Can a multi-speed European Union evolve?

Can a multi-speed European Union evolve?

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Macro Letter – No 73 – 24-03-2017

Can a multi-speed European Union evolve?

  • An EC white paper on the future of Europe was released at the beginning of the month
  • A multi-speed approach to EU integration is now considered realistic
  • Will a “leaders and laggards” approach to further integration work?
  • Will progress on integration enable the ECB to finally taper its QE?

At the Malta Summit last month German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters:-

We certainly learned from the history of the last years, that there will be as well a European Union with different speeds that not all will participate every time in all steps of integration.

On March 1st the European Commission released a white paper entitled the Future of Europe. This is a discussion document for debate next week, when members of the EU gather in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

The White Paper sets out five scenarios for the potential state of the Union by 2025:-

Scenario 1: Carrying On – The EU27 focuses on delivering its positive reform agenda in the spirit of the Commission’s New Start for Europe from 2014 and of the Bratislava Declaration agreed by all 27 Member States in 2016. By 2025 this could mean: Europeans can drive automated and connected cars but can encounter problems when crossing borders as some legal and technical obstacles persist. Europeans mostly travel across borders without having to stop for checks. Reinforced security controls mean having to arrive at airports and train stations well in advance of departure.

Scenario 2: Nothing but the Single Market – The EU27 is gradually re-centred on the single market as the 27 Member States are not able to find common ground on an increasing number of policy areas. By 2025 this could mean: Crossing borders for business or tourism becomes difficult due to regular checks. Finding a job abroad is harder and the transfer of pension rights to another country not guaranteed. Those falling ill abroad face expensive medical bills. Europeans are reluctant to use connected cars due to the absence of EU-wide rules and technical standards.

Scenario 3: Those Who Want More Do More – The EU27 proceeds as today but allows willing Member States to do more together in specific areas such as defence, internal security or social matters. One or several “coalitions of the willing” emerge. By 2025 this could mean that: 15 Member States set up a police and magistrates corps to tackle cross-border criminal activities. Security information is immediately exchanged as national databases are fully interconnected. Connected cars are used widely in 12 Member States which have agreed to harmonise their liability rules and technical standards.

Scenario 4: Doing Less More Efficiently – The EU27 focuses on delivering more and faster in selected policy areas, while doing less where it is perceived not to have an added value. Attention and limited resources are focused on selected policy areas. By 2025 this could mean A European Telecoms Authority will have the power to free up frequencies for cross-border communication services, such as the ones used by connected cars. It will also protect the rights of mobile and Internet users wherever they are in the EU.A new European Counter-terrorism Agency helps to deter and prevent serious attacks through a systematic tracking and flagging of suspects.

Scenario 5: Doing Much More Together – Member States decide to share more power, resources and decision-making across the board. Decisions are agreed faster at European level and rapidly enforced. By 2025 this could mean: Europeans who want to complain about a proposed EU funded wind turbine project in their local area cannot reach the responsible authority as they are told to contact the competent European authorities. Connected cars drive seamlessly across Europe as clear EU-wide rules exist. Drivers can rely on an EU agency to enforce the rules.

There is not much sign of a multi-speed approach in the above and yet, on 6th March the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and Spain convened in Versailles where they jointly expressed the opinion that allowing the EU to integrate at different speeds would re-establish confidence among citizens in the value of collective European action.

There are a couple of “general instruments”, contained in existing treaties, which give states some flexibility; ECFR – How The EU Can Bend Without Breaking suggests “Enhanced Cooperation” and “Permanent Structured Cooperation”(PESCO) as examples, emphasis mine:-

Enhanced cooperation was devised with the Amsterdam Treaty…in 1997, and revised in successive treaty reforms in Nice and Lisbon. Enhanced cooperation is stipulated as a procedure whereby a minimum of nine EU countries are allowed to establish advanced cooperation within the EU structures. The framework for the application of enhanced cooperation is rigid: It is only allowed as a means of last resort, not to be applied within exclusive competencies of the union. It needs to: respect the institutional framework of the EU (with a strong role for the European Commission in particular); support the aim of an ever-closer union; be open to all EU countries in principle; and not harm the single market. In this straitjacket, enhanced cooperation has so far been used in the fairly technical areas of divorce law and patents, and property regimes for international couples. Enhanced cooperation on a financial transaction tax has been in development since 2011, but the ten countries cooperating on this have struggled to come to a final agreement.

PESCO allows a core group of member states to make binding commitments to each other on security and defence, with a more resilient military and security architecture as its aim. It was originally initiated at the European Convention in 2003 to be part of the envisaged European Defence Union. At the time, this group would have consisted of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. After disagreements on defence spending in this group and the referendum defeat for the European Constitution which meant the end of the Defence Union, a revised version of PESCO was added into the Lisbon treaty. This revised version allows for more space for the member states to decide on the binding commitments, which of them form the group, and the level of investment. However, because of its history, some member states still regard it as a top-down process which lacks clarity about how the groups and criteria are established. So far, PESCO has not been used, but it has recently been put back on the agenda by a group of EU member states.

These do not get the EU very far, but the ECFR go on to mention an additional Schengen-style approach, where international treaties of EU members can be concluded outside of the EU framework. These treaties can later be adopted by other EU members.

As part of their research the ECFR carried out more than 100 interviews with government officials and experts at universities and think-tanks across the 28 member states to discover their motivation for adopting a more flexible approach. The chart below shows the outcomes:-

ECFR FutureEU_MotiviationFlexibility

Source: ECFR

Interestingly, in two countries, Denmark and Greece, officials and experts believe that more flexibility will result in greater fragmentation. Nonetheless, officials and experts in Croatia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Latvia, and Spain are in favour of embracing a more flexible approach. Benelux and France remain sceptical. Here is how the map of Europe looks to the ECFR:-

ECFR206_THE_FUTURE_SHAPE_OF_EUROPE_-_CountryMap

Source: ECFR

The timeline for action is likely to be gradual. President Juncker’s plans to develop the ideas contained in the white paper in his State of the Union speech in September. The first policy proposals may be drafted in time for the European Council meeting in December. It is envisaged that an agreed course of action will be rolled out in time for the European Parliament elections in June 2019.

Can Europe wait?

Two years is not that long a time in European politics but financial markets may lack such patience. Here is the Greek government debt repayment schedule prior to the European Parliament Elections:-

Greece_-_Repayment_Schedule_-_WSJ

Source: Wall Street Journal

This five year chart shows the steady rise in total Greek government debt:-

greece-government-debt

Source: Tradingeconomics, Bank of Greece

Greek debt totalled Eur 326bln in Q4 2016, the debt to GDP ratio for 2015 was 177%. Italy’s debt to GDP was a mere 133% over the same period.

ECB dilemma

The ECB would almost certainly like to taper its quantitative easing, especially in light of the current tightening by the US. It reduced its monthly purchases from Eur 80bln per month to Eur 60bln in December but financial markets only permitted Mr Draghi to escape unscathed because he extended the duration of the programme from March to December 2017. Further reductions in purchases may cause European government bond spreads to diverge dramatically. Since the beginning of the year 10yr BTPs have moved from 166bp over 10yr German Bunds to 2.11% – this spread has more than doubled since January 2016. The chart below shows the evolution of Eurozone long-term interest rates between October 2009 and November 2016:-

Long-term_interest_rates_(eurozone) Oct 09 to Nov 16 - ECB

Source: ECB

In 2011 the Euro Area debt to GDP ratio was 86%, by 2015 it had reached 91%. The table below shows the highest 10yr yield since the great financial crisis for a selection of Eurozone government bonds together with their ratios of debt to GDP. It goes on to show the same ratio at the end of 2015. Only Germany is in a stronger position today than it was during the Eurozone crisis in terms of its debt as a percentage of its GDP:-

Bond_yields_and_debt_to_GDP (1)

Source: Trading Economics

Since these countries bond markets hit their yield highs during the Eurozone Crisis, Greece, Italy and Spain have seen an improvement in GDP growth, but only Spain is likely to achieve sufficient growth to reduce its debt burden. If the ECB is to cease killing the proverbial fatted calf, a less profligate fiscal approach is required.

Euro Area GDP averaged slightly less than 1.8% per annum over the last two years, yet the debt to GDP ratio only declined a little over 1% from its all-time high. Further European integration sounds excellent in theory but in practice any positive impact on economic growth is unlikely to be evident for several years.

EU integration has been moving at different speeds for years, if anything, the process has been held back by attempts to move in unison. There are risks of causing fragmentation with both approaches, either within countries or between them.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

Another Eurozone financial crisis cannot be ruled out this year. The political uncertainty of the Netherlands is past, but France may yet surprise. Once Germany has voted in September, it will be time to focus on the endeavours of the ECB. Their asset purchase programme is scheduled to end in December.

I would expect this programme to be extended once more, if not, the stresses which nearly tore the Eurozone asunder in 2011/2012 are likely to return. The fiscal position of the Euro Area is only slightly worse than it was five years ago, but, having flirted with the lowest yields ever recorded, bond markets have considerably further to fall in percentage terms than in during the previous crisis.

Spanish 10yr Bonos represents a better prospect than Italian 10yr BTPs, but one would have to endure negative carry to set up this spread trade: look for opportunities if the spread narrows towards zero. German Bunds are always likely to act as the safe haven in a crisis and their yields have risen substantially in the past year, yet at less than ½% they are 300bp below their “safe-haven” level of April 2011.

The Euro is unlikely to rally in this environment. The chart below shows the Euro Effective Exchange Rate since 2005:-

Euro_Effective_Exchange_Rate_-_ECB (1)

Source: ECB

The all-time low for the Euro is 82.34 which was the level is plumbed back in October 2000. This does sound an outlandish target during the next debacle.

Euro weakness would, however, be supportive for export oriented European stocks. The weakness that stocks would initially suffer, as a result of the return of the Euro crisis, would quickly be reversed, in much the same manner that UK stocks were pummelled on the initial Brexit result only to rebound.

What impact could the NATO defence spending renegotiation have on EU budgets, bonds and stocks?

What impact could the NATO defence spending renegotiation have on EU budgets, bonds and stocks?

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Macro Letter – No 71 – 24-02-2017

What impact could the NATO defence spending renegotiation have on EU budgets, bonds and stocks?

  • In 2006 NATO partners agreed to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence
  • Germany’s defence spending shortfall since 2006 equals $281bln
  • Retrospective adjustment is unlikely, but Europe needs to increase spending substantially
  • A minimum of $64bln/annum is required from Germany, France, Italy and Spain alone

Given the mutual relationship of the NATO treaty it could be argued that, for many years the US has been footing the lion’s share of the bill for defending Europe. Under the new US administration this situation is very likely to change.

The July 2016 Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (2009-2016) presents the situation in clear terms. At the Riga summit back in 2006 NATO members agreed to raise defence expenditure to 2% of GDP. In that year only six countries met the threshold – Bulgaria, France, Greece, Turkey, the UK, and the US. Eight years later, at the NATO meeting in Wales, members renewed their commitment to this target. Last year only five members achieved the threshold – Estonia, Greece, Poland, the UK, and, of course, the US.

The original NATO treaty was signed on 4th April 1949 by 12 countries, it was expanded in 1952 to include Turkey and Greece and in 1955 to incorporate Germany. In 1982, after reverting to a democracy, Spain also joined. Further expansion occurred in 1999, again in 2004 and most recently 2009.

Back in 1949 Europe was still recovering from the disastrous social and economic impact of WWII. Today, in the post-Cold War era, things look very different and yet, whilst defence spending has waxed and waned over the intervening years, the US still spends substantially more on defence, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP, than any of its treaty partners. The table below reveals the magnitude of the current situation:-

nato_expenditure_-_geopolitical_futures

Source: Geopolitical Futures, Mauldin Economics

US defence spending last year amounted to $664bln which equates to 3.61% of US GDP based on current estimates.

Setting aside the political debate about whether we should be spending more or less on defence, it would appear that the US continues to do more than its fair share, in economic terms, in defence of its NATO allies.

The next table looks at the budgetary implications of making the NATO budget equable. Firstly, all NATO countries committing 2% of GDP to defence (which would dramatically reduce the total NATO budget) or, secondly, maintaining the current level of spending, which would imply all countries contributing 2.58% of GDP. In both scenarios the US is a clear winner in economic terms:-

nato_expenditure_as_percentage_of_gdp_-_analysis-1

Source: NATO, UN, IMF

I have excluded the smaller, mainly Eastern European, countries from this analysis – their combined contribution is less than $13bln/annum. I do not wish to appear disparaging, on a percentage of GDP basis many of these countries contribute more than their larger European neighbours. My purpose in this analysis is to look at the relative increases or decreases under each scenario. Below are the Budget to GDP and Debt to GDP ratios before and after adjustment to the less demanding 2% defence expenditure target:-

nato_budget_and_debt_to_gdp_after_adjustment_to_2_

Source: NATO, UN, IMF, Trading Economics

The Maastricht Treaty incorporated certain criteria in order to satisfy Germany, along with other cautious countries, of the fiscal rectitude of all countries seeking to join the Eurozone. Although they were never really taken seriously by politicians, these fiscal restrictions included a maximum Government debt to GDP ratio of 60% and a Budget deficit to GDP ratio of less than 3%. Applying these arcane criteria, only three countries – Denmark, Norway and Turkey – are in the enviable position of being able to undertake the required defence spending increases with equanimity.

The burning question going forward is how the largest countries in Europe will react to the US compliant that they have failed to increase spending since 2006. As George Friedman of Geopolitical Futures – The Evolving NATO Alliance succinctly explains:-

…the US accounts for about 50% of NATO members’ total GDP and 32% of their total population—and yet the US makes up about 72% of defense spending.

