Saturday, February 28, 2015

28/2/15: A sad day for Russia.

Tonight, in Moscow, a gunman shot dead one of the most charismatic and experienced leaders of Russian liberal opposition, Boris Nemtsov.

Here is the best obituary I have read so far (in Russian) from any source: Western or Russian:

It sums up perfectly the vision of Nemtsov, the memory of his public life that I have in my own mind.

He was legendary as the Governor of Nizhniy Novgorod - both in his managerial and reformist roles and in his ability to speak openly about his views on Yeltsin Presidency. He was given a tough lot as a Deputy PM in 1997 and he did the job, honestly and to his best ability. He was relentless in trying to build a fully functional opposition within the liberal wing in Russian politics, and he never succeeded in doing that - not for the lack of trying or the lack of talent, but for the lack of liberal tradition and culture in Russia. Despite that, he and his fellow thinker, Garry Kasparov, remained and will remain respected by many, including those who did not support them.

There is a political 'weight' to every public intellectual and leader. Nemtsov had that. Nemtsov had huge public support in the 1990s, and despite the fact that he had little popular backing after 1997, he held high moral and intellectual ground and never traded away idealism of his opposition to President Putin for pragmatism of having a shot at gradual reforms. This waining of popular support for him and his causes is sad, because he was a talented, bright, experienced, hard working politician Russia needed and needs. And he brought into public ideas and ideals that Russia needed and needs - ideas and ideals of alternative, of functional opposition.

There is an 'integrity' weight to every public intellectual and leader too - a combination of honesty, openness, transparency and willingness to learn, accept and acknowledge mistake. In that currency, Nemtsov was pure gold. And that Russia will always have as a memory of him.

The White House statements - - and I would say it is also pitch-perfect: "Nemtsov was a tireless advocate for his country, seeking for his fellow Russian citizens the rights to which all people are entitled.  I admired Nemtsov’s courageous dedication to the struggle against corruption in Russia... We offer our sincere condolences to Boris Efimovich’s family, and to the Russian people, who have lost one of the most dedicated and eloquent defenders of their rights."

Boris Nemtsov is survived by his four children, and his mother. May he rest in peace!

Friday, February 27, 2015

27/2/15: Deflation and Retail Sales: Ireland 2015...

Deflation harms consumer demand?

So Irish retail sales are up 8.8% y/y in volume and 5.5% in value, implying people are buying on lower prices, not delaying buying for lower prices. And...

Irish consumer prices are shrinking (deflation).

Note, the above retail sales figures are reflective of total sales. Core sales, excluding motors were down 0.1% in value and volume m/m, but up y/y by 4.8% in volume and 0.9% in value.

More granular:

27/2/15: Of a momentary surrender and a longer fight: Greece v Eurogroup

Couple more earlier comments on Greek situation for print edition of Expresso, 31.12.2015 pages 8-9 and online, February 22, 2015.

English version of some of the comments:

# In which points did Greek delegation change its position?

Last night Eurogroup saw significant changes to the Greek Government position vis-a-vis the current bailout. Firstly, the Government has now abandoned its elections promises to achieve a debt write down and end the agreement with the Troika. Instead, the old agreement has been extended until the end of June on the basis of Greece committing to full implementation of the original Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement (MFAFA) and, thus, Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The dreaded austerity programme remains in place, despite the Greek Government claims to the contrary. The dreaded Troika is still there, now referenced as Institutions. Secondly, Greece failed to secure control over banks recapitalisation funding. A major point of Government plans was to use of some of these funds for the purpose of funding public investment and/or debt redemptions. This is no longer an option under the new bridging Agreement. Thirdly, the Greek Government failed to secure any concessions on the future programme. The Eurogropup conceded to allow the Greece to present its proposals for the future pos-MOU agreement, but any proposals will have to be with the parameters established by the current programme.

# In which points Germany change its hard position?

So far, Germany and the Eurogroup conceded nothing to the Greek Government. The much-discussed references in the Eurogroup statement that allow for some flexibility on fiscal targets, principally recognition of the economic conditions in computing the target primary surplus for 2015, is not a new concession. Under the MOU, present conditions were always a part of analysis performed to establish deficit targets and the current programme always allowed for some flexibility in targets application. Crucially, Greece went into the negotiations with two objectives in sight: reduction in the debt burden and reduction in the austerity burden. The fist objective was abandoned even before last night's Eurogroup meeting. The second objective was severely diluted when it comes to the Eurogroup statement and the bridging programme. There are no concessions relating to the future (post-June 2015) programme. In a sense, Germany won. Greece lost.

# What do you expect for the list of reforms to be presented on Monday?

We can expect the Greek Government to further moderate its position before Monday. The new set of proposals is likely to contain request for delays (not abandonment, as was planned before) of privatisations, a request for the primary deficit target for 2015 to be lowered to around 2-2.5% of GDP, and a request to allow for some of the past austerity measures to be frozen, rather than reversed, for the duration of 2015. The Greek Government is likely to present new short term growth strategy based on a promise to enforce more rigorously taxation, set higher tax rates on higher earners, in exchange for using the resulting estimated 'savings' to fund public spending and jobs programme. The final agreement on these will likely be in the form of a temporary programme, covering 2015, and possible extension of this programme will be conditional on 2015 debt and deficit dynamics. Beyond Monday, however, a much more arduous task will be to develop a new programme. In very simple terms, Greece still requires a debt restructuring to cancel a significant quantum of current debt. This now appears to be off the table completely. As the result, any new agreement achieved before June 2015 will be inadequate in terms of restoring Greek economy to any sustainable growth path. Both Greece and Europe, today, are at exactly the same junction as two weeks ago: an insolvent economy is faced with the lenders unwilling to recognise the basics of financial realities.  

27/2/15: Running out of cash: Greece heading into March

My comments to Portuguese Expresso on Greek agreement:

Unedited version here:

"Over the next four months, Greece is facing significant debt redemption pressures. In March, EUR5.83 billion of T-bills and IMF loans maturing and requiring a re-financing. Between now and the end of April, Greece will require to roll over EUR8.1 billion of T-bills and refinance EUR2 billion worth of IMF loans.

Currently, Greece has no money to cover its debt maturity redemptions in March and it is quite questionable if the country can find cash, outside the Programme extension facilities agreed last week but are yet to be ratified by the Eurogroup members and the Institutions, to do so in the markets. Currently Greek 10 year bonds are priced at 65.354, with a yield of 9.23% and rising. This suggests there is unlikely to be significant appetite in the markets to cover a substantial issue of new debt by Greece. At the same time, internal reserves available to the Government are virtually non-existent, especially given the rate of tax receipts deterioration in recent months. December 2014 tax revenues were 14 percent below target, January 2015 tax revenues fell 20% below target, implying a monthly shortfall close to EUR1 billion. In all likelihood, shortfall was at least as big in February as the new Government was tied up in negotiations with the Troika and deposits fled from the banks.

The key problem is that Greece has no option when it comes to delaying repayment of the above funds. IMF is the super-senior lender of last resort and T-bills markets are the bloodline for the Greek Government. Failing to redeem maturing T-bills will be a disaster for the country. In short, Syriza urgently needs to secure new funds to cover these redemptions."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

26/2/15: 'Kermit The IMF' on Irish Growth: It's Not Easy Being Greeen...

This is an unedited version of my column in the Village Magazine for February 2015

January IMF review of the economic situation in Ireland rained a heavy dose of icy water over the already overheating Government spin machine, and much of the IMF concerns centre around exactly the same themes that were highlighted in these very pages last month.

Top of the IMF worries list is growth.

Budget 2015 assumed GDP expansion of 3.9 percent in 2015, with 3.4 percent average growth from 2016 through 2018. The IMF forecasts growth of 3.3 percent in 2015, 2.8 percent in 2016 and “about 2.5 percent thereafter”. In simple terms, over 2015-2018, cumulative growth forecast discrepancy between IMF and the Government is now just shy of 3.3 percent. Put differently, based on IMF forecasts, Irish Government may be significantly overestimating economic prospects of the country.

