Sunday, January 31, 2016

31/1/16: Why is Inflation so Low? Debt + Demand + Oil = Central Bankers


One of the prevalent themes in macroeconomic circles in recent months has been what I call the “Hero Central Banker” syndrome. The story goes: faced with the unprecedented challenges of dis-inflation, Heroic Central Bankers did everything possible to induce prices recovery by deploying printing presses in innovative and outright inventive ways, but only to see their efforts undermined by the falling oil prices.

Of course, the meme is pure bull.

Firstly, there is no disinflation. There is a risk of deflation. Let’s stop pretending that negative growth rates in prices can be made somewhat more benign if we just contextualise them into a narrative of surrounding ‘recovery’. Dis-inflation is deflation anchored to an invented period duration of which no one knows, but everyone assumes to be short. And there is no hard definition of what 'short' really means either.

Secondly, there is no mystery surrounding the question of why on earth would we have ‘dis-inflation’ in the first place. Coming out of the Global Financial Crisis, the world remains awash with legacy debt (households) and new debt (corporates and governments). This simply means that no one, save for larger corporations and highly-rated governments, can borrow much in the post-GFC world. And this means that no one has much of money to spend on ‘demanding’ stuff. This means that markets are stagnating or shrinking on demand side. Now, the number of companies competing for stagnant or shrinking market is not falling. Which means these companies are getting more desperate to maintain or increase their market shares. Of these companies, those that can borrow, do borrow to fund their expansions (less via capex and more via M&As) and to support their share prices (primarily via buy-backs and further via M&As); and the same companies also cut prices to keep their effectively insolvent or debt-loaded customers. slow growing supply chases even slower growing (if not contracting) demand… and we have ‘dis-inflation’.

Note: much of this dynamic is driven by the QE that makes debt cheaper for those who can get it, but more on this later.

Thirdly, we have oil. Oil is an expensive (or used to be expensive) input into producing more stuff (more stuff that is not needed, by the companies that can’t quite afford to organically increase production for the lack of demand, as explained in the second point above). So demand for oil is going down. Production of oil is going up because we have years of investments by oil men (and few oil women) that has been sunk into getting the stuff out of the ground. We have falling oil prices. Aka, more ‘dis-inflation’.

Note: much of this dynamic is also driven by the QE which does nothing to help deleverage households and companies (supporting future demand growth) and everything to support financial sector where inflation has been all the rage until recently, and in Government bonds continues to-date.

Fourth, when Heroic Central Bankers drop policy rates and/or inject ‘free’ cash into the economy. Their actions fuel  borrowing in the areas / sectors where there either exists sufficient collateral or security of cash flows to borrow against or there is low enough debt level to sustain such new borrowing. You’ve guessed it:

  • Financials (deleveraged using taxpayers funds and sweat with the help of the "Heroic Central Bankers" and protected from competition by the very same "Heroic Central Bankers") and 
  • Commodities producers (who borrowed like there is no tomorrow until oil price literally fell off the cliff). 
When the former borrowed, they rolled borrowed funds into public debt and into financial markets. There was plenty inflation in these 'sectors' though they didn't quite count in the consumer price indices. For a good reason: they have little to do with consumers and lots to do with fat cats. However, part of the inflows of funds to the former went to fund ‘alternative’ energy projects - aka subsidies junkies - which further depresses demand for oil (albeit weakly). Both inflows went to support production of more oil or distribution of more oil (pipelines, refineries, export facilities etc) or both.

Meanwhile, inflows from the financial institutions to the markets usually went to larger corporates. Guess where were the big oil producers? Right: amongst the larger corporates. Thus, cheap money = cheaper oil, as long as cheap money does not dramatically drive up inflation. Which it can’t because to do so, there has to be demand growth at the household level, the very level where there is no cheap money coming and the debts remain high.

Now, take the four points above and put them together. What they collectively say is that the risk of deflation in the euro area (and anywhere else) is not down to oil price collapse, but rather it is down to demand collapse driven by debt overhang in the real economy (corporates and households and governments). And it is also down to monetary policy that fuels misallocation of credit (or risk mispricing). Only after that, risk of deflation can be assigned to oil price shock (in so far as that shock can be treated as something originating from the global economy, as opposed to from within the euro area economy). And across all these drivers for deflation risks up, there are fingerprints of many actors, but just one actor pops up everywhere: the "Heroic Central Banker".

A recent paper from the Banca d’Italia actually manages to almost grasp this, albeit, written by Central Bankers, it just comes short of the finish line.

Antonio Maria Conti, Stefano Neri and Andrea Nobili published their “Why is Inflation so Low in the Euro Area?” in July 2015 (Bank of Italy Temi di Discussione (Working Paper) No. 1019: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2687105). They focus on euro area alone, so their conclusions do treat oil price change as an exogenous shock. Still, here are their conclusions:

  • “Inflation in the euro area has been falling steadily since early 2013 and at the end of 2014 turned negative. 
  • "Part of the decline has been due to oil prices, but the weakness of aggregate demand has also played a significant role. …
  • "The analysis suggests that in the last two years inflation has been driven down by all three factors, as the effective lower bound to policy rates has prevented the European Central Bank from reducing the short-term rates to support economic activity and align inflation with the definition of price stability. Remarkably, the joint contribution of monetary and demand shocks is at least as important as that of oil price developments to the deviation of inflation from its baseline.” 


Do note that the authors miss the QE channel leading to deflation and instead seem to think that the only thing standing between the ECB and the return to normalcy is the need to cut rates to purely negative nominal levels. In simple terms, this means the authors think that unless ECB starts giving money away to everyone, including the households (a scenario if nominal rates turn sufficiently negative) without attaching a debt lien to these loans, there is no hope. In a sense, I agree - to get things rolling, we need to cancel out household debts. This can be done (expensively) by printing cash and giving it to households (negative nominal rates). Or it can be done more cheaply by simply writing down debts, while monetising write-offs to the risk-weighted value (a fraction of the nominal debt).

I called for both measures for some years now.

Even "Heroic Central Bankers" (for now within the research departments) now smell the rotten core of the QE body: without restoring balancesheets of the households and companies, there isn't much hope for the risk of dis-inflation abating.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

30/1/16: Russian Trade Balance in Goods: 2015


On foot of my note covering Russian preliminary estimates for external trade, some readers asked if the figures provided (see here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2016/01/23116-russian-external-balance-2015.html) were indeed in Rubles. The answer is no - these are US Dollar amounts at the exchange rate posted time of data release (so preliminary figures are subject to change due to exchange rates effects as well as data updates).

As with all national statistics everywhere, Russian data has better coverage of goods trade, than services trade. Services trade generally lags goods trade in terms of reporting for a range of reasons that are reflected in all countries accounts. While we have only estimates for services trade through November 2015, we have actual figures for goods trade through the same period. These are reported by the Central Bank of Russia and provided below.

For 11 months (January-November) of each year, Russian exports of goods (only) fell from USD459.381 billion in 2014 to USD311.934 billion in 2015 - a decline of 32.1% y/y and a drop of 34.9% on comparable figure in 2012. Meanwhile, imports of goods (only) fell from USD283.541 billion in 2014 to USD176.652 billion in 2015 -a decline of 37.7% y/y and a drop of 41.9% on 2012 levels.

As the result, Trade Balance (goods only) for 11 months of 2015 fell from USD175.84 billion to USD135.582 billion - down 23.1% y/y. The Trade Balance (for 11 months cumulative) was down 22.8% on 2012 levels.

