Italy’s Economic Contraction Accelerates

There is no doubt about it: Italy’s economic situation has worsened considerably during the current quarter. Only last week the OECD forecast that Italy’s gross domestic product is likely to fall by 4.2 percent in 2009. This follows hot on the heals of an earlier statement where the OECD said the situation in Italy this year and next was “much worse” than it had previously thought, and that Italy would not come out of its recession until “sometime” in 2010 at the earliest. According to the earlier forecast the OECD expected GDP to fall this year by one percent and then by a further 0.8 percent in 2010. Continue reading

Moody’s Cuts Slovakia’s Outlook

Now here’s an interesting story. Slovakia has just joined the eurozone, a status most of the rest of the EU’s East European members would badly like to attain. But just to remind us that joining the zone, while offering considerable support and protection in times of trouble, is no panacea, Moody’s Investors Service have last Friday cut their outlook on Slovakia’s government bonds rating (to stable from positive, implying their is no likelihood of an upgrade in the near future, a possibility which was implicit in the earlier positive outlook). Continue reading

And So It Begins, The Bank Of Spain “Intervenes” In A Spanish Savings Bank

Well , we didn’t have to wait too long. Only last Friday I wrote the following:

Two Spanish regional savings banks have already reached a preliminary merger deal – Unicaja, based in Spain’s southern Andalucia region, and the smaller Caja Castilla La Mancha (CCM), located in the central-southern province of the same name – following talks which were carefully brokered by the Bank of Spain. Clearly this merger willl need to be followed by a capital injection from Spain’s Deposit Guarantee Fund to help them clean up the “troubled assets” which will naturally be found in the combined accounts of the new bank which emerges.

Today we learn that the merger is off. It is off for the simple reason that Caja Castilla La Mancha is about to cease to be an independent, autonomous entity. It has been “intervened” by the Bank of Spain. This is the first, it will not, of course, be the last.

According to Noticias Cuatro:

The governing council of the Bank of Spain has taken the decision to intervene in the operation of the Caja after carrying out an analysis of its financial position, thus taking as read that the negotiations which might have lead to its merger with the Andalucian ‘Unicaja’ have not been able to reach a successful conclusion.

The “intevention in Caja Castilla La Mancha will mean in the first place that the Bank of Spain will now manage the Caja directly via the management commission it is about to establish. Sources at the central bank have given an assurance that all the banks clients’ savings are guaranteed. The Bank of Spain will now negotiate with the government urgent measures to guarantee the liquidity of the Caja, and its normal functioning.

In the second place, the Bank of Spain will be responsible for making an immediate detailed evaluation of all the Caja’s assets and liabilities. In addition the central bank intervention implies the immediate replacement of the entire previous bank Administrative Council.

The last time the Bank of Spain intervened in a Spanish bank was in 1993, when the central bank too over control of Banesto. The necessary decisions will be taken in the next few hours since all other potential solutions have been discarded, including the assimilation of the Caja with Caja Madrid.

The Spanish newspaper El Pais reports that the Spanish cabinet (the Consejo de Ministros) are holding an extraordinary meeting at 18:00 this afternoon to discuss a proposed Decree Law to inject capital into the bank.

According to Finanzas.com, the “hole” in Caja Castilla La Mancha could be something in the order of 3 billion euros. This money could be paid from the bank funded Deposit Guarantee Fund (FGD), however, and as I said on Friday:

the (FGD) insurance fund holds only 7.2 billion euros in bank contributions, and since this is orders of magnitude less than the size of the problem it is obvious the government will end up having to putting money into the recapitalisation process, and especially into the Savings Bank sector, since the Spanish press has been reporting that 20 of Spain’s 45 savings banks are now considering mergers. And it is obviously only a matter of time before one of the mid-sized Spanish banks like Popular, Sabadell or Banesto joins the consolidation process.

So it is not clear at this point how the capital injection process will be financed, nor is it completely clear what will happen to those deposits of over 100,000 euros, the maximum presently guaranteed under the FGD insurance system.

Of Raising Rates and the Stakes

So WHO exactly is raising interest rates at the moment? Or even thinking of doing so? The knee jerk response to this particular question would seem to be; not too many people. On the contrary, most major central banks and now also their peers in the emerging world seem to have come to the conclusion that to counter the crisis, they need to apply both conventional as well as unconventional monetary policy measures. Especially, among the major central banks quantitative easing is the name of the game with only the ECB still clinging on to the proverbial fig leaf. So, I ask you just one more time, in this sort of situation just who exactly is raising rates? Continue reading

Hungarian Prime Minister Gyurcsány steps down – now what?

