Oil and Growth

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Macro Letter – No 24 – 21-11-2014

Oil and Growth

  • The oil price has fallen by 30% since the summer
  • Global inflation expectations are starting to be revised downwards accordingly
  • Global growth, led by energy importers will be revised higher

 

The Oil Price

Since the summer crude oil prices have fallen sharply from above US$105 to below US$75/barrel. This price move has led to discussion of lower demand stemming from a slow-down in global economic activity. Whilst I expect a benign influence on inflation I am not convinced that the price decline is due to a reduction in global demand. Here is a daily chart for Spot West Texas Intermediate crude oil (WTI) since November 2007:-

TWI Spot - November 2007 - November 2014

Source: Barchart.com

The precipitous decline in 2008 was driven by the global recession following the US sub-prime crisis. The liquidity fuelled recovery in the oil price and the world economy was engineered by the largest central banks. During the same period the US$ Index rose and then declined in a broadly inverse manner to Oil though the motivation for the vacillations in the value of the US currency is broader:-

US Dollar Index - November 2007 - November 2014

Source: Barchart.com

Aside from the steady strengthening of the US$ there are a number of factors which have conspired to drive oil prices lower. Firstly there has, and will continue to be, additional supply emanating from the US where improved energy technology has produced significant increase in production over the last five years –from 1.8bln barrels in 2008 to 2.3bln barrels in 2013. In May 2014 it hit a 25 year high of 8.4mln barrels and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast 2015 production will hit the highest level since 1972. The economic impact of cheaper US energy underpins a manufacturing renaissance which is slowly gathering momentum across America.

The next factor is Saudi Arabian production which has not yet been reduced in response to lower prices. Perhaps this, in turn, is a reaction to the secular decline in oil demand from developed countries; though the announcement, last week, of an emissions reduction agreement by China and the USA may add to the downward pressure. Brookings – The U.S. and China’s Great Leap Forward opined thus: -

The world’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide together pledged deep reductions – well in advance of the pressure they will face in the upcoming UN Climate Change negotiations that begin in Lima later this month, and which are scheduled to conclude a year from now in Paris.  They also did so at a level deeper than many had expected.  While both countries have already begun efforts to cut emissions, the timing of the announcement and the depth of the reductions went beyond what many diplomats, businesses and environmental groups anticipated.

… Internationally, both countries have a range of other issues to address – including working with the poorest nations which lack the resources to make similarly dramatic cuts, but who are deeply affected by a warmer, wetter world. Still, even with all those obstacles ahead, today’s agreement is the beginning of a great leap forward for climate protection.

Additional supply could swiftly come on stream from Libya. Further talks are scheduled between the rival Libyan factions in Khartoum, Sudan, on December 1st.  The chart below shows how swiftly Libyan production has declined:-

Libyan crude_oil_production EIA

Source: EIA

Also hanging over the market is the prospect of Iranian production increases as international sanctions are reduced. Between 2011 and 2013 Iranian oil exports declined from 3mln bpd to less than 1mln bpd. This year they have rebounded strongly, averaging more than 1mbpd. Iranian production has been running at around 3 mbpd but the National Iranian Oil Company expects an increase to 4.3 mbpd next year – though several commentators are doubtful of Iran’s ability to achieve this increase in output. For more detail on the Iranian situation this article – Al Monitor – Iran takes steps to reduce economic risk of falling oil prices may be of interest.

There are some demand factors which may also undermine prices. Chinese growth has been slowing but, more importantly, the Chinese administration has adopted a policy of re-balancing away from production towards domestic consumption. In theory this process should reduce China’s energy demand; off-set, to some degree, by increased export demand from other emerging market countries as they seek to supply China’s consumption needs. I believe lower energy prices will help Chinese exporters to increase margins or export volumes – or both.

The latest IEA Oil Market Report made these observations: -

Oil’s rout gained momentum in October and extended into November, with Brent at a four-year low below $80/bbl. A strong US dollar and rising US light tight oil output outweighed the impact of a Libyan supply disruption. ICE Brent was last trading at $78.50/bbl – down 30% from a June peak. NYMEX WTI was at $75.40/bbl.

Global oil supply inched up by 35 kb/d in October to 94.2 mb/d. Compared with one year ago, total supply was 2.7 mb/d higher as higher OPEC production added to non-OPEC supply growth of 1.8 mb/d. Non-OPEC production growth is forecast to ease to 1.3 mb/d for 2015 from this year’s 1.8 mb/d high.

OPEC output eased by 150 kb/d in October to 30.60 mb/d, remaining well above the group’s official 30 mb/d supply target for a sixth month running. The group’s oil ministers meet on 27 November against the backdrop of a 30% price decline since they last gathered in June.

Global oil demand estimates for 2014 and 2015 are unchanged since last month’sReport, at 92.4 mb/d and 93.6 mb/d, respectively. Projected growth will increase from a five-year annual low of 680 kb/d in 2014 to an estimated 1.1 mb/d next year as the macroeconomic backdrop is expected to improve.

OECD industry oil stocks built counter-seasonally by 12.6 mb in September. Their deficit versus average levels, after ballooning earlier this year, fell to its narrowest since April 2013. Preliminary data show that despite a 4.2 mb draw, stocks swung into a surplus to average levels in October for the first time since March 2013.

Global refinery crude demand hit a seasonal low in October amid peak plant maintenance and seasonally weak product demand. The 4Q14 throughput estimate is largely unchanged since last month’s Report, at 77.5 mb/d, as robust Russian and Chinese throughputs offset a steeper-than-expected drop in US runs in October.

Set against these forces, driving the price of oil lower, is the geo-political tension between Russia and NATO, the ISIS insurgency in Iraq and the continued instability of the Middle East emanating from the civil war in Syria. It is difficult to estimate how far the oil price would decline if the civil unrest in Ukraine and Syria ended tomorrow, I suspect, another 20% to 25%% -during the Kuwait War in the month of October 1990 the price of WTI declined from $40 to $27/barrel even before the war was over:-

WTI Spot - July 1990 - March 1991

Source: Barchart.com

From a technical perspective the breakout from the 2011 range to the downside suggests support around $66, $62, $58, with a final capitulation target of $46. There are, however, reasons to be more optimistic about the prospects for oil, even near-term.

A factor, mentioned by the IEA, which may lead to a reduction in supply, is the outcome of the forthcoming OPEC meeting due to take place on 27th November. Qatar has already begun, reducing production from 800,000 bpd to 650,000bpd last month. At the end of November they will reduce production further to 500,000 bpd – in total a 40% cut. They are not the only countries to be reducing production. The tables below are taken from the OPEC Monthly Report November 2014 which included Secondary Sources: -

OPEC-Secondary-Sources  September 2014

Source: OPEC

Whilst oil prices may trend somewhat lower the term structure of the TWI futures market has recently returned from several years of backwardation to contango – Brent Crude has been in contango for some while. This suggests that lower prices are beginning to reduce US domestic over-supply as smaller US operators cease to be able to produce oil profitably. Below $65 the EIA forecast for 2015 will probably need to be revised lower. Prices are likely to be better underpinned at their current levels.

Another encouraging factor is US domestic demand from refiners. US Crack spreads – the price spread between crude oil and its products – has started to widen in recent weeks. Oil demand should increase in response to higher product margins. The cracking margins have risen most dramatically for Gasoline but Heating Oil margins have also improved and may catch up if predictions of an exceptionally cold winter in the Northern hemisphere prove to be correct. NOAA – Winter Outlook from last month is reasonably sanguine – warm in the West and Alaska, cold in South and Rockies – but substantial snowfall in Siberia (the largest in October since 1967) is cause for caution.

Global Growth

This brings me on to the impact of lower oil prices on global growth. Obviously the large crude oil exporting countries will suffer from reduced revenue but the importers of oil – and gas, since many gas contracts are referenced to the price of oil – should be beneficiaries.  This recent article from Brookings – Oil – A Question of Economics – reminds readers of some of the ubiquitous benefits to the global economy of lower energy prices: -

Virtually all businesses will benefit from lower transportation costs by expanding their profit margins or passing the benefit to consumers at lower prices. The lower income groups, who spend a higher proportion of their incomes on transport, will see their disposable incomes rise, benefiting retailers who serve their needs and thereby increasing demand in the economy. Food prices are also likely to fall, as food production, processing and sales distribution are energy intensive activities, thereby benefiting lower income groups further. Increased consumption will stimulate aggregate demand, creating investment opportunities and economic growth. Governments in the west may also have the opportunity to increase fuel taxes to cover the real cost of the negative externalities of carbon emissions, or raise revenue to improve public transportation systems. Furthermore, governments in the Middle East and Asia will reduce spending on their fuel subsidies and may take the opportunity to improve the workings of market forces, which the IMF and Western powers have been seeking for them to do.

The effect of lower oil prices is felt quite rapidly by consumers globally. Oil consumers, at the household level, receive an immediate boost to their real income. This “wind-fall” is then either spent or saved. An explanation of these effects can be found in this Gavyn Davies article in the Financial Times – Large global benefits from the 2014 oil shock (Some of you may need to subscribe to this “limited free service”). He uses IMF data to produce two very interesting charts: -

Oil and GDP - IMF Fulcrum

Source: IMF and Fulcrum

The fall in inflation will be of greater concern to the ECB than the other major central banks. The BoJ has already acted aggressively in response to the economic slowdown in Japan, the Abe government has deferred a scheduled tax increase and announced an early election. The Federal Reserve, having completed its tapering of QE, will be focussed on wage growth. As central bank to the world’s second largest and rising oil producer, the Fed will be concerned about the drag on growth from a slowdown in the energy and utility sectors; market expectations of interest rate increases will be deferred once again. If the ECB act aggressively to head off the chimera of deflation this may be enough to improve global confidence – I believe this makes the blue line prediction more likely. If WTI should plummet towards $60, the improvement in economic growth should be even greater.

As recently as last month the IMF – World Economic Outlook – forecast for Oil prices was $102.76 for 2014 and $99.36 for 2015. They continue to cling to their forecasts based on expectation of increased geo-political tensions. Given that their 2015 forecast is around 30% above current levels if they are mistaken and the oil price remains subdued their global growth forecast could be around 0.6% too low.

Last month The Economist – Cheaper Oil: Winners and Losers – took up the theme of lower oil prices:-

A 10% change in the oil price is associated with around a 0.2% change in global GDP, says Tom Helbling of the IMF. A price fall normally boosts GDP by shifting resources from producers to consumers, who are more likely to spend their gains than wealthy sheikhdoms. If increased supply is the driving force, the effect is likely to be bigger—as in America, where shale gas drove prices down relative to Europe and, says the IMF, boosted manufactured exports by 6% compared with the rest of the world. But if it reflects weak demand, consumers may save the windfall.

The authors go on to discuss farmers as the main direct beneficiaries of cheaper oil. India especially but other economies with a large agricultural sector as well: -

Energy is the main input into fertilisers, and in many countries farmers use huge amounts of electricity to pump water from aquifers far below, or depleted rivers far away. A dollar of farm output takes four or five times as much energy to produce as a dollar of manufactured goods, says John Baffes of the World Bank. Farmers benefit from cheaper oil. And since most of the world’s farmers are poor, cheaper oil is, on balance, good for poor countries.

Take India, home to about a third of the world’s population living on under $1.25 a day. Cheaper oil is a threefold boon. First, as in China, imports become cheaper relative to exports. Oil accounts for about a third of India’s imports, but its exports are diverse (everything from food to computing services), so they are not seeing across-the-board price declines. Second, cheaper energy moderates inflation, which has already fallen from over 10% in early 2013 to 6.5%, bringing it within the central bank’s informal target range. This should lead to lower interest rates, boosting investment.

Third, cheaper oil cuts India’s budget deficit, now 4.5% of GDP, by reducing fuel and fertiliser subsidies. These are huge: along with food subsidies, the total is 2.5 trillion rupees ($41 billion) in the year ending March 2015—14% of public spending and 2.5% of GDP. The government controls the price of diesel and compensates sellers for their losses. But, for the first time in years, sellers are making a profit. As in China, cheaper oil should reduce the pain of cutting subsidies—and on October 19th Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, said he would finally end diesel subsidies, free diesel prices and raise natural-gas prices.

The price move has also prompted a response from the researchers at the Dallas Fed – Oil Prices Fall Despite Global Uncertaintywhilst their concern is broadly domestic they note that it is Non-OECD demand which is driving the increase in oil demand. The largest beneficiaries of lower oil prices will be oil importing emerging market countries: China, India and, to the extent that they are still considered an emerging economy, South Korea. Other candidates include Singapore, Taiwan, Poland, Greece, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil and Turkey.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

Foreign Exchange

The fall in oil prices has been mirrored, inversely, by the rise of the US$. This trend is already well established but I expect it to continue. This is not so much a reflection of the strength of the US economy as the moribund nature of growth expectations in the EU and Japan.

Government Bonds

Lower inflation expectations, combined with central bank inflation targets, should ensure a delay to interest rate tightening even in response to a resurgence of wage growth. Bond prices will continue to be underpinned. At any sign of a slowing of economic growth, yield curves will flatten further. Convergence of EZ bond yields will continue.

Equities

The chart below shows the relative performance of the S&P500 Index vs MSCI Emerging Market ETF (EEM) over the last five years, after an initial rebound from the Great Recession the US stock market began to outperform other stock markets, driven by the economic boon of oil and gas technology, the implementation of TARP  and the highly accommodative policies of the Fed. With the current round of QE at an end, US investors may need to look further afield in search of value :-

EEM vs SandP 5yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

Expectation of “Lower for Longer” interest rates and cheaper oil is supportive for stock markets in general although there will be sector specific winners and losers. Geographically, lower oil prices will favour those economies most reliant on oil imports, especially if their exchange rate is pegged to the US$. Given the under-performance of many emerging market equities over the last few years I believe this offers the best investment opportunity going forward into 2015. Those countries with floating exchange rates such as India have already benefitted from currency devaluation of 2013; however, there is still potential upside for equities, even after the strong performance of 2014. The SENSEX Index (BSE) started the year around 21,000 and is currently making new highs at 28,000, but during the last three months it has tended to track the performance of the S&P 500 Index – despite the fall in oil prices. I anticipate a general re-rating of emerging market equities next year.

An Italian stress-test

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Macro Letter – No 23 – 07-11-2014

An Italian stress-test

240px-Palazzo_Salimbeni_Siena

Palazzo Salimbeni – Siena

  • After the ECB Comprehensive Assessment Italian Banks appear the “weakest link”
  • Italian bank ownership of BTPs is a growing concern if the “carry trade” should unravel
  • Italian stocks have performed better since March but Real-Estate looks better value

Last week I visited Tuscany for the first time in twenty years. Pictured above is of the head office of Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena. Monte dei Paschi – founded in 1472 – is generally deemed to be the longest established bank in the world. When I visited the city in 1994 their splendid head office, originally the seat of the Salimbeni family, was not open to the public. In the past month in what looks like a “charm offensive” this situation has changed. It is now possible to peruse the bank’s fine collection of art and ponder on the challenges of operating a modern bank in a medieval building.

The change of attitude towards visitors may have been in response to the Banca D’Italia bail-out in January of last year. Monte dei Paschi suffered Eur 2bln in losses in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Then ,in 2009, they entered into a series of derivative contracts with Deutsche Bank and Nomura which led to further losses in late 2012. The central bank was forced to act since Monte dei Paschi is the third largest banking institution in Italy – though some distance behind Intesa and Unicredit.

