Friday, August 14, 2009

From Original Sin To The Eternal Triangle - Lessons From Central Europe

The non-biblical concept of original sin, as Claus Vistesen notes in this post, when propounded in its standard Obstfeld & Krugman textbook version refers to the situation where many developing economies who are not able to borrow in their own currencies feel forced to denominate large parts of their sovereign and private sector debt in non-domestic currencies in order to attract capital from foreign investors - as evidenced most recently in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Well, piling insult upon injury, I'd like to take Claus's point a little further, and do so by drawing on another well tried and tested weapon from the Krugman armoury, the idea of the "eternal triangle".

As is evident, the reality which lies behind the current crisis in the EU10 is complex, and has its origin in a variety of causes. But one key factor has undoubtedly been the decisions the various countries took when thinking about their monetary policy and currency regimes. The case of the legendary euro "peggers" - the three Baltic countries and Bulgaria - has been receiving plenty of media attention on late, and two of the remaining six (Slovenia and Slovakia) are now members of the Eurozone, but what of the other four, Romania, Hungary, Poland and The Czech Republic? What can be learnt from the experience of these countries in the present crisis.

Well, one convenient way of thinking about what just happened could be to use Nobel Economist Paul Krugman’s Eternal Triangle” model (see his summary here), which postulates that when it comes to tensions within the strategic trio formed by exchange rate policy, monetary policy, and international liquidity flows, maintaining control over any one implies a loss of control in one of the other two.

In the case of the Central Europe "four", Poland and the Czech Republic opted for maintaining their grip on monetary policy, thus accepting the need for their currency to "freefloat" and move according to the ebbs and flows of market sentiment. As it turns out this decision has served them remarkably well, since the real appreciation in their currencies which accompanied the good times helped take some of the sting out of inflation, while their ability to rapidly reduce interest rates into the downturn has lead to currency depreciation, helping to sustain exports and avoid deflation related issues.

The other two countries (Hungary and Romania), to a greater or lesser degree prioritised currency stability, and as a result had to sacrifice a lot of control over monetary policy, in the process exposing themselves to the risk of much more violent swings in market sentiment when it comes to capital flows. Having been pushed by the logic of their currency decision towards tolerating higher inflation, they have seen the competitiveness of their home industries gradually undermined, and as a consequence found themselves pushed into large current account deficits for just as long the market was prepared to support them, and into sharp domestic contractions once they were no longer disposed so to do.

A second problem which stems from this "initial decision" has been the tendency for households in the latter two countries to overload themselves with unhedged forex loans, a move which stems to some considerable extent from the currency decision, since in order to stabilise the currency, the central banks have had to maintain higher than desireable interest rates, which only reinforced the attractiveness of borrowing in forex, which in turn produced lock-in at the central bank, since it can no longer afford to let the currency slide due to the balance sheet impact on households. Significantly the forex borrowing problem is much less in Poland than it is in Hungary or Romania, and in the Czech Republic it is nearly non-existent.

The third consequence of the decision to loosen control on domestic monetary policy has been the need to tolerate higher than desireable inflation, a necessity which was also accompanied by a predisposition to do so (which had its origin in the erroneous belief that the lions share of the wage differential between West and Eastern Europe is an “unfair” reflection of the region’s earlier history, and essentially a market distortion). The result has been, since 2005, a steady increase in unit wage costs with an accompanying loss of competitiveness, and an increasing dependence on external borrowing to fuel domestic consumption.

So, if we look at the current state of economic play in the four countries, we find two of them (Hungary and Romania) undergoing very severe economic contractions - to such a degree that in both cases the IMF has had to be called in. At the same time both of them are still having to "grin and bear" higher than desireable inflation and interest rates. In the other two countries the contraction is milder, the financial instability less dramatic, and both inflation and domestic interest rates are much lower. Really, looked at in this light, I think there can be little doubt who made the best decision.

Appendix

Here for comparative purposes are charts illustrating the varying degrees of economic contraction, inflation, and interest rates. GDP contraction rates actually present a little problem at the moment, since one of the relevant countries - Poland - still has to report. However Michal Boni, chief adviser to the Prime Minister, told the newspaper Dziennik this week that the economy expanded at an annual rate of between 0.5% and 1% in Q1. So lets take the lower bound as good, it is still an expansion.



The economy in the Czech Republic contracted by an estimated 4.9% year on year in the second quarter.

The Hungarian economy contracted by an estimated 7.4% year on year in Q2.



While the Romanian economy contracted by an estimated 8.8% year on year.


Inflation Rates

Poland's CPI rose by an annual 4.2% in July.


The CPI in the Czech Republic rose by an annual 0.3% in July.



Romania's CPI rose by an annual 5.1% in July.


Polands CPI rose by an annual 5.1% in July.


Interest Rates

The benchmark central bank interest rate in Poland is currently 3.5%.

The benchmark central bank interest rate in the Czech Republic is currently 1.25%.


The benchmark central bank interest rate in Romania is currently 8.5%.



The benchmark central bank interest rate in Hungary is currently 8.5%.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Czech Exports Slide

Czech external trade was down again in February, with exports and imports falling by 22.2% and 21.5% year-on-year respectively. The trade balance was in surplus (by CZK 8.7 bn), down by CZK 4.3 bn (or around a third) year-on-year. The trade balance was negatively affected by a fall of CZK 5.8 bn in the machinery and transport equipment surplus.



Seasonally adjusted exports were down by 0.9% and imports by 2.9%, month-on-month. Due to the depreciation of the koruna against the two major currencies, external trade decreased at a more rapid pace when measured in euros (exports -30.6%, imports -30.0%) and in US dollars (exports -39.8%, imports -39.3%), although it should be remembered that February 2008 had one working day more than February 2009.

The trade surplus with the other EU member states fell by CZK 4.3 bn while the trade deficit with non-EU countries decreased by CZK 1.9 bn. The trade balance deteriorated with Poland (by CZK 2.4 bn) and the United States (by CZK 1.0 bn) as surplus turned into a deficit. Surplus fell in trade with the United Kingdom (by CZK 1.4 bn), Italy and Romania (both by CZK 1.3 bn), Spain and Sweden (both by CZK 1.1 bn) and Slovakia (by CZK 1.0 bn), and trade deficit with China deepened (by CZK 0.9 bn). Trade balance improved with Germany (surplus up by CZK 6.0 bn as imports dropped more than exports). The trade deficit decreased with Japan (by CZK 1.8 bn), Korea (by CZK 1.7 bn) and the Russian Federation (by CZK 1.4 bn). The trade balance improved with Turkey (by CZK 1.4 bn) as deficit turned into a surplus.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Topolánek's toppling leads to early Czech election

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Election Resources On The Internet

The Czech Republic will be holding an early general election later this year - nearly a year ahead of schedule - after the center-right coalition government of Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek was brought down last week in a parliamentary no-confidence vote. Topolánek, who submitted his resignation last Thursday but remains as caretaker head of government and leader of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) - the largest party in the Central European country's bicameral legislature - subsequently reached an agreement with former Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek, the leader of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) - the main opposition force - to hold an early poll next October; a specific date remains to be determined.

Prime Minister Topolánek came to office following a closely fought general election in June 2006, which left the Chamber of Deputies - the lower house of the Czech Parliament - evenly split between left- and right-wing parties. However, in early 2007 Topolánek was able to secure a parliamentary majority with the help of two rebel ČSSD deputies, and he went on to survive four no-confidence motions during the course of 2007 and 2008. Nonetheless, his government depended upon a fragile majority, which was finally shattered when four dissident deputies - two from ODS, plus two recently expelled from the Green Party (SZ) - sided with ČSSD and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) to pass by 101-96 a vote of no-confidence.

Coincidentally, the fall of the Czech government came on the same day that Topolánek - who currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency - made headlines around the world when he criticized the economic stimulus program of U.S. President Barack Obama as "the road to hell." While the vote of confidence was triggered by allegations of abuse of state subsidies by a deputy who left ČSSD to support ODS, some opposition deputies voted to bring down Topolánek as a protest against his government's economic policies, which according to them failed to deal effectively with the global financial crisis; although the Czech economy is not in as dire straits as those of other nearby countries (such as Hungary), the Czech Republic is nonetheless forecast to suffer a recession this year.