Source: IMF and Department of Finance

The drivers behind IMF’s skeptical view of our prospects are exactly in line with those discussed in this column before. Exports growth is likely to be much shallower than the Government anticipates, while the domestic demand is still subject to massive debt overhang carried by households and companies.

As an aside, the IMF assessment of the Budget 2015 measures is far from confirming the mainstream Irish media and Irish Left’s view. The IMF had this to say about the measures: “Income tax cuts that increase the already strong progressivity of the system are the main items. While not significant to the revenue intake, reductions in property taxes by 14 local authorities, including Dublin, are a setback for collections from this recent broadening of the tax base.” Doing away with the tax breaks is fine, if it is done in the environment of falling distortionary taxes. Still, coupled with elimination of the property capital gains relief, the entire Budget 2015 was hardly a transfer from the poor to the rich, but rather a net tax increase on the upper earners, especially the self-employed professionals, relative to lower waged.

But back to the impact of growth risks on our Government’s balance sheet. Consider the IMF estimates for public debt dynamics.

Firstly, note that public debt fell from 123 percent of GDP in 2013 to 111 percent of GDP at the end of 2014. Impressive as this change might be, it is driven by one-off changes and not by any significant debt drawdowns. Consolidation of the IBRC into General Government accounts and its subsequent liquidation first pushed Irish Government debt up by 6.2 percent of GDP (EUR12.6 billion) in 2013 and then cancelled most of the same in 2014. All in, IBRC liquidation shaved off 6 percentage points off our 2014 debt to GDP ratio. In between, change in the EU accounting rules raised our 2013 GDP by 6.5 percent. Stronger economic conditions and smooth exit from the Troika Programme have meant that the Irish Government was free to spend some of the borrowed cash reserves on buying out IBRC-linked bonds held in the Central Bank. This drawdown of previously borrowed cash contributed to some 4 percentage points drop in Irish debt to GDP ratio. For all the Government’s bravado, last year’s economic recovery contributed only 1.75 percentage points to the debt decline or roughly one sixth of the overall improvement.

Still, barring adverse shocks, we remain, for now, on course to drive debt to GDP ratio below 100 percent of GDP before the end of 2019.

As IMF notes, however, a temporary drop of 2 percentage points in 2015-2016 forecast nominal GDP growth rates would push our debt to GDP ratio to 117 percent in 2016. And on the balance side, a one percent rise in primary spending by the Government can push public deficit to 3.6 percent of GDP in 2015 and 3.0 percent in 2016 instead of Government projected 2.7 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively.

The IMF is concerned that the Irish Government is suffering from the ‘adjustment fatigue’, especially once the upcoming political pressures of the general election start looming on the horizon. The danger is that “…medium-term fiscal consolidation is at risk from spending pressures, requiring the adoption of a clear strategy to enable the restraint envisaged to be realized. … As the public investment budget is already low, current expenditures will have to bear the brunt of spending restraint, while ensuring the capacity to meet demands for health and education services from rising child and elderly populations. Nominal public sector wages and social benefits must be held flat for as long as feasible and the authorities will need to continue to seek savings across the budget.”

Somewhat predictably, the Irish authorities offered no strategy for fiscal management beyond 2015 and no expenditure policy solutions that can address such risks. Instead of sticking to promised costs moderation, the authorities told the IMF that increased current spending, including on higher public sector wages, can be offset by “discretionary revenue measures”. In other words, should the Government want to fund pre-election giveaways to its preferred social partners (aka public sector wage earners) it can simply hike taxes on less favoured groups. A slip of the veil revealing the ugly nature of our politics-captured economic strategy.

Politics is now firmly displacing economics in both, the way we set our forecasts, as well as interpret the existent data.

Take, for example our reported nearly 5 percent growth over 2014. Various recent ministerial statements extoled the virtues of the Government that made Ireland “the envy of Germany” as the best performing economy in Europe. Largely ignored in the official rhetoric was that much of this growth came from the “contract manufacturing outside Ireland that is dominated by a few companies”. The problem is that none of it has any real connection to Ireland and, as IMF notes, much of it “could quickly turn”.

Private domestic demand, excluding aircraft leasing and investment in tech services-linked intangibles rose by closer to 3 percent. Again, according to the IMF this figure may be a more realistic estimate of the real recovery. In other words, somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the recorded growth in 2014 was down to just one an accounting trick. And multinationals had plenty other accounting tricks up their sleeves that no one is bothering to count.

Even the 3 percent domestic growth estimate stands inconsistent with the data on household finances. Stripping out gains in household net worth attributable to the property markets, households’ financial positions hardly improved in 2014. Mortgages in arrears accounted for 23.7 percent of all house loans outstanding, when measured by the balance of loans, down from 25.6 percent a year ago. Based on the Central Bank data, at the end of Q3 2014, some 244,816 mortgages accounts (amounting to EUR46.1 billion) were either in arrears, in repossession, or at risk of arrears – a number that is roughly 4,500 higher than a year ago. Based on the Department of Finance data, 85 percent of all accounts in arrears ‘permanently restructured’ at the end of November 2014 involved arrears solutions that result in higher debt over the life time of mortgage than prior to restructuring.

Based on the Central Bank data, Q3 2014 household deposits in the Irish banking system stood at EUR85.9 billion, slightly down on EUR86.0 billion a year ago.

In part, the above figures translate into the improvement in banking sector performance at the expense of households. In the first half of 2014, Irish banks recorded their first positive return on assets since the beginning of the crisis, and the net interest margin (the difference between the bank lending rate and the cost of funding) rose to a crisis-period high of 1.5 percent. But credit growth remained negative, contracting at a rate higher than in 2011. Put this in simple terms, the banks continued to bleed their clients dry at a faster rate than the recovery was making them stronger, and there was preciously little observable improvement in households’ financial positions compared to 2013. Certainly not enough to claim the picture to be consistent with rapid economic growth.

The IMF isn’t undiplomatic enough to say that, but the Fund is clearly concerned more than the Irish authorities at this state of imbalances. As they should be: the Central Bank internal stress-testing for new mortgages being issued by the banks today is for the interest rates rising to over 6-6.5 percent over the life time of the loan.

Of course, the Central Bank is a myopic institution when it comes to telling us what effects such rates would have on existent corporate and household loans. But give it a thought. Currently, average existent mortgage on the market is priced at interest rates below 2 percent per annum. And with that, 17.3 percent of all mortgages accounts are officially in arrears, and 34.3 percent of all balances relating to mortgages loans are either in arrears, in repossessions or restructured.

Should the interest rates double, let alone triple, what mortgages default rates on currently performing mortgages can we expect? What amount of economic growth do we need to shore up our household finances sufficiently enough to escape the interest rate squeeze that even the Central Bank admits might arrive in the foreseeable future? Can the current trends in the recovery – the ones that are leaving households out in the cold, while superficially inflating official GDP figures – deliver any sense of sustainability of our economic performance across the financial, fiscal and economic areas in this country should even mild shocks take place?

One can only wonder as to the answers to these questions, as well as to the silence of our authorities on these topics.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

25/2/15: QNHS Q4 2014: Employment, Part-Time, Full-Time, & Underemployment

In the first three posts covering the QNHS results for Q4 2014, I discussed

  • Labour Force Participation Rate (poor news showing decline in the already historically low participation) and Unemployment Rate (goods news with unemployment - absent seasonal adjustment falling to 9.9% and the rate of decline in unemployment on quarterly basis accelerating):
  • The size of labour force (which is worrying and static at and around crisis trough) and broader measures of unemployment (at high enough levels to arrant concern, but declining rapidly, although inclusive of the state training programmes participants and emigration figures the declines are shallower than across the officially reported numbers), here:
  • Employment growth overall and by sectors was covered here: Employment grew by 29,100 over 12 months of 2014 and the rate of growth has accelerated between Q3 and Q4. Private non-agricultural employment is rising faster than total employment and the rate of employment growth here also accelerated in Q4 2014. High value-added sectors employment is also rising, at a rate faster than the overall employment is increasing.

