Posts Tagged ‘spain’

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Asia is in crisis mode. Europe, or so it appears, is in recovery mode. In Asia we are set to see a re-run of 1997, or so they say, when Asia suffered one very nasty crash. In Europe years of pain are set to pay dividends, or once again so they say. Yet, look beneath the surface and things look different. Asia today is nothing like Asia in 1997. Parts of Europe on the other hand do.

Déjà vu. We all get it from time to time, but presumably it is an illusion. It has been theorised that we may get that feeling of that having done or said something before, because our subconscious can perceive something before our conscious. Déjà vu when applied to Asia may be an illusion too.

At the moment many are trying to draw a lesson from the 1990s. In 1994, the US Federal Reserve began a cycle of tightening monetary policy. As US interest rates increased, money flowed from the so-called tiger economies of South East Asia into the US. The 1997 Asian crisis resulted. The IMF stepped in. Some countries, that had previously seemed to be on an unstoppable road to riches, suffered a very nasty recession/depression.

Many fear a repeat of this today. The Fed is set to tighten. The biggest victim to date has been India. Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia have also seen sharp currency losses. Indonesia’s central bank has responded by increasing rates four times in just a few months. Don’t forget, however, that despite the severity of the 1997 crisis, within a short time frame output across South East Asia had passed the pre-1997 peak. It will be like that again. Indeed Indonesia, perhaps along with the Philippines, is one of the most interesting territories in the world right now – from an investor’s point of view that is. This time around savings rates are higher in South East Asia, while external debt – especially in the case of Indonesia, the Philippines and India – is relatively modest.

Contrast this with what is happening in the euro area, where many countries in the region are facing the tyranny of a fixed exchange rate, which is causing the recession/depression to drag on and on.

But the latest Purchasing Managers’ (PMIs) Indices relating to Europe look promising. The PMI for Spain hit a 29 month high, for Italy it was at a 27 month high. Ireland’s PMI was at a 9 month high. For Greece the story is sort of better still; the PMI is now at a 44 month high.

However, the Greek PMI still points to recession. In Spain, Italy and Ireland the growth looks only modest. Just remember that these countries have massive levels of unemployment – especially in Spain and Greece. For them to cut government debt to the levels required, they have to impose austerity for years and years.

And just consider what might happen, if the markets expect an even higher return on the money they lent to troubled Europe as rates rise in the US.

The markets are panicking over Asia. They should perhaps be looking towards Europe.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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Fear. In different times greed is just as important. But right now, and across most of Europe, fear is the key driver. Money sloshes around, and all that those who control it want to do is limit the downsize. They are trying to mitigate against fear. And so afraid are they, that at times they have put money in assets that give negative interest rates, just to feel safe. This has been rather good news for Germany, because while fear has driven money away from Greece and Spain and co, making the government cost of repaying debt in these countries seem prohibitive, in Germany it has been quite different. Fear has boosted Germany coffers. And a new report tells us that the boost has been dramatic. This is why.

The euro crisis just won’t go away. In Germany they are sick of it too, and with good reason. Germany has done nothing wrong. Its work force has worked hard, saved for retirement, and what is wrong with that? Yet they are being punished; they are told that to atone for their sins of working hard and saving for the future, they must pick up the tab for indebted Europe. Yet, there is another way of looking at this, according to data produced by Germany’s own finance ministry, because the country has made a tidy profit from the euro crisis.

It all boils down the fact that money has to go somewhere. Corporates are saving. Across much of Europe, households are saving. Where does the money go? One thing is for sure, putting it in Greek bonds is risky. Spanish, Italian and Portuguese bonds don’t seem much safer either. But German bonds, in contrast, feel as safe as a safe house in a land with no crime. In fact so safe are German government bonds or bunds, perceived to be, that there have been times when the yields on some of them have been negative. So actually, Germany has done rather well out of fear created by the euro crisis – or should that be the other way around – a euro crisis created by fear? But can we put a number on how well?