Opinion polls have ČSSD ahead of ODS; that said, the gap between the two parties appears to be narrowing down. Nonetheless, the Social Democrats are hoping for a repeat of their performance in last October's regional and Senate elections, in which ČSSD captured 23 of 27 Senate mandates up for renewal, depriving ODS of its absolute majority in the upper house of Parliament. Although it has some ex-Communist members, ČSSD is not a post-Communist party; unlike major left-of-center parties in other Eastern European countries, it traces its roots to the Social Democratic Party that was forcibly merged with the Communists in 1948. However, the Czech Social Democrats have to compete on the left with the Communists, who still command a significant following.

The Czech Chamber of Deputies is elected by party-list proportional representation in regional constituencies - Parliamentary Elections in the Czech Republic has a review of the Czech electoral system - and no single party has ever commanded an absolute lower house majority. Moreover, the ongoing presence of a sizable, unreformed Communist Party has greatly complicated the task of forming stable governments in the Czech Republic. While the Social Democrats have called upon Communist support from time to time (as they did for last week's no-confidence vote), neither them nor the parties to their right regard the Communists as suitable coalition partners, largely for historical reasons: save for the short-lived "Prague Spring" of 1968, the Communist Party governed Czechoslovakia - the now-defunct federation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia - in a totalitarian fashion from 1948 to 1989, when the Velvet Revolution put an end to the Communist regime.

As a result, since 1996 the Czech Republic has been ruled either by shaky coalition cabinets, such as those formed from 2002 to 2006 by ČSSD and the four party coalition headed by the Christian and Democratic Union-Czechoslovak People's Party (KDU-ČSL), and from 2007 to the present by ODS, KDU-ČSL and SZ; or by minority governments dependent upon the good will of the opposition, as was the case from 1998 to 2002, when ODS reached an "opposition agreement" with ČSSD under which the Civic Democrats tolerated Milos Zeman's minority Social Democratic government without supporting it.

In fact, Topolánek may have to reach out to the Social Democrats in order to secure Senate passage of the Lisbon Treaty, which would streamline the functioning of the European Union. While Topolánek is in favor of the treaty, many Euroskeptics in ODS remain opposed to it, as is President Vaclav Klaus, the former leader of the Civic Democrats.

At this juncture, it remains unclear what will happen to Prime Minister Topolánek's outgoing government until the election is held. ČSSD leader Paroubek declared that he is willing to tolerate the government until the end of June (when Sweden takes over the EU presidency) if certain conditions are met, but favors the appointment of an interim government of non-party experts after that date. Meanwhile, Topolánek insists on remaining in office, but he and President Klaus - who has the right to appoint the next government - are political enemies, and not surprisingly Klaus is proposing the formation of a new cabinet without further delay. However, Czech governments require majority support in the Chamber of Deputies in order to remain in office, and in light of last week's events it appears rather unlikely that such support would be forthcoming.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Czech Industrial Output Drops By 23.3% In January

Czech industrial output fell the most in at least 16 years in January, the fourth successive month of contraction. Output was down 23.3 percent following a revised 12.8 percent slump in December. The drop was the highest since Czech Reublic came into existance in January 1993.



The slowdown in the euro region, which is the main market for Czech goods, is really hurting exports, and both the central bank and the Finance Ministry are cutting their 2009 forecasts. Central bank Governor Zdenek Tuma estimates that the economy may contract by as much as 2 percent this year. Others put the size of the contraction much higher:

“The slump of industrial output confirms fears that the economy may contract 3 percent to 4 percent this year,” said Vojtech Benda, senior economist at ING Wholesale Banking in Prague, in a note to clients. “For the central bank, it presents quite a clear argument for another lowering of interest rates, which could be outlined after the Thursday meeting.”


The central bank, which has cut the benchmark repurchase rate to 1.75 percent, meets again this week Most analysts feel they will keep rates unchanged, but as we see above Vojtech Benda is not so sure, and looking at today's data I am inclined to agree with him.

Strong Contraction In Eastern Europe Forecast

According to a study out today by Capital Economics East Europe’s gross domestic product will shrink 6 percent on average this year, with every single economy in the region posting a contraction.

The biggest decline (15 percent) will be in the Baltics. Poland is forecast to contract by 3 percent. The polish decline will be lead by a drop in industrial output that will help push the unemployment rate to close to 15 percent. Falling tax receipts will widen the fiscal gap to 5 percent of GDP, making the goal of euro adoption in 2012 unlikely.

Hungary and Romania, which is negotiating external aid, will both shrink by 7.5 percent. Turkey will also shrink 7.5 percent, while Ukraine’s and Estonia’s output will decline by 10 percent. Bulgaria, expected to shrink 5 percent this year, is likely to follow its neighbor Romania in applying for an IMF loan as a collapse of exports and inward investment will shrink the money supply, forcing the government to drain its fiscal reserves to restore liquidity. Capital Economics argue Bulgaria's reserves will only cover their needs for a further six to 12 months.


Update Czech Central Bank Leaves Interest Rates Unchanged

The Czech central bank left its benchmark interest rate unchanged on concern that a reduction would further weaken the koruna and spark inflation. The Prague-based Ceska Narodni Banka kept the two-week repurchase rate at 1.75 percent. So concerns about the Koruna have won out over growth in the short term.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

How Not To Manage Eastern Europe's Financial Crisis (Part 1)

"Saying that the situation is the same for all central and eastern European states, I don't see that......you cannot compare the dire situation in Hungary with that of other countries."
Angela Merkel, Brussels, Sunday


"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"
Tolstoy


In Europe, leaders rejected pleas for a comprehensive rescue plan for troubled East European economies, promising instead to provide “case-by-case” support. That means a slow dribble of funds, with no chance of reversing the downward spiral.
Paul Krugman


Bank regulators from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Slovakia met today and issued a joint statement, ostensibly to reduce the some of the impact of what they term "alarmist comments" from the Austrian government about how the regional banking system is now in such a precarious state that it requires urgent action at EU level to prevent meltdown. The Austrian government are, of course, concerned about the impact of any meltdown on their own banking system. The result of this "reassuring statement" can be seen in the chart below (10 years, HUF vs Euro).



Within minutes of the joint statement Hungary's currency plummeted to an all-time low against the euro and to a 6.5-yr low versus the US dollar. In fact the HUF rapidly depreciated to 312 per euro from 307.50 before climbing back in later trading to 310. And the reason for this swift reaction? Hungary was not invited to join the statement. As the forint plunged, Hungary 's banking regulator hurriedly signed up to the statement, blaming the original omission on a communications mess-up, but the damage was already done.

“Each of the CEE Member States has its own specific economic and financial situation and these countries do not constitute a homogenous region. It is thus important first to distinguish between the EU Member States and the non-EU countries and also to clarify issues specific to particular countries or particular banking groups."

Well this just takes us back to Tolstoy, each of them have their own specific problems, but the underlying reality is that they all face problems, and are vulnerable, each in their own way.


Hungary's economic fundamentals are clearly much weaker than those to be found in the Czech Republic and Poland as things stand, but what about Bulgaria and Romania? And the Czech Republic and Poland are about to have a pretty hard time of it as a result of their export dependence on the West, and Poland has the unwinding of the zloty options scandal still to hit the front pages. So there is plenty of food for thought here before throwing Hungary to the wolves. A default in Hungary could very easily lead to contagion elsewhere, and then the impact in the West is very hard to foresee. We should not be playing round with lighted matches right next to our fireworks stock. "Hey, it's dark in here" and then "boom".

