Italy Economy Real Time Data Charts

Edward Hugh is only able to update this blog from time to time, but he does run a lively Twitter account with plenty of Italy related comment. He also maintains a collection of constantly updated Italy economy charts together with short text updates on a Storify dedicated page Italy - Lost in Stagnation?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Facebook Links

Quietly clicking my way through Bloomberg last Sunday afternoon, I came across this:

Facebook Members Register Names at 550 a Second

Facebook Inc., the world’s largest social-networking site, said members registered new user names at a rate of more than 550 a second after the company offered people the chance to claim a personalized Web address.

Facebook started accepted registrations at midnight New York time on a first-come, first-served basis. Within the first seven minutes, 345,000 people had claimed user names, said Larry Yu, a spokesman for Palo Alto, California-based Facebook. Within 15 minutes, 500,000 users had grabbed a name.

Mein Gott, I thought to myself, if 550 people a second are doing something, they can't all be wrong. So I immediately signed up. Actually, this isn't my first experience with social networking since I did try Orkut out some years back, but somehow I didn't quite get the point. Either I was missing something, or Orkut was. Now I think I've finally got it. Perhaps the technology has improved, or perhaps I have. As I said in one of my first postings:

Ok. This is just what I've always wanted really. A quick'n dirty personal blog. Here we go. Boy am I going to enjoy this.
Daniel Dresner once broke bloggers down into two groups, the "thinkers" and the "linkers". I probably would be immodest enough to suggest that most of my material falls into the first category (my postings are lo-o-o-ng, horribly long), but since I don't fit any mould, and Iam hard to typecast, I also have that hidden "linker" part, struggling within and desperate to come out. Which is why Facebook is just great.

In addition, on blogs like this I can probably only manage to post something worthwhile perhaps once or twice a month, and there is news everyday.

So, if you want some of that up to the minute "breaking" stuff, and are willing to submit yourself to a good dose of link spam, why not come on in and subscribe to my new state-of-the-art blog? You can either send me a friend request via FB, or mail me direct (you can find the mail on my Roubini Global page). Let's all go and take a long hard look at the future, you never know, it might just work.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Italian GDP Falls An Annualised 9.6% In The First Three Months Of 2009

Italy's recession deepened at the start of 2009, with first-quarter gross domestic product falling to its worst level since at least 1980, confirming the impression that Europe's fourth-largest economy is now headed for its worst downturn since World War II. Preliminary data from the national statistics office (Istat) show that Italian GDP fell 2.4% in the first quarter when compared with the last quarter of 2008. This follows a downwardly revised 2.1% contraction in the fourth quarter of last year. Annualised this means a 9.6% contraction rate during the three months, which is very high indeed.

Year on year GDP fell by 5.9%, which was also the sharpest drop since Istat's most recent data series starts in 1980 - or for at lest 29 years. The contraction was even worse than analysts were predicting, with the consensus having been for a 1.8% drop on the quarter and a 5% one on the year.

According to ISTAT, even if GDP stays flat for the remaining three quarters of the year, 2009 GDP will contract by 4.6%. According to my rough calculations, Italy's GDP was on about the same level this quarter as it was in the first three months of 2005, and from here we are travelling back in time.

But GDP is not remaining flat, even if the pace of contraction seems to have slowed in the present quarter.

PMIs Show Continuing Contraction - Although The Rate Eased In April

Italy continued to register the steepest overall fall in retail sales in the Eurozone in April according to the Bloomberg Retail PMI. The month-on-month sales index did however rise from 41.9 in March to 46.8 giving the slowest rate of decline since October 2007. Retail sales have now fallen for 26 months consecutively according to survey data.

Manufacturing Output Falls

Italy's manufacturing business shrank at its slowest rate for six months in April, with the latest Markit/ADACI survey producing a headline PMI reading of 37.2 - significantly above March's record low of 34.6 and beating the consensus forecast of 36.5.

In addition other recent data suggest that the lowest point may have been past with business confidence improving in April (following 10 consecutive monthly falls), and consumer morale hitting its highest level in 16 months. However Markit reported that about 40 percent of companies in the survey reported new order levels continued to fall during the month, even though at the slowest rate of decline in seven months. Output fell at its slowest rate since October, with the sub-index jumping to 35.9 in April from 32.8 in March. Overseas orders, even though they fell less sharply in April, still clocked up their 14th successive month of decline, with Markit noting that demand was particularly weak from Eastern Europe and Russia.

And job losses in Italy's manufacturing sector showed no signs of letting up and were running at the second fastest rate in almost 12 years of data collection following the record low hit by the employment index in March.

However, saying that the "darkest hour" in this contraction may be over is not the same thing as saying that recovery is anywhere in sight. Italy's manufacturing PMI has now not indicated growth since February 2008 and forecasts generally expect the economy to contract by around four percent this year, making for two straight years of continuous contraction for the first time since World War Two. Indeed, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has even already pencilled in a potential further contraction for 2010, which if realised will mean Italy's economy will have been shrinking for an almost unprecedented 3 years continuously.

As Does Services

Italian service sector activity contracted for the 17th consecutive month in April although at the slowest rate for six months. The Markit/ADACI Purchasing Managers' Index rose to 42.0 from 39.1 in March, but still is not that far above the record low of 37.9 recorded in February. Activity has now been stick below the 50 mark that separates growth from contraction since November 2007.

