Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Russia: Is the sovereign rating useful?

September 8, 2010

 

Does Russia’s sovereign rating tell us any more than the oil price?

Fitch Ratings today published a press release revising the “Outlook” on its “BBB” rating of Russian government bonds to positive from stable (see a Fitch press release below).  Rating agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch – have been under fire since their high structured real estate ratings were downgraded rapidly during the recent financial crisis, suggesting that these ratings were wrong and therefore not a useful guide to investors.  Over the last two years, financial regulators have had their plates full preventing a 1930s-style banking collapse.  As a result, though they would like to kick the rating agencies in the pants to shake out the mediocrity, they haven’t had the time.  Are credit ratings useful? 

Yes and no.  Sometimes rating agency analytical reports are good, comparatively unbiased guides to the safety of bonds from sovereign governments and corporations, especially relative to investment bank reports.  However, the ratings themselves are sticky and often follow changes in creditworthiness (sudden ones anyway) rather than lead them.  Rating agencies don’t want to stick their necks out.  Conflicts of interest (agencies are paid by the bond issuers) are not to be dismissed, though somehow there is a more arms-length analytical relationship between bond issuers and the agencies than between the same and the investment banks, who fall over themselves to extol the virtues of clients that issue debt or equity.

Furthermore, sometimes a bond issuer’s profile is so tied to the price of a commodity (say, oil) that an investor is better off tracking the commodity price than bothering with ratings.  This is the case with “Rising Power” Russia.  Russia’s economy has long been dominated by energy exports.  Little has been done to diversify the economy in the way that its BRIC peers — China, Brazil and India — are diversified.  Energy prices rise and Russia’s ratings improve, and vice versa.  Yet the agencies go to great lengths to spell out the details of Russia’s credit profile in their reports.  As I said, sometimes the reports are good, especially for an econ nerd; but, the rating actions themselves – the reason agencies are paid so handsomely — can be of little use.

With oil prices rising rapidly over the last decade, Russia’s sovereign ratings rocketed from near-default levels (CCC) in 2000 to investment grade levels (BBB) today.  The ratings peaked at BBB+ from 2006 to 2008, when the price of a barrel of oil topped out at around $140 before collapsing to near $50 during the dog days of the global economic crisis in the fall of 2008.  That’s coincidentally when Fitch put Russia’s ratings on a Negative Outlook, before lowering the ratings to BBB in February 2009.  Since then, oil prices have clawed back to around $75 per barrel, and Fitch has again moved the Rating Outlook, first to Stable and then today to Positive.  This is all well and good, but the oil price was nearly as useful a guide as the ratings over this time frame, just as it was in 1998 when Russia defaulted on its bonds amid oil prices in the neighborhood of $10 a barrel.  Yes, the rating reports are informative, but if the agencies are to be more useful to investors (and society), they should try harder to predict financial developments and have their ratings lead, rather than follow, these developments.  And, they should show some skill at this before the regulators get around to kicking them in the pants.   

FROM FITCH RATINGS TODAY:

  Fitch Affirms Russia at ‘BBB’; Revises Outlook to Positive   
08 Sep 2010 8:04 AM (EDT)

Fitch Ratings-London-08 September 2010: Fitch Ratings has today affirmed Russia’s Long-term foreign and local currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDRs) at ‘BBB’. The Outlooks for the Long-term IDRs have been revised to Positive from Stable. At the same time, Fitch has affirmed Russia’s Short-term foreign currency IDR at ‘F3’ and the Country Ceiling at ‘BBB+’.

“The Russian economy is recovering after being hit hard by the global financial crisis. The outlook revision to positive reflects Fitch’s belief that the decline in inflation, shift to a more flexible exchange rate policy, sizeable repayments of private sector external debt, stabilisation of the banking sector and rising foreign exchange reserves should serve to reduce the country’s financial vulnerabilities,” says Ed Parker, Head of Emerging Europe in Fitch’s Sovereigns team.

Real GDP grew by 5.2% year-on-year in Q210, having contracted by 7.9% in 2009. Fitch forecasts growth of 4.3% in 2010 GDP and 4% in 2011 and 2012 – broadly in line with estimated potential. Recovery appears to be fairly balanced, and is supported by the rebound in oil prices, rising real incomes and stabilisation of financial confidence and capital flows.