Yesterday it was Latvia's turn, and the cost of protecting against a Latvian default (Latvia is the first European Union member priced at so- called distressed levels) rose to a record following the announcement that the unemployement level rose from 8.3% in December to 9.5% in January, the highest level in nearly nine years. In fact credit-default swaps linked to Latvia increased nine basis points to an all-time high of 1,109 basis points, according to CMA Datavision in London. The cost is above the 1,000 level, breached last week, that investors consider distressed, and is now about 270 basis points above contracts linked to Lithuania, the next-highest EU member.

So two countries are being systematically detached here - Latvia and Hungary - and statements by EU leaders are unwittingly aiding and abetting the process. But we should all remember, after they have eaten Latvia and Hungary for breakfast, the financial markets will undoubtedly chew on other luckless countries over lunch (Romania's Q4 GDP data was out today, and it was a shocker, and S&P have already said they are "closely monitoring" the situation), before perhaps moving on to bigger game for supper.

And we should remember here, no one is too big to fall, and I have already been warning about the gravity of Germany's situation, with a rapidly ageing population, a hefty bank bailout of its own to swallow, and total export dependence for GDP growth. Final data from Markit economics out today showed that Germany's composite PMI fell to 36.3 in February from 38.0 in January. That was the lowest level registered since the series began in January 1998. And it means that the German economy - which is highly interlocked with the whole of Eastern Europe (Austria holds the finance and Germany the industrial exposure) - is certainly contracting more rapidly in the first quarter of this year than it was in the last quarter of 2008, and may well contract in whole year 2009 by something in the order of 5%. So maybe someone over there in Germany should be reading the poem you will see below aloud to "our Angela" right now (Oh, and if you don't speak German, you can find a translation here).

Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Kommunist.
Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.

Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten,
habe ich nicht protestiert;
ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.

Als sie die Juden holten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Jude.

Als sie mich holten,
gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte.

What Last Weekend's EU Summit Did And Did Not Achieve

Well reading the press on Monday morning it would have been fairly easy to reach the conclusion that nothing really happened yesterday in Brussels, and that a great opportunity was lost. The latter may finally be true, but the former most certainly is not.

Let's look first at what was not decided on Sunday. The leaders of the 27 member countries in the European Union most certainly did not vote to back a proposal from Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany for a 180-billion-euro ($228 billion) aid package for central and eastern Europe. They did not back it because it was not even seriously on the agenda at this point. These people move slowly and we need to talk them throught one step at a time. So what was on the agenda. EU bonds for one, and accelerated euro membership for the East for a second. And once we have the EU bonds firmly in place, then that will be the time to decide how we might use the extra shooting power they will bring us (boosting the ECB balance sheet would be one serious option they should consider, see forthcoming post from me and Claus Vistesen). That is when the emergency blood transfusion Gyurcsany was rooting for might come into play, but on this, as on so many items, the details of how we do what we do as well as the "what we do" will become important, so the moves we do take need to be well thought out, and systematic, they need to get to the roots of the problem, and not simply respond to problems on a piecemeal, reactive basis.

As Paul Krugman puts it "In Europe, leaders rejected pleas for a comprehensive rescue plan for troubled East European economies, promising instead to provide “case-by-case” support. That means a slow dribble of funds, with no chance of reversing the downward spiral." Amen to that!

But let's look at little bit deeper at what has been decided, or if you prefer, at what has been floated, and may be "decided" at the next meet up. Well for one, we have promised not to be protectionist, and for another, The World Bank, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and The European Investment Bank (EIB) have launched a two-year plan to lend up to 24.5 billion euros ($31.2 billion) in Central and Eastern Europe. This sounds a bit like trying to drain an Ocean with a teaspoon, and it is, so predictably the financial markets were not too impressed, expecially when they learned that not much of what was promised was going to be new money (as opposed to theacceleration of existing commitments), and especially when we take this sum and compare it with the likely quantities which are needed to "take the bull by the horms". EBRD President Thomas Mirow (who is more likely to give a low side estimate than a high side one) recentlly told the French newspaper Le Figaro that in his view Eastern European banks could need some $150 billion in recapitalisation and $200 billion in refinancing to stave off the risk of a banking failure in the region. At least.

"(It) sounds like a lot of money, but when (commercial) banks have lent Eastern Europe about 1.7 trillion dollars, 25 billion is peanuts," said Nigel Rendell, emerging markets strategist at Royal Bank of Canada in London. "Ultimately we will have to get a much bigger package and a coordinated response from the IMF, the European Union and maybe the G7."


So let's now move on to the positive side of the balance sheet, since as we know our leaders are a slowish bunch when it comes to grasping what is actually going on here, and an even slower group when it comes to acting on that knowledge once it has been acquired. The biggest plus to come out of last weekend's thrash is most definitely the fact that the idea of accelerating membership of the eurozone for the Eastern countries has now started to gain traction, if with no-one else then at least with Luxembourg Prime Minister (and Finance Minister, he is a busy man) Jean-Claude Juncker, aka "Mr Euro", who was quoted by Reuters on his way into the meeting saying he did not expect any early change to accession criteria for the single currency.

"I don't think we can change the accession criteria to the euro overnight. This is not feasible," Juncker told reporters as he arrived for a summit where non-euro eastern countries are due to call for accession procedures to be accelerated after their local currencies have taken a hammering on markets.


While in the news conference following the meeting he said that there was now a consensus that the two-year stability test required for a currency of a country hoping to join the euro zone should be discussed.

"I can understand that there may be a slight question mark over the condition that one needs to be member of the monetary system (ERM2) for two years, we will discuss this calmly," Juncker told a news conference after a meeting of EU leaders.


So something actually went on during the meeting, even if we are largely left guessing about what. Angela Merkel also left a similar impression that movement was taking place. "There are requests to enter ERM 2 faster," Merkel is quoted as saying. "We can have a look at that."

Now I have already spelt out at some length why I think the Eastern Countries should be offered accelerated membership of the eurozone forthwith (see this post) as has Wolfgang Munchau (in this FT article here).

The Economist, in a relatively sensible leader which I have already referred to, divides the Eastern countries into three groups. Firstly there are those countries that are a long way from joining the EU, such as Ukraine, Turkey and Serbia. As the Economist points out, while it would be foolhardy practically and hard-hearted ethically to simply stand back and watch, European institutions are pretty limited in what they can do apart from offereing some timely financial help or some sound institutional advice, and it is entirely appropriate that the main burden of pulling these countries back from the brink should fall on the International Monetary Fund.

Then there are those East and Central European Countries who are themselves members of the Union, and here it is the EU that must take the leading role. A first group of these is constituted by the Baltic trio (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and Bulgaria, who have currencies which are effectively tied to the euro, either through currency boards, or pegged exchange rates. Simply abandoning these pegs without euro support would both bankrupt the large chunks of their economies that have borrowed in euros and deal a huge psychological blow to public confidence in the whole idea of independent statehood. Yet devalue they must (either via internal deflation, or by an outright breaking of the peg) and either road is what Jimmy Cliff would have called a hard one to travel. As the Economist itself suggests, these countries have suffered the most painful part of being in the euro zone—the inability to devalue and regain competitiveness—without getting the most substantial benefits of participation, so although none of them will meet the Maastricht treaty’s criteria for euro entry any time soon (and since they are tiny - the Baltics have a population of barely 7m, and Bulgaria is hardly bigger), letting them directly adopt the euro ought not to set an unwelcome precedent for others and should certainly not damage confidence in the single currency (any more than it already is, that is).

On the other hand unilateral adoption of the euro is a rather more difficult issue for the third group of countries, those who are EU members, are not in the eurozone and have floating exchange rates: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania. None of these is here and now, tomorrow, ready for the tough discipline of a single currency that rules out any future devaluation, and they are large enough collectively (around 80 million) that their premature entry could expose the euro to more turbulence than it already has on its plate. But so could simply leaving the situation as is, since if these economies enter a sharp contraction (more on this in a coming post) then the loan defaults are only going to present similar problems for the eurozone banking system as their currencies slide. The big vulnerability for Western Europe from the Polish, Hungarian and Romanian economies, arises from the large volume of Euro and CHF denominated debt taken on by firms and households, mainly from foreign-owned banks. As the Economist puts it "what once seemed a canny convergence play now looks like a barmy risk, for both the borrowers and the banks, chiefly Italian and Austrian, that lent to them".

