Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Growing probability of positive US data surprises

US economic data has disappointed significantly during the past three months. The chart below shows this with the help of the Citi US economic surprise index (in yellow). This was also one important factor driving US Treasury yields lower (in green). As a result, growth expectation for the current quarter as well as for the whole year have been scaled back. Besides overly optimistic previous expectations, key reasons are being thought to have been higher commodity prices, most notably for energy, ongoing weakness in the US housing market as well as supply disruptions related to the Japanese earthquake and nuclear disaster. However, I am convinced that a technical factor - seasonal adjustments - has played an important role but goes unnoticed (see below). Looking ahead, reduced expectations coupled with slightly lower energy prices and especially a turn in seasonal factors suggest that the US economy should start to surprise again on the positive side soon.

US data has been surprising on the downside since early spring
Source: Bloomberg

I am convinced that seasonal adjustments have played an important role in recent negative data surprises. Seasonal factors assume a significant re-acceleration of the US economy during spring following a weaker winter period. Given that the economy continues to operate with a high level of spare capacity, the seasonal swings in the economy should be less pronounced than has historically been the case (companies will fire fewer workers than usual during the winter and summer months as they have less workers anyhow and with that they will hire fewer workers during spring and autumn). Furthermore, employment in highly seasonal sectors dropped sharply during the last recession (-2mln employees in construction, -2mln in manufacturing since end 2007) whereas it grew in non-seasonal sectors (+1.4mln in education and health services). This as well should render the economy less seasonal. However, as the chart below shows, the seasonal adjustments do not reflect this.
The chart below shows the seasonal adjustments used in the US employment report to adjust the payrolls number, in blue the seasonal adjustment over the past 12 months and in red the average seasonal adjustment over the previous 10 years. Given that on average, employment was slightly higher over the past decade than now (133mln vs. 131mln), and because the economy should exhibit less seasonality, the seasonal factors should have become lower. Instead, they have even become larger!
As a result, seasonally adjusted data should be weaker than the underlying trend during the seasonally strong periods of spring and autumn and the data should be stronger than the underlying trend during the seasonally weaker months in summer and winter.
Seasonal adjustments are reversing again as summer draws closer
Source: BLS, ResearchAhead

In turn, it is probably not a co-incidence that the Citi US economic surprise index topped out at the beginning of March. This is the time when data relating to February starts being released and as the chart shows, February is the start of the period with highly positive seasonal adjustment factors. However, we are now entering the seasonally weak June-August period. Togehter with reduced expectations, the probability is becoming substantial that US economic data starts to surprise positively again!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

When should Greece default?

Greece is insolvent, however a restructuring/reprofiling should be postponed.

Speculation about a Greek restructuring (or in the milder form a reprofiling) have reached a new high. Reason is that in the short term Greece needs to secure the payment of the next tranche from the EU/IMF bail-out package, otherwise it is running out of cash at the beginning of July. But looking into 2012/2013 reveals that even with the bail-out package Greece faces a funding shortfall of around EUR 60bn (see chart below, courtesy of RBC). It was assumed that by 2012 Greece would be able to access the capital markets again to secure parts of its financing needs. However, now this appears very very unlikely. In turn, Greece either needs more bail-out funds or its need to restructure its debt (at least do a maturity lengthening exercise). While I have for a long time stated that Greece is insolvent (see for example the Greek Fire series which I started in autumn 2009), I think that a restructuring now needs to be avoided and should be delayed into 2013.