Now, let's consider labour force breakdown by economic status.

Total number of working age adults residing in Ireland (age 15 and over) rose to 3,601,900 in Q4 2014 from 3,595,600 in Q3 2014, up 0.13% y/y (+4,500).

Of these, numbers of those at work rose to 1,877,900 in Q4 2013, up 1.56% y/y or 28,800. This is a key number as it reflects total creation of jobs in the economy. The rate of increases in the number of those at work was slower in Q4 2014 than in Q3 2014 (+1.7%). Compared to Q1 2011 (when the current Government took office), there number of those at work in Q4 2014 was up 4.27% or 76,900.

Number of those unemployed fell 13.05% y/y in Q4 2014 to 263,900 - a rate of y/y decline that is faster than 9.76 drop recorded in Q3 2014. Which is very good news. Overall, there were 39,600 fewer unemployed in Q4 2014 than in Q4 2013. Which is also a good number.

Now, between Q1 2011 and Q4 2014, 76,900 more adults went to work, but unemployment fell by 101,800, which shows that 24,900 adults have moved out of unemployment but did not go to work.

Number of students in Q4 2014 stood at 415,100 which is down 0.1% y/y (-400) and is up 3% (+12,100) on Q1 2011.

Number of those engaged on home duties stood at 476,300 in Q4 2014, up 0.55% y/y (+2,600). This increase stands contrasted by a 1.63% drop in Q3 2014 y/y. Since Q1 2011, the number of those engaged in home duties fell 10.17% (-53,900).

417,800 individuals of age 15 and over were officially in retirement in Q4 2014, up 2.93% (+11,900) y/y and up 19.95% (+69,500) on Q1 2011 - a massive increase clearly driven in part by early retirement schemes deployed in the public sector.

The mysterious category of 'Other' - those neither working, nor studying, nor unemployed, nor working on home duties, nor retired - was at 150,800, up 0.8% (+1,200) y/y and down 100 (-0.07%) on Q1 2011.

Recall that there were 1,877,900 individuals at work in Ireland in Q4 2014, a number that is 28,800 higher than in Q4 2013 and 76,900 higher than in Q1 2011. Of these, 1,474,300 individuals were in full time employment - an increase of 38,300 (+2.67%) y/y and a rise of 91,300 (+6.6%) since Q1 2011. Which shows clearly that new employment growth has been more significant in full-time category and there have been some transitions from part-time to full-time jobs. This is excellent news.

Meanwhile, number of those in part-time employment dropped to 383,600, down 2.34% (-9,200) y/y but up 3,100 (+0.81%) on Q1 2011.

Taking a closer look at part-time employment: In Q4 2014, number of part-time workers who reported themselves not underemployed was 276,000, up 5.59% y/y or 14,600. Compared to Q1 2011, there were 11,000 (+4.15%) more phis too is good news. And it confirms the suspicion that jobs quality has improved in recent quarters. Further indication of same is the number of those who are employed part time but do report themselves to be underemployed. This number stood at 107,600 in Q4 2014, down 18.17% y/y (-23,900) and down 7,900 (-6.84%) on Q1 2011.

Two charts to illustrate the aforementioned trends:

Overall conclusion: the quality of employment is improving, with more increases in full time employment and in part time not underemployed jobs. Rapid rate of growth in those in retirement (+65,900 on Q1 2011) relative to those at work (+76,900 over the same period) is worrying, however.

25/2/15: QNHS Q4 2014: Employment Growth by Sectors & Activity

In the first two posts covering the QNHS results for Q4 2014, I discussed

Now, let's take a look at employment.

Total employment across all sectors stood at 1,938,900 in Q4 2014, up 1.52% y/y - a rate of increase that is slightly faster than 1.45% rise y/y recorded in Q3 2014. In level terms, employment rose 29,100 in 12 months through the end of 2014. Taking annual average, employment over 2014 rose 1.74% compared to 2013 average level of employment.

Despite this, Q2 2014 employment was still down 2.88% on crisis period peak employment although it is 6.24% above the crisis period trough. Relative to 2008 average, current employment levels are down 8.9%.

In simple term, to sum this result up, things are improving, but they are far from normal or where they should be.

Stripping out agriculture and public sector, private sector non-agricultural employment stood at 1,335,400 in Q4 2014, up 2.6% y/y, beating 1.32% rise in the same over 12 months through Q3 2014. In level terms, employment in non-agricultural private sectors rose 33,900, beating the headline total employment figures - a major good news.

Nonetheless, compared to 2008 average, private sector non-agricultural employment remains down 13.19%, while public sector (including sectors dominated by public employment) employment is up 4.8%.

As chart above shows, total employment is doing well, rising to the levels that are above the pre-crisis average and close to the difference between Q3 and Q4 2009. However, private non-agricultural employment is lagging, current at the levels well below pre-crisis average and between Q4 2009 - Q1 2010 levels.

Public and state-controlled sectors employment rose to 487,600 in Q4 2014, up 1.24% y/y (slower growth than in Q3 2014 when it expanded by 2.33% y/y), adding 6,100 jobs. Full year 2014 average employment levels here are 1.13% higher than full 2013 average. Q4 reading marks the highest level of non-private non-agricultural employment for the entire crisis period and is 4.8% above the 2008 average.

Meanwhile, agricultural employment shrunk 9.33% y/y in Q4 2014, having posted a decline of 0.81% y/y in Q3 2014. Loss of employment in the sector in 12 months through the end of Q4 2014 was 10,900, which was most likely partially responsible for gains of 13,100 in construction jobs. Still, over 12 months of 2014, agricultural employment levels were averaging 2.08% above the same for 2013.

Chart above shows basically flat employment in the state and state-controlled sectors, which, when contrasted with official public sector employment figures suggests shift of some public sector jobs from state to private contracting.

High value-added sectors also added jobs in Q4 2014, with 14,000 new jobs additions y/y a rate of employment growth of 2.03% y/y, virtually identical to 2.02% growth recorded in Q3 2014. As with state-controlled sectors employment, employment in high value-added sectors posted peak reading in Q4 2014 for the entire crisis period and stood 6.56% above 2008 average.

Table below provides summary of changes in employment across all sectors reported:

To summarise, we have healthy employment growth of 29,100 over 12 months of 2014 and the rate of growth has accelerated between Q3 and Q4. However, some sectors did post declines y/y in Q4 2014 and some posted weak performance to the upside. Good news is: private non-agricultural employment is rising faster than total employment and the rate of employment growth here accelerated in Q4 2014. High value-added sectors employment is also rising, at a rate faster than the overall employment is increasing.

25/2/15: QNHS Q4 2014: Broader Measures of Irish Unemployment

In the previous post ( I covered the QNHS results for Q4 2014 from the point of Labour Force Participation Rate (poor news showing decline in the already historically low participation) and Unemployment Rate (goods news with unemployment - absent seasonal adjustment falling to 9.9% and the rate of decline in unemployment on quarterly basis accelerating).

Here, let's consider actual size of the labour force and the broader measures of unemployment, including numbers on state training programmes (e.g. JobBridge) and factoring in estimates of inward and outward migration.

Few definitions are provided in the note below the post, so feel free to consult these.

Now, onto numbers.