The survey showed new business shrinking for the eighteenth straight month in April, though the rate of decline eased for the second month running, while expectations of business in a year's time rose to an eight-month high. As elsewhere, while optimism is rising Markit did point to record job losses as a likely on consumer spending looking ahead, making hopes of a swift recovery extremely premature. The employment sub-index fell to 44.0 from 44.6, as firms cut jobs at a survey record rate in response to the ongoing loss of business. The survey is thus consistent with other recent indicators that have pointed to an economy still mired in the deep recession that began in spring of last year, but with some grounds for thinking that the lowest point may now have been passed.

Deflationary pressure remained evident with service firms cutting their prices for the seventh month running and at the fastest rate in the survey's history in response to weak demand, while input prices showed no monthly increase for the first time since the survey began. The Italian government slashed its economic forecasts last week, and now project gross domestic product to fall by 4.2 percent this year following last year's 1.0 percent decline. The International Monetary Fund is more pessimistic, forecasting a 4.4 percent fall this year and a further drop of 0.4 percent in 2010. Italy thus now possibly faces three years of economic contraction one after the other although previously the country had not posted two consecutive years of falling GDP in its entire post-war history.

Business and Consumer Confidence Rebound Slightly

Italian consumer confidence rebounded slightly in April and reached its highest level since December 2007 as the lure of slowing inflation seemed to offset concerns about rising unemployment. The Isae Institute’s consumer confidence index rose to 104.9 from 99.8 in March.

Italian business confidence also rose as companies saw signs of an increase in orders of goods and services following the sighting of green sprouts everywhere except under our noses. The Isae Institute’s business confidence index climbed to 64.2 from a revised 60.9 in March.

Industrial Output

Industrial output simply declined and declines, and fell in March for an 11th consecutive month. Output dropped a seasonally adjusted 4.6 percent from February, when it fell a revised 4.6 percent, according to data from the national statistics office. From a year earlier, adjusted production fell 23.8 percent. Fiat has laid off about half of its 78,000 national workforce in using temporary state-subsidized programs. Sales of their cars fell 16 percent in Italy in the first quarter, according to data from the trade association ANFIA.

Exports Remain Very Weak

Italy's trade deficit increased dramatically to 837 million euros in February, almost double the 449 million euros recorded in the same month in 2008. Istat said a fall in demand was recorded in all sectors, but the automobile sector was particularly hard hit with a fall in exports of 46 percent. Trade in the chemical sector was down 29.5 percent, electrical goods were down 27.3 percent and exports of other manufactured goods fell by 22.7 percent.

Imports were down by 25.3 percent at 24.3 billion euros while exports were down by 23.7 percent at 23.5 billion euros. The results, however, were slightly better than in January, when imports were 23.4 billion euros and exports 19.8 billion euros. This was effectively the worst decline in exports since these statistics were first compiled by ISTAT in 1993.

No End To The Recession In Sight
Italy effectively entered recession in third quarter of 2008, and the economy now looks bound to shrink the most in more than half a century this year. The International Monetary Fund forecast on April 22 that the jobless rate will reach 8.9 percent this year and 10.5 percent in 2010. At the same time, Italian inflation has been slowing and hit a record low of 1.1 % in March, so if the contraction continues the deflation threat is real and present.

According to the latest EU Commission forecast Italy’s gross domestic product will fall this year by 4.4 percent, more than twice the 2 percent it predicted three months ago. This is bound to have a substantial impact on government debt, and the Italian government already accepts that the budget deficit will rise this year and breach the European Union limit of 3 percent of GDP. Government spending climbed 21 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier, while revenue fell 4.8 percent, the Bank of Italy said on May 13. The EU Commission forecast a deficit of 4.5% of GDP this year and 4.8% in 2010. As a result gross government debt is projected to climb from 105.8% of GDP in 2008 to 113% in 2009 and 116.1% in 2010. A grim picture, and no easy solutions.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Italian Industrial Output Continues To Decline In February

Industrial production in Italy fell for the eighth month in February as the nation’s worst recession in more than 30 years forced companies to cut output. Production in the euro region's third biggest economy dropped a seasonally adjusted 3.5 percent from January, when it fell a revised 1.2 percent. From a year earlier, working day adjusted production fell 21 percent. The monthly decline was more than the 1.5 percent median forecast of 18 economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

And the picture doesn't seem to have improved any in March, since manufacturing activity fell in Italy at its fastest pace on record, with the manufacturing purchasing managers index falling to a record low of 34.6, down from February's 35.0 and suggesting an unprecedented contraction in activity for the sector. Weakness was widespread, Markit said in their report. Staffing levels were cut at a record pace as firms were forced to adapt to falling workloads and declining new orders. Backlogs of work also declined at their sharpest pace in the history of the PMI as falling demand meant firms to were increasingly able to complete outstanding projects.

The Contraction In Italian Services Continues

Italian service sector activity also stayed close to record lows in March, with employment falling the fastest in over 11 years, according to the PMI survey released last Friday. The Markit/ADACI Purchasing Managers' Index, spanning companies from hotels to insurance brokers, edged up to 39.1 after hitting 37.9 in February, its lowest level since the survey began in January 1998.

The headline measure has not been above the 50 mark that separates growth from contraction since November 2007, and the survey showed jobs were shed in March at a record pace. The survey also showed that companies' input costs and the prices they charged customers were falling at the fastest rate since the series began as firms scrambled to offer discounts to attract business.

"Averaged over the quarter, service sector activity fell at the fastest pace since at least 1998," said Andrew Self, economist at Markit Economics. "The slump is in line with a year-on-year contraction of gross domestic product between 2.5 and 3.0 percent. This implies economic output will contract at a sharper pace in the first quarter, on a quarterly basis, than in the last quarter of 2008."