German Social Democrat Joachim Poss wanted to know how much, and, as a man in power, he got an answer. The Germany finance ministry responded to Poss’s question by getting the abacus out and making some calculations. The ministry took its estimate for interest payments on its debt, and subtracted from that the actual interest. From its calculations it drew the conclusion that between 2010 and 2014, it will save 40.9 billion euros thanks to interest rates being lower than expected, which is thanks to money flooding into German bunds for the sake of safety.

This is a rather important point. Right now, Italy is posting a primary budget surplus, meaning its government is spending less than it receives before deducting interest on debt. If it was paying the kind of interest on debt that the German government pays, Italy would be close to being in surplus. And that in a nut shell is the case for euro bonds; that is to say for all countries in the euro area to raise money by using the same bonds, backed by each and every government. You can see why Germany does not like that idea, but then again, a monetary union with one central bank controlling monetary policy, cannot really work unless governments pay the same interest on their debts.

But the data relating to German savings on its debt does not tell the full story. The fact is that German exporters, the drivers of its economy, have done well out of the euro for another reason. If Germany still had the Deutsche mark, the currency would surely have risen sharply in recent years. By sharing a currency with the likes of Greece, Germany has enjoyed a massive terms of trade benefit.

So actually, for Germany there have been plenty of upsides to being in the euro, which is why it is right that it pays for the downsides too.

© 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 has been a drip drip of okay news on Spain. There’s nothing sensational; nothing yet to quieten the euro-sceptics, but enough to offer some hope.

The latest PMI for Spanish manufacturing from Markit hit 50 in June, which is the highest reading in 26 months, and suggests the sector is no longer contracting; rather it is now flat. Spain posted its first trade surplus ever in March, with exports rising 2.7 per cent, and finally Spanish unemployment fell in May, with 98,286 joining the Spanish work-force.

Okay, none of this data provides a reason for the bulls of the investment world to start charging all over the market bull rings. A reading of 50 for the PMI still suggests the economy was flat, ie not growing. Sure the balance of trade went positive, but the main reason for this was falling imports, and Spanish unemployment remains at frightening levels.

But then this week (July 23 to be precise) the latest figures on Spanish GDP were out and they gave some reason for cheer.

In Q2 the Spanish economy contracted by 0.1 per cent, after contracting 0.5 per cent in Q1 and by 0.8 per cent in Q4 last year. Year on year growth was minus 1.8 per cent.

So Spain is still in recession, but it needs only a very modest improvement to leave recession and that surely has to be celebrated.

Ben May, European economist from Capital Economics, is not so sure, however. He said: “We expect weak demand in Spain’s major export destinations to mean that the boost from the external sector will fade over the coming quarters. And with the fiscal squeeze, housing slump and private sector deleveraging set to continue for some time to come, domestic demand is likely to contract significantly further.

Based on this, we still expect GDP to fall pretty sharply next year, perhaps by as much as 1.5 per cent.” If Capital Economics is right, and the recent good(ish) news proves to be a one-off, then expect another bond crisis, and more calls for help in 2014-15.

© 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

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Among the more positive news coming out of the US of late, there was one piece of darkness. While US consumers grew more confident, more jobs were created, and house prices rose, the darkness drew all eyes. The darkness was otherwise known as Purchasing Managers’ Indices, or PMIs, with the PMI for US manufacturing in May pointing to contraction, for example. Things looked quite different today, and altogether lighter, however.

The latest PMI for US manufacturing, this time for June, stood at 50.9 from 49. Any score over 50 is meant to be consistent with growth, so that was a relief.

There was more good news. The sub-index tracking new orders rose to 51.9, and the new export orders index rose to 54.4 from 51 in May. So far so good. Alas the PMI for employment stood at 48.7 – suggesting job losses. So while the news was bright, some darkness remained.

In Europe, the news was brighter, but only in the sense that navy blue is brighter than black, except that is for Spain. For once the news on this country looked promising; a kind of dark grey.

