Archive for the ‘Financial crisis’ Category

China: Responsible economic policy

October 5, 2010

Higher prices for GI Joe? Source: Google Images

Very nice, short piece today from CSFB (below) on what China is doing to correct the global imbalances (i.e., to reduce its trade surpluses, which mirror US and other countries’ trade deficits) and to shift its economy to a healthier foundation based on domestic demand.  While President Obama gets pre-election press pressuring China’s prime minister to let his currency appreciate, and while Dems in Congress led by Chuck Schumer grandstand, threatening to raise tariffs on China before the election, the Chinese authorities have instituted large wage increases across the board.  As a result, the real value of the Chinese currency could appreciate sharply, even if the nominal value (the focus of American politicians) appreciates in baby steps.  Hopefully, Schumer, Obama and Co., and above all the angry voters they are courting, understand the economics: that wage inflation undermines the competitiveness of a country’s goods as much as does currency appreciation.  

In spite of President Obama’s tough talk (or because of it?), he appears to have received a boost from China’s prime minister, who lauded his administration’s economic policies, much-maligned these days by the Republicans (who have few ideas of their own).  But, what China bashers don’t realize, and CSFB points out, is that low inflation in the US (i.e. the affordability of America’s consumption binge) has been underpinned over the last 10-15 years by China’s low wages cum undervalued exchange rate, Sir Alan Greenspan’s claims to perfection notwithstanding.  From computers to home improvement, Chinese goods have been cheap.  We won’t be able to count on this any more.  With America still in a near-recessionary funk, we’re not worried about inflation, but that could change.  Enormous government budget deficits have been accommodated by a massive monetary stimulus.  Hence, inflation, and all the economic distortions implied, may be one of a slew of economic problems facing the world’s leading (though declining) power in the years to come. 

From CSFB today: 

In contrast to the exchange rate, wage rates among migrant workers have risen much more aggressively, and we believe that this marks the beginning of the end of China’s export empire. Among 31 provinces, 27 have raised the minimal salary by an average of 22% this year and the remaining four will introducing legislation for salary hikes later this year. We think the move has been pushed by Beijing as part of an effort to shift the economy from export-driven to domestic-consumption-driven. In a survey Credit Suisse conducted, 39% of CEOs from multinational corporations placed a wage increase as something about which they were “very worried” or “extremely worried,” versus 18% for exchange rate appreciation.

The key question to be answered is whether foreign direct investments will leave China or move to the inland provinces. We believe most will move inland rather than leave China. China’s domestic demand is a major attraction for FDI. Besides, China’s infrastructure and administrative efficiency probably will keep FDI coming, for now. However, we project 20%-30% salary increases at the migrant workers’ market every year over the next four years (at least). This would eventually erode China’s competitiveness and push up its export prices. Perhaps we have seen the best time for China as the anchor of global disinflation, though it may take more than a decade for China’s export machine to fall.

Dong Tao +852 2101 7469 dong.tao@credit-suisse.com

Christiaan Tuntono +852 2101 7409 christiaan.tuntono@credit-suisse.com

05 October 2010

The RMB exchange rate saw a surge in appreciation in recent days, but we doubt the trend will last long. The Chinese currency saw nine consecutive days of appreciation against the USD, amidst USD weakness and heightened pressure from the White House and the Capitol Hill. But to us, Beijing has, in fact, been pushing for real exchange rate appreciation through salary increases, much more aggressively than with the nominal exchange rate. With export orders softening and domestic salary surging, we project only marginal nominal appreciation, which is politically motivated. We look for USDRMB at 6.67 by end of 2010 and 6.35 by 2011.

USA: Lay off the president, man!

September 28, 2010

Coming from me, a defense of Barack Obama may surprise my readers.  That’s because they may not have read the fine print!  Some of his policies I haven’t exactly agreed with (principally, the expensive health care reform, which at a time of rapidly rising sovereign debt, was imprudent).  I reluctantly supported Obama for president in 2008 because he was the better of the two candidates.  Reluctant because we could have chosen a more experienced hand (read here), especially on economic policy. 

