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ECB Rates Policy is Clogged in Key Periphery Markets

by Rebecca Wilder

ECB Rates Policy is Clogged in Key Periphery Markets

How the Euro area (EA) will grow, according to Mario Draghi:

The outlook for economic activity should be supported by foreign demand, the very low short-term interest rates in the euro area, and all the measures taken to foster the proper functioning of the euro area economy.

In this post, I address Draghi’s point that the ECB 1% refi rate will support economic activity through the lens of the mortgage market. Specifically, I find that the interest rate channel is clogged in the economies that are in most desperate need of lower rates: Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

Regarding ‘very low short-term interest rates’, what Draghi means is that the standard interest rate channel of monetary policy will stimulate domestic demand via increased spending by consumers and firms. If ECB policy is indeed passing through to retail credit (households and firms that borrow from banks to buy goods and services), then we should see evidence of this as falling interest rates to retail credit sectors, like those for consumer goods, home mortgage lending, loans for businesses, or even corporate credit rates to finance business investment.

In mortgage markets, the Euro area average borrowing rates are indeed falling. Banks started lowering mortgage borrowing rates, on average, in September 2011 in anticipation of ECB rate cuts that eventually occurred (again) in November 2011. Specifically, average Euro area mortgage rates are down roughly .25% since the local peak in August 2011.


But a closer look across mortgage markets shows a worrying trend for key periphery economies. The pass-through from ECB rate setting policy to mortgage borrowing costs is clogged in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, where mortgage rates have risen since the ECB cut the refi rate to 1%. Indeed, these are the economies that ‘need’ the stimulus to offset the fiscal consolidation.
Sure, mortgage rates are arguably low – but they’re not lower.

In Spain and Portugal, 91% and 99% of their respective new stock of mortgages sit on variable rate loans, so the pass through to the real economy should be rather quick IF mortgage rates declined (see Table below). True, Spain and Portugal are unlikely to experience any boom in real estate lending over the near term. However, had the ECB policy lowered mortgage rates, then disposable income would rise via lower monthly mortgage payments, thereby stimulating other sectors of the economy, all else equal.

In Italy, just 47% of the mortgage market is variable, so the immediate stimulus would be more muted compared to Spain and Portugal via disposable income. However, Italy didn’t experience a credit boom, so lending to firms and households could and should be warranted. But amid the fiscal consolidation and stressed debt markets, fewer borrowers are credit worthy AND mortgage rates have risen near 1% since EA mortgage rates peak on average in August 2011.

Core mortgage rates are falling, and this could create a positive stimulus for Spain, Portugal, and Italy down the road. But for now, the transmission mechanism, dropping the ECB refi rate to 1%, is not easing housing and mortgage financial conditions in those economies hit hardest by fiscal austerity.

Rebecca Wilder

Reference Table: reference for variable rate share of mortgage market

originally published at The Wilder View…Economonitors

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Euro Area GDP Report: Not Pretty

by Rebecca Wilder

Euro Area GDP Report: Not Pretty

Today Eurostat released the second estimate of Q4 2011 Gross Domestic Product. Real Euro area (EA) GDP declined 0.3% over the quarter (-1.3% on an annualized basis). In this release Eurostat provides a breakdown across region, spending categories, and industry, and is much more detailed than the preliminary flash estimate. It’s not pretty.
The expenditure side was very weak. Household and government consumption declined 0.4% and 0.2%, respectively, while gross capital formation tumbled 0.7%. Inventory depletion accounted for much of the reduction in investment and fixed investment deteriorated to a lesser degree. Exports fell 0.4%, while imports dropped a full 1.2%; therefore, net exports contributed +0.3% to overall GDP growth. The only positive contribution to GDP growth was imports – this type of technical growth is not sustainable.

As the chart below illustrates, exports has been a major driver of growth during this recovery. However, export demand is dropping off at the margin, and more weakness is expected. The level of new export orders (a component of the Markit PMI) fell for eight consecutive months through February.


So it it’s up to domestic demand to spur further recovery. I also have my doubts there, given that fiscal austerity pushed the unemployment rate to a historical high of 10.7% in January (rather vertically, I might add).

A second part of the EA GDP report was the disturbing minority of countries that posted positive growth: just three out of thirteen. French growth clearly added balance to the average, given its large weight in the index. However, there are plenty of things that can go wrong there with higher energy costs, the rising unemployment rate, and minimal business confidence.