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development forecast last week that Italy's GDP would plunge 4.3 percent this year and fall 0.4 percent in 2010, giving Italy three consecutive years of economic contraction. According to the OECD unemployment will jump to 9.2 percent after rising in 2008 for the first time in a decade to 6.8 percent.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Eurozone Retail Sales Contract For the Tenth Month In Succession

The Bloomberg Euro-Zone Retail Purchasing Managers' Index - based on a mid-month survey of more than 1,000 executives in the euro area retail sector - rose marginally in March - to 44.1, up from 42.3 in February to 44.1 in March. This was the smallest monthly drop in the value of sales in five months, but it was still a drop, and quite a significant one, since the neutral point between contraction and expansion is 50. Still first quarter retail sales have seen an average monthly decline which is smaller than in the fourth quarter of last year (an effect of all those stimulus programmes), however sales have now fallen for ten consecutive months.

The German Sales Contraction Accelerates

Retail sales in Germany, the zone's largest economy, dropped for a 10th month in March as unemployment rose and manufacturing industry continued to grapple with a slump in export orders. The retail PMI dropped to 44.4 from 45.4 in February.

German households are cutting spending as a deepening economic slump forces companies to eliminate jobs, pushing up unemployment. The fall comes despite the decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to spend about 82 billion euros in measures to stimulate growth, including tax breaks and incentives to buy new cars.

“Consumers were generally unwilling to spend, while evidence of shorter working hours at local companies reportedly curtailed their buying power,” Markit said in the statement. “The overall decline may have been greater were it not for government incentives to scrap old motor vehicles, which continued to support sales in the automobile sector.”

The Italian Sales Contraction Enters Its 25th Month

Italian retail sales contracted for a 25th month in March as the country's worst recession in more than 30 years prompts companies to cut jobs, in the process eating away at consumer demand. The index was up slightly at 41.9, from 38.2 in February.

Italy slipped into its fourth recession since 2001 last year, sending the unemployment rate to a two-year high. The government has adopted around 40 billion euros in stimulus measures, but is constrained from spending more due to the high level of prior government debt. As a result the OECD forecast the economy will likely contract by 4.2 percent this year.

French Sales Hold Up A Little Better

France also saw a moderation in the rate of sales decline, with the pace easing from February's record but remaining steep. Month-on-month the index rose from 42.6 to 45.7, rounding off a first quarter that has seen the weakest sales performance in the history of the French survey. French retailers have reported falling sales in five of the past six months.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Italy's Economic Contraction Accelerates

There is no doubt that Italy's economic situation has worsened considerably during this quarter. Only last week the OECD forecast that Italy's gross domestic product is likely to fall by 4.2 percent in 2009. This follows a statement earlier this month where the OECD said the situation in Italy this year and next was "much worse" than it had previously thought, and that Italy would not come out of its recession until "sometime" in 2010 at the earliest. According to the earlier forecast the OECD expected GDP to fall this year by one percent and then by a further 0.8 percent in 2010.

The Bank of Italy has also changed its forecast, and now suggest that GDP this year will fall by 2.6 percent. In January (the last time they revised their Italy forecast), the IMF forecast a fall of 2.1 percent. This is almost certain to be revised downwards in the April World Economic Outlook forecast review. Only today the Italian employers’ lobby Confindustria cut its forecast for 2009 GDP , saying the economy will contract by 3.5 percent while public debt will climb to 112.5 percent of GDP.

And these forecasts are not drawn like rabbits out of a hat, since evidence of the deterioration in Italy's economic performance is now to be found everywhere, but perhaps nowhere is it clearer than in the most recent exports and industrial output numbers. Italian exports plummeted 26 percent in January from a year ago, the biggest drop since records began in 1991. With the drop in exports leaving the country with a trade deficit of 3.6 billion euros.

Meanwhile Italian industrial output fell for a fifth month as what is now the country's worst recession in more than 30 years forced companies to keep cutting output and jobs. Production dropped a seasonally adjusted 0.2 percent from December, when it fell a revised 3.9 percent. From a year earlier, adjusted production fell 16.7 percent, the biggest decline since records began in January 1991.

As we can see from the revised output index, after remaining pretty much stationary from early 2007, production really started to slump in May 2008, and hasn't looked back since.

Italy's manufacturing PMI fell again in February to 35.0 from January's 36.1, and was only marginally above November's series record low of 34.9.

Italian business confidence fell to a record low in March as concern that the fourth recession in seven years will damp orders more than offset lower oil prices and borrowing costs. The Isae Institute’s business confidence index dropped to 59.8, the lowest since the index was created in 1986, from a revised 63.2 in February.

Italian executives also reported having more problems getting credit in February, when the report showed that 40.2 percent of those surveyed said the credit situation worsened, up from 33.5 percent in January. The new orders sub component also fell, to minus 65 from minus 58 in January, the lowest since 1991. And manufacturers’ expectations for production over the next three months fell to minus 24 from minus 20.

Retail Sales Fall

Italian retail sales contracted for the 24th consecutive month in February as the credit crunch tightened its grip on spending, and consumers put off purchases of cars and home appliances.

Services Decline Confirms Accelerating Contraction

Italian service sector activity sank in February to its weakest level on record, the latest sign of a deepening recession in the euro zone's third largest economy, the latest Markit/ADACI PMI survey and the Index, spanning companies from hotels to insurance brokers, fell to 37.9 from 41.1 in January to hit the lowest level since the survey began in January 1998.