AQR Stress

Last week also saw the release of the ECB Comprehensive Assessment. This included the Asset Quality Review (AQR) of the largest 123 financial institutions in Europe. 25 banks failed the test – eight of them were Italian. The tests were performed early this year and of the 25 banks 12 had addressed their capital shortage issues by the time of the publication of the results, however, Monte dei Paschi had the largest shortfall (Eur 2.11bln) and its share price declined by more than 20% on the news. Here is a list of the Italian banks, before and after their capital raising efforts:-

Bank Shortfall Capital Raised Net Shortfall
Monte dei Paschi di Siena 4.25 2.14 2.11
Banca Carige 1.83 1.02 0.81
Veneto Banca 0.71 0.74 0
Banca Popolare di Milano 0.68 0.52 0.17
Banca Popolare di Vicenza 0.68 0.46 0.22
Credito Valtellinese 0.38 0.42 0
Banca Popolare di Sondrio 0.32 0.34 0
Banca Popolare dell’Emilia Romagna 0.13 0.76 0
Italian Bank Total 8.98 6.4 3.31

Source: ECB

The Economist – The ECB’s asset Quality Review : Stressful tests sheds more light on what has changed since the last review of European banks: -

The European Central Bank (ECB) simultaneously to the stress-tests has carried out a comprehensive audit of the value of the stuff on each bank’s balance sheet, the Asset Quality Review (AQR). This was only applied to 123 big banks in the euro zone’s 18 countries, which from next month will be regulated by the ECB instead of national watchdogs. 

The ECB found €136 billion in troubled loans banks had not already confessed to owning, bringing the European total to €879 billion ($1.1 trillion). Italy will have to implement the biggest reclassification of loans (€12 billion), with Greek (€8 billion) and German banks (€7 billion) also challenged. Interpreting the results, even at aggregate level, is complicated by the fact that they are arrived at using data from the end of 2013—and much has happened since then. Notably, many banks that thought they might fail the tests have raised over €45 billion in equity, strengthening them considerably. That explains why only 13 banks will have to unveil plans to raise capital when 25 have apparently failed, including Eurobank in Greece, Monte dei Paschi di Siena in Italy and Portugal’s BCP, the only three with more than €1 billion to raise. They now have to come up with plans to strengthen their balance sheets.

For a different perspective on the ECB Comprehensive Assessment the Peterson Institute – Whither Europe’s Banks after the Stress Test? Makes for interesting reading:-

Beyond the 25 banks that failed the test, other banks face difficulties because the asset quality review forced them to acknowledge their exposure to €135.9 billion in nonperforming loans (NPLs) and write down their assets by €47.5 billion. As mentioned above, only €10.7 billion of this sum was uncovered in banks that failed the comprehensive assessment, leaving around €37 billion of these asset write-downs to be recognized on the books of other euro area banks in the coming quarters. The ECB must now aggressively require banks to recognize these losses.

…International banking authorities have agreed to introduce a new definition of capital for banks to be applicable in 2017. Although this new standard—known as the “fully loaded Common Equity Tier 1 (CET1) ratio” —was not part of the comprehensive assessment, the comprehensive assessment published the data so that financial markets can apply the standard to more fully understand the future state of euro area banks. The CET1 standard is much tougher on banks, as it excludes various lax interim arrangements and accounting standards used by banks before they adopt the new standard. The most notorious of these is the ability of banks to employ what are known as deferred tax assets, which enable the banks to inflate the amount of risk capital they have with what has in many cases been essentially a government fiscal transfer to the banks through the backdoor. The effects of these shenanigans in the comprehensive assessment were to let banks avoid having to add €126.2 billion in new capital to get to the new CET1 standard. Were they to have to add that amount, many more banks would have failed the test. German banks benefitted the most from these issues by €33 billion. Spanish banks get away with not having to add €25 billion in new capital, and Italian banks, €16 billion. The fully loaded CET1 data, which is provided for the adverse scenario for the year 2016, better indicates how banks will fare as the new supervisory rules come into force.

Peterson point out that under the fully-loaded CET1 capital definition a further four Italian banks would have failed the stress tests.

The Brookings Institute – Despite Headlines, it’s Good News on Europe’s Banks, but with Some Risk for the ECB has an altogether more sanguine view: -

European banks are in much better shape than many had feared, if the results announced yesterday for the combined “asset quality review” and “stress tests” are accurate measures of the underlying situation and future prospects for the banks. I know the key people involved and they are highly professional and had a strong incentive not to be too lenient, so I tend to take these results as truly positive. They had political room to produce somewhat more pessimistic results, so I interpret these optimistic findings as their true beliefs. On the downside, the European Central Bank (ECB) now “owns” any major banking problems in Europe and runs real risks if these tests were in fact too optimistic, or even if they were broadly right but new problems develop. Observers generally will not distinguish after the fact between new problems and the playing out of old weaknesses. It is hard to read these results as excessively harsh, which would have been the only protection for the ECB.

What was so good about the results? Only 10 percent or 13 banks out of 130 need to raise any additional capital and the total requirement is a miniscule 10 billion euros compared to 22 trillion euros of assets owned by these banks. This not only says positive things about the current state of the banking system, but also removes the threat of regulatory pressure to deleverage further, which might have inhibited needed lending.

Returning, specifically to the Italian banks Bruegel – Monday blues for Italian banks – suggests that for Italy there is still a long way to go:-

…the Italian banking system is still keeping in place a strong liason dangereuse with the (huge) government debt. This is not at all a special feature of Italian banks (as Figure 1 shows) but with almost 80% of their sovereign long direct gross exposures concentrated on Italy, Italian banks are found in this supervisory exercise to be among the most exposed to the sovereign debt issued by the domestic sovereign. Actually, if one excludes the countries that have been or are under a EU/IMF macroeconomic adjustment programme, Italian banks are the most exposed in the Eurozone.

Domestic Sovereign debt exposure of EU banks

Source: EBA

More interestingly, the exercise shows that this “home bias”, which is deeply at the root of the sovereign-banking vicious circle that characterised the euro crisis, has even worsened over the last three years.

…Sovereign debt accounts by now for around 10% of total assets of Italian banks, on average. The carry trade on these holdings might have kept banks afloat over the last 3 years, but these gains are actually concealing deeper structural issues that Italian banks have – until now – never been forced to face in full.

One such long-known problem of the Italian banking system is profitability, which is (and has been for quite a while now) very low. According to ECB data, average return on equity has been negative over the period 2010-2013 and the comparison with Spanish banks is especially striking. After the huge drop in return on equity during 2012, Spanish banks recovered, whereas Italian banks seemed to have never done it (Figure 2).

Italian vs Spanish Banks ROI

Source: EBA

Bruegel goes on to highlight the lack of restructuring of the Italian banking system and suggest that it is ripe for significant consolidation. Being Italy, this will undoubtedly be a more protracted process due to the complex legal structure of many financial institutions and the length of the judicial process. For a detailed review of the Italian judicial system this IMF – Italy Selected Issues paper may be of interest.

Italian Growth

So what are the prospects for Italy now that the banks have almost got their houses in order? The European Commission – Autumn Forecast – released this week – is less than encouraging. Italy is expected to contract -0.4% in 2014 after a decline of -1.9% last year. 2015 is anticipated to see growth returning but only to +0.4%. The Italian government has attempted to reign in public spending but austerity measures have failed to stem the rising ratio of debt relative to GPD. The chart below, also from Bruegel, compares the situation in Italy with that in the Netherlands:-

Italy and Netherland Government debt to GDP

Source:IMF

The dotted lines show the forecast at each stage. It is some comfort to observe that this is not just an Italian problem but the size of the Italian government debt is, as usual, substantial.

Another important issue to consider when analysing the prospects for Italy is the substantial economic differences between the regions. This Wikipedia map shows the GDP/capita in 2008:-

italian_GDP_per_head_2008

Source: Wikipedia

My sojourn in Tuscany provided an insight into an “average area” consisting of agriculture and mostly light industry. The agricultural sector is a combination of small holdings, mostly in the north, and larger agro-industry around Maremma. Industry is diversified, although metallurgical firms are still prevalent despite the decline in mining. Service, including banking, and tourism are also significant contributors to the economy of the region.

This is neither the industrial heartland of the Northern League nor the administrative metropolis of Roma but it makes an interesting contrast with other parts of Europe and reveals the slow pace of Italian development over the past two decades. The Italian expression “La Bella Figura” (Nice appearance) as mentioned by Silvia Merler of Bruegal captures the essence of the problem. Italy is a little too comfortable.

In a speech in September by Salvatore Rossi – Senior Deputy Governor of the Banca D’Italia – Finance for Growth he reflected on some “home truths” about the state of the Italian economy:-

Italy has long strayed from the path of economic growth. Common sense tells us this is so and the data confirm it.

In the last six years the recession has doubled the rate of unemployment and eroded 11 percentage points from per capita GDP. But our problems go back much further than that: in 2008, on the eve of the financial crisis, the average amount of goods and services produced by Italian workers was basically unchanged from 1995. In the same period other countries, spurred by the technological paradigm shift of ICT, had seen their productivity rates soar.

The strong growth in employment that was nevertheless recorded in Italy in the pre-crisis years, favoured by the introduction of more flexible work contracts, proved insufficient to offset the effect of the stagnation of productivity on households’ disposable income. At the outbreak of the crisis, for the average household this was at the same level as in the mid-1990s and only the progressive reduction of the saving rate had enabled modest growth in consumption.

The diminishing ability to generate income heralds a decline in living standards, both with respect to this country’s past and to the world’s main players. This is all the more worrying when one considers that in forty years’ time the ratio of people of working age (20-69) to elderly retirees will have halved, from 4 to 2. Even just to maintain per capita living standards at their current levels would require an increase in labour productivity of 25 per cent.

Rossi goes on to discuss the need for finance to help the large number of small companies to grow. He observes that in other countries small firms either succeed and expand rapidly or wither and die whilst in Italy they simply limp on. Rossi discusses the need for economic reform. I believe it requires a serious crisis to achieve these goals.

Bonds

As mentioned earlier in this article, Italian banks are significant holders of BTPs. The European convergence trade has been extremely profitable and hopes that the ECB will begin outright monetary purchases (OMT) should the EZ head into a deep recession means the market prices these bonds with an implicit “put option” attached. I believe this is a far from certain. Only last month we saw a brief panic in the Greek bond market – Italian 10 yr yields followed suit rising by more than 25bp. I see little value remaining long 10yr BTPs at current yields – 2.43% – they have come a long way since their November 2011 lows when they touched 7.50%.

Stocks

The chart below shows the FTSE MIB Index vs EuroStoxx 50 ETF. The Italian stock market has been lagging the broader European market for s significant time as Deputy Governor Rossi’s speech about the lack of economic growth prior to the 2008 crisis observes. However, it is worth noting that the MIB has outperformed EuroStoxx since March of this year, perhaps reflecting concerns about slower growth in France and Germany:-

MIB vs Eurostoxx 50 ETF - 10yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

Sadly the ETF data only stretches back to 2005, nonetheless, this clearly demonstrates the profound underperformance of Italian stocks. The MIB may be outperforming this year but I believe the catalyst is an external slowdown rather than expectation of significant internal growth.

Real-Estate

Italian property prices followed the trend seen in many other parts of Europe during the last twenty years but the rise has been muted. This article published in February by Global Property Guide – Italy’s house prices down 6.5% on the year. Will it ever end? Provides some useful background about home ownership and Loan to Value (LTV)rates, it also reflects on the fall in mortgage rate:-

The average interest rate for new housing loans was 2.92% from May 2009 to March 2011, but then rose to a maximum of 4.3% in February 2012. After the ECB rate was reduced from 1% to around 0.75% in July 2012, the average interest rate for house purchases also started declining along with the ECB rate. In November 2013, the interest rate for new housing loans was at 3.54%.

Across the country, Italian house prices have been declining since 2009, however, unlike some other European countries the Italian mortgage market is relatively under developed and LTV rates remain subdued. Whilst debt is a major issue for Italy, mortgage debt acts as less of a fiscal drag on the economy than in the UK or Ireland.

EU Property prices - mdbriefing

Source: MD Briefing

Recent price trends suggest that a recovery is under way. Milanese housing is now forecast to rise by around 4% in 2014 – earlier this year expectations were for continued price declines. The initial resurgence in demand is likely to emanate from the commercial sector. International demand for tourist property will be subdued by the supply overhang in Spain and Portugal but, once the new TASI property tax has worked its way through the system, the broader market will start to clear.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

The correction in Real-Estate prices in Italy has been relatively subdued in comparison with Spain, Portugal or Ireland but, despite additional taxation, the market is showing nascent signs of recovery. This is partly due to the significant reduction in mortgage rates since 2012. Italian property did rise substantially between 2000 and 2008 (around 85%) but this is moderate in comparison with some other EZ countries.

As an investment opportunity Real-Estate is preferable to BTPs or the Italian stock market. Italian REITs have been available since 2006 but recent changes to rules introduced in August may make the market more vibrant; this article from RE Europe -Italy makes REIT regime more competitive internationally, to grow sector by attracting foreign investment provides more detail. Before diving into, what is clearly, a limited market, this article from Bloomberg – Italy seeks to ease REIT rules is also worth reading.

Italy has weaker growth and demographic prospects than some other Europen countries and therefore Real-Estate investment opportunities will be better elsewhere in the EZ, but within Italy I prefer this sector to Bonds or Stocks. After all, at 74.1% Italy is 24th in the world ranking by property ownership (2012 data). After five years of declining prices housing is now more affordable. As the economy recovers from the weakness of 2013 latent demand should emerge. As the picture at the start of this article shows an Italian’s home is his castle.

The Celtic Tiger and the Eurozone periphery

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Macro Letter – No 22 – 24-10-2014

The Celtic Tiger and the Eurozone periphery

  • Ireland has the lowest yield of troubled nations of the Eurozone periphery
  • The Irish stock market has performed well this year
  • Irish Real-Estate has begun to rebound – is this more than a convergence game?

Last week, for the first time in almost a decade, I visited Dublin. Like so many capital cities, Dublin gives one a very different perspective on a country’s economy than the provinces. Seen from this vantage, the Celtic Tiger has re-emerged like a phoenix from the ashes of the Great Recession. At the IMF-World Bank annual meeting on 10th October, Central Bank of Ireland (BCOI) Governor Patrick Honohan, Alternate Governor for Ireland of the IMF gave an interesting up-date on the state of the Irish economy: -

The Irish economy is emerging from the crisis and there are clears signs that economic recovery is underway. GDP growth of 0.2 per cent was recorded last year and data for the first half of this year were very strong and were well ahead of consensus expectations. The increase in economic activity is broadly-based with both domestic sectors and exporting sectors performing strongly. Although below our domestic forecasts, we welcome the WEO’s projection of 3.6 per cent GDP growth in Ireland for 2014.

Labour market recovery is clearly underway. Employment has increased in each of the last seven quarters representing an increase of over 70,000 jobs since the low-point in mid-2012. This reflects recovery of almost a quarter of jobs lost since the crisis. In line with this, the unemployment rate stood at 11.1 per cent in September, down from a peak of 15.1 per cent in early 2012. While this is still unacceptably high, it is certainly moving in the right direction.

Domestic demand has stabilised and is showing encouraging signs of growth. Consumer spending is improving as confidence returns, while firms are investing in plant and machinery once again.

Due to its relatively small domestic market, Ireland’s growth model must be export oriented. Exports are expected to gain ground this year as demand in Ireland’s main export markets, particularly the UK, continues to hold up. In addition, on the basis of the latest trends, the impact of patent expiry in the pharmaceutical sector appears to have passed.

Mr Honohan then went on to discuss the state of Irish public finances:-

Targets to reduce the underlying General Government deficit have been over achieved to date. Reflecting the continued prudent budgetary stance, the General Government deficit for 2014 is now likely to be of the order of 3.5% of GDP down from 8 per cent of GDP in 2012. The size of the consolidation undertaken has been of the order of 18 per cent of GDP since 2008.