We can, with some stretch of imagination, extrapolate 11 months figures to full year. To do this, we adjust the figures for seasonality (December imputed weighting in trade volumes across both exports and imports).

If we do so, full year exports of goods for Russia come in at around USD342.9 billion down 31.1% y/y, while imports come in at USD194.32 billion, down 36.9% y/y. Trade balance for the full year 2015 (goods only) comes in at around USD147.6 billion, down 22.2% y/y, making 2015 the lowest trade surplus year (goods only) since 2010 when trade balance stood at just under USD147.0 billion.

Charts to illustrate the dynamics based on imputed full year values (note: horizontal lines are period averages):



For what it is worth, it might be interesting to make a comparative between 2015 levels of external trade and pre-2000 era. Average exports of goods in 1994-1999 were USD79.4 billion and 2015 levels were 4.3 times higher. Average imports of goods in 1994-1999 were USD58.45 billion and these rose 3.3 times in 2015 figures. As the result, average 1994-1999 trade balance was USD20.95 billion. 2015 trade balance was 7 times larger than that.

Not too shabby numbers, event though 2015 was a tough year of trade for Russian exporters.

29/1/16: Murray Index of Top 20 Journalists on Twitter


I don't usually post this sort of things around here, but given my fond memories of working as the editor of Business & Finance and my deep respect for the profession of journalists, I am delighted to have made some sort of rankings in the field:


Respectable 14 for such an august company!

29/1/16: And the IBRC Interest Overcharging Ship Sails On...


Just after posting the Mick Wallace video link on Nama,  a knock on my blog door left this nice little letter at the doorstep.























Now, I obviously removed the names of people involved and other identifying information. Which leaves us with the substance of the said letter: IBRC are conducting an internal review into interest overcharging...

Why that's nice.

Let's recall, however, the following facts:

  1. Anglo overcharging was notified to the authorities officially at least as far back as 2013 (see link here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/06/12615-anglo-overcharging-saga-ganley.html)
  2. It was known since at least 2010 in the public domain (per link above).
  3. It was discovered in the court in October 2014 (see here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/06/11615-full-letter-concerning-ibrc.html)
Add to the above a simple fact: IBRC Liquidators have at their disposal the entire details of all loans issued by Anglo, with their terms and conditions. They also have the entire history of the DIBOR and all other basis rates. In other words, the Liquidators have full access to all requisite information to determine if Anglo (and subsequent to its dissolution other entities holding Anglo loans, including Nama and IBRC Special Liquidators) have continued with the practice of overcharging established by the Anglo.

When you add the above, you get something to the tune of almost 6 years that Anglo, IBRC & Nama and IBRC Special Liquidators had on their hands to address the problem. And only now are they getting to an 'internal review', more than a year after the court has smacked their snouts with it? 

Meanwhile, as it says at the bottom of the letter, "Irish Bank Resolution Corporation Limited (in Special Liquidation), trading as IBRC (in Special Liquidation), is operating with a consent, and under the supervision, of the Central Bank of Ireland."

So we have an entity, supervised and consented to by the Central Bank that is 'looking into' the little pesky tiny bitty problem of years of overcharging borrowers on a potentially systemic basis and with quite nasty implications of this having been already discovered in the courts more than a year ago... It is looking into these thing by itself. Regulators, of course, are looking at something else... while consenting to the IBRC operations all along...

Does that sound like we have a 'new era' of regulatory enforcement and oversight designed to prevent the next crisis?.. Or does it sound like everyone's happy to wait for the IBRC to find a quiet way to shove the problem under some proverbial rug, so the Ship of the Reformed Irish Banking System Sails On... unencumbered by the past and the present?


29/1/16: Events… and oil


Bloomberg recently posted a chart summing up some (although claimed all) of the key events in recent history of oil prices. A neat reminder of what has been happening in terms of oil-related factors for crude demand and supply:


29/1/16: Estonia - A Safer Bet than France?


Euromoney have a good summary article on Baltic states’ economies and sovereign risk ratings (all of which are improving).

My comment toward the end.

http://www.euromoney.com/Article/3524950/Estonia-offers-safer-ption-than-France-or-South-Korea.html



Here is my take on Baltics ratings in full:

Given macroeconomic and geopolitical environment, Estonia's credit rating by all three rating agencies clearly lags overall trends in risks evolution. The geopolitical and external macroeconomic risks these ratings reflect are consistent with early 2015 assessments and are well behind the more recent trends. In simple terms, Estonia is over-due a one notch upgrade across all agencies, as reflective of expected re-acceleration in growth from 1.9 percent estimated in 2015 to 2.6 percent forecast for 2016-2017, and improving labour markets performance and inflation outlook.

Another key driver for the upgrade is significant abatement in geopolitical risks faced by Estonia in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that has evolved into a localised and frozen conflict with no expected spillover to the broader region.

Estonia also enjoys significant improvements in its terms of trade, via Euro devaluation, which is reflected in its relatively strong current account dynamics.

As far as Latvia and Lithuania ratings go, both countries' present ratings are in line with generally weaker economic, political and social institutions and with long term structural problems at play in both economies. While geopolitical risks have abated for these two countries since the start of 2015, supportive monetary and euro devaluation-driven competitiveness tailwinds are yet to manifest themselves in terms of current account balances and gains in real  productivity.

Unlike Estonia, both Latvia and Lithuania run current account deficits in presence of significantly higher unemployment and continued outflows of human capital. Of the two countries, Latvia is probably closer to a rating upgrade, which can come later in the first half of 2016.

29/1/16: Nama and Value Destruction


There is a neat video circulating around that sums up Mick Wallace's questions about Nama, worth watching: https://vimeo.com/143933468?ref=tw-share.


For those who want to see a more extensive listing of Nama firesales or, as I put them, Value Destruction deals, read here:  http://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2015/11/251115-nama-that-gift-horses-mouth.html and follow the link in my post to more.

Beyond this, on top of Wallace's questions, there is an outstanding issue of Nama involvement in continued legacy of Anglo interest overcharging http://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2015/06/17615-mr-john-flynn-letter-to-tds-on.html (and see links at the bottom of that post).

Friday, January 29, 2016

28/1/16: Irish M&As: Not Too Irish & Mostly Inversions


Experian latest figures for *Irish* M&A activities for 2015 show some astronomical number: Per release: “The number of deals on the Irish mergers and acquisitions (M&A) market increased by 10 per cent last year, its strongest performance since 2008…” Which is not what is impressive. Although the overall number of actual transactions hit 458 in 2015, up from 416 the previous year, it is the value of transactions that is beyond any belief.

Again, per Experian: “The total value of transactions reached €312 billion – up from €154 billion in 2014 and by some way the most valuable year for corporate deal making in the country’s history. Activity continues to be driven by the pharmaceuticals and biotech sector.” This number is a third higher than the value of exports of good and services from Ireland over the period of 12 months through 3Q 2015 and it is almost 60 percent higher than Irish GDP. In other words, using normal valuations multiples, you should be able to buy anywhere between 1/4 and 2/5 of entire Ireland on this money. In one go, and forever… And that’s one year worth.

Per Experian: “Irish deals accounted for around 3.6% of the total volume of European transactions in 2015, but 20.5% of their total value. In 2014, the Republic of Ireland again featured in 3.6% of European deals but contributed just 12.7% to their overall value.”

So conservatively, let’s say 1/3 of Ireland bought last year and, say 1/5 in 2014… that’s half the country economy in two years.

But how on Earth can a little country like Ireland attract such a level of financial activity? Why, remember that magic word… ‘inversions’ - yes, that same word that out Government denies applies to Ireland.