So we now have several EU leaders opening the door for the first time to the possibility of fast-track membership of the eurozone. As we have seen German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the summit that we "could consider" accelerating the candidacy process, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that "the debate is open", and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who heads the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, said he was willing "to calmly discuss" such a possibility. So the debate is open. When will the next meeting be? On Sunday I hope. A week in all this is a very long time for reflection in this hectic world. We need proposals, and concrete ones for how to move forward here. Especially since at the present time all our attentions seem to be focusing on the East, and there is also the South and the West (the UK and Ireland) to think about. Perhaps our leaders will be able to make time from their crowded agendas for a series of mid-week meetings on this topic.

And while the leaders dither, the markets react, and as Bloomberg reports the dollar surges as everyone seeks a safe haven during the coming storm.

The dollar rose to the highest level since April 2006 against the currencies of six major U.S. trading partners.... and .... The euro dropped to a one-week low against the greenback as European Union leaders vetoed Hungary’s proposal for 180 billion euros ($227 billion) of loans to former communist economies in eastern Europe. The Swedish krona fell to a record versus the euro on speculation the Baltic region’s borrowers may default, and the Hungarian forint and Polish zloty tumbled.

The Hungarian forint led eastern European currencies lower today, falling 3.1 percent to 243.86, while Poland’s zloty lost 3 percent to 3.7796. The forint fell to a 6 1/2-year low of 246.32 on Feb. 17 as Moody’s Investors Service said it may cut the ratings of several banks with units in eastern Europe. The zloty touched 3.9151 the next day, the weakest since May 2004.

EU leaders spurned Hungary’s request for aid at a summit in Brussels yesterday. Growth in Poland, the biggest eastern European economy, will slow to 2 percent, the slackest pace since 2002, the European Commission forecasts.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Let The East Into The Eurozone Now!

“It’s 20 years after Europe was united in 1989 – what a tragedy if you allow Europe to split again.”
Robert Zoellick, World Bank president, in an interview with the Financial Times



(Click On Image To View Video)

World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, made a call this week - in an interview with the Financial Times - for a European Union-led and co-ordinated global support programme for the economies of Central and Eastern Europe. I agree wholeheartedly, and even if I have, reluctantly, to accept the point made last week by our Economy & Finance Commissioner Joaquin Almunia that our pockets, though deep, are certainly not bottomless (and thus it is probably beyond our means right now to rescue the non-EU Eastern states), I still feel we should make good on our responsibilities to those who are EU members, and to do so by opening the doors of the Eurozone to those who wish to join. Since this proposal is fairly radical, the justification that follows will be lengthy.

This is not a view I have arrived at lightly, but looking at the extent of the problem we now have before us, a problem which is growing by the day, and taking into account the fact that the origins of the economic crisis in the East must surely rest (at least in part) in the decision to make euro participation a condition for EU membership for these countries (a possibility which was subsequently withdrawn in the critical moment, when the going started to turn rough), and then assessing the risk to the Western European banking system which would be posed by simply sitting back and watching it all happen, I think this move is not only the least damaging of the policies we can now follow, it is the in effect the only viable path left to us if we are to keep the eurozone as an integral entity together.

If this proposal were accepted a new set of membership criteria would need to be drawn up, of course, but the underlying principle would have to be one of offering the certainty of entry as guaranteed forthwith, for those who chose to accept. Rules were made to be broken, and nothing should be so inflexible - not even the Maastricht eurozone membership criteria - that it cannot be ammended as circumstances dictate. And at this point even the undertaking that this - like the long awaited US Stimulus programme - was on the table, would be sufficient to provide immediate, and much needed relief. Flirting with doing nothing here is, in my opinion, flirting with disaster, both in the East and in the West.


Existing Maastricht Criteria

Convergence criteria (also known as the Maastricht criteria) are the criteria for European Union member states to enter the third stage of European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and adopt the euro. The four main criteria are based on Article 121(1) of the European Community Treaty. Those member countries who are to adopt the euro need to meet certain criteria.

1. Inflation rate: No more than 1.5 percentage points higher than the three lowest inflation member states of the EU.

2. Government finance:

Annual government deficit: The ratio of the annual government deficit to gross domestic product (GDP) must not exceed 3% at the end of the preceding fiscal year. If not, it is at least required to reach a level close to 3%. Only exceptional and temporary excesses would be granted for exceptional cases.

Government debt: The ratio of gross government debt to GDP must not exceed 60% at the end of the preceding fiscal year. Even if the target cannot be achieved due to the specific conditions, the ratio must have sufficiently diminished and must be approaching the reference value at a satisfactory pace.

3. Exchange rate: Applicant countries should have joined the exchange-rate mechanism (ERM II) under the European Monetary System (EMS) for 2 consecutive years and should not have devaluated its currency during the period.

4. Long-term interest rates: The nominal long-term interest rate must not be more than two percentage points higher than in the three lowest inflation member states.







The Dimensions Of The Problem

European governments, the European Union and international financial organizations need to act fast on risks stemming form banks’ exposure in the eastern part of the continent to avert an escalation of the credit crisis, Nomura Holdings Inc. said. East European countries are struggling to refinance foreign- currency loans taken out by borrowers during years of prosperity through 2007, when economic growth averaged at more than 5 percent. The International Monetary Fund, which has bailed out Latvia, Hungary, Serbia, Ukraine and Belarus, warned on Jan. 28 that bank losses may widen as “shocks are transmitted between mature and emerging market banking systems.” “Swift action is needed to restore confidence and prevent trouble” to financial and economic stability in the euro region and emerging Europe, said Peter Attard Montalto, an emerging markets economist at Nomura International in London. “Any move should be quick. The situation has begun to decline more rapidly since the end of last year and there is risk that any action may come too late.”
Bloomberg

Robert Zoellick is far from being a lone voice in the wilderness about the current level of risk to the coutries in the East, and indeed precisely those EU banks who have been most active in emerging Europe are now busily trying to convince EU regulators, the European Central Bank and Brussels itself to coordinate new measures to counter the impact of the financial crisis confronting the region. The problem in the East certainly now adds a new dimesion to the problems facing us here in Europe, since West European governments are now being simultaneously hit on a number of fronts, and the situation is become more complicated by the day.




In the first place most West European economies are now either in or near recession, and their domestic banking systems are, to either a greater or a lesser extent, struggling. The West European states are thus, by and large, already feeling stress on their own sovereign borrowing capacities. But, with greater or lesser effectiveness, these countries are still able to increase their debt, even if sometimes the surge in borrowing is very dramatic, as in the case of Ireland, which will see gross debt/GDP shooting up from 24.8% in 2007 to a projected 68.2% in 2010 (EU January 2009 Forecast).

The situation in Eastern Europe is very different, and their economies and credit ratings evidently can't support such dramatic increases in their debt levels. Thus, in the case of those countries with a significant home banking presence, like Latvia's Parex, or Hungary's OTP, the support of external organisations (the IMF, the World Bank, the EU) becomes rapidly necessary when the bank concerned starts to have liquidity problems. But as a result of the consequent bailout the debt to GDP ratio starts to rise in a way which then places even subsequent eurozone membership in jeopardy. Latvia's Debt/GDP is, for example set to rise from around 12% of GDP in 2007 to over 55% in 2010. With a 10% plus GDP contraction already in the works for 2009, it is clear that Latvia's debt to GDP will rise beyond the critical 60% level. Hungary's debt/GDP is already above, and rising. If we don't do something soon, these two countries at least are being launched off towards sovereign default.




But the other half of this particular and peculiar coin turns up again in a rather unexpected way, and that is in the form of those West European banks who have subsidiaries in CEE countries, and who find now themselves faced, not with bailouts, but with ever rising default rates. This difficulty evidently and inevitably then works its way back upstream to the parent bank, and to the home state national debt, as the bank almost inevitably needs to seek support from one West European government, or another (in fact Unicredit, which has difficulty getting money from an already cash-strapped Italian government is talking of applying for support from the Austrian government via its Austrian subsidiary).

