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Worries About Italy: Growth and Politics

By Rebecca Wilder

Worries About Italy: Growth and Politics<

Current bond market pricing implies a 6.17% yield on a 10-yr Italian government bond, or 430 basis points (%/100) over a like German government bond. I’d call this distressed levels for Italian debt, especially for an economy that is very likely contracting as we speak. Today Mark Thoma points us to Kash Mansori’s article on “Italy’s future”. In the article, Kash points out that the [market] “is worried about Italian debt dynamics simply and purely because of skyrocketing interest rate expenses that the Italian government is now facing thanks to the eurozone debt crisis.

I disagree and comment that his argument is circular in nature. See, the market is pricing in Italian solvency risk by way of a rising risk premium, which then portends more solvency risk as borrowing costs rise. But the market is not pricing in solvency risk because of the risk premium, rather the risk premium is rising due to (1) terrible growth dynamics in Italy, and (2) heightened political risk in Italy.

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The PMI’s illustrate the likely recession in Italy – Roubini Global Economics is pointing to negative growth starting in Q3 2011. Those countries that issue debt in a foreign currency (since Italy does not own the euro rather it uses the euro) are subject to market constraints. And with negative growth comes higher government deficits; but the market is not satisfied with the high Italian public debt levels. Therefore, bond investors push for ‘fiscal discipline’ via a rising risk premium.

Another driver of the increasing Italian risk premium is political risk. You can see this in the spread between Italian 10yr bond yields and the Spanish 10yr bond yields, which has collapsed since the summer and is now trading at -70 bps. That means the Spanish sovereign is borrowing at a 10yr yield that is 70 bps cheap to Italy, where it used to pay a premium. Something idiosyncratic is going on with Italy.

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The beginning of July corresponds with the outset of a political rift that brought the credibility of Berlusconi, as it pertains to Tremonti’s deficit targets, into question. Berlusconi now has only a slim majority in the Parliament, so passing future legislation tied to fiscal austerity is fraught with risk. Despite the fact that Italy is forecast to run a 2011 primary surplus (just one of two just G7 economies), the recessionary outlook requires added fiscal discipline and reform. To date, we’ve seen no such legislation, just promises on the reform front. Implementation risk is high in Italy, thus the risk premium rises.

So interest rates are rising as a consequence of the deteriorating economic fundamentals and questionable politics; that’s what the market is worried about. I do agree with Kash, though, that austerity is not the answer. But that’s how the Germans are rolling. This idea of fiscal austerity and gaining competitiveness is the new mantra for Europe – a mantra that will probably make or break the EA. I refer you to anexcellent article by Martin Wolf that lays out the Euro area adjustment challenges clearly and succinctly.

Filed under: Debt Crisis, Euro area, Italy

originally published at The Wilder View…Economonitors

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Greece: This Decade’s Argentina?

Crossposted at The Street Light.

There’s been a bit of discussion floating around about whether the US’s deficit and debt situation makes it appropriate to draw comparisons with Greece. Of course, such a comparison is ridiculous for a number of reasons, not least because the US has its own currency. But Greece has been on my mind lately for unrelated reasons, including the following news:

Euro economists expect Greek default, BBC survey finds
Greece is likely to default on its sovereign debt, according to the majority of respondents to a BBC World Service survey of European economists. Two-thirds of the 52 respondents forecast a default, but most said the euro would survive in its current form.

…The forecasters the BBC surveyed are experts on the euro area – they are surveyed every three months by the European Central Bank (ECB) – and as well placed as anyone to peer into a rather murky crystal ball and say how they think the crisis might play out. The survey had a total of 38 replies and two messages came across very strongly.

Not only do I agree that default by Greece on its sovereign debt is quite possible… but I think it increasingly likely that policy-makers in Greece may decide that it is the least bad option at this point, particularly in the face of an increasingly hard-line attitude from Germany regarding bailouts (which will only be reinforced by recent election results).