Well, Experian provides a small insight (they wouldn’t tell us the full story, but they can’t quite escape from telling us some. Enjoy the following: per Experian, Top 5 “Irish” deals announced in 2015 includedd:

  • Pfizer-Allergan at EUR143.564 billion
  • Teva Pharma - Generic drug business of Allergan at EUR35.454 billion
  • Shire - Baxalta at EUR29.533 billion
  • Willis Group Holdings - Towers Watson deal at EUR15.566 billion, and
  • CRH - Holcim & Lafarge deal at EUR7.671 billion


So, yep: tax inversion at the top, related to tax inversion at No.2, tax inversion at No.3… and none (repeat - none, including CRH deal) related in any way to Ireland, except for tax domicile of the companies involved.

Repeat with me… “There are no tax inversions into Ireland”… now, with zombie like intonation, please… “There are no…”



Thursday, January 28, 2016

27/1/16: Russian Capital Outflows 2015: Abating, but Still High


In two recent posts, I covered Russian External Debt dynamics and drawdowns on Russian Sovereign Wealth Funds. Last, but not least, I am yet to cover capital inflows/outflows for 2015. So, as promised, here is a post covering these.

Based on data that includes preliminary reporting for 4Q 2015, full year 2015 net capital outflows from Russia amounted to USD56.9 billion, composed of USD33.4 billion outflows in the Banking Sector and USD23.5 billion outflows in ‘Other Sectors’. In the banking sector there were simultaneous disposals of some USD28.2 billion of assets and reduction of USD61.6 in liabilities (repayment of maturing debts and deposits).

Thus, 2015 marked the second lowest year in the last 5 in terms of net capital outflows. In comparison, 2014 net capital outflows stood at a whooping USD153 billion and 2013 saw outflows of USD61.6 billion. Net banks’ position improved from outflows of USD86.0 billion in 2014 to outflows of USD33.4 billion in 2015. Other Sectors outflows also improved in 2015. In 2015, this category of outflows amounted to USD23.5 billion, against USD67 billion in 2014. 2015 marked the slowest outflows year in this sector in 8 years.

Chart to illustrate dynamics:



On a quarterly basis, net capital outflows from Russia in 4Q 2015 are estimated at USD9.2 billion, down from USD76.2 billion in 4Q 2014. Capital outflows were lower in every quarter of 2015 compared to corresponding quarter of 2014 and in 3Q 2015 there was a net capital inflow of USD3.4 billion - the first net inflow in any quarter since 2Q 2010.

So on balance, Russian capital outflows remain strong, but are abating rapidly. Most of the outflows is accounted for by the deleveraging of the Banks followed by shallower deleveraging of the ‘Other Sectors’.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

26/1/16: Chances of Repairing Greece?..


When someone says that Europe (or anyone else) "has missed a chance to" stabilise or repair or make sustainable or return to growth Greece, whilst referencing any time horizon spanning the last 8 years - be it today or 6 months ago, or at any recent iteration of the Greek crisis, I have two charts to counter their claims:


You can't really be serious when talking about stabilising Greece. Greece has not been stable or sustainable or functioning by its Government deficit metrics ever since 1980, and by Current Account balance in any year over the same time horizon, save for the last 3 years.

Yes, there probably are means and ways to significantly improve sustainability of the Greek economy. But such means and ways would have to be radical enough to undo three and a half decades of systemic mismanagement.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

26/1/16: 'More than 1,000 jobs per week' Government Claims v Reality


One senior TD and a Junior Minister with position relating, indirectly, to employment and the labour market has just posted an interesting statement. A part of the statement goes thus: “we used the Action Plans for Jobs process to drive job creation, creating more than a 1000 jobs a week”.

Now, let’s raise two points. One philosophical, another purely arithmetic.

Philosophically, I am not aware of any Government that claims creation of jobs. Technically, public jobs are either created by the Civil Service or another Public body, as opposed to the Government itself. Practically, any jobs creation, in public or private sector is enabled by the economy (people working in, investing in, paying taxes in and interacting with public and private sectors) and not by the Government. Thus, Government may facilitate jobs creation by enacting supportive legislation or providing legislative and/or regulatory strategy, or not impede one, but it cannot create jobs. Minister can act as PR middle(wo)men and announce jobs created, but that is about as close to jobs creation as they ever get.

Aside from this, there is a simple matter of arithmetic.

Recall that the current Government came into power at the end of 1Q 2011. Let us suppose the Government really got down to ‘creating jobs’ by 1Q 2012. Which means the Government has been at its jobs game for roughly 14-15 quarters through 3Q 2015 or, at the lower end 3 years and a half. That means that the Government should have created “over” 182,000 jobs in that period. This benign to the Minister claim, because if we are to look at the record of the entire duration of the Government, his claim would have equated to roughly 221,000 jobs created.

Let us note that 1Q 20912 was the lowest point in employment levels during the crisis, so comparatives to that base should improve Government position: prior to 2Q 2012 jobs were being destroyed in the economy, past the end of 1Q 2012 they were being added.

Keep the two numbers in your mind: we are told that the Government has ‘created’ either more than 182,000 or more than 221,000 jobs over its tenure, depending on where one starts to count.

Now, consult CSO QNHS database - the source of official counts for numbers in employment. Between the end of 1Q 2012 and 3Q 2015 (the latest for which we have data), total employment rose 158,000. But wait, these are not all jobs. 4,500 of that increase is in the category of Assisting Relative. And 121,200 of these additions are employees, including schemes. Beyond this, the above increase also includes 30,100 new (added) self-employed with no employees.

It is hard to assume that the Government can claim it 'created' self-employment jobs where there is not enough activity to hire staff, or that it increased the need to help relatives.

So put things together in a handy table:


Numbers speak for themselves. By the very best metric, Government is more than 1/2 year shy of the lowest end of the claim of 'more than 1,000 jobs created per week'. It is more than 1/2 year shy of the claim that there were '1,000 jobs created per week'.

This Government deserves credit for helping sustain conditions for the recovery. Some of these conditions trace to the policies put in place by its predecessor and continued by the present Government, some are down to Troika and implemented by this Government, some are undoubtedly facilitated by the efforts of the current Government. The economy is recovering and, by some metrics, very robustly. And jobs are being created by the economy (yes, by entrepreneurs, enterprises, their employees and their clients and investors, but not by the Government).

This is not to take away from the positives the Government should rightly claim. But it is to point out that some of the outlandishly bombastic claims are not quite warranted.

26/1/16: Russian External Debt: Deleveraging Goes On


In previous post, I covered the drawdowns on Russian SWFs over 2015. As promised, here is the capital outflows / debt redemptions part of the equation.

The latest data for changes in the composition of External Debt of the Russian Federation that we have dates back to the end of 2Q 2015. We also have projections of maturities of debt forward, allowing us to estimate - based on schedule - debt redemptions through 4Q 2015. Chart below illustrates the trend.



As shown in the chart above, based on estimated schedule of repayments, by the end of 2015, Russia total external debt has declined by some USD177.1 billion or 24 percent. Some of this was converted into equity and domestic debt, and some (3Q-4Q maturities) would have been rolled over. Still, that is a sizeable chunk of external debt gone - a very rapid rate of economy’s deleveraging.

Compositionally, a bulk of this came from the ‘Other Sectors’, but in percentage terms, the largest decline has been in the General Government category, where the decline y/y was 36 percent.

Looking at forward schedule of maturities, the following chart highlights the overall trend decline in debt redemptions coming forward in 2016 and into 2Q 2017.


