

Varoufakis predicts years of deflation, as the EU descends into ever greater instability.

But then he has his own agenda. He hates the way the EU elite treated Greece, and believes their determination to create an ever more united Europe is fuelling resentment.

But the pressures of immigration are not going to go away. The population in Africa is set to explode. In Nigeria alone, the population is expected to rise from 159 million in 2010 to over 400 million by 2050.

If the Brexit vote was mainly about fears over immigration, then what will happen as immigration pressures soar, as it surely will?

One economic consequence may be so called helicopter money.  If deflation becomes a permanent threat, then why can’t central banks print money and governments use it to fund stimulus programmes?

Maybe we have forgotten one of the lessons of the post-World War 2 era. During the quarter of century after the war, equality was greater, unions were stronger, but in the west growth was the highest ever.  By the mid-1970s, the system that created all that growth seemed to have backfired, instead we got inflation and the reforms of Thatcher and Reagan followed. The pendulum swings, and then it swings back again. Sometimes the swings are punctuated by wars, other times we just get discontent.  It seems that that right now, the pendulum is swinging again.

Article originally posted on Fresh Business Thinking: http://www.freshbusinessthinking.com/brexit-vote-points-to-two-speed-uk-and-maybe-two-speed-world/

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There are two types of haircuts people dread. One involves a barber called Sweeny Todd and pies. The other involves debt. Of the two types of haircuts, the former never seems to be justifiable, the latter can be. And would you believe it, the latter may be back on again for the euro area. It is the story that the powers that be in the euro region want to die. It is the story that won’t die because when it comes to facing up to reality, euro leaders are as clueless as Bruce Willis’s pate is hairless.

Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany’s finance minister, has owned up to a truth. Hard data tells an even more unpalatable truth, but the great and good in the euro area seem to be unable to spot this truth even when it is staring them in the face

Elections are difficult, and for those at the top in politics they are especially challenging. You can feel sorry for Wolfgang Schaeuble. The German election is but weeks away, and Mr Schaeuble was on the campaign trail. No doubt he was pressed hard; no doubt he would rather have kept quiet, but it spilled out anyway. Greece, admitted Mr Schaeuble, will need more money. But, he added, it won’t have any more of its debt cancelled. It won’t, to use the emotive word that has come to mean debt write-off, experience a haircut. Meanwhile, Capital Economics has done some number crunching and drawn conclusions to make the hairs stand up on the most follically challenged person.

Let’s assume that Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy can maintain their future fiscal deficits at their expected 2013 level. Then, according to Capital Economics, in order for each country to reduce government debt to 90 per cent of GDP within 20 years they must average annual growth of 5.4 per cent, 6.5 per cent, 6.0 per cent, 7.5 per cent and 3.0 per cent respectively. If they could somehow find a way of moving their primary fiscal budget into balance (primary in this case means before interest), the required growth would be 5.4 per cent, 2.3 per cent, 4.7 per cent, 4.1 per cent and 3.0 per cent.

In other words, the only way they can realistically bring their debt down is if the economies manage a pretty remarkable 20 years of impressive growth. What they really need, of course, is one of those haircuts, and investment. Or do they?

The EU’s economic and monetary commissioner Olli Rehn said that what Greece needs is more time. No new money, no haircut, just more time to repay its debts.

Angela Merkel chose to avoid the topic, and just to answer the question: will Greece need more money? she said, again on the campaign trail: “Greece has been making very, very good progress in recent months and we want that progress to be continued.”

Well is it making progress? Most of us had that written about us in our reports when we were at school. “Making good progress,” may be appropriate when applied to a seven year old, but it seems a tad patronising when applied to Greece.

The truth is that the Greek crisis just goes on and on. And it will continue to go on and on, because its targets are impossible. What it needs is a cheaper currency, less debt and more investment. Maybe it can get away without the cheaper currency if there were more money transfers between Germany and Greece. Then again, you only need to look at how some regions of the UK are impoverished to see how even full political union cannot fix the problem of regional economic disparity.