… Western European countries (excluding the UK) account for 31% of NATO members’ GDP and 33%  of their population, and yet they contribute 16%  to NATO members’ total defense spending.

Eastern European countries, which account for 4.2% of NATO members’ GDP and 12.7% of their population, are much poorer and smaller than Western European countries. Eastern Europe contributes 2.7% to defense spending. In effect, Eastern Europe contributes closer to its share than its far wealthier and stronger neighbors to the west.

According to SIPRI Milex data for 2015, Russia spent 5.4% of GDP on defence. Other notable defenders of their realms include Pakistan (3.4%) and India (2.3%).

At the Munich Security Conference which took place last weekend, the prospect of Germany finding an extra Eur20bln per year for defence spending was raised, but, being an election year, little more was heard on the topic. The conference was fascinating however, here are some of the key quotes:-

A stable EU is as much in America’s interest as a united NATO – Ursula von der Leyen – Minister of Defence – Germany.

American security is permanently tied to European security – James Mattis – Secretary of Defence – USA.

The role of Germany in Europe is always to be a bridge – between North and South and East and West – Wolfgang Schauble – Minister of Finance – Germany.

Make no mistake, my friends. You should not count America out – John McCain – Chairman of Senate Committee on Armed Services – USA.

Let us not forget that NATO is the backbone of our value system – Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert – Minister of Defence – Netherlands.

NATO is not an obsolete organisation. It is an organisation to which additional mandates should be added – Fikri Isik – Minister of National Defence – Turkey.

The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to this Transatlantic alliance – Michael Pence – Vice President – USA.

Europe’s defence requires your support as much as ours – Michael Pence – Vice President – USA.

Things look very different if we add up our defence budgets, our development aid budgets and our humanitarian efforts all around the world – Jean-Claude Juncker – President – European Commission

The post-war generation rose to their challenge, we must rise to ours – Jens Stoltenberg – Secretary General – NATO.

The European Union is much stronger than we European’s realise – Federica Mogherini – Vice President – European Commission – High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – EU.

No one has any clue what the foreign policy of this administration is – Christopher Murphy – Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

From a negotiating perspective it would not be entirely unreasonable for the US to demand that the 2006 commitment of 2% spending be honoured retrospectively, in addition to the 2% commitment going forward. The table below shows how NATO members have performed in this respect since 2005, apart from the US, only Greece and the UK have been above target over the entire period. American frustration with its NATO partners is hardly surprising:-

nato_defense_expenditure_as_percentage_of_gdp_-_ge

Source: NATO, Geopolitical Futures

The tone of US comments at the Munich conference appear slightly more conciliatory than of late. Europe’s defence ministries have, nonetheless, been seriously shaken by the change in attitude which has accompanied the change of US administration.

According to commentators, who purport to have more of a clue than Christopher Murphy, US defence spending is likely to rise by between $500bln and $1trln under the new administration. This is no “Get Out of Jail Free” card for NATOs parsimonious majority, Europe will be pressured to defence spending at a time when budgets are already uncomfortably bloated. They have had more than a decade to comply with the Riga commitment.

Looking at the bigger picture for a moment, this sudden rise in spending is a small uptick in a downward trend. Defence budgets have been falling in all the major NATO countries, as the chart below indicates. In 1989 excluding the UK and US the average budget to GDP across NATO countries was 2.9% by 1998 it had fallen to 2% but since then it has steadily declined to an average of 1.4% today. This may be good from an economic perspective – as Frederic Bastiat argued most eloquently in relation to the cost of a standing army in his essay What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen:-

A hundred thousand men, costing the taxpayers a hundred million francs, live as well and provide as good a living for their suppliers as a hundred million francs will allow: that is what is seen.

But a hundred million francs, coming from the pockets of the taxpayers, ceases to provide a living for these taxpayers and their suppliers, to the extent of a hundred million francs: that is what is not seen. Calculate, figure, and tell me where there is any profit for the mass of the people.

Nonetheless, the economic burden of defence spending borne by the US is undoubtedly going to shift, or else, NATO will cease to be tenable going forward:-

defence_spending_as_a_pecentage_of_gdp_since_1949_

Source: SIPRI

Conclusion

I believe it is likely that Germany, France, Italy and Spain will find an additional $64bln/annum for Defence and Aid budgets. They may also have to pick up part of the bill for the smaller countries to their East.

Will this impact European bond markets? It seems like a drop in the ocean beside the Asset Purchase Program of the ECB. President Draghi announced in January that they will be reducing the monthly purchases from Eur 80bln per month to Eur 60bln starting in April. I suspect the impact will be limited but it might prolong the Asset Purchase Program somewhat.

The implications for defence contractors and their stock market valuations will be more direct. Here are some of the largest listed names in Europe. Not all of them have been darlings of the stock market of late:-

areospace_and_defence_companies-1

Source: Investing.com, LSE, NYSE Euronext

For those who, like myself, who prefer to analyse the sector rather than individual stocks, the STOXX Europe TMI Aerospace & Defense (SXPARO) may appeal; here is a three year chart:-

stoxx_-_europe_tmi_aerospace_defense

Source: STOXX

The combination of increased military spending by the US and the pressure being brought to bear on Europe, should see the defence sector outperform over the longer term. During the last 12 months the SXPARO has risen 15%. Its US equivalent, the iShares US Aerospace & Defense ETF (ITA) is up by 20% over the same period, whilst the Euro has declined by around 3% against the US$. As a general rule I prefer to buy Leaders rather than Laggards, but the logic of buying European if European governments are forced to honour their defence obligations remains compelling.

Equity valuation in a de-globalising world

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Macro Letter – No 68 – 13-01-2017

Equity valuation in a de-globalising world

  • The Federal Reserve will raise rates in the coming year
  • The positive Yield Gap will vanish but equity markets should still rise
  • After an eight year bull market equities are vulnerable to negative shocks
  • A value based investment approach is to be favoured even in the current environment

In this Macro Letter I review stock market valuation. I conclude with some general recommendations but the main purpose of my letter is to investigate different methods of valuation and consider the benefits and dangers of diversification. I begin by looking at the US market and the prospects for the US economy. Then I turn to global equity markets, where I consider the benefits and perils of diversification into Frontier stocks. I go on to review global industry sectors, before returning to examine the long term value to be found in developed markets. I finish by looking at the recent outperformance of Value versus Growth.

US Stocks and the Yield Gap

The Equity bull market is entering its eighth year and for US stocks this is the second longest bull-market since WWII – the longest being, between 1987 and 2000. The current bull-market has differed from the 1987-2000 period in that interest rates have fallen throughout the period. Bond yields have also declined to historically low levels. The Yield Gap – the premium of dividend yields over bond yields – which had been inverted since the mid-1950’s, turned positive once more. The chart below shows the yield of the S&P500 and 10yr T-Bonds since 1900:-

yield-gap-in-a-longer-term-context-jpeg

Source: Reuters

What this chart shows most clearly is that the return to a positive Yield Gap has been a function of falling bond yields rather than any substantial rise in dividend pay-out.

The chart below looks at the relationships between the Yield Gap and the real return on US 10yr Treasuries and S&P500 dividends since 1930 – I have used the Implicit Price Deflator as the measure of inflation:-

us_yield_gap_-_real_bond_yld_-_real_div_yld

Source: Multpl, St Louis Federal Reserve

The decline in the real dividend yield was a response to rising inflation from the late 1950’s onwards. The return to a positive Yield Gap has been a recent phenomenon. The average Yield Gap since 1900 is -0.51%, since 1930 it has been -1.17%. It has been below its long-run average at -0.37% since 2008. The executive officers of US corporations will continue to favour share buy-backs over increased dividends – I do not expect dividend yields to keep pace with any pick-up in inflation in the near-term, but, share buy-backs will continue to support stocks in general.

S&P 500 forecasts for 2017

What does this mean for the return on the S&P 500 in 2017? According to Bloomberg, the consensus forecast is for a rise of 4% but the range of forecasts is a rather narrow +1.3% to +8.3%. As at the close on 11th January we were already up 1.6% from the 30th December close.

Corporate earnings continue to rise although the pace of increase has moderated. Factset Earning Insight – January 6th – makes the following observations:-

Earnings Growth: For Q4 2016, the estimated earnings growth rate for the S&P 500 is 3.0%. If the index reports earnings growth for Q4, it will mark the first time the index has seen year-over-year growth in earnings for two consecutive quarters since Q4 2014 and Q1 2015.

Earnings Revisions: On September 30, the estimated earnings growth rate for Q4 2016 was 5.2%. Ten of the eleven sectors have lower growth rates today (compared to September 30) due to downward revisions to earnings estimates, led by the Materials sector.

Earnings Guidance: For Q4 2016, 77 S&P 500 companies have issued negative EPS guidance and 34 S&P 500 companies have issued positive EPS guidance.

Valuation: The forward 12-month P/E ratio for the S&P 500 is 17.1. This P/E ratio is above the 5-year average (15.1) and the 10-year average (14.4).

Earnings Scorecard: As of today (with 4% of the companies in the S&P 500 reporting actual results for Q4 2016), 73% of S&P 500 companies have beat the mean EPS estimate and 36% of S&P 500 companies have beat the mean sales estimate.

…For Q1 2017, analysts are projecting earnings growth of 11.0% and revenue growth of 7.9%.

For Q2 2017, analysts are projecting earnings growth of 10.5% and revenue growth of 6.0%.

For all of 2017, analysts are projecting earnings growth of 11.5% and revenue growth of 5.9%.

…At the sector level, the Energy (33.2) sector has the highest forward 12-month P/E ratio, while the Telecom Services (14.2) and Financials (14.2) sectors have the lowest forward 12-month P/E ratios. Nine sectors have forward 12-month P/E ratios that are above their 10-year averages, led by the Energy (33.2 vs. 17.9) sector. One sector (Telecom Services) has a forward 12-month P/E ratio that is below the 10-year average (14.2 vs. 14.6).

Other indicators, which should be supportive for the US economy, include the ISM – PMI Index which is closely correlated to the business cycle. It came in at 54. 7 the highest since November 2014. Here is a 10 year chart:-

united-states-business-confidence-10yr

Source: Trading Economics, Institute for Supply Management

A shorter-term indicator for the US economy is the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index – CESI. The chart below suggests that the surprise caused by Trump’s presidential victory is still gathering momentum:-

citi_cesi_index_-_january_2017_-_yardeni

Source: Yardeni, Citigroup

With both the ISM and the CESI indices rising, even the most bearish of macro-economist is likely to be “sceptically positive” on the US economy and this should be supportive for the US stock market.

Global Stocks

I have focussed on the US stock market because of the close correlation between the US and other major stock markets around the world.

As the world becomes less globalised, or as one moves away from the major stock markets, the diversification benefits of a global portfolio, such as the one Andrew Craig describes in his book “How to Own the World”, becomes more enticing. Andrew recommends diversification by asset class, but even a diversified equity portfolio – without the addition of bonds, commodities, real-estate and infrastructure – can offer an enhanced Sharpe Ratio. The table below looks at the three year monthly correlations of emerging and frontier stock markets with a correlation of less than 0.40 to the US market:-

Country Correlations < 0.40 to US stocks – 36 months
Malawi -0.12
Iraq -0.12
Panama -0.01
Cambodia 0.00
Rwanda 0.01
Venezuela 0.01
Uganda 0.01
Trinidad and Tobago 0.02
Tunisia 0.02
Botswana 0.07
Mauritius 0.07
Tanzania 0.08
Palestine 0.09
Laos 0.09
Ghana 0.10
Zambia 0.10
Peru 0.11
Bahrain 0.13
Jordan 0.15
Cote D’Ivoire 0.15
Sri Lanka 0.16
Argentina 0.17
Nigeria 0.17
Qatar 0.21
Kenya 0.21
Pakistan 0.24
Jamaica 0.24
Oman 0.25
Colombia 0.27
Saudi Arabia 0.31
Kuwait 0.36
China 0.37
Bermuda 0.38
Egypt 0.38
Vietnam 0.39

Source: Investment Frontier

Many of these stock markets are illiquid or suffer from investment restrictions: but here you will find some of the fastest growing economies in the world. These correlations look beguilingly low but remember that during broad-based market declines short-term correlations tend to rise – the illusory nature of liquidity drives this process. The price of a financial asset is driven by investment flows, cognitive behavioural biases drive investment decisions. Herd instinct rises dramatically when fear replaces greed.

