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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is A 6 percent 2011 Deficit Realistically Within Reach For Spain?

Last Thursday Moody's Investor Service cut Spain's Sovereign credit - to Aa1 from AAA - thus removing the last of the country's highly-valued triple-A ratings. The move really surprised no one - in this case the Moody's rating could be regarded as a lagging indicator on the health of Spain's finances - since the two other "majors" (S&Ps and Fitch) had long taken the decision, and the market predictably shrugged off the news, as if to say "what else is new". But there was one small detail in the report which should have attracted more attention than it has: the agency explicitly stressed that it was the government's show of determination to reduce its very large fiscal deficit in the near term which influenced their decision to limit the downgrade to just one rating notch, and this was also the reason the rating had been assigned, for the time being, a stable outlook. Which means, of course, that should there be any slippage in that determination, any wearying, or falling asleep at the wheel, then the outlook would rapidly move to negative, and more downgrades could be anticipated.

This creates an interesting situation, since I am by no means as convinced as many conventional journalists seem to be that the present fiscal situation is entirely under control. And since I do think Spain is going to come under increasing scrutiny from all points of view as we enter 2011, especially if Ireland and Portugal are ultimately forced to seek some sort of financial rescue, then any "accidental" slippage this year will inevitably mean even deeper cuts and a lot more pain next year, since Elena Salgado and José Luis Zapatero very definitely have pinned their shirts to the mast on the question of getting the deficit down to 6% of GDP in 2011. If this target is not achieved, and in a way which satisfies reasonably close inspection, then I think the country really will face the wrath of the markets, and in this sense the destiny of the 46 million odd people who live in the country very much is harnessed to the credibility and realisability of the budget plan Elena Salgado is about to present to the Spanish parliament.

The Story So Far

According to most of the reports you read in the press these days market confidence in Spanish debt is rising based on the growing conviction that the Spanish government will be able to comply with its deficit commitments. I somehow doubt that this is the complete story (as I explained in this post), and think it is as much a case of markets being focused at this point on whether or not Ireland and Portugal will ultimately be forced to have recourse to the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), and that they are being detached from Spain as much as Spain is detaching itself from them. At this point in time Spain is simply in the waiting room, in a state of grace or being given one last chance, and if the opportunity is not clearly seized with both hands then downgrades and widening spreads will almost certainly follow.

Now, according to the "official version" what is happening if that Spain's fiscal deficit is steadily coming nicely under control as the economy returns to growth and the government squeezes its spending harder and harder. There are only two difficulties with this story. In the first place Spain's economy already appears to be moving back into contraction (the Bank of Spain is now talking of a "weakening" of GDP in the third quarter, and only last Friday the government itself revised up its unemployment forecast for 2011, from 18.7 percent to 19.3 percent to reflect the way the impact of the spending cuts is expected to hit growth). Indeed Moody's itself stressed their scepticism over the government's growth forecast. “Over the next few years the Spanish economy is likely to grow by only about 1 percent on average,” according to Kathrin Muehlbronner, a Moody’s vice-president and lead analyst for Spain. And this is more optimistic than S&Ps, who seem to think trend growth in the years to come will be more like 0.7 percent.

Secondly, and this is the important point at this stage, the part of the deficit which is apparently reducing at this point is the central government one: we are simply not being given the necessary information on the state of Autonomous Community and Local Authority finances to know whether their deficits are reducing, or even if they are increasing. Spain's central government has targeted a deficit of 6.9 percent of GDP this year, with the rest of the adminstration being supposed to limit themselves to 2.4 percent to bring in the 9.3 total promised to the markets.

So despite the fact that we only really have limited information at this point, here is how Reuters reported the news.

Spain's Jan-Aug govt deficit falls more than 40 pct

* Deficit down 42.2 percent from same period last year

* Higher tax take of 33.4 percent in period

* VAT hike from July having effect


MADRID, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Spain's central government budget deficit fell more than 40 percent for January to August compared with the same period last year, thanks to a higher tax take, leaked data from the Economy Ministry showed on Monday.