Total size of Irish labour force at Q4 2014 stood at 2,152,500 down from 2,172,400 in Q3 2014 and down 10,600 on Q4 2013. This is not good. Compared to peak, current Labour Force is down 147,600 and compared to crisis period trough it is up 15,000. Over the last 12 months, irish labour force average levels were down 117,100 on pre-crisis average. All indicators point to a decline in labour force, consistent with the weak labour force participation rate reported in the previous post. All of this suggests that some share of improvements in unemployment performance is down to people dropping out of the labour force rather than the unemployed finding jobs.

As chart above highlights, remarkably, there has been basically no change in labour force numbers from H2 2010 through Q4 2014, something that is not consistent with our natural demographics, but is consistent with the story of outward emigration and dropping-out from the labour force by working age adults.

Now onto more pleasant news. All broader measures of unemployment have registered declines in Q4 2014 both y/y and q/q:

PLS1 indicator - basically a measure of unemployment fell 2.0 percentage points y/y in Q4 2014 to 10.5%, marking an acceleration in the rate of decline from 1.9% drop in Q3 2014.

PLS3 indicator, capturing those employed, unemployed, discouraged, plus all those not seeking a job for reasons other than being in Education & Training - has fallen from 15.1% in Q3 2014 to 13.3% - a drop of 2.7 percentage points y/y accelerated from 2.4 percentage points decline back in Q3 2014.

PLS4 - the broadest officially reported measure of unemployment that includes PLS3, and also underemployed - has fallen to 18.5 in Q4 2014, marking the first reading below 20% since Q1 2009. The measure is down 3.8 percentage points y/y and this marks a major acceleration in decline compared to 2.9 percentage points drop in Q3 2014.

Adding State Training Programmes participants to PLS$ to produce PLS4+STP puts the broader unemployment measure to 22.34%. This is the lowest reading since Q4 2009 and also marks acceleration in decline exactly matching that for PLS4.

Accounting (and this is rough estimation, so be warned) for net outward emigration, however, PLS4+STP measure of broad unemployment rises to 29.8% in Q4 2014. This marks a decline of 2.8 percentage points y/y and acceleration of decline from 2.0 percentage points drop in Q3 2014. However, the rates of decline in both Q3 and Q4 were shallower than for other measures, save PLS 1.

To summarise, labour force levels are worrying and static at and around crisis trough. Broader measures of unemployment show significant improvements, but the levels of unemployment, especially adjusted for state training programmes and potential adverse effects of net emigration are still high and more worrying than the headline unemployment measures suggest. While we do not know exactly, indications are - the data is consistent with at least some declines in unemployment officially recorded by the CSO coming not from jobs gains, but from emigration, state training programmes and exits from the labour force.

For example, compered to H1 2011, there were 23,373 more individuals that were participating in state training programmes who are not counted as unemployed. Furthermore, estimated net 94,800 individuals of working are have left Ireland between end of Q1 2011 through end of Q1 2014. They too are no longer counted in the labour force or in employment/unemployment statistics.


  • PLS1 indicator is unemployed persons plus discouraged workers as a percentage of the Labour Force plus discouraged workers.
  • PLS2 indicator is unemployed persons plus Potential Additional Labour Force as a percentage of the Labour Force plus Potential Additional Labour Force
  • PLS3 indicator is PLS2 plus others who want a job, who are not available and not seeking for reasons other than being in education or training as a percentage of the Labour Force plus Potential Additional Labour Force plus others who want a job, who are not available and not seeking for reasons other than being in education or training.
  • PLS4 indicator is PLS3 plus part-time underemployed persons as a percentage of the Labour Force plus Potential Additional Labour Force plus others who want a job, who are not available and not seeking for reasons other than being in education or training.
  • PLS4+STP is the indicator combining PLS4 above and State Training Programmes Participants but excluding those of working age who emigrated (net of those who immigrated). 
  • PLS4+STP+migration numbers reported below are reflective of PLS4+STP measure and add estimates of net emigration from Ireland based on latest available data extrapolated linearly over the year from May 2014 and adjusted for working age and labour force participation rate in the economy.

25/2/15: QNHS Q4 2014: Labour Force Participation Rate and Unemployment Rate

Some good news today from the QNHS report for Q4 2014 covering labour market conditions in the Irish economy. I will be detailing these throughout the day today, so stay tuned for more posts.

To start with, consider the labour force participation and unemployment rates - two key aggregate metrics for labour markets.

In Q4 2014, Labour Force Participation Rate in Ireland stood at 59.8%, down 0.3 percentage points from 60.1% in Q4 2013. By definition: The labour force participation rate is computed as an expression of the number of persons in the labour force as a percentage of the working age population. The labour force is the sum of the number of persons employed and of persons unemployed, but it excludes people in education and training, unless training is directly associated with employment. Currently, Labour Force Participation Rate is 125 basis points below the Q1 2000- Q4 2007 average of 61.23% and full 490 bps below the historical maximum. Which is not good news.

On seasonally-adjusted basis, Labour Force Participation Rate fell 0.1 percentage point quarter on quarter in Q4 2014 to 59.9%, matching the previous lowest point over the last 8 consecutive quarters.

Meanwhile, the official Unemployment Rate fell to 9.9 percent, the first sub-10 percent reading in 24 quarters. Which is great news. Year on year, unemployment rate is down from 11.7% in Q4 2013. Seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate, however, remained above 10 percent marker at 10.4%, but is down from 11.1% in Q3 2014.

In terms of unemployment rate, quarterly rate of decline registered in Q4 2014 stood at 0.7 percentage points, which is the strongest performance for any quarter since Q3 2013 when it posted a decline of 0.8 percentage points. Year on year decline in unemployment rate was 1.8 percentage points, slightly better than 1.7 percentage points decline in Q3 2014, but lower than 2.1 percentage points drop in Q2 2014.

All in, the news are good on unemployment statistics front, but poor on labour force participation side.

More analysis to follow.

25/2/15: Baltic Dry Index: Another Poor Day for EUrecovery Stroy

Two weeks ago, Baltic Dry Index was at 556. Which was bad ( Now, it is at 516 or below late 1980s trough. And the European economy is allegedly picking up.

H/T to @moved_average 

What can possibly go wrong with the 'EUrecovery' story?

Monday, February 23, 2015

23/2/15: Ukraine CDS-implied Default Rate Shoots Above 97%

As noted by @Schuldensuehner Ukraine's probability of default is now just shy of 97.1%:

Which is spectacular in its own right. But one has to consider what this market pricing really implies.

As we know, Ukraine will receive super-senior debt injections courtesy of the IMF. This will alleviate the immediate crunch on Government liquidity (Ukraine FX reserves are now below scheduled debt redemptions for March-September). So the above risk spike cannot be attributed to the risk of liquidity crisis.

As I explain here: , this liquidity support comes at a hefty cost: the debt burden that will result from the international lenders intervention will be non-sustainable and it can exacerbate popular discontent with current Government.

Now, the latest news from the Eastern ATO are pretty disastrous, and, arguably, also unlikely to go well with the Ukrainians.

This is of course speculative, but given lack of the risk around future liquidity crunch, the latest spike in the CDS spreads suggests that the markets see serious political risks ahead soon.

23/2/15: Russian Policy Uncertainty Environment Moderated in January

January 2015 saw some easing in the overall policy uncertainty environment in Russia, based on the Policy Uncertainty Index that fell to 197.8 in January 2015 from 305.7 in December and down 22.6% y/y. The index is down 12.3% on the current crisis period average (January 2014-present)

You can see index methodology and get data here:

23/2/15: Russian Sanctions: Round 4 Looming?..

Big change in EU official language marks a major departure from the past diplomatic practice: Let's see if this continues, but at the very least, it lays foundations for renewed pressure on Moscow in relation to Ukrainian conflict.

Both the U.S. (see and the EU (see here: have stepped up pressure for new sanctions.

Here is my take on the prospect of the latter.

