Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Wobbly economies that shook up markets in 2011 took their toll on the world’s rich, though fast-growing Asia for the first time had more millionaires than North America.  According to the report, the global personal wealth of people worth $1 million declined in 2011 for the second time in four years, a side effect of the Eurozone crisis and economic sluggishness in developed markets.  Several emerging markets also suffered, with the number of millionaires in India and Hong Kong falling by nearly 20 percent.  With Europe’s debt crisis bedeviling the continent, the outlook for wealth creation in 2012 remains weak, according to a report prepared by Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management.

The world’s millionaires grew by 0.8 percent to a record 11 million, according to the report, yet their collective wealth fell by 1.7 percent to $42 trillion.  Only the Middle East experienced no decline in wealth.  It was the first global decline in millionaire wealth since the 2008 financial crisis, when the ranks of the wealthy fell 15 percent and their wealth declined by 20 percent.

Families worth $30 million or more saw their collective wealth fall 4.9 percent and their ranks shrink by 2.5 percent to just 100,000 individuals.  This decline reflects holdings in higher-risk and less liquid investments like hedge funds, private equity and real estate.

“It was a challenging environment for our clients,” George Lewis, global head of wealth management at Royal Bank of Canada, said.  The Toronto banking giant began sponsoring the widely watched report in May.  Lewis pointed out that the number of high net worth individuals rose even as overall wealth fell.  “It at least suggests there continues to be upward mobility and the ability to generate wealth around the world,” he said.

Curious about how many millionaires live in nations around the world?  Read this:  Singapore toppled Hong Kong as home to Asia’s wealthiest in 2011 as declining stock markets hit the former British territory significantly harder than its Southeast Asian rival.  Hong Kong, whose stock market capitalization fell by 16.7 percent last year, saw a bigger decline in the ranks of people with more than $1 million to invest as a larger proportion of that wealth was tied up in equity.  Southeast Asia also has shown stronger signs of resilience to global turmoil than the rest of Asia as domestic spending offset struggling exports.  The number of millionaires in Hong Kong fell 17.4 percent to 83,600 last year, compared with a decline of 7.8 percent to 91,200 people in Singapore, according to RBC Wealth’s head of emerging markets Barend Janssens.  Hong Kong took the lead from Singapore in 2010 after falling behind in 2008.

China still is home to the most high net worth individuals in Asia Pacific, with a population of 562,000 millionaires.  The top five countries by population of high net worth individuals are the US (3.07 million), Japan (1.82 million), Germany (951,000), China and the United Kingdom (441,000).  According to RBC, this significant concentration of high net worth individuals is why wealth managers are attracted to Asia even if they have to contend with competition from domestic banks.

Are the troubles in the Eurozone likely to impact Asia?  Lessons learned from the 2008 financial meltdown show that while Asia tends to get hit when the world economy stumbles, the severity varies depending on which countries have the biggest trade and financial linkages, and are best-prepared with big currency reserves, overflowing government coffers and central banks with the ability to cut interest rates.  Generally speaking, Asia has more room than the West to react with interest-rate cuts and government spending.  But some things have changed since 2008, and some countries, primarily India, Vietnam and Japan, may not be in shape to survive another financial jolt.  “As we saw with Lehman, when you get a seizure in the global financial system, nobody can hide from that in the short run,” said Richard Jerram, chief economist at the Bank of Singapore.  In that type scenario — which analysts say could still occur if Greece doesn’t live up to its commitments and leaves the Euro, or Spain and Italy require a bailout that Europe can’t afford — Asian stocks and currencies would fall, shipping lanes would see less business, and lending to consumers and businesses would dry up, slowing world economies.

Back to the Drawing Board for Greece

Monday, July 9th, 2012

International lenders and Greece will renegotiate the program on which the second financial bailout for Athens is based because the original has become outdated, according to a senior Eurozone official.  Greece received a €130-billion bailout in February from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  General elections in May and June delayed the bailout’s implementation.  The United States, the IMF’s largest member, supports discussions to review the Greek bailout program, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel countered that any relaxing of Greece’s reform promises is unacceptable.

“Anybody who would say that we need not, and cannot renegotiate the MoU (memo of understanding) is delusional, because he, or she, would be under the understanding that the whole program, the whole process, has remained completely on track ever since the weeks before the Greek first election,” the official said.  “Because the economic situation has changed, the situation of tax receipts has changed, the rhythm of implementation of the milestones has changed, the rhythm of privatization has changed — if we were not to change the MoU –it does not work.  We would be signing off on an illusion.  So we have to sit down with our Greek colleagues and say: this is where we should be in July, and this is where we are in July, and there is a delta.  Let’s find out what the delta is and then how to deal with the delta — that is a new MoU,” according to the official.

According to the official, representatives of the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission will visit Greece as soon as a new government is in place to review the program’s implementation and prepare for negotiations.  “It is no secret, quite logical in fact, that due to the time passed without a functioning government in place that can take the required decisions, because of this, there have been significant delays,” the official said.  “The conclusion is that they have to engage in discussions on the memorandum of understanding and bring it back onto an even keel.”