GDP Growth In Long Term Decline

Italian fourth quarter GDP fell a downwardly revised 1.9% from the previous quarter, the largest drop since 1980, compared with a downwardly revised 0.7% contraction in the third quarter of 2008 according to data published by the Italian statistics office Istat last week.

On a year on year basis GDP fell a downwardly revised 2.9%, also the sharpest drop since 1980.

Business investments fell by 6.9% during the quarter, consumer spending fell 0.6%, while exports plummeted 7.4%. As can be seen from the chart below, given the endemic weak state of Italian household consumption, GDP growth tends to follow export growth.

Although, of course, household consumption has now been falling back sharply since early 2007.

2008 data for Italian GDP has now also been published, and again the drop of 1,0% has not been seen since 1975.

Italy's economy will shrink by around 2.6 percent this year, a member of the Bank of Italy's executive board said on Wednesday, cutting the central bank's previous forecast of a 2.0 percent contraction made in January.

Since January, Italian economic data has been consistently bad, with business confidence and purchasing managers' indexes plumbing new record lows. The government pencilled in a forecast of -2.0 percent in its Stability Programme issued in February, but many analysts have cut their forecasts even lower than the BOI. Intesa San Paolo, Italy's largest bank, has a forecast of -2.9 percent.

While Italy’s unemployment rate rose in the fourth quarter to the highest in more than two years as the recession deepened, prompting companies to reduce production and jobs. Joblessness increased to a seasonally adjusted 6.9 percent from 6.7 in the previous quarter, the Rome-based national statistics office said today. The number of unemployed rose to 1.73 million in the third quarter, when 1.69 million people were out of work.

Little Room To Manouevre As The Credit Crunch Tightens

For some time now Italy’s government has been abandoning its optimistic rhetoric and adoptinmg a more sombre assessment of the economy. Giulio Tremonti, the finance minister, recently told a conference that 2009 would be “even more difficult” than last year, with two leading newspapers quoting him as saying Italy faced a “horrible year”.

Tremonti said the government would look next week at providing more to help the growing numbers of unemployed, on top of €8bn it says has already been set aside for extra benefits.

Italian consumer confidence fell for the first time in three months in March, with the Isae Institute’s consumer confidence index dropping to 99.8 from a revised 104 in February.

Growing evidence suggests that the crisis is really hitting the Italian economy in a kind of back-to-front fashion, with the slump in the real economy (and especially the economic crisis in the East of Europe) threatening to drive Italian banks into more and more difficulty. The finance minister is under growing pressure from other cabinet members to increase government spending further, but understandably, Tremonti keeps pointing to Italy’s huge public debt as a major impediment to any serious stimulus plan. So it is simply a question of grin and bear it.

Tremonti admitted at a recent meeting with banks, companies and unions that Italy had seen a greater credit market conditions tightening in recent months than most other eurozone economies. On the other hand he pointed to the fact that Italian banks had shown a “strong interest” in taking up the government-backed bond offer (which only totals €12bn) at the same time as he rejected criticism that the 8.5 per cent interest rate they carry was too high.

Intesa Sanpaolo, which is Italy’s biggest bank by market value, has announced that it will apply for 4 billion euros worth of the bonds after it posted a 1.23 billion-euro fourth-quarter loss on writedowns. This makes Intesa the third Italian lender to take advantage of the country’s bank aid package, following similar decisions by Banco Popolare and UniCredit.

At the same time the credit crunch is evidently producing some sort of housing crisis and the sale of residential properties dropped 15 percent last year, according to OMISE, a government agency that specializes in collecting data on real estate. Property specialists Nomisma forecast house prices will fall 8.5 percent in the second half of 2009, and for a country which has not seen much of a housing boom, this drop is significant. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has announced a housing plan designed to make it easier for property owners to carry out home modernisation. According to Il Sole, Italians will be able to add as much as 20 percent of the current size of their homes without planning formalities. This is obviously rather controversial, and Bank of Italy Governor Mario Draghi was himself pretty non commital in his testimony before a parliamentary commission last week, resticting himself to saying that the “plan could act as a stimulus, although the short-term effect on economic growth is uncertain.”

The Almunia Syllogism

European Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquín Almunia recently, and possibly totally inadvertently, stumbled on a very interesting argument. Here it is:
"Who is crazy enough to leave the euro area? Nobody," Almunia said. "The number of candidates to join the euro area increases. The number of candidates to leave the euro area is zero."

Reductio Ad Absurdum

Now you don't need a PhD in economics to understand what follows, although a little bit of basic logic would help. What we have here could be construed as a kind of syllogism (and from now on let's christen this one "The Almunia Syllogism"). The Almunia Syllogism has the following form:

a) Anyone leaving (or aiding and abetting the departure of someone from) the Eurozone is crazy
b) The EU Commission, The ECB and The National Leaders are not crazy
c) Therefore no one will leave, or be allowed to leave, the eurozone (at least under current conditions)

Q.E.D. We Will Have A United States Of Europe.

Well, ok, I do need to add a lettle lemma here to the effect that the only way to enforce (c) is to build the necessary architecture, and there is room for debate about this, since this lemma is neither proven, nor is it self evident. You also need to accept that there is an excluded middle here, and we do not have a "now either the EU leaders are crazy ot they aren't" fork which we can get diverted down.