The private sector has strengthened its balance sheets, where vulnerabilities had built up in the boom years. It repaid a net USD80bn in external debt in the two years to June 2010, including USD51bn of short-term debt, reducing its refinancing requirements and foreign currency exposures. Banks are liquid and have high reported capital ratios of around 19%. Asset quality appears to have stabilised, though Fitch estimates total problem loans at about 25% (including restructured loans at extended maturities and off-balance sheet exposures). A sizeable current account surplus, which Fitch forecasts at 4.6% of GDP in 2010, is helping Russia to rebuild its foreign exchange (FX) reserves, which have risen by USD92bn from their low in Q109 to USD476bn – the third-highest in the world – providing a formidable buffer against shocks. Russia is a large sovereign and overall net external creditor, the latter equivalent to 24% of GDP at end-2009, compared with a net debtor position for the ‘BBB’ range median.   

Inflation has declined to 6.1% in August, from double-digit rates 12 months previously. The Central Bank of Russia has shifted to a more flexible exchange rate and independent monetary policy regime, with positive real interest rates, which has the potential to help reduce inflation, dollarization and the risk of financial instability. However, the Central Bank of Russia has yet to build up a track record in this area.

Russia’s public finances have deteriorated over the past two years, though remain a rating strength. Fitch forecasts the budget deficit at 4.7% of GDP in 2010. Moreover, the budget balances at an oil price of around USD100pb, highlighting its vulnerability to a severe and sustained oil shock. However, general government debt is low, at only 10% of GDP at end-2009, compared with the 10-year ‘BBB’ range median of 35%. Moreover, the government has USD127bn (9% of GDP) in its sovereign wealth funds (1 September 2010), providing substantial financing flexibility, as demonstrated in 2009.

Weaknesses that weigh on Russia’s sovereign rating include its poor governance, institutions and corruption; a weak business climate that constrains investment, diversification and growth; exposure to commodity prices (and therefore the global economy); and a history of high and relatively volatile inflation.

In terms of potential triggers for future rating actions, a tightening of fiscal policy that significantly reduces Russia’s non-oil and gas budget deficit and its vulnerability to oil price shocks could lead to an upgrade. Material structural reforms that improve the business climate, banking sector and governance could also lead to an upgrade. A longer track record of implementing a more flexible exchange rate policy and anchoring inflation at the mid-single digit rate could put upward pressure on the ratings; as could a material strengthening in the external balance sheet. Conversely, a severe and sustained drop in oil prices could lead to negative rating action.

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If the Turks want to hang out with this guy…

June 8, 2010
What would Ataturk say?    Source: Google Images What would Ataturk say? Source: Google Images

Turkish President Gul pictured with the world’s most notorious extremist, who is quoted in the article below as saying that the Zionists are  “holding up the flag of the devil itself…” and are “the backbone of the dictatorial world order,” taking a page again from Julius Streicher’s Der Stuermer.  In its drive to be a regional power, Turkey is starting to make strange bedfellows.  What would Ataturk say?

Maybe Ahmadinejad is pre-empting the Security Council’s likely announcement of tougher sanctions with more hateful attacks against Israel.  But as we know from the Hamas Covenant, the Zionists control the UN Security Council, like almost everything else in the world and throughout history (tongue in cheek, however painfully)…

From Today’s CNN wire service:

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hit a strident tone on a variety of topics during a press conference on the sidelines of an Asian security summit in Istanbul on Tuesday.

A key item on the agenda at the summit is last week’s Israeli raid on an aid flotilla in the Mediterranean. Ahmadinejad said the confrontation revealed Israel’s “devilish” nature.

“It showed violence and hatred and war-mongering attitudes,” he said at a news conference. “The devilish sound of the uncultured Zionists was coming out from their deceit. … They were holding up the flag of the devil itself.”

The raid led to the deaths of nine people, all Turkish citizens — including one Turkish-American. Turkey is urging Israel to accept an international probe into the incident.

Ahmadinejad congratulated Turkey, which has been in a war of words with Israel following the raid, for its response.

Iran’s own nuclear program has been another major topic at the summit. The United States expects to bring a new resolution on increased sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program to a vote in the United Nations Security Council this week.

By calling for a resolution instead of sitting down for talks with Iran, the United States is “gravely mistaken,” Ahmadinejad said.

“Within the framework of respect and justice, we’re ready to negotiate with everyone. Anyone who is going to resort to the language of force and aggression, the response is clear,” he said.

Ahmadinejad went on to commend Turkey and Brazil for recently negotiating a deal with Iran on a uranium enrichment swap.