The January-August deficit, which does not include the balances of the social security system or provincial governments, would be equivalent to 3.3 percent of GDP.

Spain has promised to cut the public deficit to 6 percent in 2011 and to an EU-guideline of 3 percent in 2013 -- forecasts many economists have said they doubt are possible in a low-growth environment.

The central government deficit in the first eight months of the year totalled 34.85 billion euros ($46.50 billion), data from the ministry published on the website of financial newspaper Expansion showed. That was 42.2 percent lower than the same period last year.

The improvement was helped by a 33.4 percent higher tax take, buoyed by a 2 percentage-point rise in value-added tax from July 1.

Still, the January-August figure marks a smaller improvement than that logged in the January-July period, when the deficit came to 25.77 billion euros, down 48.2 percent from the same period last year. That data was welcomed by markets who saw signs that Spain was getting its fiscal house in order.


Now I am calling this the "official version", but I could, rather less charitably call it the "data engineered" one - since the people who are circulating it either don't understand how to read the official monthly updates on bugdet implementation, or they are intentionally trying to mislead. As I will try to show below, the sort of story being reported by Reuters represents a very tendentious reading on the numbers to say the least, since when you come to look at the fine print the real underlying deficit is not down over 40 percent from last year, the tax take is not up 33.4 percent on 2009, and the VAT increase is not having its effect (yet) since as the Agencia Tributaria (Spain's tax office) explain in their report, due to the August holiday period they haven't even processed the returns yet, and the only item they have data for is VAT paid on imports - which has brought in an estimated 100 million euros extra so far.

"Julio y agosto recogen los primeros impactos recaudatorios de la subida de tipos, pero sólo en el IVA Importación, que se valoran en unos 100 millones (0,8% del incremento total)." Agencia Tributaria - August report.


So, what we have is not a lie, or even a damn lie, but it is a very studied and judicious use of the statistical data available. Put politely, the data we have been served seems specifically designed to confirm the idea that Spain is, finally, getting its fiscal house in order. Unfortunately, this is not the complete picture. What we are getting is the truth, and nothing but the truth, but what we aren't getting (yet) is the whole truth.

As I say, the detail here, as always, is in the fine print, although the big point - that we don't know about regional government spending - really should be very obvious to anyone who is even vaguely aware that Spain is a fairly decentralised state, and thus it should stand out like a smoking gun that in all the articles you read about the deficit, the reference is to Spain's "central government" deficit, conveniently forgetting that a significant part of the total - and this year probably an even larger part than normal - comes from the regional governments and the municipal authorities - as I have already tried to explain in this earlier post. If we have leaned anything about Spain during the present crisis it surely is that nothing, but absolutley nothing that is to be found in a government press release should be accepted at face value without further checking. I don't think Spain's government simply blatantly and obviously falsifies its data, but I do think that data is often presented in a way which, if you don't follow all the methodological procedures which lie behind it, can give a totally misleading impression about what is going on, and I am not convinced that this outcome is completely unintentional.

Luckily for us however, the body which is responsible for following the progress of the annual government budget as it is implemented - a very austere sounding entity known as the Intervención General de la Administración del Estado (or IGAE) - publishes a fairly readable and easy to understand monthly report (latest issue available here), and if more journalists who wish to report on Spain took the trouble to read and study it for themselves, then perhaps they wouldn't be so easily taken in by the latest government press handout as they evidently have been up to now.

The first thing to note, as the IGAE themselves emphasise is that when it comes to following the annual execution of the budget it is important to compare like with like, and not, as it has become fashionable to say these days - apples with pears. In this case we need to distinguish between harmonised and non harmonised accounts. That is to say, when there has been a methodological change which influences the data the raw numbers (which you can find on page 9) can be very misleading, and you need to follow the harmonised data (which you can find in page 11). Thus, the raw data suggests that indirect taxes (impuestos indirectos) were up by 39.9% between January and August when compared with the previous year (seventh row, end column), while the harmonised (or adjusted) figure is 29.9% - meaning the real improvement is only 8.049 billion euros, and not 13.164 billion the raw number suggests.