As I say, the lemma is not self evident, although my own opinion is that in the weeks and months to come its validity will become extraordinarily clear even to the most reticent among us, but this still needs to be established. The thing about the lemma is that it focuses the debate. Those who do not agree with it need to be able to show how we can have (c) within the present architecture (since here there is a middle to exclude, either we can or we can't). The results coming out from the "we can" camp are not entirely encouraging. For example, ECB Executive Board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi's recent attempt to argue that Krugman has it wrong, and that (we can manage with what we have) fails stupendously to convince, in my opinion, and especially the extract I reproduce below (which exemplifies precisely the point those who want new achitecture are making).

For instance, for the period 2009-10, discretionary measures adopted in Germany total 3.5% of GDP, compared with 3.8%in the United States. In some European countries, such as Italy, the size of such stimulus measures is relatively limited owing to the high levels of debt, but in other countries the total fiscal stimulus is larger than in the United States.

The whole issue is that we need a mechanism to average out the stimulus, is that so hard to understand? Is this obscurantism, or simply stupidity?

A Literary Trope Not A Syllogism

On the other hand, the formal validity of the following "utterance" from Almunia is rather more questionable.

"Don't fear for this moment," he said. "We are equipped intellectually, politically and economically to face this crisis scenario. But by definition these kinds of things should not be explained in public."

The first phrase is an exhortation, one which I would agree with (but not for the same reasons), the second is an assertion whose truth content is, at least, questionable, while the third is an admission, one which would perhaps better not have been made, or a piece of advice, which the unfortunate Otto Bernhardt seems never to have received.
A senior German lawmaker said euro zone states stood ready to come to the aid of financially fragile members of the currency bloc, sparking furious denials from European leaders that a specific rescue plan existed. Otto Bernhardt, a leading lawmaker in Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), told Reuters in an interview late on Thursday: "There is a plan."

and then Bloomberg let us know a bit more about the details of the plan.
The German Finance Ministry has no knowledge of a rescue fund organized by the European Central Bank for troubled euro-region members such as Ireland and Greece, spokeswoman Jeanette Schwamberger said.

Otto Bernhardt, finance spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said in an interview with Reuters today that the ECB has a fund at its disposal to help troubled countries and can make money available at 24 hours’ notice.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Here We Go Time Gets Near With Unicredit

I have been warning on the parlous position of Italy's Unicredit for some time now (see this initial EU Bonds post, or the earlier history of the Unicredit problem, here, here, here, here, here). Well, today the story took another turn for the worse.

It all started yesterday, when Bloomberg came in with a report about Unicredit's eastern exposure, outlining how a decade long expanison, which saw more than $65 billion of acquisitions in operations stretching from Poland to Kazakhstan is now alarming analysts who forecast that loan defaults in eastern Europe, where the bank focused its growth, are set to balloon. Unicredit's stock is down 76 percent in the past 12 months, the second-biggest decline among Italian banks.

“Eastern Europe is the new bogeyman,” said Massimiliano Romano, an analyst at Concentric Italy in Milan. “UniCredit has subsidiaries in 17 different countries there. We used to see that as diversification, now we see it as a risk.”

Then came the news, again yesterday, that the bank had suffered a 57 percent decline in fourth-quarter profit. Finally, this morning, the bank informed us that they are planning to ask for as much as 4 billion euros in government aid. In fact the profit results were not as bad as some analysts had been forecasting, but then these results are for 2008, which, as the company said in its statement, was still a “very good year” in eastern Europe. 2009 looks set to be quite a lot worse, and 2010? As Unicredit CEO Alessandro Profumo said, the bank is "monitoring countries including Ukraine very closely".

In fact the bank is going to apply for aid in both Austria and Italy, and this is not surprising since according to a statement from the Bank of Italy earlier this week, Italy's national debt climbed to 105.8 percent of gross domestic product at the end of last year, up from 103.5 in December 2007. So the credit rating agencies' patience is already being badly strained, even if the quality of their mercy might not be.

Oh, and just to cap it all, and a very bad day for Unicredit, HVB Group, their German banking unit, announced this morning that they had a loss of 671 million euros last year because of writedowns on investments and higher provisions for risky loans. HVB’s trading results were “severely affected by the extreme market turmoil which intensified in the fourth quarter of 2008,” according to the company statement.

Basically, this is that well known proverbial situation, where Europe's leaders twiddle their thumbs, while Rome, almost literally, burns.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Eurozone Inflation Expectations Fall As The Output Gap Rises

It’s a depressing spectacle: on both sides of the Atlantic, policy-makers just keep falling short — and the odds that this slump really will turn into Great Depression II keep rising.

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.

Oh, and Jean-Claude Trichet says that there is no deflation threat in Europe. What’s the weather like on his planet?
Paul Krugman, yesterday

What follows here are simply a few charts to illustrate further the argument I developed yesterday as regards the significance of the deflation threat which now exists in the eurozone. The argument is that the ECB is once again being far too cautious, and risks allowing the entire eurozone to entire a deflationary cycle which may prove to be a lot harder to get out of than it was to get into. In my view the ECB should bring the refinancing rate close to zero % at next Thursday's rate setting meeting, and then explore what measures can be taken to introduce a zonewide version of US/Japan style Quantitative Easing as quickly as possible.

The key argument I am presenting is that it is a mistake to focus at this point on what is happening to energy, food and other commodity prices. The key issue is what is happening to core prices, and what will continue to happen to them as output contracts further. The other side of the coin are inflation expectations, and as we will see below these are now falling rapidly across Europe. It is very important at this point that these expectations do not get "locked in" to price fall expectations.

