Can a multi-speed European Union evolve?

Can a multi-speed European Union evolve?

400dpiLogo

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.

Advertisements

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

400dpiLogo

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.

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

400dpiLogo

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.