Industry Sectors

The major stock markets also offer opportunities. Looking globally by industry sector there are some attractive longer-term value propositions. The table below ranks the major markets by sector as at 30th December 2016. The sectors have been sorted by trailing P/E ratio (mining and alternative energy P/E data is absent but by other measures mining is relatively cheap):-

Industry Sector PE PC PB PS DY
Real Est Serv 11.2 14.9 1 2.2 2.70%
Auto 12.1 5.7 1.4 0.6 2.50%
Banks 13.8 9.6 1.1 3.30%
Life Insur 14.2 6.4 1.1 0.7 3.00%
Electricity 14.9 5.6 1.3 1.1 4.00%
Forest & Paper 15.1 7.1 1.6 0.9 2.90%
Nonlife Ins 16.2 10.4 1.3 1 2.40%
Financial Serv 16.7 13.8 1.8 2.3 2.20%
Telecom (fxd) 17.5 5.5 2.3 1.4 4.20%
Travel & Leisure 17.6 9.1 2.9 1.4 2.10%
Tech HW & Equ 18.3 10.7 3 1.8 2.30%
Chemicals 18.8 10.1 2.4 1.3 2.60%
Household Gds 18.8 15 2.8 1.7 2.40%
Gen Ind 19 11.3 1.9 1.1 2.40%
REITs 20.4 16.7 1.7 7.7 4.50%
Construction 20.9 11.4 1.9 0.9 2.10%
Telecom (mob) 21.4 5.6 1.9 1.5 3.30%
Tobacco 21.5 21.1 9.8 4.9 3.60%
Media 21.6 10.9 2.9 2 2.10%
Food Retail 21.6 10.2 2.8 0.4 2.00%
Eltro & Elect Equ 21.7 12.2 2.2 1 1.70%
Pharma & Bio 22.4 16.3 3.4 3.5 2.30%
Food Prod 23.2 14.3 2.6 1.2 2.20%
Healthcare 23.7 13.1 3.2 1.4 1.10%
Leisure Gds 23.9 8.4 2 1.1 1.20%
Inds Transport 23.9 10.4 2.5 1.3 2.50%
Aero & Def 23.9 14.9 5 1.3 2.10%
Inds Eng 24.6 12.4 2.5 1.1 2.00%
Personal Gds 24.7 16.8 4.3 2 2.00%
Gen Retail 25.8 14 4.2 1 1.70%
Support Serv 26.4 11.9 2.8 1.1 1.90%
Beverages 27 14.9 4.2 2.4 2.70%
SW & Comp Serv 27.3 15.9 4.5 3.8 1.10%
Oil Service 73.9 11.8 1.9 1.7 3.70%
Oil&Gas Prod 116.9 8.2 1.4 1 3.10%
Inds Metal 165.7 7.7 1.1 0.7 2.40%
Mining 8.9 1.6 1.5 1.90%
Alt Energy 10.5 1.7 0.9 1.20%

Source: Star Capital

A number of sectors have been out of favour since 2008 and may remain so in 2017 but it is useful to know where under-performance can be found.

Developed Market Opportunities

At a country level there is better long-term valuation to be found outside the US, even among the developed countries. Here is Star Capital’s 10 to 15 year total annual return forecast for the major markets and regions:-

Country CAPE Forecast PB Forecast ø Forecast
Italy 12.7 9.10% 1.2 10.40% 9.70%
Spain 11.7 9.70% 1.4 8.80% 9.30%
United Kingdom 14.8 8.00% 1.8 7.20% 7.60%
France 18.3 6.60% 1.6 8.10% 7.30%
Australia 16.8 7.10% 2 6.60% 6.90%
Germany 18.6 6.40% 1.8 7.40% 6.90%
Japan 24.9 4.40% 1.3 9.40% 6.90%
Netherlands 19.8 6.00% 1.8 7.20% 6.60%
Canada 20.5 5.70% 1.9 6.90% 6.30%
Sweden 20.6 5.70% 2.1 6.20% 5.90%
Switzerland 21.5 5.40% 2.4 5.30% 5.30%
United States 26.4 4.00% 2.9 4.10% 4.00%
Emerging Markets 14 8.40% 1.6 7.90% 8.20%
Developed Europe 16.6 7.20% 1.8 7.40% 7.30%
World AC 20.8 5.60% 2 6.70% 6.20%
Developed Markets 21.9 5.30% 2 6.50% 5.90%

Source: Star Capital, Bloomberg, Reuters

I have sorted this data based on Star Capital’s composite annual return forecast. The first three countries, Italy, Spain and the UK, all face uncertainty linked to the future of the EU. Interestingly Switzerland offers better long-term returns than the US – with considerably less currency risk for the international investor.

Value Investing

Since the financial crisis in 2008 through to 2015 Growth stocks outperformed Value stocks. I predict a sea-change. The fathers of Value Investing, Ben Graham and David Dodd first published Securities Analysis in 1934. Towards the end of his career Graham opined (emphasis is mine):-

I am no longer an advocate of elaborate techniques of security analysis in order to find superior value opportunities. This was a rewarding activity, say, 40 years ago, when our textbook “Graham and Dodd” was first published; but the situation has changed a great deal since then. In the old days any well-trained security analyst could do a good professional job of selecting undervalued issues through detailed studies; but in the light of the enormous amount of research now being carried on, I doubt whether in most cases such extensive efforts will generate sufficiently superior selections to justify their cost. To that very limited extent, I’m on the side of the “efficient market” school of thought now generally accepted by the professors.

As we embrace the “Big Data” era, the cost of analysing vast amounts of data will collapse, whilst, at the same time, the amount of available data will grow exponentially. I believe we are at the dawn of a new age for Value Investing where the quantitative analysis of a vast array of qualitative factors will allow investors to defy the Efficient Market Hypothesis, even if we cannot satisfactorily refute Eugene Fama’s premise. In 2016, for the first time in seven years, Value beat Growth across all major categories:-

value_outperformance_of_growth_2016

Source: MSCI, Bloomberg

Value stocks tend to exhibit higher volatility than growth stocks, but volatility is only one aspect of risk: buying Value offers long-term protection, especially during an economic downturn. According to Bloomberg’s Nir Kaissar, Value has consistently underperformed Growth since the financial crisis except in US Small Cap’s – his article – Value Investing Hits Back – is insightful.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

When I first began investing in stocks the one of the general rules was to buy when the P/E ratio was below 10 and sell when it rose above 20. Today, of the world’s major stock markets, only Russia and China offer single digit P/Es – low ratios are a structural feature of these markets. I wrote about Russia last month in – Russia – Will the Bear come in from the cold? My conclusion was that one should be cautiously optimistic:-

The Russian stock market has already factored in much of the positive economic and political news. The OPEC deal took shape in a series of well publicised stages. The “Trump Effect” is unlikely to be as significant as some commentators hope. The ending of sanctions is the one factor which could act as a positive price shock, however, the Russian economy has suffered a severe recession and now appears to be recovering of its own accord.

Interest rates in the US will rise, though probably not by as much, nor as quickly as the market is currently betting. A value based approach to stock selection offers greater protection and greater return in the long run.

The US stock market continues to rise. The US economy looks set to grow more rapidly in 2017 due to tax cuts and fiscal stimulus, but, for international companies which export to the US, the threat of protectionism is likely to temper enthusiasm for their stocks.

US financial services firms were a big winner after the Trump election result, they should continue to benefit even as interest rates increase – yield curves will steepen, increasing return on capital. US telecommunications stocks have a performed well since the election along with biotechnology – I have no specific view on these industries. Energy stocks have also rallied, perhaps as much on the OPEC deal as the Trump triumph – many new technologies are starting to be implemented by the energy industry but enthusiasm for these stocks may be tempered by a decline in oil prices once the rig count rebounds. The Baker-Hughes Rig Count ended the year at 525 up from a low of 316 in May. The old high of 1,609 was set back in October 2014 – there is plenty of spare capacity which will exert downward pressure on oil prices.

Indian economic growth will outpace China for another year. Despite a weakening Chinese Yuan, Vietnam remains competitive – it is on the cusp of moving from Frontier to Emerging Market status. Indonesia also looks likely to perform well during 2017, GDP forecasts are around 5%; however, Indonesia’s strong reliance on commodity exports makes it more vulnerable than some of its South and East Asian neighbours.

Brexit, Grexit and the rise and fall and rise again of the Euro

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Macro Letter – No 54 – 06-05-2016

Brexit, Grexit and the rise and fall and rise again of the Euro

  • Should the UK leave the EU, Euro volatility will follow
  • If the UK remains, the Euro experiment might still be scuppered
  • The problems of the EU periphery are not solved by the UK remaining

Whilst the majority of articles between now and the 23rd June will focus on whether the UK will leave or remain in the EU and what this might mean, I want to consider the impact Brexit is likely to have on the long-run fortunes of the Euro.

Since December 2008 the EURGBP has fallen from 0.979 to a low of 0.694 in July 2015. Since the end of last year concern, about the outcome of a UK referendum on whether to remain or leave the EU, has seen the EUR strengthen to 0.810 – just over a 38.2% retracement. The UK economy has already begun to show signs of economic slowdown due to uncertainty. A vote to leave is likely to have a negative impact on the GBP, initially, if for no other reason than the continuation of uncertainty; neither the government nor the opposition has presented a road map for exit should the electorate decide to leave. In the event of a UK departure I could envisage a move back to 0.865 or even 0.971:-

EURGBP 10 yr

Source: fxtop.com

I believe the impact on the UK economy of Brexit would therefore be a substantial weakening of the GBP, a rise in UK inflation and an initial slowing of economic growth. Our exports would rise and our imports would decline, improving our trade balance. Those European countries for whom the UK is their largest export market would suffer.

The cost of the UK leaving the EU would not stop there. The UK is the second largest member of the union. In terms of the economic and political strength of the EU, Britain’s inclusion is significant. By leaving the Schengen Agreement area we would impose higher costs on the remaining members, potentially hastening its interruption or demise. The ECIPE Five Freedom Project – The Cost of Non-Schengen for the Single Market published this week, provides an alarming vision of what that cost to EU growth might be:-

If Schengen would be suspended for the two-year period or even in full, trade and economic growth in the EU could be severely damaged. The Schengen Agreement is not just a symbol of European integration, it creates real economic value by facilitating cross-border exchange. Obviously, the Schengen Agreement promotes the free movement of people, but that is not all. It also boosts the flow of goods, services and capital across borders.

…In 2015 intra-EU trade in goods made up for approximately 60% of the EU’s overall trade.

…The Bertelsmann Stiftung estimated the impact of reintroduced border controls on the EU’s gross domestic product (GDP). Border checks which stop and control trucks cause time delays which increase transport costs and lead to higher product prices. According to their results these higher product prices can cause a yearly reduction in GDP growth of 0.04 percentage points compared to intra-EU trade with open borders. Furthermore, the study argues that the time delays at the border would make just-in-time production and decentralized production more difficult for European firms. As a result, production costs for intra-European value chains would increase and the price competitiveness of European producers would decrease. This could affect location and investment decisions by foreign firms.

A recent Ifo study finds that for EU member states the removal of border controls leads to an increase of 3.8% in goods trade or a cost saving equivalent to a tariff reduction of 0.7 percentage points for every internal border which a good needs to cross. As a result, countries which are at the periphery of the Schengen Area benefit more from the Agreement because their costs savings are greater if goods have to cross several borders until they reach their markets.

Such an integral pillar of EU membership as the Schengen Agreement may not be suspended, but concerns about the indebtedness of some of the more profligate peripheral countries is likely to return to the fore by the summer. As reported earlier this week by Reuters – Greek bank stocks could rise 90 percent on bailout cash deal: Morgan Stanley:-

…upgraded Greek banks to “overweight” saying current valuations did not reflect the compression in bond yield spreads that would follow a deal with Athens’ lenders and took an overly pessimistic view on the banks’ return on equity targets.

The Economist – The threat of Grexit never really went away sees it rather differently: –

Greece badly needs the next dollop of the €86 billion ($99 billion) bail-out creditors promised it last summer, in exchange for promises of austerity and reform. But it will not get the money until the creditors complete a review of its progress, which has been dragging on since November. The government has scraped together enough cash (by raiding independent public agencies) to pay salaries and pensions in May, perhaps even in June. But by July 20th, when a bond worth more than €2 billion matures, the country once again faces default and perhaps a forced exit from the euro zone. The threat of Grexit is not exactly back; it never really went away.

Meanwhile the creation of the “Atlas Fund” which will purchase non-performing loans of Italian banks which are in distress, appears to have averted the, potentially fatal, run on the Italian banking system which was developing earlier this year. Bruegel – Italy’s Atlas bank bailout fund: the shareholder of last resort takes up the story:-

Italy’s new bank fund Atlas might be what is needed in the short run, but in the longer term the fund will increase systemic risk. What ultimately matters is how this initiative will affect the quality of bank governance, a key issue for the future resilience of the system.

The Atlas fund has a heavy task, although probably not as heavy as that of its mythological namesake. In the short run, it might be what most commentators have described: an imperfect but needed second-best way to avoid bail-in and resolution, matching repeated calls from the Bank of Italy for a revision of the Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive (BRRD) framework after Italy negotiated and approved it.

However, by acting as a bank shareholder of last resort the fund increases systemic risk in the longer term, weakening the stronger banks and involving a publicly controlled institution whose main source of funding is postal savings into a rather risky venture.

While it’s unclear whether the aim is to keep foreign capital out of the Italian banking system, what ultimately matters is how this initiative will affect (or avoid affecting) the quality of bank governance, a key issue for the future resilience of the system. Regardless of whether we think that keeping weak banks alive at all costs is a good idea, the idea of such a shareholder of last resort appears at odds with the aim of making progress towards a solid European Banking Union.

Conclusion

The implications of a UK exit from the EU would, initially, lead to a strengthening EURGBP, although not necessarily EURUSD. This will be followed by a period of increased uncertainty about the survival of the Eurozone (EZ) during which the EUR will decline against its main trading partners. The chart below shows the Euro effective Exchange rate over the last 15 years:-

real_effective_exchange_rate_reer_monthly_index_base_year_100

Source: Bluenomics, Eurostat

Once the first country leaves the EZ, sentiment will change once more. Investors will realise that the departure of the periphery strengthens the prospects of the currency union for those countries which remain; the EUR will begin to look less like a Drachma and more like a Deutschemark. The 2009 highs on the chart above will be within reach and a long-term trajectory similar to, though less steep than, the path of the CHF could become the norm.

For those who thrive on market volatility, over the next few years, opportunities to trade the EUR will be golden.