Here’s another post which isn’t exactly from me, but from my Global Economy Matters co blogger, and Election Resources On The Internet elections wonk, Manuel Alvarez-Rivera. Anyway, here we go again:

Last Saturday’s announcement by Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány that he was stepping down after almost five years as head of government may have come as a surprising turn of events, given that he had stubbornly clung to office despite his growing unpopularity over the course of the last three years. However, what turned out to be completely unexpected was the method he chose to end his mandate: a constructive vote of no-confidence in the National Assembly (Parliament) against his own government. Continue reading

And Some More “Stuff” On Spain

What was it someone once said, oh yes, that’s it, “stuff happens”, and there is of course plenty of that ubiquitous stuff hitting the fan right now. So to test you all to breaking point, here are just two more topics related to Spain, one almost an incidental detail at this point, and the other something which goes right to the heart of the problem. Continue reading

Two Graphs That Tell It All On Spain

First, the one year Euribor reference rate, which has been falling since the ECB started lowering interest rates in the autumn of last year.

And secondly the chart showing the average rate of interest charged by Spanish banks on new mortgages, which as we can see, has been rising steadily since December 2007.

The average interest rate charged by Spanish banks for new mortgages in January 2009 was 5.64%, meaning that the average cost of a new mortgage had gone up by 10.2% over January 2008 (when the rate was 5.1%), and by 1.1% when compared with December 2008. Meanwhile the Euribor reference rate looks set to close this month at all time record lows of 1.91%. In January – the last month for which we have data on mortgage lending – the Euribor rate was 2.27%.

The reasons lying behind this upward movement in Spanish mortgages are twofold. On the one hand the Spanish banks are having increasing difficulty raising finance due to their perceived risk level, and on the other they themselves have have been forced to raise the risk premium they charge to clients due to the rising levels of non performing mortgages they have on their books.

Basically what this means is that the ECB policy isn’t working in Spain, and that despite the massive quantities of liquidity provided, the monetary conditions continue to tighten, and doubly so give that the real value of the rates charged (ie the inflation adjusted value) keeps rising automatically as inflation falls. Continue reading

The Euro-Zone March PMI Holds Near February’s Record-Low

The Euro-Zone composite Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) rose slightly in March (to 37.6) from the record low of 36.2 registered in February. The PMI reading for manufacturing rose to 34.0 (from 33.6) while the services component was up to 40.1 (from 38.9). (You need to bear in mind that 50 is the neutral point (marking the boundary between expansion and contraction) on these indexes, and any reading below 40 means a very significant rate of contraction).

Bottom, I See No Bottom, Only A Mirky Deep Below

So it now seems virtually certain that the Q1 Eurozone GDP contraction will be far worse than the Q4 2008 one. Taking into account that the eurozone contracted by 0.2% in Q3 2008, and by 1.5% in Q4, then, in my humble opinion, the data we are seeing for this quarter are entirely consistent with a 2% quarterly contraction (or an annualised 8% rate of contraction) or more. As I said last month, not quite Japan territory yet, but certainly not far behind. And for those who simply don’t believe the PMIs can tell you so much, here is Markit’s own chart, showing the strong underlying relationship between movements in GDP and the *flash* composite PMI. Pretty impressive I would say.

Economic activity in Germany seems to have continued to contract at virtually the same rate in March as in February, as the services PMI was 41.7 (up from 41.3, the sixth straight month of contraction) while manufacturing PMI increased to 32.4 from 32.1. And we are at the height of the stimulus package here. Downside risk for the German economy for the second half of this year now looks very strong indeed. That Commerzbank 7% annual contraction forecast is looking more and more credible. Continue reading

Serbia Receives 3 Billion Euro IMF Loan

Well, the news is just rolling in off the wires this morning:

The International Monetary Fund and Serbia have agreed a 27-month, 3 billion euro programme to help the Balkan nation enforce the biggest spending cuts in years needed to anchor its weakening economy.

“Serbia’s GDP will almost certainly decline in 2009 … It looks more likely to be minus two percent. And we believe that growth in 2010 will be flat,” Albert Jaeger, IMF chief of mission, told a news conference.

He said the loan would probably be approved in early May and fiscal adjustment was the key tackling Serbia’s external and domestic financing gaps. The IMF said a fiscal gap of 3.0 percent of GDP was the maximum Serbia could finance, while a sharp fiscal adjustment, including a wage and pension freeze in 2009 and 2010, will help Serbia attain a more balanced external position.