Again, the largest burden of debt redemptions falls onto ‘Other Sectors’ - excluding Government, Central Bank and Banks.

The total quantum of debt due to mature in 2016 is USD76.58 billion, of which Government debt maturing amounts to just 1.7 billion, banks debts maturing account for USD19.27 billion and the balance is due to mature for ‘Other Sectors’.

These are aggregates, so they include debt owed to parent entities, debt owed to direct investors, debt convertible into equity, debt written by banks affiliated with corporates, etc. In other words, a large chunk of this debt is not really under any pressure of repayment. General estimates put such debt at around 20-25 percent of the total debt due in the Banking and Other sectors. If we take a partial adjustment for this, netting out ‘Other Sectors’ external debt held by Investment enterprises and in form of Trade Credit and Financial Leases, etc, then total debt maturing in 2016 per schedule falls to, roughly, USD 59.5 billion - well shy of the aggregate total officially reported as USD 76.58 billion.


So in a summary: Russian deleveraging continued strongly in 2015 and will be ongoing still in 2016. 2016 levels of debt redemptions across all sectors of the economy are shallower than in 2015. Although this rate of deleveraging does present significant challenges to the economy from the point of view of funds available for investment and to support operations, overall deleveraging process is, in effect, itself an investment into future capacity of companies and banks to raise funding. The main impediment to the re-starting of this process, however, is the geopolitical environment of sanctions against Russian banks that de facto closed access to external funding for the vast majority of sanctioned and non-sanctioned enterprises and banks.


Next, I will be covering Russian capital outflows, so stay tuned of that.

Monday, January 25, 2016

25/1/16: Russian Sovereign Funds: Down, but Not Out, Yet…


In the context of 2016 Budget, Russian sovereign reserves dynamics are clearly an important consideration. For example, in his recent statement, former Russian Finance Minister, Kudrin, has suggested that if Budget deficit reaches above 5% of GDP in 2016, the entire cushion of liquid foreign reserves held by the Government will be exhausted by the end of the year, leaving Russia exposed to big cuts in the budget for 2017. This is similar to the positions of Russia's Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev and the current Finance Minister Anton Siluanov.

The expectations are based on three considerations:
1) 2015 dynamics of Russian sovereign wealth funds;
2) Funds outflows expected under the external debt repayment schedules; and
3) A potentially massive call on Russian reserves from the VEB capital requirements.

I covered the last point earlier here. So let’s take a look at the first point.

Russia’s main and more liquid Reserve Fund shrank substantially last year as it carried out its explicit mandate to provide support for fiscal balance. Set up in 2008, the fund holds only liquid foreign assets and 2015 became the first year since the Great Recession and the Global Financial Crisis (2009-2010 in Russia’s case) when it experienced net withdrawals. The value of the fund fell from roughly USD90 billion to ca USD50 billion by the end of December 2015.

However, the key to these holdings is their Ruble equivalent, as Russian budgetary expenditures are in domestic currency. By this metric, the Fund has been doing somewhat better. By end of December 2015, the Reserve Fund held assets valued at RUB3.6 trillion, amounting to almost 5 percent of Russian GDP or roughly 1.7 times Budget 2016 requirement for deficit coverage. Budget 2016 is based on expectation that the Reserve Fund will supply some RUB2.1 trillion to cover the deficit.

The sticking point is that Budget 2016 - in its current reincarnation - is based on oil price of USD50pb. The Ministry of Finance is currently preparing amended Budget based on USD30-35pb price of Brent, but we are yet to see the resulting deficits projections. What we do know is that the Government has requested up to 10 percent cuts across public expenditure for 2016. Absent such cuts, and if oil prices remain around USD30pb mark, the deficit is likely to balloon to the levels where 2016 deficit will end up fully depleting the Reserve Fund.

Added safety cushion, of course, will be provided by devaluation of the Ruble. This worked pretty well in 2015, but the problem going into 2016 is that required further devaluations will likely bring Ruble into USDRUB 90+ range, inducing severe redistribution of losses onto the shoulders of consumers and cutting hard into companies investment in new equipment and technologies.

Bofit provided a handy chart showing the dynamics of Fund resources and a breakdown of these dynamics by key factors



Aside from the Reserve Fund, Russia also has the National Welfare Fund which was set up to underwrite public pensions. The Fund has been used to provide capital and funding to Russian banks shut out of the international borrowing in form of bonds purchases and deposits with the banks, as well as to some Russian companies, in form of debt purchases. These deposits and loans, however, are not liquid and, therefore, not available for fiscal supports. About only hope for some liquidity extraction from these allocations is via Russian corporates using cash flows from exports to repay the Fund - something that is unlikely to create significant buffers for the Budget.

At the end of 2015, the National Welfare Fund held assets valued at USD72 billion, of which USD48 billion (or RUB3.5 trillion) was held in relatively liquid foreign-currency assets and the balance held in assets written against domestic systemically important banks and companies. Even assuming - optimistically - that 10 percent of the residual assets can be cashed in over 2016, the liquidity available from the Fund runs to around USD50 billion.

Thus, total liquidity cushion held by two Russian SWFs currently amounts to USD100 billion without adjusting for liquidity risks and costs, and if we are to take nominal adjustments for these two factors, liquidity cushion probably falls to USD75-80 billion total.

It is worth noting, however, that Russia has other international reserves at its disposal. Per official data, as of the ned of December 2015, total International Reserves stood at USD368.4 billion, down USD17.06 billion on December 2014 and down USD222.17 billion on all time peak. In accessible reserves, Russia has International funds (excluding SDRs and IMF reserves) of USD363.07 billion.


I will be covering funds outflows schedule for 2016 in a separate post, so stay tuned.


25/1/16: Nordic Model: Not Too Heavy Handed on Corporate Profits


Much of the tax debate nowadays has been around tax base erosion and corporate taxes. But the old issue of what to tax: capital or profits is still unresolved. One interesting myth, associated with this debate, is that Nordic countries run a more ‘balanced’ tax system that relies on corporate profit taxes and avoids the problem of so-called harmful tax competition commonly attributed to Anglo-Saxon models where, again allegedly, corporations are treated softly with low tax rates and more benign tax regimes.

Well, a myth is a myth. And a recent paper, titled “Taxing Mobile Capital and Profits: The Nordic Welfare States” by Guttorm Schjelderup (CESIFO WORKING PAPER NO. 5603 NOVEMBER 2015) goes in depth to dispel it.

Per author: “The Nordic countries have traditionally been characterized by an extensive welfare state, a homogenous population and labour force, and redistributive taxation. This has changed in recent years.

First point of interest is WHY has it changed. Author attributes the change to

  • Increased immigration, 
  • Ageing population, and 
  • “Competition for capital among countries”

These factors “…have put pressures on public finances and the welfare state. These changes can be attributed to the globalization process whereby national economies become more integrated. Economic integration takes place in terms of increasing factor mobility, in particular mobility of capital, and rising volumes of trade in goods and services.”

Now, we have our first lesson: if you run a globally-integrated economy, while you have a modern (aka post-baby boom society) you will see these three factors at play in your economy too. No one’s immune.

“An argument frequently used by political lobby groups is that with free capital mobility corporations shouldn't be taxed at all and that taxing investment income is actually bad for workers. The argument is that if you cut taxes on investment income, more investment is encouraged. More investment means people have more equipment and technology to work with, which should increase the productivity of labour and thus wages and economic growth. Put differently, a tax on mobile capital would lead to an outflow of capital that would cause wages to fall; effectively shifting the full burden of the tax on capital onto workers. It is then better to tax workers directly and levy a zero tax on capital.”