Greece in or out – Investment Opportunities?

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Macro Letter – No 34 – 24-04-2015

Greece in or out – Investment Opportunities?

  • Greece needs to reschedule its debt or default
  • Capital Controls maybe inevitable
  • A piecemeal solution is not the answer, yet it’s more likely than a “Lehman moment”
  • A definitive solution presents investment opportunities

Earlier this week I paid a visit to the Greek Island of Corfu. Whilst most of what we read and observe about the Greek economy revolves around Athens, I thought it would be useful to gain a broader perspective on the state of the economy. I wanted to consider, what things might be like, if Greece stays within the Eurozone (EZ) or, conversely, if they decide to leave.

Firstly a few Greek economic facts:-

Top of FormMarketsBottom of Form Last Date Frequency
GDP Annual Growth Rate 1.2% Nov-14 Quarterly
GDP per capita 18146 USD Dec-13 Yearly
Unemployment Rate 25.7% Jan-15 Monthly
Youth Unemployment Rate 51.2% Dec-14 Monthly
Population 10.99mln Dec-14 Yearly
Minimum Wages 684 Dec-14 Monthly
Inflation Rate -2.1% Mar-15 Monthly
Core Inflation Rate -1.2% Jan-15 Monthly
Producer Prices Change -4.8% Feb-15 Monthly
Balance of Trade -1,425mln Feb-15 Monthly
Exports 2,024mln Feb-15 Monthly
Imports 3,449mln Feb-15 Monthly
Current Account -850mln Jan-15 Monthly
Government Debt to GDP 175% Dec-13 Yearly
Government Spending to GDP 59.2% Dec-13 Yearly
Business Confidence 96.8 Mar-15 Monthly
Manufacturing PMI 48.9 Mar-15 Monthly
Industrial Production 1.9% Feb-15 Monthly
Manufacturing Production 5.8% Feb-15 Monthly
Capacity Utilization 65.7% Feb-15 Monthly
Industrial Production Mom -4.7% Jan-15 Monthly
Consumer Confidence -31 Mar-15 Monthly
Retail Sales YoY -0.1% Jan-15 Monthly
Housing Index -22% Feb-15 Monthly
Corporate Tax Rate 26% Jan-14 Yearly
Personal Income Tax Rate 46% Jan-14 Yearly
Sales Tax Rate 23% Jan-14 Yearly

Source: Trading Economics

Eurostat published their European Winter Economic forecasts 5th February – this is an extract from their, ever so rosy, forecast for Greece:-

Indicator 2013 2014 2015 2016
GDP growth (yoy) -3,9% 1,0% 2,5% 3,6%
Inflation (yoy) -0,9% -1,4% -0,3% 0,7%
Unemployment 27,5% 26,6% 25,0% 22,0%
Public budget balance to GDP -12,2% -2,5% 1,1% 1,6%
Gross public debt to GDP 174,9% 176,3% 170,2% 159,2%
Current account balance to GDP -2,3% -2,0% -1,5% -0,9%

Source: Eurostat

According to information collated from the CIA Factbook , OECD and Eurostat, the Greek public sector still accounts for 40% of GDP. The largest industry is Tourism (18%) followed by Shipping – the Hellenic Merchant Marine is the largest in the world employing 160,000 (4% of the workforce). The Greek shipping fleet is the fourth largest in the world, representing 15.17% of global deadweight tonnage in 2013, although “flag of convenience” issues can make these figures a little misleading. The labour force is estimated at 3.91mln of which immigrants account for 782,000 (20%). This makes Greece the 8th largest immigrant population in Europe – mainly unskilled or agricultural workers. As a result of the economic crisis private saving has increased from 11.2% in 2012 to 14.5% in 2014.

The largest broad industry sector is Services (which includes Tourism) accounting for 80.6% of GDP and 72.4% of employment, followed by Industry – 15.9% of GDP and 14.7% of employment. Agriculture is third in size producing 3.5% of GDP but employing 12.9% of the population.

Greece’s largest export market is Turkey (11.6%) and its largest import partner is Russia (14.1%). Little wonder they wish to maintain good relations with Moscow.

In terms of Tourism, Greece is the 7th most visited country in Europe and the 16th most visited globally. The latest figure I could unearth, from a 2008 OECD report, indicated 840,000 workers employed in the sector, from which I estimate that Tourism accounts for more than 20% of employment.

A more detailed analysis of the island economies of Greece came from a paper published by Sheffield University – A Comparative Analysis of the Economic Performance of Greek and British Small Islands – 2006. They analysed 63 islands with an average population of around 300,000. Employment was at 88.81% whilst Unemployed was a mere 11.19% – this was around the average for the whole country at that time. To my surprise, the level of reported self-employment was a relatively low 20.43%. One of the more puzzling figures was for Home Occupancy 46.05%; the Greek average for Home Ownership is 75.8% (2013). Unsurprisingly the main industry is Tourism followed by agriculture – it’s worth pointing out that Greece is the EU’s largest producer of Cotton, second largest producer of Rice and Olives, third largest producer of Tomatoes and fourth largest producer of Tobacco. It also accounts for 19% of all fish hauled from the Mediterranean, making it the third largest in the EU as of 2007 data.

The table below shows the regional breakdown of GDP by region for 2010:-

Region GDP Euro GDP % GDP Growth
Attica 106,635 48 -3.51
Northern Greece 55,163 24.83 -4.73
Central Greece 38,767 17.45 -3.03
Central Macedonia 30,087 13.54 -5.19
Aegean Islands and Crete 21,586 9.72 -4.84
Crete 10,955 4.93 -3.79
Thessaly 10,742 4.84 -6.55
West Greece 10,326 4.65 -2.9
Sterea Hellas 10,059 4.53 -1.25
Peloponnese 9,436 4.25 -3.97
East Macedonia and Thrace 9,054 4.08 -1.69
South Aegean 7,476 3.37 -5.4
West Macedonia 5,281 2.38 -3.3
Epirus 4,917 2.21 -2.36
Ionian Islands 4,029 1.81 -6.22
North Aegean 3,155 1.42 -7.04

Source: Eurostat

The islands are very much the “poor relation” in terms of economic output but, as the map below, from 2008, shows, the GDP per capita distribution is more dispersed:-

Greece_peripheries_GDP_per_capita_svg 2008 Eurostat

Source: Eurostat

I visited Corfu, the second largest island in the Ionian Sea, with a population of just over 100,000. Its main business is Tourism followed by the production of olives. Back in 2013 NCH Capital – a US investment firm, best known for their investments in agriculture in the Ukraine and Russia, agreed a deal with the Hellenic Republic Development Fund (HRDF) to build a tourist resort on the island. This was the first time the Greek state had sold land to a foreign investor for 15 years. The HRDF has been charged with raising Euro 11bln from asset sales by 2016 – this represents a small fraction of the assets available should the Hellenic Republic decide to cut and run.

The NCH investment is not moving forward as swiftly as they had hoped, as this article from Tax Law explains. It is worth pointing out that Corfu is located at the North West corner of Greece, its North East coast looking across the narrow straits to Albania; little wonder there is some concern about the reduction of a naval presence in the region. However, Albania became a full member of NATO in 2009. Since 2010 Albanians have been able to enter the EU without visas and, as of June 2014, they are officially a candidate to join the EU. As a result of these changes, property development is growing along with tourism. Prices for Albanian property are significantly lower than in neighbouring Montenegro, which in turn offer better value than Greece. Regardless of the fortunes of Albania, the prospects for a significant acceleration of Greek state asset disposals is likely, whether Greece leaves or remains within the EZ.

The residential Real Estate market is still depressed by the economic and political uncertainties of the last few years, but, from a rental perspective, tourists keep returning. The price of dining in restaurants is beginning to look attractive in comparison with other Southern European destinations; perhaps more importantly, the differential with prices in Turkey has narrowed. The cost of more expensive holiday homes in Greece is now comparable with those in Spain or Portugal – it used to command around a 40% premium due to planning restrictions. In 2013 the island of Skorpios sold to a Russian buyer for Eur100mln and the island of Oxia was purchased by a member of the Qatari Royal family for Eur 4.9mln, however, worries about a “Lehman moment” – by which I mean Grexit – have dampened enthusiasm for a number of subsequent deals.

If Greece leaves the EZ and the new currency promptly depreciates, there will still be a number of uncertainties. To begin with, the Greek government is likely to impose capital controls to prevent capital flight – Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has started the process, instructing local governments to move their funds to the central bank earlier this week. For non-domicile property owners, these controls could mean they are unable to repatriate the proceeds of sales. I was interested to notice how many restaurants no longer accept credit card payment; would you put the proceeds of a property sale into a Greek bank whilst waiting for capital controls to be relaxed?

Another factor which may delay a recovery in Real Estate is the reaction of non-EU nationals who have bought Greek property for more than Eur250,000, in order to gain EU status – a scheme also available in Portugal. This Greek Law Digest article explains.

Selling pressure on property prices will continue to come from Greek domestic investors downsizing of their rental portfolios. During the first few years of EZ membership, many Greeks bought multiple holiday rentals. Since the crisis, maintenance costs have soared as a result of the “haratsi” property tax. Meanwhile, the financial police are aggressively pursuing owners who fail to declare rental income. If Greece exits the EU, I would expect Real Estate supply to hang over the market for some while.

A perusal of the windows of Corfu Real Estate agents, whilst far from scientific, suggests that the price of holiday homes is still relatively high. The properties are normally foreign owned and, for the most part, the owners are not distressed sellers. I was struck, however, by the magnitude of the price reductions (up to 80%) on those properties which had “sold”. It feels like a market with low turnover where price discovery is intermittent at best. For the Greek market nationally residential property appraisals-transactions for 2014 were down 33.20% on 2013, dwelling permits fell by 19.3% between January to November 2014 compared to 2013 and total new floor space declined 13.9% y/y to November 2014. The chart below shows that the pace of decline has moderated in the last year but prices are still falling:-

Greek_House_Prices_1999_-2015

Source: Bank of Greece

The absolute level of the property index suggests that almost all the gains seen in Real Estate prices since joining the EZ have been reversed, but the economy is still not competitive due to the strait-jacket of the Euro:-

Greek_House_Price_index_-_1999-2015

Source: Bank of Greece

This article from The Guardian – Home ownership in Greece ‘a sick joke’ as property market collapses from February 2014, attempts to impart a flavour of the overall market, but, as any home owner knows, all property investment is local.

The year so far

To understand the Greek situation you need to go back to the eve of the introduction of the Euro, in 2000, but for a brief overview of the current crisis this excellent video from the Peterson Institute – Greece: An Economic Tragedy in Six Charts is well worth taking five minutes to peruse. Instead, I want to look at the last few months and consider the implications going forward.

As the Greek government begin further negotiations with EZ Finance Ministers today, in an attempt to reschedule their outstanding debt and interest rate payments, it is becoming clearer, to politicians in Brussels, that the “Greek Problem” will not be resolved by wishful thinking and continued austerity. Since January a new scene in this Greek tragedy has begun to unfold.

At the beginning of January Bruegal – Why Grexit would not help Greece – rebutted many commentators, but specifically the German IFO Institute’s call for Greece to leave the EZ. Bruegal focussed on the unique aspects of the Greek situation, pointing out that, unlike Portugal, Ireland and Spain, Greek imports had collapsed but their exports had only recently started to improve:-

Are high wages the main problem in Greece hampering exports? Is the absence of a real depreciation the main driver of the different adjustment experience of Greece compared to the other euro area countries?

…hourly wages have come down substantially in Greece and are in fact the lowest in the euro area with the exception of Latvia and Lithuania. This contrasts with the experience in the other three countries adjusting, where hourly wages in the private sector have increased.

Average Hourly Earnings - Eurostat

Source: Eurostat

Overall, I conclude that the Greek economy would not benefit as much as hoped for from a rapid depreciation. The reasons for the weak Greek export performance might primarily lie in other factors such as rigid product markets, a political system preventing real change and guaranteeing the benefits of the few, the lack of meritocracy among other factors…

This does not mean that the current debt trajectory and debt level is sustainable. It may be necessary to further alleviate the debt burden on Greece, especially if inflation remains low and growth is weaker than the Troika believes. This has been done a number of times before by the official creditors and already now the average maturity on the European debt is 30 years. This maturity could be increased if necessary, effectively reducing the debt burden further and I could even see a nominal debt cut at some stage.

Later in January Bruegal – How to reduce the Greek debt burden? Looked at the options available to Greece and her creditors:-

Option 1: Reducing the lending rate on the Greek Loan Facility

Option 2: Extending the maturity of the loans in the Greek Loan Facility

Option 3: Extending maturity of EFSF loans

Option 4: Buying-back the Greek government bond holdings of the ECB and National Central Banks

Option 5: Swapping the currently floating interest rate loans to fixed rate loans

Option 6: Swapping the current loans to GDP-indexed loans

Option 7: Pre-privatisation using European funds

The tone of quasi-official commentary changed in February, when the ECB ceased to accept Greek government bonds as collateral for normal refinancing operations. Bruegal – The Greek banking system: a tragedy in the making? finally acknowledged the ECBs obligation to “lend freely” but only “against good collateral”:-

One can criticize the ECB’s decision for aggravating the crisis but one can also argue that the ECB had no choice but to act as it did given the self-proclaimed insolvency of the Greek state.