Meanwhile at the G-20 summit in Mexico,  leaders of the world’s most powerful economies say they have produced a coordinated global plan for job creation, which it calls the top priority in fighting the effects of the European economic crisis.  The draft says “We are united in our resolve to promote growth and jobs.”

An editorial in the Australian Financial Review warns Europe not to misrepresent the issue. “The optimism that followed Greece’s election has proved to be short-lived as investors acknowledge the poll result doesn’t really change all that much in terms of Europe’s ongoing debt crisis.  Less than a day after Greece pulled back from installing anti-austerity parties in office, European bond markets were once again in meltdown on concerns that Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland may need more financial aid to prevent default.  The European Union’s financial ‘firewall’ is clearly not up to the task, with the yield on Spanish 10-year bonds soaring to a Euro-era high of 7.29 percent.  In Athens, talks are under way to form a pro-EU coalition government between the center-right New Democracy party and the socialist Pasok party, reducing the likelihood of a near-term Greek exit from the Eurozone.  Yet rather than insist that Athens stick to the tough conditions it agreed to as part of the EU’s €240 billion ($300 billion) rescue packages, there are signs that European leaders may again be preparing to fudge the issue.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel insists that Athens must stick to its austerity commitments and that there is no room for compromise.  But other European politicians are starting to talk about giving Greece more time to fix its problems.  This appears to confirm the Greeks will never live up to their austerity conditions and that the exercise was all about kicking the can further down the road.”

Devaluation would be the optimal way for Greece to jump start its economy.  Because that option is not on the table this time, achieving competitiveness is going to be much harder.  One of the bailout’s stipulations requires the government to cut pensions, slash the number of public servants and control costs – in other words, the “austerity” option.  Others prefer a program to stimulate growth and boost revenue, although one that would likely involve increased spending.  This is the “growth” option.  Angela Merkel favors austerity while French President Francois Hollande prefers the “growth” option.  In this debate, the Germans are in control because they are the ones that are going to cough up the money.  They have the ability to help because, contrary to most of Europe, they practice austerity and thrift.  If German taxpayers are going to have to pay higher taxes to save nations like Greece, they think their European brothers and sisters should share some of the pain.

According to a Washington Post editorial, Germany and other creditworthy E.U. governments were right to tell Greeks before the election that they could not choose both the Euro and an end to austerity and reforms, as several populist parties were promising.  Yet now that voters favored parties that supported the last bailout package, it’s time for Angela Merkel and other austerity hawks to make their own bow to reality. For Greece to stabilize, some easing of the terms of EU loans will be needed, at a minimum; an extension of deadlines for meeting government spending and deficit targets may also be necessary.  Unless it can deliver such a relaxation, there is not much chance the new administration in Athens will be able to push through the huge reforms still needed to make the economy competitive, including privatizations, deregulation and public sector layoffs.

“In the end, a Greek slide into insolvency and an exit from the euro may still be unavoidable. That’s all the more reason why EU leaders must at last agree on decisive measures to shore up the rest of the currency zone, beginning with Spain and Italy.  Measures under discussion for a summit meeting next week, including euro-area bank regulation, are positive but not sufficient.  In the end, banks and governments must be provided with sufficient liquidity to restore confidence — something that will probably require the issuance of bonds backed by all Euro-area countries, or greatly increased lending by the European Central Bank.  As German officials invariably point out, bailout measures will be wasted unless they are accompanied by significant structural reforms by debtor nations.  But without monetary liquidity, and the chance for renewed growth, the Euro cannot be rescued.”

Germany Runs Half the Country on Solar Power

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

During a spell of extremely sunny weather, – on Saturday, May 26 — the solar-energy record by sourcing nearly 50 percent of its daytime electricity needs from sunshine.  According to Germany’s Institute of the Renewable Energy Industry (IWR), solar power plants produced an unprecedented 22 gigawatts of electricity, approximately the same amount generated by 20 nuclear power stations operating at full capacity.  Even on days when it’s not setting records, Germany has formidable solar numbers.  On Friday, May 25, while its citizens were at work and its power-hungry factories were running, one-third of Germany’s power was produced by solar plants.  The German government plans to move to 100 percent renewable energy by 2022.

Germany decided to abandon nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, closing eight plants immediately.  They will be replaced by renewable energy sources such as wind turbines, solar and bio-mass.

“Never before anywhere has a country produced as much photovoltaic electricity,” said Norbert Allnoch, IWR director.  “Germany came close to the 20 gigawatt (GW) mark a few times in recent weeks.  But this was the first time we made it over.”  Germany has nearly as much installed solar-power generation capacity as the rest of the world combined and gets nearly four percent of its annual electricity needs from the sun alone.  Its goal is to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

According to critics, renewable energy is not reliable enough nor is there enough capacity to power major industrial nations like Germany.  Chancellor Angela Merkel disagrees, noting that Germany is eager to demonstrate that is indeed possible.  The jump above the 20 GW level was due to increased capacity and bright sunshine nationwide.