Rumours of the U.S. (and by proxy EU) sanctions extension include, once again:

  • Cutting Russian bank's access to SWIFT system (spearheaded in EU by the UK and Poland back in August 2014 and backed by the EU Parliament resolution from September 2014);
  • Widening sanctions against imports of Russian goods and services across broader categories and applying more pressure on the emerging markets (traditionally more important to Russian exporters of industrial machinery and capital goods) to abstain from dealing with Russian suppliers (though it is hard to see what can be added to the current list); and
  • Expanding the lists of Russians banned from travel to the U.S. and Europe (which would be a weak form of response, unless it starts explicitly impacting travel for ordinary Russians - a suggestion that was floated in late 2014 by a number of former U.S. high ranking officials and analysts, with some going as far as suggesting the U.S. should ban all travel for Russian citizens, regardless of circumstances or their residency). In addition, expanding the list of sanctioned individuals to cover members of their families (to allow arrests of their property abroad, especially in those cases where such property ownership is de facto linked to the originally sanctioned officials and business leaders).

All of these proposals, at their extreme, will be firstly painful, but secondly non-reversible in the short- and medium- run.

The latter would signify that any restoration of normal relations between the U.S. (and Europe) and Russia will no longer be feasible even in the medium term and will demonstrably fail President Obama's own test of sanctions as being a tool for influencing short term policies' outcomes without directly adversely impacting ordinary Russians or sacrificing the objective of long-term normalisation.

In financial terms, cutting Russian banks off SWIFT will compound the already significant pressures on Russian corporates and banks, leading to retaliatory measures that will likely see Russian banks and companies suspending repayment and servicing of forex loans to non-affiliated entities based in the U.S. and the EU. This, financially-speaking 'nuclear' retaliation, is feasible given the downgrades of the Russian sovereign debt by Moody's and S&P: the lower the ratings go, the lower is the cost of counter-measures.

In return for this, Western lenders are likely to ask for (and easily receive) court orders to cease Russian assets abroad.

In effect, the worst case scenario here will be an all-out unwinding of Russian economic integration into the Western European and U.S. economies - a process that will make all sanctions irreversible in the medium term. The tail end of this risk is that a more isolated Moscow will face even lower future costs from taking a more aggressive stance in Ukraine or elsewhere. Economic escalation, at this stage, will most likely result in a political escalation along the lines of 'cornering Russia' into retaliation.

But beyond the Russian-U.S./EU theatre of confrontation, there looms another shadow.

In explicitly deploying economic agents and institutions in a geopolitical conflict against a significant global economic player, the U.S. is risking undermining the very foundation of its own economic power and with it, the power of the West. A long-term economic conflict with Russia is putting all emerging markets and non-Western economies on notice: the U.S. markets and institutions can be a high risk counter-parties, controlled and driven by the political considerations. Until now, targeted nature of sanctions has avoided this risk. And until now, SWIFT and its backers in Europe have made a cogent argument that excluding Russia from the system of banks payments clearance risks undermining the system itself. If Russia, in partnership with China, were forced to develop own system of parallel clearance to rival SWIFT, the West will lose control over the financial transactions pipeline that can be monitored and used to combat illicit trade, financing of terrorism and tax evasion. With time, we will also risk losing major transactions flows between other emerging markets and the West, with resultant de-internationalisation of the global financial flows and a reduction in the West's ability to tap emerging markets surplus savings and liquidity to underwrite long-term Western pensions and investment needs.

Similarly, tax evasion has been put on the declining trend by enhanced international cooperation - a process that is now driving the likes of the OECD reforms efforts in corporate taxation. This too will become more difficult to deliver if the global economic systems, largely based on Western institutions, revert toward regionalisation.

As I said, these are tail risks, but they are risks nonetheless.

Furthermore, broadening of sanctions to target explicitly Russian entities and citizens regardless of their affiliation or position vis-a-vis Moscow political regime will have another hefty long-term risk premium. The West is hoping for the sanctions to drive significant economic decline across Russia to effect a regime change, if not in terms of the physical head of Russian state, then in terms of his core policies. However, broadly anti-Russian (as opposed to counter-Kremlin) sanctions are likely to trigger more nationalist revival in Russia and any regime change in such circumstances is likely to lead to an even more bellicose stance from Moscow. Current political opposition within Russia, even theoretically capable of asserting control over power systems in the political and executive systems, is simply much more nationalistic and anti-Western than we, in Europe and the U.S., would like to believe.

None of this should override the consideration of the urgent need to restore peace in and territorial integrity of Ukraine, first and foremost. And, as I said on numerous occasions before, the onus is on Russia to act decisively to make this possible: by forcing the Eastern Ukrainian separatists to implement Minsk accord pro-actively, ahead of the Ukrainian counterparts and with fully verifiable results.

But, in the game of sanctions escalation, longer term losses for both, Russia and the West, will be significant.

It is worth noting that even Mikhail Khodorkovsky - hardly a supporter of the current regime in Moscow - has repeatedly warned against sanctions being deployed as a tool against the ordinary Russians and the Russian economy at large. See here: and here:,-Mikhail-Khodorkovsky-tells-MEPs.

Another prominent - and actually more important in terms of his popularity and position in Russia - opponent of the current Government, Alexey Navalny also called for strongly targeted sanctions that avoid damaging the economy and, thus, increasing nationalist axis power within the country: although Navalny did contradict himself in some later statements (see for example a report here:

Beyond that, there has been significant enough analysts' coverage of the sanctions trap risks - the adverse impact of sanctions on the West's own objectives: the more effective the sanctions are in destabilising Russia, the more they reduce Western capacity to effect change in Russia in the longer run (see here:

Sunday, February 22, 2015

22/2/15: Ifo on Eurogroup Conclusions

Ifo's Hans-Werner Sinn on Eurogroup deal for Greece:

I failed to spot where the Eurogroup allows for any 'additional cash' for Greece. 

The core point that Greece "has to become cheaper to regain competitiveness. This can only happen if Greece exits the Eurozone and devalues the drachma." On this, Sinn is probably correct. Unless, of course, there is a large scale writedown of Greek debts accompanied by a massive round of reforms. Both of these conditions will be required and not one of them is on the cards.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

21/2/15: Russian Sovereign Wealth Funds: 2015 drawdowns

In the previous note I covered Moody's downgrade of Russian sovereign debt rating (see Now, as promised, a quick note on Russian use of sovereign fund cash reserves (also referenced in the Moody's decision, although Moody's references are somewhat more dated, having been formulated around the end of January).

Back at the end of January, Russia’s sovereign wealth funds amounted to USD160 billion, with the Government primarily taking a historically-set approach (from 2003 onwards) of arms-length interactions with the Funds management. This relative non-interference marked 2014 and is now set to be changed, with the Government looking at using SWFs to provide some support for the investment that has been falling in 2013-2014 period and is likely to fall even further this year.

Fixed investment in Russia fell 2.0% y/y in 2013, and by another 3.7% in 2014. Private investment is likely to fall by double digits in 2015, based on the cost of funding, lack of access to international funding and general recession in the economy. It is likely to stay in negative growth territory through 2016.

Thus, last week, Prime Minister Medvedev signed an executive order deploying up to RUB500 billion from the Reserve Fund. The money will be used, notionally, to cover this year deficits (expected to hit 2% of GDP), thus protecting the state from the need to borrow from the markets. The Fund was originally set up precisely for this purpose - to finance deficits arising during recessionary periods. In other words, this is stabilisation-targeted use of stabilisation funds. The fund is fully accounted for in the total Forex reserves reported by the Central Bank. Latest figures for end of January 2015 showed the fund to have USD85 billion or RUB5,900 billion in its reserves, so this year allocation is a tiny, 8.5% fraction of the total fund. All funds are allocated into liquid, foreign currency-denominated assets.