Greek Finance Minister – Yanis Varoufakis – announced their new plan shortly after Syriza won the election. The FT – Greece finance minister reveals plan to end debt stand-off – 2nd February described it as:-

Attempting to sound an emollient note, Mr Varoufakis told the Financial Times the government would no longer call for a headline write-off of Greece’s €315bn foreign debt. Rather it would request a “menu of debt swaps” to ease the burden, including two types of new bonds.

The first type, indexed to nominal economic growth, would replace European rescue loans, and the second, which he termed “perpetual bonds”, would replace European Central Bank-owned Greek bonds.

He said his proposal for a debt swap would be a form of “smart debt engineering” that would avoid the need to use a term such as a debt “haircut”, politically unacceptable in Germany and other creditor countries because it sounds to taxpayers like an outright loss.

…“What I’ll say to our partners is that we are putting together a combination of a primary budget surplus and a reform agenda,”

…“I’ll say, ‘Help us to reform our country and give us some fiscal space to do this, otherwise we shall continue to suffocate and become a deformed rather than a reformed Greece’.”

After talks broke down later in February Bruegal – Europe needs a lasting solution for the Greek problem wrote:-

I expect that fear of Grexit will prompt an agreement between Greece and euro-area partners. But my concern is that the agreement will be only a short-term fix and the various constraints will prevent reaching a lasting solution, thereby just postponing the problems. That would be the next stage in the Greek tragedy, as debt sustainability problems would likely return in a few years.

The following two tables show the payment flashpoints on the Greek road to redemption:-

Greek T-Bill and Bond redemptions 2015

Source: Datastream

IMF Greek loan repayments 2015

Source: IMF

Early March saw the publication of the Greek State Budget Execution Monthly Bulletin the primary balance was only slightly below forecast, but closer inspection revealed that the majority of the improvement in the primary balance has been achieved by reducing expenditures. Revenues were Eur 7.8bln – around Eur 1bln below target. Without the benefit of currency devaluation, the broader Greek economy is still struggling to adjust.

A Closer look at the chances for a Greek recovery

The Greek government debt burden is unsustainable, in 2013 its Debt to GDP ratio was 174.9. According to Nationaldebtclocks.org the current figure is Eur 354bln. Greek 2014 GDP was $246bln (Eur189) and GDP for 2015 is estimated to be +0.7% (Eur 190bln) I assume a EURUSD 1.30 exchange rate so, perhaps, I’m painting an overly bleak picture. Official estimates put Greek government indebtedness at nearer to Eur 228bln.

Assume Greece manages to run a primary surplus of 3% in perpetuity – that equates to around Eur 5bln per annum. Assume they manage to negotiate zero interest on all their outstanding debt. It would take 70 years to repay – and 35 years to bring it back below 100% of current GDP. You may argue that 1. National Debt is the wrong measure, since Government Debt is the issue, but, if Greece leaves the EZ, creditors will need to consider all her obligations. 2. That it is unrealistic to assume no growth in GDP, but Greek GDP growth averaged 0.97% from 1996 to 2014, reaching an all-time high of 7.50% in the fourth quarter of 2003. It crashed to -9.9% in Q1 2011. Meanwhile Greek Inflation averaged 8.94% between 1960 and 2015. Recently deflation has set in, with prices falling to a record low of -2.90% in November of 2013.

These numbers don’t add up; either the creditor nations and institutions embrace substantial rescheduling and debt forgiveness, or Greece defaults, exits the EZ, devalues and potentially precipitates an EZ wide financial crisis. In PWC – Global Economy Watch – What would a Greek exit mean for the Eurozone? The authors estimate the impact of a Grexit on the rest of the EZ, Germany’s banking sector is most exposed (Eur29.5bln) although this still only amounts to 0.8% of GDP:-

Banking sector – Our analysis suggests that the Eurozone banking sector should be able to manage the impact of a Greek exit without severe consequences. The exposure of banks in the four largest Eurozone economies (Germany, France, Italy and Spain) to Greece has fallen from around $104bn in 2010 to $34bn. While the German banking system is the most exposed to Greece, this exposure equates to only around 0.8% of its GDP. For the other economies, France, Italy and Spain, the direct exposure of their banks to Greece is less than 0.1% of GDP.

Greek debt holders – around 60% of Greek government debt is held indirectly by Eurozone governments. If the Greek government defaults on its obligations, then that debt will be written off (at least in part). This could pose a risk to countries which already have a relatively large public debt burden. For example, a Greek exit could have negative implications for Italy, which guarantees around 20% of the Eurozone’s bailout funds, and has a ratio of gross government debt to GDP of around130%. Italy’s exposure to Greek government debt is equivalent to around 2% of its GDP meaning a default could lead to a fiscal squeeze in Italy as the government attempts to fill the hole left in its finances.

Unexpected contagion – A Greek exit could also have effects outside the realm of economic data and financial statistics. It would likely add to political uncertainty as other countries may push for concessions on their commitments or it could set a precedent that sees other countries leave the Eurozone. For example, Spain and Portugal are both experiencing double digit unemployment rates and must hold general elections by the end of 2015. While the domestic consequences of Greece leaving the Eurozone could deter voters in other countries from seeking to leave the single currency area, there remains a possibility of surprising developments occurring in the Eurozone. In addition to this, a Greek exit could also call Greece’s role in the European Union and NATO in to question, spurring even more uncertainty.

Of course, the largest creditors are EZ institutions, led by the ECB which holds Eur 104bln – 65% of Greek GDP, according to Governor Draghi.

By the end of March rumours were starting to circulate of Brussels preparing to impose capital controls in the event of the Greek government running out of money. The Peterson Institute – Can Greece Make a Deal with Europe? suggests a cut-off, but it’s still some way off:-

When Must a Deal Be Struck?

At the very latest, June/July 2015 would seem to be the deadline. At that point, Greece faces about €6.5 billion in euro bond repayments to the ECB, which it will not have the cash to honor without a new arrangement. A default against the ECB would end all liquidity provisions to Greek banks, including emergency liquidity assistance (ELA) from the Greek central bank. A quick economic death spiral would ensue.

According to an article this week the New York Times – European Central Bank Squeezes Greek Banks, Tightening Access to Loans the Greek banks have resorted to issuing bonds to themselves in order to access the ECBs ELA facility: –

For more than three months, Greece’s largest banks have been forced to borrow short-term, higher-interest money from their central bank — a process called emergency liquidity assistance — because the E.C.B. deemed it too risky to extend credit to the banks itself.

The banks, in turn, have to provide adequate collateral to obtain these loans, which now stand at 74 billion euros, $79.7 billion, or more than half the amount of Greek domestic deposits.

…Controversially, Greek banks have even begun to issue bonds to themselves and, after securing a government guarantee, have used the securities to secure short-term financing…

…On April 8, for example, the National Bank of Greece self-issued €4.1 billion of six-month bonds that carried state backing. 

Inevitable “Lehman”?

A number of commentators have been predicting a Greek exit for several years. This was the view expressed in February by David Stockman – History In The Balance: Why Greece Must Repudiate Its ‘Banker Bailout’ Debts And Exit The Euro:–

The true evil started with the bailouts themselves and the resulting usurpation by the EU politicians and apparatchiks of both financial market price discovery and discipline and sovereign democratic prerogatives.  Accordingly, the terms of Greece’s current servitude can’t be tweaked, “restructured” or “swapped” within the Brussels bailout framework.

Instead, Varoufakis must firmly brace his interlocutors on the true history and the condition precedent that stands before them. Namely, that the Greek state was effectively bankrupt even before the 2010 bailout, and that the massive amounts of debt piled upon it thereafter was essentially a fraudulent conveyance by the EU. 

Accordingly, Greece’s legitimate debt is perhaps $175 billion based on the pre-crisis euro debt outstanding at today’s exchange rate and the haircut that would have occurred in bankruptcy. Greece’s new government has every right to repudiate the vast amount beyond that because it arose not from the actions of the Greek people, but from the treachery of EU politicians and the Troika apparatchiks—-along with the unfaithful stooges in the Greek parliament and ministries which executed their fraudulent conveyance.

The Peterson Institute – Greece Should Ponder the Benefits of Devaluationpresents a couple of novel alternatives:-

There are two other mechanisms through which devaluation could occur, but both are more painful and less efficient than the currency (so called external) devaluation. One way is to simply reduce wages, thus achieving lower prices of domestically-produced goods and making them cheaper abroad. This is easier said than done. Wages are notoriously sticky, and even the wage cuts that Greece accepted have already brought protesters to the streets. Greece reduced wages of public-sector workers in 2010 and again in 2012 and endured months-long strikes. The new Syriza government has just started to undo these measures, with pledges to increase wages to precrisis levels.

The other mechanism to achieve internal devaluation is through tax policy—by reducing taxes on labor and increasing consumption taxes. Reducing taxes serves to reduce the overall cost of labor and hence production. It also encourages firms to look for other markets, as higher consumption prices at home reduce demand. Several European countries tried this, including Italy under Prime Minister Mario Monti in 2012—with some success.

I remember discussing a “devaluation and re-joining” concept, with a hedge fund manager friend of mine back in 2010. “How would it work in practice, and what would happen to the bond holders?” were his perfectly valid responses. From the current vantage, five years on, that 20% devaluation would have been a small price for the bond holders to pay. Meanwhile Greek bank accounts are being siphoned of deposits as the crisis deepens, these charts from an article published by CFR -Greece—a Destabilizing Financial Squeezetell an alarming tale:-

EZ Bank deposits GS

Source: Goldman Sachs

It’s amazing that household deposits remain so high, but, with the majority of the Greek people wishing to remain in the Euro, perhaps this is logical.

The chart below shows the breakdown of the balance sheet of the Deutsche Bundesbank:-

Bundesbank_balance_sheet

Source: Soberlook.com

TARGET2 claims represent around 70% of the total – this is the loans of peripheral EZ national central banks. If “Grexit” leads to “Contagion” this half-trillion Euro accounting entry will start to crystallise – the hole in the Bundesbank balance sheet will have to be footed by the German tax payer.

Personally I still favour an EZ solution. Towards the end of February Michael Pettis – When do we decide that Europe must restructure much of its debt? Took up the theme, reminding us of the, less quoted, preamble to Mario Draghi’s “whatever it takes” speech:-

And this is clearly not just about Greece. Everyone understands that Greece has already restructured its debt once before and received partial forgiveness — in fact once coupon reductions are correctly accounted for Greece’s debt ratio is probably much lower than the roughly 180% of GDP the official numbers suggest. Most people also understand that the Greek debate is not just about Greece but also about whether or not several other countries — Spain, Portugal and Italy among them, and perhaps even France — will also have to restructure their debts with partial debt forgiveness.

What few people realize, however, is these countries have effectively already done so once. This happened two and a half years ago at the Global Investment Conference in London when, on July 26, 2012, Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, made the following statement:

“When people talk about the fragility of the euro and the increasing fragility of the euro, and perhaps the crisis of the euro, very often non-euro area member states or leaders, underestimate the amount of political capital that is being invested in the euro. And so we view this, and I do not think we are unbiased observers, we think the euro is irreversible. And it’s not an empty word now, because I preceded saying exactly what actions have been made, are being made to make it irreversible.

“But there is another message I want to tell you. Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.”

Pettis puts the case for a Europe-wide debt resolution. He quotes from McKinsey – Debt and (not to much) deleveraging – but since “a picture paints a thousand words”:-

Debt since 2018 - McKinsey Haver Analytics

Source: Haver Analytics, McKinsey

As Pettis sees it, this is most certainly not about Greece in isolation:-

For now I would argue that the biggest constraint to the EU’s survival is debt. Economists are notoriously inept at understanding how balance sheets function in a dynamic system, and it is precisely for this reason that we haven’t put the resolution of the European debt crisis at the center of the debate. But Europe will not grow, the reforms will not “work”, and unemployment will not drop until the costs of the excessive debt burdens are addressed.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

The yield on Greek 10yr government bonds has begun to rise again (see the monthly chart below) following the dramatic rise in shorter maturities – 2yr yields were at 28% on the open yesterday versus 10yr at 12.7%. This is a clear trend breakout but could be swiftly reversed by an EZ resolution of the current impasse:-

greece-government-bond-yield

Source: Trading Economics

During the last year Greek stocks have trended lower losing more than 45% since the spring of 2014, yet they are still higher than during the teeth of the last storm that battered the EZ in 2012 when the index plumbed the depths of 471:-

Athhens Composite 5 yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

Perhaps of greater relevance, in light of the potential failure of the Greek banking system, is the Greek Bank Index. This, six month chart, highlights the degree to which the economy is being constrained by the spectre of bank defaults:-

FTSEAthex Banks index 6 months

Source: Yahoo Finance

The Greece will either remain mired in the morass of debt, successfully restructure or exit the Euro and default on its obligations. In the first scenario bonds will be rescheduled piecemeal but yields should return to single digits in 10yr maturities, reflecting the continued deflation risk associated with the over-hang of debt, the stock market will under-perform due to continued uncertainty and lack of investment but is unlikely to make fresh lows given the steady improvement in growth prospects for the rest of the EZ. Real Estate will continue to trend lower since the only buyers are likely to be domestic firms or individuals – the substantial inventory of domestic sellers will take a considerable time to clear, whilst net outward migration will increase the supply of Real Estate further. This chart shows the net changes in population since 1980:-

Net migration from Greece

Source: The Economist, Eurostat

In the second scenario, bond yields will trade in a range between high single digits and mid-teens, trading in a broadly similar way to scenario one, though, with less deflation risk, the yields are likely to be structurally higher. The stock market will clear and investment will return. House prices will recover as foreign buyers return and ex-patriot workers come home. Scenario three is the most cathartic. Bond yields will rise dramatically since there will no longer be a strong central bank and few businesses or institutions will be organised to exchange the replacement currency. The new currency will devalue and remain volatile, deterring investors from rushing to invest – once the currency stabilises, bond and equity markets will follow suit. High yield investors will be ready to invest in bonds, equity investors will look for businesses with comparative advantages due to their proximity to, and established trading links with, the EZ. Property will also gradually recover, especially in tourist destinations where “holiday homes” will suddenly become even more affordable for many EZ investors.