Sorry, to repeat a message that was stated here three years ago. But the euro is very much a part of Greece’s problem, and no matter how many haircuts it receives; no matter how much investment it obtains, without a cheaper currency the recovery may never happen.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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It’s an odd thing, isn’t it? Not so long ago, people were talking about Belgium as being the country in northern Europe that was most in danger of going the way of Spain, Portugal and co. And for a long time, Holland – along with Germany and Finland – had been lecturing the rest of Europe about the need to live within one’s means. All of a sudden it looks a lot different. Holland is fast becoming the sick man of northern Europe, and the reason? Well, let’s hope George Osborne is paying attention, because it is a lesson he could do with learning.

According to data out recently, the Eurozone is out of recession. The German economy grew by 0.7 per cent, France by 0.5 per cent, and at face value it was encouraging stuff, but among all that good news there was one piece of worrisome news. The Dutch economy contracted by 0.2 per cent. It was not really a surprise. It contracted in the last quarter too, and the one before that and before that. In fact the country has been in recession for 18 months now. That makes this one nasty recession, but just remember, it was also in recession in 2008/09, so for Holland it has been a double dip of truly unpleasant proportions.

The reason is not rocket science.

During the boom years Dutch house prices rose too high – way too high. Seduced by the idea that owning a house in Holland was a sure-fire investment winner, sucked into the narrative that a shortage of land meant that house prices across the Netherlands were guaranteed to rise, urged on by a government that subsidised mortgages, the Dutch borrowed against their home, and borrowed against the belief their home would rise in value and they ran-up huge debts.

It really is a puzzle. Among those who lecture us the most about the need to live within our means – so that is Dutch and British finance ministers for example – there seems to be a kind of casual disregard for household debt. We must live within our means, unless that is to say you are a voter, in which case, borrow, put it on the plastic – it matters not, your home will rise in value.

According to OECD data, household gross debt to gross disposable income in the Netherlands is 285 per cent. This is the highest ratio across the OECD. To put those numbers in context, the equivalent ratio in the US for 2008 was just 108 per cent. In the UK the ratio is 146 per cent – which most would agree is worryingly high – and yet the UK household debt levels seem like prudence personified compared to those of the Dutch. Dutch house prices fell sharply in the first quarter of 2013, in 2012 and 2011. Yet despite the falls, Dutch house prices to incomes are still above the average for the country – although admittedly not by much.

Government debt is not so bad. Gross government debt is 71 per cent of GDP, net debt just 33 per cent, which is the lowest among the Eurozone’s bigger economies. Holland’s government appears to be in love with the idea of austerity; of prudence keeping government debt under control.

Yet consider what might happen if households find they just can’t afford their debt. Imagine what might happen if global interest rates rise, which they are likely to do over the next few years. If households find they cannot pay their way; if there is a surge in the number of properties repossessed by the banks, the chances that Holland will experience its own Northern Rock type moment seems real. The possibility of a Dutch banking crisis is very real. Yet the consensus among economists towards Holland seems to be one of relaxation. The country still boasts a top notch credit rating, for example.

The thing about austerity is that it matters not how prudent a government is, how clearly it balances its books (not that the Dutch government is balancing its books), when households run-up debts, and house prices crash, household debt can become government debt. This is what happened in Spain two years ago. It may happen in Holland, and may well happen in any country where the government tries to stimulate house prices, creating consumer confidence, in turn creating growth. Are you listening Mr Osborne?

© Investment & Business News 2013

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It is kind of assumed that savings are good, debt is bad. If that is so, then there has been good news from the EU and bad news from the UK. In the EU savings ratios are rising, according to recent data, while in the UK they are falling. So that is EU good, UK bad. It is just that the real story is quite different, because there is something missing, and that missing ingredient is called investment.

Across the global economy savings equal investment. They have to; it is a matter of definition. GDP equals consumption plus exports, minus imports, government spending and investment. But across the global economy exports must equal imports. Drill down and look at government spending and actually it is one of two things: consumption or investment. So GDP really equals consumption plus investment.