Greek funding needs and financing shortfall
Source: RBC

I see two main reasons why a restructuring now is not advisable. First, contagion for the other weak peripheral countries as well as for the Eurozone banking sector would be truly devastating. Moody's already announced that in the case of a Greek reprofiling it would have significant adverse consequences for peripheral debt ratings. Furthermore, the market will most likely also punish peripheral sovereign issuers and lead interest rates significantly higher, rendering it even more difficult for these economies to grow and for the budget deficits to be reduced according to plan. Additionally, for the already weak Eurozone banks, such a course of events would significantly damage its capital base and risks shutting them out of the money markets, rendering their dependence on ECB funding even larger. However, if reprofiling/restructuring is postponed into 2012/2013, this risk of contagion should become lower. For other sovereigns the risk of contagion should decrease if in they use this time period to improve their fundamentals while for the weak banks it means they need to improve their capital base and reduce their holdings of peripheral debts. The latter can be done easily as maturing bonds - and a significant amount of peirpheral bonds will mature over the next two years - are not being replaced anymore.
The second key reason for a delayed restructuring is that the high sovereign debt of Greece is not the cause of the problem but only a symptom. Greece has very weak sovereign institutions/weak governance. As a result of that the Greek state has a substantial revenue problem (much more so than an expenditure problem). The chart below shows estimates for the shadow economy (in % of GDP) vs. the ranking in the Ease of Doing Business index constructed by the World Bank. Tax compliance in Greece is very low and Greece's shadow economy is estimated to be around 25% of GDP, by far the highest in the Eurozone. Furthermore, Greece ranks only #109 for ease of doing business. Additionally, Greece ranks also lowest for a Eurozone country in the Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International (#78).

Weak institutions in Greece: Ease of doing business vs. shadow economy
Source: World Bank, IAW

These structural shortcomings have burdened Greece for a long time and are the root cause for the high debt burden. If Greece reduces its debt via default, then the Greek sovereign will still face this revenue problem and the Greek economy its structural shortfalls. In turn, it would only be a matter of time before Greece indebtedness starts soaring again and a new debt-cycle commences.
As a result, first Greece needs to strenghten its governance and improve its economic structure before it should restructure. If it restructures now, this will ease the pain and hence reduce the pressure for such measures.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Germany is going strong

Barring short-term ups and downs, the multi-year outlook for the German economy remains very bright. One of my major topics has been the extremely favourable short as well as long term outlook for the German economy (see for example the publication German Wirtschaftswunder 2.0 from May last year as well as Don’t underestimate the German consumer dated Jan25). Germany has embarked on a multi-year virtuous circle with high real growth due to structural reasons (high competitiveness of the German economy, relatively healthy fiscal situation, end of the decade-long high real rates period) as well as cyclical reasons (extremely accommodative monetary policy environment which via higher inflation and an improvement in credit availability becomes even more accommodative). I am convinced that even though consensus growth expectations have been raised somewhat, just how positive and long-lasting this growth environment will be remains vastly underappreciated. Last week’s much better than anticipated Q1 growth numbers (+1.5% qoq vs. +0.9% expected and remember that these numbers are not annualised) once again support this notion. As the German statistics office stated: “In a quarter-on-quarter comparison (adjusted for price, seasonal and calendar variations), a positive contribution was made mainly by the domestic economy. Both capital formation in machinery and equipment and in construction and final consumption expenditure increased in part markedly. The growth of exports and imports continued, too. However, the balance of exports and imports had a smaller share in the strong GDP growth than domestic uses.”
Hence, as I expected, it is not only the export industry which drives this cyclical upswing but the domestic economy is increasingly contributing to growth. As unemployment is dropping and real wage growth should pick up, the longer-term outlook for domestic consumption remains bright. I think there are two more important factors which will cause the domestic economy to do increasingly well:During the first decade of the Euro, Germany has suffered from a tight monetary environment (weak credit growth and much too high real yields). This depressed domestic investment by the corporate sector and led the savings ratio higher (an increase in the savings ratio was also a rational response to increased economic insecurity amid the high number of reforms in social security and labour markets earlier last decade). Now, the monetary environment is becoming increasingly accommodative (historically very low nominal yields coupled with above-trend inflation means that real yields are extremely low; additionally given the strong economy credit availability is improving). In combination with the healthy economy and a high level of competitiveness, the corporate sector should increase its domestic investments. Additionally, given higher job security (amid the low level of unemployment), the savings ratio of private households should drop markedly. Finally, weak consumption by German households during the past decade suggests that there should be a lot of pent-up demand, especially for durable goods and housing.