But even this is not the complete picture, since if we now go to the latest monthly report (here) from Spain's Agencia Tributaria (the tax office), we find (page 16 in the acrobat reader), that one of the big differences in the VAT numbers between 2009 and 2010 comes from the much smaller volume of refunds in 2010.



Refunds fell from 43.525 billion euros in the first 8 months of 2009 to 33.087 billion in the same period of 2010, that is to say by 10.438 billion euros. In their methodological commentary the Agencia Tributaria (on page 5) put this reduction in refunds down to either money owing from previous fiscal exercises (4.4 billion euros) or refunds which had already been paid in 2009 (5.6 billion euros) due to a policy change which meant that refunds started to be made on a monthly basis. Be all that as it may, the real net increase in tax income from all sources so far this year is something like 6.9 percent according to the agency, and the net increase in IVA (adjusted for refunds) may be more like 5.4 percent, and not the splendid looking 47.5 percent figure which appears on page 11 of the IGAE report.

Las devoluciones de IVA Anual 2009 caen hasta agosto un -60,9% (en consonancia con el menor importe solicitado), y las de IVA mensual apenas crecen un 0,3% porque las mayores devoluciones realizadas este año del ejercicio 2009 (por la generalización del sistema de devolución mensual) se compensan con el menor importe solicitado del ejercicio 2010. La única novedad que aporta agosto en cuanto a los ingresos brutos es el IVA Importación, que registra un aumento del 18,0% hasta este mes en sintonía con la marcha de las importaciones de terceros no energéticas. En total y antes de empezar arecoger el impacto total de la subida de tipos, el IVA bruto ya acumula un incremento del 5,4%. Agencia Tributaria Report, my emphasis.


Now, if we move over to the expenses side, we see that staff costs are up (2.3 percent) in the first eight months of the year, but this number is a little deceptive, since salaries were originally increased 3 percent in January of this year, and then cut in the May measures by an average of 5 percent as of 1 July, so evidently as the year advances the total increase should fall steadily, and may even arrive below zero by the end of the year. More importantly (for next year) freezing salaries for 2011 will represent a real reduction in salary 2011/2010 since the base to be applied on 1 January 2011 will be the level of 1 July 2010, which means during the year their will be a commensurate drop in Spanish domestic consumer demand.

But the big reductions on the spending side for 2010 come in capital spending (infrastructure works etc) which is down 7.9 percent (or 500 million euros, about 0.05 percent of GDP), and in transfers to Spain's local authorities - which are down by around 1.3 billion euros (or about 0.13 percent of GDP). Transfers to the autonomous communities are in fact up, but interpreting this involves a complicated calculation, since there have been recent changes in the financing arrangements.

On the other hand, Spain's regional governments, far from reducing their deficits are in fact increasing them like never before. In fact total autonomous community debt hit 104 billion euros (0r 10.4% of GDP) in June according to the latest Bank of Spain data, up from 82.9 billion one year earlier. That is to say, the regional governments increased their debt by nearly 25% year on year, and there is no sign so far that they are putting the brakes on.



Of course, the regional governments only accounted for about 14% of last years deficit, so even if their deficit does shoot up, it won't be a determining factor, but it will make it much more difficult for the total deficit to fall within the targeted limits.

The local authorities, on the other hand, have things a lot tougher, since their revenue from central government is significantly down, and they find it very hard to increase their borrowing from banks, so their rate of new debt accumulation is definitely slowing.