The PMI for Spanish manufacturing rose to 50 in June, a new 26 month high. Okay, 50 suggests growth is flat, but flat is better than contracting, and that is approaching the best piece of economic news for a very long time for Spain.

The PMIs for French, Italian, and Greek manufacturing also saw big improvements – 16, 23 and 24 months highs respectively. But then in each case the index was below 50, so that was darkish news.

To the surprise of many, the PMI for Germany fell sharply – down to 48.6, which was a two month low, and at odds with other more encouraging data that has seen the light of day recently.

Looking further afield, in China the PMI was down, but given that a major credit crunch is underway in China, the fall was not as sharp as many had feared. PMIs were also either below 50 or very close to 50 in Brazil, India, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam.

Australia is more interesting. The manufacturing PMI has been below 50 since 2001, but in June it rose to its highest level since February 2011. Although at 49.6, it still points to contraction. In Australia talk of recession is beginning to dominate. New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd looks as if he is trying to present himself as the man to lead Australia through and out of recession. With household debt high, house prices apparently overvalued, and with the slowdown in China sure to hit Australian commodity exports, the economy appears to be at its most precarious balanced for some time.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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Good news, it appears, comes in threes. For Spain, it most certainly has been a hat-trick, and we are talking football. If you like your forecast to be made via the prism of half-full crystal balls, then this may be reason to celebrate. Cynics may think differently, however.

Firstly, an index out earlier tracking Spanish manufacturing hit a 24-month high. The latest Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for Spanish manufacturing and compiled by Markit hit 48.1 in May. Now that is news to please both pessimists and optimists. The optimists are celebrating because that was the highest reading since May 2011, and before Spain was in recession. The pessimists remain glum, however, because any reading under 50 is meant to correspond with contraction.

In other words, Spanish manufacturing is still shrinking, it is merely doing so at a slower rate. But then things don’t turn around overnight. The trend has been clear for some: the Spanish manufacturing PMI has been steadily improving. If the upward trajectory continues, then that will be bona fide good news.

Secondly, Spain posted its first trade surplus ever in March. Or at least it was the first surplus for as far back as the records go. Exports jumped 2.7 per cent, perhaps supporting the findings of the PMI. On the other hand, imports fell 13 per cent, that was the main factor behind the trade surplus, and is it really a good idea to celebrate the fact that Spanish households are so under the cosh that they can’t afford to buy foreign goods?

Thirdly, Spanish unemployment fell in May, with 98,286 joining the Spanish work-force. That is good news, of course it is, but not wishing to rain on Spain’s parade, it should be pointed out that Spanish unemployment is currently 26.8 per cent. So Spain needs to see several million more jobs created before it can celebrate. In any case, the main factor behind May data was the tourism trade, and that is seasonal, meaning May’s boost may prove to be a one-off.

Looking at the bigger picture, it does rather look as though Germany is now exporting its economic model to Spain, and there are some parallels between Spain today and Germany during the early stages of the Schroder reforms.

You may recall in the late 1990s and early noughties the German economy looked a lot like Japan, a once seemingly unbeatable economic machine appearing all beaten. But Gerhard Schroder, then Angela Merkel made tough reforms. They hurt. German wages fell;corporate profits in Germany rose. Right now, many Germans are unhappy about bailing out the rest of Europe because they see no sign that indebted Europe is willing to make the kind of sacrifices they themselves made ten years or so ago.

But is the so-called Germanification of Europe such a good idea? The result of rising German company profits was, in fact, a substantial rise in Germany’s savings, and as investment did not rise in tandem with savings, the result was German money flooded abroad, boosting asset prices in, among other countries, Spain.

The global economy, perhaps even Europe, cannot afford to see a rise in planned savings without a corresponding rise in investment. For the global economy, savings must equal investment. This is an economic truism. If savings rise, but investment does not, there must be an immediate offset. Either some sectors of the economy must run up debts equalling the short fall between savings and investment, or the economy must contract.

Either way, aggregate savings must equal aggregate investment. Germanic economics, when applied globally, may lead to global recession, even depression.

© Investment & Business News 2013