The chart below shows the development of 10y German real yields (defined as 10y nominal Bund yields minus German yoy headline inflation). As can be seen, the monetary environment has become significantly easier over the past two years given that first nominal bond yields have become much lower and inflation has recently moved higher again. Furthermore, current German real yields are the lowest since the start of the Euro!

10y German real yields (10y nominal Bund yield - German inflation rate) at record lows

Source: Bloomberg; Research Ahead

Immigration trends are shifting. Earlier this week the German statistics office published the latest immigration data for 2010. It showed that on a net basis some 128.000 people have moved into Germany. This is a significant shift from earlier years and marks the highest net immigration since 2003. It is down to both, more foreigners moving to Germany and less German residents moving abroad. I am convinced that immigration will increase further. A key factor for immigration are relative economic prospects. Given that the German economy is doing so well and hence creates a lot of jobs whereas a host of other European countries are doing poorly with high unemployment rates, suggest that the attractiveness of Germany has increased significantly. Significant positive migration would positively affect trend growth (as it provides more labour to the economy and increases private sector demand) and help to ease the demographic problems Germany is facing in its social security system.

Source: German Statistics Office

Finally, I remain convinced that a key factor for the market share of German corporates in the global export markets remains determined by the level of the Euro vs. the key competitors of the German industry. Here, Japan seems to be very important, not only for the auto sector but also for machinery and chemicals. As the chart below shows, the EURJPY cross rate has moved sharply lower since the start of the financial crisis (from around 170 to currently 115, i.e. c.p. Japan lost 30% in relative price competiveness vs. Germany) and remains close to 10-year lows. Coupled with production losses following the catastrophes in Japan, Germany should be able to take away market share from Japanese manufacturers.

Trade-weighted Euro and even more so EURJPY provide significant stimulus for Germany

Source: Bloomberg

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now

The misery index was used in the 1970s to show the stagflationary nightmare. It is constructed by summing up the inflation rate and the unemployment rate. The higher this index, the worse the economic situation for a country. The misery indexes I show below are constructed slightly differently. While I take the unemployment rate as is, I dont use the inflation rate directly but rather the deviation of inflation from 1.5% (thereby assuming that 1.5% is somehow a superior inflation rate, but it could equally be a different low but positive number). Reason is that a very low/negative inflation rate has also negative economic and social consequences. Additionally, I add the budget deficit to the inflation rate and unemployment rate. A high budget deficit has also negative economic costs and reduces current as well as future fiscal flexibility.

US adjusted misery index
Source: ResearchAhead

The above chart shows the history of this misery index for the US (black: unemployment + adjsuted inflation, blue: +budget deficit). As can be seen, including the budget deficit, this misery index is back to the level prevailing during the stagflationary 70s. While at that time, unemployment and inflation were the problem whereas budget deficits were fairly low, this time unemployment and the deficit are high, whereas inflation has so far remained low.

Only Germany is on the bright side
Source: ResearchAhead

The chart above shows the adjusted misery index including the budget deficit for various economies. The UK shows a similar behaviour as the US. The Eurozone overall has as well seen a sharp rise in its misery index. However, the index is still at levels which were prevailing during the mid-90s. Finally, the German misery index has already dropped back to the levels which were prevailing at the height of the dot-com boom.

A country can lower unemployment if it reverts to more fiscal spending but at the expense of a higher budget deficit. Alternatively, a looser monetary policy could also be used to lower unemployment with the risk of fuelling inflation further down the road. As a result, there is a trade-off between these three variables which limits cyclical macro-economic policy. I am convinced that a lot of the economic problems (=surge in the misery index) are of a structural nature for the over-indebted/over-spending/over-leveraged US/UK and peripheral Eurozone countries. What is needed to significantly and sustainably lower the misery index again is time, structural reforms and improved corporate competitiveness.