Difficult Times Ahead For The Regional Governments

On 4 August 2010 Fitch Ratings placed four more Spanish autonomous communities on a Negative Rating Outlook, which effectively meant that all Spain's autonomous communities are now on Negative Outlook. According to the rating agency this move reflects their view that their budget balances will remain fragile in the medium term, while their debt will continue to increase. As they say, some indication of regional governmment intentions to curb expenditure have emerged, but in the majority of cases the measures still need to be detailed and implemented, a process which could take considerable time, and will certainly see us well beyond the 2010 fiscal exercise before their impact is felt. According to the terms of the recent Royal Decree the maximum deficit allowed for the Autonomous Communities during the 2010‐2012 period has been reduced by 0.5% of GDP. But this decision comes just one year after the Council for Fiscal and Financial Policy (CFFP) authorised the autonomous communities to exceptionally raise their deficits to 2.5% of the GDP for 2010, 1.7% for 2011 and 1.3% for 2012 in order to counterbalance the revenue shortfall being created by the crisis. So we can imagine some kind of chaos may well have ensued when those responsible for implementing their budgets learnt of the new targets.

What is worse for the regional governments, as Fitch point out, the smaller deficit allowances introduced in June 2010 do not take into account the negative tax settlements related to excess transfers made by the state during 2008 and 2009 to try to help the beleagured regional governments. Although the amount of this excess funding temporarily transferred to autonomous communities by the central government has yet to be confirmed it is clear that now having reduced entitlement to funding will only make an already difficult position worse.

What happened was that the 2008 and 2009 budgets’ tax forecasts were over‐optimistic and the autonomous communities received greater advance tax and sufficiency fund payments than warranted by the amounts actually collected, and the autonomous communities will now have to return the excess (see chart from Fitch below).



Fitch’s calculates that the excess allocated to autonomous communities in 2008 was something like 7 billion euros, and that in 2009 the number may have hit 21 billion euros. According to the new financing agreement with the central government, the regional governments can make repay in 60 monthly instalments starting in January 2011.

Fitch is of the opinion that the increased financial pressure all this will produce plus the stricter control over debt authorisations introduced under the new financing agreement will definitely create heightened liquidity pressure for the regional administrations. Most of the autonomous communities have budgeted for a deficit equivalent to 2.4% of their GDP for 2010, however, since the central government is now only likely to authorise them to issue new debt equivalent to a maximum of 1.95% of GDP, they will have to fund a gap equivalent to a minimum of 0.45% of GDP without new borrowing. The most likely scenario is that their cash reserves will decline and that delays in paying suppliers will increase.

In fact only this week, the Economist quotes Juan Bravo, who is in charge of finances for the city of Madrid, as saying that the city’s income will not return to 2007 levels until 2016, and in the meantime the only way he can survive is to delay payment. “Last year I paid bills in 60 days, now I am paying in six or seven months,” he said. (Or see this report in the WSJ)



And to make matters worse, significant doubt exists about the achievability of Spain's GDP growth forecasts. Finance Minister Elena Salgado said last Friday that she was confident the country's economy would grow in line with government forecasts but most analysts feel the forecasts of a 0.3% contraction this year,followed by growth of 1.3% in 2011, 2.5% in 2012 and 2.7% in 2013 are far too optimistic.

The bottom line here is that Spain's real commitment to meet its targets is still on trial. Pressure from financial markets may well mean that the fiscal effort made in the second half of the year will be much greater than that in the first, but all in all, achieving the 6% target for 2011 looks to be an extraordinarily difficult task, given everything we have seen so far. As one investor put it recently “We are still skeptical as to whether they will really take all the austerity measures or only go as far as the market forces them, and when pressure abates they’ll let the deficit slip again. It seems they want to do as little as needed to relax the markets.”

And, of course, if all this wasn't enough, even if the fiscal effort is made as the government is promising, this still doesn't solve the deep-seated underlying problem. Just what is the plan to put sufficient dynamism back into the Spanish economy in order to produce those lovely growth numbers that we would all so much like to see?

Monday, September 27, 2010

And Then There Were None

According to Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero speaking in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last Tuesday the European sovereign debt crisis is over. "I believe that the debt crisis affecting Spain, and the euro zone in general, has passed," Mr. Zapatero said.

This is excellent news, but it comes with just one proviso, and that is that despite all such reassurances most financial market participants seem to be far from convinced that he is right. True Spain recently raised nearly €4bn in a successful government bond sale, with some observers suggesting the sale constituted but one more sign that what is still the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy had finally broken free from the group of “peripheral” European economies who have severe economic problems and whose debt is viewed by investors as especially risky.