The second use of SWFs is via the economic support programme that will draw up to RUB550 billion worth of funds in 2015 from the second SWF - the National Welfare Fund (NWF). Part of this funding is earmarked for banks capitalisation, ring fenced explicitly for banks providing funding to large infrastructure investments and lending for the enterprises. The use of the NWF funds is more controversial, because the Fund was set up to provide backing for future pensions liabilities, including statutory old-age pensions. However, the NWF has been used for the economic stimulus purposes before, namely in the 2009 crisis. Currently, NWF holds USD74 billion or RUB5,100 billion worth of assets. Liquid share of these assets, denominated in foreign currencies, is also included in the Central Bank-reported Forex reserves, but long-term allocated illiquid share and ruble-denominated assets are excluded from the CBR reported figures.

Now, per Moody's note issued last night, "The second driver for the downgrade of Russia's government bond rating to Ba1 is the expected further erosion of Russia's fiscal strength and foreign exchange buffers. …Taking at face value the government's plans to proceed with its planned fiscal consolidation for 2015, Moody's expects a consolidated government deficit of approximately RUB1.6 trillion (2% of GDP) as well as a widening of the non-oil deficit. The deficit would likely be financed by drawing on the Reserve Fund, which is specifically designed for circumstances when oil prices fall below budgeted levels. …Moreover, under the stress exerted by a shrinking economy, wider budget deficits and continued capital flight -- in part reflecting the impact of the Ukraine crisis on investor and depositor confidence -- and restricted access to international capital markets, Moody's expects that the central bank's and government's FX assets will likely decrease significantly again this year, cutting the sovereign's reserves by more than half compared to their year-end 2014 level of approximately USD330 billion. In a more adverse but not unimaginable scenario, which assumes smaller current account surpluses and substantially larger capital outflows than in Moody's baseline forecast, FX reserves including both government savings funds would be further depleted. While the government might choose to mobilise some form of capital controls to impede the outflow of capital and reserves, such tools are not without consequences. Capital controls, which might include a rationing of retail deposit withdrawals and/or prohibition upon repatriation of foreign investment capital, would weaken the investment climate further and undermine confidence in the banking system."

21/2/15: Moody's Downgrade: Russia Risks and Politics

Moody's downgraded Russian sovereign debt last night from Baa3 to Ba1 with negative outlook. Moody's put Russian ratings on a review back on January 16.

The bases for the downgrade were (quotes from Moody's statement):

  1. "The continuing crisis in Ukraine and the recent oil price and exchange rate shocks will further undermine Russia's economic strength and medium-term growth prospects, despite the fiscal and monetary policy responses". In more specific terms, "Russia is expected to experience a deep recession in 2015 and a continued contraction in 2016. The decline in confidence is likely to constrain domestic demand and exacerbate the Russian economy's already chronic underinvestment. It is unlikely that the impact of recent events will be transitory. The crisis in Ukraine continues. While the fall in the oil price and the exchange rate have reversed somewhat since the start of the year, the impact on inflation, confidence and growth is likely to be sustained." As I noted on numerous occasions before, monetary policy environment remains highly challenging. Per Moody's "The monetary authorities face the conflicting objectives of keeping interest rates high enough to restrain the exchange rate and bring down inflation and keeping rates low enough to reinvigorate economic growth and bank solvency."
  2. "The government's financial strength will diminish materially as a result of fiscal pressures and the continued erosion of Russia's foreign exchange (FX) reserves in light of ongoing capital outflows and restricted access to international capital markets." I will post a quick note on this matter later today, so stay tuned. Here's Moody's view: "Taking at face value the government's plans to proceed with its planned fiscal consolidation for 2015, Moody's expects a consolidated government deficit of approximately RUB1.6 trillion (2% of GDP) as well as a widening of the non-oil deficit. The deficit would likely be financed by drawing on the Reserve Fund, which is specifically designed for circumstances when oil prices fall below budgeted levels. Moody's also expects that widespread demands for fiscal easing are likely to emerge if, as the rating agency projects, the recession persists into 2016. In a scenario in which the government would turn to borrowing in the domestic market to finance at least a share of these deficits, higher spending could result in an increase of the debt-to-GDP ratio to 20% or more."
  3. "The risk is rising, although still very low, that the international response to the military conflict in Ukraine triggers a decision by the Russian authorities that directly or indirectly undermines timely payments on external debt service." In other words, we are facing a political risk. Capital controls and debt repayment stops are two key risks here and these were visible for some time now, especially if you have followed my writing on the Russian crisis.

What's the driver for the negative outlook? Uncertainty. Per Moody's: "The negative outlook on the Ba1 rating reflects Moody's view that the balance of economic, financial and political risks in Russia is slanted to the downside, with scenarios incorporating either an escalation of the Ukraine crisis and/or damage caused by recent shocks being greater than in Moody's baseline scenario. Essentially, the probabilities associated with the downside scenarios are higher than those associated with an upside scenario in which the recession is shorter and shallower than Moody's baseline."

Conclusion: an ugly, but predictable move by Moody's. One can say part of it is down to rating agencies activism in trying to establish some sense of credibility post-Global Financial Crisis, whereby getting tougher on ratings is a major objective, and it is well-served by getting tougher on politically softer targets, like Russia. But one can equally argue that the ratings downgrade is consistent with economic environment and some longer-run fundamentals. My view would be is that we are seeing both, with the balance of impetus tilted toward the latter argument.

Friday, February 20, 2015

20/2/15: Troika 3 : Greece 1. Rematch on Monday.

Eurogroup agreement on Greece 'achieved' tonight is a classic can kicking exercise in which Eurogroup and the Troika have won, Greece lost, but no one has moved an inch in real actionable terms.


  • This is not an agreement to end the current programme that Greece is in, nor an agreement on a new programme to replace the current one. Instead, this is an agreement on the methodology for future negotiations over the replacement agreement. The current Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement (MFAFA) is extended by four months. Hence, the current 'austerity programme' is still in place and has not been replaced by anything new. The extension is to allow time for developing a new agreement to bridge the current programme. This does not guarantee any of the conditions of the new agreement (e.g. 'easing of austerity' or 'reducing debt burden' or anything whatsoever) that will have to follow the current programme after June.
  • Over the next two months (at the longest) here will be a review of the current programme and Greek Government proposals for amending the programme. The review will be conducted "on the basis of the conditions in the current arrangement" (see full agreement here: So no deviations from the 'basis of the conditions in the current' agreement will be allowed even in the review stage, although they might be allowed in the future agreement.
  • However, the agreement also states that this review will make "best use of the given flexibility which will be considered jointly with the Greek authorities and the institutions." In other words, the new agreement will still be required to run within the parameters allowed by the current agreement. You can read this as 'Greece has won recognition from the Eurogroup that current austerity programme needs revision'. Or you can equally read it as: within current austerity programme, there can be some flexibility, like for example, delaying austerity today, but loading more austerity risk into the future, should current delay fail to produce substantial improvement in underlying conditions.
To sum up the above: the old austerity (MOU and MFAFA) are now extended by 4 months. In exchange, Greece gets a promise that the Eurogroup and the institutions (aka Troika) will take a look at its proposals, as long as these proposals adhere to the basis of the current austerity MOU.

  • Greece originally requested a 6-month extension, which would have allowed it to cover redemptions of some EUR6.7 billion worth of ECB bonds maturing in July and August, using the funds from the existent programme. They failed - the agreement extends current access to funds until June and puts Greece on the hook negotiating new bailout while staring into the double barrel of massive debt redemptions coming up. (see

To sum up: Greece will be back to square one, but in a weaker financial position in June, unless it really plays ball before the end of the current extension. This is a major win for the Eurogroup.