Ok, we’ve heard this before. But is it making any sense?

Per author: “The argument above relies on strong assumptions, among them that labour is immobile and cannot evade taxation, that there are no country specific rents, and that domestic firms are not owned in part by foreigners.” However,

  • “If domestic firms, say, are partly owned by foreigners, taxing capital would imply that some of the tax burden is shifted onto foreigners and that part of the welfare state is then financed by foreigners. This alone may warrant a positive tax on investment capital.”
  • “If industrial agglomeration is concentrated in one single country, a government may, through a positive source tax on capital, be able to exploit the locational rent created by agglomeration forces and thus increase welfare.”


More importantly, “the zero tax on capital result is also difficult to confirm empirically. Yagan (2014), for example, …finds that it caused zero change in corporate investment in U.S. unlisted firms and that it had no impact on employee compensation. It did, however, have an immediate impact on financial pay-outs to shareholders. Alstadsæter et al. (2015)… find that the Swedish 2006 dividend tax cut did not affect aggregate investment but that it affected the allocation of corporate investment. In particular, …relative to cash-rich firms, cash-constrained firms increased their investments after the dividend tax cut.”

Key, however, is that corporate tax acts as “…a “backstop” to the personal income tax. If a country abolished the corporate tax rate, wealthy individuals in particular would be given an incentive to reclassify their labour earnings as corporate income, typically using offshore corporate structures and escape tax. The corporate tax might also be needed to avoid excessive income shifting between labour income and capital income. Finally, the corporate tax also acts as a withholding tax on equity income earned by non-resident shareholders, who might otherwise escape taxation in the source country.”

Now onto evidence regarding evolution of tax regimes. 

“Countries throughout the world have reduced their corporate taxes in an effort to attract or retain corporate investments. The Nordic countries have pioneered what is commonly known as the dual income tax (DIT). It combines a flat tax rate on capital income with progressive taxation of labour income. One of the arguments in favor of the DIT is that it allows policy makers to lower the corporate tax rate to reduce the risk of capital flight, whilst at the same time tax distributed dividends to personal shareholders.”

But there are “challenges of taxing capital for small open economies. Although the corporate tax share of GDP in most countries is only around 3-4%, it is an important tax because it acts as a “backstop” for the personal tax rate. …The pressures of tax competition are exacerbated by tax planning and income shifting to low tax countries by multinationals. Studies show that multinationals pay less tax than domestic firms and this may give them a competitive edge over domestic firms. The long term effects may be changes in ownership structure that affect competition in markets and make the corporate tax base more tax sensitive. Profit shifting is undertaken through transfer pricing and thin capitalization (excessive debt).” Care to spot Irish trends here? Why, they are pretty obvious.

But back to the Nordics vs Anglo-Saxons arguments. Per paper, “It is interesting to note that the Nordic countries seem to have gone further in terms of abolishing redistributive capital taxes than countries traditionally associated with polices much less tuned to redistribution. Aaberge and Atkinson (2010) shown how income inequality at the top of the distribution has increased in Anglo-Saxon countries, whereas the same rise in top income shares was not experienced by Continental European countries. They find that the Norwegian and Swedish experience over the twentieth century is similar to the Anglo-Saxon countries in that top shares, and the concentration among top incomes have first fallen and then risen. Norway differs from Sweden in that that the top shares rose more sharply in the period 1990-2006. Between 1980 and 2004, for example, the share of the top 1 per cent more than doubled in Norway, but rose less than half in Sweden.”



What are the reasons for these trends?

“Several explanations have been put forward to explain why Norway sets itself apart. The implementation of the 1992 tax reform abolished the dividend tax and lead to a sharp increase in dividends and capital gains among the richest in Norway. Capital taxation in Sweden was less favourable. Substantial oil production in Norway started some 15 years before the rise in inequality, but could still be an explanatory factor due to constrained cash in this sector in the initial phase of production. Capital market reforms with liberalization of interest rates and an upturn in business cycles are also important factors that are hard to disentangle, but they certainly played a role.”

Social impact of tax-linked inequality? “Capital taxation also affects income mobility, and concerns about rising inequality have often been countered by constant changes in the composition of top income earners. If so, the rise in top incomes may not translate into “economic power”. Aaberge et al. (2013) study who enters and leaves the top income groups in Norway in the period 1967-2011. Their main conclusion is that despite large changes in top income mobility over the last four decades, the magnitude of the effect of the changes in mobility on the income shares was moderate.”

What’s the future holds? “Competition among countries to attract mobile capital is a persistent phenomenon and will be a driver towards still lower taxes on mobile capital. A major change from the past, then, is less ability to redistribute, increasing income inequality, and rising immigration from poor countries. In sum these forces may affect trust between members of society. The level of trust is positively linked to economic growth. Herein lies a major challenge for the Nordic welfare states.”

And as an aside, here’s the actual draw on Nordic v Anglo-Saxon patterns in taxation: “In 2004, the classical welfare states in Scandinavia and continental Europe had lower ratios of statutory corporate to wage taxes than the Anglo-Saxon countries (except Ireland). In 2004, the corporate tax rate was only 63% of the wage tax rate for an average worker in Sweden, but 171% of the wage tax rate in the United States. Such differences are in striking contrast to the common perception that social democratic governments (as in Scandinavia and continental Europe) share a higher preference for redistribution, as compared to more conservative and free market oriented types of governments.”

Oops… who’s the neoliberal b*&ch now?..


24/1/16: House Prices, Local Demand and Homeownership Status


House prices bust was a major dimension of the recent Great Recession around the world. Nonetheless, contrary to all evidence, many political leaders have opted to dismiss the adverse impacts of shocks like negative equity (due to price declines and pre-crisis debt ramp ups) and wealth effects on aggregate demand (first order price effects).

An interesting study based on the U.S. data tests the aggregate impacts of house prices changes on consumption, while controlling for homeownership status (renters v owners).

Titled “House Prices, Local Demand, and Retail Prices” and co-authored by Johannes Stroebel and Joseph Vavra (CESIFO WORKING PAPER NO. 5607, NOVEMBER 2015) the study used “detailed micro data to document a causal response of local retail price to changes in house prices, with elasticities of 15%-20% across housing booms and busts. Notably, these price responses are largest in zip codes with many homeowners, and non-existent in zip codes with mostly renters.”

In other words, not only impacts of house price changes are significant, they are also bifurcated across two types of home occupiers - owners and renters, with renters exhibiting effectively no sensitivity to home prices changes in terms of their demand.

The authors “provide evidence that these retail price responses are driven by changes in markups rather than by changes in local costs. … Markups rise with house prices, particularly in high homeownership locations, because greater housing wealth reduces homeowners’ demand elasticity, and firms raise markups in response. Consistent with this explanation, shopping data confirms that house price changes have opposite effects on the price sensitivity of homeowners and renters.”

Overall, “taken together, our empirical results provide evidence of an important link between changes in household wealth, shopping behavior and firm price-setting. Positive shocks to wealth cause households to become less price-sensitive and firms respond by raising markups and prices.”

So do house prices matter for aggregate demand? They do. Does homeownership smooth or amplify effects of shocks to house prices on the aggregate economy? It appears to amplify them. Should monetary and fiscal policies be asymmetric for areas with high homeownership concentration as opposed to areas with high renters concentration? Yep. Ditto for countries, instead of areas.

Of course, in the Euro area, how does one structure differential monetary policies across countries so diverse as renters-concentrated Germany vs homeowners concentrated Holland or Ireland? Err… can we check that one as yet another problem with Euro architecture?..