In fact Spain managed to sell €2.7bn of 10-year bonds and almost €1.3bn of 30-year bonds while at the same time bringing yields down noticeably from their earlier highs - to 4.144 percent in the case of the 10-year issue ( from 4.864 percent in June), and to 5.077 percent for the 30 year issue (from 5.908 percent in June). But, at the same time, in the background the extra yield that investors demand to hold Spanish 10-year bonds over German bunds has been steadily creeping back up again, and as of last Friday (24 September) it stood at 183 basis points, below the 220 level being asked in June but still more than double what it was at this point last year.

Yet, despite all those nice words we hear from him, one of the things that is worrying investors right now is the real depth of Mr Zapatero’s commitment to reducing the deficit as planned, especially after he unexpectedly stated on August 10 that in his opinion some of the planned infrastructure spending cuts could be reversed, while on September 10 he reiterated the point, saying that lower borrowing costs may enable the government to "ease up" on some of the projected spending cuts. In fact the extra yield offered on Spanish debt has risen 33 basis points over the period since he started to mention the possibility.

On top of which all the short term indicators we have been seeing suggest that the Spanish economy started to contract again in the third quarter.

Spreads Rising Across The Periphery

Of course it isn't only Spanish bond yields which have been sneaking back up of late. Greek 10-year bonds as compared with equivalent German bunds still offer around 950 basis points (or 9.5 percent) of additional yield, only around 20 points below the all time record they hit on May 7, at the height of the Sovereign Debt Crisis

Indeed spreads on government bonds all along Europe's periphery have been rising steadily back towards (and even in some cases beyond) their May levels in recent weeks. Most notably the last week has seen both the Irish and Portuguese government 10-year bond yields surge to euro era records levels, in a way which could lead us to ask whether, rather than Spain snuggling back into the main group the big picture story at this point might not be that it is Irish and Portuguese sovereign debt that is being prised apart from the rest.

So rather than being over, what the debt crisis now may be entering is a new stage, where one sovereign bond after another is being chisled out and sent off to join their Greek counterpart in the isolation ward. Actually, in this sense the present European Sovereign Debt situation does rather resemble the plot of the well known Agatha Christie detective novel "And Then There Were None". As told by M. Christie a group of ten people, all of whom have in one way or another been previously complicit in an earlier death, are somehow tricked into travelling together for what was intended to be a short stay on a secluded island. Once there, and even though the guests are apparently the only people on the island, they are - somehow, and one after another - systematically murdered. So, in a way which may eventually come to foreshadow scenes from the forthcoming meetings of the European Financial Stability Facility management board, each morning one guest less shows up for breakfast. One by one, and little by little, each participant becomes mysteriously overcome by a seemingly inexplicable bout of some fatal variant of what could be termed "systemic instability syndrome".

As I say, Irish and Portuguese yield spreads are significantly wider than they were May 7, the last trading day before Greece finally agreed to go for their €110 billion bailout package and the European Central Bank announced the initiation of its ongoing program of purchasing EuroArea government bonds in the secondary markets.

And despite holding what was considered to be a "succesful" bond auction at the start of last week Irish 10-year bond yields, shot up`once more during the remainder of the week, hitting a new record high of 6.34 per cent (see Bloomberg chart below), while yield spreads over benchmark 10 year German Bunds spiked to 416bp, euro era another record. At the same time Ireland 5 year CDS shot up to 461 bps, which meant the cost of insuring Irish debt was $461,000 for $10m of debt annually over five years.



At the same time yields on Portuguese 10-year bonds over comparable German bonds hit a record of near 4.25 percentage points Friday, while the Portuguese debt agency paid a euro era record of 6.24 percent to holders of its 10-year bonds and 4.69 per cent to holders of the four year-bonds in its own bond auction this week. In last equivalent auction, Portugal had paid 5.32 percent on 10-year bonds and 3.62 percent on four-year bonds. Portugal’s budget gap widened in the first eight months of the year, indicating the government may struggle to rein in the euro-region’s fourth-largest deficit as its borrowing costs surged to a record.