“The initiative marked the beginning of a new path — the beginning of an end to unilateralism in the world,” he said.

The United States, he added, missed an opportunity by not embracing the deal.

Asked whether the raid on the flotilla last week will change the way countries vote in the Security Council, Ahmadinejad said the raid will actually change many things.

For Israel, he said, “it has actually rung the final countdown for its existence. It shows that it has no room in the region and no one is ready to live alongside it. Actually, no country in the world recognizes it, and you know that the Zionist regime is the backbone of the dictatorial world order.”

He added, “Maybe at the Security Council, it will impact temporarily. The Zionist regime, with what it has done, it actually stopped its possibility to exist in the region anymore.”

China: A bully like Wilhelmine Germany?

June 2, 2010
South China Sea where China and its neighbors dispute control over strategic islands and energy resources.  Source:  Google Images
South China Sea where China and its neighbors dispute control over strategic islands and energy resources. Source: Google Images

People like the analogy.  The rise of Germany after 1890, mismanaged by Germany and its adversaries, and the rise of China today — mismanaged or well-managed?  A NYTimes article today discusses the conflicting claims over rich offshore oil resources in the South China Sea among China and its much smaller neighbors, notably Vietnam, with which China fought a war in 1979 (though that was over Cambodia).  These conflicting claims on China’s flank remain unresolved.  Tension in the South China Sea bubbles dangerously below the surface, not unlike the way Morocco and the Balkans did for decades before WWI.  The US takes no sides in these disputes, but the South China Sea constitutes a potential flashpoint for tension between the US and China, in addition to Taiwan.  Some estimates put the quantity of shipping that takes place through the strategic sea lanes in the South China Sea at around 50% of world shipping, depicted with arrows in the map shown above.

Vietnam is pursuing the negotiating strategy of the weak — internationalize the conflict.  This reminds me of Yasser Arafat’s never-ending call back in the day for an “international conference” over the Arab-Israeli conflict; whereas Israel, like the Chinese, always preferred bilateral talks.  Both China and Israel resist international conferences where smaller countries can gang up on them.  Recall the Madrid Conference on the Mideast in 1991, cobbled together by the Bush administration (with the gifted handiwork of Sec. of State  Jim Baker).  Israel was isolated and ganged up on in Madrid.  Israel ultimately preferred secret bilateral talks with the Palestinians in Oslo.

In any event, the South China Sea issue won’t go away, and one wonders if, like Wilhelmine Germany, China will succeed in alienating everyone with its bullying tactics or will seek to find a mutually beneficial solution.  It is hard to find such a win-win solution in a dispute over territory and resources.

(from a Feb. 5, 2010 blog post.)

European Central Bank: Inaction puts global recovery at risk

May 7, 2010
The ECB: will they ringfence Greece?  Source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/archive/00866/money-graphics-2008_866833a.jpg
The ECB: will they ringfence Greece? Source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/archive/00866/money-graphics-2008_866833a.jpg

How unwieldy Europe is to manage!  How difficult it is for EU institutions to act…

Bruce Kasman, Chief Economist of JPM, whom I remember from my years at the New York Federal Reserve in the early 90s where he was an international economist, said this morning in a conference call that the main risk to the US economic recovery is contagion from the debt crisis in Europe.  European banks are large holders of government debt, and stresses in these institutions could spill over into funding pressures for US financial institutions, as well as for Latin American institutions. 

Kasman argued that Greece, experiencing a crisis of solvency rather than liquidity, must be ring-fenced, and other highly-indebted members of the euro area — Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland — must receive ECB support.  He said that the ECB must act quickly to reassure the markets that there will be ample liquidity for these other countries, so the Greek contagion can be contained.  More aggressive ECB liquidity lines and expansion of the dollar-swap facility with the Federal Reserve are needed.  This will reassure the markets that, unlike Greece, these countries are not insolvent and that policy adjustment in these countries (deficit reduction) will be enough and will be undertaken. Otherwise funding costs for these countries could rise markedly, making insolvency a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Kasman said that the results of the ECB meeting yesterday were, in this regard, disappointing.