Government-mandated support for renewables has helped Germany became a world leader in renewable energy.  The incentives provided through the state-mandated feed-in-tariff (Fit) are not without controversy, however. The tariff is the main support for the industry until photovoltaic prices fall further to levels similar for conventional power production.

Utilities and consumer groups have complained the tariffs for solar power adds about two cents per kW/h on top of electricity prices in Germany that are already among the highest in the world, with consumers paying about 23 cents kW/h, compared to New York, which pays 17.50 cents KW/h or Phoenix at 9.9 cents kW/h.  German consumers pay about €4 billion per year on top of their electricity bills for solar power, according to a 2012 report by the country’s environment ministry.  Critics also complain that employing increasing levels of solar power makes the national grid less stable due to fluctuations in output since Germany is not renowned for its sunny climate.

Germany Catches Cold

Monday, June 25th, 2012

In a sign that no Eurozone nation is completely immune to the shocks of the European debt crisis, ratings agency Moody’s Investor Services has cut the credit ratings of six banks in Germany.  The largest bank to be downgraded is Commerzbank, Germany’s second-biggest lender, which was cut to A3 from A2.

“Today’s rating actions are driven by the increased risk of further shocks emanating from the euro area debt crisis,” Moody’s said. The downgrade shows that Moody’s thinks Germany could be hit if the Euro crisis becomes a catastrophe.  “It brings the crisis in Southern Europe and Ireland closer to home in Germany,” said BBC Berlin correspondent Stephen Evans.

The other affected banks DekaBank, DZ Bank, Landesbank Baden-Wuerttemberg, Landesbank Hessen-Thueringen and Norddeutsche Landesbank.  In addition to its rating cut, Commerzbank was placed on negative outlook, meaning Moody’s is considering an additional cut.  According to Moody’s that is because of the bank’s exposure to the Eurozone periphery and its concentration of loans to single sectors and borrowers.  Moody’s deferred a decision on the rating of Germany’s biggest bank, Deutsche Bank.

The downgrades are a result of Moody’s concern about the “increased risk of further shocks emanating from the euro area debt crisis, in combination with the banks’ limited loss-absorption capacity”.  Moody’s believes that German banks are likely to find themselves under less pressure than many European peers as personal and corporate debt levels are more modest than elsewhere.  The agency noted that the downgrades are less harsh than it had originally said they could be.  “Moody’s recognizes the steps Germany banks have taken to address past asset quality challenges,” the ratings agency said.

The Group of Seven nations agreed to coordinate their response to Europe’s turmoil, which has tipped at least eight of the 17 Eurozone economies into recession and damped demand for foreign goods. Policy makers at the European Central Bank meeting today face increasing pressure to lower rates and introduce more liquidity support for banks.  Moody’s decision is “a bit harsh” given the strength of the German banking system and economy, said Sandy Mehta, chief executive officer of Value Investment Principals Ltd., a Hong Kong-based investment advisory company.  “But given the events in Europe, unless the authorities and the powers that be are more decisive and take firmer action, then you do have the risk that the economic problems will engulf Germany as well.”

The rating actions were driven by “the increased risk of further shocks emanating from the euro area debt crisis, in combination with the banks’ limited loss-absorption capacity,” Moody’s said.  “We wanted to identify vulnerabilities from further potential shocks from the euro area debt crisis and how this would affect investor confidence in institutions across Europe,” said Moody’s Managing Director for banking, Carola Schuler.  Moody’s agency was especially apprehensive about a potential decline in the value of banks’ portfolios of international commercial real estate, global ship financing, as well as a backlog of structured credit products, she said. “German banks have limited capacity to absorb losses out of earnings and that raises the potential that capital could diminish in a stress scenario.”  Moody’s action was anticipated.

According to Forbes, “This latest downgrade could be used by European politicians to put pressure on Angela Merkel and other policymakers.  Germany is staunchly opposed to the idea of Eurobonds, which Spanish and Italian politicians believe is one of the ways out of this mess.  Moody’s downgrade is but another sign of the extent of financial interconnectedness in the European Union, which highlights the dangers of contagion.  While some have argued that Germany would be better off leaving the monetary union, its financial sector remains in close contact to the broader European economy, making it difficult for Merkel and the rest to give up.  According to Moody’s, German banks’ major headwind is the continuation of the European sovereign debt crisis.  These banks are sitting on assets that will see their quality erode as markets tank, an effect that will be exacerbated if the global economy begins to cool at a faster pace too.”

Writing on the 247wallstreet.com website, Douglas A. McIntyre says that “Germany is assumed to be the home market of some of Europe’s most stable banks because of the relative stability of its economy.  Moody’s has undermined that view as it cut ratings of seven banks there, including Commerzbank, the second largest firm in the country.  The move was the result of worry over exposure to debt issued by some nations in the region that are now in financial trouble.  And the banks Moody’s singled out have less than adequate balance sheet to handle a major shock to the region’s credit system.”

Eurodammerung?