Portugal and Ireland "Decoupling"?


In each case the issue is different, since in the Irish case it was a sharp and unexpected contraction in the economy which became the major concern while in Portugal's case it was an apparent inability to reach the political agreement necessary to get the budget deficit under control.

Data out during the week for second-quarter gross domestic product showed the Irish economy has never really left recession, since GDP contracted by 1.2% compared to the first three months of the year, following a downwardly revised 2.2% expansion in the first quarter. Irish GDP has now contracted on a quarterly basis for 9 out of the past 10 quarters, and there is no evident end in sight.



In addition Ireland’s central bank governor Patrick Honohan saw fit to give a rather ill-timed press conference (unless he objective really was to force the country's government into the arms of the EFSF) where he urged the government to implement even deeper fiscal cuts to restore balance to the budget in what seems at this point to be a virtually unrealisable bid to regain investor confidence. All of which left many observers wondering just what the country can do in the present situation, since the budget is evidently deteriorating due to the severity of the economic contraction, and further cuts in spending by anyone (households, companies, government) are only likely to feed the contraction even more, in their turn making even more cuts necessary.

Obviously Ireland is rapidly approaching a situation where it cannot move the situation forward based on its own resources. This feeling is only added to by the persistent rumours that subordinated bond holders to Anglo Irish bank may well not get re-imbursed in full. These rumours have found some confirmation in a report which appeared in the Irish Examiner suggesting that the Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan had given a strong hint that the riskiest lenders to nationalized Anglo Irish Bank may not get all their money back.

Mr Lenihan apparently explained to the paper that the bank guarantee program which will be extended once it runs out at the end of September may only cover deposits and not subordinated debt. And if the interpretation put on events by the FTs John Dizard's is correct Mr Lenihan's delay in clarifying the situation is due to the fact that the Irish government is awaiting an EU Commission ruling on exactly this issue. His most recent official statement on the topic was that the Aglo Irish wind-up plan “is being prepared for submission to the [European] Commission for approval”.

At the same time the EU’s Competition Commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, issued a statement that “a number of important aspects need to be clarified, and a new notification received, before the Commission is in a position to finalise its assessment and to take a decision”. Which Dizard interprets as meaning that while Anglo Irish might propose a buy-back of its subordinated bonds, and that buy-back might be included in an Irish government proposal, Brussels might, in the end, not approve the plan. Since this would effectively the first time in the current crisis that a significant group of investors did not have their losses underwritten (apart, of course, from the rather unfortunate Lehman incident), decision makers may be rather apprehensive, since no one really knows how the financial markets would react. Yet speculation some such decision will be taken remains rife, as witnessed by the decision by Moody's rating agency to downgrade Allied Irish ratings. Moody's cut Anglo Irish's senior bonds by three notches to Baa3, the last level before junk, but the markets' main focus was on the deep, six-notch cut in the bank's subordinated debt, to Caa1, which indicates that bondholders will be forced to pay for some of the expected bailout.

Deficit Worries In Portugal

In the Portuguese case it is the budget deficit issue which is unsettling the markets, with the spread widening sharply following the revelation that far from the deficit being reduced is was actually increasing. According to the latest data from the Finance Ministry the central government’s shortfall during the first eight months of the year rose to 9.19 billion euros from 8.74 billion euros over the equivalent period in 2009. Previously the 2010 deficit had been almost exactly tracking the 2009 one (see chart from Societe Generale below).



Portugal’s borrowing costs surged to record levels on the news, and while the spread subsequently eased back to 388 basis points, the level is still close to the zone in which Greek bonds were trading in April just before the EU offered the country emergency loans to avoid default (see Greek 10 year spread chart below).




What this means is that this year's overall public deficit could well come in at around 9 percent of gross domestic product unless there is a radical change in policy during the last few months of the year.