But what are savings? By definition they are income that is earned but not spent on consumption. So by definition, savings equal investment.

But supposing we all decide we want to save more, and we all park more of our earnings in our savings account. Supposing there is no corresponding rise in investment. If this were to happen, given the equation that GDP equals consumption and investment, then either as we save more, other people borrow more, or the money we save is lost forever.

To put it another way, across the economy there is no point in saving unless this is matched by investment.

Now take the EU. According to data yesterday (30 July) in the EU27, the household saving rate was 11.0 per cent, compared with 10.7 per cent in the previous quarter. In contrast the household investment rate was 7.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2013, compared with 8.1 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Now take the euro area. In the first quarter of 2013, the household saving rate was 13.1 per cent, compared with 12.4 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2012. The household investment rate was 8.4 per cent, compared with 8.7 per cent in the previous quarter.

In short, savings ratios are rising, but investment ratios are not. This is not merely a negative development, it borders on being disastrous.

In contrast, the household savings ratio in the UK was 4.2 per cent in Q1 2013, the weakest since Q1 2009 when it was 3.4 per cent. The UK savings ratio is too low, but what really matters is not savings, it is investment.

In the UK investment remains way too low, but here is some rare good news. 2013 looks to be on course for seeing the highest levels of investment in the UK since before the crisis of 2008.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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The numbers say what the numbers say. It may not feel right; it may defy reason, but there are reasons to think the Eurozone may be set to exit recession.

The latest flash Purchasing Managers’ Index tracking Eurozone manufacturing and services hit an 18 month high.

That is good, but especially encouraging was that the July index was 50.00, which is good news because 50 is seen as the key level. Anything below 50 is supposed to correspond with contraction; anything above signifies growth. Okay, a reading of 50 is not that remarkable, and this is just the flash reading, meaning that it is an early estimate. But it is a good sign, nonetheless.

Markit, which compiles the data, said: “Manufacturers reported the largest monthly increase in output since June 2011, registering an expansion for the first time since February of last year. Service sector activity meanwhile fell only marginally, recording the smallest decline in the current 18-month sequence and showing signs of stabilising after the marked rates of decline seen earlier in the year.”

In Germany output rose at the fastest rate for five months. Service sector growth hit a five-month high while manufacturers reported the steepest monthly increase in output since February of last year. Overall job creation hit the highest since March.
As for France, the PMI hit its highest level since March 2012. It’s not the only good news out of France of late. An index showing that morale in the industrial sector recently rose for the fourth month running, led the French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici to say: “Nous sommes en sortie de recession,” or “We are out of recession.”

On the other hand, the index measuring French industrial morale is still below the historic average. The PMI was up, but at 48.8 still pointed to contraction, and in any case, France has to enforce much more substantive reforms to its labour market before it can claim its struggle is over.

Ben May, European economist at Capital Economics, said: “There are some signs that the euro-zone economy is on the mend and might perhaps soon exit recession. Nonetheless, the PMI and other business surveys have signalled several false dawns in the recent past. What’s more, with banks still reluctant to lend and demand for credit remaining weak, it is still too soon to conclude that the region is in recovery mode.

© Investment & Business News 2013

Those who like to tint their spectacles with roses saw reason to cheer. The Eurozone economy appeared to be on the slow march to recovery. Oh boy it was slow, and the signs of recovery were subtle, but they were there. Then yesterday it began to look as if was all going to blow up.

There is a consensus across much of the euro area that pain just can’t be avoided; that recovery can only occur if first we have pain, then more pain, and then – just to be on the safe side – a bit more pain. But, or so goes the consensus, the people realise this; they are willing to make the sacrifices, and recovery will follow – just be patient and let hard work and fortitude carry the euro through.