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Despite Germany’s strong manufacturing output in March, it was not enough to compensate for a slump across the rest of the Eurozone with declining production, a signal that an expected recession may not be as mild as policymakers hope.  Industrial production in the 17 Eurozone countries declined 0.3 percent in March when compared with February, according to the European Union’s (EU) statistics office Eurostat.  Economists had expected a 0.4 percent increase.

The figures stood in stark contrast with German data showing output in the Eurozone’s largest economy rose 1.3 percent in March, according to Eurostat, 2.8 percent when energy and construction are taken into account.  “With the debt crisis, rising unemployment and inflation, household demand is weak and globally economic conditions are sluggish, so that is making people very reluctant to spend and invest,” said Joost Beaumont, a senior economist at ABN Amro.

According to Eurostat, output declined 1.8 percent in Spain; in France — the Eurozone’s second largest economy after Germany — output fell 0.9 percent in March.  Many economists expect Eurostat to announce that the Eurozone went into its second recession in just three years at the end of March, with households suffering the effects of austerity programs designed to slash debt and deficits.

“Industrial production is a timely reminder that first-quarter GDP will likely show a contraction,” said Martin van Vliet, an economist at ING.  “With the fiscal squeeze unlikely to ease soon and the debt crisis flaring up again, any upturn in industrial activity later this year will likely be modest.”  European officials believe that the slump will be mild, with recovery in the 2nd half of this year.  The strong economic data seen in January has unexpectedly faded point to a deeper downturn, with the drag coming from a debt-laden south, particularly Greece, Spain and Italy.

Economists polled by Reuters estimated the Eurozone economy contracted 0.2 percent in the 1st quarter, after shrinking 0.3 percent in the 4th quarter of 2011.  “We suspect that a further slowdown in the service sector meant that the wider economy contracted by around 0.2 percent last quarter,” said Ben May, an economist at Capital Economics.  “What’s more, April’s disappointing survey data for both the industrial and service sectors suggest that the recession may continue beyond the first quarter.”

“It is evident that Eurozone manufacturers are currently finding life very difficult amid challenging conditions,” said Howard Archer at IHS Global Insight. “Domestic demand is being handicapped by tighter fiscal policy in many Eurozone countries, still squeezed consumer purchasing power, and rising unemployment.”  Eurozone governments have introduced broad austerity measures in order to cut debt, and these have undermined economic growth.

European watchers also expect to see Greece exit the Eurozone.  Writing for Forbes, Tim Worstall says that “As Paul Krugman points out, the odds on Greece leaving the Eurozone are shortening by the day.  In and of itself this shouldn’t be all that much of a problem for anyone. Greece is only two percent of Eurozone GDP and it will be a blessed relief for the Greeks themselves.  However, the thing about the unraveling of such political plans as the Euro is that once they do start to unravel they tend not to stop.”

The European Commission hopes Greece will remain part of the Eurozone but Athens must respect its obligations, the European Unions executive Commission said.  “We don’t want Greece to leave the Euro, quite the contrary – we are doing our utmost to support Greece,” European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said.  Greece is likely to face new elections next month after three failed attempts to form a government that would support the terms of an EU/IMF bailout.  Opinion polls show most Greeks want to stay in the Eurozone, but oppose the harsh austerity imposed by the emergency lending program.  “We wish Greece will remain in the euro and we hope Greece will remain in the euro … but it must respect its commitments,” according to Ahrenkilde.  “The Commission position remains completely unchanged: we want Greece to be able to stay in the Euro.  This is the best thing for Greece, for the Greek people and for Europe as a whole,” she said.

European Central Bank (ECB) policymakers Luc Coene and Patrick Honohan voiced the possibility that Greece might leave the currency bloc and reached the conclusion that it will not be fatal for the Eurozone.  According to Luxembourg’s Finance Minister Luc Frieden “If Greece needs help from outside, the conditions have to be met.  All political parties in Greece know that.”  There are powerful incentives for keeping Greece stable, one of which is that the ECB and Eurozone governments are major holders of Greek government debt.  A hard default could mean heavy losses for them; if the ECB needed recapitalizing as a result, that debt would fall on its members’ governments, with Germany first in line.  “If Greece moves towards exiting the Euro…the EU would then need to enlarge its bailout funds and prepare other emergency measures,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warned euro skeptics to avoid gloating over the state of the Eurozone as Greece tries to assemble a workable government.  According to Clegg, “We as a country depend massively on the prosperity of the Eurozone for our own prosperity, which is why I can never understand people who engage in schadenfreude – handwringing satisfaction that things are going wrong in the euro.  We have an overwhelming interest – whatever your views are on Brussels and the EU – in seeing a healthy Eurozone.  That’s why I very much hope, buffeted by these latest scares and crises in Greece and elsewhere, that the Eurozone moves as fast as possible to a sustainable solution because if the Eurozone is not growing and the Eurozone is not prosperous it will be much more difficult for the United Kingdom economy to gather momentum.”

