Latin American growth: A sting in the tail for Argentina

The slowdown in the global economy is starting to bite from one end of Latin America to the other. The OECD forecasts that growth in the region in 2012 will slow to 3.2% from 4.4% last year. That would be the first deceleration in a decade. Just last week Argentina reported that its GDP growth in September was only one tenth of a percentage point higher than in the same month last year. Far to the north, Mexico said its third-quarter growth, at one half of a percentage point over the previous quarter had been its lowest since the first quarter of last year. Mexico, Latin America’s second largest economy, can at least comfort itself with the fact that its growth for the full year is likely to come in at 4%. Brazil, is looking at 2% growth for 2012, if it is lucky.

Mexico’s policy makers will have to wrestle with balancing cuts in interest rates to stimulate a sluggish economy with the risk of stoking inflation. That is a classic central banker’s dilemma, at least. Argentina, the region’s third largest economy after the other two, is facing problems as much of its own making as of the global slowdown’s. A poor grain harvest may have been outside the government’s control, but high inflation and import and currency controls on investment were not. The country’s long boom has come to an abrupt and ugly end this year.

The government’s newly lowered forecast of 3.4% growth for the year now looks optimistic. Private economists say 2% would be more realistic. If that is so, it would be a huge problem for Buenos Aires. Annual growth falling to 3.26% triggers $4 billion worth of payments next year to holders of Argentina’s GDP-growth-linked debt. Already embroiled in one international row over the accuracy of the country’s official inflation figures, another one on the GDP numbers now looks to be on the cards.

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Central Banks Move Slowly And Fearfully

With politicians in the U.S. and Europe abrogating responsibility for getting their zones of the world economy growing again, the task falls by default to central bankers. Yet they are standing pat for fear of being left spent in the event the feared second dip of recession materializes.

Economists have been cutting their global and national economic growth forecasts in recent months, but leading central banks have taken only relatively modest steps to stimulate economies. To deploy a cliche, they may have been talking the talk. They are not walking the walk. This week:

  • the ECB left its benchmark interest rate unchanged at 0.75%. Last week, its president, Mario Draghi, promised to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the euro;
  • the Bank of England, which last month announced an increase of £50 billion ($78 billion) in its quantitative easing (QE) program, held its benchmark interest rate at 0.5%;
  • The U.S. Federal Reserve confirmed that it would keep keep its extremely low interest rates (0.0-0.25%) until late 2014.

Meanwhile, in the world of factory floors and customers, the JP Morgan Global Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) fell to 48.4 in July from 49.1 in June–edging even further away from the dividing line of 50 that separates contraction from expansion. Like central bankers in China, those in Europe and the U.S. are holding out the hope that the policy actions they have already taken will kick-in in time.  That they are now keeping the last of their policy powder dry suggests that they are hoping against all hope.

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Lawyers For LIBOR

The LIBOR scandal will be a field day for our learned friends. An estimated $350 trillion worth of financial instruments is tied to the benchmark interest rates. The potential cost of litigation against the banks from those who own and trade those swaps and other securities that were priced using LIBOR could be substantial, as will be the legal fees involved. Contingent provisioning against that has yet to be fully priced into bank stocks.

Barclays’ settlement with U.K. and U.S. regulators over LIBOR rigging is just the start. Several other international banks are still being investigated by authorities. Heftier fines than even the £290 million ($450 million) one imposed on Barclays are quite possible, as will be taking away LIBOR-setting from the hands of the bankers themselves. No longer will it be the responsibility of their industry group, the British Banking Association. That latter step will be part of an urgent rebuffing of London’s reputation as a transparent internal financial centre that will need to be undertaken by the U.K. authorities.

One other consequence of the LIBOR scandal will be to make U.S. lawmakers even less inclined to embrace international financial regulation. It will be argued that benchmark interest rates that affect American consumers and investors should be regulated at home, even if many in the U.S. Congress had been blissfully unaware of LIBOR until very recently.

