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.

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German growth prospects – the ECB and Russian gas

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Macro Letter – No 19 – 12-09-2014

German growth prospects – the ECB and Russian gas

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

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

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

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

 

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

Source: Investing.com and Trading Economics

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

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

The Economic Cost of Geo-politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main origin of primary energy imports - Source EuroStat

Source: Eurostat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural Gas price comparison - Schneider Electric-page1

Source: Schneider-Electric

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

TTF Gas Daily Reference Prices - source EEX

Source: EEX

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

US Spot Nat Gas 1 yr

Source: Barchart.com

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

WTI Spot 1 yr

Source: Barchart.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EU-28 Gas Storage-Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Source: EEX and Investing.com

Germany – the weakest link?

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

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

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

German GDP - 2002-2014

Source: Trading Economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World LNG prices - June 2014 AEI and FERC-page1

Source: FERC and AEI

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

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

 

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

 

Source : IEA

Germany - Gas Grid - IEA-page1

Source: IEA

 

Conclusions and financial market implications

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

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

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

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

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

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