It is evident that the degree of economic slack in the OECD is now widening rapdily as unemployment rises and capacity utilization falls. The OECD output gap (the difference between current levels of output and some estimate of what "capacity" output could be at this point) continues to widen and is now only second in importance to the output gap seen in the early 1980s. In fact, the output gap is likely to have widened further since the OECD last made its forecasts in November 2008 (the OECD leading indicator has, for example, continued to decline since that point) but the output gaps shown for the US, the UK and eurozone in the chart below are already sufficiently pronounced to make the point quite clearly I think.

In fact, spare capacity is a phenomenon which extends way beyond the OECD, and economies throughout the world are operating at below their potential and look set to do so for both the remainder of this year and most of 2010. Global manufacturing has been contracting and global trade has collapsed. Here is the latest JP Morgan Global Manufacturing PMI.

The IMF currently estimates that the cumulative global output loss relative to potential over the period 2008-2010 will be as much as 5% (see chart below).

And inflation expectations are falling rapidly. The latest findings in the European Commission’s own consumer questionnaire show that the net balance of respondents in the UK and the Euro zone expecting prices to be higher this time next year is now at the lowest recorded level - just 2.7% and 4.1% respectively ( see chart below).

Monday, March 02, 2009

"There Is No Deflation Threat In Europe" - Jean Claude Trichet - Oh Really!

He's at it again. Last year he was busily trying to worry us all that inflation was set to get completely out of hand among the 16 countries who make up the eurozone. Now the President of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, is hard at it on another tack and is busying himself trying to convince us that there is no credible deflation threat facing these countries. Apart from getting it wrong on both occasions, the common point here would be a certain inbuilt "inflation bias", a bias which was earlier called "the original sin of the Bundesbank" by nobel prize winning Italian economist Franco Modigliani.

"There is presently no threat of deflation," Trichet told a committee of the European Parliament on Wednesday 14 February. "We are currently witnessing is a process of disinflation, driven in particular by a sharp decline in commodity prices." ..."It is a welcome development," he said, adding that the fall in energy, and other prices should help boost struggling economies.
Apart from manifesting a spectacular lack of economic judgement, the Financial Times's Banker of the Year 2007 is now forcing us to ask the embarassing question as to just how far "out of touch" you can get with the material you are supposed to be handling and continue to hold down your job. It seems we are forced to come up with the rather worrying response, that, in the case of the principal EU institutions (remember the sad case of Economy and Finance Commissioner Joaquin Almunia), the answer is "bastante" (consideably), since a quick look at the data we have to hand shows us that Eurozone inflation is already significantly undershooting the European Central Bank’s own target (and principle policy objective) of maintaining the annual rate “below but close” to 2%. Worse, by all appearances the rate of consumer price inflation in the eurozone is now set to head straight off into negative territory.

If we look at headline HICP inflation on an annualised basis, we will find that it fell more than expected in January - to 1.1 per cent, according to Eurostat data - down quite dramatically from the peak of 2.7 per cent hit in March last year. This was the lowest level we have seen since July 1999, and a sharp drop from the 1.6 percent rate registered in December. On a month-to-month basis, prices were down 0.8 percent. The "core" inflation rate - that is consumer inflation without the volatile elements of food, energy, alcohol and tobacco - we find it still stood at 1.6%, since the biggest impact on headline inflation comes from the decline in food and energy costs. But if we look at the monthly movement in the core index, we find that it dropped by a very large 1.3% (see chart below).

Now if we come to look at the core inflation rate over the last six months, we find that the index has only risen 0.1% (or an annual rate of 0.2%). This gives us a much more accurate reading on where inflation actually is at this point in time, and where it is headed. The chart below shows the six month lagged annualised rate for the last twelve months, and the sharp drop in January is evident. If things continue like this, then the eurozone as a whole is headed straight into deflation, for sure.

Why Should Prices Continue to Fall?

So what are the grounds for thinking that inflation may be now heading into negative territory (ie that we are entering deflation right now), despite the fact that the ECB revised forecast is likely to come out at about 0.7 per cent this year and 1.5 per cent in 2010, according to estimates from Julian Callow, European economist at Barclays Capital. Well let's look at a chart produced by Paul Krugman showing the relation between the US output gap and the inflation rate.

Now as Krugman explains the figure plots an estimate of the output gap — the difference between actual and potential GDP, as a percentage of potential — and the change in the inflation rate. (Both series are taken from the IMF WEO database, for convenience, and use data from 1980-2007).

The fit, as he says, is not perfect, but the correlation is evident, and there is an implied slope of about 0.5 — that is, every percentage point by which real US GDP fall short of potential tends to reduce the inflation rate by about half a point over the course of the year. Now I am not going to advance here estimates of the present output gap in the eurozone, but we do have clear indications of a sharp and ongoing contraction in demand in the GDP numbers. Eurozone GDP contracted by 0.2% between the second and the third quarters of last year, and by 1.5% between the third and fourth quarters.

What's more the key indicators suggest that the contraction is accelerating at this point. The February Markit euro-zone composite PMI reading dropped to a record low of 36.2 from 38.3 in January. Any reading below 50 on these indexes indicates month on month contraction.