As I mentioned already, I think scenario two is most likely (45%) though we may have to wait until the “eleventh hour” to see it come to pass. Sadly scenario one is also quite likely (35%) since the EZ political apparatus seems incapable of addressing tough decisions head-on. This still leaves a 20% chance of a “Lehman moment”.

Prospects for the islands

As the paper from Sheffield University explains, island economies are relatively insulated from the external ebb and flow of the wider economy. Proximity to Athens is clearly a factor, but the performance of Crete is a typical example of the localised nature of these economic units. Corfu is only 30 miles from the heel of Italy and its Venetian architecture is testament to these links. The islands are most reliant on Tourism and, despite the crisis and the rioting in Athens, tourists keep coming back to these beautiful, welcoming islands. Not unlike Greece’s second industry – Shipping – Tourism is an international business; it is not held hostage to the fortunes of the hapless Greek political elite.

German resurgence – Which asset? Stocks, Bunds or Real Estate

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Macro Letter – No 32 – 20-03-2015

German resurgence – Which asset? Stocks, Bunds or Real Estate

  • German domestic consumption is driving GDP growth as wages rise
  • The effect of a weaker Euro has yet to be seen in exports
  • Lower energy prices are beginning to boost corporate margins
  • Bund yields are now negative out to seven years

Last month Eurostat released German GDP data for Q 2014 at +0.7%, this was well above consensus forecasts of +0.3% and heralded a surge in the DAX stock index. For the year German growth was +1.6% this compares favourably to France which managed an anaemic +0.4% for the same period. German growth forecasts are being, feverishly, revised higher. Here is the latest data as polled by the BDA – revisions are highlighted in bold:-

Institution Survey Date 2015 Previous 2015 2016
ifo ifo Institute (Munich) Dec-14 N/A 1.5  
IfW Kiel Institute Mar-15 1.7 1.8 2
HWWI Hamburg Institute Mar-15 1.3 1.9 1.7
RWI Rheinisch-Westf. Institute (Essen) Dec-14 N/A 1.5  
IWH Institute (Halle) Dec-14 N/A 1.3 1.6
DIW German Institute (Berlin) Dec-14 N/A 1.4 1.7
IMK Macroeconomic Policy Institute (Düsseldorf) Dec-14 N/A 1.6  
Research Institutes Joint Economic Forecast Autumn 2014 Oct-14 N/A 1.2  
Council of experts Annual Report 2014/2015 Nov-14 N/A 1  
Federal Government Annual Economic Report 2015 Jan-15 1.3 1.5  
Bundesbank Forecast (Frankfurt) Dec-14 N/A 1 1.6
IW Köln IW Forecast Sep-14 N/A 1.5  
DIHK German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (Berlin) Feb-15 N/A 0.8 1.3
OECD Nov-14 N/A 1.1 1.8
EU Commission Feb-15 1.1 1.5 2
IMF Oct-14 N/A 1.5 1.8

 

Source: Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (BDA), Survey Date: March 13, 2015

The improvement in German growth has been principally due to increases in construction spending, machinery orders and, more significantly, domestic consumption, which rose 0.8% for the second successive quarter. This, rather than a resurgence in export growth, due to the decline in the Euro, appears to be the essence of the recovery. That the Euro has continued to fall, thanks to ECB QE and political uncertainty surrounding Greece, has yet to show up in the export data:-

germany-exports 2008-2015

Source: Trading Economics

German imports have also remained stable:-

germany-imports 2008-2015

Source: Trading Economics

This may seem surprising given the extent of the fall in the price of crude oil – it made new lows this week. German Natural Gas prices, which had been moderately elevated to around $10.4/btu during the autumn have fallen to $9.29/btu, a level last seen in early 2011. That the improved energy input has not shown up in the terms of trade data may be explained by the fact that crude oil and natural gas imports account for only 10% of total German imports. Nonetheless, I suspect the benevolent impact of lower energy prices is being delayed by the effects of long-term energy contracts running off. Watch for the February PPI data due out this morning (forecast -1.9% y/y).

The ZEW Institute – Indicator of Economic Sentiment – released on Tuesday, showed a fifth consecutive increase, hitting the highest level since February 2014 at 54.8 – the forecast, however, was a somewhat higher 58.2. This is an extract from their press release:-

“Economic sentiment in Germany remains at a high level. In particular, the continuing positive development of the domestic economy confirms the expectations of the experts. At the same time, limited progress is being made with regard to solving the Ukraine conflict and the sovereign debt crisis in Greece. This has a dampening effect on sentiment,” says ZEW President Professor Clemens Fuest. The assessment of the current situation in Germany has improved notably. Increasing by 9.6 points, the index now stands at 55.1 points.

The good news is not entirely unalloyed (pardon the pun) IG Metall – the German metal workers union which sets the benchmark for other union negotiations – achieved a +3.4% wage increase for their 800,000 members in Baden Württemberg, starting next month. Meanwhile, German CPI came in at 0.09% in February after falling -0.4% in January. This real-wage increase is an indication of the tightness of the broader labour market. Nationally wages are rising at a more modest 1.3%, this is, however, the highest in 20 years. German unemployment fell to 4.8% in January, the lowest in 33years, despite the introduction of a minimum wage of Eur8.50/hour, for the first time, on 1st January.

One of my other concerns for Germany is the declining trend of productivity growth. Whilst employment has been growing, the pace of productivity growth has not. This 2013 paper from Allianz – Low Productivity Growth in Germany examines the issue in detail, here is the abstract:-

Since the labor market reforms implemented in the first half of the last decade, Germany’s labor market has been on a marked upward trend. In 2012, there were 2.6 million (+6.8%) more people in work than in 2005 and the volume of labor was up by 2.4 million hours (+4.3%) on 2005. But the focus on this economic success, which has also earned Germany a great deal of recognition on the international stage, makes it easy to overlook the fact that productivity growth in the German economy has continued to slacken. Whereas the increase in labor productivity per person in work was still averaging 1.0% a year between 1995 and 2005, the average annual increase in the period between 2005 and 2012 was only 0.5%. The slowdown in the pace of labor productivity growth, measured per hour worked, is even more pronounced. The average growth rate of 1.6% between 1995 and 2005 had slipped back to 0.9% between 2005 and 2012.

Allianz go on to make an important observation about the importance of capital investment:-

…the capital factor is now making much less of a contribution to economic growth in Germany than in the past, thus also putting a damper on labor productivity growth.

… Since the bulk of the labor market reforms came into force – in 2005 – the German economy has been growing at an average rate of 1.5% a year. Based on the growth accounting process, the capital stock delivered a growth contribution of 0.4 percentage points, with the volume of labor also contributing 0.4 percentage points. This means that total factor productivity contribute 0.7 percentage points to growth. So if the volume of labor and capital stock were to stagnate, Germany could only expect to achieve economic growth to the tune of 0.7% a year.

Although gross domestic product also grew by 1.5% on average during that period, labor productivity growth came in at 2.0%, more than twice as high as the growth rate for the 2005 – 2012 period. Between 1992 and 2001, the contribution to growth made by the capital stock, namely 0.9 percentage points, was much greater than that made in the period from 2005 to 2012; by contrast, the growth contribution delivered by the volume of labor was actually negative in the former period, at -0.4 percentage points, and 0.8 percentage points lower than between 2005 and 2012. This could allow us to draw the conclusion that the labor market reforms boosted economic growth by 0.8 percentage points a year. Although there is no doubt that this conclusion is something of a simplification, the sheer extent of the difference supports the theory that the labor market reforms had a marked positive impact on growth. In the period between 1992 and 2001, total factor productivity contributed 1.0 percentage points to growth, 0.3 percentage points more than between 2005 and 2012. This tends to suggest that the growth contribution delivered by technical progress is slightly on the wane.

The finding that the weaker productivity growth in Germany is due, to a considerable extent, to the insufficient expansion of the capital stock and, consequently, to excessive restraint in terms of investment activity, suggests that there is a widespread cause, and one that is not specific to Germany, that is putting a stranglehold on the German productivity trend.

The hope remains, however, that especially Germany – a country that has managed to get to grips with the crisis fairly well in an international comparison – will be able to return to more dynamic investment activity as soon as possible.  

The issue of under-investment is not unique to Germany and is, I believe, a by-product of quantitative easing. Interest rates are at negative real levels in a number of countries. This encourages equity investment but, simultaneously, discourages companies from investing for fear that demand for their products will decline once interest rates normalise. Instead, corporates increase dividends and buy back their own stock. European dividends grew 12.3% in 2014 although German dividend growth slowed – perhaps another sign of a return to capital investment.

German Bunds

Bunds made new highs again last week. The 10 year yield reached 19 bp. Currently, Bunds up to seven years to maturity are trading at negative yields. These were the prices on Wednesday after then 10 year Bund auction:-

Maturity Yield
1-Year -0.18
2-Year -0.225
3-Year -0.202
4-Year -0.173
5-Year -0.099
6-Year -0.065
7-Year -0.025
8-Year 0.053
9-Year 0.127
10Y 0.212
15-Year 0.38
20-Year 0.519
30-Year 0.626

 

Source: Investing.com

Wednesday’s 10 year auction came in at 0.25% with a cover ratio of 2.4 times, demand is still strong. The five year Bobl auction, held on 25th February, came with a negative 0.08% yield for the first time. Negative yields are becoming common-place but their implications are not clearly understood as this article from Bruegal – The below-zero lower bound explains – the emphasis is mine):-

The negative yields observed on some government and corporate bonds, as well as the recent move into further negative territory of monetary policy rates, are shaking our understanding of the ZLB constraint.

Matthew Yglesias writes… Interest rates on a range of debt — mostly government bonds from countries like Denmark, Switzerland, and Germany but also corporate bonds from Nestlé and, briefly, Shell — have gone negative.

Evan Soltas writes… economists had believed that it was effectively impossible for nominal interest rates to fall below zero. Hence the idea of the “zero lower bound.” Well, so much for that theory. Interest rates are going negative all around the world. And not by small amounts, either. $1.9 trillion dollars of European debt now carries negative nominal yields,

Gavyn Davies writes… the Swiss and Danish central banks are testing where the effective lower bound on interest rates really lies. Denmark and Switzerland are clearly both special cases, because they have been subject to enormous upward pressure on their exchange rates. However, if they prove that central banks can force short term interest rates deep into negative territory, this would challenge the almost universal belief among economists that interest rates are subject to a ZLB.

JP Koning writes that there are a number of carrying costs on cash holdings, including storage fees, insurance, handling, and transportation costs. This means that a central bank can safely reduce interest rates a few dozen basis points below zero before flight into cash begins. The lower bound isn’t a zero bound, but a -0.5% bound (or thereabouts).

Evan Soltas writes that if people aren’t converting deposits to currency, one explanation is that it’s just expensive to carry or to store any significant amount of it… How much is that convenience worth? It seems like a hard question, but we have a decent proxy for that: credit card fees, counting both those to merchants and to cardholders… The data here suggest a conservative estimate is 2 percent annually.

Barclays writes… Coincidentally, the ECB has calculated that the social welfare value of transactions is 2.3%.

Brad Delong writes…In the late 19th century, the German economist Silvio Gesell argued for a tax on holding money. He was concerned that during times of financial stress, people hoard money rather than lend it.

Whilst none of these authors definitively tell us how negative is too negative, it is clear that negative rates may have substantially further to go. The only real deterrent is the negative cost of carry, which is likely to make price fluctuations more volatile.

German Stocks

Traditionally Germany was the preserve of the bond investor. Stocks have become increasingly popular with younger investors and those who need yield. Corporate bonds used to be an alternative but even these issues are heading towards a zero yield. I have argued for many years that a well-run company, whilst limited by liability, may be less likely to default or reschedule their debt than a profligate government. Even today, corporates offer a higher yield – the only major concern for an investor is the liquidity of the secondary market.

Nonetheless, with corporate yields fast converging on government bonds, stocks become the “least worst” liquid investment, since they should be supported at the zero-bound – I assume companies will not start charging investors to hold their shares. Putting it in finance terms; whereas we have been inclined to think of stocks as “growth” perpetuities, at the “less-than-zero-bound”, even a “non-growth” perpetuity looks good when compared to the negative yield on dated debt. We certainly live in interesting, or perhaps I should say “uninteresting” times.

A different case for investing in stocks is the potential restructuring risk inherent throughout the Eurozone (EZ). Michael Pettis – When do we decide that Europe must restructure much of its debt? Is illuminating on this issue:-

It is hard to watch the Greek drama unfold without a sense of foreboding. If it is possible for the Greek economy partially to revive in spite of its tremendous debt burden, with a lot of hard work and even more good luck we can posit scenarios that don’t involve a painful social and political breakdown, but I am pretty convinced that the Greek balance sheet itself makes growth all but impossible for many more years.

while German institutions and policymakers are as responsible as those in peripheral Europe for the debt crisis, in fact it was German and peripheral European workers who ultimately bear the cost of the distortions, and it will be German households who will pay to clean up German banks as, one after another, the debts of peripheral European countries are explicitly or implicitly written down.