US economy: Little optimism, but less pessimism

May 7, 2010
Payrolls up, but unemployment still nudges up close to 10%.  Source:  http://www.forextradingempire.com/non-farm-unemployment.jpg
Payrolls up, but unemployment still nudges up close to 10%. Source: http://www.forextradingempire.com/non-farm-unemployment.jpg

Jobs expanded in April, with the American private sector back with a vengeance.  But medium-term risks abound, especially regarding very weak public finances at the federal, state and local levels due to the massive economic rescue enacted last year.  Governments at every level in this country must put forward credible deficit-reduction plans, albeit cautiously, or this recovery could falter as early as next year.

Bruce Kasman, Chief Economist of JPM, held a conference call today to go over the US employment figures, released this morning, that showed a huge expansion in payrolls under way over the last three months.  Kasman, whom I remember from my years at the New York Federal Reserve in the early 90s where he was an international economist, explained that the US private sector was hiring, restocking and investing, not out of optimism, but out of “less pessimism.”

Payrolls in the US expanded by 290,000 in April, versus a consensus forecast of 190,000.  Upward revisions of 121,000 to March and February were announced as well.  The private sector, including manufacturing and services, is adding jobs.  The workweek increased in April as well.  Putting this together, this means that labor income (workers’ paychecks) is rising, up 4.2% in in the first quarter of the year.  Further good news is that wage inflation remains muted, as there is considerable slack remaining in the labor market.  So, American consumers will start spending again, and the Fed won’t raise interest rates to staunch inflation any time soon.  Pretty rosy scenario.  With wage inflation muted, profits have been rising, postponing reform of the inherent unfairness in the American economy — firms profit as real wages remain low.

Still, you couldn’t ask for anything better in an economic recovery at this stage.  Kasman said he believed the US recovery has momentum and is broadly based.  The headline unemployment figure did edge up to 9.86% in April, but there was good news in that figure as well.  This figure rose because the labor participation rate rose.  Because not all of those currently counted as participating in the labor market have jobs, the unemployment rate rose, even though jobs themselves expanded robustly in the month. 

Kasman sees self-sustaining economic growth in the coming two quarters of this year as firms and households roar back; however, he is not optimistic about US policy makers taking the right decisions to ensure the economy remains on a sound medium-term growth path.  He also worries about contagion from the debt crisis in Europe, but that will be the subject of my next post!

Europe: Why is the US so bossy?

January 22, 2010

…even under Barack Obama.  Nice piece in the FT on European angst about American power, and the continent’s inability as yet to offer a unified foreign policy with punch.  Ideally, EU foreign and defense policies could serve as a counterweight to the G-2, read: China and the U.S.  The latest flare-up of this angst involved a French official complaining about U.S. heavy-handedness in managing relief in Haiti.  Alleged American heavy-handedness — and not from W, but from Barack Obama.  Have a read…

One of the problems the Europeans have had since the end of WWII is their happy laziness with being a “free rider” under the American security umbrella.  No one in Europe wants to increase defense spending so that they would actually be taken seriously as an alternative force in the world.  After tens of millions dead in the first half the 20th century at the hands of European geopolitics, is it simply that they still do not trust themselves?  Probably not.  More likely that it is easy and cheap to remain a free rider.

Israel’s economy: weathering the storm

November 10, 2009
Source: Google Images
Source: Google Images

Much news and commentary you hear about the State of Israel has to do with geopolitics and the Arab-Israeli conflict (see my colleague Ben Moscovitch’s blog on this site for a nice selection.)  Settlements, will Abbas run or not, Iran’s plans to wipe Israel off the map, Israel’s thoughts about taking military action against Iran, the Goldstone Report on the war in Gaza, films about the war in Lebanon, and on and on. 

Not that this hyper-news about Israel is not important and interesting.  But, let’s step back and look at Israel from a “rising power” perspective — half highly indebted socialist country/half cutting-edge hi-tech and health sciences capitalist upstart.  Its economy has proven itself resilient to the intifada, to the tech bust of nearly a decade ago, and now to the US-led global meltdown. 

How so?  It’s about policy, stupid.  Sound economic policy, begun in the 1980s with a classic monetary stabilization program that reduced inflation, and deepened only a few years ago, by none other than Benjamin Netanyahu, as finance minister, with his Thatcherite restructuring of the economy (e.g., increasing the labor force participation rate by creating incentives for the religious to work) and his shift to a rules-based fiscal policy.  Israel still has a high government debt burden — above 80% of GDP.  But that is down from above 100% not long ago.  Meanwhile the rest of the world has caught up to Israel’s debt levels (with the U.S. now surging higher). 

