Posts Tagged ‘uk’

file9961251406222Oil has fallen again in recent weeks. This week, West Texas Intermediate oil has been hovering at just a dollar or two above the year low. Meanwhile, a report from the National Institute of Economics and Social Research (NIESR) has predicted that 2015 will be the worst year for the global economy since 2008. It shouldn’t be like that. With oil as cheap as it is, the economy should be booming.  So this all begs the question, “why?” Is there some rather worrying underlying reason for the weakness in the global economy?

At the time of writing (6 August 2015, 6.45 am) West Texas Intermediate oil is trading at $45.17. To put that in context, just over a year ago it was trading at $104. Brent crude oil is just shy of $50. One day, black gold will probably go back over $100. Maybe, one day it will even pass the 2008 peak, when it went close to $150, but this day is not likely to be any time soon.   The oil cycle moves slowly. Investment in oil has dropped drastically, new projects have been shelved. It will be several years before these developments show up in rising oil prices, though.

There are winners and losers from cheaper oil. Apologies if this sounds like a lesson from the University of the Bleeding Obvious, but cheaper oil benefits its consumers and hits its producers. So in theory the effect of falling oil prices on the global economy should be neutral. It is just that on the whole, oil consumers have a much lower savings ratio that oil producers. A fall in the oil price distributes income from high savers to high spenders. Given that we are in a time when there is a chronic shortage of demand worldwide, this should be good news.

As an aside, there is another not commonly understood potential side effect of cheaper oil. Ask yourself this question, why are interest rates so low? That is to say, what is the real reason? Forget central bankers, they move with the tide. The main reason why rates are so low is because worldwide there is a shortage of demand and a savings glut.  Back in the noughties this savings glut funded consumer spending in the West, creating a bubble which burst in 2008. Since then it has been funding surging government debt, and maybe sharp rises in debt in emerging markets.  McKinsey has said that global debt has risen by $57 trillion since 2007. The savings glut made this possible. There are many reason for this, and many of these reasons have not gone away. But at least one driver of low interest rates, the rise in savings coming out of oil producers, has gone into reverse.  

Returning to the global economy in 2015, earlier this week NIESR projected that “The world economy will grow by 3 per cent in 2015 – the slowest rate since the crisis – and 3.5 per cent in 2016.” So that is odd. The price of oil has fallen by a half, and the global economy is weak. Something is wrong.

There are two ways looking at this. You can look at individual countries, one at a time, or you can look for some deeper underlying cause.

The US has a bad start to the year because of an exceptionally cold winter in the north east of the country. This had a knock-on effect worldwide. The UK, it appears, got caught up in it all with falling exports to the US dragging down on growth.  

By its standards, the Eurozone had a good first half of this year, this despite Greek woe. But then again, this is the Eurozone, and the key phrase here is “by its standards.”  The only other region in the world that puts in such a continuously poor performance is Japan.

The world’s second largest economy, China, has slowed fast. There is more than one reason. For one thing, China sits on a mounting debt pile, with local government especially badly exposed.  This is beginning to hurt. For another thing, the Chinese government is trying to re-engineer the shape of the Chinese economy, shifting it from investment and savings led, to consumption led. This is a good thing, but the transformation is hurting

Russia’s problem are well documented. It is clear that it has lost out big time to the falling oil price. Brazil has suffered from a wider fall in commodity prices, but like Russia, there were deep structural problems with the economy anyway.

So pick it apart, there is a reason for the slow growth. Even so, I can’t help but feel that the overall performance of the global economy, given how weak oil and other commodity prices are, is very disappointing. You could respond by saying that I have mixed up cause and effect. You could say that oil has fallen in price because global demand is low. But I would respond to that by saying at least part of the reason for the fall in the oil price has been the revolution in fracking and previous surges in oil investment. The rise of renewables are taking a toll, too.  I don’t accept that I have got things the wrong way round.

So what are the possible underlying drivers at work? There are to theories to explain what is happening, there is the Robert Gordon ‘innovation is slowing’ theory, and the Larry Summers Secular Stagnation theory. I will look at these theories in more depth in a few days.

And so it came to pass that the Cyprus parliament was not happy and rejected what was possibly the maddest idea ever put forward to bail-out a country. The vote was a close run thing, with 36 members of the Cyprus parliament voting against the bank levy and 19 abstaining. The number of MPs voting for the proposal reached a grand total of zero.

Good for Cyprus. Now it has to decide what to do next.

It could do a lot worse than consider the lesson of Iceland. In 2007 Iceland’s GDP was 1.293 trillion kronor. In 2008, its external debt was 9.533 trillion.