Nevertheless, the president has done an exceptional job in tough times.  He has been lucky both before and after the election, but, judging by the recent grilling from his erstwhile supporters, his luck may be running out. They even talk about Obama losing his mojo.  You can criticize Obama and the Democrats, for sure, but what is the alternative?  The only thing innovative in the Republican Party these days is the Tea Party, and I for one don’t want to be dumbed down by the likes of Sarah Palin and the former witch from Delaware (Christine O’Donnell). As for the more “mainstream” Republicans such as future Speaker Boehner, is the answer really more tax cuts at a time of skyrocketing government debt?

What really gets me about this country is the electorate’s emotional bipolarity.  First Obama is viewed as nearly Jesus Christ, now he’s a bum.  C’mon people!  C’mon Velma Hart!

I cringe at charisma.  The Obama-euphoria of the campaign trail scared me, as many of his supporters failed to think critically about the choice.  Instead they anointed a messianic figure and expected him to deliver paradise.  Obama fanned the flames of euphoria then and is now getting burned.  Today, even though the administration managed to sidestep a 1930s-style economic meltdown by rescuing the banks and providing a huge Keynesian stimulus, we hear from Velma and Company that they’re upset they don’t “feel it yet.”  Jon Stewart is “saddened.”  As I have said before, Americans are spoiled. Unlike citizens in emerging markets, accustomed to crisis, accustomed to lines outside of banks, Americans want it all.  Now they are mad at Obama for only achieving what is humanly possible. He has delivered far more than Bill Clinton did by this time in his administration, and is even delivering on the liberal agenda – for example, by appointing two very young, very liberal female lawyers to the Supreme Court.

Now he is branded as anti-business.  There were a pair of articles in The Economist on this (see below).  I noted in my blog during the 2008 election that it did not make sense to elect a man with no economic policy experience to pilot us through the economic storm, who, as a young man, quit a job as an economic analyst because he didn’t want to become a tool of corporate exploitation.  Two years later, people have noticed that his passion is not for business.  Well, lay off him now.  His policies are not particularly anti-business – this government has spent more bailing out corporations than any previous one.  Furthermore, he is in good company taking on corporate abuse.  Anyone remember Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting?  Finally, if we continue to harp on this anti-business thing, it will become self-fulfilling.  The Obama administration’s credibility growing the economy could be irreparably damaged, which will hurt us all.

It is human to fight the last war.  So, to avert a depression, the Obama administration took actions that were not taken in the thirties.  Yet our undoing will be something unforeseen, and in my view, this is likely to come on the fiscal side.  Government debt is around 90% of GDP and deficits are in the double digits.  With economic growth likely to remain sluggish (economists have declared a “new normal”), it is not far-fetched for the United States to be in a Greek-style sovereign default over the medium term if a road map to solvency is not charted soon.  There are as yet few signs of determination in this administration to deal with this problem (they appointed a panel), not least because of the recent turnover in the economic team.

What I don’t like about Obama is the spin.  Spin is less than truthful.  I know all politicians do it, especially the successful ones. But, Barack Obama ran as a change agent, a post-partisan, and he has been, is, and will probably always be an aggressive left-of-center partisan.  Centrists, such as Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, Norm Coleman, Ben Nelson, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, need not apply.  He admires Ronald Reagan and is his heir in terms of image-making.  Now he is going around the country discussing his Christian faith.  Good timing.  The other side does it too.  It is demoralizing for a centrist like me to hear John Boehner savage Obama’s economic policy record and Obama call Boehner’s Pledge to America irresponsible.  Where lies the truth?  Same thing happened on health care.  The problem is, partisanship wins elections. 

On foreign policy, Obama savaged Bush for adventurism and questionable methods in war.  Yet in office, he has ramped up the use of targeted assassinations, sometimes resulting in the deaths of innocents.  The end justifies the means, the saying goes.  As a candidate, he lashed out at David Petraeus for the “surge” in Iraq; now he has hired him to salvage his Afghan policy.  Yet Obama supporters don’t bat an eye, as they swing from indicting Bush for torture to arguing for the necessity of targeted assassinations.