What more can I say? The Eastern crisis is extending rapidly, more rapidly than we are deploying means to contain it. I don’t have time to go into this much more at this point, but I thought it might be worth reproducing a dialogue that went on over a mail thread this morning, between two people with a strong interest in what is happening in Serbia. Continue reading

The Latvian Cat Is Out Of The Bag

Reuters this morning:

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) would back a devaluation in Latvia, but the government, central bank and European Commission are against, the prime minister was quoted on Thursday as saying. It was the first clear statement by a policy maker about a differing stance between the IMF and Latvia and its other lenders over the currency, though the Fund has warned that keeping the currency peg during a sharp downturn would be tough. “The International Monetary Fund has no objection to a devaluation of the lat, but the European Commission, Bank of Latvia (central bank) and the government do not support this solution,” Baltic news agency BNS quoted Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis as telling a meeting of regional journalists.

and Nordea flash comment:

According to Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis the IMF has no objection to a devaluation of LVL. However, he continues that the European commission, Bank of Latvia and the government are against devaluation. IMF’s opinion counts as Latvia is asking the fund for a permission to increase the budget deficit to 7% of the GDP from the agreed 5%. Latvian economic contraction has been worse than expected. Getting out of the woods requires that competitiveness must be improved. This can be done by external or internal devaluation. IMF’s stance highlights the risk of external devaluation. However, it is not a done deal since the political opposition is very hard. Some 90% of the Latvian loans are in foreign currency and hence external devaluation would affect most Latvian households and companies. Ongoing discussion emphasizes the importance of hedging the Baltic FX risk. If Latvia gives up, speculation that the other Baltic countries follow, increases.

This was always like this, and even though Ambrose Evans Pritchard glossed it all up a bit by talking about secret IMF documents that had been leaked, the information was always freely available in this report of the IMF website:

A change in the peg is strongly opposed by the Latvian authorities and by the EU institutions, and thus would undermine program ownership. The quasicurrency board has been an anchor of macroeconomic stability for more than 15 years, was able to withstand the 1998 Russian crisis, and commands popular and political support. Any change in regime would cause significant economic, social and political disruption.

The authorities and staff examined the merits of alternative exchange rate regimes. A widening of the exchange rate band to ±15 percent (as permitted under ERM2; currently Latvia has unilaterally adopted a ±1 percent band) would result in a larger initial output decline, since adverse balance sheet effects would reduce domestic demand. However, competitiveness would improve more quickly, reducing the current account deficit and fostering a more rapid economic recovery. The case for changing the parity would be stronger if it could be accompanied by immediate euro adoption. Technically, this would address many of the risks described above, and give Latvia deeper access to capital markets. With its negligible public sector debt, the government would also find it easier to borrow in euros on international capital markets. However, the EU authorities have firmly ruled out this option, given its inconsistency with the Maastricht Treaty and the precedents it would set for other potential euro area entrants.

So the only real news that Valdis Dombrovskis seems to be announcing today is that the central bank the Latvian government, the EU Commission, the ECB (and possibly) the Nordic Banks are the explicit villains of the piece.

Personally I am very sorry that we are now coming to what may turn out to be a “disordely” resolution of the four East European pegs, since I think it didn’t have to be like this, as I have argued in:

Why The IMF’s Decision To Agree A Lavian Bailout Programme Without Devaluation Is A Mistake

Why Latvia Needs To Devalue Soon – A Reply To Christoph Rosenberg

Why You Need Devaluation – An Open Letter To The People Of Estonia

Devaluation, Euro Membership And Loan Defaults – Some Thoughts For My Critics

Basically, if we go back to my last post on toxicity, and look at the causal chain:

Financial Crisis -> Real Economy Crisis -> Political Crisis

we can see that it is the political crisis which ultimately breaks the loop. Without the devaluation Latvia is stuck in a self reinforcing contraction where budget cuts slow the economy further and make necessary further cuts, while all the time more and more toxic assets are created, faster than you can borrow the money to clean them up (you know, the ball of negative energy that feeds on itself).

Update Dombrovskis “Corrects” Himself

According to the latest out of Reuters Riga, Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis clarified later this morning (Thursday) that the International Monetary Fund was not currently seeking a devaluation of the lat currency. Speaking to reporters at the talks he is holding with IMF representatives, Dombrovskis said his earlier words were a “historical review” of negotiations last year with the IMF. “The current agreement of an unchanged exchange rate remains in force,” he told reporters. Of course, no one doubted it. But still……..

Interestingly, the Reuters reports on the story are both written by the same journalist, yet while the first comes direct from the Riga office, the second is routed via the Stockholm one. There wouldn’t be a slight difference in perspective here depending on your vantage point, would there?