On the external front, the country couldn’t look better — $60 billion in foreign exchange reserves, a current account surplus, and “net external creditor” status, that is, Israel’s claims on foreigners exceed foreigners’ claims on Israel (oh, how the U.S. would love to have that balance sheet!)

So, in spite its modest size, constrained by the country’s small population, the Israeli economy dwarfs those of many of its much poorer and poorly run neighbors.  Have a look at the Fitch press release below referencing a recent report on Israel and its sovereign credit outlook.

Fitch Affirms State of Israel at ‘A’/’A+’; Outlook Stable   
06 Nov 2009 8:22 AM (EST)


Fitch Ratings-London-06 November 2009: Fitch Ratings has today affirmed the State of Israel’s Long-term Foreign and Local Currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDR) at ‘A’ and ‘A+’ respectively with Stable Outlooks. The Short-term Foreign Currency IDR is affirmed at ‘F1’ and the Country Ceiling at ‘AA-‘.

“Israel has fared better than many other small, open economies in the recent global economic and financial downturn, suffering only a mild recession compared to rated peers in Europe and Asia,” says Paul Rawkins, Senior Director in Fitch’s London-based Sovereigns team. “Nonetheless, the downturn has exposed Israel’s key vulnerability to shocks, namely a high public debt ratio that looks set to exceed 80% of GDP in the wake of wider fiscal deficits in 2009-10.”

Fitch says an improved macroeconomic policy framework, coupled with structural reforms since the last recession in 2001-02, laid the foundations for strong growth in 2004-08, in line with the ‘A’ median of 5%, rendering the economy markedly more resilient to shocks. With the exception of Bahrain, China and Poland, Fitch expects Israel to be the only country in the ‘A’ range to escape an outright recession in 2009. This performance is attributed largely to aggressive monetary and exchange rate policies, aided by a relatively trouble-free banking sector and an absence of asset price bubbles. Structurally, Israel’s high-tech manufacturing and services sectors have proved unexpectedly resilient to declining global investment demand, presaging a near record current account surplus in 2009.

Israel’s high public debt ratio remains the key constraint on its sovereign ratings. The adoption of rules-based fiscal policy in the wake of the last recession has served Israel well; limits on the growth of public expenditure and a ceiling on the state (i.e. central government) deficit facilitated a contraction in general government debt to 78% of GDP at end-2008 from a peak of 100% in 2003. Even so, this ratio remains high relative to the peer group median of 37%, although it is not the most extreme (‘A-‘ rated Greece exceeds 100% of GDP). Moreover, considering the mildness of its recession and an absence of financial sector-related support, the current external shock has taken a heavy toll on the public finances, chiefly on the revenue side. Fitch expects Israel’s general government deficit to widen to 6%-7% of GDP in 2009-10, on a par with rated peers Malaysia and the Czech Republic, which have experienced much steeper recessions, while pushing general government debt up to over 84% of GDP by end-2010.

While Israel’s experience with fiscal rules has been mixed, the current framework has entrenched fiscal discipline and together with signs of a strong economic recovery, suggests Israel’s powerful public debt dynamics could reassert themselves by 2011, forestalling any further deterioration in the public debt/GDP ratio. The government envisages a sharp narrowing in the state deficit to 3% of GDP in 2011 (from 6% in 2009), but still hopes to adhere to tax cuts over the medium term. Fitch expects some revision to the fiscal rules, with greater prominence being given to the Maastricht public debt/GDP ratio of 60% of GDP. From a rating standpoint, a positive rating action would require a decline in the debt/GDP ratio to a level nearer to the ‘A’ median. Conversely, a prolonged rise in the debt/GDP ratio and/or sustained fiscal easing would prompt a negative rating action.

Externally, the Government of Israel became a net external creditor for the first time in 2008, although it still falls short of ‘A’ norms on this measure. Burgeoning international reserves – these have more than doubled to USD60bn since end-2007 – have been the key factor behind this status change for the sovereign, facilitated by a strong current account surplus and buoyant net capital inflows. The economy as a whole also passed a new milestone in 2008, registering a surplus of external financial assets over liabilities for the first time. Israel expects its standing on the international stage to be further enhanced by OECD membership in the near future.

Contact: Paul Rawkins, London, Tel: +44 (0) 20 7417 4239; Richard Fox, +44 (0) 20 7417 4357

Media Relations: Peter Fitzpatrick, London, Tel: + 44 (0)20 7417 4364, Email: peter.fitzpatrick@fitchratings.com.