I would like to see a stronger Republican Party.  The country would benefit from an energetic opposition.  Yet, by shifting toward the loony right, Republicans are squandering the opportunity to harness the country’s frustration.  This could work out in the end for Barack Obama.  Taking a page from the Big Dog’s script in 1994-96 — after the Democrats in Congress suffer a beating this year, Obama finds a “Dick Morris” to guide his policy rightward over the next two years.  The Party of No (GOP) nominates someone or other like Sarah Palin in 2012, and No Drama wangles himself another term.  The country could do worse.

From The Economist, September 23, 2010:

WINSTON CHURCHILL once moaned about the long, dishonourable tradition in politics that sees commerce as a cow to be milked or a dangerous tiger to be shot. Businesses are the generators of the wealth on which incomes, taxation and all else depends; “the strong horse that pulls the whole cart”, as Churchill put it. No sane leader of a country would want businesspeople to think that he was against them, especially at a time when confidence is essential for the recovery. From this perspective, Barack Obama already has a lot to answer for. A president who does so little to counter the idea that he dislikes business is, self-evidently, a worryingly negligent chief executive. No matter that other Western politicians have publicly played with populism more dangerously, from France’s “laissez-faire is dead” president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to Britain’s “capitalism kills competition” business secretary, Vince Cable (see article); no matter that talk on the American right about Mr Obama being a socialist is rot; no matter that Wall Street’s woes are largely of its own making. The evidence that American business thinks the president does not understand Main Street is mounting (see article). A Bloomberg survey this week found that three-quarters of American investors believe he is against business. The bedrock of the tea-party movement is angry small-business owners. The Economist has lost count of the number of prominent chief executives, many of them Democrats, who complain privately that the president does not understand their trade—that he treats them merely as adornments at photocalls and uses teleprompters to talk to them; that he shows scant interest in their views on which tax cuts would persuade them to hire people; that his team is woefully short of anyone who has had to meet a payroll (there are fewer businesspeople in this White House than in any recent administration); and that regulatory uncertainty is hampering their willingness to invest.
Ignorant but not antagonistic That Mr Obama has let it reach this stage is a worry. But negligence is not the same as opposition. True, he has some rhetorical form as an anti-business figure—unlike the previous Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, who could comfortably talk the talk of business. Mr Obama’s life story, as depicted in his autobiography and on the campaign, was one of a man once mired in the sinful private sector (at a company subsequently bought by The Economist), who redeemed himself only by becoming a community organiser; his wife had a similar trajectory. There are the endless digs at Wall Street and Big Pharma, not to mention the beating up of BP. He remains a supporter of “card check”, which would dispense with the need for secret ballots in establishing a trade union. His legislative agenda has centred on helping poorer individuals (the health-care bill, part of the stimulus bill) or reining in banks (the financial-reform bill). The only businesses he has rescued are the huge union-dominated General Motors and Chrysler. Against this, it could have been much worse, especially given the opprobrium that now dogs Wall Street. A president who truly wanted to wage war on business would have hung onto GM, not rushed to return it to the private sector. Card check has not been pushed. The finance bill, though bureaucratic, is not a Wall Street killer. With the exception of a China-bashing tyre tariff and a retreat on Mexican trucks, Mr Obama has eschewed protectionism. A lot of government cash has flowed to businesses, not least through the stimulus package. And above all his policies have helped pull the economy out of recession. So what should he do? The same leftist advisers who have led Mr Obama into his “anti-business” hole are doubtless telling him that it is just a matter of public relations: have a few tycoons to stay in the Lincoln bedroom; celebrate Main Street’s successes, rather than just whining about bonuses; perhaps invite a chief executive to replace Larry Summers, the academic who announced this week that he was standing down as the president’s main economic adviser. Well, maybe. But once again this is advice from people who have never run a business. The main thing that is hurting business is uncertainty. Mr Obama was right to tackle big subjects like health care and Wall Street, but too often the details were left to others. Why, for instance, should a small American firm hire more people when it still does not know the regulations on health care, especially when going above 50 workers will make it liable to insurance premiums or fines? Fiscal policy is even more uncertain, thanks to Mr Obama’s refusal to produce a credible plan to rein in the deficit. Why should any entrepreneur plough money into a new factory when he has no idea what taxes he will eventually be asked to pay? These are questions that business needs answering in a businesslike way—and so does America. Otherwise the horse will not pull the cart.