According to its commitments to the EU Stability Programme, the Portuguese government should be aiming to reduce the overall deficit to 7.3 percent of GDP in 2010 from last year’s 9.3 percent. The government has pledged to reach the target, with Finance Minister Fernando Teixeira dos Santos saying that the country “can’t afford” not to, but so far there is little evidence that it will be able to do so, and especially with all the political bickering that is now going on in the background.

In all these cases, including the Greek and Spanish ones, this issue is not simply one of stimulus versus austerity (always a false polarity when it comes to the situation on the Euro periphery). The real issue is how to restore growth to highly-indebted and structurally-distorted economies, since without growth the debt to GDP ratios will not come down, and the burden of the debt will not be reduced.

So more borrowing is not what these countries need right now (other than to aid short term liquidity). What the countries involved all need is more exports and larger industrial sectors, and no one seems to be very clear how they are to achieve them. Simply running a double digit deficit to generate less that 1% (in the best of cases) GDP growth is not exactly a "wise" use of resources. Evidently using deficit spending to cushion programmes which would lead to a surge in exports would make sense, but in no case is this really being done, and all the emphasis is simply going on what may turn out to be a rather fruitless and self-defeating programme of achieving fiscal rectitude.

The result is that the peripheral countries are one by one being steadily "decoupled", with Portugal and Ireland now moving up towards Greece, as the following two charts from Citi Research clearly show.




For quite a long time the Irish and Portuguese spreads simply moved in harmony with the Greek ones, widening as the Greek spread surged upwards. But now it is Greek debt which can be adversly affected by sentiment over the situation in Ireland or Portugal, and not the other way round, and meanwhile the other two countries slowly but surely are moving on up there to join their Greek counterparts as the second of the two charts (which show the recent relative movements in Greek and Irish spreads) seems to demonstrate.





Vigourous Action Needed

Naturally the ongoing deterioration in the situation requires bold and far reaching action from the Commission and the ECB. Obviously we should expect to see renewed activity on the part of the ECB, buying an increasing number of eurozone periphery government bonds. Their activity on this front has been increasing of late, but weekly bond purchases are still well below 1 billion euros a week level seen at the height of the crisis in May and June. Evidently we will see calls for more of these purchases in the days and weeks to come, but what is striking at the present time is just how ineffective they have been in containing the damage.

The ECB’s bond buying program is effectively the second pillar in the EU crisis containment mechanism established in May. The other one is the Luxembourg-based 440 billion-euro European Financial Stability Facility, headed by former European Commission official Klaus Regling. Mr Regling has also been actively campaigning to calm markets in recent days. "It would be preferable if we didn't even have to intervene," he told the German magazine Der Spiegel in an interview, "In fact, I believe that's the most likely scenario." His hope then is that the very existence of his organization will bring calm to investors and deter speculators. "If that's the case, we'll close up shop here on June 30, 2013," he said.


Morgan Stanley’s Chief Global Economist, Joachim Fels remains pretty unconvinced by all of this. “Strains,” he wrote in a recent research report, have now reached a point where "one or several governments" may soon have to resort to the rescue mechanism. "Neither the European sovereign debt crisis nor the banking sector crisis has been resolved and both continue to mutually reinforce each other," he said, adding that the EU's stress tests for banks had manifestly failed to restore the necessary confidence. Fels's conjecture didn't need that long to get some confirmation, since according to the German newspaper Handelsblatt the ECB was last week actively considering recommending that Ireland avail itself of the fund. The Central Bank declined to comment on the story, and simply pointed out that any decision on the matter was a question for national governments, which is formally correct (and obvious) but doesn't mean that they wouldn't in fact have recommended such a move if asked.

So, like former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson before them, Europe’s leaders, having armed their bazooka may soon need to fire it. Indeed Mr Regling’s optimism that his organization may quietly disappear from the scene is not generally shared by investors, who as we are seeing seem to be continuously pricing in an ever greater likelihood of intervention.

Meantime, according to a report in the Financial Times over the weekend, Europe's leaders are once more at odds among themselves about just how much carrot and how much stick the various national governments need to get their economies back into line. Predictably it is Paris talking about carrots, and Berlin who is talking about sticks.

