July 27, 2012

New Soap Opera: The Comedy of Euros

Posted in Banking, Bankruptcy, Economy, Europe, Finance, greece, Spain tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:49 PM by Robert Barone

The term “European Theater” was first coined during World War II. Today in the financial markets, the term has come to symbolize an ongoing soap opera, where the audience is continually held in suspense as the bad actors (the politicians) promise actions and solutions to current crises, which have been created by their prior actions. Each time solutions are proposed, the audience breathes a sigh of relief (i.e., relief rally in the equity markets) only to be disappointed when they find out that the solutions won’t work or can’t be implemented.
 
As a result, the crisis and suspense continues, keeping the audience’s total attention (even while dinner on the stove at home is burning). Meanwhile, a new issue or crisis appears, it seems, on a daily basis.
 

Likely New Episodes

Daily we watch yields on Spanish and Italian debt move ever higher, now in zones where other countries have cried “uncle” and asked for bailout help. At the same time, the credit default swaps on Spanish and Italian debt have risen to record levels.
 
New Episode: Will the capital markets force a Spanish bailout by locking Spain out of the debt markets?
 
  • Spanish bank recapitalization: We have recently learned that the European Central Bank is willing to impose losses on the shareholders and junior bondholders of some of the Spanish savings banks. (When they bailed out Ireland, all bondholders were saved.) The draft of the document meant to give Spain’s banks 100 billion euros has this provision, but the periphery’s finance ministers are opposing it.
 
  • New Episode: Is 100 billion euros enough for Spain’s banks? The general rule of thumb appears to be that the ultimate amount needed is usually higher by a factor of at least two.
 
  • Spain’s regional provinces are now coming hat in hand for bailouts of their own. And those regional governments must refinance more than 35 billion euros in the near future.
 
  • New Episode: Are there enough resources in the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), the temporary bailout fund, and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the proposed permanent bailout fund, to bail out Spain and its regions? What about Italy?
 
  • The problematic link between Spain’s sovereign and its bank’s balance sheets has not been severed, as the audience was led to believe during the “Summit” episode.
 
  • New Episode: Will the ESM require the Spanish government to guarantee the bank capital? If so, will market reaction drive borrowing rates for Spain even higher, or lock them out of the capital markets altogether?
 
  • Greece now appears unable to produce an austerity plan acceptable to the Troika (EU Commission, ECB and International Monetary Fund). Greece has a 3.8 billion euro bond payment due in August. And the ECB just announced that it will no longer accept Greek government bonds as collateral for loans, thus locking Greece out of ECB borrowing.
 
  • New Episode: Will the Troika impose its own plan, or will it withhold bailout funding? Without access to the ECB, will Greece default again? And, will this lead to Greece’s immediate and disorderly exit from the monetary union?
  • Each monetary union country is required to put capital into the ESM. Italy will be required to pony up 20% of the ESM capital.
 
  • New Episode: What sense does it make for Italy to borrow at 7% when the ESM would offer a rate of return that is closer to 3%?
 
  • The ECB holds tons of Greek debt on their balance sheet at par (i.e., 100% of face value) (Portuguese, Spanish and Italian debt, too). If (when) Greece leaves the monetary union, they will renounce this debt, causing the ECB to need more capital to cover this loss.
 
  • New Episode: Will the remaining members be able to contribute even more capital? That will put additional pressure on the weaklings — again, Portugal, Spain and Italy will have to go to the capital markets to borrow at extremely high rates to meet their capital contribution requirements.
 
  • Will the ESM be allowed to purchase sovereign debt in the secondary market as promised in the “Summit” episode? This is meant to support Spain and lower the interest rate it has to pay to borrow. The Dutch, Finns and probably the Germans may say ‘Nein.’

Politicians in a Box

The bad actors in this soap opera, the politicians, know that if they attempt to do the right thing, they will be voted out of office by populations who value their entitlements more than anything else. Look at Greece and the near victory by the Syriza party (anti-austerity) in the last set of elections. And now, we see riots in Spain.
 
These bad actors have proposed so-called “fixes” that merely kick the can down the road, from bailouts (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland) to a banking union in order to avoid addressing the core issues. The fixes enacted calm the audience for shorter and shorter periods. For example, the deposit flight from Spain’s banks now continues unabated, despite the capital plan for Spanish banks announced during the recent “Summit”.
 