Tepid 1st Quarter Growth Disappoints

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

The American economy grew less than expected during the 1st quarter as the biggest gain in consumer spending in more than a year failed to overcome a diminished contribution from business inventories.  Gross domestic product rose at a 2.2 percent annual rate after a three percent increase in the 4th quarter of 2011, according to Department of Commerce Department statistics.  The median forecast called for a 2.5 percent increase.  Household purchases rose 2.9 percent, exceeding the most positive projection.  Home building grew at its fastest pace in almost two years.  The GDP data confirm the view of Federal Reserve officials who expect “moderate” growth as they repeated that borrowing costs are likely to stay low at least through late 2014.

In addition to the improvement in consumer purchases and home building, the economy benefited from a rise in auto production.  The GDP was negatively impacted by a drop in government spending and slower growth in business investment.  The United States is faring better than some other major economies.  The United Kingdom is in the throes of its first double-dip recession since the 1970s.  In Japan and Germany, GDP declined in the final three months of 2011, while China’s economy, the world’s second-largest, is also cooling.

“Consumers are remarkably stable and steady,” said Julia Coronado, chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas in New York.  “We’ll need to see final demand continue to improve.  We’re still in muddling-along territory.”

According to MarketWatch, the devil is in the details. “Growth of 2.2 percent is mediocre, but it’s worse than that once you peel away a few layers — about a fourth of the growth in gross domestic product was accounted for by a build-up in inventories, and half of it came from the building and selling of motor vehicles.  Strip away the inventory growth, and final sales in the economy increased 1.6 percent, the 4th quarter in the past five that was below two percent.  Although all the headlines report on the GDP numbers, the number to watch is final sales, because that gauges demand for our products, not merely how much we made.  Away from King Consumer, the rest of the economy is slowing.  Business investment spending dropped 2.1 percent, the first decline since 2009.  Let’s not get carried away too much by the gloom and doom.  The economy IS growing, even if it’s not as fast as we’d like.  The economy has grown by nearly seven percent since depths of the recession in 2009.”

As disappointing as the 2.2 percent is, the market will have to learn to live with lowered expectations.  From a market perspective, lukewarm growth could force Ben Bernanke’s hand to unfreeze lending, keep interest rates at their current lows, or re-use other monetary policy tools to keep money flowing.  Ironically, even with the Fed’s relaxed monetary policy, most of the extra cash in the economy remains on corporate balance sheets (Apple has billions on hand) or is going into the securities markets.

Official reaction was as expected. “Today’s advance estimate indicates that the economy posted its 11th straight quarter of positive growth, as real GDP (the total amount of goods and services produced in the country) grew at a 2.2 percent annual rate in the first quarter of this year.  While the continued expansion of the economy is encouraging, additional growth is needed to replace the jobs lost in the deep recession that began at the end of 2007,” said Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke called the slow pace of recovery “frustrating. Here we are almost three years from the beginning of the expansion, and the unemployment rate is still over eight percent.  It’s been a very long slog.  And that, I think, would be the single most concerning thing,” he said.

Rising Unemployment Could Push Eurozone Into a Double-Dip Recession

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Europe’s unemployment has soared to 10.8 percent, the highest rate in more than 14 years as companies from Spain to Italy eliminated jobs to weather the region’s crisis, according to the European Union’s (EU) statistics office.  That’s the highest since June 1997, before the Euro was introduced.  European companies are cutting costs and eliminating jobs after draconian austerity measures slashed consumer demand and pushed economies from Greece to Ireland into recession.

According to Eurostat, the number of unemployed totaled 17.1 million, nearly 1.5 million higher than in 2011.  The figures stand in marked contrast to the United States, which has seen solid increases in employment over the past few months.  “It looks odds-on that Eurozone GDP contracted again in the first quarter of 2012….thereby moving into recession,” said Howard Archer, chief European economist at IHS Global Insight.  “And the prospects for the second quarter of 2012 currently hardly look rosy.”

The North-South divide is evident, with the nations reporting the lowest unemployment rates being Austria with 4.2 percent; the Netherlands at 4.9 percent; Luxembourg at 5.2 percent; and Germany at 5.7 percent.  Unemployment is highest among young people, with 20 percent of those under 25 looking for work in the Eurozone, primarily in the southern nations.  The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, defended the debt-fighting strategy, insisting that reforms undertaken by governments are crucial and will ultimately bear fruit.  “We must combat the crisis in all its fronts,” Amadeu Altafaj, the commission’s economic affairs spokesman, said, stressing that growth policies are part of the strategy.

According to Markit, a financing information company, Germany and France, the Eurozone’s two powerhouse economies, saw manufacturing activity levels deteriorate.  France fared the worst with activity at a 33-month low of 46.7 on a scale where anything below 50 indicates a contracting economy.  Only Austria and Ireland saw their output increase.

Spain, whose government recently announced new austerity measures, had the Eurozone’s highest unemployment rate at 23.6 percent; youth unemployment — those under 25 years of age — was 50.5 percent.  Greece, Portugal and Ireland — the three countries that have received bailouts — had unemployment rates of 21 percent, 15 percent and 14.7 percent respectively.