But all this talk of what to do about those countries who in the future fail to stick to the new set of rules which are apparently being prepared monumentally misses the point: what we need are some policies which help the most affected economies get out of the mess they have found themselves in following the way the monetary and fiscal policy rules were implemented last time round.

According to one popular analogy currently circulating , the EuroArea countries could be likened to a group of 16 Alpine climbers scaling the Matterhorn who find themselves tightly roped together in appalling weather conditions. One of the climbers - Greece – has lost his footing and slipped over the edge of a dangerous precipice. As things stand, the other 15 can easily take the strain of holding him dangling there, however uncomfortable it may be for them, but they cannot quite manage to pull their colleague back up again. So, as the day advances, others, wearied by all the effort required, start themselves to slide. First it is Ireland who moves closest to the edge, getting nearer and nearer to the abysss with each passing moment. And just behind Ireland comes Portugal, while some way further back Spain lies Spain, busily consoling itself that it is in no way as badly off as the others who have already lost there footing. But if Spain cannot hold out, and all four finally go over, each dragged down by the weight of those who preceded them, then this will leave some 12 countries supporting four, something that the May bailout package only anticipated as a worst-case scenario. In the event that this is finally what happens, Mr Reglin will certainly find that the quiet life has come to an end for him, and that he has plenty of work to do, as will Mr Trichet’s successor at the ECB. In the meantime all the rest of us can do is wait and hope, firm in the knowledge that having come this far, we can only go forward, since there is no easy way back down to the point from which we started. But for heavens sake, the only thing we don't need while we sit here biting our nails is to be told by someone who manifestly has no idea what he is talking about that the danger has already past, even as we slide, inch by inch, onwards and downwards towards the chasm that gapes beneath.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Spain's Economy Re-enters Contraction Mode In The Third Quarter

Well, that didn't last long, now did it. Two consecutive quarters of minimal GDP growth seem to have exhausted the forces of a more than fragile Spanish economy. All the post June data we are seeing suggests the economy has now turned the corner (in the bad sense), and we should expect a negative quarterly GDP reading in the July to September period.

Perhaps the clearest indicator we have so far of the shape of things to come is offered by the August services PMI reading, which shows the sector went back into contraction in August, a performance that for a country which depends to some significant extent on tourism is really pretty striking.



As Andrew Harker, economist at Markit and author of the monthly report commented:
“Months of broadly stagnant demand have now resulted in a decline in activity in the Spanish service sector, albeit a marginal one. It looks increasingly likely that the anaemic GDP growth seen during the second quarter of the year marks the high point of the recovery for the time being. The recent rise in VAT has further added to problems for service providers as weak demand has largely forced firms to absorbcost increases.”
The manufacturing sector continues to turn in a very slight positive reading, but both new orders and employment are falling.



Car sales were down 25% in August over August 2009, due in part to the withdrawal of the "cash for clunckers" programme, and in part to the rise in VAT, and finally industrial production data showed that output even fell very slightly in June.

Unsurprisingly, retail sales fell back sharply in July (by 3% month on month) following pre VAT rise purchases in June.



And unemployment, which is now heading up over and beyond the 20% mark (20.3% in July) was up again in August (even by 12,000 on a seasonally adjusted basis.



We don't have the July construction data yet, but the position with retail sales is likely to be repeated, following a strong 7% (month on month) pre VAT surge in June.

Exports did recover to some extent during the "good times", but to nothing like the extent they did in the more strongly competitive exporting countries.




And in fact, as we saw in a previous post, the net effect of the stimulus was to temporarily widen the trade deficit (strange, Monsieur Trichet on being asked by a journalist at the last ECB press conference when he planned to withdraw his stimulus, was most adamant that the ECB non-standard measures did not constitute "stimulus" - I guess it's lucky for US citizens that Ben Bernanke doesn't see things that way). Now, whether from the ECB or the Spanish government, the outlook is for gradual withdrawal of stimulus, which means the only realistic outlook for a badly structurally distorted Spanish economy is towards a slow but steady decline.