Sunday, January 24, 2016

24/1/16: European Financial Networks: Prepare for Bloodletting to Commence


A recent paper, titled "Transmission Channels of Systemic Risk and Contagion in the European Financial Network" co-authored by Nikos Paltalidis, Dimitrios Gounopoulos, Renatas Kizys, Yiannis Koutelidakis (Journal of Banking and Finance, gated) tackles a very interesting problem relating to the systemic stability of the European banking system and the bi-directional contagion channels shifting/transmitting systemic shocks between the banks and the sovereigns.

Following the euro area banking crisis of 2008-2012 (with residual effects of this crisis still strongly present in the so-called euro area 'periphery'), financial systems analysts and modellers came to the realisation that a number of key questions relating to overall system stability remain un-answered to-date. These include:

  • What determines the intensity with which exogenous shocks propagate in the financial system as a whole (and how this intensity carries across banking systems)?
  • How do we "identify, measure and understand the nature and the source of systemic risk in order to improve the underlying risks that banks face, to avert banks’ liquidation ex ante and to promote macro-prudential policy tools"? 
  • How do systemic risks arise in the cases where such risks are endogenous to the banking system itself?
  • How resilient is the euro area banking system (under improved regulatory and supervisory regimes) to systemic risk?
  • How "…shocks in economic and financial channels propagate in the banking sector"? 
  • And related to the above: "In the presence of a distress situation how the financial system performs? Have the new capital rules rendered the European banking industry safer? What is the primary source of systemic risk? How financial contagion propagates within the Eurozone?"


As the authors correctly note, "These fundamental themes remain unanswered, and hence obtaining the answers is critical and at the heart of most of the recent research on systemic risk."

Lacking empirical evidence (due to proximate timing of events and their extreme-tail nature) the authors create “a unique interconnected, dynamic and continuous-time model of financial networks with complete market structure (i.e. interbank loan market) and two additional independent channels of systemic risk (i.e. sovereign credit risk and asset price risk).”

Summary of the findings relating to sources of shocks:

  1. “…A shock in the interbank loan market causes the higher amount of losses in the banking network”;
  2. “…Losses generated by the sovereign credit risk channel transmit faster through the contagion channel, triggering a cascade of bank failures. This shock can cause banks to stop using the interbank market to trade with each other and can also lead banks to liquidate their asset holdings in order to meet their short-term funding demands.”
  3. “Moreover, we evaluate the impact of reduced collateral values and provide novel evidence that asset price contagion can also trigger severe direct losses and defaults in the banking system.”


So the model does support the view that “the Sovereign Credit Risk channel dominates systemic risks amplified in the euro area banking systems and hence, it is the primary source of systemic risk.” Which is quite interesting from a number of perspectives:

  • Firstly, we tend to think about the Global Financial Crisis as a mother of all systemic crises and we tend to attribute the degree of disruption in the crisis to the origins of the crisis shocks: the financialisation of the ‘bubbles’ in real assets (e.g. real estate), leading to liquidity crunch and then to solvency crunch. We think of the sovereign shock channel as being in play only because of banks-sovereign link. And we think that the second order contagion from the sovereign to the banks is secondary in magnitude to the GFC. It appears that things are much more complex and inter-connected both in terms of direction of contagion and orders of disruption caused.
  • Secondly, we tend to ignore the relationship between the banks bailouts, QE programmes and equity markets. We think of them as related, but separate acts, e.g.: banks bailouts require funds which are supplied via sovereigns which need to obtain financial resources, which they do via QE, which simultaneously lowers the cost of investment and increases valuations of equities. But the problem is that we also have direct QE —> Equity valuations —> Banks balance sheet pathways. Just as asset prices collapse or illiquidity can trigger a liquidity run by the banks and defaults and losses within the banking system, so are asset prices increases can lead to improved liquidity conditions for the banks and improved banks balance sheets.
  • Thirdly, the study provides “…novel evidence that systemic risk in the euro area banking system didn’t meaningfully decrease as it is evident that shocks in the three independent channels -interbank market, sovereign credit risk, asset price risk- trigger domino effects in the banking system.” Which sort of tells us what we suspected all along: the entire ‘firewalls have been built’ brigade of European politicos is eating hopium by truckloads. There are no ‘firewalls’. There are bits of wet cardboard stuck into the cracks and a perennial hope they stay well moisturised by occasional rains. 


Now, let’s give it a thought: since the end of the crisis, we’ve been told that solution to the problem of preventing future crises and alleviating the costs of those that still might happen is more coordination, harmonisation and integration of banking systems under the watchful eye of ECB. In other words, more internationalisation of domestic banks - more linking between them and banks operating in other economies within the Euro area. What does evidence have to say on that? “…we find that the cross-border transmission of systemic shocks depends on the size and the degree of exposure of the banking sector in a foreign financial system. Particularly, the more exposed domestic banks are to the foreign banking systems, the greater are the systemic risks and the spillover effects from foreign financial shocks to the domestic banking sector.”

Ya wouldn’t! No, ya couldn’t! But… baby… we had firewalls and we had EBU and more interconnected system of Euro area-wide banking supervision… and we now have?.. err… Yep, in the words of the authors: “Finally, the results imply that the European banking industry amid the post-crisis deleverage, recapitalisation and the new regulatory rules, continues to be markedly vulnerable and conducive to systemic risks and financial contagion.”



24/1/16: Improving on a Poor Base: Dublin in Global Financial Centres Rankings


Based on the Global Financial Centres 2015 rankings, Dublin is currently occupying a rather poorly 46th place - an improvement on 52nd in 2014, but still in a league of relative minnows like Casablanca, Istanbul, Bangkok et al. 




It is worth noting that Dubai is in a respectable 16th place. Of course, one can occasionally hear Irish development agencies staff bragging about how Dubai was always keen on copying Irish IFSC experience… well, apparently they’ve copied it better than we built it. 

Dublin does a bit better when pitched against European counterparts, ranking 11th in Europe alongside other tax havens of Jersey, Guernsey, Gibraltar and Isle of Man. But Luxembourg - a place of similar standing to Ireland on tax and other issues is ranked six place ahead of us.


Sadly, we do not get into top 12 in any (repeat, any) of sub-indices, including the ones we claim such a strong position in: human capital and business environment. What’s up, dudes?! Ah, well, it turns out the world is a competitive place and having Prime Minister who chirps about ‘best little country…’ is just not enough.


So moar diesel… folks… that IFSC engine is purring out smoke… 

24/1/16: Unobserved Ability and Entrepreneurship


Yesterday, I posted some links relating to non-Cognitive Skills, contextualising these into the Gig-Economy related issues. Here is another interesting study relating to human capital and linking unobserved (and hard to measure) ability to entrepreneurship.

From the policymakers' and indeed investors and other market participants perspective, the question of why do some individuals become entrepreneurs is a salient one.

Identifying the causal relationships between external conditions, systems and policy environments, as well as behavioural and other drivers of entrepreneurship is of great value for setting policies and systems for enhancing the rate of entrepreneurship creation in the economy. A recent paper, titled "Unobserved Ability and Entrepreneurship" by Deepak Hegde and Justin Tumlinson (Ifo Institute at the University of Munich, April 20, 2015) attempts to answer to key questions surrounding the formation of entrepreneurship, namely:

  1. Why do individuals become entrepreneurs? and
  2. When do they succeed? 


The authors "develop a model in which individuals use pedigree (e.g., educational qualifications) as a signal to convince employers of their unobserved ability. However, this signal is imperfect…" So far - logical: upon attaining a level of education, and controlling for quality of that education (complexity of degree programme, subject matter, quality of awarding institution, duration of studies, attainment of grades etc), a graduate acquire more than a sum of knowledge and skills attached to the degree. They also acquire a signal that can be communicated to their potential employer that conveys they lateen (hidden) abilities; attitude toward work, aptitude, ability to work in teams, ability to work on complex systems of tasks etc.