Going forward, it’s either up or down again for the EA. With the tight fiscal and now tightening monetary policy, the economy surely faces a lot of headwinds – down again would be my bet.

originally published at The Wilder View…Economonitors

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Default Events, Legal Contracts, Derivatives, and Greece

Barry Ritholtz, who generally knows better, blew a gasket at ISDA for yesterday’s ruling that Greek bonds are not yet in default. Specifically,

“The International Swaps and Derivatives Association said on Thursday that based on current evidence the Greek bailout would not prompt payments on the credit default swaps.”

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Here is a question for the crowd: Exactly how brain damaged, foolish and stupid must a trader be to ever buy one of these embarrassingly laughable instruments called derivatives?

The claim that Greece has not defaulted — despite refusing to make good on their obligations in full or on time — is utterly laughable.

Let’s sidebar the reality—that there is no true “market” for CDS in general, let alone Sovereign Debt CDS; Donald R. van Deventer of Kamakura Corporation has been all over this, both on his blog and especially on Twitter—and just note that ISDA made the correct decision.

Greece has not, to borrow Barry’s phrase, “refus[ed] to make good on their obligations in full or on time.” ISDA did not declare a Default Event yesterday because there has not yet been a Default Event.

Default Event is a very specific term. The sample in Janet Tavakoli‘s Credit Derivatives and Synthetic Structures (a book to which I have referred before and undoubtedly will again) runs pretty much three full pages (pp. 88-91). But the general concept is straightforward: there is a minimum threshold (say, 10% of an issue), the principal or interest due of which the entity explicitly refuses to pay or fails to pay that then materially impacts the buyer of Credit Protection (CDS).


Greece has not yet refused to pay anything.*

There is a payment due on 20 March—19 days still in the future. The financial markets—heck, everyone who runs a diner in Queens—may well believe that no payment will be made on 20 March, but that hasn’t happened yet. And the Greek government specifically has not said it won’t make the payment; it has said, “Hey, take these bonds instead.”

It is true that, cet. par., the market value of the bonds being offered is about 25% the supposed economic value of the current ones. So anyone taking the deal would have to be assuming that the market value of the current bonds is somewhere around 25, just as the French and German banks have them marked.

The market may also agree that one of the reasons people may well accept the offer is that, otherwise, they expect that the Greeks will default on the current bonds.

But they haven’t yet, and this is not Minority Report (though we can all agree Phil Dick would recognize, if not approve of, the current financial world).

So ISDA correctly ruled—the key phrase is “based on current evidence”—that there is not yet a Default Event. If everyone says “we will tender our securities due 20 March for the exchange offered,” there will not be a default of those bonds.

You, I, and Bill Gross can all agree that the likelihood of this happening is about equal to the chance that Rick Perry will be elected U.S. President this year. But there has not been a Default Event.

Wait two or three weeks.

The thing Barry most overlooks is that yesterday’s ISDA ruling is, if anything, good for CDS buyers.

What will be the economic difference of waiting to holders of the CDSes? I don’t know for certain, but if you’re looking at the standard ISDA CDS contract, there’s a reasonable assumption that (1) the market price of the bond will not change for the better and (2) it is a certainty that the Accrued Interest on the bond will be greater when they declare a Default Event than it is now.

Keep in mind: in a standard CDS, declaration of default terminates the contract. Accruals end, market pricing is to be determined by calling a few dealers, and the only thing left is to go through the pockets and look for loose change.**

Yesterday’s ISDA ruling means the CDS buyers will be owed more Accrued Interest when (in two, or at most three, weeks) a Default Event is declared.

What about the principal repayment due? Recall again that the payment due is generally the net of the current market price subtracted from the initial principal amount (assumed to be par—100—but in any event greater than the current market value).

I’m inclined to argue there is optimism in the current market that will not be there in two weeks: it’s not that liquid a market, there is a floor on the price of the economic equivalent of the new offer, and there is time value in the option to convert.***

If ISDA had declared default yesterday—that is, assumed that Greece wasn’t just “mostly dead”****—they would have taken the current market price [P0]. Even before the delays and roundelays, that was likely to be greater than the market price of those bonds in a week or two[P1, when default is declared.

That is, P0 is greater than P1. And since the payment due is based on [100*****-Pt], the principal amount due to CDS holders when default is declared will also be greater.