The problem is easy to lay out: Greece has more debt than it can realistically make payments on, and being a euro country also has a currency over which it has no control. If it had its own currency, it would be in a classic debt crisis similar to several Latin American countries in the 1980s, or possibly Mexico in 1994.

However, it effectively has a fixed exchange rate with the rest of the euro zone, and has invested enormous political and economic capital in maintaining its committment to the euro. In that sense, the best analogy might be with Argentina in 2001, which was struggling to maintain a rock-solid fixed exchange rate with the US dollar through a currency board arrangement.

Argentina in the late 1990s had a slowing economy, uncompetitive industries, large current account deficits, and a vast amount of external debt denominated in a currency that was not its own. Sound familiar? In an effort to meet its debt payments while simultaneously keeping its exchange rate pegged to the dollar, the Argentine government squeezed and squeezed the economy. Finally, however, the resulting deflation and recession grew so severe that the government collapsed, and in early 2002 a new government dropped the peg to the dollar (after fiddling with a hybrid system with multiple currencies existing simultaneously) and eventually defaulted on its debt.

And look what happened.

From 1999-2002 Argentina suffered through years of a gradually contracting economy as it tried to maintain its peg with the dollar and service its external debts. When it finally dropped the peg in January of 2002 and then defaulted on its external debts, the economy (along with the value of the peso) crashed quite spectacularly.

But after a year or two, things didn’t look so bad in Argentina. And through most of the 2000s, the economy did quite well, despite the loss of the ability to borrow internationally.

I’m not necessarily advocating that Greece follow the same path. However, I do think that the comparison with Argentina in 2001 is a very good one, and because of that, that there is indeed a very good chance that policy-makers in Greece in 2011 will reach the same conclusion that policy-makers in Argentina did in 2002.

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Thoughts on EM conference in NY

Yesterday I attended the 6th Annual Goldman Sachs Emerging Markets conference in New York. My takeaway from the conference overall was that the risk-on sentiment that is driving massive inflows into EM funds is still very much present. Going forward, the conference participants generally see emerging markets as “different” from those ten years ago, and will no doubt remain resilient to the sovereign stress that is emanating from the developed world.

China. Goldman Sachs views the recent property boom as limited to that sector – the Chinese authorities are currently clamping down via administrative tightening measures – and that a broader “asset bubble” is not present. China was deleveraging going into the crisis, so its starting point was on a very different level than that of other “frothy” economies, like the US or UK.

On the outlook for China, Goldman sees 13% growth this year, followed by a remarkable 12.4% next. The inflation outlook, although tame, depends very much on Asia continuing as front-runner of the policy tightening cycle.

Jan Hatzius presented his outlook on the US economy – he sees the Fed hiking rates in 2011, as monetary policy accommodates the massive labor underutilization. I could not disagree with this assessment.

Rebecca: I would add that I see a positive probability attached to further Fed QE measures, as the fiscal stimulus inevitably drags the economy – without further stimulus growth will turn negative and drag GDP. In lieu of a heroic surge in private sector demand, which is currently driven almost solely by the upswing on a massive inventory cycle, the Fed will have no choice but to continue to “pushing on a string”. The fiscal impetus is driving this recovery.

Actually I was truly shocked that the merits of the fiscal stimulus were not mentioned more directly in his outlook. He spent (roughly) 7 slides comparing this recession to previous post-war recessions, and not once did fiscal policy come up – just Fed policy. Several slides after that, we finally get a chart illustrating the contribution to GDP from government spending. And then, I knew it was coming, a chart about the US public debt to GDP. It’s just a scare tactic, I assure you; these charts should not be taken seriously. As long as the US issues debt in its own currency, and that currency is not fully convertible (into anything), the US government does not face solvency risk!

Unlike Greece….