Additional information is available on http://www.fitchratings.com.

Emerging Europe has fiscal problems, says Fitch

October 29, 2009
Emerging Europe: Fiscal woes  Source: www.d-orland.com
Emerging Europe: Fiscal woes Source: http://www.d-orland.com

Fitch Ratings published a report this week analyzing the fiscal deterioration taking place in 21 countries in what it calls “Emerging Europe,” which includes three sizable economies — “rising” power Russia’s nearly $1.7 trillion economy, struggling Turkey’s $745 billion economy, and Poland’s nothing-to-sneeze-at $525 billion economy. Like much of the rest of the world, Emerging Europe juiced its economies with fiscal stimulus packages due to the Great Recession, and therefore, needs an exit strategy over the medium term to this fiscal deterioration. 

Fitch rates Russian sovereign debt at BBB with a Negative Outlook (likely to be downgraded within two years); Turkey’s BB- with a Rating Watch Positive (likely to be upgraded, albeit from a low level, within the next three months); and, Poland’s debt A- with a Stable Outlook.

Fitch expects Polish GDP growth to languish before rebounding to about 3% in 2011; Russian growth to creep back above 3%; and, Turkey’s to move back to around 4% per year.  Government deficits in all three will remain sizable at between 3-6% of GDP per year, though quite small next to America’s 10% this year.  Poland’s government debt will rise to nearly 60% of GDP by 2011; Russia’s government debt remains very, very small (at below 15% of GDP); and Turkey’s will rise to nearly 50% of GDP before plateauing.  These levels are still modest relative again to U.S. levels approaching 90% in the coming years.  Poland’s and Turkey’s current account balances (a measure of trade) are in deficit, though forecast by Fitch to be below U.S. levels, which should exceed 3% of GDP in the coming years.  Russia, of course, as an energy exporting powerhouse, remains in surplus on its current account.

Central European economies, including Poland’s, are expected to move out of recession nicely, driven by links to the euro area, especially to the reviving German economy.  Baltic and Balkan states are rebounding less nimbly, according to the Fitch report.

A number of countries have been assisted by sizable IMF financing, including Turkey, Hungary, Armenia, Georgia, Latvia, Romania, Serbia and the Ukraine, not to mention that Poland obtained a $20.5 billion Flexible Credit Line with the IMF.    

Have a look at the Fitch Press release on the report below. 

Fitch: Public Finance Concerns Move to the Fore in Emerging Europe
29 Oct 2009 4:00 AM (EDT)


Fitch Ratings-London-29 October 2009: Fitch Ratings says in a new report that although external financing risks have eased somewhat for many countries in emerging Europe (EE) during recent months, rising government deficits and debt ratios mean that sovereign rating dynamics remain negative.

“Worst fears of a systemic economic and financial meltdown in emerging Europe have receded as global output has started to recover and financial conditions have eased, driven by the massive global fiscal and monetary policy stimulus, rescue packages led by international financial institutions and, in many countries, impressive economic resilience,” says Edward Parker, Head of Emerging Europe Sovereigns at Fitch.

“However, major challenges remain due to the scale of the negative shocks to hit the region; the costly legacy of the crisis, notably rising public debt ratios; and the uncertain “exit” from the crisis, recession and accommodative policy settings; while a relapse in one of the more vulnerable countries could trigger ripples across the region,” says Mr Parker.

Concerns over public finances have moved to centre stage. Fitch forecasts the impact of the recession – in some cases augmented by fiscal stimulus measures, lower oil prices and bank bail-outs – to widen the average budget deficit to 5.9% of GDP in 2009 from 1.1% in 2008, before narrowing to 4.6% in 2010. It expects the average government debt/GDP ratio to rise to 36% at end-2010 from 23% at end-2007. Failure to implement credible medium-term fiscal consolidation could lead to rating downgrades. In many countries, social pressures and elections will make it harder to implement austerity measures. This is fertile territory for political shocks. For countries reliant on IMF-led programmes for fiscal and external financing and for underpinning economic confidence, failure to stick to programme conditions poses additional risks to macroeconomic stability.