Ireland emerged successfully and on schedule from the EU/IMF programme at the end of 2013 and, in 2014, has returned to participating normally in the sovereign debt markets. Our successful exit was based on a number of factors – both domestic and international – including the Government’s steadfast delivery on its programme commitments, the extension of the maturities on the European portion of our programme loans, and the interventions by the ECB to calm the wider euro crisis.

Concerns still remain about the Irish Banking system and October sees the launch of the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland (SBCI) which will side-step the traditional and lend to SMEs. Unlike many countries where demand for business loans is anaemic, Ireland has seen a dramatic increase in new businesses this year – according to data from Vision.net 10,700 new enterprises were incorporated in Q1 2014, up 6% on 2013. During the same period insolvencies were down 23%. A slight concern is that new construction company start-ups were up 29%. According to CBOI data house prices nationally are up around 7.5% y/y in May 2014 and within the Dublin area by 15%.

The Central Bank of Ireland – Consultation Paper 87 – highlights measures being taken to avoid another housing bubble by the introduction of macro-prudential policies aimed at limiting excessive leverage in the mortgage market. The proposals are as follows:-

Restrict new lending for principal dwelling houses (PDH) above 80 per cent LTV to no more than 15 per cent of the value of all new PDH loans.

Restrict new lending for PDHs above 3.5 times LTI to no more than 20 per cent of the value of all new PDH loans.

Restrict new lending to buy-to-let above 70 per cent LTV to no more than 10 per cent of the value of all housing loans for investment purposes.

The rise in house prices is almost certainly due to a lack of supply coupled with strong population growth. The 2011 Census – published in June confirmed the significant increase in Irelands population since 2002. The Great Recession may have tempered the pace of growth (the five year inter-censal period showed growth of only 8.2%) but the trend is still positive:-

Ireland - Population - source CSO

Source: CSO

Since 2002 the population in Ireland has grown by 17 per cent, two and a half times the rate of growth in Northern Ireland of 6.9 per cent.

…the median age of the population was 34, the lowest of any EU Member State.

These are attractive demographic trends and the rise in new construction companies is not surprising when viewed from this perspective.

In the Central Bank of Ireland – Macro-Financial Review – a semi-annual report last published in June – the  bank acknowledges their concern about residential property and other potential headwinds, both internal and external, which may knock the Irish recovery off course:-

A number of headwinds will continue to restrain growth, however, including modest external demand growth, high household indebtedness, elevated unemployment numbers, weak prospects for disposable income growth, and the continuing need for fiscal adjustment.

…The key systemic issue for the Irish economy remains the high level of impaired bank loans. Despite some recent reductions, mortgage arrears remain high, while the number of cases of very long-term arrears of over 720 days continues to increase. Loan-servicing arrears among small and medium enterprise (SME) borrowers are also a significant problem. Other challenges facing the SME sector include weak domestic demand conditions, difficulties accessing credit, and high indebtedness among a small proportion of firms. Resolving the loan arrears problem for both households and SMEs is essential for borrowers and lenders and in order to support growth and recovery in the broader economy.

Ireland’s largest export markets are the USA and UK. The relative strength of these economies helps to explain the export-led recovery in Ireland since 2008.

Exports_as_a_percentage_of_GDP_-_OECD

Source: OECD

The relative resilience of the export sector is a testament to the dynamic nature of the underlying economy. Added to this, US investment in Ireland is substantial, as is FDI in general. This March 2012 article from the World Bank – FDI in Ireland: A Reason for Optimism makes interesting reading:-

Over the past 10 years, inflows of FDI into Ireland tend to be substantially higher as a percentage of GDP than inflows into other OECD economies (see Figure 1). In 2009 and 2010, the two years immediately following the banking collapse, Ireland attracted three to four times more FDI proportionately than other OECD economies. These inflows were not just large in relative terms – they were equivalent to 11.7% of GDP in 2009 and 12.9% in 2010. The negative inflows in 2005 and 2008 do indicate that more money was disinvested out of Ireland than newly invested in the economy those years. However, such outflows are mostly loans or dividend payments from foreign-owned firms in Ireland to their affiliates abroad, at least some of which were likely caused by a 2004 change in the US tax rate on foreign profits.

Figure 1: Net inflows of FDI as percentage of GDP, Ireland vs OECD

FDI_Ireland_vs_OECD_Average

Source: UNCTAD and OECD

Ireland has a small, well educated, open economy. Many large multi-national companies have their European operations headquartered in Ireland; especially in the Science, Technology, Pharmaceuticals and Agricultural sectors.

Ireland’s turn-around is in marked contrast to other countries of the Eurozone (EZ) periphery. The chart below shows Real GDP from 1996 to the end of 2010 for seven EZ countries:-

Real GDP_EU_chart7 - 1996-2011

Source: Pordata

Since 2011 Ireland has outperformed further: -

Ireland GDP 2011-2014

Source: Tradingeconomics

Financial Market Performance

How has the Irish economic recovery been reflected in the performance of financial markets? I will look at Stocks, Bonds and Real-Estate.

Stocks

To begin, here is a ten year chart of the Portugese PSI20 vs Irish ISEQ Composite: -

PSI20_vs_ISEQ_2004_-2014 Bigchart.com

Source: Bigcharts.com

Ireland’s difficulties started with the unravelling of the sub-prime mortgage market in the US. The initial down-turn in the ISEQ index was more severe partly due to the heavy weighting of CRH – an international building materials firm – followed by the Irish Banking sector in the index. However unlike Portugal the Irish market had already begun to recover prior to ECB Governor Draghi’s “Whatever it takes” speech in July 2012.

The next chart compares the ISEQ to the Athens Composite:-

ISEQ vs SAGD 2003-2014 yahoo

Source: Yahoo Finance

This shows a similar pattern, however, the strong performance of the Athens Composite in the run up to 2008 was partly due to the heavy weighting of their highly leveraged Banking sector in the index – even today it has a 34% weighting.

A longer term perspective can be seen in the comparison with the Spanish IBEX35 going back to 1995:-

IBEX vs ISEQ 1996 - 2014 yahoo

Source: Yahoo Finance

The broad-based strength of the Celtic Tiger meant that it avoided the worst effects of the bursting of the technology bubble in 2000, despite a significant technology sector. The lower interest rate regime across the EZ then hastened a dramatic housing bubble, which burst spectacularly in 2007. Both Spain and Ireland continue to struggle with high loan delinquency issues, but the accommodative policies of the ECB, as it seeks to soften the effects of a slow-down in economic growth in Germany and France, suggest both peripheral nations have time on their side.

Bonds

Irish 10 yr Gilts currently yield 1.82% down from July 2011 highs of 14.61% but they are off their recent lows of 1.62% seen last month.

Irish 10 yr Gilts 2006 - 2014 Trading Economics

Source: Tradingeconomics

Since early September uncertainty about EZ growth and the adequacy of ECB policy has precipitated an unwinding of yield convergence trades. The table below shows the evolution of 10 year Government bond yields since early September:-

Country Yld 06-9 Sprd vs Bunds Yld 23-10 Sprd vs Bunds Change
Ireland 1.62 0.69 1.82 0.94 0.25
Greece 5.54 4.61 7.46 6.58 1.97
Portugal 2.93 2 3.32 2.44 0.44
Spain 2.02 1.09 2.21 1.33 0.24
Germany 0.93 N/A 0.88 N/A

Source: Investing.com

The flight to quality into German Bunds has been muted by the excessively low absolute interest rate offered by Bunds, however, the difference for Ireland today in comparison with 2011 is significant. At the beginning of July 2011 the 10 yr Irish Gilt spread over Bunds was 8.82% whilst the 10 yr Bonos spread was only 2.4%. It is important to point out that Spanish Bonos yields hit their high a year later than Ireland, in July 2012. At the beginning of July 2012 the spread between 10 yr Bonos and Bunds was 4.74%. By either measure the performance of Irish Gilts, since the depths of their depression, suggests the Irish economy is healing at a faster pace than Spain, Portugal or Greece.

Real-Estate

Irish Real-Estate was at the heart of the economic crisis which slew the Celtic Tiger, it is, therefore, critical to examine to what extent this market has “cleared”:-

Irish_Property_price_index_2005-2014_CSO

Source: CSO and Global Property Guide

This chart shows the evolution of prices up to the end of 2013. Since then prices have improved further with Dublin leading the recovery. According to the Central Statistics office, new Dublin area homes were up 16% in Q1 2014 whilst second hand properties were up 5%. CBOI data to May 2014 shows this trend gaining further momentum. A similar pattern is developing in Spain though the overall correction in prices was far less severe: -

Spain_house_prices_2002_-_2014

Source: TINSA and Global Property Guide

By contrast Greek property prices are still under pressure. The prospects for a recovery were looking better as this Bank of Greece – Monetary Policy update from June explains:-

Prime commercial property prices are expected to stabilise in 2014, while prospects for high-end tourist properties are even more favourable, as a result of a projected substantial growth in tourism. Turning to non-prime commercial properties, prices are expected to drop further in the following quarters, while the real estate market as a whole is projected to start recovering gradually in 2015, provided that the present trend is not reversed by exogenous factors (political factors, international conjuncture, etc.).

The abrupt reversal of yield convergence this month may delay the recovery.

For Portugal the situation is similar to Greece, foreign demand has begun to re-emerge but the financial crisis surrounding Banco Espirito Santo during the summer has undermined confidence.

Ireland has domestic demographic growth on its side, although there is international demand for holiday homes in Ireland’s South West and West. The property market recovery is driven by domestic Dublin area demand connected to the broad-based resurgence in economic growth. The real estate market correction in Ireland has been larger than in Spain. I am also struck by the, almost mercantilist, export led recovery in Irish growth compared to the rising tide of imports into Spain.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

The Celtic Tiger suffered a severe mauling in the aftermath of the US sub-prime crisis. The Irish construction industry was forced to restructure or liquidate. Irish banking was devastated by the global forces of the Great Recession and the government embarked on an aggressive austerity programme to address these issues. The chart below, from the OECD, shows why the Irish government was forced to approach this situation in such a draconian manner: -

Government_surplus_or_deficit_since_2001_piiggs_an

Source: Eurostat and OECD

Unemployment rose from 4.2% in 2007 to 15.1% by early 2012. Between April 2009 and April 2010 a net emigration of 34,500 occurred – the first outward migration since 1989. Since 2012 Employment has risen by 70,000 – approximately a quarter of the jobs lost in the Irish depression – this suggests an output gap still exists. Ireland is a net importer of Oil – its recent decline, despite geo-political tensions, will help to flatter inflation figures.

A turning point in the crisis came in the summer of 2011. To set the scene I will begin in 2010 when Ireland accepted a Eur85bln joint EU-IMF bailout to stabilise its banking system. This quickly bore fruit and by May 2011 the Irish Finance Minister, Michael Noonan, was ruling out the need for a second bailout. Market commentators and economists generally doubted the governments resolve and Irish Gilt yields continued to rise into the summer of 2011. At this point the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) clarified the terms of the original EU-IMF bail-out. The bond market suddenly realised that funds which had been earmarked for bank recapitalisation could also be used to fund the fiscal deficit. The Irish government would therefore require minimal new funding until 2013.

Once confidence in government finances had returned, the Irish economy could resume something approaching normality. This brings me finally to the “value question”. Have the financial markets priced in the return of The Celtic Tiger?

Stocks

The Irish stock market has performed strongly this year relative to other peripheral markets but seems to be lagging its own GDP growth. The economy relies heavily on the USA, UK and Europe since these are its principal export markets. On a relative value basis I would remain long of Irish stocks versus other EZ peripheral markets – but not Spain since I am also optimistic about its fortunes. On an outright basis it still offers better value than the rest of the EZ but is likely to experience higher volatility and lower liquidity, especially during times of stress.

Bonds

Irish Gilts (1.82%) by contrast, have been re-priced to reflect a default risk better than Spain (2.21%) and not much worst than France (1.30%). There is, however, a downside risk should the leveraged carry trade be unwound further. Whilst this is true for Spanish Bonos it is less true of French OATs; added to which, the Irish Gilt market has less depth of liquidity than Spanish or French bond markets.

Real-Estate

After its substantial correction, Irish Real-Estate looks like the best value asset class. The macro-prudential policies of the Central bank of Ireland should insure leverage does not become excessive. This will dampen volatility and extend the duration of the appreciation, but I believe it will also favour Dublin over the provinces – cash will be king. My main concern with this prediction is the stubbornly high level of non-performing loans. Yet this also favours Dublin area Real-Estate since negative equity is swiftly being erased.

The Scotian experiment and European fragmentation

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Macro Letter – No 21 – 10-10-2014

The Scotian experiment and European fragmentation

  • Scotland voted to remain part of the Union but the devolution debate doesn’t end there
  • Further European integration risks breaking the European Union
  • Economic growth in the UK and Eurozone will be damaged by long-term uncertainty

The Scottish decision to remain part of the Union, by such a slim margin – 55% to 45% on an 85% turnout – caught me by surprise. On reflection it should not have been unexpected – it was as much about the “hearts” as the “minds” of the Scottish electorate. Now that the dust has settled, I wonder what this vote means for the United Kingdom and for other regions of Europe.

In this month’s issue of The World Today, Chatham House – A result that resolves little Malcolm Chambers – Research Director at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) made the following observations: -

The Scottish referendum was supposed to settle the UK’s constitutional uncertainties, but the result has raised more questions than it answers. How Britain addresses the devolution issue and the question mark over its commitment to Europe will shape perceptions of its ability to wield influence and hard power abroad for years to come.

Britain’s 2010 National Security Strategy, published shortly after the coalition government took office, was entitled ‘A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty’. It made no mention of the two existential challenges – the possible secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom, and the risk of a British withdrawal from the European Union. Yet either event would be a fundamental transformation in the very nature of the British state, with profound impact on its foreign and security policy.

The article goes on to discuss the promises made to Scotland by Westminster’s political elite, from all the main parties, which may now create the conditions for eventual independence: -

Devolution max could have a similar effect, making the final step from ‘devo-max’ to ‘indy-light’ appear less traumatic, even as it still allows Westminster to be blamed for any ills that remain. If a further referendum is to be avoided five or ten years from now, it will not be enough to make constitutional changes.

Prime Minister Cameron took the opportunity to raise the issue of Scottish MPs voting on English issues; whilst this was politically expedient, it sows the seeds for regional calls for devolution of power to the poorer areas of Britain: -

Yet growing awareness of the constitutional imbalances created by devolution to Scotland – and, to a lesser extent, to Wales and Northern Ireland – is creating a series of shockwaves that will not dissipate easily. The UK, as a result, could now see a long period of constitutional experimentation and controversy, with profound effects on the governance of the country as a whole.

Chambers then turns to investigate the “European Question”. Here he sees a parallel between the UKs relationship with the EU and the Scottish desire for independence: -

Britain’s relationship with the European Union is similar, in important respects, to Scotland’s position in the United Kingdom. It has a special financial arrangement, involving a rebate of most of its net contribution, that is not available to other member states. It retains its own currency and border controls, and has a permanent exemption from the common currency and passport-free travel to which other states have agreed. As in Scotland, there is strong political pressure for the UK to be allowed special treatment in further areas, such as immigration controls. In both cases, attempts to construct ‘variable geometry’ governance frameworks are made more difficult by the asymmetry in size between the opting-out nation and the political union as a whole.

From the Brussels’ perspective the issue of devolution is not just restricted to the “Sceptred Isle”: -

While the nature of the Britain’s constitutional crises is unique, they are part of a wider crisis of European politics. Over the past five years, the eurozone has faced successive crises as it has sought to find a way to reconcile vast differences in economic interest and viewpoint between its member states. Relations between Germany and the southern states have worsened as the former takes on a more openly hegemonic role.