With unemployment rising at a time of austerity, consumers have stopped spending and that holds back the Eurozone economy despite signs of life elsewhere.  “Soaring unemployment is clearly adding to the pressure on household incomes from aggressive fiscal tightening in the region’s periphery,” said Jennifer McKeown, senior European economist at Capital Economics.  She fears that the situation will worsen and that even in Germany, where unemployment held steady at 5.7 percent, “survey measures of hiring point to a downturn to come.”

The numbers are likely to worsen even more. “We expect it to go higher, to reach 11 percent by the end of the year,” said Raphael Brun-Aguerre, an economist at JP Morgan in London.  “You have public sector job cuts, income going down, weak consumption.  The economic growth outlook is negative and is going to worsen unemployment.”

Writing for the Value Walk website, Matt Rego says that “By the looks of it, Europe could be heading for a recession very soon.  If the GDP contracts this 1st quarter of 2012, they will most likely be in a double dip.  Those are some pretty scary numbers and forecasts because they would send economic aftershocks around the world.  If Europe goes into a double dip and U.S. corporate margins do peak, we could be looking at trouble.  If you are a ‘super bull’ right now, I would reconsider because we are walking the line for both factors coming true and there really is nothing we can do, the damage is done.  Could we have seen all of the year’s gains in the beginning of this year?  Probably not but this European recession scare would certainly trigger a correction in the U.S. markets.  Bottom line, get some protection for your portfolio.  Buy stocks that aren’t influenced by economic times and buy protection for stocks that would react harshly to a double dip.”

A Tale of Two Countries: Germany and Spain

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Germany’s unemployment declined more than predicted in December as car and machinery exports boomed and one of the mildest winters on record helped construction jobs. The number of jobless people declined a seasonally adjusted 22,000 to 2.89 million, according to the Nuremberg-based Federal Labor Agency.  Economists had forecast a decline of 10,000.  The adjusted jobless rate fell to just 6.8 percent.  German firms are working virtually nonstop to fulfill orders for exports and investment goods.  As a result, the nation has defied a debt crisis that the European Commission fears will unleash a recession throughout the Eurozone.  The Munich-based IFO Institute’s measure of business confidence also rose unexpectedly in December.  Polls show that the majority of Germans see their jobs as secure even as Europe’s biggest economy slows.  Forward-looking indicators including IFO’s underscore that the German jobs motor is fundamentally intact, said Johannes Mayr, a senior economist at Bayerische Landesbank in Munich.

Except for an unexpected 6,000 increase in October, German unemployment has declined in every month since June 2009. The average jobless total in unadjusted terms for 2011 was well below the three million mark, Labor Agency head Frank-Juergen Weise said.  “German unemployment mastered the dual impact of the debt crisis and weakening economic growth in 2011 but these risks remain, accompanying us as we enter the new year, Weise said.

Both the jobless total and the jobless rate were at their lowest level since unification in 1991, noted German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler. “2011 can be described as the most successful since German unification for working people,” Roesler said.  “Demand for labor remains very high, despite the current economic risks.  Overall, the upturn in employment should continue, albeit at a slower rate.  The labor market remains one of the main pillars of our economy,” the minister said.

The national statistics office Destatis reported that the number of employed people in Germany hit a new record of 41.04 million in 2011, with more than 500,000 jobs created.  It was the first time the number of people working in Germany has risen above 41 million, Destatis said.  The nation’s population is approximately 82 million.

“Overall, labor market conditions will remain markedly healthier in Germany than in most other countries in Europe in the months ahead,” said IHS Global Insight’s Timo Klein. At present, Germany is confronting a shortage of skilled labor.  Leading economists anticipate that Germany’s economic growth will slow in 2012, in line with other major Eurozone economies, which may put a squeeze on wages and jobs.  But, unemployment at a record low for the last 20 years, is a position that most countries envy and a sign of the way Germany has rebuilt itself since the Wall was torn down.

“Germany’s manufacturing and export-driven economy finished the year strongly — piling on another 22,000 jobs in December,” said Anthony Cheung of market analysts RANsquawk.  “Behind the strong performance lie some adept moves by Germany’s exporters.  As their Eurozone markets weakened, they have been very good at moving their focus elsewhere.  German carmakers have more than compensated by dramatically growing sales to developing markets.”

This is one reason why companies are not shedding significant staff, even if the economy hits a downturn, said Berenberg Bank’s Holger Schmieding.

Germany’s labor market strength means that domestic demand will “remain a pillar of support” to the eurozone “under very challenging circumstances otherwise,” Schmieding said.  The Eurozone badly needs this help.  For example, Spain again published dire labor market data with the jobless rate rising by nearly 2,000 in December when compared with November.  Eurostat’s most recent data showed October unemployment in Spain at 22.8 percent, by far the Eurozone’s highest.