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China Set To Boost Muni-Bonds

China looks set to give a big boost to its nascent muni-bond market this year. The Finance Ministry is to quintuple the quota for local government bond issuance to 250 billion yuan ($40 billion) this year, Caixin, a Beijing-based financial newspaper,  reports.

In addition, more provinces will reportedly be added to the list of those able to issue bonds directly. Since 1994, the ministry has done that on behalf of local governments but started an experiment in direct issuance in October last year with Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangdong and Zhejiang. That privilege will be extended to six more provinces and municipalities. The ministry is expected to maintain the close control over the bond issuance by the larger group that it has exercised over the trial quartet, including having a big say over what the funds raised can be used for.

Expanding the muni-bond market is both part of the broader reforms of the financial system and local government finances. The latter are teetering under the burden of 10.7 trillion yuan of debt, at least 3 trillion yuan of which falls due by the end of this year. Much of the debt piled up as a result of the stimulus spending in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. Much of it is infrastructure loans, for things like toll roads to nowhere, that are weighing heavily on the creditworthiness of China’s banks.

Earlier this month the China Banking Regulatory Commission ordered banks to clean up their balance sheets with regard to local government lending. It first told them to do that in June last year, but progress clearly hasn’t been rapid enough, or, as a result of the cooling of both the economy and the property market, problem loans are mounting. Good and bad loans alike were probably rolled over when banks tackled the 2 trillion yuan of local government loans that fell due last year. Another red flag raised by China’s audit office: irregularities it has found with 530 billion yuan worth of the lending. Taken together, an estimated 2 trillion-3 trillion yuan of local government lending has soured, which would be sufficient to raise the banks’ non-performing loan ratios to 5% from their current average of 1.1%.

The new quota of 250 billion yuan for bond issuance won’t wipe away the problem but every little bit helps–and places like Greece serve as a reminder that bond issuance is not an infallible inoculation against government profligacy. Yet while the immediate priority is to deflate China’s local-government debt bubble before it can go damagingly pop, an expanded muni-bond market also pushes provincial and municipal governments in three other desirable directions: less reliance of land sales to raise revenue, less need for the off-balance sheet financing via captive investment vehicles that local authorities have resorted to get round restrictions on official borrowings, and more transparency generally about their finances.

This is an edited version of a post first published by China Bystander.

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A Glittering Year For China’s Gold Bugs

Demand for gold in China rose by 20% last year, according to the World Gold Council’s latest Gold Demand Trends report. Some of that reflects a long-standing Chinese affection for the metal; some a newer obsession with all things conspicuously luxurious. The Council says Chinese consumers bought 510.9 tonnes of gold jewelry in 2011, worth $25.8 billion and a 13% increase over the previous year (the global market shrank 3%). China surpassed India as the world’s largest market for gold jewelry in the second half of last year, the Council says.

The fastest growing demand for the metal in China came from investors, however. Only a slither of that is likely accounted for by the People’s Bank of China. Globally, central banks more than quintupled their net gold buying last year from 2010’s levels, to 439.7 tonnes, to diversify their foreign-exchange reserves and reduce exposure to the travails of the two main reserve currencies. However, China’s is not among eight central banks the Council names as prominent official buyers, with Mexico and Russia’s accounting for nearly half of net central bank purchases.

Individual Chinese are now able to buy more easily through both the official exchange in Shanghai and unofficial exchanges in other big cities. They were the driving force behind China’s investment demand in 2011. In a year that saw the gold price hit a record of $1,895 an ounce in September before falling back, consumers bought a record 258.9 tonnes of gold bars and coins, worth $12.9 billion, up 38% on 2010’s purchases.

Domestic investors saw gold both as a traditional hedge against the year’s high inflation and as a better alternative than stocks, property or cash savings in an uncertain year. The appreciation of the currency meant the metal’s price rose by only 4.3% in yuan terms over 2010 compared to its 8.9% rise in dollar terms.