Without further significant sharing of political sovereignty – for example through a banking union – the risk that one or more member states could leave the eurozone will remain very substantial. Yet further political integration could bring its own challenges, with powerful nationalistic parties in northern Europe already pushing against those who argue that all the answers must come from Brussels. One of the reasons that Britain’s European allies were so worried about the Scotland vote was precisely their concern as to the example that a Yes vote could have sent to separatist movements in Spain, Belgium, Italy or Bosnia. This concern will not have been entirely dissipated, both because of the precedent set by London’s willingness to hold the vote, and by the closeness of the margin.

In conclusion Chambers states: -

It is still far from likely that the United Kingdom will perish, or that it will abandon its commitment to the European Union. But the possibility of one or both of these separations taking place seems set to be a central part of British politics for a decade or more.

The impact on Sterling

Sterling is still some way below its longer-term average on a trade weighted basis as this chart of the Sterling Effective Exchange Rate (ERI) Index shows, however, it’s worth noting that the average between 1994 and 2013 is around 90: -

GBP Effective Exchange rate - BoE

Source: Bank of England

Uncertainty always undermines the stability of ones currency and the Scottish referendum was no different, although its impact proved relatively minor. In a recent speech, Bank of England – The economic impact of sterling’s recent moves: more than a midsummer night’s dream – Kristin Forbes – MPC member, downplayed what could have been a dramatic decline in the value of the GBP:-

There has been some volatility in sterling recently, especially around the time of the Scottish referendum, but sterling is currently only 1% weaker than its recent peak in July 2014.

In her conclusion she points to the appreciation of the GBP since the Great Recession and cautions those who fail to anticipate the negative inflationary consequences of a weaker exchange rate: -

Where sterling’s recent moves may have had the greatest economic impact is on prices and inflation. A “top down” analysis estimating the pass-through from exchange rate movements to prices suggests that the lagged effect of sterling’s appreciation during 2013 and early 2014 may have acted as a powerful dampening effect on inflation. Although model simulations may be overestimating the magnitude of the effect, sterling’s past moves have reduced the risk of inflation increasing sharply, despite the strong growth in employment and the overall economy.

This dampening effect of sterling’s past appreciation, however, will peak at the end of 2014 and then begin to fade. As a result, it is becoming increasingly important to monitor trends in domestically-generated inflation – and especially unit labour costs – so that monetary policy can be adjusted appropriately and also be allowed to work through the economy with its own set of lags. Unfortunately, understanding recent trends in the domestic component of inflation – especially the slow growth in wages – has been challenging. A “bottom up” analysis of inflation that focuses on current measures of domestically-generated inflation (which attempt to minimize the dampening effect of sterling’s moves) show price pressures that are well contained and little evidence of imminent inflationary risks.

These “bottom up” indicators present a very different story then the “top down” estimates of inflation after adjusting for sterling’s recent appreciation. Has sterling’s appreciation had less of a dampening effect on prices than has traditionally occurred – perhaps due to structural changes in the UK or global economy? Or are the measures of domestic inflation understating current inflationary risks – perhaps due to the long lags before timely data is available? To answer these questions, it is critically important to monitor measures of prospective inflation to determine the appropriate path for monetary policy.

If concern about political devolution of power to the regions, at the expense of the power-house of the UK’s South East, and expectation of rising Euro-scepticism, are destined to be the pre-eminent political issues for the next decade, then an appreciation in the value of Sterling is likely to be tempered. Since the UK economy is closely integrated to Europe this persistent undervaluation will be less obvious in the GBP/EUR exchange rate but hopes of the trade weighted value of GBP rising like the USD due to structurally stronger growth will be muted.

In the aftermath of the referendum RUSI – Never the Same Again – What the Referendum Means for the UK and the Worldobserved:-

Having, for the first time, looked at what a ‘yes’ vote might mean for them, private investors and businesses are now more sensitised than ever before to the risks that a further referendum could pose. If some of them were to begin to hedge their bets accordingly, there could be a risk of an extended period of underinvestment in Scotland, with serious consequences for its prosperity.

Better together?

The campaign slogan of the Westminster elite was “Better Together” but, setting aside the rhetoric of power hungry politicians, what are the pros and cons of devolution versus Union? Writing ahead of the referendum Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute – The Huge Costs of Scotland Getting Small made a valiant case for continued integration: -

When is it ever a good idea for a small nation to set up on its own? Leaving aside cases of colonization and outright oppression, there is little good reason ever to shrink on the world scene by leaving a larger unit. The internal politics of democracies always get better deals for regions within them than small sovereigns can elicit from identity-ignoring market forces. The few small nations that did gain in welfare by seceding from transnational entities are those that escaped failed autocratic systems. The Baltic countries escaping the former Soviet Union’s dominance can be seen in this light. But setting out on your own is only beneficial when the system left behind has directly constrained your nation’s human potential. Whatever else, that cannot be said of the current Scottish situation in the United Kingdom.

It is a fact of life in today’s world that a small economy on its own is always buffeted by the forces of the global economy more than a region within a larger union. Even well-run small states like Singapore and Estonia are subject to huge swings in their economy resulting from capricious capital flows in and out. These swings disrupt employment, investment, and competitiveness via real exchange rate fluctuations. More important, small economies are fundamentally undiversified because of their small scale, and they risk their specializations falling out of favor in world markets. Events beyond their control can overwhelm the small nation’s high value-added industries, no matter how good it is at those things, be they oil extraction or banking or whisky distilling. Scottish independence in form will instead mean increased vulnerability in fact, because, inherently, smaller means more exposure when the markets turn—and turn they will.

…The economic debate over independence has tended to focus on the one-time transfer costs: setting up a new government administration, apportioning the accumulated public debt, grabbing as much oil as possible. But these issues are of minimal importance, however one chooses to measure them, compared to the ongoing costs of permanently greater insecurity to households and businesses. Even if an independent Scotland were to start out with the Scottish National Party (SNP) fantasy of relatively low public debt and a relatively high share of remaining oil revenues, it would have to save more, pay higher interest rates, and keep more space in its budget for self-insurance, hampered by a narrow tax base, in order to cope with the vicissitudes of the global economy on its own.

When one looks at the economic austerity foisted on the population of Greece and at the hopeless prospects much of the unemployed youth of Europe I wonder whether there is an alternative to the “integrationist” approach.

Looking for an answer I went back to the forging of the United Kingdom. This is how John Lancaster describes the events which led to the Act of Union in 1707:-

During the 17th century, Scottish investors had noticed with envy the gigantic profits being made in trade with Asia and Africa by the English charter companies, especially the East India Company. They decided that they wanted a piece of the action and in 1694 set up the Company of Scotland, which in 1695 was granted a monopoly of Scottish trade with Africa, Asia and the Americas. The Company then bet its shirt on a new colony in Darien – that’s Panama to us – and lost. The resulting crash is estimated to have wiped out a quarter of the liquid assets in the country, and was a powerful force in impelling Scotland towards the 1707 Act of Union with its larger and better capitalised neighbour to the south. The Act of Union offered compensation to shareholders who had been cleaned out by the collapse of the Company; a body called the Equivalent Society was set up to look after their interests. It was the Equivalent Society, renamed the Equivalent Company, which a couple of decades later decided to move into banking, and was incorporated as the Royal Bank of Scotland. In other words, RBS had its origins in a failed speculation, a bail-out, and a financial crash so big it helped destroy Scotland’s status as a separate nation.”

The above passage, taken from Lancaster’s 2009 book It’s Finished, is quoted near the opening of a recent article by Tim Price – Let’s Stick Together in which he refers to Leopold Kohr – The Breakdown of Nations. The forward by Kirkpatrick Sale describes the problem of size when nation building: -

What matters in the affairs of a nation, just as in the affairs of a building, say, is the size of the unit. A building is too big when it can no longer provide its dwellers with the services they expect – running water, waste disposal, heat, electricity, elevators and the like – without these taking up so much room that there is not enough left over for living space, a phenomenon that actually begins to happen in a building over about ninety or a hundred floors. A nation becomes too big when it can no longer provide its citizens with the services they expect – defence, roads, post, health, coins, courts and the like – without amassing such complex institutions and bureaucracies that they actually end up preventing the very ends they are intending to achieve, a phenomenon that is now commonplace in the modern industrialized world. It is not the character of the building or the nation that matters, nor is it the virtue of the agents or leaders that matters, but rather the size of the unit: even saints asked to administer a building of 400 floors or a nation of 200 million people would find the job impossible.

Kohr grew up in a small village which may have helped him to recognise one of the intrinsic weaknesses of democracy: that it works best on a small scale.

Taking this theme further and applying it to an independent Scotland, John Butler – From bravery to prosperity: A six-year plan to make Scotland the wealthiest Anglosphere region of all makes the case for a smaller more flexible approach. Here is an abbreviated version of his six point plan:-

Debt Repayment

The Scots’ legendary bravery is equalled by legendary parsimony, the first essential element of success. There is no growth without investment and no sustainable investment without savings. It stands to reason that you aren’t a parsimonious society if you carry around a massive, accumulating national debt. Debt service is also a drag on future growth. Thus if the Scots want to prosper long-term, they are going to need to pay down their share of the UK national debt.

Tax Reduction

There are several policies that would quickly create an investment boom. Most important, Scotland should do better than celtic rival Ireland, with a low corporate tax rate, and abolish the corporate income tax altogether. Yes, you read that right: The effective corporate income tax in many countries now approaches zero anyway, due to all manner of creative cross-border accounting.

Human Capital

Developing human capital, at which the Scots excelled in the 19th century, is the third element. Consider which industries are most likely to relocate to Scotland: Those requiring neither natural resources nor extensive industrial infrastructure, that is, those comprised primarily of human capital. Although financial services comes to mind, there is tremendous overcapacity in this area in England and Ireland, including in unproductive yet risky activities, so that is better left to the English and Irish for now. Better would be to concentrate on health care, for example, an industry faced with soaring costs and stifling regulation in much of the world.

Scotland could, inside of six years, become the world’s premier desination for so-called ‘healthcare tourism’. Scotland lies directly under some of the world’s busiest airline routes, an ideal location.

Sound Banking

A fourth essential element to success is to implement Scottish Enlightenment principles for sound banking. This is of utmost importance due to the potential monetary and financial instability of the UK and much of the broader Anglosphere.

As a first step, Scotland should forbid any bank from conducting business in Scotland if they receive any direct financial assistance from the Bank of England or from the UK government. In turn, Scotland should make clear to Westminster that Scottish residents will not contribute to any taxpayer bail out of any UK financial institution. No ‘lender of last resort’ function will exist for financial activities in Scotland, unless such action, if formally requested by a bank, is approved by the Scots in a referendum. (Taxpayers are always on the hook for bailouts one way or the other; why not make this explicit?)

Self-Reliance

The fifth element reaches particularly deep into Scottish history: Self-Reliance. Peoples that inhabit relatively inhospitable or infertile lands tend to establish cultures with self-reliance at the core. No, this does not make them culturally backward, but it does tend to contribute to a distrust of foreign or central authority. The Scots, while brave, were frequently disunited in their opposition to English rule, something that had unfortunate consequences for many, not just William Wallace.

Scottish Presbyterianism

Finally, there is the sixth element: the collective cultural traditions of Scottish Presbyterianism. There are few religions in the world that hold not only faith, but hard work, thrift and charity in such high regard as that of traditional Presbyterianism. Yes, as with most all Europeans, the Scots have become more secular in recent decades. But the same could be said of the Germans, who nevertheless cling to their own, solid Protestant work ethic and associated legal and moral anti-corruption traditions.

To be fair to Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute, none of the arguments for a non-integrated Scotland solve the problems of vulnerability to external shocks. The crux of the issue is whether a larger, more integrated unit, is more effective than a smaller more flexible one.

The Politics of Empires

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”  Lord Acton – 1834-1902.

Throughout history successful nations have grown through expansion and integration. The process is cyclical, however, and success sows the seeds of its own demise. Europe emerged from the dark ages to conquer much of the known world. Since then it has imploded during two world wars and may now be embarking on a further wave of integration. Or, perhaps, this is the last attempt to assimilate a multitude of disparate cultures before the “long withdrawing breath” into smaller, more dynamic, self-reliant units.

In the opening chapter of Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” he says:-

…but it was reserved for Augustus (who became Caesar in BC 44) to relinquish the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth and to introduce a spirit of moderation into the public councils.

However, I believe the seeds of destruction, which eventually created the conditions for the establishment of A NEW Europe, stem from Diocletian’s introduction of the Tetrarchy in AD 284. It divided the Roman Empire in four regions.

Diocletian’s son, Constantine attempted to slow this fragmentation by adopting Christianity as the official religion of the empire, however, his decision to move the seat of government from Rome to Byzantium in AD 324 set the stage for the final schism into the Eastern and Western Empires which occurred in AD395 on the demise of Theodosius.

The Western Empire sustained continuous assaults from Vandals, Alans, Suebis and Visigoths leading to the second sack of Rome in AD 410 by Alaric. The Western Empire finally collapsed in AD 476 when the Germanic Roman general Odoacer deposed the last emperor, Romulus . Europe had descended into a “dark age” of constant wars between rival tribes. The sole pan-European administrative organization after the fall of the Western Empire was the Catholic Church, which adopted the remnants of its infrastructure.

The creation of the Europe we recognise today began with the conversion to Christianity of Clovis – King of the Franks – in AD 498, but it was not until the re-uniting of the Frankish kingdoms in AD 751 under Pepin The Short and the subsequent appointment of his son Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in AD 800 that the idea of a Christian “Western Europe” began to emerge. When viewed from this long historical perspective the current development of the EU is still in its infancy.

In the East, Constantinople remained the administrative center of the Byzantine Empire. Under Emperor Justinian in AD 526 the Empire expanded. Challenges from the Lombards in AD 568 saw the loss of Northern Italy, but the rise of Islam after AD 623 proved a more terminal event. Although Byzantium went into decline, due to many assailants – not least the Western Empire – it limped on until 1453 when it to finally succumbed to the Ottoman Turks.

Why the history lesson? The spark of the industrial revolution was kindled in Europe. It developed out of the chaotic collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the warring between a plethora of tribes and the rise of independent city states. It was built on the fragmented polity of petty fiefdoms and the desire to trade despite national borders and political restrictions on the movement of labour and goods. The renaissance began in Italy where the competition between small city states stimulated “animal spirits”. The flowering of art and culture that this democratisation of prosperity set in motion goes some way to support the idea that “small is beautiful”.

During the dark ages the concept of “Nationhood” was fluid, as exemplified by the Dukes of Normandy’s fealty after 1066 to the King of France, but only in respect of their French domains. As nation states began to coalesce international trade developed further. Nations waxed and waned, alliances were made and broken but no single nation succeeded in dominating the whole region. Demographic growth encouraged voyages of discovery. Colonisation followed, and finally the conditions were propitious for the birth of the industrial revolution from which we continue to benefit today.

These processes were gradual, running their course over many generations. I believe Europe is now fragmenting once more; painful for our own time but filled with promise for future generations. Calls for self-government from many regions within the EU will increase. The more Brussels attempts to make its citizens feel European the more its citizens will yearn for self-determination.