Problem is - the signal is noisy. For example, a graduate with 4.0 GPA from a second tier university can have better potential abilities than a graduate with 3.7 GPA from a first tier ranked university. But that information may not be clearly evident to the potential employer. As the result, there can be a large mismatch between what an applicant thinks their ability is and what their CV signals to the potential employer.

In the paper, theoretical model delivers a clear cut outcome (emphasis mine): "…individuals who correctly believe their ability is greater than their pedigree conveys to employers, choose entrepreneurship. Since ability, not pedigree, matters for productivity, entrepreneurs earn more than employees of the same pedigree."

The authors use US and UK data to test their model prediction (again, emphasis is mine): "Our empirical analysis of two separate nationally representative longitudinal samples of individuals residing in the US and the UK supports the model’s predictions that

  • (A) Entrepreneurs have higher ability than employees of the same pedigree, 
  • (B) Employees have better pedigree than entrepreneurs of the same ability, and 
  • (C) Entrepreneurs earn more, on average, than employees of the same pedigree, and their earnings display higher variance."


Point C clearly indicates that entrepreneurs earn positive risk premium for effectively (correctly, on average) betting on their ability over their pedigree. In other words, the take chance in themselves and, on average, win. The real question, however, is why exactly do their earnings exhibit higher variance - is it due to distributional effects across the entrepreneurs by their ability, or is it due to risk-adjusted returns being similar, or is it due to exogenous shocks to entrepreneurs incomes (e.g. tax system-induced or contractually-structured)?

These are key questions we do not yet address in research sufficiently enough to allow us to understand better what the Gig-Economy and entrepreneurship in modern day setting imply in terms of aggregate consumption, investment, household investment and decision making by entire household in terms of labour supply, educational choices (for parents and children), etc.


As some might say... it's complicated...

24/1/16: High Yield Bonds Flash Red for Growth


An interesting regularity in the markets observed by JPM research: High Yield debt as a lead indicator of recessions… and of equities…



Self-explanatory…

Some more academic links on the high yield bonds forward prediction of business cycles:


Saturday, January 23, 2016

23/1/16: Russian External Balance 2015


At the end of 2015, based on the preliminary estimates of 2015 balance of payments statistics from the Central Bank of Russia, Russian trade volumes with the rest of the world stood at just under 2010 levels. This is hardly new, as 2010 values of trade - both for exports and imports of goods and services - have been breached back in 3Q 2015. This erases gains between 2010 and 2013 (with 2013 posting all-time record high volumes and values of trade flows)

In 2015, exports revenues fell more than 30% in USD terms and 17% in Euro terms year on year. Imports expenditures fell 35% in USD terms and 22% in Euro terms. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, 4Q figures came in broadly in line with annual figures. This is surprising due to imports and exports-lifting seasonal effects.

As exports shrunk less than imports, current account surplus actually rose both in level terms and relative to GDP. At the peak trade year of 2013, current account surplus was USD35 billion, rising to USD58 billion in 2014. 2015 preliminary estimate puts full year current account surplus at USD66 billion. Relative to GDP, current account surplus rose from 1.7% in 2013 to 5.4% in 2015.

These are remarkable figures, reflective of both devaluation of the ruble, the ability of the economy to take on imports contraction, and the relative resilience of exporters. Exports of goods and services were down massively, still, from USD593 billion in 2013 to USD389 billion in 2015. While trade balance in Goods fell from USD182 billion in 2013 to USD146 billion in 2015, trade deficit in services shrunk from USD58 billion in 2013 to USD37 billion in 2015.

The key to overall balance improvements, however, was in the category of “Other Current Account” - covering foreign earnings expatriation from Russia - here the deficit of USD89 billion in 2013 fell to USD76 billion in 2014 and to USD43 billion in 2015. Similarly, on the balance of payments side, “Fictitious Transactions” line of balance - covering Russian corporates exports of capital from Russia - fell from USD27 billion in 2013 to USD9 billion in 2014 and USD 1 billion in 2015. Balance of payments for Private Sector also improved, dramatically, with deficit of USD63 billion in 2013 ballooning to a deficit of USD152 billion in 2014 before falling to a deficit of USD57 billion in 2015.

BOFIT provides a neat summary table of latest Balance of Payments breakdown figures for 2013-2015:

Source: BOFIT

23/1/16: Corporate Profits v GDP: Not a Good Sign


One interesting relationship in recent weeks has been flashing red: the relationship between annual nominal GDP growth rates for the U.S. and the reported growth rates in corporate profits for non-financial corporations. 

Source: Author own calculations based on data from Fred

As shown in the chart above, growth rate in non-financial corporations’ profits has recently dipped below zero, posting -4.26% reading in 3Q 2015. The last time corporate profits took a nose dive was in 1Q 2014. Over the last four U.S. recessions, corporate profits growth rates have been a relatively consistent lead indicator of troubles brewing ahead.

Things are not exactly on a healthy side. While two quarters separated by more than a year of positive data may be just a glitch, it is worth noting that since 1989 on, there have been no period in which a recession was not preceded by decline in corporate profits, sometimes (1991 case) as far out as 2 years ahead.

But you can take my word with a grain of salt, so here’s Citi Index of corporate profits… 



Bloomberg headline that accompanied it: “Global earnings downgrades haven’t been this bad in 7 years”.


Ah, the repaired world…

23/1/16: Financial Globalisation and Tradeoffs Under Common Currency


A paper I recently cited in a research project for the European Parliament that is worth reading: "Trilemmas and Tradeoffs: Living with Financial Globalization" by Maurice Obstfeld. Some of my research on the matter, yet to be published (once the EU Parliament group clears it) is covered here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2016/01/19116-after-crisis-is-there-light-at.html and see slides 5-8 here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2015/09/17915-predict-conference-data-analytics.html.

This is one of the core papers one simply must be acquainted with if you are to begin understanding the web of contradictions inherent in the structure of modern financial flows (in the case of Obstfeld's paper, these are linked to the Emerging Markets, but much of it also applies to the euro).


The paper "evaluates the capacity of emerging market economies (EMEs) to moderate the domestic impact of global financial and monetary forces through their own monetary policies. Those EMEs able to exploit a flexible exchange rate are far better positioned than those that devote monetary policy to fixing the rate – a reflection of the classical monetary policy trilemma.” The problem, as Obstfeld correctly notes, is that in modern environment, “exchange rate changes alone do not insulate economies from foreign financial and monetary shocks. While potentially a potent source of economic benefits, financial globalization does have a downside for economic management. It worsens the tradeoffs monetary policy faces in navigating among multiple domestic objectives.”

Per Obstfeld, the knock on effect is that “This drawback of globalization raises the marginal value of additional tools of macroeconomic and financial policy. Unfortunately, the availability of such tools is constrained by a financial policy trilemma, [which] posits the incompatibility of national responsibility for financial policy, international financial integration, and financial stability.”

This, of course, is quite interesting. Value of own (independent) tools beyond flexible exchange rates rises with globalisation, which normally incentivises more (not less) activism and interference from domestic (or regional - in the case of monetary integration) regulators, supervisors and enforcers. In other words, Central Banks and Fin Regs grow in size (swelling to design, fulfil and enforce new ‘functions’). And all of this expensive activity take place amidst the environment where none of can lead to effective and tangible outcomes, because of the presence of the second trilemma: in a globalised world, national regulators are a waste of space (ok, we can put it more politically correctly: they are highly ineffective).