Austria is, in fact, a very good case in point here, since, as Finance Minister Josef Proell recently indicated, the country had some 230 billion euros of debt outstanding in Eastern Europe, equivalent to around 70 percent of Austria's GDP. The Austrian daily "Der Standard" have also reported the analysts view that a failure rate of 10 percent in Eastern Europe's debt repayments could lead to serious difficulties for Austria's financial sector. And this is no hypothetical "what if" type problem since the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has estimated Eastern Europe's bad debts could go over 10 percent and could even reach 20 percent in the course of the current crisis. Underlining the mounting concern in Austria, Proell tried last week to convince EU finance ministers to provide 150 billion euros is support to CEE economies as a first step in trying to contain the growing wave of defaults.



The total quantity of debt outstanding is hard to put a precise number on, but the Bank for International Settlements estimated that, as of last September, more than $1.25 trillion had been leant by eurozone banks, and if you add in U.K., Swedish and Swiss bank liabilities the number rises to $1.45 trillion.

Western Europeean banks have a very important market share in the East, ranging from a low of 65 percent in Poland to almost 100 percent in the Czech Republic. This basically means two things, that the region's businesses and consumers are extraordinarily dependent on uninterrupted capital inflows from the West, and that some West European banking systems are extremely sensitive to rising default rates in the East. Of course the problem goes beyond the EU's borders, and while EU bank market shares in the Community of Independent States is rather less significant than in the EU12, due to the still substantial domestic ownership which exists there, exposure to defaults is not unimportant, especially in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and, of course, in Russia itself. Further, there is South East Europe to think about, and countries like Serbia and Croatia.

Large Banks Take The Initiative

Getting near to desperation, some of the largest banks involved - Italy's UniCredit and Banca Intesa, Austria's Raiffeisen International and Erste Group Bank, France's Societe Generale and Belgium's KBC - have launched a common initiative to try to lobby for an EU wide solution to the problem.

UniCredit is the largest lender in Poland and Bulgaria, while Erste is number one in Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with KBC occupying the position in Hungary, Intesa in Serbia, and Raiffeisen in Russia and Ukraine. Hungary's OTP Bank, emerging Europe's number 5 lender and the largest one in its home country, does not formally belong to the group. On the other hand OTP is actively looking for support.

OTP Bank Nyrt., Hungary’s biggest bank, said it’s in talks over a “role” for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as it announced a 97 percent drop in fourth-quarter profit and “substantial” job cuts. As well as a possible EBRD involvement, OTP may also seek funds from Hungary’s emergency loan package from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank to “better serve the economy,” Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Sandor Csanyi said at a press conference in Budapest today. “There’s a chance the EBRD will assume a role in OTP, but I must stress that we plan no issue of new shares,” he said. OTP “doesn’t need to be saved,” Csanyi added.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, while expressing support for the bank initiative, has stopped short of offering concrete assistance or suggesting measures beyond those which are already in place.

The president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Thomas Mirow, wrote in the Financial Times this week the bank proposals "deserve full support as a worsening crisis in emerging Europe will threaten Europe as a whole".

The Austrian government has already announced it is trying to raise support for a general European Union initiative to rescue the region’s banking system. The government has set aside 100 billion euros in cash and guarantees to stabilise its banking sector. Next in line in terms of exposure are Italy ($232 billion), Germany ($230 billion) and France ($175 billion).

Unicredit is publicly rather dismissive of the problem (as can be seen from the slide below which from a presentation they gave earlier this week, please click on image to see better), but Italian investors are far from convinced by their arguments, as witnessed by the fact that their stock has plunged 41 percent this year, and by the fact that they were forced to sell 2.98 billion euros in 50 year bonds this week to shore up their Tier I capital after investors only bought about 4.6 million shares, or 0.48 percent, from their most recent rights offer. UniCredit, which said last month it is considering asking for government assistance, has also been disposing of assets to raise money and it plans to pay shareholders their dividends in yet more shares. Nationalisation of banks to supply credit lines to the private sector is one hypothesis currently being studied by Silvio Berlusconi, according to a Financial Times report this morning.

(Click on image for better viewing)
The Austrian proposal includes funds from the European Investment Bank, the European Central Bank and the EU Cohesion Fund. The Austrian government has offered money of its own and has been urging Germany, France, Italy and Belgium as well as the EU itself to contribute. One feature, however, stands out in all of the proposals which have so far been advanced: they are loan based-support. What Soros calls the "tricky question" of fiscal allocation from Europe's richer member states has not so far been raised, but it will be, since it will have to be.

And of course, Austria's concern is far from being altruistic, as Austria's economy and sovereign debt stability depend on finding a solution. It is hardly surprising to learn that credit-default swaps linked to Austrian government debt soared this week - by 39 basis points to a record 225 - on concern the country will need to bail out the domestic banks itself as they report losses and writedowns linked to eastern European investments. Erste, which said last week that full-year profit probably slumped by almost 26 percent, is in talks with the government to get 2.7 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in state aid. RZB has asked for 1.75 billion euros.

The European Central Bank on the other hand, seems reluctant to extend emergency financial help to crisis-hit countries beyond the 16-country eurozone. The ECB did not have “a mandate to be a regional United Nations agency”, Yves Mersch, governor of Luxembourg’s central bank, recently told the Financial Times. Such comments reveal the level of resistance which exists within the ECB’s 22-strong governing council to the idea of offering financial support to countries outside the zone.

The ECB has so far offered loans to Hungary and Poland, but has attached what some consider to be excessively strong conditions on facilities allowing them to borrow up to 5billion and 10billion euros respectively. Mr Mersch, whose views are thought to be widely shared in the ECB, suggested the central bank was worried about setting precedents if it relaxed its stance on helping individual countries. While some euromembers might favour assisting nearby nations, “we must not forget that other people might be sensitive to different countries”.

Who Bails Out The West European Banks In The East?

Governments and EU officials are struggling to formulate a coherent response to the economic and financial turmoil that has started to engulf the eastern part of the old continent. EurActiv presents a round-up of national situations with contributions from its network. Leaders of EU countries from central and eastern Europe will meet on 1 March ahead of an extraordinary summit on the same day with the bloc's other members, it emerged on Thursday (19 January). Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has invited his counterparts from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia for the talks to ensure the 27-nation meeting on the financial crisis is not dominated by the interests of Western member states. See full Euractiv article on background.



The EU has so far provided emergency balance-of-payments assistance to two of the East European member states in difficulty - Hungary and Latvia, and EU ministers did agree in December to more than double the funding available for such emergency lending to 25 billion euros ( so far Hungary has been allocated 6.5 billion and Latvia 3.1 billion). It is also quite probable that such lending will now have to be extended to the two newest southeast European members, Romania and Bulgaria, since their ballooning current account deficits and dramatic credit crunches mean that they are steadily getting into more and more difficulty.

The core of the problem is that the East European economies enjoyed strong credit driven booms, which fuelled higher than desireable inflation and lead to strong foreign exchange loan borrowing which simply bloated current account deficits. Now capital flows into emerging Europe have dried up as the global financial crisis has raised investors' risk aversion and prompted them to dump emerging market assets, leaving foreign-owned banks as the only source of loans for companies and consumers.


Italy's UniCredit, the biggest lender in emerging Europe, warned at the end of January that there was a clear risk of the global credit crunch gripping the region. UniCredit board member Erich Hampel stated at a Euromoney conference in Vienna that the bank was committed to fund its subsidiaries in the CEE countries and would continue to lend, but at the same time made absolutely clear that in order to do this his bank would need government support, whether from Austria, or Poland, or Italy itself.