Fitch has revised its forecast for 2009 EE GDP to -6.1% from -4.6% in its June forecast round, owing to an even steeper drop than anticipated in output in H109. This contrasts with just -0.1% forecast for emerging markets as a whole. It forecasts only Azerbaijan and Poland will avoid recession, while Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine will suffer double-digit declines in GDP. However, it has revised up its 2010 growth forecast to 2.6% (from 1.5%), owing to the unwinding of the deeper 2009 contraction and more supportive global conditions. Indeed, it estimates EE GDP rose by about 1% q-o-q in Q209, after plummeting 7% in Q109, led by a rebound in Turkey. But weak investment, rising unemployment, moderate capital inflows and credit growth, fiscal consolidation and a rebuilding of balance sheets point to a subdued recovery.

External financing and currency risks, which were the primary vulnerability of many countries in EE in the initial phase of the crisis, have eased somewhat, though remain material. This reflects a rapid reduction in current account deficits (CADs), substantial multilateral assistance, a boom in sovereign external issuance (USD19bn year to date) and relatively resilient private-sector roll-over rates. Fitch estimates the region’s gross external financing requirement (CAD plus medium- and long-term (MLT) amortisation) at USD304bn in 2009 and 2010, down from USD363bn in 2008.

In contrast to the rally in EE government bond prices, sovereign ratings dynamics remain negative, albeit at an easing pace. Following 11 notches of downgrades of foreign-currency Issuer Default Ratings in Q408, there were two downgrades in Q109, three in Q209 and only one in Q309. The balance of Outlooks and Watches has improved slightly since August 2009, but 12 countries are on Negative and only one on Positive. Fitch expects future rating actions to be driven more by country-specific developments than general trends.

The full report, entitled “Emerging Europe Sovereign Review: 2009”, is available on the agency’s website at http://www.fitchratings.com

Contacts: Edward Parker, London, Tel: +44 (0) 20 7417 6340, David Heslam, +44 (0)20 7417 4384; Eral Yilmaz, +44 (0)20 7682 7554.

China: Anchoring the dragon

October 12, 2009

Last week’s Economist had a couple of nice articles on China’s National Day on October 1st, when the Chinese showcased their military, including the DF-31 nuclear-tipped ICBM, which can hit any city in America.  Most of these armaments have “Made in China” tags, not unlike all of our clothes and toys.

The Economist leader on the subject lamented this show of militarism, even comparing modern-day China to Prussia/Germany and Japan in the late 19th century.  I recall attending Bastille Day celebrations along the Champs Elysee in Paris in years past, when the glory-obsessed French showcased their military hardware; yet nobody got bent out of shape about French militarism.

Yet the rise of China should rightfully be compared to the rise of powers-past, such as Germany, Japan, Russia and the U.S.  We should consider how status-quo powers such as Britain might have mismanaged some of these rises in the 19th century and how we might avoid such mismanagement with regard to China today.  The blame for German militarism rests largely on the shoulders of Germans, this is true, especially on the fragile shoulders of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his cabal (though even Bismarck shares some of the blame).  Even so, the Western Powers could have better managed Germany’s rise.  They lacked an agenda for providing Wilhelmine Germany with enhanced international privileges to match its rising power.  Matching privileges with power is key to peacefully managing a power’s rise.  And, anchoring a rising power in the institutions of the status quo is likewise critical.

With the Concert of Europe and the Congress system of Metternich dead by the late 19th century, there were no international institutions to anchor Germany.  China, by contrast, is a card-carrying member of the U.N. Security Council, the WTO, the IMF and World Bank, the G-20, G-2, and other institutions.  Furthermore, although China may still feel somewhat dissatisfied because Taiwan and other East Asian assets (such as oil reserves in the South China Sea) are not being handed to it on a silver platter, Chinese privileges in the world are being equated step-by-step with Chinese power.  The “peaceful rise” of the dragon is taking place, at least in part thanks to Western statecraft.

The parallel with Wilhelmine Germany is a nice one, but on one key parameter, China falls short of authoritarian Germany.  Germany of that era was a pluralist, if not a liberal, society.  There was the Reichstag, in which the Social Democratic opposition was well represented.  Sure, the Kaiser and his ministers were not beholden to the German parliament.  Yet the nascent democratic institutions were there, whereas Chinese communism has not provided such vehicles for democratic development.  Likewise, Bismarck had provided Germany of those days with the most progressive social security safety net in Europe, neutralizing in part the appeal of the left.  In China’s Workers’ Paradise, the social safety net is woefully inadequate.