This trend will be driven by a number of factors aside from the declining effectiveness of central government. Bruegal – The Economics of big cities articulates one of these economic paradoxes, how globalisation has made the world more local: -

Local economies in the age of globalization

Enrico Moretti writes that the growing divergence between cities with a well-educated labor force and innovative employers and the rest of world points to one of the most intriguing paradoxes of our age: our global economy is becoming increasingly local. At the same time that goods and information travel at faster and faster speeds to all corners of the globe, we are witnessing an inverse gravitational pull toward certain key urban centers. We live in a world where economic success depends more than ever on location. Despite all the hype about exploding connectivity and the death of distance, economic research shows that cities are not just a collection of individuals but are complex, interrelated environments that foster the generation of new ideas and new ways of doing business.

Enrico Moretti writes that, historically, there have always been prosperous communities and struggling communities. But the difference was small until the 1980’s. The sheer size of the geographical differences within a country is now staggering, often exceeding the differences between countries. The mounting economic divide between American communities – arguably one of the most important developments in the history of the United States of the past half a century – is not an accident, but reflects a structural change in the American economy. Sixty years ago, the best predictor of a community’s economic success was physical capital. With the shift from traditional manufacturing to innovation and knowledge, the best predictor of a community’s economic success is human capital.

Human Capital may be defined as “the skills, knowledge, and experience possessed by an individual or population”. In the internet age this resource can be located almost anywhere and need not be isolated due to email, telephone or video conference technology, however, the advantages of physical proximity and social interaction favour cities.

Another, and related, issue is the increasingly disruptive effect of technology on employment. Bruegal – 54% of EU jobs at risk of computerisationhighlights one of the greatest economic challenges to the social fabric of the EU, but this is a global phenomenon: -

Based on a European application of Frey & Osborne (2013)’s data on the probability of job automation across occupations, the proportion of the EU work force predicted to be impacted significantly by advances in technology over the coming decades ranges from the mid-40% range (similar to the US) up to well over 60%.

Those authors expect that key technological advances – particular in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and mobile robotics – will impact primarily upon low-wage, low-skill sectors traditionally immune from automation. As such, based on our application it is unsurprising that wealthy, northern EU countries are projected to be less affected than their peripheral neighbours.

European governments are caught between the competing needs of an aging population and a younger generation who have little prospect of finding gainful full-time employment. Meanwhile city workers are paying for the regions where unemployment is highest. The tension between “wealth makers” and “wealth takers” are destined to increase.

Conclusion

Scotland voted to remain part of the Union. The Independence campaign was ill prepared failing to consider such issues as what currency they would use or how they would avoid a run on their banking system. The next time the Scots vote – and there will be a next time – I believe they will leave the Union because these questions will have been addressed. Other regions around the UK and Europe have taken note – the spirit of devolution is abroad. Prosperous regions, such as Catalunya and Northern Italy – Padania as it is sometimes called – crave independence from their poorer neighbours. Poorer regions resent the straight jacket of a single currency – be it the GBP for regions like the North East of England or the EUR for Greece and Portugal. To the poorer regions, the flexibility of a floating exchange rate is beguiling; as the EU stumbles through an era of debt laden low growth devolution pressures will increase.

For the GBP and EUR the Scottish “No” vote will fail to diminish the potential for social and political tension. The value of these currencies will reflect that uncertainty. Longer-term foreign direct investment will be lower. This will place an additional burden on EU budgets. A larger percentage of central government spending will be directed to regions where calls for devolution are highest rather than to economically productive projects in more prosperous areas.

European and UK equities are likely to under-perform in this environment whilst the increased indebtedness of EU governments is likely to increase their real borrowing costs.

Will this happen soon and will it be possible to measure? I think it is already happening but, given the very long-term nature of the fragmentation of nations, it will be difficult to measure except during constitutional crises. The shorter-term business cycles will still exist. Trading and investment opportunities will continue to arise. For the investor, however, it is essential to be aware of the risks and rewards which this fragmentation process will present.

The US$ as a store of value

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Macro Letter – No 20 – 26-09-2014

The US$ as a store of value

  • The US$ Index has broken above July 2013 highs as the US economy strengthens
  • The Trade Weighted Index also reflects this trend
  • But the Trade Balance remains in deficit

US$ Index - 25yr - Barchart.com

 

Source: Barchart.com

As the US economic recovery continues to gather momentum, what are the prospects for the US$ versus its principal trading partners? This is key to determining how swiftly and to what degree the Federal Reserve will tighten monetary conditions. Above is a 25 year monthly chart of the US$ Index and for comparison, below is the US$ Trade Weighted Index (TWI) as calculated by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. The TWI shows the initial flight to quality during the onset of the Great Recession, the subsequent collapse as the Fed embarked on its increasingly aggressive programme of QE, followed by a more orderly recovery as the US economy began its long, slow rebound. It is still only a modest recovery and I would not be surprised to see a slow grind higher towards the initial post crisis highs around 113 – this is only a 50% retracement of the 2001-2011 range. In the longer term a return to the “strong dollar” policies of the late 1990’s might be conceivable if the current industrial renaissance of the US continues to gather momentum:-

US$ TWI - 1995-2014 - St Louis Fed

Source: St Louis Federal Reserve

During the late 1990’s the US$ soared on a combination of strong economic growth, a technology asset bubble and relatively benign inflation due to the disinflationary forces of globalisation, emanating especially from China. During the current decade another technology revolution has been underway as the US becomes self-sufficient in energy production. I am not referring simply to “fracking” as this paper from the Manhattan Institute – New Technology for Old Fuel – April 2013 explains: -

Between 1949 and 2010, thanks to improved technology, oil and gas drillers reduced the number of dry holes drilled from 34 percent to 11 percent.

Global spending on oil and gas exploration dwarfs what is spent on “clean” energy. In 2012 alone, drilling expenditures were about $1.2 trillion, nearly 4.5 times the amount spent on alternative energy projects.

Despite more than a century of claims that the world is running out of oil and gas, estimates of available resources continue rising because of innovation. In 2009, the International Energy Agency more than doubled its prior-year estimate of global gas resources, to some 30,000 trillion cubic feet—enough gas to last for nearly three centuries at current rates of consumption.

In 1980, the world had about 683 billion barrels of proved reserves. Between 1980 and 2011, residents of the planet consumed about 800 billion barrels of oil. Yet in 2011, global proved oil reserves stood at 1.6 trillion barrels, an increase of 130 percent over the level recorded in 1980.

The dramatic increase in oil and gas resources is the result of a century of improvements to older technologies such as drill rigs and drill bits, along with better seismic tools, advances in materials science, better robots, more capable submarines, and, of course, cheaper computing power.

 The productivity gains are substantial within the Oil and Gas industry but the benefits are just beginning to percolate out to the broader economy.

Here is US GDP over the last twenty years: -

US GDP - 1995-2014 - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

Growth since the Great Recession has been relatively anaemic. To understand some of the other influences on the US$ we also need to consider the US Trade Balance: -

US Trade Balance - 1995-2014 - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

The USA continues to be the “consumer of last resort”. Here, by contrast are the EU GDP (1995-2014) and Trade Balance (1999-2014): -

EU GDP 1995-2014 - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

EU Trade Balance - 1999-2014 - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

Europe is also a major export market for Chinese goods but nonetheless appears to rely on trade surpluses to generate sustainable growth. Since the Great Recession the EU has struggled to achieve any lasting GDP growth despite a significant increase in its trade surplus. This is because a large part of the terms of trade improvement has been achieved by reducing imports rather than increasing exports, especially in the Euro Zone (EZ) peripheral countries. The austerity imposed on EZ members by the ECB has encouraged some external trade but the prospect for any sustained recovery in EZ growth is limited.

China has, of course, been a major beneficiary of the US trade deficit, although, since the Great Recession, trade surplus data has become significantly more volatile: -

China Trade balance - 1995-2014 - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

The chart above doesn’t really articulate the colossal increase in Chinese exports – between 2004 and 2009 China’s trade surplus increased ten-fold. Despite the more recent policy of “Rebalancing” towards domestic consumption, the latest data takes this surplus to a new record.

The US response to the trade deficit

The US government is concerned about the structural nature of their trade deficit but this is balanced by capital account surpluses as this report from the Congressional Research Service – Financing the U.S. Trade Deficit – March 2014 explains: -

According to the most commonly accepted approach to the balance of payments, macroeconomic developments in the U.S. economy are the major driving forces behind the magnitudes of capital flows, because the macroeconomic factors determine the overall demand for and supply of capital in the economy. Economists generally conclude that the rise in capital inflows can be attributed to comparatively favorable returns on investments in the United States when adjusted for risk, a surplus of saving in other areas of the world, the well-developed U.S. financial system, the overall stability of the U.S. economy, and the generally held view that U.S. securities, especially Treasury securities, are high quality financial instruments that are low risk. In turn, these net capital inflows (inflows net of outflows) bridge the gap in the United States between the amount of credit demanded and the domestic supply of funds, likely keeping U.S. interest rates below the level they would have reached without the foreign capital. These capital inflows also allow the United States to spend beyond its means, including financing its trade deficit, because foreigners are willing to lend to the United States in the form of exchanging goods, represented by U.S. imports, for such U.S. assets as stocks, bonds, U.S. Treasury securities, and real estate and U.S. businesses.

The chart below shows the continued increase in foreign holdings of US assets between 1994 and 2012: -

Foreign_Official_and_Private_Investment_Positions_

Source: US Commerce Department

The Congressional Research Service concludes:-

The persistent U.S. trade deficit raises concerns in Congress and elsewhere due to the potential risks such deficits may pose for the long term rate of growth for the economy. In particular, some observers are concerned that foreigner investors’ portfolios will become saturated with dollar denominated assets and foreign investors will become unwilling to accommodate the trade deficit by holding more dollar-denominated assets. The shift in 2004 in the balance of payments toward a larger share of assets being acquired by official sources generated speculation that foreign private investors had indeed reached the point where they were no longer willing to add more dollar-denominated assets to their portfolios. This shift was reversed in 2005, however, as foreign private investments rebounded.

Another concern is with the outflow of profits that arise from the dollar-denominated assets owned by foreign investors. This outflow stems from the profits or interest generated by the assets and represent a clear outflow of capital from the economy that otherwise would not occur if the assets were owned by U.S. investors. These capital outflows represent the most tangible cost to the economy of the present mix of economic policies in which foreign capital inflows are needed to fill the gap between the demand for capital in the economy and the domestic supply of capital.

Indeed, as the data presented indicate, it is important to consider the underlying cause of the trade deficit. According to the most commonly accepted economic approach, in a world with floating exchange rates and the free flow of large amounts dollars in the world economy and international access to dollar-denominated assets, macroeconomic developments, particularly the demand for and supply of credit in the economy, are the driving forces behind the movements in the dollar’s international exchange rate and, therefore, the price of exports and imports in the economy. As a result, according to this approach, the trade deficit is a reflection of macroeconomic conditions addressing the underlying macroeconomic factors in the economy likely would prove to be of limited effectiveness

In addition, the nation’s net international investment position indicates that the largest share of U.S. assets owned by foreigners is held by private investors who acquired the assets for any number of reasons. As a result, the United States is not in debt to foreign investors or to foreign governments similar to some developing countries that run into balance of payments problems, because the United States has not borrowed to finance its trade deficit. Instead the United States has traded assets with foreign investors who are prepared to gain or lose on their investments in the same way private U.S. investors can gain or lose. It is certainly possible that foreign investors, whether they are private or official, could eventually decide to limit their continued acquisition of dollar-denominated assets or even reduce the size of their holdings, but there is no firm evidence that such presently is the case.

The author appears to be saying that, so long as foreign private investors are prepared to continue acquiring US assets, the US need not be overly concerned about the deficit. Given that this should be negative for the US, what are the medium-term implications for the US$?

Gold vs US$

Evaluating the US$, in a world where all the major fiat currencies are attempting to competitively devalue, is fraught with difficulty, however, the price of gold gives some indication of market perceptions. It seems to indicate a resurgence of faith in the US currency:-

Gold - 25 year - Barchart

Source: Barchart.com

The substantial appreciation in the price of gold since 2001 is evident in the chart above, however, since the US economy began to recover from the Great Recession and financial markets perceived that QE3 might suffice to avert deflation, gold has lost some of its “safe-haven” shine. 10 yr US Treasuries yield 2.56%, the S&P 500 dividend yield is 1.87% – whilst these are historically low they look attractive compared to 10 yr German Bunds at 0.97% or 10 yr JGBs at 0.54%.

Leading Indicators

The Philadelphia Federal Reserve – Leading Indicators shows the breadth and depth of the prospects for the US economy, below is their latest heat map: -

Philly_Fed_-_July_2014_Leading_Indicators

Source: Philadelphia Federal Reserve

Below is a chart of the evolution of US Leading Indicators since 1995: -

US Leading Indicators 1995-2014 - St Louis Fed

Source: St Louis Federal Reserve

The relative strength of the Leading Indicators has not been as evident in the GDP data. This supports arguments such as CEPR – Is US economic growth over? September 2012 by Robert Gordon in which he promulgates his theory of structurally lower productivity growth in the US over the coming decades.

Personally I am not convinced that we have seen the end of productivity growth. I believe the extraordinary improvements in energy technology and productivity will begin to show up in broader data over the next few years.

Which leads me back to pondering on Governor Yellen’s recent comments after the FOMC Press Conference:-

…If we were only to shrink our balance sheet by ceasing reinvestments, it would probably take, to get back to levels of reserve balances that we had before the crisis. I’m not sure we will go that low but we’ve said that we will try to shrink our balance sheet to the lowest levels consistent with the efficient and effective implementation of policy. It could take to the end of the decade to achieve those levels.

This suggests the Federal Reserve may never sell any of the assets they have purchased but simply hold them to maturity. In an oblique way this view is supported by a paper from the Chicago Federal Reserve – Measuring fiscal impetus: The Great Recession in historical context which was published this week. They examine the link between changes in fiscal policy in the immediate wake of the Great Recession and more recently the slow pace of this cyclical recovery. Looking forward they opine: -

Fiscal policy during the Great Recession was more expansionary than in the average post-1960 recession, with declines in taxes, increased in transfers, and higher purchases all contributing to higher than typical fiscalimpetus. This pattern reversed itself following the cyclical trough, with declining purchases, particularly among subnational governments, accounting for most of the shortfall. By mid-2012, cumulative fiscal impetus was below the average level in other post-1960 recessions. Although fiscal restraint is expected to ease somewhat over the coming years, there is no indication that fiscal policy will be a meaningful source of economic growth in the near future.

If fiscal policy is unlikely to be a meaningful source of economic stimulus in the near future then monetary policy will have to do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting.

Where next for the US$

The economic fundamentals of the US economy look solid. Regions like Texas might even be in danger of overheating as this report from the Dallas Federal Reserve – Regional Growth: Full Steam Ahead – makes clear:-

The regional economy is surging, with the Texas Business Outlook Survey (TBOS) production and revenue indexes at multiyear highs and annualized job growth of 3.6 percent year to date. Second-quarter job growth was 4.6 percent annualized, and July job growth was just as fast. Energy production continues to increase, and the rig count has risen since last August in spite of a decline in oil prices. Texas exports rebounded in July.

… All told, the regional economy is growing at an unsustainable pace. Texas employment has grown at more than twice its long-run average rate over the past four months. Declines in unemployment measures have slowed, suggesting Texas is near full employment and slack is being depleted. The rapid growth has led to labor shortages, which can cause bottlenecks in production and hurt productivity. Tight labor and housing markets are leading to mounting wage pressures and increasing prices.

Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher has been a hawk for as long as I can remember, however, he plans to retire in April of next year. As does his fellow hawk Charles Plosser – President of the Philadelphia Fed, although Jeffrey Lacker – President of the Richmond Fed – will take up the hawkish cause in 2015. Nonetheless this weakens to case for any rapid tightening of policy beyond the tapering of QE.