Hampel said Bank Austria would decide during the first quarter whether to tap the Austrian government's banking stability package for fresh equity. " he said. "Our budget is under discussion now and clearly assumes growth in lending and in funding to the East. "

And according to a report from the Austrian central bank the fact that a relatively small number of Western European groups - including three Austrian ones - own most of the banks in Central and Eastern Europe means that there is the risk of a "domino effect", implying the crisis would spread quickly from one country to another. "How capital flows into (emerging Europe) will develop depends on the financial strength of the parent groups and of the sister banks, and on whether the parents are willing and able to fund their subsidiaries," the bank's half-yearly Financial Stability Report said. "The risks to refinancing are increased by the danger of a domino effect, because a large part of the foreign capital in many countries comes from a relatively small number of Western European banks," .

"What we see is that the emerging European economies have lost all sources of funding but banking," said Deborah Revoltella, chief economist for central and eastern Europe of UniCredit, the region's biggest lender. The task to carry whole economies through a downturn comes at a time when parent banks already face a double challenge: a likely sharp rise in loan defaults at their eastern subsidiaries and more difficult and expensive refinancing for themselves. "The international banks cannot solve this situation," Revoltella said. "They can do their part, and it's fundamental that they do their part but we have to take care of the other sources of funding which are missing now."
And it isn't only Austria who is worried, since Greek central bank governor George Provopoulos warned Greek banks only last Tuesday against transferring funds from the country's bank package to the Balkans, where they have invested heavily.

Regional Risks

In our view GDP growth is like to be negative in all CEE countries this year. In those countries “least” affected by the crisis (i.e. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia) GDP is like to drop at least 2-5%, while those countries worst affected (i.e. the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine) are likely to face double digit declines in GDP. In other words, in terms of expected output lost in the region this is as bad as or even worse than the Asian crisis of 1997-98.
Danskebank - CEE: This Looks Like Meltdown


The problem that the EU has in adressing the situation in the Eastern member states is that what we have on our hands is not only a banking crisis, there is also a strong credit crunch at work, one which is now having a severe impact on the real economies in the region. Most of the economies in the region are already in recession, and those that are not soon will be (I have intersperced a number of relevant graphs throughout this post which should give some general impression of what is happening). Thus these countries are all taking multiple hits at one and the same time.

1/ In the first place they have an economic contraction on their hands, in some cases becuase they are struggling with a steep decline of export demand from western Europe, in others because their externally financed credit boom has now come to a sharp and painful end.

2/. Most countries in the region have some form of foreign currency exposure, although at present this is largely household and corporate rather than sovereign. In a number of countries -notably Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltics this is particularly onerous since most of the mortgages were taken out in euros or Swiss Francs, and the default risk is now rising as their economies either deflate (internal devaluation) or their currencies fall as part of the regional sell-off. The danger is that as the bailouts are implemented at local level this exposure is steadily transferred over to the sovereign level, creating a dangerous dynamic which can endanger future eurozone membership. States which default will be unlikely candidate members.

3/. These countries are also suffering the impact of significant asset writedowns, as those assets bought at very high prices during the boom - some at up to six times their book value - now have to be written down, further weighing on earnings and weakening financial and corporate balance sheets.

4/ Finally there is significant contagion risk. The comparatively small number of foreign lenders involved has lead IMF economists and the credit ratings agencies alike to repeatedly warn of how the risk that a seemingly isolated incident in one country may rapidly spread right across the region.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the whole banking sector and financial system (in the region) rests on the response of parent banks," said Neil Shearing, economist at Capital Economics. "If they withdraw funding it's not very difficult to see how there would be a very severe financial crisis sweeping across the region, and the whole region en masse would have to go to the IMF," he said.






Governments in the region have already taken what measures they can. Most increased deposit guarantees from 20,000 to 50,000 euros following the EU October Paris meeting. Lithuania went further and upped the limit to 100,000 euros, while Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary all now offer unlimited protection. But this begs the question, who guarantees the government guarantees in the event they are called on.



So the problem has now become a very delicate one, since the banks want to maintain their presence in the region even while almost every factor imaginable is working against them. The latest such factor is the threat of credit downgrades for their core business in Western Europe, and Moody’s Investors Service warned only this week that some of Europe’s largest banks may be downgraded because of loans to eastern Europe, a warning which sent Italy's UniCredit to its lowest level in the Milan stock market in 12 years.

Moody’s argues there will be “continuous downward rating pressure” in the region as a result of worsening asset quality and western banks’ reliance on short-term funding. UniCredit’s Bank Austria subsidiary earned almost half its pretax profit from eastern Europe in 2007, Raiffeisen International Bank-Holding almost 80 percent and Austria’s Erste Group Bank more than 60 percent, according to Moody’s.

“The most risky parts of the western European banks’ businesses are in eastern Europe and when you decide to cut risks, you cut back on the most risky assets first,” Lars Christensen, an analyst at Danske Bank A/S in Copenhagen, said by telephone today. “This could add further risk in the region as the economies there may face large current account deficits if funding from western European banks is withdrawn.”


As a result last Tuesday we saw a surge in the cost of protecting bank bonds from default, lead by Raiffeisen International Bank-Holding and UniCredit. Credit-default swaps on Vienna-based Raiffeisen climbed 26 basis points to a record 369 and those for UniCredit soared 23 basis points to an all-time high of 213, according to data from CMA Datavision in London. Credit-default swaps on Erste increased 24.5 to 307, Paris- based Societe Generale rose 6 to 116 and KBC in Brussels was unchanged at 240, according to CMA prices.



The rising cost of insuring against default by a “peripheral” European government is likely to weigh on the euro, according to Merrill Lynch & Co. “This remains an important background negative for the euro,” Steven Pearson, a strategist in London at Merrill Lynch, wrote in a note today. “European banking-sector exposure to Eastern Europe, often via foreign currency lending, is an additional euro negative story that is gaining air-time.” Emerging market central banks may move away from holding European government bonds in their reserves as widening yield spreads between debt of different euro-zone economies makes bonds more difficult to trade, Pearson said.




So Why Would The Euro Help?

Well, in the first place, four of the Eastern economies - Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, are effectively stuck, since their currencies are pegged to the Euro. They are in the unenviable position of being stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place. They are now faced with US depression type economic slumps, and massive internal wage and price deflation all at the same time. Would Euro membership help? Well lets look at what the IMF said in their most recent report on the stand-by loan arrangement for Latvia.

Accelerated adoption of the euro at a depreciated exchange rate would deliver most of the benefits of widening the bands, but with fewer drawbacks. Unlike all other options for changing the exchange rate, the new (euro-entry) parity would not be subject to speculation.

By providing a stable nominal anchor and removing currency risk, euroization would boost confidence and be associated with less of an output decline than other options.Euroization with EU and ECB concurrence would also help address liquidity strains in the banking system. If Latvian banks could access ECB facilities, then those that are both solvent and hold adequate collateral could access sufficient liquidity. The increase in confidence should dampen concerns of resident depositors and also help stem non resident deposit outflows.

However, this policy option would not address solvency concerns and has been ruled out by the European authorities. If combined with a large upfront devaluation, there would be an immediate deterioration in private-sector solvency, which could slow recovery. Privatesector debt restructuring would likely be necessary. Finally, the European Union strongly objects to accelerated euro adoption, as this would be inconsistent with treaty obligations of member governments, so this option is infeasible.


Basically, devaluating the Lat and entering the euro directly was the IMF's preferred option for Latvia, "euroization with EU and ECB concurrence" was the second option, and keeping the peg and implementing massive internal deflation only the third. The problem was that the EU, in its wisdom felt euro adoption "would be inconsistent with treaty obligations of member governments" - as would I suppose bailing out Austria and Ireland be "inconsistent with treaty obligations of member governments under the Maastricht Treaty. Go tell it to the marines, is what I say!

And this is not just Latvia, but four entire countries (little ones, but still countries) that are effectively being thrown to the wolves here.

Downward Pressure On Currencies, Upward Pressure On Interest Rates

Nor is the position of those with floating currencies - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania - much better, since their currencies are now coming under substantial pressure, and as a result defaults are growing, defaults which will only work their way back upstream to the Western Countries whose banks will have to stand the losses.