You may remember that when the scale of Iceland’s problem emerged, and when the UK press found out that UK citizens and local authorities had exposure to Icelandic banks, the country was made to do the walk of shame. Its representatives were hauled up by the British media: “Are you ashamed?” they were asked, and: “What are you going to do about our money?”

The UK used anti-terrorism legislation to freeze Landbanki assets. This was not a move that endeared Britain to the Icelandic people, but maybe the UK felt it had an opportunity to exert revenge over the cod wars, and the Viking invasions before that.

Back in January of this year, the court of the European Free Trade Association – one of those cursed EU courts that should be banned because it tries to consider all points of view and not just the UK’s position, or indeed the position of the UK tabloids – ruled in favour of Iceland over the UK and Holland. Its decision means that the little island to the north west corner of Europe will repay the money it owes to the UK and the Netherlands gradually, and under its terms.

Today, Iceland and its people are still suffering. But then again, it has enjoyed seven successive quarters of growth. It is not easy repaying debts when the money you owe is valued in a foreign currency and the currency in which you receive your salary crashes. Iceland was pretty much left high and dry by the international community (you are on your own mate, was the general feeling attitude in the UK). The IMF did loan out money, but as usual under terms that were very painful. Iceland eventually responded by having bank loans to its citizens valued in foreign currencies declared illegal. Other legalization enabled many homeowners with negative equity to write-off much of their debt.

Ironically, Iceland may yet see a pretty sensational turnaround, and become one of the wealthiest countries in the world on a per capita basis thanks to its one of the island’s most famous natural resources, but one we don’t usually think of as resource at all. Plans are afoot to pipe heat from Iceland’s volcanoes and lava flows, and – via the magic of thermal energy – heat northern Europe. Iceland may yet have the answer, or at least a partial answer, to the energy crisis, and one that does not risk exacerbating global warming.

Iceland also has rather a lot of something else. What is it now? Oh yes, that’s right, ice. Maybe it could use that to cool down the Sahara – all we have to do to achieve that is to solve the minor problem of working out how to transport ice a few thousand miles without it melting.

Cyprus has neither ice nor lava, but it does have a lot of natural beauty.

Its future will be best served outside a Eurozone that has completely failed to come to its rescue in its hour of need. It may be better off with a cheaper currency, and laws designed to protect its citizens over the interests of foreign investors, whilst at the same time welcoming foreigners who can boost its economy. Best of luck to you, Cyprus. Anyone fancy moving there?

©2013 Investment and Business News.

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If you are a journalist, the French are great. They provide the juiciest copy, which can transform the driest topics into cannon fodder for xenophobes, and realists alike.

This time the task of ramping up Anglo/Gallic prejudices has fall to the Governor of the Bank of France Christian Noyer.  Talking to the ‘FT’, he suggested that the City of London should be stripped of its position as the financial hub of euro trading. So that’s bonds, derivatives, equities – in fact just about everything. If it’s finance and involves the euro, then London holds the position that should belong to Paris.

Mr Noyer said: “We’re not against some business being done in London, but the bulk of the business should be under our control. That’s the consequence of the choice by the UK to remain outside the euro area.”

The funny thing is, however, that Mr Noyer might be right – or at least partially right.

He is wrong about stripping London of its pre-eminent position. It is not up to governments to decide which centres should be hubs. You can’t wake up one morning, and say let’s rid London of its status as a financial capital.

But the markets can decide to do this. And there are signs that this is happening, and this is the price the UK pays for not being in the euro. It has nothing to do with the wishes of politicians, just the reality of markets.

But it doesn’t seem very likely that Paris will take over from London, however, not as long as France insists on anti-market friendly policies. A recent survey from the Conference Board in the US recently forecast that France will be the worst performing economy in the world over the next ten years or so.  The report may or may not prove to be right, but even if there is only a miniscule of truth in the report, it is hard to see Paris taking over from London in anything. See: Is France really set to be the worst performing economy in the world over the next ten years?

Moving away from France and the UK, there is the issue of tax avoidance. We hear about the evils of Amazon, Google, Starbucks and co avoiding tax, but the truth is that they are multinationals, and an advantage of being a multinational is that you can channel profits into countries where tax rates are lower. There is only one possible solution and that is to have some kind of minimum worldwide corporation tax rate (either that or have no corporation tax, at all).  Getting international agreement for such as idea is probably impossible, but a reasonable half-way measure might be an EU-wide corporation tax. Alas, the UK’s influence in the EU is such that it is unlikely to get such an idea through, even if it wanted to. This is another disadvantage of the UK’s EU cynicism.

