Archive for March, 2015

Fair Winds and Following Seas

Market chat on the subject of the eurozone has tended to be rather downbeat over the last few years. Some observers have focused on its benighted wrangling over sovereign debt; others, more recently, on the supposed millstone of deflation. And there have of course been those who have questioned the zone’s very future. Narrative gloom set in well before the double dip recession’s second leg, persisted throughout it (Q4 2011 – Q1 2013) and has continued since. Today, however, the fundamentals are refusing to play ball even more stubbornly than they usually can, when the mood takes them.

Earlier this month we saw the ECB revise its growth forecast for 2015 up from 1.0% to 1.5%. Just this week, consumer confidence in the eurozone hit its highest level since the short-lived spike up into July 2007. And the composite output indicator showed the strongest level of growth since May 2011, before the market crash and pandemonium which dominated the second half of that year.

There are three major reasons for this.

  • The euro has depreciated. It has fallen by over 20% against the dollar over the last nine months (from 1.365 to 1.088) and more modestly against sterling and the yen also (-8.7% and -6.5%).
  • This real world monetary easing has been matched by the ECB’s first foray into quantitative easing. Dubious though the policy’s concept and effects may be, markets have tended to approve of this.
  • The eurozone collectively is the world’s largest net importer of crude oil. Though the euro has got cheaper, oil has got cheaper still: the near Brent crude future is 36% lower in euro terms today than it was nine months ago.

Against this background the strong performance of European equity markets versus their developed-world peers is understandable. (The Stoxx 50 is up by 17% so far this year as against 11% for the Nikkei, 4% for the FTSE 100 and zero for the S&P.) The question is: can it last?

Disaster notwithstanding, the answer might just be “yes”.

The benign effects of cheap oil on the US as another significant net importer are offset by fears over monetary tightening in the face of a galloping labour market. These intensified last week when the word “patient” was removed from the formal description of the Fed’s present monetary stance. The Bank of England is similarly looking to tighten policy at some point as affirmed by Governor Carney only this morning. Before the oil price collapse began to be felt in earnest there were signs of price pressure in these economies and should the collapse unwind at all into the end of this year those signals will get stronger and stronger.

The unemployment rate in the eurozone, by contrast, fell by only 0.6% over the whole of last year to end it at 11.3%. This brings with it all sorts of other problems, of course, but from an inflationary perspective it leaves a lot of slack in the labour market. It looks likely to be some considerable time before investors need to worry about monetary tightening from the ECB.

On a similar note: with oil and other commodities having fallen or – at best – stabilized in price over the last few months, there is little danger of the weak euro having an inflationary effect. At the same time, the pitch of its descent means it has been winning that notorious game of “beggar my neighbour” for its exporters on the major currency markets. (This is not such great news for some far eastern countries, including China, whose exchange rates have strengthened impressively against the euro.)

There are always risks and Europe faces its own particular demons. But the speed of the turnaround there has been impressive: it was only back in November that the EU Commission last cut its forecast for 2015 growth. Like good news, quick turnarounds might well strike readers as a most un-European phenomenon. It has been most welcome to see the Continent delivering such pleasant surprises for a change.

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27/03/2015 at 4:41 pm

Services To Banking

This week’s Budget was, of course, highly political. The Chancellor’s £250,000 reduction in the lifetime allowance for private pensions deprived his Labour opponents of a funding source nominated for one of their policies; his single announcement on inheritance tax was nothing more than an opportunity to poke fun at the Leader of the Opposition for his tax avoidance twenty years previously; and he devoted much of his speech to refuting high-profile opposition criticism of the government’s record and intentions.

There are, however, areas of economic policy over which the Labour and Conservative parties are in total agreement. They compete to paint themselves as the true pursuers of tax avoidance, especially by maleficent multinationals. And they unite in their commitment to bashing Britain’s banks.

As is well known, a coterie of lavishly-rewarded financiers were single-handedly responsible for the credit crunch and ensuing Great Recession (forcing those Northern Rock borrowers to take out 125% mortgages, for example, and then compelling investors to purchase these assets at hideously mispriced levels from the originating banks). So the special tax on bank assets which has been running since 2010 is a great moral enterprise as well as a revenue generator, and we should all applaud the Chancellor for increasing it to bring in another £900m per year.

On the other hand, some of the Budget’s fiscal arithmetic depends on raising capital from sales of the government’s stake in Lloyds Banking Group plc. Indeed, quite a lot of the UK’s employment and economic output arises from the financial services industry. It may be some time before the next knighthood is bestowed for services to banking, but despite its present position in public esteem banking does perform a service to the country.

Unfortunately the British government’s record in rescuing financial institutions compares poorly to that of the USA, for example, where the subprime mortgage market kicked things off back in 2007. In another piece of news earlier this month we saw Mr Osborne raise £500m from selling the latest slice of the UK’s stake in Lloyds. The total raised from such sales to date now amounts to £8.5bn, which may seem impressive. But the size of the Lloyds bailout was £20bn. The government still owns 23% of the bank, a stake worth about £13.2bn at the time of writing. Over the Atlantic, the US Treasury had got out of its $45bn bailout of Citigroup entirely by mid-2011, making a $13bn profit on the original amount and further gains on charging for a default protection facility which was never used. Similarly, while the US government still owns mortgage securitization behemoths Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which received a combined bailout of over $187bn in 2008 and still face problems, it has received back more than this amount in dividends from both companies. The UK government still owns 62% of RBS, has not sold any shares and has not received a penny back from its £46bn bailout.

RBS, of course, was not assisted by its various financial and managerial idiosyncrasies in the years preceding the crisis. But policies such as the bank levy have not helped. The great purchase protection insurance compensation bonanza – which has seen RBS alone pay out billions over the last four years – has not helped either. And the crisis-period support afforded by the Bank of England lacked the breadth and scale of the several emergency lending programmes of the Federal Reserve and slew of measures taken by the US Treasury under its Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Predictably, all this has reflected poorly on the very balance sheets whose tax rate the Chancellor has just raised. While the Big Four US banks have seen their provisions for losses on loans fall steadily since mid-2010 to about a third of their peak level, combined loss reserves at Barclays, Lloyds and RBS only started to fall a year later and are still at almost 60% of their peak.

The share of the UK’s economic activity accounted for by financial services remains relatively high, at 8%. But it has been falling slightly over the past five years. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that public policy has contributed to this effect.

There is of course an election looming. But it looks as though whatever government takes charge the banking sector can expect more of the same. That is bad for the UK economy. And even in the aftermath of the crash bank shares still make up 12.6% of the value of the FTSE 100. The American approach certainly had its flaws but it has indisputably produced a better outcome and outlook for the financial sector and for US taxpayers than our own.

20/03/2015 at 4:41 pm


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