At the same time, the risk of a sharper, 1997 Asian-style adjustment cannot be excluded, given the similarities between Asia before the eruption of the crisis there in 1997 and the situation in emerging Europe. Beyond any considerations about valuation, the FX market may overreact as it did during the Asian or Russian crises in 1997 & 1998. To halt the downward spiral of currency depreciation, a substantial rise in interest rates combined with a tight fiscal policy under an IMF programme could be necessary.
Murat Toprak & Gaelle Blanchard, Societe Generale


Obviously there is now a sense of urgency here, and the warning signs are everywhere, for those who know how to read them. According to Zbigniew Chlebowski, the chairman for the Polish ruling party’s parliamentary group speaking in an interview earlier this week, the Polish government has been in official talks with the European Central Bank over joining the pre-euro exchange-rate mechanism “for several days.” So consultations are getting to be fast and furious.

And Hungarian, Polish and Czech government debt, which has been among the highest rated in emerging markets, is now being downgraded by bondholders. Investors are currently demanding 20 basis points more yield to own Hungary’s bonds than similar-maturity Brazilian debt, which is rated four levels lower by Moody’s Investors Service, according JPMorgan bond indexes. The risk of Poland defaulting is currently running at about the same as Serbia, ranked six levels lower by Standard & Poor’s, based on credit-default swap prices, while Czech 10-year bonds yield the most compared with German bunds since 2001.

“Everybody is running for the door,” said Lars Christensen, head of emerging-market strategy at Danske Bank A/S in Copenhagen. “The markets have decided the central and eastern European region is the subprime area of Europe.”


The currencies of these currenciies are tumbling on investor concern the region’s economies are among the most vulnerable to the global credit crisis. Poland’s zloty has fallen 35 percent against the euro since August, the forint - which has fallen around 13% since the start of the year, and about 25% since last August -weakened to a record low of 309.71 this week. At the same time the Koruna hit the lowest level since 2005.

(Chart above - Polish Zloty vs Euro)


The zloty has risen - against the previous trend - by 3.2 percent this week, following a decision by the Finance Ministry to enter the market (on Wednesday) and started selling euros from European Union funds for zlotys. Prime Minister Donald Tusk said yesterday the currency must be defended “at any cost.” The Czech central bank stated it regards the buying and selling currencies to manage the koruna as an “exceptional” tool that it’s resisted using since 2002, with the implication that it may not be able to resist much longer, although interest rate hikes (as practised in Hungary) seem to be the more likely approach in the Czech Republic. Such gains as have been obtained for the zloty are likely to be short lived (intervention is a tool of desperation, not of strength, and rarely has any lasting effect) and they can hardly exhaust EU funding they badly need to spend on stimulus type projects in the face of the downturn defending the indefensible, as Russia has been learning to its cost in another context.

“It [currency intervention ]is for us an exceptional tool at our disposal,” Tomas Holub, head of its monetary policy department, said in a telephone interview today. “Of course it’s one of the potential tools, but so far no decision has been taken in this direction.”


After intervention the only real tool left is interest rate policy, and fear of further currency falls is now acting as a serious brake on monetary policy as the pace of economic contraction gathers speed in one country after another. “A lowering of interest rates at the current levels of the exchange rate is completely out of the debate,” Deputy Governor Miroslav Singer told E15 newspaper earlier this week. “The question is whether to raise, and by how much.”

Really the suggestion that all these countries simply traipse off to the IMF (one after the other) in search of help is shameful. There is simply no other word for it, shameful. As Oscar Wilde put it, losing one child may be an accident, but losing all your children, now that has to be negligence! Let them in, and let them in now, before the whole house of cards collapses on top of each and every one of us.

Postcript

This article is the second in a series of five I am in the process of writing on ways forward with Europe's financial and economic crisis.

The first was Why We Need EU Bonds.

Subsequent articles will deal with:

a) The need for Quantitative Easing In The Eurozone
b) What might a new Stability and Growth Pact look like?
c) Why as well as rewriting the banking regulations we also need to do something about Europe's demographic imbalances.

Update: The Danskebank View

With which I wholeheartedly agree.

This week the crisis in the CEE markets has intensified dramatically after the publication of a number of reports putting a negative focus on Western European banks’ exposure to the overly leveraged CEE economies. The crisis is clearly developing in an explosive fashion and there is a very clear risk of an Asian crisis style meltdown. The economies in the region are already in free fall, and at least one country – Ukraine – is dangerously close to sovereign default. Rapidly rising concerns have led policy makers across Europe to call for immediate action to avoid a dangerous collapse that potentially could spill into the euro zone. However, policy makers seem very divided on what to do in the current situation.

Earlier this week Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius called for coordinated action from the EU to try to solve the problems in CEE. Later in the week the World Bank’s president Robert Zoellick echoed Kubilius’ cry for help.

However, the EU Commission does not seem very excited about a coordinated effort to avoid meltdown. Rather Joaquín Almunia, EU monetary affairs commissioner, this week said that he would prefer a country-by-country approach to crisis management. In our view, a country-by-country approach to crisis management entails a number of risks, as there is a strong potential for contagion from one CEE country to another due to the significant integration in the financial sector across the region. Therefore, we think that there is urgent need for a more coordinated effort to stabilise the situation– otherwise this crisis will drag out and uncertainty remain elevated for an extended period.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Czech Republic Probably Entered Recession At The End Of 2008

Well as forecast on this blog (see also here), the Czech Republic's economy contracted in the last quarter of 2008. Since the economy is still contracting sharply, we will more than likely now see a second quarter of negative growth, which means the CR is now in recession.

The Czech economy contracted less than expected in the fourth quarter but the outlook for this year remained grim due to collapsing demand in the euro zone slashing Czech exports. The Czech Statistical Bureau said on Friday the central European country's output dropped by 0.6 percent quarter-on-quarter, adjusted for seasonal and calendar effects, the worst number since 1997. Year-on-year, the economy eked out 1.0 percent growth, much better than 0.2 percent expansion forecast in a Reuters poll of analysts but a drop from 4.2 percent growth in the third quarter. "It doesn't really change the outlook going forward," said Raffaella Tenconi, analyst at Wood & Company. "We're looking at -2.0 percent growth for all of 2009, and if anything, there are downside risks to it," she said.




Retail Sales Contract For A Third Month

Inflation adjusted Czech retail sales, excluding cars and car parts, dropped 0.8% year-on-year in December compared to a 3.4% fall in November. Month-on-month, retail sales at constant prices were flat in December, after falling 0.5% in November. Retail sales for food, beverages and tobacco increased 0.9%, while sales for non-food goods dropped 0.5%. This means that sales fell, compared with a year earlier, every month during the fourth quarter.







Industrial Output Slumps

Czech industrial output also declined for a third consecutive month in December, sliding 14.6 percent from December 2007 following a 17.4 percent drop in November. Czech companies are evidently suffering from the slowdown which now affects the whole euro region, which is the main destination for Czech exports.





Czech Republic PMI


In fact Czech industry continued its steep decline in January with the Czech Purchasing Managers' Index falling to dropping below the 50 mark (to 31.5) for the seventh consecutive month. As compared with December (32.7), the PMI was hit by series-record declines in new orders and employment, while deflationary pressure was also evident as both input and output prices continued to fall sharply, according to the report from Markit Economics and ABN Amro. The figure for output rose for the first time since September, to 29.5, indicating a slightly weaker rate of contraction than in December but still the second lowest in the survey's history.


Czech Exports Fall Again In December

Of course, since the Czech economy is at least partially fuelled by foreign trade, the external situation is hardly helfpul, and both exports and imports fell in December - by 13.4% and 8.2% year-on-year, respectively. The drop in exports was the largest December year-on-year fall since 1994. Exports and imports have now been declining for three consecutive months. The trade balance showed a deficit of CZK 11.8 billion, a deterioration of CZK 9.0 billion year-on-year. Over 2008 as a whole, exports were down by 0.7% and imports rose by a minute 0.1%. The annual trade balance had a surplus of CZK 69.4 billion, which was CZK 18.5 billion less than the 2007 one.