On the other hand, a new series on ‘Sky News’ is set to expose the way the UK’s economy’s woes are focused on certain regions. As Ed Conway, the presenter of the TV series, said in the ‘Telegraph’: “It transpires that London and the South East of England never experienced a double-dip recession at all, they simply did not shrink through 2011 and 2012. The economic contraction that led to the national ‘double dip’ happened exclusively in the North, the Midlands, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.” See: Prosperity across the South is hiding a recession in much of Britain

Here is the irony. While some may lament the disadvantages of not being in the euro, the UK suffers from its own single currency.

Truth is that the success enjoyed by the City has pushed up the value of the pound so much that regions outside the South East struggle to compete.

So should London and the South East have their own currency, let’s call it the Boris? Maybe an independent Catalonia needs its own currency too.

You may think this is a daft idea. You may be right.

It is probably the case that if indebted European countries left the Eurozone, their economies would, after an initial shock, enjoy a strong economic recovery.

But if you accept that the idea of London having its own currency is daft, this would suggest you believe the euro must survive, at any cost.

©2012 Investment and Business News.

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As the earthquakes became worse, the ancient Minoans demanded blood. Clearly the gods weren’t happy, so it was time to make more human sacrifices. Of course, there were occasions when a blood sacrifice was followed by less seismic activity, which was cited as proof positive that the policy worked.

Except of course, from our enlightened position in the 21st century we get causation. Any fall in natural disasters following a religious ritual was a coincidence. There may have been a time when a leader of a country was also a priest, charged with appeasing angry gods, and such people were held responsible when the gods wreaked havoc, but these days we are a touch more sophisticated.

Perhaps you could, at a pinch, blame hurricane Sandy on manmade global warming, but it would be stretching credibility to blame any individual for the storms hitting the US East Coast. Some people across the pond are very anti-Barack Obama, but it seems not even they blame him for hurricane Sandy.  Although Obama they say can do his election prospects some good by looking presidential.

Yet the logic that says Obama was responsible for the poor US economic performance of the last few years is not much different from blaming a Pharaoh for lack of rain.

Two economists who have led the charges against Obama are Professor John Taylor and Glen Hubbard.

The argument runs like this. In the past the US has seen much more rapid recovery from a recession. This time recovery has been slower, ergo, Obama is to blame. Some go further, and say ergo Obama is the Devil, meaning maybe he was responsible for hurricane Sandy after all.

Martin Wolf, the ‘FT’s’ economic guru, has been crossing swords with Professor Taylor. The prof says that even in the 1930s, the US saw sharper recovery than it is now. ‘Duh’, replies Wolf, ‘that was because after 1929, when US authorities messed up, failed to support banks, and made cutbacks, the resulting contraction in the economy was enormous. Of course growth was higher in the aftermath because it had further to grow from’. See: You can’t measure an economy’s performance on recovery alone http://blogs.ft.com/martin-wolf-exchange/2012/10/29/you-cant-measure-an-economy-on-recovery-alone/#axzz2AjECcdQW

Professor Taylor then compared the US performance today with its recovery in the late 1800s. Wolf countered with the argument that surely it is more realistic to compare the US today with other economies across the world, such as Japan, the UK, the Eurozone, or even China.

It takes an extraordinary level of arrogance about the superiority of your country to think the fact that the rest of the world is suffering a very severe economic shock bears little or no relevance to your country.

Over at the ‘New York Times’, it’s been a case of daggers at dawn between Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman and Glen Hubbard.  According to Hubbard, the US recovery should have been V shaped.  In the UK – where the debate is over whether the economy will be W, An elongated L, or even a letter than hasn’t been invented yet – the idea of a V shaped recovery feels like a pipe dream. Krugman says the Romney team is ‘waving’ little things like facts away, because it is politically convenient to do so. See: More Financial Crisis Denialism http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/more-financial-crisis-denialism/

The fact is, of course, that the US economy has been posting figures that we in the UK envy. It may well be that the US recovery has been stronger because it has had less austerity. It is certainly absurd to say that if Obama had been Austerian in his approach, the US recovery would have been stronger.

But where both Krugman and Wolf may have it wrong is not conceding that there is any benefit to creative destruction at all. Recession can correct bad habits, remove poor practice, and ensure only the very fittest companies with truly strong business models can survive.

The snag is that right now the debate between economists is black and white. Either we need to let the economy correct via allowing failure, or we have a really massive Keynesian push. There seems to be no middle group. Maybe what we really need is both, and economists are so blind to their adversaries’ opinions that they are forcing us to make a choice, when what we really need is the best of both worlds.

©2012 Investment and Business News.

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The latest data from the Nationwide, Hometrack and Halifax on UK house prices was out last week. And for the second time in three months they were unanimous. They all had month on month house prices falling: Hometrack by 0.1 per cent, Nationwide by 0.4 per cent, and the Halifax index recorded a 0.4 per cent drop in September. It has been frustrating over the last couple of years observing these housing surveys. Each month they have seemed to contradict each other. But all three reported falls in July, and in August two of the three reported falls (Nationwide had prices rising), and in September this rare agreement thing has happened again.