ISDA followed the letter of the contract: the Greeks have not yet defaulted on an obligation, nor have they stated that they intend to do so. When they do—there are few, if any, in the market who would treat the clause as a possible “If”—a Default Event will be declared and the CDS contracts will be expected to pay as they are due. And that payment will, in all likelihood, be higher than the payment that would have been due if ISDA had ruled differently yesterday.

And if they don’t, then I’ll be agreeing with Barry that the whole thing was a scam from the start—though I would still argue that JPMorganChaseBear stealing more than $1,000,000,000 in customer funds from MF Global clients is a bigger one, which is something like saying that coprophagia is even worse in liquid form.

When the CDS contracts actually have to be paid, then the fun will begin. If potential for insolvency is your idea of fun. But that’s another story.

*They have seen S&P downgrade their credit rating, but that’s a separate issue.

**Obligatory reference. It will pay off.

***The Worst Case scenario is that you assume the new bonds are the only value in the transaction, and discount their value back over the cost of basically two-week money. The best case scenario is some combination of the price of the new bonds and expectations of either getting a better deal later and/or post-litigation gains. The lattice may be ugly, but it yields an expected value higher than the Worst Case, and therefore higher than the market price of the bonds as the time to exercise approaches.

****See ** above.

*****Or the other initial contract price; in any case, a fixed value greater than Pt.

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Does Latvia Give Us Any Clues?

by Rebecca Wilder

Does Latvia Give Us Any Clues?

Short answer: yes, as long as global trade growth is negligible.

Over the weekend I came across a December CEPR paper about the Latvian economy. Authors Mark Weisbrot and Rebecca Ray highlight the Latvian experience with internal devaluation, which may prove to be a case study for the current Eurozone model of internal devaluation by the program countries (Ireland, Portugal, and Greece). Weisbrot and Ray find the following (emphasis mine):

The paper also finds that Latvia’s net exports contributed little or nothing to the economic recovery over the past year and a half. This means that “internal devaluation” cannot have succeeded in bringing about the recovery. Rather, it appears that the recovery resulted from the government not adopting the fiscal tightening for 2010 that was prescribed by the IMF, and also from an expansionary monetary policy caused by rising inflation. The data contradict the notion that Latvia’s experience provides an example of successful internal devaluation.

Note: Internal devaluation is Europe’s favored prescription for any country seeking liquidity assistance; it refers to the process by which an EZ country that cannot devalue its currency reduces relative costs (wages) and prices by raising the unemployment rate in order to shift export income in favor of the deflating economy.

Internal devaluation didn’t work for Latvia, as evidenced by export demand. I wondered, though, how has real export demand performed for the current program countries, Ireland, Portugal, and Greece? Have these countries followed Latvia’s path?

To date, as regards to export income, internal devaluation appears to be working in Ireland and Portugal but not in Greece. For comparison to Latvia, I illustrate the path of real exports and imports spanning 2005Q1 through 2011Q3, as demonstrated for Latvia on page 14 of the CEPR paper.

Similar to Latvia’s experience, real import demand deteriorated in the face of fiscal austerity, especially in the case of Ireland and Greece. In contrast to Latvia’s experience, though, real exports in Ireland and Portugal are roughly 6% and 8%, respectively, above levels in 2007Q1. The Greek experience looks more like that of Latvia, as real imports and exports plummeted below pre-crisis levels, having yet to recover.

As I highlighted in a December post, relative unit labor costs have been cut in the case of all program countries, so internal devaluation is evident. (Note: the chart in the post illustrates the 4-q average Y/Y growth in nominal unit labor costs compared to the EA overall – it’s not intended to be a thorough examination of real exchange rates.) But has that been the driving force behind the export growth?

The resurgence in global trade has been an influential factor in the case of Ireland and Portugal. The chart above illustrates the Dutch estimate of world trade. Notably, there was a resurgence of trade spanning mid 2009 to Q1 2011, which support European exports broadly. It’s difficult, in this respect, to attribute all of the export success to internal devaluation.

Going forward, Ireland and Portugal are very likely slaves to global demand for exports. Prospects there are not looking too bright, given the slowdown in Asia.

Ultimately, I do think that Latvia serves as a warning for EA program countries. Internal devaluation is impossible for those countries with high private sector leverage without a burst of external demand. Unfortunately, the burst of external demand seems to have passed.
(Insert here a discussion of the 3-sector financial balances model, and why Ireland depends exclusively on generous export income to facilitate economic growth).

originally published at The Wilder View…Economonitors

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