Spain represents an entirely different scenario.  During 2011, unemployment in Spain soared 7.9 percent, totaling an astonishing 322,286 individuals.  Nearly one-third of all the Eurozone’s unemployed are Spanish; approximately 50 percent of young Spaniards are out of work.  The tough austerity measures outlined by the new prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, are likely to push Spain’s jobless rate even higher.  These include €8.9 billion in spending cuts and tax increases to cut Spain’s borrowing which should total €16.5 billion in 2012.  Spain closed out 2011 with a deficit of 8 percent of its GDP, significantly higher than the six percent reported at the end of 2010.  “This is the beginning of the beginning,” said Deputy Prime Minister Saenz de Santamaria, noting that Spain is facing “an extraordinary, unexpected situation, which will force us to take extraordinary and unexpected measures.”  She stressed that the wealthiest will be increasingly taxed for at least two years, resulting in expected budgetary gains of €6 billion.

These numbers represent a new 15-year high in Spain’s unemployment rate “The figures for the number of registered unemployed for the month of December confirm the deterioration of the economic situation during the second half of the year,” according to Spain’s labor ministry.  Once the Eurozone’s job creation engine, Spain has struggled to find jobs for the millions thrown out of work since the 2008 property bubble collapse.

The bad news fueled fears that Spain, the Eurozone’s fourth-largest economy, was slipping back into recession after the economy posted zero growth in the 3rd quarter of 2011.  Prime Minister Rajoy’s new government has promised to fight unemployment and fix the country’s finances as its top priorities.  Rajoy plans to present a major labor market reform which will alter hiring laws and Spain’s collective bargaining system to encourage companies to hire workers.

Spain’s secretary of state for employment, Engracia Hidalgo, said the successive labor reforms carried out by the previous government “never made the labor market more dynamic and flexible.”  Spain  lets the jobless receive unemployment benefits for a maximum of two years.  Prime Minister Rajoy’s government extended a monthly payment of 400 euros ($520) for people whose benefits have run out.  Otherwise, the payments would have expired in February.

Fallout From European Credit Downgrades Still Underway

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

European leaders will this week try to deliver new fiscal rules and cut Greece’s onerous debt burden.  All this in the wake of Standard & Poor’s (S&P) Eurozone downgrades.

France was not the only Eurozone nation to feel the pain. Austria was cut to AA+ from AAA; Cyprus to BB+ from BBB; Italy to BBB+ from A; Malta to A- from A; Portugal to BB from BBB-; the Slovak Republic to A from A+; Slovenia to A+ from AA-; and Spain to A from AA-. S&P left the AAA ratings of Germany, Finland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands the same.

The European Central Bank (ECB) emerged unscathed.  The ratings agency said Eurozone monetary authorities “have been instrumental in averting a collapse of market confidence,” mostly thanks to the ECB launching new loan programs aimed at keeping the European banking system liquid while it works to resolve funding pressure brought on by the sovereign debt crisis.

The talks on Greece and budgets may serve as tougher tests of the tentative recovery in investor sentiment than S&P’s decision to cut the ratings of nine Eurozone nations, including France. If history repeats itself, fallout from the downgrades may be limited.  JPMorgan Chase research shows that 10-year yields for the nine sovereign nations that lost their AAA credit rating between 1998 and last year rose an average of two basis points the next week.

Policymakers worked doggedly to take back the initiative. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said S&P’s decision and criticism of “insufficient”  policy steps reinforced her view that leaders must try harder to resolve the two-year crisis. Germany is now alone in the Eurozone with a stable AAA credit rating. Reacting to Spain’s downgrade to A from AA-, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy pledged spending cuts and to clean up the banking system, as well as a “clear, firm and forceful” commitment to the Euro’s future. French Finance Minister Francois Baroin said the reduction of France’s rating was “disappointing,” yet expected

The European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), which is intended to fund rescue packages for the troubled nations of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, owes its AAA rating to guarantees from its sponsoring nations. “I was never of the opinion that the EFSF necessarily has to be AAA,” Merkel said.  Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker said the EFSF’s shareholders will look at how to maintain the top rating of the fund, which plans to sell up to 1.5 billion Euros in six-month bills starting this week. In the meantime, Merkel and other European leaders want to move speedily toward setting up its permanent successor, the European Stability Mechanism, this year — one year ahead of the original plan.

Greece’s Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said that a deal will be hammered out. “Some further reflection is necessary on how to put all the elements together,” he said. “So as you know, there is a little pause in these discussions. But I’m confident that they will continue and we will reach an agreement that is mutually acceptable in time.”

Standard & Poor’s downgraded nine of the 17 Eurozone countries and said it would decide before too long whether to cut the Eurozone’s bailout fund, the EFSF, from AAA.  “A one-notch downgrade for France was completely priced in, so no negative surprise here, and quite logical after the United States got downgraded,” said David Thebault, head of quantitative sales trading at Global Equities.

Thanks to the downgrades, fears of a Greek default also increased after talks between private creditors and the government over proposed voluntary write downs on Greek government bonds appeared near collapse.  Greece appears to be close to default on its sovereign debt, eclipsing the news that France and other Eurozone members lost their triple-A credit ratings.  “At the start of this year, (we) took the view that things in the Eurozone had to get worse before they got better. With the S&P downgrade of nine Eurozone countries and worries about the progress of Greek debt restructuring talks, things just did get worse,” wrote economists at HSBC.