Give this another view from this argument: ‘national’ above is not the same as sovereign. Instead, it is ‘national’ per currency definition. So ECB is ‘national’ in these terms. Now, recall, that in recent years we have been assured that we’ve learned lessons of the recent crisis, and having learned them, we created a new, very big, very expensive and very intrusive tier of supervision and regulation - the tier of ECB and centralised European Banking regulatory framework of European Banking Union (EBU). But, wait, per Obstfeld - that means preciously little, folks, as long as Europe remains integrated into globalised financial markets.

Obstfeld’s paper actually is a middle ground, believe it or not, in the wider debate. As noted by Obstfeld: “My argument that independent monetary policy is feasible for financially open EMEs, but limited in what it can achieve, takes a middle ground between more extreme positions in the debate about monetary independence in open economies. On one side, Woodford (2010, p. 14) concludes: “I find it difficult to construct scenarios under which globalization would interfere in any substantial way with the ability of domestic monetary policy to maintain control over the dynamics of inflation.” His pre-GFC analysis, however, leaves aside financial-market imperfections and views inflation targeting as the only objective of monetary control. On the other side, Rey (2013) argues that the monetary trilemma really is a dilemma, because EMEs can exercise no monetary autonomy from United States policy (or the global financial cycle) unless they impose capital controls.”

Now, set aside again the whole malarky about Emerging Markets there… and think back to ECB… If Rey is correct, ECB can only assure functioning of EBU by either abandoning rate policy independence or by abandoning global integration (imposing de facto or de sure capital controls).

Of course, in a way, bondholders’ bail-ins rules and depositors bail-ins rules and practices - the very sort of things the EBU and ECB’s leadership rest so far - are a form of capital controls. Extreme form. So may be we are on that road to ‘resolving trilemmas’ already?..


Have a nice day... and happy banking...

23/1/16: Non-Cognitive Human Capital


In my 2011 paper on the role of Human Capital in the emerging post-ICT Revolution economy, human capital will simultaneously:

  1. Play increasingly more important role in determining returns to technical and processes innovation;
  2. Become more diverse in its nature - or more diversified - spanning measurable and unmeasurable skills, traits, knowledge, attitudes to risk and innovation, capabilities etc.; and
  3. Form the critical foundation of entrepreneurship and core employment base in the so-called Type 1 Gig-Economy - economy based on contingent workforce compered of highly skilled, highly value-additive professionals.

An interesting paper relating to the matter, especially to the last point, is a recent IZA Working paper (October 2015) titled “Non-Cognitive Skills as Human Capital” by Shelly Lundberg.

Per Lundberg: “In recent years, a large number of studies have shown strong positive associations between so-called “non-cognitive skills” — a broad and ill-defined category of metrics encompassing personality, socio-emotional skills, and behaviors — and economic success and wellbeing. These skills appear to be malleable early in life, raising the possibility of interventions that can decrease inequality and enhance economic productivity.”

Lundberg discusses “the extensive practical and conceptual barriers to using non-cognitive skill measures in studies of economic growth, as well as to developing or evaluating relevant policies. …There is a lack of general agreement on what non-cognitive skills are and how to measure them across developmental stages, and the reliance on behavioral measures of skills ensures that both skill indicators themselves, and their payoffs, will be context-dependent. The empirical examples show that indicators of adolescent skills have strong associations with educational attainment, but not subsequent labor market outcomes, and illustrate some problems in interpreting apparent skill gaps across demographic groups.”

From the Gig-Economy point of view, development of all (cognitive and non-cognitive) skills requires time and resources. In traditional workplace setting - of old variety - some of these resources and time allocations are supported / subsidised by employers (e.g. gym memberships, formal paid time off, formal paid career breaks, formal 'team building' activities, actual employer-paid training and education, employer-supported psychological wellness programmes for employees, and so on). In a Gig-Economy setting, these are not available, generally, to contingent workers.

Aside from having impact on contingent workforce skills and human capital, there are more 'trivial' considerations that should be put to analysis. Take, for example, health and psychological well-being. If a contingent workforce using company fails to assure the latter for its contingent workers, who is liable for any damages caused by over-worked, over-stressed, psychologically unwell contingent worker to the company clients?

Again, setting aside humanitarian, social and personal considerations, this question has implications for businesses using contingent workers:

  • Insurance costs and coverage for businesses;
  • Legal costs and coverage for business;
  • Reputational risks for businesses;
  • Counter-party risks for businesses; and so on

In a world where there is no such thing as a free lunch, Gig-Economy based companies should seriously consider how they are going to deal with potential costs of disruption from the Gig-Economy type of employment to life-cycle work practices and financial wellbeing of their contingent workers.


Note: More on the subject of non-cognitive skills and human capital:

23/1/16: Poland's Sovereign Risk Troubles


With what appears to be a political-motivated downgrade by the S&P on January, from A to BBB+, with steady outlook, Poland’s sovereign and macro risks have been pushed to the top of news flow. Meanwhile, Moody’s rates Poland A2 (stable) and Fitch A. However, as noted by Euromoney country risk recent assessment, the sovereign risks turmoil that accelerated over the last few weeks has been building up for some time now.

Euromoney Country Risk (ECR) survey shows that by the end of 2015, Poland’s political risk score dropped to 20.06, “the lowest it has been since ECR launched an updated methodology in 2011”. More interestingly, “Poland’s political risk score has been declining – indicating increased risk – since 2011.”

Worse, per ECR: “the drop in Poland’s political score from 20.17 in September to 20.06 in December combined with a fall in its economic risk score from 19.38 to 19.27 over the same period, contributing to a decline in its overall score to 65.62 from 66.93. Poland, which enjoyed a ranking as the 29th safest country in the world in September, dropped four spots in rankings since the yearend survey.

Here is ECR’s summary of scores for Poland, including some recent moves:


It is interesting to see Poland significantly underperforming Slovakia:

Overall, given that both Slovakia and Hungary have, over recent years, adopted a series of reforms that severely undercut effectiveness of institutional checks and balances over the power of the executive, the reaction of ratings agencies and European authorities to Poland following the same route suggests growing concern and nervousness in Europe over all and any national experimentation with populist and/or non-conformist (to EU 'standards') policies.

Not being a fan of the current Polish leadership, I find myself in Poland's corner: in a democratic setting, it is people, not Eurocrats, who should decide on their future institutions.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Monday, January 18, 2016

18/1/16: Forget Conventional Geopolitics, Demographics is the New Global Conflict Ground Zero


While analysts are worried about geopolitical tensions relating to *hot*, *cold* and *frozen* conflicts of traditional nature, the real Global Conflict is unfolding, slowly-paced, in the realm of demographics.

Here are two key themes underlying it:

Firstly, the ongoing widening of the generational gap, highlighted in my recent talks including here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/07/29715-retailgoogle-key-trends-on.html. The Generational gap that can be described as the difference between economic power and aspirations of two distinct generations: the post-millenials and baby-boomers.

To see this we can take two examples of views from the baby-boom generation:



The second manifestation is that of the disappearing middle classes, best highlighted by the following series of links covering Pew Research analysis of the U.S. data:


All of the above concluding with the twin trend of vanishing core generational driver for the global economy: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/09/the-american-middle-class-is-losing-ground/

If you still think conventional weapons and geopolitical power plays are the biggest disruptors of status quo ante, think again.