In many countries in Europe there is tremendous uncertainty about how debt is going to be resolved. This uncertainty has an economic cost, and the cost only grows over time. But because most policymakers stubbornly refuse to consider what seems to have become obvious to most Europeans, there is a very good chance that Europe is going to repeat the history of most debt crises.

For now I would argue that the biggest constraint to the EU’s survival is debt. Economists are notoriously inept at understanding how balance sheets function in a dynamic system, and it is precisely for this reason that we haven’t put the resolution of the European debt crisis at the center of the debate. But Europe will not grow, the reforms will not “work”, and unemployment will not drop until the costs of the excessive debt burdens are addressed.

If Pettis is even half-right, the restructuring of non-performing EZ debt will be a dislocating process during which EZ government bond yields will vacillate wildly. If the German government ends up footing the bill for the lion’s share of Greek debt, rather than letting its banking system default, then stocks might become an accidental “safe-haven” but I think it more likely that rising Bund yields will precipitate a decline in German stocks.

Here is how the DAX Index has reacted to the heady cocktail of ECB QE, a falling Euro and a deferral of the Greek dilemma:-

DAX Jan 1998 - March 2015 Monthly

Source: Barchart.com

The DAX has more than doubled since the dark days of 2011 when the ECB saved the day with rhetoric rather than real accommodation. From a technical perspective we might have another 1,500 points to climb even from these ethereal heights – I am taking the double top of 2000 and 2007 together with the 2003 low and extrapolating a similar width of channel to the upside – around 13,500. The speed of the rally is cause for concern, however, since earnings have yet to catch up with expectations, but, as I pointed out earlier, there are non-standard reasons why the market may be inhaling ether. The current PE Ratio is 21.5 times and the recent rally has made the market look expensive relative to forward earning. At 13,500 the PE will be close to 24.5 times. This chart book from Dr Ed Yardeni makes an excellent case for caution. This is a subscriber service if you wish to sign up for a free trial.

The domestic nature of the economic resurgence is exemplified most clearly by the chart below which shows the five year performance of the DAX Index versus the mid-cap MDAX Index, I believe it is time for the large cap stocks to benefit from the external windfalls of a weaker Euro and lower energy prices:-

DAX vs MDAX 2000-2015

Source: Finanzen.net

Real Estate

In Germany, Real Estate investment is different. Government policy has been to keep housing affordable and supply is therefore plentiful. This article from Inside Housing – German Lessons elaborates:-

Do you fancy a one-bed apartment in Berlin for £35,000 or a four- bed detached house in the Rhineland for £51,000?

In many parts of Germany house prices are a fraction of their UK equivalents – in fact, German house prices have decreased in real terms by 10 percent over the past thirty years, whereas UK house prices have increased by a staggering 233 percent in real terms over the same period. Yet German salaries are equal to or higher than ours. As a consequence Germans have more cash to spend on consumer goods and a higher standard of living, and they save twice as much as us, which means more capital for industry and commerce. Is it any surprise that the German economy is consistently out-performing ours?

There are a number of reasons for the disparity between the German and UK housing markets. Firstly, German home ownership is just over 40 percent compared to our 65 percent (there are stark regional variations – in Berlin 90 percent of all homes are privately rented) and the Germans do not worship ownership in the way we do. Not only is it more difficult to get mortgage finance (20 percent deposits are a typical requirement) but the private rented sector offers high quality, secure, affordable and plentiful accommodation so there are fewer incentives to buy. You can rent an 85 square metre property for less than £500 per month in Berlin or for around £360 per month in Leipzig. There is also tight rent control and unlimited contracts are common, so that tenants, if they give notice, can stay put for the long-term. Deposits must be repaid with interest on moving out.

In addition, Germany’s tax regime is not very favourable for property owners. There is a property transfer tax and an annual land tax. But the German housebuilding industry is also more diverse than ours with more prefabraction and more self-builders. The German constitution includes an explicit “right-to-build’’ clause, so that owners can build on their property or land without permission so long as it conforms with local codes.

But the biggest advantage of the German system is that they actively encourage new housing supply and release about twice as much land for housing as we do. German local authorities receive grants based on an accurate assessment of residents, so there is an incentive to develop new homes. The Cologne Institute for Economic Research calculated that in 2010 there were 50 hectares of new housing development land per 100,000 population in Germany but only 15 hectares in the UK. That means the Germans are building three times as many new homes as us pro-rata even though our population growth is greater than theirs. This means that German housing supply is elastic and can respond quickly to rising demand…

 

German rental protection laws – for the renter – are stronger than in other countries – this encourages renting rather than buying. From an investment perspective this makes owning German Real Estate a much more “bond like” proposition. With wages finally rising and economic prospects brightening, Real Estate is a viable alternative to fixed income. The table below was last updated in May 2014, at that time 10 yr Bunds were yielding around 1.5%:-

Apartment Location Cost Monthly Rent Yield
Berlin
45 sq. m. 108,225 500 5.55%
75 sq. m. 230,025 779 4.07%
120 sq. m. 489,360 1,362 3.34%
200 sq. m. 935,200 2,442 3.13%
Frankfurt
45 sq. m. 164,385 788 5.75%
75 sq. m. 308,025 1,182 4.60%
120 sq. m. 538,560 1,750 3.90%
200 sq. m. n.a. 3,066 n.a.
Munich
45 sq. m. 218,160 773 4.25%
75 sq. m. 463,275 1,172 3.00%
120 sq. m. 774,120 2,066 3.20%
200 sq. m. 1,850,000 3,562 2.31%

Source: Global Property Guide Definitions: Data FAQ

For comparison, commercial office space in these three locations also offers a viable yield: –

Office Location   Yield  
  2013 2012 2011
Berlin 4.7 4.8 4.95
Frankfurt 4.65 4.75 4.9
Munich 4.4 4.6 4.75

Source: BNP Paribas

I believe longer term investors are fairly compensated for the relative illiquidity of German Real Estate.

The Euro

For the international investor, buying Euro denominated assets exposes one to the risk of a continued decline in the value of the currency. The Euro Effective Exchange Rate is still near the middle of its long-term range, as the chart below illustrates, though since this chart ends in Q4 2014 the Euro has weakened to around 90:-

Euro_Effective_Excahnge_Rate_-_ECB_1993_-_2015

Source: ECB

Investors must expect further Euro weakness whilst markets obsess about the departure of Greece from the EZ, however, a “Grexit” or a resolution (aka restructuring/forgiveness) of Greek debt will allow the markets to clear.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

German Bunds continue to be the safe-haven asset of choice for the EZ, however, for the longer term investor they offer negligible or negative returns. German Real Estate, both residential and commercial, looks attractive from a yield perspective, but take care to factor in the useful life of buildings, since capital gains are unlikely.

This leaves German equities. A secular shift from bond to equity investment has been occurring due to the low level of interest rates, this has, to some extent, countered the demographic forces of an aging German population. Nonetheless, on a P/E ratio of 21.5 times, the DAX Index is becoming expensive – the S&P 500 Index is trading around 20 times.

At the current level I feel it is late to “arrive at the party” but on a correction to test the break-out around 10,000 the DAX looks attractive, I expect upward revisions to earnings forecasts to reflect the weakness of the Euro and the lower price of energy.

Swiss National Bank policy and its implications for currencies, assets and central banking

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Macro Letter – No 29 – 06-02-2015

Swiss National Bank policy and its implications for currencies, assets and central banking

  • The SNB unpegged from the Euro and sustained balance sheet losses, they will survive
  • The Euro has been helped lower but rumours of a new SNB target are rife
  • The long run appreciation of the Swiss Franc (CHF) is structural and accelerating, the Swiss economy will adjust
  • If G7 central bank balance sheets expanded to Swiss levels, relative to GDP, QE would triple

On Thursday 15th January the Swiss National Bank (SNB) finally, and unexpectedly, threw in the towel and ceased their foreign exchange intervention to maintain a pegged rate of EURCHF 1.20. The cap was introduced in September 2011 after a 28% appreciation in the CHF since the beginning of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) – from 1.68 to 1.20. After plumbing the depths of 0.85 the EURCHF rate settled at 0.99 – around 18% higher in a single day. This is a huge one day move for a G10 currency and has inflicted collateral damage on leveraged traders, their brokers and those who borrowed in CHF to finance asset purchases in other currencies. Citibank estimates that is has also cost the SNB CHF 60bln. Here is a 10 year chart of EURCHF: –

EURCHF_10_yr

Source: Bigcharts.com

The Swiss SMI stock Index declined from 9259 to 8400 (-9.2%) whilst the German DAX Index rose from 9933 to 10,032 (+1.1%). Swiss and German bond yields headed lower. Swiss bonds now exhibit negative nominal yields out to 15 years – the table below is from Wednesday 4th February:-

Maturity Yield
1 week -1.35
1 month -1.65
2 month -1.55
3 month -1.4
6 month -1.38
1 year -1.11
2 year -0.823
3 year -0.768
4 year -0.632
5 year -0.505
6 year -0.419
7 year -0.305
8 year -0.257
9 year -0.181
10 year -0.111
15 year -0.024
20 year 0.196

 

Source: Investing.com

Swiss inflation is running at -0.3% so the real-yields are fractionally better due to the mild deflation seen in the past couple of months. I expect this deflation to deepen and persist.

Thomas Jordan – Chairman of the governing board of the SNB – made the following statement at a press conference which accompanied the SNB decision:-

Discontinuation of the minimum exchange rate

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has decided to discontinue the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro with immediate effect and to cease foreign currency purchases associated with enforcing it. The minimum exchange rate was introduced during a period of exceptional overvaluation of the Swiss franc and an extremely high level of uncertainty on the financial markets. This exceptional and temporary measure protected the Swiss economy from serious harm. While the Swiss franc is still high, the overvaluation has decreased as a whole since the introduction of the minimum exchange rate. The economy was able to take advantage of this phase to adjust to the new situation. Recently, divergences between the monetary policies of the major currency areas have increased significantly – a trend that is likely to become even more pronounced. The euro has depreciated substantially against the US dollar and this, in turn, has caused the Swiss franc to weaken against the US dollar. In these circumstances, the SNB has concluded that enforcing and maintaining the minimum exchange rate for the Swiss franc against the euro is no longer justified.

Interest rate lowered

At the same time as discontinuing the minimum exchange rate, the SNB will be lowering the interest rate for balances held on sight deposit accounts to –0.75% from 22 January. The exemption thresholds remain unchanged. Further lowering the interest rate makes Swiss-franc investments considerably less attractive and will mitigate the effects of the decision to discontinue the minimum exchange rate. The target range for the three-month Libor is being lowered by 0.5 percentage points to between –1.25% and –0.25%.

Outlook for inflation and the economy

The inflation outlook for Switzerland is low. In December we presented a conditional inflation forecast, which predicts inflation of –0.1% for this year. Since this forecast was published, the oil price has once again fallen significantly, which will further dampen the inflation outlook for a time. However, lower oil prices will stimulate growth globally, and this will influence economic developments in Switzerland positively. Swiss franc exchange rate movements also impact inflation and the economic situation.

The SNB remains committed to its mandate of ensuring medium-term price stability while taking account of economic developments. In concluding, let me emphasise that the SNB will continue to take account of the exchange rate situation in formulating its monetary policy in future. If necessary, it will therefore remain active in the foreign exchange market to influence monetary conditions.

On Tuesday 27th January the CHF fell marginally after SNB Vice President Jean-Pierre Danthine told Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger – Die Presse war voller Spekulationen, that the SNB remains ready to intervene in the currency market. One comment worthy of consideration, with apologies for the “google-translate”, is:-

Q. Does the SNB did not develop a new monetary policy? Just as Denmark, which has tied its currency to the euro in 30 years? Or as Singapore, which manages its currency based on a trade-weighted basket of currencies?

A. Denmark is the euro zone financially and politically closer than Switzerland. The binding to Europe is a long standing. Means that this solution is for Switzerland hardly considered. The arrangement of Singapore is worthy of consideration. But what is decisive is the long-term. Apart from Switzerland and other small and open economies such as Sweden and Norway are done well over the years with a flexible exchange rate.

Rumours of a new unofficial corridor of EURCHF 1.05-1.10 are now circulating – strikingly similar to the level reached prior to the September 2011 peg.

Breaking the Bank

Another rumour to have surfaced after the currency move was that the SNB had become concerned about the size of their balance sheet relative to Swiss GDP. The chart below is from 2013 but it shows the relative scale of SNB QE:-

Central Bank Balance-of-percentage-GDP - source SNB

Source: SNB and snbchf.com

Estimates of the loss sustained by the SNB, due to the appreciation of the CHF, vary, but, rather like countries, central banks don’t tend to “go bust”. The Economist – Broke but never Bust takes up the subject (my emphasis in bold):-

…For one thing central banks are far bigger. Between 2006 and 2014 central-bank balance-sheets in the G7 jumped from $3.4 trillion to $10.5 trillion, or from 10% to 25% of GDP. And the assets they hold have changed. The SNB, aiming to protect Swiss exporters from an appreciating currency, has built up a huge stock of euros, bought with newly created francs.

…Bonds that paid 5% or more ten years ago now yield nothing, and other investments have performed badly (the SNB was stung by a drop in the value of gold in 2013 and cut its dividend to zero). Concerned that its euro holdings might lose value the SNB shocked markets on January 15th by abruptly ending its euro-buying spree.

…With capital of €95 billion supporting a €2.2 trillion balance-sheet, the Eurosystem (the ECB and the national banks that stand behind it) is 23 times levered; a loss of 4% would wipe out its equity. Since two central banks have suffered devastating crunches recently (Tajikistan in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2009) the standard logic seems to apply: capital-eroding losses must be avoided.

