Global Investing

Euro emigration – safety valve or worker drain?

Four years of relentless austerity in many of the euro zone’s most debt-hobbled countries have forced many of their youngest and sometimes brightest workers to grab the plane, train or boat and emigrate in search of work. For countries with a long history of emigration, such as Ireland, this is depressingly familar — coming just 20 years after the country’s last debt crisis and national belt-tightening in the 1980s crescendoed, with the exit of some 40,ooo a year in 1989/90 from a population of just 3-1/2 million people.

The intervening boom years surrounding the creation and infancy of the Europe’s single currency and expansion of the European Union eastwards saw huge net migration inflows back into the then-thriving euro zone periphery  — Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy — and created a virtuous circle of rising workforces, higher demand for housing/goods and rising exchequer tax receipts.

But all that has gone into reverse again since the credit, property and banking crash of 2008.

While the exodus takes short-term pressure off dole queues and national welfare bills, there is growing concern that the timing of this latest wave of young worker emigration comes as underlying societies are ageing, dependency ratios are rising and longer-term pressure on government finances from pension commitments is set to grow.

In a note to clients on Tuesday, Citi economist Michael Saunders details the extent of the renewed migration from the periphery and reckons prolonged austerity is exaggerating the shift and damage to the long-term financial sustainability of these countries’ already battered finances. With Europe’s impending pension shortfalls, he argues, they need higher working populations, not smaller ones.

Stumbling at every hurdle

Financial markets are odd sometimes. For weeks they have fretted about the outcome of the Greek election and its impact on the future of the euro zone as a whole. But today they appeared to dismiss the outcome despite a result that was about as positive as global investors fearful for euro zone stability could have hoped for.  So what gives?

The logic behind the weeks of trepidation was fairly simple and straightforward. After an inconclusive election on May 6, a second Greek poll on June 17 was due to give a definitive picture of whether Greeks wanted to stay in the euro and with all the budgetary conditions necessary to keep EU/IMF bailout funds in place.  If a victory for parties wanting to scrap the bailout agreement and austerity led to a halt of EU/IMF funds, the fear was that Greece would inevitably be forced out of the single currency bloc in time too. And if that unprecedented event happened, then a chain reaction would be hard to avoid.  If one country goes back to its domestic currency, despite all its debts being denominated in euros, investors would then find it impossible not to assume at least some element of euro exit risk for fellow-bailout recipients Portugal and Ireland and possibly even Spain and Italy, where doubts remain about their market access over time.

Extreme tail risk or not, this set the scene for the jittery markets that ensued during the Greek electoral hiatus of May 6- June 17. Athens stocks lost more than 17%;  Spanish 10-year government bonds lost more than 7% and the euro/dollar exchange rate was down almost 4%. etc. The fear of euro-wide contagion was so-great that the Spanish bank bailout in the interim had a little or no positive impact. And with the global economic growth picture weakening in tandem with, and partly because of, the euro mess, then prices reflecting world demand in general were hit hard by concerns that another shock to the European banking system could trigger a reversal of trillions of euros of European bank lending from around the globe. Crude oil dropped almost 14%, broad commodity prices and emerging market equities lost about 8%.

The “least worst” option?

Western governments saddled with mountainous debts will “repress” creditors and savers via banking regulation, capital controls, central bank bond buying and currency depreciation that effectively puts sovereign borrowers at the top of the credit queue while simultaneously wiping out real returns for their bond holders. So says HSBC chief economist Stephen King in his latest report this week called “From Depression to repression”.

Building on the work of U.S. economist Carmen Reinhardt and others, King’s focus on the history of heavily indebted governments applying “financial repression” to creditors arrives at several interesting conclusions. First, even though western governments appeared successful in using these tactics to reduce massive World War Two debts alongside brisk economic growth during the 1950s and 1960s, King argues that the debt was cut mainly by the impressive economic growth and tax revenues during that “Golden Age” – and this was mostly down to the once-in-a-century period of relative peace that involved unprecedented integration and cooperation among western governments also engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Compared to this boost, the financial repression was a “sideshow”, he reckons.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           To show that, he applies the interest rate and inflation conditions of the 1950s and 1960s to the current US government debt trajectory and then compares the growth scenario back then with the one faced now. The graphic is revealing. So, for repression to work, it needs to generate higher growth first. And despite lower real rates today than in the days of Mad Men, that seems not to be the case.

Instead, King says governments will adopt this repression tactic anyway just to stave off draconian austerity now and prevent a destabilising surge in economy-wide borrowing rates. This will effectively reduce the amount of credit to the rest of the private sector, or at least elevating its cost, while reducing the pressure on governments to cut the debt levels quickly. The net result, then will likely be “persistently lower growth”, whatever your conclusion about the desirability of  state or the market allocation of resources.