Barring some spectacular (and entirely improbable) turnaround in March it now seems likely that the Q1 GDP contraction will be worse than the Q4 2008 one, and considering (as mentioned previously) that the eurozone contracted by 0.2% in Q3 2008, and by 1.5% in Q4, then, in my humble opinion, the data we are seeing for this quarter are entirely consistent with a 2% quarterly contraction (or an annualised 8% rate of contraction). For those of you who simply don't believe that PMIs can tell you so much, take a look at Markit's own chart (below), showing the strong underlying relationship between movements in GDP and the *flash* composite PMI. The results they achieve are pretty impressive I would say.

and if we look at an additional indicator (the EU's own Economic Sentiment Indicator for the eurozone) we will see that it hit yet another low in February (see below) which again suggests that the contraction is accelerating at this point, and substantially so.

So the core HICP index is on the point of turning negative on a six monthly basis, and the situation appears set to get even worse, and our Central Bank President assures us that "there is presently no threat of deflation". So which world am I living in, or which is he?

There are further reasons to anticipate a sharp downward pull on prices from some countries in the zone (like Spain and Ireland), since they have housing and construction booms which are in the process of unwinding, and the only way they can recover the competitiveness they have lost is by conducting a sharp and significant downward revision in prices and wages (since in a currency union there is effectively no currency to devalue). The two charts below show the loss of competitiveness experienced by the Irish and the Spanish economies (respectively) with regards to the German economy since 1999 as measured by real effective exchange rates (REERs).

REERs attempt to assess a country's price or cost competitiveness relative to its principal competitors in international markets. Since changes in cost and price competitiveness depend not only on exchange rate movements but also on cost and price trends the specific REERs used by Eurostat for its Sustainable Development Indicators are deflated by nominal unit labour costs (total economy) against a panel of 36 countries (= EU27 + 9 other industrial countries: Australia, Canada, United States, Japan, Norway, New Zealand, Mexico, Switzerland, and Turkey). Double export weights are used to calculate REERs, reflecting not only competition in the home markets of the various competitors, but also competition in export markets elsewhere. A rise in the index means a loss of competitiveness.

Now the eurozone being a common currency area presents us with specific problems in the context of deflation since, as the Irish economist Philip Lane argues a member of a currency union comes up against a natural limit in national-level deflation. Thus, he argues, while a country like Ireland may well face a sustained period of inflation below the euro area average (such that it may be negative in absolute terms for a greater or lesser period of time), the situation should tend to be self-correcting since the deflation implies an improvement in competitiveness, which should generate a boost in export driven economic activity and, over time, a return to an inflation rate at around the euro area average. I'm not sure that this argument is 100% valid, since sufficient internal demand lead deflation can so effect household and corporate solvency that debt deflation can at the very least send a country off into a sizeable and significant correction (say a decade long one) before the price level falls sufficiently to generate sufficient export activity to offset the decline in domestic demand and enable balance sheets to recover. But going into all this would get pretty wonkish, so, leaving that rather theoretical point aside, lets think about a more rather concrete and immediate reason for worrying about what is happening at the present time in the eurozone, and that is the possibility that the inflation and competitiveness benchmark country, in this case Germany, may itself be about to experience an internal price deflation process which is every bit as sharp as the fall in prices which is taking place in those economies which are supposed to be correcting vis-a-vis Germany itself. That is, let's consider the possibility that through this mechanism the deflation may become eurozone wide, and relatively self perpetuating, if something is not done to break the cycle.

So, if we now go on to look at the two relevant charts below (for Spain and Ireland) we will find that in each case core indexes are falling more or less in line with the German one. In fact, both the Spanish and the German indexes are unchanged over the last six months, the Irish one is down 0.5%. At this pace (a 1% a year differential with Germany) Ireland would recover its 1999 comparative position vis-a-vis Germany in around 30 years, a rather lengthy process to say the least.

But the point here is not that prices are falling in Ireland and Spain (they have to do this) but that prices are also set to fall in Germany, and this is where monetary policy from the ECB becomes vital, since if Germany is allowed to fall into deflation then it will be extremely difficult for Spain and Ireland to "correct" (the drop in wages and prices would have to be sharp indeed) but also monetary policy from the ECB would be in danger of becoming a complete mess.

Of course not everyone on the ECB governing council shares Trichet's rosier-than-rosy view, and in a comment that offered an insight into how at least some ECB council members are thinking, Mario Draghi, Italy’s Central Bank Governor said recently that “the governing council is keeping a close watch on the real cost of money”. What he means is that, if Spain's 1.5% drop in core prices over the last three months turned into a 6% annual drop, then the real rate of interest currently being applied would be around 8%, which would constitute a very tight monetary policy in the context of Spain's worst recession in living memory.

Perhaps some readers may feel I have been unduly hard on Jean Claude Trichet in this post, but I would simply close by reminding everyone of the conclusions reached in a once widely quoted paper - Preventing deflation: lessons from Japan's experience in the 1990s, by Alan Ahearne, Joseph Gagnon, Jane Haltmaier and Steve Kamin (2002) - where the authors argued:

We conclude that Japan's sustained deflationary slump was very much unanticipated by Japanese policymakers and observers alike, and that this was a key factor in the authorities' failure to provide sufficient stimulus to maintain growth and positive inflation. Once inflation turned negative and short-term interest rates approached the zero-lower-bound, it became much more difficult for monetary policy to reactivate the economy. We found little compelling evidence that in the lead up to deflation in the first half of the 1990s, the ability of either monetary or fiscal policy to help support the economy fell off significantly. Based on all these considerations, we draw the general lesson from Japan's experience that when inflation and interest rates have fallen close to zero, and the risk of deflation is high, stimulus, both monetary and fiscal, should go beyond the levels conventionally implied by baseline forecasts of future inflation and economic activity.