But the worries are overdone. For one thing central banks are healthier than they appear. On top of its equity, the Eurosystem holds €330 billion in additional reserves. These funds are designed to absorb losses as assets change in value. Even if the ECB were to buy all available Greek debt—around €50 billion—and Greece were to default, the system would lose just 15% of these reserves; its capital would not be touched.

And even if a central bank’s equity were wiped out it would not go bust in the way high-street lenders do. With liabilities outweighing its assets it might seem unable to pay all its creditors. But even bust central banks retain a priceless asset: the power to print money. Customers’ deposits are a claim on domestic currency, something the bank can create at will. Only central banks that borrow heavily in foreign currencies they cannot mint (as in Tajikistan) or in failing states (Zimbabwe) get into deep trouble.

The Economist goes on to highlight the risk that going “cap in hand” to their finance ministries will weaken central banks’ “independence” and might prove inflationary. In the current environment inflation would be a nice problem for the SNB, or, for that matter, the ECB or BoJ to have. As for the limits of central bank balance sheet expansion, the SNB – at 80% of GDP – have blazed a trail for their larger peers to follow.

Is it the money supply?

A further unofficial explanation of the SNB move concerns the unusually large expansion of Swiss money supply since the GFC. In early January an article from snbchf.comThe Risks on the Rising SNB Money Supply discussed how the SNB might be thinking (my emphasis): –

Since the financial crisis central banks in developed nations increased their balance sheets. The leading one was the American Federal Reserve that increased the monetary base (“narrow money”), followed by the Bank of Japan and recently the ECB. Only partially the extension of narrow money had an effect on banks’ money supply, so called “broad money”. For the Swiss, however, the rising money supply concerns both narrow and broad money. Broad money in Switzerland rises as strong as it did in Spain or Ireland before the financial crisis.

They go on to discuss the global effects of QE:-

…The SNB had the choice between a stronger currency and, secondly, an excessive appreciation of the Swiss assets.  With the introduction of the euro floor, it opted for the second alternative and increased its monetary base massively in order to absorb foreign currency inflows. Implicitly the central bank helped to push up asset prices even further. Hence it was rather foreign demand for Swiss assets that helped to increase the demand for credit and money in the real economy.

…The SNB printed a lot of money especially in the years before and just after the euro introduction until 2003, to weaken the franc and the “presumed slow” Swiss growth. The money increase, however, did not affect credit growth more than it should have: investors preferred other countries to Switzerland to buy assets. Finally the central bank increased interest rates a bit and reduced money supply between 2006 and 2008. Be aware that in 2006/2007 there is a statistical effect with the inclusion of “Raiffeisen” group banks into M3. Since 2009, things have changed M3 is rising with an average of 7.7% per year, while before 2009 it was 3% per year. Banking lending to the private sector is increasing by 3.9% per year while it was 1.7% between 1995 and 2005.

…Since April 2014, money supply M3 has suddenly stopped at around 940 billion CHF. Before it had increased by 80 bln. CHF per year from 626 bln. in each year since 2008.  We explained before that Fed’s QE translated in higher lending in dollars, dollars that found their way into emerging markets. The same thing happens in Switzerland with newly created Swiss francs. Not all of them remained in the Swiss economy, but they were loaned out to clients from Emerging Markets. Hence the second risk does not directly concerns the Swiss economy and the euro, but the relationship between its banks and emerging markets and the risks of a strong franc for banks’ balance sheets.

 

Here is a chart of M3 and bank lending in Switzerland, the annotation is from snbchf.com:-

Swiss-M3-and-Lending-2014-Ireland

Source: SNB and snbchf.com

The SNBs decision to unpeg seems a brutal way to impose discipline on the domestic lending market and an unusual way to test increased bank capital requirements, however, I believe this was the least bad time to escape from the corner into which they had boxed themselves. The recent fall in M3 should put some upward pressure on the CHF – until growth slows and reverses the process.

The SNB said this about money supply and bank lending in their Q4 2014 Quarterly Bulletin (my emphasis):-

Growth in money supply driven by lending

The expansion of the money supply witnessed since the beginning of the financial and economic crisis is mainly attributable to bank lending. An examination of components of the M3 monetary aggregate and its balance sheet counterparts, based on the consolidated balance sheet of the banking sector, shows that approximately 70% of the increase in the M3 monetary aggregate between October 2008 and October 2014 (CHF 311 billion) was attributable to the increase in domestic Swiss franc lending (CHF 216 billion). The remaining 30% of the M3 increase was due in part to households and companies switching their portfolio holdings from securities and foreign exchange into Swiss franc sight deposits.

Stable mortgage lending growth in the third quarter

In the third quarter of 2014 – as in the previous quarter – banks’ mortgage claims, which make up four-fifths of all domestic bank lending, were up 3.8% year-on-year. Mortgage lending growth thus continued to slow, as it has for some time now, despite the fact that mortgage rates have fallen to a historic low. A breakdown by borrower shows that the growth slowdown has taken place in mortgage lending to households as well as companies.

This slower growth in mortgage lending may be attributed to various measures taken since 2012 to restrain the banks’ appetite for risk and strengthen their resilience. These include the banks’ own self-regulation measures, which subject mortgage lending to stricter minimum requirements. Moreover, at the request of the SNB, the Federal Council activated the countercyclical capital buffer in 2013 and increased it this year. This obliges the banks to back their mortgage loans on residential property with additional capital. The SNB’s bank lending survey also indicates that lending standards have been tightened and demand for loans among households and companies has declined.

…Growing ratio of bank lending to GDP

The strong growth in bank lending recorded in recent years is reflected in the ratio of bank loans to nominal GDP. After a sharp rise in the 1980s, this ratio remained largely unchanged until mid-2008. Since the onset of the financial and economic crisis, it has increased again substantially. This increase suggests that banks’ lending activities have supported aggregate demand. However, strong lending growth also entails risks for financial stability. In the past, excessive growth in lending has often been the root cause of later difficulties in the banking industry.

Switzerland’s banking sector is truly multi-national, deposits continue to arrive, despite penal “negative” rates, meanwhile, many CHF bank loans have been made to international clients. The sharp appreciation of the CHF will force the banking sector to make additional provisions for non-performing international loans. Further analysis of the effect of relative money supply growth, between Switzerland and the Eurozone (EZ) on the EURCHF exchange rate, can be found in this post by Frank Shostak – Post Mortem on the Swiss Franc’s Euro-Peg. He makes an interesting “Austrian” case for a weakening of the CHF versus the EUR over-time.

Swiss Francs in the long run

My first ever journey outside the UK was to Switzerland, that was back in 1971 when a pound sterling bought CHF 10.5. The Swiss economy has had to deal with a constantly rising exchange rate ever since. The chart below of the CHF Real Trade-Weighted value shows this most clearly: –

Real_Effective_CHF_Exchange_rate_EURCHF18_01_2013-

Source: Pictet

This chart only goes up to mid-2013, since then the USDCHF has moved from 0.88 and 0.99 by early January – after the unpegging the rate is near to its mid-point at 0.93. According to the Guardian – What a $7.54 Swiss Big Mac tells us about global currencies – the Swiss currency is now 33% overvalued. Exporters will be hit hard and the financial sector is bound to be damaged by commercial bank lending policies associated with pegging the CHF to a declining EUR. On Monday Bank Julius Baer (BAER.VX) announced plans to cut costs by CHF 100mln, domestic job cuts were also indicated – more institutions are sure to follow their lead. Meanwhile, there are bound to be emerging market borrowers which default. The Swiss economy will slow, exacerbating deflationary forces, but lower prices will improve the purchasing power of the domestic population. Switzerland’s trade balance hit a record high in July 2014 and came close to the same level in November:-

switzerland-balance-of-trade

Source: Trading Economics and Swiss Customs

In a recent newsletter – The Swiss Release the Kraken – John Maudlin quoted fellow economist Charles Gave in a tongue in cheek assessment of the SNB’s action:-

They [the SNB] didn’t mind pegging the Swiss franc to the Deutsche mark, but it is becoming more and more obvious that the euro is more a lira than a mark. A clear sign is the decline of the euro against the US dollar.

Mr. Draghi has been trying to talk the euro down for at least a year. This should not come as a surprise. After all, in the old pre-euro days, every time Italy had a problem, the solution was always to devalue.

But the Swiss, not being as smart as the Italians, do not believe in devaluations. You see, in Switzerland they have never believed in the ‘euthanasia of the rentier’, nor have they believed in the Keynesian multiplier of government spending, nor have they accepted that the permanent growth of government spending as a proportion of gross domestic product is a social necessity. The benighted Swiss, just down from their mountains where it was difficult to survive the winters, have a strong Neanderthal bias and have never paid any attention to the luminaries teaching economics in Princeton or Cambridge. Strange as it may seem, they still believe in such queer, outdated notions as sound money, balanced budgets, local democracy, and the need for savings to finance investments. How quaint!

Of course, the Swiss are paying a huge price for their lack of enlightenment. For example, since the move to floating exchange rates in 1971, the Swiss franc has risen from CHF4.3 to the US dollar to CHF0.85 and appreciated from CHF10.5 to the British pound to CHF1.5. Naturally, such a protracted revaluation has destroyed the Swiss industrial base and greatly benefited British producers [not!]. Since 1971, the bilateral ratio of industrial production has gone from 100 to 175…in favor of Switzerland.

And for most of that time Switzerland ran a current account surplus, a balanced budget, and suffered almost no unemployment, all despite the fact that nobody knows the name of a single Swiss politician or central banker (or perhaps because nobody knows a single Swiss politician or central banker, since they have such limited power? And that all these marvelous results come from that one simple fact: their lack of power.)

The last time I looked, the Swiss population had the highest standard of living in the world – another disastrous long-term consequence of not having properly trained economists of the true faith.

Swiss unemployment has been trending higher recently (3.4% in December) and this figure may rise as sectors such as banking and tourism adjust to the new environment, however, this level of unemployment is still enviable by comparison with other developed countries.

The following charts give an excellent insight into the nature of trade in the Swiss economy. Firstly, exports:-

Swiss_ExportsByCountry

Source: snbchf.com

The importance of the EZ is evident (46.4% excluding UK) however the next chart shows a rather different perspective:-

Swiss_TradeBalanceByCountry

Source: snbchf.com

The relative importance of the USA is striking – 11% of exports but nearly half of the trade surplus – so too, is the magnitude of the deficit with Germany, in fact, within Europe, only Spain and the UK are export surplus markets.

A closer look at the break-down of Imports and Exports by sector provides an additional dimension:-

Swiss-Imports-Exports-by-Type

Source: snbchf.com

The SNB already highlighted the import of energy as a significant factor – Switzerland’s energy bill is now much lower than it was in July 2014. The export of pharmaceuticals has always been of major importance – many of these products are inherently price inelastic, the rise in the currency will have less impact on Switzerland than it might do on other developed economies.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Mark Twain

Contrary to what several commentators have been suggesting, I do not believe the SNB capitulation marks the beginning of the end of central bank omnipotence – they were never that omnipotent in the first place. The size of the SNB balance sheet is also testament to the limits of QE – if the other G7 central banks expand to 80% of GDP the total QE would more than triple from $10.5 trln to $33.6 trln – and what is to say that 80% of GDP is the limit?

Swiss Markets

Switzerland will benefit from a floating currency in the longer term, although the recent abrupt appreciation may lead to a recession – which in turn should reduce upward pressure on the CHF. Criticism of the SNB for creating greater volatility within the Swiss economy is only partially justified, the excessive rise of the CHF effective exchange rate was due to external factors and the SNB felt it needed to be managed, the subsequent rise in the US$ has brought the CHF back to a more realistic level but the current environment of zero interest rate policy adopted by several major central banks has parallels with the conditions seen after the collapse of Bretton Woods.

I believe the SNB anticipates an acceleration in the long term trend rate of appreciation of the CHF. Swiss exports, even to the US, will be impaired but German imports will be cheaper – with a record trade surplus, this is a good time to start the adjustment of market expectations about the value of the CHF going forward. Swiss companies are used to planning within a framework which incorporates a steadily rising value of their currency – now they must anticipate an acceleration in that trend.

The money and bond markets will remain distorted and, in the event of another EZ crisis, the SNB may increase the penalties for access to the “safe-haven” Switzerland represents: and, as indicated, they may intervene again if the capital flows become excessive. 20 year, or longer, Confederation Bonds, alone, offer positive carry, buying call spreads on shorter maturities is a strategy worth considering.

The SMI Index is likely to lag the broader European market, but negative bond yields offer little alternative to stocks and domestic investors will exhibit a renewed cognizance of the risk of foreign currency investments. The SMI Index, at around 8550, is only 7.6% below the level it was trading prior to the SNB announcement. Swiss stocks will undoubtedly benefit from any export led European economic recovery. Meanwhile, the relative strength of the US economy appears in tact – the Philadelphia Fed Leading Indexes for December – released earlier this week – suggest economic expansion in 49 states over the next six months.

Eurozone Markets

The EZ has already been aided by the departure of its strongest “shadow” member; combined with the ECB’s Expanded Asset Purchase Programme (EAPP) this should drive the EUR lower. European stocks have already taken heart, fuelled by the new liquidity and international competitiveness.

European bond spreads continue to compress. Fears of peripheral countries exiting the single currency area will provide volatility but for the major countries – France, Italy and Spain – any weakness is still a buying opportunity, but at these, often negative real-yields, they should be viewed as a “trading” rather than an “investment” asset.