This soap opera will continue to play out because liquidity does not produce solvency. The ECB and politicians can throw all of the money they can create at the problem, but, until debt restructuring occurs (i.e., dealing with the debt), the soap opera will continue. Debt restructuring means that some lenders won’t get repaid at all and others will have to take a haircut. Inevitably, some financial institutions (i.e., lenders) will fail. The game to keep them alive cannot go on forever.
 
Eventually, the markets will tire of the soap opera, lose confidence (as they appear to be doing), and close the capital market to these players. It would be much better to have an orderly restructuring than a disorderly one imposed by a panicky market. But, so far, no European leader has stepped up with such a plan (i.e., a plan to exit the weaklings from the monetary union).
 
Without such a plan, the stronger European nations (like Germany, Finland and The Netherlands) will soon have had enough and will leave the monetary union on their own, most likely, to go back to their old currencies.
 

The Final Episode?

It appears that many of the New Episodes described above will soon play out as the situation appears to be in endgame mode. Some sort of resolution acceptable to the capital markets is being demanded by those very markets. The roller coaster is at full speed and it appears the tracks are about to end.
 
What new games can the European politicians play to buy more time? Is there anything they can do, short of having a plan to exit the southern weaklings that can now save the euro? What can they do now to even buy more time?
 
Unfortunately, it appears that a market-imposed resolution, which means market panic and financial chaos for Europe with grave worldwide implications, is rapidly approaching.
 
 
Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value
Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, a Registered Investment Advisor. Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the Investment Committee.
 
Information cited has been compiled from various sources which UVA believes to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee as to its accuracy. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices is contained in its “Firm Brochure” (Form ADV, Part 2A) which may be obtained by contacting UVA at: 9222 Prototype Dr., Reno, NV 89521. Ph: (775) 284-7778.
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July 23, 2012

Time for us to make enlightened policies

Posted in Armageddon, Bankruptcy, debt, Economic Growth, Economy, Europe, Finance, Foreign, recession, Spain, Uncategorized, Unemployment tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:10 PM by Robert Barone

On July 6, the country received another disappointing jobs report. For the month, the establishment survey indicated jobs grew by 80,000; for the quarter, such growth averaged 75,000, about one-third of the 26,000 monthly average for the first quarter. Clearly, the worldwide slowdown in Europe, China, India, Brazil, etc. is having an impact here.
 
Deleveraging and slow growth
 
Let’s be clear. We are in the midst of a worldwide debt deleveraging (i.e., consumers are paying down debt instead of consuming). So, absent another round of sweeping innovation anytime soon (e.g. the Internet), in the natural course of things, economic growth is going to be painfully hard to come by. As a result, it is doubly important that economic policies promote the growth that is available.
 
Policies are key
 
Clearly, monetary policy has led with pedal-to-the-metal and unconventional therapies. On the fiscal side, the Keynesian remedies (huge deficits) have been applied. Together, however, such policies haven’t worked well enough to establish a solid economic foundation, as the recent data prove. For those who study economic history, it is clear that deficit spending alone doesn’t work if government is simply stepping into the role of debtor in place of households, as total debt owed has continued to rise.The scary part is the interest cost of the rapidly accumulating debt when interest rates rise. For those who don’t believe me, just look at Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Cyprus and Italy in today’s world. Rising interest rates (near 7 percent for the 10-year government issue) make it impossible for states to survive without bankruptcy, a bailout or financial ruin.

 
Policy failures
 
In times like today, when deleveraging is slowing economic activity, government should adopt policies that promote the private sector, because it is the private sector, not government, that is the engine of economic growth. Unfortunately, the following federal policies currently are negatively impacting the private sector:

• Taxes:
Uncertainty surrounding tax policy causes the private sector to take less risk, which lowers investment and job creation. For the last several years, Congress has signaled that significant tax increases are just ahead (currently referred to as the “fiscal cliff” due to occur on Jan. 1, 2013), only to push them back at the last minute for another short period. Nevertheless, the uncertainty persists, and economic hesitancy pervades.
 
• Corporate cash: America’s multinational corporations are flush with cash, and while the politicians chide them for not putting it to work at home, it is their very policies that are to blame. Sixty percent of that corporate stash is held offshore, and it won’t come home because, if it does, 35 percent of it will disappear in taxation. Policies that encourage the return of that cash and its investment at home would spur job creation and economic growth.