Last year Stein Ringen, a sociology professor at Green Templeton College Oxford, penned a piece for the ‘FT’. He said: “Economists are no more likely always to agree than any other experts but there was a remarkable unanimity as the crisis unfolded: Europe was on the edge of the abyss; bold and rapid action was needed from strong governments.” But, in his bullish article, he added: “Against this storm stood a remarkable woman, Angela Merkel, insisting no quick fix was available. She has been proved right.” He then talked about how the solution turned out to be “steady work and steely brinkmanship.”

The article was written on March 27 last year. At that time there was a consensus across the euro area that predictions of doom had been disproved. There was one snag with the optimism of that time: subsequent events showed it to be ill-informed. In fact, the euro area has been in recession/depression ever since.

Then earlier this year, in another one of those ‘told you it would be all right’ type statements, José Manuel Barroso, president of the EU Commission, said: “[The] existential threat against the euro has essentially been overcome.” He concluded: “In 2013 the question won’t be if the euro will or will not implode.” Or take this piece in ‘Bloomberg’, written in January this year, Why Austerity Works and Stimulus Doesn’t http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-01-07/why-austerity-works-and-fiscal-stimulus-doesnt.html

The author Anders Aslund said: “After five years of financial crisis, the European record in Northern Europe is sound, thanks to austerity, while Southern Europe is hurting because of half-hearted austerity or, worse, fiscal stimulus. The predominant Keynesian thinking has been tested, and it has failed spectacularly.”

So, was there evidence to back-up these claims? Was austerity working?

Of late there have been signs – small signs, but signs nonetheless – of improvement. Take Markit’s latest Purchasing Managers’ Indices (PMIs) for both manufacturing and services. The word high features prominently. For Ireland the composite PMI for June rose to a five month high; it hit a three month high for Germany; a 24 month high for Spain; a ten month high for France, and a 21 month high for Italy.

So that was encouraging.

Spanish manufacturing now appears to be out of recession, with the latest manufacturing PMI for Spain hitting 50 – a 26 month high – a score which is meant to be consistent with zero growth. Furthermore, recent trade data showed the first trade surplus for Spain in 40 years.

On the debt front, central government debt in Greece is well below target so far this year, and much better than during the corresponding period last year. Ireland appears to be on course to meet its targets for this year.

This is where the good news finishes, however.

Sure, Spain posted its first trade surplus in 40 years, but this was largely down to plummeting imports. In other words, the surplus was a symptom of economic depression. Sure the PMIs are looking better, but they still suggest the euro area is in recession – a very deep recession in some cases, including – by the way – France and Italy.

As for debt, total external debt (that’s public and private owed to creditors abroad) is 168 per cent of GDP in Spain, 200 per cent of GDP in Greece, 227 per cent in Portugal, and 410 per cent in Ireland.

Debt maturing in 2013 or 2014 in Greece equates to 21 per cent of GDP in Greece and Portugal, 23 per cent in Spain, and 32 per cent in Italy.

Unemployment, especially in Greece and Spain, remains at levels that can only really be called horrendous.

How can hard work save these countries when there isn’t the work for people to do?

But we now appear to be entering a new era; one in which monetary policy will slowly tighten. If the Fed raises interest rates in 2015, as it suggests, what will this mean for the euro area?

Bond yields soared in Portugal yesterday on the latest political uncertainty following the resignation of two government ministers. They also rose sharply in Greece, which is also facing a political challenge at the moment, after the Democratic Left pulled out of the Greek coalition following the closure of State TV, in another government attempt to reduce spending. Yields were up in Spain too.

The good news, albeit small comfort for many, is that Angela Merkel seems to have woken up to the plight of the euro area’s unemployed youth. Post German elections – assuming she wins that is – there is even a chance she will rein back on pressure for more austerity.

The truth is that austerity is not working. Sure parts of the economies across much of Europe need a radical overhaul, and indeed could do with some austerity measures. But other parts of the economy need stimulus, and they need big stimulus. Nothing short of a latter day Marshall Plan will do.

But the ECB has been a disaster – fretting over inflation when deflation was a bigger danger.