  • Greece committed to complete the current bailout. Worse, if it does not follow on through with the planned austerity, Greece will not receive the last tranche of funds. "Only approval of the conclusion of the review of the extended arrangement by the institutions in turn will allow for any disbursement of the outstanding tranche of the current EFSF programme and the transfer of the 2014 SMP profits. Both are again subject to approval by the Eurogroup." So Troika is still there today as it was there yesterday and the Greeks have failed to end the current bailout. If you are inclined to say Eurogroup is not Troika, good luck: today's Eurogroup included IMF, ECB and ESM chiefs. And the Eurogroup clearly stated: "we welcome the commitment by the Greek authorities to work in close agreement with European and international institutions and partners. Against this background we recall the independence of the European Central Bank. We also agreed that the IMF would continue to play its role." So both ECB and IMF are in place and Troika has simply been renamed into Institutions. 

To sum up: Troika is here, still. 

  • On top of that, the Greeks have lost control of bank recapitalisation funds. "In view of the assessment of the institutions the Eurogroup agrees that the funds, so far available in the HFSF buffer, should be held by the EFSF, free of third party rights for the duration of the MFFA extension. The funds continue to be available for the duration of the MFFA extension and can only be used for bank recapitalisation and resolution costs. They will only be released on request by the ECB/SSM." Until now, these funds were to be handled by the Hellenic Financial Stabilisation Fund (HFSF). These funds were also targeted by the Greek Government for use outside bank recapitalisations. Both are now lost positions for Greece: the funds move to EFSF, Greek Government has no say on their disbursement and they can only be used for banks recaps. 

To sum up: Greeks did not gain control over banks recapitalisation funds and did not gain access to these funds for the purpose of easing austerity.

  • In return for the above concessions, Greece got a very wooly commitment from the Eurogroup that the New Troika "will, for the 2015 primary surplus target, take the economic circumstances in 2015 into account". In other words, the primary surplus required for 2015 can (and probably will) be adjusted down. The problem, of course, is that this is only for 2015 and not beyond and that it is of a magnitude that will make absolutely no difference to Greece - we are talking about something of the order of 1-2 percent of GDP in just one year. 
  • Reminder, Greek debt to GDP stands at around 175%. No amount of tinkering on the margins will deliver sustainability of this debt and no amount of tinkering on the margins can deliver a buffer of defense from the risk of future increase in the cost of funding the Greek debt.

To sum up: Presenting a primary deficit adjustment as a victory for the Greeks is equivalent to prescribing a course of homeopathy for the stroke patient.

Key point of the whole agreement is that it entails nothing in terms of what follows after the current bailout is completed. This - in all its principles and details - remains subject to future agreement, outside the scope of this Eurogroup meeting. In other words, Greece bought itself time to bargain about the future, Eurogroup bought itself time to get Greeks into even less comfortable financial position. And the Troika is still there.

In words of Wolfgang Schäuble: “The Greeks certainly will have a difficult time to explain the deal to their voters. As long as the programme isn’t successfully completed, there will be no payout."

In words of the Agreement: "The Greek authorities reiterate their unequivocal commitment to honour their financial obligations to all their creditors fully and timely."

In words of the WSJ: "Greece’s ...government backed down from its plans to throw out the bailout program..., striking a tenuous deal with the rest of the eurozone to extend the program by four months."

In words of FT: "The decision to request an extension of the current programme is a significant U-turn for Alexis Tsipras, …who had promised in his election campaign to kill the existing bailout. …it includes no reduction of Greece’s sovereign debt levels, another campaign promise. Discussions on debt restructuring are likely as part of follow-on talks ahead of another bailout programme, which must now be agreed before June…Critically, the agreement commits Athens to the “successful completion” of the current bailout review, although it allows for Greece to negotiate its economic reform agenda."

Troika 3 : Greece 1

20/2/15: January Russian CPI hit 15%. Food Inflation at 21%

Russian consumer prices data for January posted CPI of 15% y/y, with food inflation at 21% and non-food inflation at 11%. Per Economy Ministry estimates, more than 4 percentage points in inflation came from Ruble devaluation, while Russian July 2014 counter-sanctions (food imports bans) accounted for just over 1 percentage points.

As predicted in this blog, most of the price increases due to counter-sanctions will have an impact this year, rather than in 2014, in part due to lags in contracts and supplies storage, but also due to crop outruns - 2014 crops were at near historical record, and simple arithmetic on this suggests that 2015 is likely to post lower production figures. Additional break on prices was provided by some larger retail stores committing to freezing prices on foodstuffs - a measure that is unlikely to hold in the longer run. To mitigate this, the Government imposed export duties on wheat, in force from February 2015 set at a minimum rate of EUR35 per ton. This is set to run through June 2015 and my expectation is that it will rise there after. Indirect (non-tariff) measures to cut exports of foodstuffs are operating across the food sector, primarily manifesting themselves via slower issuance of exports documentation and limiting availability of transport capacity.

This came at the time when the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service were carrying out inspections of Russian retailers to determine if there were cases of price gouging. The Service was instructed to carry out monitoring of prices in an attempt to cut back inflation. At the same time, many regional authorities have been issuing regulatory caps on profit margins for retailers, also aimed at cutting back prices, while falling short of direct price controls. Note: price controls do operate - for years now - in the Northern regions.

As reported by BOFIT, Prime Minister Medvedev singled out specific concerns about the cost of drugs and medical supplies, warning "last week that medicine prices could rise as much as 20%" in 2015. Also per BOFIT, "Health ministry price monitoring found that in January regulated prices of life-saving medicines were up 4% and other drugs 15%". In this area - a note to exporters to Russia - the Government is continuing to expand the list of drugs covered by direct price controls and is currently preparing a draft regulation to control prices for medical equipment.

20/2/15: Russian Perception of the West: Hitting Historical Lows

Levada Center report from earlier this month points to a rising anti-Western sentiment in Russian public opinion. Based on the (gated) article covering Levada findings (see

  • 44% of Russians held a negative perception of the U.S. in early 2014. This rose to 81% at the end of 2014.
  • 4% of Russians saw US-Russian relations as hostile, this rose to 42% in late 2014.
  • 71% of Russian hold a negative view of the EU
  • 1% of Russians saw EU-Russian relations as hostile in early 2014, and this increased to 24% by the end of 2014.
  • 40% of Russians still believe that Russia needs to improve its relations with the West, with 36% saying Russia should further distance itself from the West.
  • Proportion of those who believe that Russia is now on par with the world's most powerful nations fell from 45% in 2008 to 27% at the end of 2014.

Levada Center comment on the results of the latest surveys points to the fact that end-2014 data marks the worst public perception of the West and the US in Russia over the last 25 years.

18/2/15: IMF Package for Ukraine: Some Pesky Macros

Ukraine package of funding from the IMF and other lenders remains still largely unspecified, but it is worth recapping what we do know and what we don't.

Total package is USD40 billion. Of which, USD17.5 billion will come from the IMF and USD22.5 billion will come from the EU. The US seemed to have avoided being drawn into the financial singularity they helped (directly or not) to create.

We have no idea as to the distribution of the USD22.5 billion across the individual EU states, but it is pretty safe to assume that countries like Greece won't be too keen contributing. Cyprus probably as well. Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy - all struggling with debts of their own also need this new 'commitment' like a hole in the head. Belgium might cheerfully pony up (with distinctly Belgian cheer that is genuinely overwhelming to those in Belgium). But what about the countries like the Baltics and those of the Southern EU? Does Bulgaria have spare hundreds of million floating around? Hungary clearly can't expect much of good will from Kiev, given its tango with Moscow, so it is not exactly likely to cheer on the funding plans… Who will? Austria and Germany and France, though France is never too keen on parting with cash, unless it gets more cash in return through some other doors. In Poland, farmers are protesting about EUR100 million that the country lent to Ukraine. Wait till they get the bill for their share of the USD22.5 billion coming due.

Recall that in April 2014, IMF has already provided USD17 billion to Ukraine and has paid up USD4.5 billion to-date. In addition, Ukraine received USD2 billion in credit guarantees (not even funds) from the US, EUR1.8 billion in funding from the EU and another EUR1.6 billion in pre-April loans from the same source. Germany sent bilateral EUR500 million and Poland sent EUR100 million, with Japan lending USD300 million.