Given the zero bound interest rate policies of all the major central banks, growth rather than expectations of widening interest rate differentials is more likely to determine the direction of currencies. Therefore, the slower the Federal Reserve act in tightening policy, the stronger the momentum of US GDP growth, the larger the capital inflows and the stronger the support for the US$.

Elsewhere, the prospects for EU growth are much weaker. Further QE is imminent after last week’s disappointing uptake of TLTRO funds – Bruegal – T.L.T.R.O. is Too Low To Resuscitate Optimism has more detail. The BoJ, meanwhile, continues with its policy of QQE yet, without the Third Arrow of the Abenomics – serious structural reform – Japan is unlikely to become an engine of economic growth. China continues its rebalancing but the momentum of growth is downward. In this environment the US looks like a land of opportunity to the optimist and the “least worst” safe-haven in an uncertain world for the pessimist. Either way, barring a substantial escalation in direct geopolitical risk, the US$ is unlikely to weaken. Technically the currency is looks set to appreciate further; in so doing this may create a virtuous circle reducing import price inflation and delaying – or possibly mitigating the need for – tightening by the Federal Reserve.

German growth prospects – the ECB and Russian gas

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Macro Letter – No 19 – 12-09-2014

German growth prospects – the ECB and Russian gas

  • The ECB cut rates and implemented the first phase of OMT
  • Russia continues to retaliate against European sanctions
  • European Natural Gas prices have risen but shortages seem unlikely

Last week I started researching the risks to German growth of a gas embargo by Russia. This could become a reality if the geo-political situation in the Ukraine should deteriorate further. Before I could put pen to paper, ECB Governor Mario Draghi had implemented a pre-emptive strike; cutting the repo rate to 0.05% and announcing the ECBs intention to embark on outright monetary transactions (OMT) initially in the asset backed securities (ABS) market. The ECB – Statement – provides fuller details. It’s still a little light on content but JP Morgan estimates that the ECB will purchase Eur 47bln of newly issued ABS securities over a three year period.

Whilst these measures stopped short of purchasing Eurozone (EZ) sovereign bonds, European government bond markets reacted favourably. French T-Bill rates turned negative, so too did the yield on 2 year Irish Gilts. The Spanish, not to be outdone, issued 50 year Bonos at a yield of 4%.

Here is a table of some European short term rates from Monday 8th September: -

 

Security Yield Spread vs Germany Inflation Real Yield
Austria 1Y -0.032 0.027 1.8 -1.832
Belgium 3M -0.05 0.029 0 -0.05
Belgium 6M -0.025 0.038 0 -0.025
Belgium 1Y -0.043 0.016 0 -0.043
Bulgaria 1Y 1 1.059 -1 2
Croatia 6M 0.95 1.013 -0.1 1.05
Croatia 9M 1.15 1.218 -0.1 1.25
Croatia 1Y 1.38 1.439 -0.1 1.48
Czech Republic 3M 0.01 0.089 0.5 -0.49
Czech Republic 6M 0.03 0.093 0.5 -0.47
Czech Republic 1Y 0.11 0.169 0.5 -0.39
Denmark 3M -0.06 0.019 0.8 -0.86
Denmark 6M -0.01 0.053 0.8 -0.81
Denmark 1Y 0.15 0.209 0.8 -0.65
France 3M -0.027 0.052 0.5 -0.527
France 6M -0.03 0.033 0.5 -0.53
France 9M -0.011 0.057 0.5 -0.511
France 1Y -0.029 0.03 0.5 -0.529
Germany 3M -0.079 0 0.8 -0.879
Germany 6M -0.063 0 0.8 -0.863
Germany 9M -0.068 0 0.8 -0.868
Germany 1Y -0.059 0 0.8 -0.859
Greece 3M 1.47 1.549 -0.7 2.17
Greece 6M 1.86 1.923 -0.7 2.56
Hungary 3M 1.52 1.599 0.1 1.42
Hungary 6M 1.55 1.613 0.1 1.45
Hungary 1Y 1.84 1.899 0.1 1.74
Ireland 1Y 0.08 0.139 0.3 -0.22
Italy 3M 0.083 0.162 -0.1 0.183
Italy 6M 0.144 0.207 -0.1 0.244
Italy 9M 0.193 0.261 -0.1 0.293
Italy 1Y 0.217 0.276 -0.1 0.317
Latvia 3M 0.2 0.279 0.8 -0.6
Latvia 6M 0.374 0.437 0.8 -0.426
Latvia 1Y 0.258 0.317 0.8 -0.542
Lithuania 6M 0.3 0.363 0.2 0.1
Lithuania 1Y 0.4 0.459 0.2 0.2
Netherlands 3M -0.072 0.007 1 -1.072
Netherlands 6M -0.092 -0.029 1 -1.092
Norway 3M 1.259 1.338 2.2 -0.941
Norway 6M 1.118 1.181 2.2 -1.082
Norway 9M 1.248 1.316 2.2 -0.952
Norway 1Y 1.276 1.335 2.2 -0.924
Poland 3M 2.65 2.729 -0.2 2.85
Poland 1Y 2.044 2.103 -0.2 2.244
Portugal 6M 0.15 0.229 -0.9 1.05
Romania 6M 2.289 2.352 1 1.289
Romania 1Y 2.25 2.309 1 1.25
Spain 3M 0.058 0.137 -0.5 0.558
Spain 6M 0.072 0.135 -0.5 0.572
Spain 1Y 0.153 0.212 -0.5 0.653
Sweden 3M 0.211 0.29 0 0.211
Sweden 6M 0.202 0.265 0 0.202
Switzerland 3M -0.11 -0.031 0.1 -0.21
Switzerland 6M -0.05 0.013 0.1 -0.15
Switzerland 1Y 0.05 0.109 0.1 -0.05
UK 3M Yield 0.43 0.509 1.6 -1.17
UK 6M Yield 0.546 0.609 1.6 -1.054
UK 1Y Yield 0.509 0.568 1.6 -1.091

Source: Investing.com and Trading Economics

I have omitted Finland since I was unable to locate prices for shorter maturity than 2 year. Two year Finnish bonds yield -0.026% and inflation is running at +0.8%.

Europe and its periphery are benefitting from low or negative real interest rates. Even this seems insufficient to stimulate robust, sustainable growth.

The Economic Cost of Geo-politics

When I last wrote about the Ukraine earlier this year, I concluded: -

I believe the Ukrainian situation may reduce the likelihood of a rapid increase in tapering by the Fed and increase the prospects for ECB Outright Monetary Transactions. In aggregate that amounts to more QE which should support stocks and higher yielding bonds.

To date, the economic impact on Europe has been limited. The fed have continued to taper in the face of a robust recovery from weak US Q1 GDP data. The EZ, however, has struggled to follow the US lead and the ECB has been forced to act repeatedly to avert further disinflation.

As we head into the winter, it seems an appropriate time to review European Natural Gas, in light of the escalation of tension between Russia and NATO. This is especially pertinent to Germany where, along with its north European neighbours, winter Natural Gas demand is three times greater than during the summer.

This week has seen an escalation of European sanctions against Russia. The European Commission (EC) has curtailed the ability of three of the largest Russian Oil companies to raise capital beyond a one month maturity. Since around half of all longer term gas contracts are priced in relation to the oil price this seems a strange way to avoid disrupting the European gas price. The Russian’s have responded by threatening to ban aircraft access to Russian airspace and, more significantly, to disrupt gas supplies. The Financial Times – Russia aims to choke off gas re-exports to Ukraine picks up on this theme: -

In an effort to offset lost volumes from Russia, Ukraine has sought to secure more gas from the EU, principally through “reverse flows” – re-exports of Russian gas via countries such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. But Gazprom, Russia’s state gas company, has long complained about the re-exports, with Alexei Miller, its chief executive, denouncing them as a “semi-fraudulent mechanism”. Senior officials in the European Commission and in eastern European governments say Russia has been raising the prospect of reducing export volumes so their customers have no gas left over for reverse flows to Ukraine. “They say this pretty openly,” said one central European ambassador.

To understand the importance of Russian energy exports to Europe the following table is a useful guide: -

Main origin of primary energy imports - Source EuroStat

Source: Eurostat

An insight into EU energy policy is provided by the European Commission – Energy Economic Developments in Europepublished in Q1 2014. The section on Natural Gas starts at Page 33:-

In the European Union the majority of natural gas is supplied through bilateral long-term contracts which are negotiated between two parties, importer and exporter, and traditionally indexed to the price of oil. Currently, half of natural gas supply in the EU is still indexed to oil while across the EU a wide variation in import prices of piped gas and LNG has been observed. This is remarkable as at the same time a growing share of gas is traded on spot markets where short-term contracts are concluded on the basis of the market price determined by actual demand and supply. Spot market prices in the EU have been constantly lower than long-term contracts’ prices, at least since 2005.

In both the US and in the EU, spot-market gas prices have progressed in a similar fashion over the past decade and have followed the movements in the oil price.

In 2005, however, these gas prices have started to clearly fall below the level of the oil price. Between 2008 and 2009 they fell significantly in both regions, likely as a consequence of declining demand due to the economic downturn.

The fall in energy consumption has led to an excess supply of gas on the gas markets around the world and both US and the UK spot markets temporarily converged, trading at around 4/5 USD/MBtu in mid-2009, while the German hub prices fell less evidently, trading still above 8 USD/MBtu in 2009. From 2007 onwards, the US gas spot price has fallen under the price level of the other gas spot markets, which most likely reflects the effect of the surge in domestic shale gas supply. This becomes quite clear after 2009, when energy consumption picked up again following the recovery of the economy. Statistics from more recent years show that while the US spot prices remained low (around 4 USD/Btu in 2011), the EU spot prices (both in the UK and German hub) kept increasing. Wholesale gas prices have continued to rise in the EU while economic activity contracted and consequently natural gas consumption in the EU has been declining: the first half of 2012 represented the EU’s lowest first half year consumption of the last ten years. It was 7% and 14% less than the first half of 2011 and 2010 respectively.

The continued rise in EU wholesale gas prices despite the slump in gas demand and the lower gas spot prices vividly depicts the kind of vulnerability the EU is exposed to due to its high import dependency: as the Asian markets offer higher returns and more robust demand, gas producing countries have increased their trade with Asia lowering supply to Europe. As a consequence wholesale gas prices in Europe have increased while in the US, which now can rely more heavily on domestic production, prices have remained low. US prices were shielded from potential upwards pressure from export demand because of export restrictions (generally expected to be gradually lifted). Furthermore, the impacts on the EU have been further aggravated in this context due to the oil-price indexation of many long-term gas import contracts.

This chart from Schneider Electric shows the divergence in gas prices between US (yellow) EU (red) and Asia (blue): -

Natural Gas price comparison - Schneider Electric-page1

Source: Schneider-Electric

European Natural Gas prices are down from their December 2013 highs but have recently started to recover from the July 2014 lows. The chart below is for Dutch TTF (Title Transfer Facility) Gas: -

TTF Gas Daily Reference Prices - source EEX

Source: EEX

By way of comparison here are the one year charts for US Natural Gas and West Texas Intermediate Crude Oil: -

US Spot Nat Gas 1 yr

Source: Barchart.com

Understandably, the US Natural gas market is less concerned about Russian sanctions, and also cognisant of the long lead time between receiving an export license and the US capacity to increase exports of LNG.

WTI Spot 1 yr

Source: Barchart.com

The US Crude Oil market is seemingly unperturbed by the politics of Russia or the Middle East. Or, perhaps, it is the combination of continuous improvements in US supply coupled with rising concern about the slowing of China. A similar pattern is evident in the Brent Crude price.

Returning to Europe: establishing a generic price for European Natural Gas is difficult as this article from Natural Gas Europe – European Natural Gas: So What’s the Real Price? explains. It is also worth noting the seasonality in gas prices. The last major spikes occurred in February/March 2013 and January/February 2012, coinciding with the advent of cold European winter weather.

The EU Commission and national governments are taking no chances this year, as this article from Reuters –  Europe drafts emergency energy plan with eye on Russia gas shut-down makes plain:-

A source at the EU Commission said it was considering a ban on the practise of re-selling to bolster reserves.

“In the short-term, we are very worried about winter supplies in southeast Europe,” said the source, who has direct knowledge of the Commission’s energy emergency plans.

“Our best hope in case of a cut is emergency measure 994/2010 which could prevent LNG from leaving Europe as well as limit industrial gas use in order to protect households,” the source said.

European Union Regulation number 994/2010, passed in 2010 to safeguard gas supplies, could include banning gas companies from selling LNG tankers outside of Europe, keeping more gas in reserve, and ordering industry to stop using gas.

The Russian threat to reduce gas supplies to the EU in order to reduce the re-sale of gas to other countries seems rather hollow when the EC would appear to be preparing to take these steps anyway. Nonetheless, if Russia reduces supply what can the EU importing countries do?

Norway is not in a position to make up the shortfall. 96% of Norwegian gas is already exported. At the Flame gas conference in Amsterdam this May, Statoil spokesman Rune Bjornson told delegates, “I think many producers, including us, can adjust on the margins, but most of the production capacity from Norway is typically designed to produce at maximum in winter and that is what we’ll do.”

European governments have, however,  been actively improving storage capabilities. This process has been on-going since the first Russian/Ukrainian dispute in 2006 – according to recent estimates EU-28 storage is at 90% of capacity which is around 74 bcm. Businessweek – EU Need for Russian Gas Via Ukraine Wanes as Stores Fill gives a good overview: -

EU-28 Gas Storage-Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg

Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas shipments via Ukraine is declining after the region pumped a record volume of the fuel into underground inventories, minimizing the risk of shortages during the coming winter.

Given that Geo-politics seems to have had little impact on the performance of world financial markets in the long run should we be worried in the short run and especially with respect to Germany this winter?

The Council for Foreign Relations – The Geopolitical Paradox: Dangerous World, Resilient Marketsopines on this subject this week. The article is concerned mainly about disruption to the oil market: -

It is often noted that the vast majority of postwar recessions have been associated with energy shocks. Rising turbulence in the Middle East has raised the prospect of a long-term disruption in the region, where national borders could be rewritten through violent upheavals. The threat of a Russian cutoff of gas to Europe also hangs over markets. Consequently, it is surprising that energy markets, and oil markets in particular, do not ask for a premium in futures markets for secure energy supplies. At present, current oil contracts are higher than longer-term futures contracts, and though there are technical reasons for this downward trend (“backwardation”), it hardly is suggestive of disrupted or anxious markets.

They go on to discuss Europe describing it as the weak link: -

There are a number of reasons why Europe is the channel through which political risk could reverberate in the global economy. Europe is most vulnerable to disruptions in trade and financial relationships with Russia, though I have argued elsewhere that these costs may be small relative to the costs of inaction. Weak growth in China and elsewhere in the emerging world could significantly affect exports, particularly in Germany. Significantly, though, Europe also faces these challenges at a time of economic stress and limited resilience. Growth in the region has disappointed and leading indicators have tilted downward. Further, concern about deflation is beginning to weigh on sentiment and investment. The persistence of low inflation—well below the ECB’s goal of around 2 percent—is symptomatic of deeper structural problems facing the eurozone, including an incomplete monetary union, deep-seated competitiveness problems in the periphery, and devastatingly high unemployment. Homegrown political risks also threaten to add to the turmoil, as rising discontent within Europe over the costs of austerity is undermining governing parties and fueling populism. The result is a monetary union with little capacity or resilience to defend against shocks. The ECB has responded to these risks with interest-rate cuts and asset purchases, and is expected to move to quantitative easing later this year or early next, but the move comes late, and is unlikely to do more than address the headwinds associated with the ongoing banking reform and continued fiscal austerity. Overall, a return to crisis is an increasing concern and political risks could be the trigger.