Maybe, the ECB will mend its ways, but the signs are not good. If the Fed tightens, the euro may come under pressure relative to the dollar, and in such an environment it is hard to imagine the ECB announcing quantitative easing, even if this is what the region needs.

Alas, thanks to policy errors, and an ill-founded sense of confidence – even a head in the sand mentality amongst many decision makers in the euro area – it is no longer the euro that faces a so-called existential threat, it is the EU itself, and that is tragic.

It is not too late to save the project, but only massive investment, perhaps funded by the ECB printing money, will do it.

© Investment & Business News 2013

The EU’s financiers responsible for the Greek rescue scheme in 2008 have reacted strongly to accusations from the IMF that serious errors were made in the initial bail-out of Greece. Maybe it is time that these deniers started being a little more honest with themselves and us.

Haircuts can be good things. Sampson may not have agreed with such a sentiment, but, on the other hand, we tend to feel better afterwards. It can be like that with sovereign debt too, but in 2010, the so-called TROIKA – that’s the organisation made up of the IMF, EU commission and ECB – thought the very idea of a haircut of Greek debt was about as sensible as turning the Acropolis into a new apartment block.

Plenty of people warned that it was dangerous, and over and over again we were told that the harsh terms imposed on Greece were not necessary. Now the IMF is saying it was all a terrible mistake.

In a report published yesterday the IMF said: “Not tackling the public debt problem decisively at the outset or early in the programme created uncertainty about the euro area’s capacity to resolve the crisis and likely aggravated the contraction in output.”

Of course this is the IMF. It is not going to wear a hair shirt, or be too vocal in slating its partners for that matter.

It said that after the initial bail-out Greek public debt “remained too high and eventually had to be restructured, with collateral damage for bank balance sheets that were also weakened by the recession. Competitiveness improved somewhat on the back of falling wages, but structural reforms stalled and productivity gains proved elusive.”

And, it continued: “There are…political economy lessons to be learned. Greece’s recent experience demonstrates the importance of spreading the burden of adjustment across different strata of society in order to build support for a program. The obstacles encountered in implementing reforms also illustrate the critical importance of ownership of a program, a lesson that is common to the findings of many previous EPEs. To read the report, go to Greece: Ex Post Evaluation of Exceptional Access under the 2010 Stand-By Arrangement 

A spokesman for the EU commission said: “We fundamentally disagree… With hindsight we can go back and say in an ideal world what should have been done differently. The circumstances were what they were. I think the commission did its best in an unprecedented situation.”

ECB President Mario Draghi has entered the debate too, saying: “We tend to judge things that happened yesterday with today’s eyes. We tend to forget that when the discussions were taking place the situation was much, much worse.”

Hindsight bias is indeed a real phenomenon, and maybe we are all too keen to claim wisdom after an event. Psychologists can even cite studies to show that we have a distorted view of our own history, claiming, or even believing we predicted certain events when in fact we did no such thing.

But on this occasion citing hindsight bias as an excuse is not good enough.

Plenty of media, including, but not only, this publication warned at the time that the TROIKA was failing to see reality, that it was punishing Greece unnecessarily and that debt has to be cut via write-downs.

The TROIKA ignored what was obvious to outsiders. To now claim it had no way of knowing; that we are applying hindsight bias shows it has not learned anything. It is, frankly, arrogantly ignoring what is happening around it, stuck as it is in an ivory tower, or wherever it is that these financiers live.

There is a lesson today. Still the TROIKA, EU Commission and grandees of the Eurozone claim that the worst is over; that the troubled economies of indebted Europe are on the road to recovery, and by doing so they continue to make fatal mistakes.

What will happen in two years’ time, when the IMF says that too much austerity in 2013 led to unnecessary human hardship? Will the TROIKA accuse the IMF of hindsight bias, and say it had no way of knowing this at the time?

Rather than denying errors, perhaps the TROIKA et al, should tuck into some humble pie, and then, just maybe they will notice they are repeating this mistake.

© Investment & Business News 2013