As some economist or other I read is in the habit of saying "history has a nasty habit of repeating itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as tragedy". Or put another way, here we go again. Hello, is there anyone out there?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Business Confidence and Retail Sales Fall and Fall

Italian business confidence fell to a record low in February as concern that the fourth recession in seven years will damp orders more than offset lower oil prices and borrowing costs. The Isae Institute’s business confidence index dropped to 63.2, the lowest since the index was created in 1986, from a revised 65.4 in January.

Italian executives also reported having more problems getting credit in February. The report showed that 40.2 percent of those surveyed said the credit situation worsened, up from 33.5 percent in January. The new orders sub component also fell, to minus 65 from minus 58 in January, the lowest since 1991. And manufacturers’ expectations for production over the next three months fell to minus 24 from minus 20.

Retail Sales Fall

Italian retail sales contracted for the 24th consecutive month in February as the credit crunch tightened its grip on spending, and consumers put off purchases of cars and home appliances.

Italy's entered its fourth recession in seven years in the third quarter of 2008. The Italian government now forecasts the economy will contract 2 percent this year, the second consecutive year of contraction, and even this seems optimistic at this point. The government has announced an 80 billion-euro stimulus plan and 2 billion euros in incentives for the purchase of cars and home appliances., but in general the country is too indebted to be able to do anything very ambitious.

So Italy waits, in the hope that help may come from Brussels, where the 27 members of the EU will meet on Sunday - lead it seems by Angela Merkel - to decide what to do next.

And I hope you are "readying up" that rescue plan Angela, since the difference between German and Italian benchmark bond yields widened to the most in nearly 12 years today as Italy sold 10 billion euros ($12.8 billion) of government securities.

The spread between the 10-year note yields increased as much as four basis points to 161 basis points today, the widest since May 1997, based on generic Bloomberg prices. It was at 155 basis points as of 12:05 p.m. in London. The average in the past 10 years is 31 basis points.

Germany or the International Monetary Fund may be forced to rescue members of the euro bloc that struggle to refinance debt, former Bundesbank President Karl Otto Poehl said today.

“The first will certainly be a small country, so that can be managed by the bigger countries or the IMF,” he said in an interview with Sky News. “There are countries in Europe which are considering the possibility to leave the eurozone. But this is practically not possible. It would be very expensive.”

Creative Accounting and Italy's Growing Unemployment Problem

It isn't only the bank bailout programme which is suffering in Italy due to lack of sovereign borrowing capacity. (See here for the full background on Unicredit and EU Bonds). I couldn't help noticing this piece in Bloomberg earlier in the week.

Italian Labor Minister Maurizio Sacconi said the government can’t provide unlimited unemployment benefits, La Stampa reported. The government is concerned about unemployment and has freed up about 8 billion euros ($10.3 billion) in regional aid that local entities can tap into, Sacconi told La Stampa in an interview. Still, “we cannot leave the taps running,” Sacconi was also cited as saying.

So as the recession deepens, and layoffs spread, the Italian government is obviously going to have problems keeping people afloat. Which lead me to think, maybe there are two ways to do this, the regular, and the irregular one. And maybe Italy is the ideal place for the application of rather more "unconventional tools" in fighting the crisis, especially since money for the conventional ones is beginning to run scarce.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Europe's Economic Contraction Intensifies In February

Hopes that Europe's battered economies might be about to turn themselves around took another sharp knock today (Friday), as the preliminary flash reading on the purchasing manager survey signaled that activity in both the manufacturing and the services sectors are contracting at a new record pace in February.

The preliminary Markit euro-zone manufacturing purchasing managers index, or PMI, fell to a record low of 33.6 in February from 34.4 in January, while the services PMI also fell to a record low, dropping to 38.9 from 42.2 in January. As a consequence the euro-zone composite PMI reading dropped to its own record low of 36.2 from 38.3 in January. Any reading below 50 on these indexes indicates month on month contraction.

Barring some spectacular (and entirely improbable) turnaround in March it now seems likely that the Q1 GDP contraction will be worse than the Q4 2008 one. If we consider that the eurozone contracted by 0.2% in Q3 2008, and by 1.5% in Q4, then, in my humble opinion, the data we are seeing for this quarter are entirely consistent with a 2% quarterly contraction (or an annualised 8% rate of contraction). Not quite Japan territory yet, but not far behind. And for those who simply don't believe the PMIs can tell you so much, here is Markit's own chart, showing the strong underlying relationship between movements in GDP and the *flash* composite PMI. Pretty impressive I would say.

Germany's Contraction Intensifies

The German service PMI came in at at 41.6, showing the fifth consecutive month of contraction. This was a sharp drop from last months 45.2 reading, and means that the recession is now feeding through from manufacturing to services. The difficult conditions have lead service business owners to hold to the grimmest outlook in the last decade, that is since the index was started. More ominously, the recent data points to a strong reduction in the employment level.

On the other hand February saw the tiniest of upticks in the manufacturing sector, since the PMI came in at 32.2, from January's 32 , the best that can be said here is that the rate of contraction may have stabilised.

France Holds Up Slightly Better Than Most

In France, the manufacturing sector (see chart below) gave up on most of January's rebound, and the PMI fell to 35.4 from 37.9 in January, while services (see chart above) slipped to a record low of 40.1 from 42.6 in January. Nonetheless France is visibly performing rather better than Germany, and when all this is over we will have plenty of time to hold the debate as to why that has been.