Seasonally adjusted exports fell month on month by 7.8% while imports grew by 0.1%.


Price Growth Slows

Czech consumer prices growth slowed in January while unemployment soared more than forecast as companies slashed jobs in the face of the deepening economic crisis. Monthly price growth of 1.5 percent put year-on-year inflation at 2.2 percent, sharply down from 3.6 percent in December. The drop was attributable to base effects and falling fuel and clothing prices, which brought the headline figure to the lowest level since March 2007 according to the Czech Statistical Bureau.





The Czech National Bank (CNB) now forecast that inflation will fall near to zero during the course of this year. The bank is hopeful that by the beginning of 2010, inflation will once more approach their new 2-percent inflation target, but I think the scale of the economic contraction will determine that more than anything.

The month-on-month consumer price increase of 1.5% was mainly the result of a price rise in administratively regulated prices, which were up by 5.8%, while market driven prices only rose by 0.4 %. The growth of regulated prices was largely the result of price increases for 'housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels'. Electricity increased by 11.6 %, heat and hot water by 3.2 %, water supply and sewerage collection by 8.7 %. Rents increased by 15.3%, and in the case of dwellings with regulated rents by 22.8%. Private sector rents were only up by 1.6%.

Downward pressure on the consumer price level came decreases in clothing (by 3.0 %) and footwear (by 3.7 % ) which were partly the result of winter sales reductions.



Unemployment Rising

Data from the Czech Labour Ministry show that over 45,000 people lost their jobs in January, bringing the unemployment rate up 0.8 percentage points to 6.8 percent, the highest level since April 2007.


The number of vacancies was also down, following a pattern which now goes back over six months, and which is perhaps the clearest indicator we have of the tightening in the labour market.




Czech Central Bank Eases Monetary Policy


The Czech central bank cut its benchmark interest rate for a third consecutive time at the start of the month as lower economic growth gave the reason to do so and declining inflation opened up the possibility . The Ceska Narodni Banka lowered the two-week repurchase rate to 1.75 percent, matching the record low of September 2005, from the previous 2.25 percent.




“The reasons for an aggressive easing of monetary policy are clear,” David Marek, the chief economist at Patria Finance AS in Prague, said in a note. “The Czech economy is apparently already in recession and this year it may flirt with deflation. There’s another lowering of interest rates ahead of us apparently.”

Monday, February 02, 2009

Central Europe's Manufacturing And Consumers In A State Of Shock



Central Europe's economies continued to contract in January - lead by their manufacturing industries - under the combined weight of a credit crunch and a slump in demand for their exports. My feeling as all three economies - Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary - are now in recession. Hungary's is clearly the worst case, and events are moving rapidly and negatively there, but the slowdown in the Czech Economy is also very pronounced, and Poland seems finally to be falling into line, following some internal financial chaos back in October. Based on back of the envelope type calculations derived from the PMIs I would say their economies were contracting at the following pace in January.

Q-o-Q Y-o-Y
Hungary -1% -4%

Poland -0.7% -3%

Czech Republic -1% -4%



These are only provisional assessments based on the PMIs and Consumer Confidence Indexes. They will be subject to calibration as we move forward and receive the real data, but all this should give us some general idea of what is happening, something which is badly needed in view of the suddenness of the change.

Hungary PMI

Hungary's manufacturing purchasing manager index (PMI) fell once again to a all-time low of 38.6 in January, down from 40.8 in December, according to the Hungarian Association of Logistics, Purchasing and Inventory Management (HALPIM) today. Any PMI index figure above 50 indicates expansion while a figure below 50 shows contraction in economic activity. The index hasd been above the critical 50 mark for more than three years before it dropped below (to 42.6) in October last year.





The January figure is the lowest recorded since September 1995 and is a further sharp drop from January. The last time the January index was below 50 was in 2005 (48.5) and then in 1997 (49.1), but these contraction were much softer.
“In view of the current situation we can confidently say that the five month negative record of 1998 will be broken. We are facing the gravest crisis of the manufacturing industry in almost 15 years," the HALPIM said.


GKI Confidence Index



Economic sentiment also plunged in January with the GKI index falling to a record. The overall index fell to minus 39.8, the lowest since measuring began in 1996, from minus 36.7 in December. The sub components for business and consumer confidence also fell to new lows.

The outlook for industrial production and orders led a decline in the business confidence index to minus 30.5 from minus 28.2 in December. The outlook for export orders improved “minimally,”. Fifty-eight percent of exports are sold in the euro region, which is in its worst recession since the single currency began trading a decade ago. Concern about future job losses dragged the consumer confidence index to a record of minus 66.1 from minus 60.8 in December.


Polish PMI

Morale in Poland's industrial sector rose for the first time in almost a year in January, but output growth remained mired firmly in negative territory, according to a purchasing managers' index survey published Monday. The survey of 300 industrial companies prepared by Markit for ABN AMRO showed Polish manufacturing PMI increased to 40.3 in January, from 38.3 in December. This is an improvement, but the contraction is still a strong one.



"Though slightly improved from the exceptionally weak December data, the latest survey findings underline the headwinds confronting Polish manufacturers in January. Output, new orders and employment all contracted sharply and, overall, the first batch of 2009 PMI data point to further aggressive rate cuts by the central bank in the first quarter following greater than expected reductions in the main policy rate in both November and December. Inflation concerns have eased despite the falling zloty, as the PMI showedfurther falls in price pressures in manufacturing." - Trevor Balchin, Economist at Markit Economics
Polish Consumer Confidence

Poles have become much more pessimistic about the outlook for their economy in recent months and the Ipsos Consumer Confidence Index fell by 11 points to 84.17. The assessment of the current economic climate suffered the most serious deterioration.



(Please click over image for better viewing)

The consumer rating of the current economic climate plummeted by 15 points to hit 69.59. This is one of the lowest levels since Poland joined the European Union. Consumers are worried about the future of the Polish economy, and their worries are linked particularly to the situation on the job market. Currently some 52% of Poles expect unemployment figures to rise over the coming 12 months, while only 6% expect them to fall. This is a radical change, particularly when compared with January 2008, when only 13% expected a rise in unemployment and 39% expected a decline.

The deterioration in consumer sentiment was also to be seen in the ratings for willingness to buy, which in January fell by 8 points to 93.88 (the lowest level for 3 years). In particular expectations regarding the material situation of one's own household deteriorated. Ratings of the current situation in regard to buying durables also weakened somewhat. Nevertheless, consumer appetite is far from dead, and there are more people still considering this a good time for buying than those who disagree.

Czech Republic PMI


Czech industry continued its steep decline in January with the Czech Purchasing Managers' Index falling to dropping below the 50 mark (to 31.5) for the seventh consecutive month. As compared with December (32.7), the PMI was hit by series-record declines in new orders and employment, while deflationary pressure was also evident as both input and output prices continued to fall sharply, according to the report from Markit Economics and ABN Amro. The figure for output rose for the first time since September, to 29.5, indicating a slightly weaker rate of contraction than in December but still the second lowest in the survey's history.




Czech Consumer Confidence

In January 2009, the Czech economic sentiment indicator decreased by 3.2 points m-o-m (it was down by 8.6 points down in December). The business confidence indicator fell by 2.8 points and the consumer confidence indicator dropped 4.8 points. Compared to January 2008, the composite confidence indicator balance was down 30.8 points, the confidence of entrepreneurs is 34.7 points down and the confidence of consumers is down by 15 points. Indicators were thus at their lowest levels in almost ten years.

The survey taken among consumers in January indicates that, compared to December, consumers expect for the next twelve months worsening of the overall economic situation and a slight decrease in their own financial standing. In January, the share of respondents expecting a rise in unemployment increased again. The percentage of respondents planning to save money decreased. The consumer confidence indicator decreased by 4.8 points, m-o-m; it is by 15 points down, y-o-y.