A few months ago, observers worried that the global financial crisis could weaken the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power.  As long as the CCP delivered economic growth north of 8% a year, few questions were asked by the populace.  But this social contract was seen as at risk.  These days, observers are applauding the resilience of the Chinese economy at weathering the storm.  However, China’s recovery has been driven by a huge fiscal stimulus and a massive state-directed lending boom, which could lead to banking sector weakness in the future.  True, China is much less-leveraged than the US or almost any Western nation, so it has room to be a little profligate.  Nevertheless, an economic shock in China, followed by political turmoil, cannot be ruled out.  Note that China’s leaders told Beijingers earlier this month to stay home in their crowded apartments to watch the National Day Parade on television, instead of thronging over to the Forbidden City, which couldn’t have a more suggestive name.  Since 1989, popular protests are the nightmare of China’s leaders.

Turkey: the harder they come…

October 7, 2009
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan  Source: Google Images
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Source: Google Images

Sovereign risk in Turkey was once talked about in the same breath as Brazil’s.  Not so anymore.  One is going hat in hand to the IMF, likely to get $45 billion in the coming weeks; the other is largely self-financing.  What went wrong in Turkey?  Always keep your eye on the current account deficit, folks, even when Wall St. analysts tell you its nothing to worry about because it’s financed by FDI, or some such Bernanke-esque bunk.  Current account deficits mean borrowing from abroad.  And that means vulnerability.  Turkey went into the global crisis with a 5-6% current account deficit, while Brazil went in with small surpluses.  Keep your eye on America as well and its sovereign credit risk — current account deficits there have been nearly halved to 2-3% from 5-7% a couple of years ago, largely due to the US recession.  But the U.S. still can’t kick its foreign borrowing habit, Obama’s protectionism notwithstanding.  Likewise, watch out for “twin deficits.”  That’s when government deficits move in tandem with current account deficits (the former often driving the latter).  The US has these, as does Turkey (where government deficits are in the range of 5-7% of GDP, versus Brazil’s 3-4%).  Turkey’s overall government debt burden remains modest at under 50%, versus Brazil’s near-70%; however, Brazil’s government debt burden is headed down, while Turkey’s is rising.  Hence, Fitch moved Brazil up to investment grade not long ago, while Turkey languishes at BB-.  They both were BB- only a few years ago.  Sometimes the rating agencies get it right, even though it often takes them some time to do so.

So, the Turkish prime minister shows up hat in hand at the IMF’s doorstep, while President Lula’s Brazil is considered a rising power.  Have a look below at the CreditSuisse report from today on Turkey’s negotiations with the IMF.  Deputy Prime Minister Babacan, whom I met with in the past and perceive as smart and wily, is thankfully in charge of these negotations.

From CreditSuisse:

Turkey
Berna Bayazitoglu
+44 20 7883 3431
berna.bayazitoglu@credit-suisse.com
Prime Minister Erdogan denounced yesterday the claims in the local media that the IMF has offered a sizable financing package to the Turkish government which it cannot turn down. As we reported in the Emerging Markets Economics Daily yesterday, Erdogan told the Wall Street Journal on Monday (5 October) that the Turkish government has resolved one of the sticking points with the IMF, namely the IMF’s request for an independent tax revenue administration, and added that “he would like to see a new IMF program for Turkey agreed soon.” This was the most upbeat assessment that Erdogan has offered on the subject in a long while. Looking for an explanation for the change in Erdogan’s tone about an IMF agreement, the Turkish media claimed yesterday morning that the IMF might have offered a large financing package to Turkey (amounting to $45bn) which Erdogan cannot turn down. However, at a reception later in the day, Erdogan denounced local media stories that the IMF has made a new offer to Turkey.

Nevertheless, Erdogan’s statements in the Wall Street Journal add strength to the possibility that the government might invite an IMF mission to Turkey soon. As we noted in the Emerging Markets Economics Daily yesterday, speaking at various conferences in the last few days at the IMF/World Bank annual meetings in Istanbul and somewhat in contradiction to Erdogan’s statements in the Wall Street Journal, Deputy Prime Minister Babacan (who is the senior policymaker in charge of policy discussions with the IMF) had said that the discussions on the tax revenue administration and local governments’ spending were still continuing and that the IMF was studying the government’s medium-term economic plan and fiscal program.

The Statistics Office will release the industrial production data for August tomorrow. We forecast that industrial production was down 4.7% yoy in August, slowing from a contraction of 9.1% yoy in July. Our forecast is more optimistic than the consensus forecast (according to Bloomberg) of a 5.2% yoy contraction.