The limited impact on financial markets since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis in February can be seen in the table below: -

Market/Security Price 28 Feb Price 9 Sept Change % Change
TTF Gas 22.85 19.78 -3.07 -13.44
GPL Gas 23.23 20.06 -3.17 -13.65
US Nat Gas 4.74 3.96 -0.78 -16.46
WTI 102.58 91.71 -10.87 -10.60
E.ON 13.82 14.31 0.49 3.55
RWE 29.02 31.43 2.41 8.30
DAX 9692 9700 8 0.08
S&P500 1859.45 1995.69 136.24 7.33
10yr Bund yield 1.63 1 -0.63 -38.65
Gold 1327.6 1249.4 -78.2 -5.89

 

Source: EEX and Investing.com

Germany – the weakest link?

Since the Hartz reforms of 2002 Germany has emerged from the strain of unification to re-establish its credentials as the powerhouse of European growth. Latterly – and especially since 2008 – its preeminent reputation has become tarnished. The Bundesbank raised its growth forecast in June to 1.9% for 2014 vs its December 2013 forecast of 1.7%. Their optimism has been dented since then by concerns about the politics of Eastern Europe. The Deutsche Bundesbank – August 2014 Monthly Report makes the following observations: -

The global economy appears to have got off to a good start in the second half of the year. As regards the industrial countries, Japan’s economy is expected to rebound in the third quarter. The US economy is likely to remain on a growth path, although it will probably be impossible to maintain the rapid pace of growth attained in the second quarter of the year. Following second- quarter stagnation, the euro area is looking at a resumption of positive economic growth, albeit not at the pace predicted by many analysts in the spring. The underlying cyclical trend in some euro- area countries is turning out to be weaker than expected. At the same time, the geopolitical tensions in Eastern Europe owing to the Ukraine conflict as well as in other parts of the world are now appearing to weigh more heavily on corporate sentiment. Although they will only affect a small percentage of EU exports directly, the recently enacted EU sanctions and the Russian response are likely to dampen sentiment.

The Bundesbank are still predicting an increase in GDP growth for 2015 before moderating once more in 2016. Below is a chart of annual GDP since 2002: -

German GDP - 2002-2014

Source: Trading Economics

The momentum seems to be dissipating. According to the Federal Statistics Office, in 2013, 69% of Germany’s exports were to other EU countries.  Asia came second with 16% and the USA third with 12% – a slow down in Asia, specifically China, would be problematic, but the UK, US and peripheral EZ countries might be able to absorb the slack. What is clear, however, is that Germany is vulnerable.

This brings me to the risks to Germany this winter due to rising Natural Gas prices and a curtailment of supply. The IEA – Germany Oil and Gas Security Report 2012 provides a comprehensive overview of the German market: -

Germany has very little domestic oil and natural gas production and relies heavily on imports. It has well diversified and flexible oil and natural gas supply infrastructure, which consists of crude, product and gas pipelines and crude and oil product import terminals. Natural gas is imported into Germany exclusively by cross-border pipeline. The country has no LNG infrastructure, although some German companies have booked capacities in overseas LNG terminals.

Oil continues to be the main source of energy in Germany although it has declined markedly since the early 1970s. It now represents approximately 32% of Germany’s total primary energy supply (TPES).

Natural gas consumption in Germany has declined 10% since 2006. Demand was 90 bcm in 2010, down from 100 bcm in 2005. According to government commissioned analysis, the total consumption of natural gas in Germany is expected to continue to decline over the long term. The share of natural gas in Germany’s TPES is currently around 22%.

The decline in Natural Gas demand is evident across Europe. Earlier this year the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies estimated that, across 35 European countries, demand had fallen from 594 bcm in 2008 to 528 bcm in 2013 – an 11% decline. This is largely due to the high price of Natural Gas relative to Coal and the Europe-wide policies mandating increases in renewable energy production. For those who want to read more about EU renewable energy developments,  Bruegal – Elements of Europe’s energy union , published this week, looks at the policy challenges facing Europe between now and 2030.

Germany’s declining demand for Natural Gas and increase in storage capacity will mitigate some of the potential disruption to supply – in 2012 Natural Gas represented 22% of supply vs Oil 32% and Coal 24%. Added to which Germany has adopted some of the most aggressive policies to develop renewable energy, offset, to some extent, by their closure of Nuclear Power plants: -

Under existing government policies the trend towards an increasing share of renewables looks set to continue. The Energy Concept 2010 established a goal for Germany to increase its share of electricity generated from renewable sources to at least 35% of total consumption by 2020. Conversely, the trend towards an increasing share of nuclear in the energy mix looks set to reverse following the government announcement in 2011 of its decision to phase out all German nuclear power plants by the end of 2022.

Germany imports Natural Gas primarily from Russia (39%) followed by Norway (35%) and the Netherlands (22%). Germany has no Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) capacity but the GATE (Gas Access To Europe) terminal in Rotterdam – opened in 2011 – was operating at 10% of capacity in April 2014 and is purported to be capable of supplying 12 bcm (Billion Cubic Metres). This is still a drop in the ocean – Russia supplied Germany with 140 bcm last year. German domestic demand is less than 100 bcm leaving a substantial amount for re-export. Further LNG supply is available from Spain but there are bottlenecks with the trans-Pyrenean pipeline.  In any case, Spanish LNG prices are high. The table below shows the divergence in prices for LNG globally, even more than in pipeline supply LNG prices are a function of logistical supply constraints: -

World LNG prices - June 2014 AEI and FERC-page1

Source: FERC and AEI

Germany’s Natural Gas storage capacity (2012) is 20.8 bcm, making it the highest in Europe, although there are plans to increase this further. In H1 2013 German Natural Gas consumption was 50 bcm – the high levels of storage suggest that Germany is well placed to weather a Russian go-slow this winter.

The complex and diverse nature of Germany’s cross-border pipeline capabilities are shown in the map below, however the largest pipelines by potential capacity are (2012 data): -

 

Country Pipeline Capacity
Ukraine Bratstvo 120 bcm
Norway Norpipe, Europipe I and II 54 bcm
Russia Yamal 33 bcm
Russia Nord Stream 27 bcm

 

Source : IEA

Germany - Gas Grid - IEA-page1

Source: IEA

 

Conclusions and financial market implications

After two interruptions to Russian Natural Gas supply in less than a decade, Germany – along with other gas importing countries within the EZ have taken precaution. The most vulnerable countries in the event of a complete cessation of gas supply by Russia are probably the Baltic States, Hungary and Bulgaria. However, Russia is also very dependant on the EU for sales of Gas, Oil and Coal. Nearly 60% of state revenue comes from this trade. This trade is worth $80bln per annum to Gazprom alone. Germany is Russia’s third largest trading partner, whilst Russia ranks 11th on Germany’s list.

If Russian sanctions lead to a cessation of Gas exports then a number of large German utility companies will suffer – most notably E.ON and RWE. However it is most unlikely that German supply will run out. Price increases will either be passed on through higher prices or lead of margin compression due to the disinflationary forces emanating from elsewhere in the economy.

John W Snow – the US Secretary to the Treasury under George W Bush – is quoted as saying, “Higher energy prices act like a tax. They reduce the disposable income people have available for other things after they’ve paid their energy bills.” This is the potential that a reduction in Russian gas supplies and commensurate rise in prices is likely to have on the wider German economy. The ECB has cut rates and started down the road to QE even before the onset of winter. Mario Draghi knows that monetary policy works slowly and many commentators believe the ECB are demonstrably behind the curve due to their attempts to impose austerity on the more profligate member states.

German Bunds may have hit their high for this year, especially since the ECB are now buying ABS, but they remain a “hedge short” at best. The quest for yield hasn’t gone away, EZ high yielding sovereign names will be supported still.

European Equities will be nervous in this environment despite some 52% of Eurostoxx 600 companies beating their earning forecasts for Q2, according to Reuters data. After a summer shakeout, the DAX has regained its composure, but it is already trading on a P/E ratio of nearly 22. Technically it’s a “Hold” until a break of 9,000 on the downside or 10,000 on the upside. But don’t forget that when Mr Draghi uttered, “whatever it takes” the DAX was toying with 5,000

European Natural Gas prices should be supported through the winter but a full-blown “Gas Crisis” is unlikely. A “Winter Squeeze” such as 2012 or 2013 could see spot prices double under normal market conditions. German growth will continue to be hampered by political uncertainty but, all other things equal, it should rebound on any sign of detente and will benefit from the continued recovery of the UK and US economies.

The second arrow of Likonomics and the Chinese property market

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 18 – 29-08-2014

The second arrow of Likonomics and the Chinese property market

  • The Chinese rebalancing towards domestic consumption continues
  • The shadow banking system is being forced into the light
  • But a slowdown in the property sector poses a potential risk to economic reform

Seven Lucky Gods

The Japanese “Ship of Happiness” containing the seven lucky gods – originally of Chinese and Indian origin

Source: onmarkproductions.com

Back in March I anticipated a stimulus package to avert too dramatic a slow-down in the Chinese economic rebalancing, process: -

By a number of conventional measures China has reached the Ponzi stage. Total debt has increased from $9trln in 2008 to $23trln in 2013 (250% of GDP). Private sector debt has increased from 115% of GDP in 2007 to 193% in 2013. Measures of the multiplier effect of debt to GDP suggest it now takes 4 RMB of debt to create 1 RMB of GDP growth. The Chinese authorities attempts to slow bank lending have led to a significant expansion of shadow bank credit. Much of this lending is to sub-prime borrowers.

Recent action by the PBOC suggests they are now targeting the illusive shadow banking sector. Last week they drained 50 bln RMB via reverse-repos…after strong growth in 2013 the PBOC may be inadvertently engineering a “Minsky Moment” – when asset prices collapse – but the Third Plenum focus on market based reform would suggest this is not the intention…

Since then the PBOC has been actively steering the Chinese “Ship of Happiness” towards more tranquil waters by, among other measures, reducing bank capital requirements. Highlights of China’s Monetary Policy in the Second Quarter of 2014 updates the recent timeline:-

 On April 22, the PBC decided to cut the reserve requirement ratios for county-level rural commercial banks and county-level rural cooperative banks by 200 and 50 basis points respectively, effective from April 25, 2014.

On June 9, the PBC decided to cut, effective from June 16, 2014, the deposit reserve requirement ratio by 0.5 percentage points for commercial banks (excluding those that were subject to the deposit reserve ratio reduction on April 25, 2014) that have complied with prudential requirements and have reached the required ratios in their lending to the agricultural sector, rural areas, and farmers, and to small and micro enterprises. In addition, the RMB deposit reserve requirement ratio of finance companies, financial leasing companies and auto financial companies was cut by 0.5 percentage points.

This change in reserve requirements has dampened the extreme volatility of short term repo rates. Lower volatility and lower rates fuel risk-taking; bank credit surged in June by RMB1970bln – up 90% on June 2013.

Meanwhile, the government, in pursuit of President Xi’s “Chinese Dream”, embarked on a mini-stimulus package – estimated in the local media at around RMB10tln. This has reignited the stock market but begs the question “How can further stimulus solve the problem of excessive liquidity?” The Business Insider – China Unveils ‘Mini Stimulus’ To Boost Its Slowing Economy described it thus: -

“The State Council is responding to the growth slowdown by announcing tax breaks for SMEs (small and medium enterprises), speeding up investment in railways and rebuilding urban shantytowns,” HSBC economists Qu Hongbin and Sun Junwei said in a report Thursday.

“This time the package is small in scale, but it is more targeted and involves reforms on financing to secure funding,” they said. “So this should help China to smooth growth without exacerbating financial stability risks.”

The tax breaks for “small and micro” companies will be extended until the end of 2016, the State Council said in a statement on the central government website.

It also said 6,600 kilometres (4,100 miles) of new railway lines will come into operation this year, 1,000 kilometres more than in 2013.

The plan will also see the creation of a railway fund that will receive between 200-300 billion yuan ($32-$48 billion) each year, the statement said.

… “These measures show that Premier Li’s government aims to stabilise short-term growth with policies which can enhance efficiency while avoiding future financial troubles,” Bank of America Merrill Lynch economists Lu Ting and Sylvia Sheng said in a report Wednesday.

“We believe these measures are the right policy responses to the ‘fiscal cliff’ as a consequence of the anti-corruption campaign, and we think markets will overall welcome them.”

There have been nine reported cases of Trust Fund defaults in the five months to May which matches the total during the whole of 2013, however, several shadow banks are being merged and acquired by licensed banking institutions. Meanwhile, the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) is helping to ease the pain of rebalancing for the banking system. Caixin – Banks Start Using New Loan-To-Deposit Ratio on July 1looks at the detail: -

Starting July 1 banks in China are using a new method of calculating the loan-to-deposit ratio, a change that the regulator and analysts say will allow for more loans to be extended.

The China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) announced on June 30 the new set of rules for figuring the ratio, which is capped by law at 75 percent, meaning that banks cannot lend out more than three-quarters of the deposits they accept.

A CBRC official has said the regulator will consider adjusting the way the ratio is calculated to allow for more lending. That includes broadening the range of deposits to include “relatively stable” funds.

The new rules differ from the old ones in both loan and deposit calculations, the announcement shows.

Six types of loans can now be excluded from the formula. They include loans linked to the central bank’s re-lending program and proceeds from the sales of a special financial bond that raises money to support small and micro businesses. Loans made using money raised from bonds that investors cannot redeem for at least one year are also excluded under the new rules.

These loans all have clear and stable sources of funding and thus do not need to be matched with general deposits, the regulator said.

Why ease conditions when M2 is growing at 14.7%, M1 at 8.9% and M0 at 5.3% (June 2014)? I believe the easing of conditions is due to official concern that risk in the financial system is substantially understated. This article from the Wall Street Journal  – Risky Business in China’s Financial System – highlights some of the issues: -

Is China heading for a financial crisis? Some risk indicators have risen markedly over the past twelve months: Interbank rates are more volatile, with liquidity shortages increasingly common; there have been a few minor bank runs; and the country experienced its first corporate default in recent history earlier this year.

Loans and Booms - China vs Crisis countries-page1

Source: Oxford Economics, Haver Analytics and Wall Street Journal

Moreover, though official figures suggest that just 1% of loans are non-performing, bank balance sheets likely aren’t as healthy as they seem.

Evidence from a range of countries suggests that credit booms – as China experienced from 2009-‘13 – result in substantially higher levels of non-performing loans (NPLs). A more realistic assumption that 10%-20% of total loans might go bad implies total NPLs of RMB6-12 trillion (US$1-1.9 trillion). The higher end of the range would suggest a bad-asset problem comparable in scale to the one that followed the U.S. subprime loan crisis.

The author goes on to discuss the importance of the shadow banking system. Then he asks: -

What might trigger a crisis in China? The drift downward in property prices could accelerate as the economy cools, leaving substantial oversupply. Property and land are often used in China as collateral for loans, so a sharp fall in house prices would damage bank balance sheets; liquidity would dry up; and institutions with high rollover needs might struggle to find funding.

Higher interest rates also would increase debt-service payments, and banks could see their deposit bases erode as corporate deposits shrink. The growing importance of the shadow-banking system would likely exacerbate these effects.

Such a crisis would have major economic implications not only for China but — through financial and trade linkages – for the whole world. The Oxford Economics Global Economic Model estimates that, in such a scenario, Chinese gross domestic product would grow less than 2% in 2015, and world growth would drop as low as 1%.

Of course, that’s a worst-case scenario, and odds of it happening are only about 10%. With China’s overall government debt relatively low and foreign exchange reserves at an all-time high, authorities have the means to intervene on a large scale if necessary.

Still, as long as interest on deposits is capped by the government, Chinese savings will continue to be invested in riskier and higher-yielding products, adding to distortions in the financial system.