Additionally there are implications for Eurozone banks from the sovereign downgrades.

“The direct impact of further sovereign and bank downgrades on institutions in peripheral.  nations is perhaps neither here nor there given that they are already effectively shut out of wholesale funding markets due to pre-existing investor concerns over the ability of governments in these countries to stand behind their banks,’ said Michael Symonds, credit analyst at Daiwa Capital Markets.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Ha-Joon Chang says that “Even the most rational Europeans must now feel that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day after all.  On that day last week, the Greek debt restructuring negotiation broke down, with many bondholders refusing to join the voluntary 50 per cent ‘haircut’  – that is, debt write off – scheme, agreed to last summer. While the negotiations may resume, this has dramatically increased the chance of disorderly Greek default.  The Eurozone countries criticize S&P and other ratings agencies for unjustly downgrading their economies. France is particularly upset that it was downgraded while Britain has kept its AAA status, hinting at an Anglo-American conspiracy against France. But this does not wash, as one of the big three, Fitch Ratings, is 80 per cent owned by a French company.”

Italy Asks IMF to Oversee its Debt Reduction Efforts

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has asked for international oversight of his efforts to slash the eurozone’s second-largest debt, even as his unraveling coalition threatens efforts to build a wall against Europe’s debt crisis.  Berlusconi’s government asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to assess its debt-reduction progress, and turned down an offer of financial assistance.

“It hasn’t been imposed, it was requested,” Berlusconi said.  The IMF will carry out quarterly “certifications” of the euro region’s third-largest economy, he said, noting that the current sell-off of Italian debt is “a temporary trend” even as the nation’s borrowing costs soared to record highs.  Berlusconi is under mounting pressure as Italy tries to avoid yielding to the sovereign-debt crisis.

Italy’s 10-year borrowing costs are getting dangerously close to the seven percent level that forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to ask for bailouts.  The yield on the nation’s benchmark 10-year bond surged to a euro-era record of 6.404 percent, the highest since the creation of the single currency.  “If the current Greek tragedy is not to turn into an Italian tragedy, with far more serious and far-reaching consequences for the eurozone, Berlusconi must resign immediately,” Marc Ostwald, a fixed-income strategist at Monument Securities Ltd., said.  Berlusconi may be “remembered as the architect of Italy’s descent into an economic inferno.”

IMF managing director Christine Lagarde hopes that quarterly monitoring will start by the end of November to verify that the reforms Berlusconi promised are implemented.  “It’s verification and certification if you will, of implementation of a program that Italy has committed to,” she said. “It’s one of the best ways to have an independent view…to verify that promised measures are actually implemented.”  She agreed that Italy doesn’t need IMF funding.  “The problem that is at stake — and that was clearly identified both by the Italian authorities and its partners — is a lack of credibility of the measures that are announced,” according to Lagarde.  “The typical instrument that we would use is a precautionary credit line.  Italy does not need the funding that is associated with such instruments so the next best instrument is fiscal monitoring, which is what we have identified.”

Lagarde isn’t certain that the proposed reforms are credible. “The problem that is at stake and that was clearly identified both by the Italian authorities and by its partners is a lack of credibility of the measures that were announced,” Lagarde said.  Additionally, the IMF will provide funds to stimulate Italy’s economy, although under strict conditions.

Will Berlusconi’s regime survive this crisis?  “Historically, technocrat governments in Italy have been able to pass pro-growth structural reforms, including politically difficult labor market reforms,” said Barclays Capital analyst Fabio Fois.  Governments such as those led by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Lamberto Dini – who had served as central bankers — in the early 1990s saved Italy from financial crises even worse than the present one.  “I think the political parties would have a big incentive to go through the painful policy adjustment now, before the next election due in 2013, so that whoever wins won’t have to do it later,” Fois said.

Berlusconi seemed almost nostalgic for the days when the lira was Italy’s currency. “You don’t get much in your supermarket trolley for €80 today, whereas you used to get a lot for 80,000 lire,” he said.

He insisted that Italy’s economy is generally prospering.  “The restaurants and vacation spots are always full, nobody thinks there is a crisis,” he said, noting that, considering its low household debt levels, Italy has Europe’s second-strongest economy, after Germany and was stronger than France or the U.K.  The country’s €1.9 trillion in public debt, the equivalent of nearly 120 percent of GDP, was a legacy problem, had not grown in the past 20 years, and had been consistently serviced, Berlusconi said.

Berlusconi admitted that his government “might have made a mistake” in assuming the public debt was sustainable without more aggressive fiscal and reform action.  When asked what he thought about frequent warnings from European Union partners that Italy demonstrate credibility with the promised reforms, Berlusconi said the criticism reflected prejudice about past Italian behavior.  “If we don’t enact the reforms Italy will be in trouble,” he said.  “But we will enact them.”