Erik Nielsen proffered his outlook for the Eurozone. Currently, Goldman Sachs is more bullish on Eurozone growth than is the consensus. Their baseline case is that Greece’s liquidity crisis is mitigated through IMF/EU support, and that the solvency issues are repaired in a timely manner through restructuring and austerity measures. Overall, the economic impact remains mostly contained in Greece.

Of course, the risk in the interim is that the EU/IMF is too slow in approving the aid package, and a mass run on the banks ripples throughout the Eurozone (currently there is no deposit-insurance mechanism across the members of the “zone”). I queried Marshall Auerback regarding the banking sector in the Eurozone:

Rebecca: “In the “zone”, is there an FDIC-style insurance mechanism in place to shore up the banking system across the member countries?”

Marshall: “No. The deposit guarantee is handled on a national scale, which is why Ireland is basically insolvent. The deposit liabilities of its banking system are about 600% of GDP. Ireland can “write the cheque” to cover this, so it’s doomed. “

Rebecca: “Great, thx! This is not good…”

Marshall: “No, it’s a disaster. In many respects, Ireland’s problems are even worse than Greece. It truly is insolvent. Greece has problems because of self-imposed constraints, nothing more.”

Rebecca again: I still don’t see it: how “internal devaluation”, i.e., falling prices and massive wage cuts, is to drive export growth for all debtor across the Eurozone. It’s a fallacy of composition: if every country in the Eurozone deflated in order to improve competitiveness, then demand on the aggregate falls. Therefore, the Eurozone sees less rather than more export income generation.

The average country in the Eurozone earns over 60% of its export income via inter-European Union trade. Likewise, and this is why Nielsen’s base case is no contagion: the GIIPS countries (Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain) account for 35% of GDP in Q4 2009. Contagion is assured if the GIIPS jointly face a liquidity crisis.

Ahmet Akarli is very positive on the outlook for Turkey. He is likewise bullish on Russia, which is consistent with the Goldman Sachs outlook for oil: $90/barrel in 2010 and $110/barrel in 2011. Finally, Hungary appears to be the apple of the investment banking eye. Hungary’s austerity measures have been very effective, and the economy gained momentum on improved competitiveness.

Rebecca: I should note that my feeling about Hungary’s bullish export outlook is consistent with that of the Eurozone overall: the forint is pegged to the Euro (within a band, that is), so its true competitive advantage can only be sustained by persistent productivity gains and wage declines.

Paulo Leme covered Latin America. For Brazil, their outlook on the BRL and its economy more generally is consistent with my own: hot! Week after week, the inflation numbers are “higher than expected”, the current account balance “surprises to the downside”, and domestic demand is outpacing GDP by leaps and bounds.

That’s all for now.

Rebecca Wilder

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Eurozone saga…what’s up?

by Rebecca Wilder

This is a post about my confusion, rather than my reporting, of the Eurozone saga. Here are some pieces worth reading if you want to catch up:

The NY Times (the basics); Ed Harrison (via Naked Capitalism); From the billy blog; The Financial Times (Martin Wolf, a must read); The Economist (will reference below).

Okay, a conditional guarantee for possible lending, maybe, with consultation from the IMF has been agreed upon by the Eurozone countries (Germany and France, really). But what I don’t understand is pretty well stated in the Economist article:

The Greek government has somehow to keep its economy on an even keel while pushing through a huge fiscal tightening. Countries that seek IMF help generally have to endure brutal cuts in public spending, which deepen recessions. To counter that effect, the IMF typically counsels a weaker currency. Sadly, this is not an option for Greece. Stuck in the euro, its exchange rate with its main trading partners is fixed. Greece cannot devalue, so it needs more time to adjust than the three years it has agreed with its EU partners—and a bigger safety net while it does.

Sadly? This is not an option? The Economist completely skips over the VERY LARGE issue of a singular currency and on to the competitiveness story, one that must be derived through internal devaluation, i.e., dropping wages and other nominal variables.