• Corporate tax rate:
Having one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world discourages investment at home and makes investment elsewhere more fruitful. Corporate taxes are paid by consumers via higher prices.

• Energy policy: 
Cheap energy is the No. 1 requirement for robust economic growth. Current policies appear to be designed to raise energy prices to spur the development of government selected industries. The result is great waste (e.g. Solyndra) and significantly reduced economic growth.

• Taxmageddon:
The U.S. has a joke for a tax code. Talk about a Rube Goldberg! High, and threatened increased taxes on capital and investment just discourage economic growth. The tax code needs to be thrown out in favor of a broad-based, simple, and fair system.

• The financial system:
Scandal after scandal show how pervasive lawlessness is among the world’s “too big to fail” institutions. So far, no U.S. banker has gone to jail, nor trial, nor has anyone been indicted. Regulatory policy encourages moral hazard (excessive risk taking backed by implicit taxpayer bailouts) and discourages lending to the private sector. All of this reduces economic growth.
 
 

Investing in a deleveraging world 

 
For investors, the markets will continue to show volatility, with market up-drafts occurring when there is a perception of a policy change. For example, the recent hope generated by the late June “European Summit” caused a large rally in the equity markets, as will the hoped for move by the Fed toward more stimulus when and if it occurs. Down-drafts occur when poor economic data cross the tape.
 
Implications for Nevada
 
The policy prescription doesn’t end at the federal level. It is also relevant at the state and even local levels. Nevada has been challenged to attract new businesses now that gaming is widespread.The tax system in Nevada could be such a strength, especially when compared to what is going on in California. CNBC ranks Nevada 18 in “Business Friendliness,” but 30 in “Cost of Business.” Two things are critical: 1) The Legislature must stop threatening new business taxation every two years when it meets. The uncertainty this breeds prevents businesses from relocating here.

2) Policymakers must identify those businesses that would benefit from such a philosophy. There might be several categories that would so benefit, but one immediately comes to mind (maybe because I have worked in it all my life) — financial and intangible asset firms. This category includes managers of investments, hedge funds, trusts, patents and trademarks, insurance companies and services, banking and subsidiary finance companies. While these firms are usually small, their salary levels generally are high. A University of Nevada, Reno study indicates that salaries in these firms average $88,000, twice the state’s average.

Jon Ralston, a political columnist and host of a daily political commentary show seen locally, recently criticized the Apple move, saying that they will grow “astronomical profits” but that the state won’t benefit much because the number of jobs is small. But its move, along with those of Microsoft (which now employs several hundred), Intuit (also a large employer), Oracle and others, appears to recognize that Nevada, indeed, has something to offer now. If the state attracts enough of these companies, there will be plenty of tax revenue generated. The state should play to its current strengths and make sure its policies protect and nurture those strengths.

 
 
Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value
Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, a Registered Investment Advisor. Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the Investment Committee.
 
Information cited has been compiled from various sources which UVA believes to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee as to its accuracy. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices is contained in its “Firm Brochure” (Form ADV, Part 2A) which may be obtained by contacting UVA at: 9222 Prototype Dr., Reno, NV 89521.
Ph: (775) 284-7778.
 

July 9, 2012

Economic issues, good and bad

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, debt, Economic Growth, Economy, Europe, Federal Reserve, Finance, government, greece, Housing Market, International Swaps and Derivatives, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, Italy, recession, sovereign debt, Spain, taxes, Unemployment tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:17 PM by Robert Barone

This is a mid-year overview of the economic and policy issues in the U.S. and worldwide, both positive and negative. I have divided the issues into economic and policy issues. With enough political will, policy issues can be addressed in the short run, while economic issues are longer-term in nature and are clearly influenced by policy.

Positives

• Cheap energy (economics and policy): There is growing recognition that cheap energy is key to economic growth; the next boom will be based on cheap energy.
 
• Manufacturing (economics): After years of decline, American manufacturing is in a renaissance, led by the auto industry.

• Corporate health (economics): Large corporations are extremely healthy with large cash hoards and many have low cost and low levels of debt.

• Politics (policy): Americans are tired of special interests’ ability to pay for political favors.

 
Negatives
 
• Recession in Europe (economics): This has implications for world growth because Europe’s troubled banks are the engines of international lending; Europe’s economy rivals that of the U.S. in size.

• European Monetary Union (policy): A Greek exit from the euro is still probable after recent election and is likely to spread contagion to Portugal, Spain and even Italy. There is also danger here to America’s financial system.