With the gold price pulling back 15% from its record high, authorities cracking down on illegal trading and inflation moderating, will China’s gold bugs be as bullish in 2012? “Signs of economic slowdown in China, and the increasing maturity of the market, are likely to result in a deceleration of recent growth rates, evidence of which was already coming through last quarter,” the Council warns.

This is an edited version of a post first published by China Bystander.

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China’s Financial Reform: ‘Making Progress While Maintaining Stability’

There were no great expectations of China’s fourth quinquennial national financial work conference that has just ended in Beijing. And it seems to have met them.

These two-day meetings of top political leaders and policymakers set broad policy objectives for the coming five years. In the past they have provided a blueprint for significant financial-system reform. But with a leadership transition already underway, the start of a new five-year plan and growing nervousness among policymakers and political leaders alike about the volatile outlook for the global economy and the potential implications for China’s growth, there is no great appetite for much beyond keeping a steady ship.

“Risk-aversion should be the lifeline of our financial work,” said Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. He also said that there would be greater supervision of the banks, which, he said, needed to improve their governance and risk management.

Risk control and prudent macroeconomic management were the order of the day, as they were at last month’s annual economic work meeting. “Making progress while maintaining stability,” is the mantra. The emphasis is currently on the stability.

More detail about the financial work meeting will likely drip out over the coming days. The post-meeting statement dealt in generalities, but two leading topics of discussion were the currency and interest rates. Moves towards more market oriented interest rate mechanisms are necessary if China is to become more efficient at capital allocation, as it needs to be as its economy develops from its invest and export model of the past three decades. But steps have been tentative in the face of some vested interests who have thrived on cheap and ready bank loans. We expect the equally tentative steps to develop bond markets to be given priority over interest rate liberalization, with provincial and local governments being given more scope to sell bonds to firm up their finances. However, when it comes to developing a corporate bond market, don’t underestimate the political task in getting the big state owned enterprises to be supportive of a new source of credit that will be more demanding of their performance.

The internationalization of the yuan is also likely to continue at a measured pace, while the exchange rate against the dollar won’t be allowed to drift much higher. Policymakers feel that with the trade surplus shrinking the currency is at the right sort of level. It has risen by a third since the peg with the U.S. dollar was first broken seven years ago. Wen said China “will steadily proceed with efforts to make the renminbi convertible under capital account to improve its management of the foreign-exchange reserves”–though that is pretty much boilerplate.

This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on China Bystander.

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Will Europe’s Politicians Let The Courts Make Fiscal Policy?

One overlooked aspect of the agreement struck by the member nations of the European Union over fiscal and budgetary alignment is the matter of enforcement. The failure to incorporate the proposed agreement into the EU’s basic treaty, the Lisbon Treaty, means that neither the European Commission nor the European Court of Justice will have standing to deal with recalcitrants. Both institutions’ writ runs only to treaty matters, not those covered by intra-EU sub-agreements and those between national governments, as this latest deal will be structured in the face of opposition by non-euro-using countries, notably the UK.

That is one reason that the agreement envisions the new fiscal and budgetary constraints being baked into national constitutions, and the European Court of Justice being given new powers to adjudicate on whether countries are baking in the Brussels-approved manner. This is a conscious attempt to put the governance of national fiscal policy under greater judicial and less political sway, just as the EU has used the courts to enforce central directives in other areas.

One of the failures of the Maastricht agreement that launched the euro 10 years ago was that countries’ compliance with the economic conditions for membership – holding budget deficits to no more than 3% of GDP was one of them, remember – was entirely in the hands of national politicians. For all the goodwill being expressed towards greater fiscal integration in the heat of the euro debt crisis, national politicians are not going to give up their power of economic policy making willingly. Many will see this as the judicial Trojan Horse that will lead to a Federal EU with full economic and political integration. National politics is going to continue to shape Europe’s fiscal integration, and markets will have to learn to live with all the uncertainty that implies.

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Filed under Fiscal Policy, Macroeconomy