Financial crises, especially those in small-open economies (Sweden, for example), generally end with a massive currency devaluation that drives export growth (provided there is external demand to suffice). I honestly don’t see how a sufficient export-generated rebound is even a possibility, given that the rest of the Eurozone is essentially trying the “internal devaluation” bit simultaneously (chart above).

And who’s going to pick up the slack? In 2008, 64% of Greece’s export income was derived by the EU 27 countries, 70% for Spain, and 74% for Portugal. If the Eurozone as a whole is using this same internal deflation mechanism to spur export growth, only the “zone” as a whole really benefits, not any one country.

WIHTOUT a massive surge in export-driven GDP growth no “zone” country can drop its financial deficit without incurring behemoth debt burden growth (in the case of the Eurozone, the term “burden” actually applies since Greece, nor any one economy, can print its own money).

Look at the government’s period budget constraint (left), where the lower-case letters “d” and “p” stand for the debt and primary deficit as a share of GDP, respectively. r is the nominal interest rate, and (1+g) is the rate of NOMINAL GDP growth (including price appreciation). (Email me if you want the algebra.)

When Greece starts dropping p (the primary deficit), the fundamentals of the economy (i.e., nominal gdp growth (1+g)) must be robust enough to prevent a surging debt burden. And here’s the cycle: to drop the primary deficit, it does so by reducing G and raising T, which drags Y (as of Y = C + I + G + Ex – Im) and growth of Y, (1+g), since export growth is unlikely to be there to offset the decline in private spending; these effects then flow back to the primary deficit to raise p.

And likewise, only under the circumstances of heroic export growth can the government reduce its fiscal deficit to 3% WITHOUT the private sector levering up their balance sheets and contributing to a larger default risk (of the depressionary type). I’m confused.

All I’m saying is that this plan, in its current form, is really not much of a plan at all. The internal devaluation model has a lot of holes.

Rebecca Wilder crossposted with News N Economics

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The endgame for Europe: wage cutting and the battle for exports

Yesterday I argued that Latvia’s cost-cutting efforts are evident compared to a cross-section of European Union countries. Latvia’s efforts, while commendable, were very much a function of the emergency IMF loan in December 2008 and the ensuing recession in 2009.

After an email exchange with Marshall Auerback, and thinking more about the cross-section of Europe, I now see a very scary trend emerging across Europe: the fight for exports.

To be sure, Latvia’s efforts are of note, as the acceleration in hourly labor costs dropped from a 22% pace spanning 2007-2008 to just 2.8% in the first three quarters of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008 (the Eurostat data are truncated at Q3 2009).

But look at the similar wage-cutting behavior occurring across the European Union, especially in the Eurozone hopefuls (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are preparing to adopt the euro in coming years).

The battle for exports has begun. Compared to the same period in 2008, Q1-Q3 2009 annual hourly labor costs growth are down 4.9% in Lithuania, 0.8% in the U.K., and 0.5% in Estonia. In fact, every country across the 26 countries listed except Belgium, Germany, Greece, and Spain, saw the rate of hourly wage growth decrease since 2008. The currency is pegged, so the only mechanism to increase external competitiveness is through price (wages) declines. To be sure, this growth model cannot work for the Eurozone as a whole.

Latvia’s model: drop wages to increase export income. Greece: drop wages to increase export income. France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, etc., etc. It’s impossible that the whole of the Eurozone will drop wages to increase export income. It’s especially bad for countries like Latvia or Hungary, where the lion’s-share of trade occurs withing the boundaries of Europe.

And what happens when export income does not provide the impetus for aggregate demand growth? Well, there’s not much left. Can’t devalue the currency (via printing money), and tax revenues will fall faster than a ten-pound weight: rising deficits; rising debt; rising debt service (via surging credit spreads). Sovereign default seems like a near-certainty somewhere in the Eurozone!

This article is crossposted at News N Economics

Rebecca Wilder

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