• Brazil, Russia, India, China or the BRIC, Growth Rate (economics): China appears to be in danger of a hard landing, as is Brazil. India is already there. This has serious implications for commodity producers like Canada and Australia.

• Fiscal cliff and policy uncertainties (policy): A significant shock will occur to the U.S. economy if tax policy (Bush tax cut expiration and reinstatement of the 2 percent payroll tax) isn’t changed by Jan. 1, 2013.

• Entitlements (policy): Mediterranean Europe is being crushed under the burden of entitlements; the U.S. is not far behind. This is the most serious of the fiscal issues but the hardest for the political system to deal with.

• Housing (economic & policy): In the U.S., housing appears to have found a bottom, but because of falling prices and underwater homeowners, a significant recovery is still years away. Housing is a huge issue in Europe, especially Spain, and it will emerge as an issue in Australia and Canada if China has a hard landing.

• Energy costs (economics & policy): The current high cost of energy is killing worldwide growth (see “Positives” above).

• U.S. taxmageddon (policy): The U.S. tax system discourages savings and investment (needed for growth), encourages debt and favors specific groups.

• Too Big To Fail (TBTF) (policy): The U.S. financial system is dominated by TBTF institutions that use implicit government backing to take unwarranted risk; TBTF has now been institutionalized by the Dodd-Frank legislation; small institutions that lend to small businesses are overregulated and are disappearing.

• Debt overhang (economics): The federal government, some states and localities and many consumers have too much debt; the de-leveraging that must occur stunts economic growth.

• Inflation (economics & policy): Real inflation is much higher than officially reported. If a true inflation index were used, it is likely that the data would show that the recession still hasn’t ended.

It is clear from the points above and from the latest data reports that worldwide, most major economies are slowing. It is unusual to have them all slowing at the same time and thus, the odds of a worldwide recession are quite high.

In the context of such an event or events, the U.S. will likely fare better than most. But that doesn’t mean good times, just better than its peers. There is also greater potential of destabilizing events (oil and Iran, contagion from Europe, Middle East unrest), which may have negative economic impacts worldwide. Thus, in the short-term it appears that the U.S. economy will continue its lackluster performance with a significant probability of an official recession and vulnerable to shock type events. (Both the fixed income and the equity markets seem to be signaling this.)

 
 
The extension of Operation Twist by the Federal Reserve on June 20 (the Fed will swap $267 billion of short-term Treasury notes for long-term ones through Dec. 31 which holds long-term rates down) was expected, and continues the low interest rate policy that has been in place for the past four years. That means interest rates will continue to remain low for several more years no matter who is elected in November. Robust economic growth will only return when policies regarding the issues outlined in the table are addressed.

Looking back at my blogs over the years, I have always been early in identifying trends. The positive trends are compelling despite the fact that the country must deal with huge short-term issues that will, no doubt, cause economic dislocation.

The only question is when the positives will become dominant economic forces, and that is clearly dependent on when enabling policies are adopted. 1) In the political arena, there is a growing restlessness by America’s taxpayers over Too Big To Fail and political practices where money and lobbyists influence policy and law (e.g., the Taxmageddon code). 2) The large cap corporate sector is healthier now than at any time in modern history. Resources for economic growth and expansion are readily available. Only a catalyst is needed. 3) America is on the “comeback” trail in manufacturing. Over the last decade, Asia’s wages have caught up.

Cultural differences and expensive shipping costs are making it more profitable and more manageable to manufacture at home. 4) Finally, and most important of all, unlike the last 40 years, because of new technology, the U.S. has now identified an abundance of cheaply retrievable energy resources within its own borders. As a result, just a few policy changes could unleash a new era of robust economic growth in the U.S. Let’s hope those changes occur sooner rather than later!

 
Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value
Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, a Registered Investment Advisor. Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the Investment Committee.
 
Information cited has been compiled from various sources which UVA believes to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee as to its accuracy. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices is contained in its “Firm Brochure” (Form ADV, Part 2A) which may be obtained by contacting UVA at: 9222 Prototype Dr., Reno, NV 89521. Ph: (775) 284-7778.