That means the risk of a financial crisis will remain until the government introduces reforms to the financial sector, and manages its way out of the credit boom in an organized fashion.

The deleveraging of the credit boom and reform of the financial sector are the second and third arrows of Likonomics – named after the economic policies of Premier Li Keqiang. Even getting to the second arrow will be difficult given a housing bubble which shows signs of bursting.

Housing, the Achilles heel

Recent official data shows house price declines in 55 out of 70 cities in June vs May and 35 out of 70 cities in May vs April. Sales volumes as measured by floor space are down 9.4% in the first seven months of 2014 vs the same period last year.

The FT – Property bubble is ‘major risk to China’ puts the Chinese government’s dilemma in perspective: -

The government itself has an enormous incentive to keep pumping the bubble up, since all land is technically owned by the state and land sales made up 60 per cent of local government’s budgetary revenues last year, according to estimates from JPMorgan.

Since 2008 land prices have increased fivefold, triggering corresponding asset price rises, but even as prices soared and supply mushroomed, demand for housing and office space pretty much kept up – until this year. More than 90 per cent of households already own at least one home and, for those urban households that own apartments, nearly 76 per cent of their assets are in real estate, according to Gan Li, director of the Survey and Research Center for China Household Finance.

At 90% Chinese home ownership is ranked sixth highest in the world (2012 data). It is slightly lower than Singapore but well above the levels in UK (66.7%) and USA (65.2%). Here is a table from Wikipedia . However, it has been estimated by the China Household Finance Survey  that empty homes make up more than 20% of the housing stock. Of these, the vast majority are investment properties.

Meanwhile the first arrow of Likonomics – a tempering of monetary stimulus – put in place since the great recession, has been accompanied by a swath of anti-corruption policies. President Xi reaffirmed his commitment to anti-corruption measures in a speech on 29th June on the eve of the 93rd anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Michael Pettis – The Four Stages of Chinese Growth describes the overall reform process being undertaken by the Xi government. The entire essay is a brilliant insight into the economic development of China since 1978 and looks closely at the “social capital” deficit which, if left unaddressed, might undermine the Chinese economic miracle of the last 30 years :-

The second liberalizing period. What China needs now is another set of liberalizing reforms that cause a surge in social capital such that Chinese individuals and businesses have incentives to change their behavior in ways that generate greater productive activity from the same set of assets. These must include changing the legal structure, predictably enforcing business law, changing the way capital is priced and allocated, and other factors that determined the incentives, so that Chinese are more heavily rewarded for activity that increases productivity and penalized, or at least less heavily rewarded, for rent seeking.

But because this means almost by definition undermining the very policies that allow elite rent capturing (preferential access to cheap credit, most importantly), it was always likely to be strongly resisted until debt levels got high enough to create a sense of urgency. This resistance to reform over the past 7-10 years was the origin of the “vested interests” debate.

Most of the reforms proposed during the Third Plenum and championed by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang are liberalizing reforms aimed implicitly and even sometimes very explicitly at increasing social capital. In nearly every case – land reform, hukou reform, environmental repair, interest rate liberalization, governance reform in the process of allocating capital, market pricing and elimination of subsidies, privatization, etc – these reforms effectively transfer wealth from the state and the elites to the household sector and to small and medium enterprises. By doing so, they eliminate frictions that constrain productive behavior, but of course this comes at the cost of elite rent-seeking behavior.

Many of the Third Plenum measures are focussed on a root and branch reform of the property development industry. This post from Investing in Chinese Stocks – RMB 8.7 Trillion in Land Finance At Risk provides some fascinating insights, into the dangers these reforms pose to the property development industry: -

A strict audit of 15 trillion in land sales is going to uncover dirt in many Chinese cities. Already, according to the article below, 9 cities have been found to have violated regulations governing land finance, including Shangluo, Hengyang, Neijiang, Xingtai, Huzhou and Suqian. Recall how land finance works:

Chinese local governments sell land to developers who build homes and commercial centers. The revenue from land sales pays for development of supporting infrastructure, everything from roads and subways to schools and parks. Land sales also finance local government debt which exploded after 2008. In the post-2008 economy, developers rushed to build property amidst a real estate bubble and when the government moved to restrict activity in first- and second-tier cities, developers poured into third- and fourth-tier cities and repeated the model. However, developers have run ahead of many local governments. In areas where there are true ghost cities, support infrastructure such as schools and hospitals have not been built. If the real estate bubble bursts and land sales fall, local governments will need to find another revenue source or they may be unable to finance the infrastructure that generates GDP growth and supports the local real estate market, and they may even face a debt crisis in some of the worst hit areas. This ignores all the potential issues with indebted developers, plus overproduction and bad debts in other sectors of the economy.

84 major Chinese cities have borrowed 8.7 trillion, backed by revenue from land sales. If cities have violated regulations or violated the law in their use of land finance, things could quickly come to a head in areas where the governments are borrowing to survive, which is already the case in some cities. The conclusion to the article is a good summary:

“Mortgage financing using state-owned land, borrowing money to promote urban development and stimulating economic growth, this economic growth model is not sustainable, it can very easily bring about hidden volatility in the capital markets and macroeconomic development.” Wang Jianwu told reporters, the key to solving the problem is for the local government to gradually adapt to the “new normal,” get rid of “land hormone” stimulus, while local governments also need to shift from the dominant role of economic development to servicing economic development.

Yet again, the anti-corruption probe lines up with the leaderships vision of economic reform. By squeezing local governments’ ability to borrow through land sales, the shift towards a rebalanced, market-based economy can proceed more quickly.

Concern about the Chinese housing market has even attracted the attention of the Kansas City Fed – China’s slowing housing market and GDP growth – they cover many of the issues already discussed but also look at the longer term impact of demographics: -

Looking further ahead, the real-estate sector will need to adapt to the inevitable decline in demand caused by demographic change. The share of China’s population from 24 to 30 years old, the age group needing to purchase their first home, has declined from 13.4 percent in 2000 to 10.7 percent in 2010. The share of the working age population (15 to 59 year olds) has declined to 68.7 percent in 2013 after peaking at 70.1 percent in 2010, reversing the upward trend of the prior two decades.

…Taking both the short- and long-term factors into account, the real estate sector’s recent slowdown is likely to continue as housing activity stabilizes at a lower growth path. While this adjustment could provide certain long-term benefits, it will generate significant downward pressure on China’s near-term growth.

For a rather more sanguine view of the current situation this policy brief from The Peterson Institute – Is China’s Property Market Heading toward Collapse? Provides a broader historical context, highlighting the fundamental differences between China today and USA in 2008 or Japan during the 1990’s: -

 The fears about China’s property market are likely overblown. First, China’s private housing market is young. It did not exist until 1998. Over the last 16 years, the property sector has seen large swings in both prices and levels of investment. Cyclical downturns have resulted from macroeconomic conditions, credit restrictions, and the government’s attempts to curb either the overheating or overcooling of the sector. This cyclicality is a good thing to the extent that investors tend to avoid making one-way bets on either price appreciation or depreciation, and thereby it works to prevent excessive speculation. Largely owing to limited financial innovations, market developments, and punishing taxes, China’s property market is still less leveraged than is typical in more developed economies. Developers have lowered their debt-to-asset ratios since 2009 and Chinese buyers must offer down payments of at least 30 percent before they can apply for mortgages.

Second imposed more than four years ago to discourage property purchases for investment purposes. Indeed, at the time of this writing, some 30 Chinese cities have started to ease these property curb policies, which were designed to prevent excessive speculation. In addition, the government could also liberalize its urban household registration system, or hukou, to allow migrants to purchase houses and thereby encourage them to settle in their cities permanently.

In the medium term, the government can take a number of other steps, such as reintroducing an urban public housing program in large cities, funded by a property tax, to address income inequality and encourage an increase in rental properties. To reduce banking sector risk, the government could encourage banks to issue covered bonds to reduce the risk of maturity mismatch of their mortgage assets. Furthermore, diversifying property developers’ sources for finance through real estate investment trusts, or REITs, would also reduce their reliance on bank financing. China should also improve its data collection to take into account the quality, location, and other important features of property transactions.

More important, demand for urban properties is expected to remain high over the next decade. It is estimated that another 200 million people could join China’s urban areas by 2023. In this sense, China’s property market bears no resemblance to Japan in the early 1990s or the United States in 2008. As long as urbanization continues and appropriate policies are adopted, this property market downturn should prove to be merely cyclical, and a major correction is unlikely to take place.

The authors expand on the positive long-term factors which support the Chinese property market but remain cognisant of the risks of a near-term bursting of the property bubble. Chinese property has risen 64% since 2010, eclipsed only by Hong Kong where prices are up 94%. Rental yields are 2.66%, higher than Singapore at 2.41% but well below Japan at 5.53%. However, some comfort may be drawn from indications of the rise of zero down payment mortgages – if these become widespread the property bust may be deferred.

Private capital flight

This brings me to another issue which affects the global economy. If 76% of the net worth of Chinese city dwellers is tied up in real-estate, how will they diversify their investment risk? Many of the wealthiest Chinese families have already moved a substantial portion of their net worth abroad. This trend is likely to continue unless the government imposes capital controls. What is the likely impact on domestic asset prices?

A recent article from The Diplomat – Chinese Investors Fuel California Housing Bubble gives an interesting perspective to the debate. Chinese nationals only account for 11% of the foreign buyers of real-estate in the San Francisco area but their marginal impact is significant. Chinese demand is being fueled by uncertainty over domestic Chinese housing policy and fears about the stalling of economic growth:-

As Mark McLaughlin, CEO of Pacific Union, a prominent San Francisco real estate firm, told local CBS affiliate KPIX, “it’s added a demographic of buyers who, generally, take a long-term view. They’re not sellers in the next five to seven years.” Chinese buyers are sitting on much of this property as housing in the Bay Area becomes increasingly scarce, causing its value to skyrocket. The Case-Shiller home price index, released in May, saw Bay Area home prices jump by 23 percent compared with  a year ago.

That may be just the beginning. On average, San Francisco real estate cycles take about five to seven years to run their course from recovery to collapse. The current surge in prices began in early 2012. Home values have shot up 50 percent since then; during the last surge, the prices peaked at 54 percent. Chinese money is likely to add pressure to the current bubble.

Of course Chinese buyers have been evident in many prime real-estate locations including Manhattan, London and Sydney. Earlier this month Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man, invested $HK12.5 bln in Australian real estate including a AUD900 mln resort on the Gold Coast.

A recent article from the Wall Street Journal – The Great Chinese Exodus looks into the migration trends of wealthy Chinese: -

…A survey by the Shanghai research firm Hurun Report shows that 64% of China’s rich—defined as those with assets of more than $1.6 million—are either emigrating or planning to. …The elite are discovering that they can buy a comfortable lifestyle at surprisingly affordable prices in places such as California and the Australian Gold Coast, while no amount of money can purchase an escape in China from the immense problems afflicting its urban society: pollution, food safety, a broken education system. The new political era of President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, has created as much anxiety as hope.

…Last year, the U.S. issued 6,895 visas to Chinese nationals under the EB-5 program, which allows foreigners to live in America if they invest a minimum of $500,000. South Koreans, the next largest group, got only 364 such visas. Canada this year closed down a similar program that had been swamped by Chinese demand. …Beijing makes a crucial distinction between ethnic Chinese who have acquired foreign nationality and those who remain Chinese citizens. The latter category is officially called huaqiao—sojourners. Together, they are viewed as an immensely valuable asset: the students as ambassadors for China, the scientists, engineers, researchers and others as conduits for technology and industrial know-how from the West to propel China’s economic modernization.

…Still, the sheer volume of China’s outbound travel these days, and its massive economic impact, gives it new leverage. In the global market for high-end real estate, Chinese buying has become a key driver of prices. According to the U.S. National Association of Realtors, Chinese buyers snapped up homes worth $22 billion in the year ending in March. Australia called a parliamentary inquiry to find out whether local households were being priced out of the market by Chinese money. (The conclusion: not yet.)

Without fee-paying Chinese students, many colleges in the postrecession Western world simply wouldn’t be able to pay the bills. Chinese students are by far the largest group of foreign students on U.S. campuses, and their numbers jumped 21% last year from the year before—to 235,597, according to the Institute of International Education. Their numbers are increasing at a similar pace in Australia. In England, there are now almost as many Chinese students as British ones studying full-time for postgraduate master’s degrees. …The Chinese government has no desire to slow the flow of students. Its attitude is simple: Why not have the Americans or Europeans train our brightest minds if they want to? President Xi’s own daughter went to Harvard.

Provided the domestic housing market doesn’t collapse and the Chinese authorities resist the temptation to impose capital controls, Chinese buyers will continue to support prime real-estate markets globally. However, this is a risk which needs to be monitored closely.

Conclusion and investment outlook

In order to understand China you need to study its history, this recent essay by The Economist – What China Wants – is an excellent introduction. China has witnessed several long-term “Cycles of Empire” over the past three millennia as this Moneyweb interview with David Murrin – China’s fifth reincarnation as an empire system and its link to Africa. Explains:-

It’s unique in that it is the fifth, could be sixth if you go back far enough, incarnation of a 500 year empire cycle. They’re now 120 years into that cycle so they’re really about the stage where they burst forth onto the world. Every one of China’s cycles has been bigger than the one before, so when people say it didn’t actually ever have influence outside its borders, look at the last incarnation at the peak of the 14th century. Their trading system reached the shores of Africa, they controlled the Indian Ocean, they controlled the whole or parts of the Pacific.

The opportunity to rebalance the Chinese economy has come at an opportune time, with the US in a slow, but steady recovery from the great recession. Moderate US growth is helping Chinese exports to rebound as this article from the China-United States Exchange Foundation-  China-US Trade Boosted by Moderate Growth in the US Economy explains: -

The United States’ economic recovery, albeit moderate, is good for overseas exporters. During the first seven months of the year, Chinese exports of good to the US increased by 6.3% over a year ago, while its global export growth was 3.0%. The US market performed twice as good as the global market. In July alone, exports to the US shot up by 12.3%, contributing 2.1% to China’s global export growth. 

However they recognise the need to maintain good trade relations with the US:-

According to China Customs statistics, Chinese imports worldwide increased by 1.0% during the first seven months of the year. Imports from the US, however, increased by 5.0%, far outperforming its global imports.

Perhaps the greatest risk to the Chinese administration, as it seeks to rebalance the economy, is a collapse in the housing market. So far, the rebalancing has proceeded without a major catastrophe. Chinese stocks remain cheap on a P/E basis (SSE current P/E 10.59) and forecasts for 2015 factor in little earnings growth. The chart below shows the Shanghai Composite vs the S&P500 since August 2010.

Shanghai SE Composite vs S&P500 2010-2014

Source: Yahoo finance

The S&P 500 has risen close to 100% whilst the Shanghai Composite has fallen by 30%. By comparison, the Chinese real-estate index is up 64% over the same period. This chart from the Peterson Institute shows the under-performance of stocks relative to housing:-

China House Prices vs Stock Market and Bank Deposits - CEIC Data Peterson Institute

Source: CEIC, Peterson Institute

A dramatic slow-down in European growth may justify the low valuation for the Shanghai Composite, as may a reversal in the fortunes of the US stock market, nonetheless, on a relative value basis, Chinese stocks look attractive. I believe the US economy will continue to perform, though not so strongly as of late. The ECB will avert an implosion of the major European economies “whatever it takes”. In this environment China will find, quantitatively fuelled, export markets to cushion the pain of domestic reform. Chinese stocks will outperform Europe, and may well outperform the US, over the next couple of years.

The second arrow of Likonomics – a deleveraging of the credit bubble – looks likely to be postponed.