Perhaps more to the point, on an annual basis all three had prices falling too: Hometrack by 0.5 per cent, Nationwide by 1.4 per cent and Halifax by 1.2 per cent.

Mind you, they might have prices falling but house prices are not exactly crashing.

Meanwhile, politicians are busy trying to dream up ideas to try to get prices up. Nick Clegg wants to use money sitting in pension schemes to fund deposits, while Ed Balls has mooted the idea of using income from licensing 4G to fund a cut in stamp duty.

But, as is their wont, while on one hand the government is trying to dream up ideas to kick start the property market – such as funding for lending – is the other hand is also busy coming up with ideas to derail the market. According to analysis from Morgan Stanley, banks could be forced to find an extra £22bn in capital to fund changes to the way in which mortgages are risk weighted. The issue is complicated. Under the Basel rules, banks are required to hold a certain amount of capital. And under impending changes they will need to maintain 10 per cent capital ratios – other than mortgages, that is. Mortgages are seen as different, and carry a much lower risk rating than other asset classes. And who chooses this risk rating? Why the banks themselves, of course. It turns out that some banks have put such a low risk rating on their mortgage assets that, in fact, they can achieve leverage of near 100 to one – or one per cent capital.

It is not difficult to understand why the regulator is worried about this. This may seem like a radical concept, but some might say that it should not be down to the banks to risk assess their own assets.

So far then it all makes sense. Banks should not be allowed to risk assess their assets, and should not be allowed leverage of around 100:1 on some mortgage debt. It is just that if the regulators’ perfectly reasonable reservations were taken into account, bank mortgage lending might crash faster than you can say ‘property snakes and ladders’.

And that brings us to the baby boomers – you know those people who are due to swell the ranks of the retired to record levels. According to research from Lloyds Bank, just over half (51 per cent) of potential home movers are looking to ‘downsize’ within the next three years, compared to just a fifth (22 per cent) looking to trade up to a larger property. It is not that rare for home owners reaching retirement to downsize. The Lloyds TSB report, however, found that the reasons for downsizing have broadened in these tough economic times. Whilst 59 per cent want to move to a smaller property that is better suited to their circumstances, a third of potential downsizers would like to move to a smaller property to help reduce bills. Almost two fifths would like to free up equity in the property, and almost one in three said they want to downsize to help support retirement plans. A fifth of those considering downsizing are looking to trade down earlier than expected, with the majority citing financial concerns as the key driver.

So there you have it. The government can try to nudge us all into saving more, but as the UK enters the demographic moment of dread – the retirement of baby boomers – we are set to see a rush of people downsizing, creating an influx of supply onto the property market.

©2012 Investment and Business News.

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Bear in mind that while the disadvantages of single currencies are clear, they do offer massive and pretty obvious advantages too.

Back in the 1930s, the problem of protectionism was rife. Mercantile policies in which each and every country tried to outdo everyone else by exporting more and importing less created the conditions for a world war. In 1944, Keynes and most of the great and the good in the economic world congregated at Bretton Woods in the US. Keynes was the star of the show. He was after all a very clever man, and he proposed a system of international exchange, in which surplus countries were pretty much forced to buy more from deficit countries. His plan was rejected largely because the US contingent felt that this too clever by half Brit, who no one else really understood, had come up with wheeze designed to help one of the world’s largest deficit countries – the UK – and punish the world’s biggest surplus country – the US.

We got the IMF, World Bank and the Bretton Woods system of monetary exchange as compromises. It is a shame, because if Keynes’ plan had been accepted, the global crisis of 2008 may never have happened, and actually the US – which today is the biggest deficit country in history – would have eventually done very  well out of it.

Keynes’ rather selfish next move was to die. In death he attained a kind of demigod status, but by then it was too late. The course of history was set.

But within the euro area itself, Keynes’ ideas could be adopted. If they were, it is possible that the problems of imbalances could be solved, and the euro could survive.

In sport, no one wants to see every competition end in a draw, but for the game of international trade, a high score draw for exports and imports for each and every country may well prove to be the result we all need.

Also see the following related articles:

Is there hope for the euro? Catalonia’s rift with Spain
Spain’s woes are not down to debt
Catalonia’s strife; currency’s knife
Political shenanigans in Europe
The fix to the euro crisis

©2012 Investment and Business News.

Investment and Business News is a succinct, sometimes amusing often thought provoking and always informative email newsletter. Our readers say they look forward to receiving it, and so will you. Sign-up here