The New Bank Paradigm: Squeezing Out the Private Sector

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, debt, Economic Growth, Economy, Europe, greece, Italy, Spain, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:08 PM by Robert Barone

Since the world adopted Basel I in 1988, it has allowed the Europeans to dictate the bank capital regime for major industrial economies. We are now in the process of adopting Basel III capital rules. Unfortunately, these rules have so biased the financial system that the private sector, the engine of job creation, has all but been squeezed out.Under all of the Basel regimes, “sovereign” debt is considered riskless. Everything else has a varying degree of risk to it which requires a capital reserve. Loans to the private sector have the highest capital requirements. Americans have always viewed our US Treasury debt as “riskless.” So, on the surface, it appears reasonable that no capital should be required, and Americans think no further. But, further thought would reveal two significant issues: 1) The “sovereign” debt of other countries may not be riskless (ask the private sector holders of Greek debt, or Jon Corzine and MF Global (MFGLQ) folks about the risks associated with Italian debt); 2) The bias imparted with this sort of capital regime makes loans to the private sector unattractive, especially in times of economic stress where bank capital is under pressure. But, it is in times of such stress that loans to the private sector are needed to create investment, capital spending, and jobs.

One of the reasons for all of the stress in Europe is the fact that their banking system holds huge amounts of periphery country debt (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy) with no capital backing. On a mark to market basis, most, if not all, of the capital of the periphery banks disappears. In fact, the European Central bank (ECB) itself is still carrying the Greek debt it holds on its books at par, as if there is no chance that they won’t be repaid in full.

Since the financial crisis of ’08-’09, Western banking systems have come to rely on government, at first as the capital provider of last resort, but now, at least in Greece and Spain, as the capital provider of first resort (most likely because there is no other). In a symbiotic relationship, those same governments have come to rely on the banks to purchase their excessive supply of debt. The capital rules favor this unhealthy relationship. In effect, we now have a banking DNA bias against private sector lending.

We have heard the politicians in Washington rail against the banks for not making loans to the private sector. Yet, all of the rules, regulations, and enforcement processes make it difficult, if not impossible, to do just that. The overbearing regulatory process strangles private sector lending at small community banks. And, as indicated above, the capital regime itself, which impacts all banks, discourages private sector loans. For example, a $1 million loan to the private sector requires $200,000 in capital backing plus an additional $20,000 to $30,000 in loss reserve contribution from the capital base. That same $1 million loan to the US Treasury, via purchases of Treasury securities, requires no capital or reserve contribution. The ultimate result is that, since the financial crisis when western governments found out that it was politically okay to “save” (i.e. recapitalize) large banks with public monies, they also found out that the capital and regulatory regime now made those same banks major buyers of excessive government debt.

Unfortunately, while governments like this and will continue to promote it because it keeps the cost of borrowing low and provides them with a ready market for deficit spending, government is not the economic engine. That is what the private sector is. Simply put, the banking model in the west now promotes moral hazard (banks making bets that are implicitly backed by taxpayers) and Too Big To Fail (TBTF) policies while it stifles private sector lending. The Dodd-Frank legislation has institutionalized this model with government intervention now seen as the first response to a banking issue. If it hasn’t, then why did President Obama say on The View the business day after JPMorgan Chase (JPM) announced its trading loss that it was a good thing that JPMorgan had a lot of capital else the government would have had to “step in.” Or why has Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s CEO, been required to testify before both House and Senate Committees about a loss of less than 3% of the bank’s $190 billion capital base? As further proof of government control of the banking system, the FDIC recently announced that, under its Dodd-Frank mandate, it is ready to take over any TBTF institution, “when the next crisis occurs.” Isn’t it clear that the relationship between the US federal government and the banking system is unhealthy, perhaps even incestuous, to the detriment of the private sector? That very same banking model is emerging in Europe with the emergency funding by the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) to recapitalize the Spanish banks and talk of a pan-European regulatory authority and deposit insurance.

The emerging banking model is one in which central governments and the money center banks co-exist in a mutual admiration society where government capitalizes the banks and the banks are the primary buyers of excessive government debt. Because government doesn’t create any real economic value (it regulates it and transfers it from one group to another), the domination of government assets on bank balance sheets in place of private sector assets spells real trouble for the future economic growth in the Western economies.

 
 
 
Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value
Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, a Registered Investment Advisor. Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the Investment Committee.
 
Information cited has been compiled from various sources which UVA believes to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee as to its accuracy. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices is contained in its “Firm Brochure” (Form ADV, Part 2A) which may be obtained by contacting UVA at: 9222 Prototype Dr., Reno, NV 89521. Ph: (775) 284-7778.