Here's a kicker. With all this 'help' Ukrainian debt/GDP ratio is racing beyond sustainability bounds. Under pre-February 'deal' scenario, IMF expected Ukrainian debt to peak at USD109 billion in 2017. Now, with the new 'deal' we are looking at debt (assuming no write down in a major restructuring) reaching for USD149 billion through 2018 and continuing to head North from there.

An added problem is the exchange rate which determines both the debt/GDP ratio and the debt burden.

Charts below show the absolute level of external debt (in current USD billions) and the debt/GDP ratios under the new 'deal' as opposed to previous programme. The second chart also shows the effects of further devaluation in Hryvna against the USD on debt/GDP ratios. It is worth noting that the IMF current assumption on Hryvna/USD is for 2014 rate of 11.30 and for 2015 of 12.91. Both are utterly unrealistic, given where Hryvna is trading now - at close to 26 to USD. (Note, just for comparative purposes, if Ruble were to hit the rates of decline that Hryvna has experienced between January 2014 and now, it would be trading at RUB/USD87, not RUB/USD61.20. Yet, all of us heard in the mainstream media about Ruble crisis, but there is virtually no reporting of the Hryvna crisis).

Now, keep in mind the latest macro figures from Ukraine are horrific.

Q3 2014 final GDP print came in at a y/y drop of 5.3%, accelerating final GDP decline of 5.1% in Q2 2014. Now, we know that things went even worse in Q4 2014, with some analysts (e.g. Danske) forecasting a decline in GDP of 14% y/y in Q4 2014. 2015 is expected to be a 'walk in the park' compared to that with FY projected GDP drop of around 8.5% for a third straight year!

Country Forex ratings are down at CCC- with negative outlook (S&P). These are a couple of months old. Still, no one in the rantings agencies is rushing to deal with any new data to revise these. Russia, for comparison, is rated BB+ with negative outlook and has been hammered by downgrades by the agencies seemingly racing to join that coveted 'Get Vlad!' club. Is kicking the Russian economy just a plat du jour when the agencies are trying to prove objectivity in analysis after all those ABS/MBS misfires of the last 15 years?

Also, note, the above debt figures, bad as they might be, are assuming that Ukraine's USD3 billion debt to Russia is repaid when it matures in September 2015. So far, Russia showed no indication it is willing to restructure this debt. But this debt alone is now (coupon attached) ca 50% of the entire Forex reserves held by Ukraine that amount to USD6.5 billion. Which means it will possibly have to be extended - raising the above debt profiles even higher. Or IMF dosh will have to go to pay it down. Assuming there is IMF dosh… September is a far, far away.

Meanwhile, you never hear much about Ukrainian external debt redemptions (aside from Government ones), while Russian debt redemptions (backed by ca USD370 billion worth of reserves) are at the forefront of the 'default' rumour mill. Ukrainian official forex reserves shrunk by roughly 62% in 14 months from January 2014. Russian ones are down 28.3% over the same period. But, you read of a reserves crisis in Russia, whilst you never hear much about the reserves crisis in Ukraine.

Inflation is now hitting 28.5% in January - double the Russian rate. And that is before full increases in energy prices are factored in per IMF 'reforms'. Ukraine, so far has gone through roughly 1/5 to 1/4 of these in 2014. More to come.

The point of the above comparatives between Russian and Ukrainian economies is not to argue that Russia is in an easy spot (it is not - there are structural and crisis-linked problems all over the shop), nor to argue that Ukrainian situation is somehow altering the geopolitical crisis developments in favour of Russia (it does not: Ukraine needs peace and respect for its territorial integrity and democracy, with or without economic reforms). The point is that the situation in the Ukrainian economy is so grave, that lending Kiev money cannot be an answer to the problems of stabilising the economy and getting economic recovery on a sustainable footing.

With all of this, the IMF 'plan' begs two questions:

  1. Least important: Where's the European money coming from?
  2. More important: Why would anyone lend funds to a country with fundamentals that make Greece look like Norway?
  3. Most important: How on earth can this be a sustainable package for the country that really needs at least 50% of the total funding in the form of grants, not loans? That needs real investment, not debt? That needs serious reconstruction and such deep reforms, it should reasonably be given a decade to put them in place, not 4 years that IMF is prepared to hold off on repayment of debts owed to it under the new programme?

Note: here is the debt/GDP chart adjusting for the latest current and forward (12 months) exchange rates under the same scenarios as above, as opposed to the IMF dreamt up 2014 and 2015 estimates from back October 2014:

Do note in the above - declines in debt/GDP ratio in 2016-2018 are simply a technical carry over from the IMF assumptions on growth and exchange rates. Not a 'hard' forecast.

20/2/15: Russian Public Perceptions of 2014 Events

A small snippet of an insight into Russian public opinion about big themed 2014 events via Levada Center:

The obvious conclusion: the overall dominance of Ukraine and economic crisis in public perceptions of the most important events of 2014.

Another obvious conclusion, absolute lack of interest in the fate of Russian opposition: the Navalny case being remembered by only 2%, despite the case entering headlines once again in December 2014 - January 2015. These, of course should be seen in line with "Protests after the verdict of the Navalny brothers’ trial" (3%), pushing joint significance of the case to more respectful 5%.

Third point: whilst the Western sanctions against Russia are clearly at the forefront of public attention, the counter-sanctions (often reported in the Western press as inducing hardship on ordinary Russians) are less important than the death of opera singer Yelena Obraztsova.

Fourth point: proximately linked events are showing some interesting results: for example, "Terrorist attack in Paris" (18%) and "Solidarity marches after the terrorist attack in Paris" (10%) jointly signify singular event and by importance rival "American and Western European sanctions against Russia".

Fifth point: "The creation of the European Economic Union" (5%) is about as important to Russians as "The World Economic Forum in Davos" and probably less significant than "Power outages in Crimea due to the Ukrainian blockade" (6%).

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

18/2/15: Inflation Expectations and Consumers' Readiness to Spend

In an earlier post I provided a rough snapshot of the evolving relationship between inflation and consumer demand. But here is a fresh academic paper covering the same subject:

Bachmann, Rüdiger, Tim O. Berg, and Eric R. Sims. 2015. "Inflation Expectations and Readiness to Spend: Cross-Sectional Evidence." American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 7(1): 1-35. (h/t to @CHCEmsden for this link)

From the abstract: the authors examined "the relationship between expected inflation and spending attitudes using the microdata from the Michigan Survey of Consumers. The impact of higher inflation expectations on the reported readiness to spend on durables is generally small, outside the zero lower bound, often statistically insignificant, and inside of it typically significantly negative. In our baseline specification, a one percentage point increase in expected inflation during the recent zero lower bound period reduces households' probability of having a positive attitude towards spending by about 0.5 percentage points."

In other words, when interest rates are not close to zero, consumers expecting higher inflation do lead to a weak, statistically frequently zero, uplift in readiness to increase durable consumption (type of consumption that is more sensitive to price variation, and thus should see a significant positive increase in consumption when consumers anticipate higher inflation).

But when interest rates are at their zero 'bound', consumers expecting higher inflation in the future tend to actually cut their readiness to spend on durables. Not increase it! And this negative effect of future inflation on spending plans is "significantly negative".

Now, give it a thought: the ECB is saying they need to lift inflation to close to 2% from current near zero (stripping out energy and food). Based on the US data estimates, this should depress "households' probability of having a positive attitude towards spending" by some 1 percentage point or so. In simple terms, there appears to be absolutely no logic to the ECB concerns with deflation from consumer demand perspective.

Update: a delightful take on deflation from Colm O'Regan: And a brilliant vignette on prices, markets, consumers and ... thought for deflation too: by @CHCEmsden h/t above.