Three snapshots for Friday

Although the focus has been on Spanish debt auctions this week as this chart shows Italy has much further to go in meeting this year’s funding needs.

German business sentiment rose unexpectedly for the fifth month in a row in March, moving in the opposite direction to the composite PMI:

Greg Harrison points out 82% of S&P 500 companies have beaten their Q1 earnings estimates so far. It  is early days but it it continues that would be the highest for at least five years. Is this a sign that the strength in corporate earnings in continuing? The chart below suggests as least part may be due to falling expectations coming into earnings season.

Japanization of euro zone bonds?

Fear of many years of stagnation in the major western economies has everyone fretting about a repeat of  the “lost decades” that Japan suffered after its banking and real estate bubble burst in the early 1990s. Indeed HSBC economists were recently keen to point out that U.S. per capita growth over the noughties was already actually weaker than either of Japan’s lost decades.

But in a detailed presentation on the impact of two years of soveriegn debt crisis on euro zone government bond holdings, Barclays  economist Laurent Fransolet asks whether that market too is turning into the Japanese government bond market — where years of slow growth, zero interest rates, current account surpluses and captive local buyers have depressed borrowing rates for years and turned JGBs into an increasingly domestic market dominated by local banks, pension funds and insurers. Non-residents hold less than 10 percent of JGBs, compared to more than 50 percent for the EGB as a whole, and Japanese banks hold up to 35 percent of their own government bond market.

But is the euro government market heading in that direction after successive crises have seen foreign investors flee many of the peripheral markets of Greece, Portugal, Ireland and even Italy and Spain? Fransolet argues that the seniority of substantial European Central Bank holdings built up in the interim (now about 15 percent of each of the five peripheral markets) may be one reason why these foreign investors will be wary of returning. Meantime, euro zone banks, who have traditionally held a high 20-25 percentage point share of euro government markets, withdrew sharply late last year amid balance sheet repair pressures but have  rebuilt holdings again sharply in early 2012 after the ECB’s liquidity injections — particularly in Italy and Spain.

Financial repression revisited

At a monetary policy event hosted by Fathom Consulting at the Reuters London office today, former Bank of England policymakers were discussing the pros and cons of “financial repression”.

Financial repression is a concept first introduced in the 1970s in the United States and is becoming a talking point again after the financial crisis, especially with a NBER paper last year written by economists Reinhart and Sbrancia reviving the debate.

In the paper, authors define financial repression as follows:

Historically, periods of high indebtedness have been associated with a rising incidence of default or restructuring of public and private debts. A subtle type of debt restructuring takes the form of “financial repression”.

Teflon Treasuries?

The pleasant surprise of Friday’s upbeat U.S. employment report rattled the U.S. Treasury bond market, as you’d expect, encouraging as it did some optimism about a sustained U.S. economic recovery, tempering fears of deflation and casting some doubts on the likelihood of another bout of quantitative easing or bond buying by the Federal Reserve.  And investors wary of seemingly teflon Treasuries are always keen to use such a backup in U.S. borrowing rates as a reason to rethink a market where supply is soaring and national debt levels are accelerating and where the country has just entered a presidential election year.

The release then by Eurostat on Monday of 2011 government debt  levels for the European Union and euro zone — where bond markets have been in chaos for the past couple of years — provided another reason to look sceptically at Treasuries as it showed aggregate EU and euro zone debt more than 10 percentage points of GDP lower than in the United States.

And with no fresh debt reduction plan likely this side of November’s presidential elections, the comparative U.S. debt trajectory over the coming years looks alarming.

Sparring with Central Banks

Just one look at the whoosh higher in global markets in January and you’d be forgiven smug faith in the hoary old market adage of “Don’t fight the Fed” — or to update the phrase less pithily for the modern, globalised marketplace: “Don’t fight the world’s central banks”. (or “Don’t Battle the Banks”, maybe?)

In tandem with this month’s Federal Reserve forecast of near-zero U.S. official interest rates for the next two years, the European Central Bank provided its banking sector nearly half a trillion euros of cheap 3-year loans in late December (and may do almost as much again on Feb 29). Add to that ongoing bouts of money printing by the Bank of England, Swiss National Bank, Bank of Japan and more than 40 expected acts of monetary easing by central banks around the world in the first half of this year and that’s a lot of additional central bank support behind the market rebound.  So is betting against this firepower a mug’s game? Well, some investors caution against the chance that the Banks are firing duds.

According to giant bond fund manager Pimco, the post-credit crisis process of household, corporate and sovereign deleveraging is so intense and loaded with risk that central banks may just be keeping up with events and even then are doing so at very different speeds. What’s more the solution to the problem is not a monetary one anyway and all they can do is ease the pain.