China: the price of directed lending

September 21, 2010
China: How long can that heart rate stay elevated?  Source: Google Images
China: How long can that heart rate stay so elevated? Source: Google Images

China is an economically successful country.  Growth rates of 8-11% per year.  Fx reserves north of $2.4 trillion, closing in on 20% of US GDP.  Investment rates that represent 40-50% of GDP (vs. 15-20% in the US).  Private credit growth of 32.5% last year, vs. 5.6% in the U.S.   A Human Development Index that now stands at 49.7, vs. 26.5 in India, and per capita income (PPP basis) that is twice as large as India’s.  Can China keep this up?

I have long said in this blog that China is not strictly comparable to Western market economies, where governments use market signals such as interest rates to nudge the massive private sector in a certain direction.  In China the central government directs banks to lend and pushes local governments to invest.  Not to scoff at the stimulus packages in Western countries — featuring government spending and liquidity injections, but in China, when the authorities mandate a stimulus, they sure get one.   The lead lining in the silver cloud, however, is that when loans and investment projects “season” in China, sizeable loan losses and fiscal liabilities can result.  This is just what rating agency Fitch argued at a conference in Shanghai and Beijing last week (see press release below).   

China has the wherewithal to handle some deterioration in its banks and sovereign balance sheet, given its low level of government debt (under a quarter of GDP), small deficits (under 3% of GDP), and full inoculation against a balance of payments crisis (featuring its Chinese wall of fx reserves and current account surpluses in the neighborhood of 5-10% of GDP).  Nevertheless, with a massive banking sector (broad money represents over 180% of GDP) and heavy state involvement in the sector, banking problems could conceivably become sovereign debt problems.  Fitch assigns China a Banking System Risk Indicator of D/3 (vs. C/3 in the US and B/1 in Canada).  This statistic ranks countries based on the quality of their banks (A-E, E being the lowest) and on systemic banking risk (1-3, 3 being the highest risk).  So, directed lending and stratospheric credit growth have a dark side. 

Furthermore, as Fitch suggests, China, like Japan, will have to shift to an economy driven more by its consumers and less by external demand (i.e. exports) in order to respond to angry trading partners like the U.S. and to have a more sustainable trajectory of economic growth.  Such a shift will be even more difficult with problems in the banking system and higher government debt.

Fitch: China’s Ratings Supported By Strong Sovereign Finances, But Possible Stimulus ‘Hangover’
17 Sep 2010 2:01 AM (EDT)


Fitch Ratings-Beijing/Singapore-17 September 2010: Fitch Ratings says China’s ratings remain supported by the sovereign’s strong finances, underpinned by the foreign reserves stockpile, and by the economy’s strong growth track record. However, the agency raises concerns over a potential ”hangover” from the government’s aggressive stimulus efforts in 2009, including strong credit growth, which could still see the emergence of problems requiring sovereign support to clear up, for example in the banking system. The hesitant recovery of the global economy remains a background source of risk for China.

Leading off Fitch’s annual Sovereign and Banking Conference in Shanghai and Beijing this week, Andrew Colquhoun, Head of Asia-Pacific Sovereigns, reviewed China’s robust economic performance through the global crisis. China’s strong growth owes much to the government’s stimulus efforts, but Mr. Colquhoun noted that some of the costs of the stimulus may be yet to materialise on the sovereign’s balance sheet, such as debts of local government investment companies and, in a downside case where banking sector problems emerge, holes in bank balance sheets. Mr. Colquhoun also discussed the longer-term prospects for a transition to a more consumption-led growth model in China in the context of a still-hesitant global economic recovery – potentially a bumpy transition.

Speaking on the prospects for Asia-Pacific banks, Jonathan Cornish, Head of Fitch’s North Asia Financial Institutions team says the agency sees risks building in banking systems across the region, particularly in China due to rapid asset growth – even though Asian banking systems have generally proved resilient during the global financial crisis, and have in general continued to benefit from a relatively benign operating environment as a result of the robust performance of many Asian economies.

Charlene Chu, Fitch’s Senior Director of Financial Institutions, provided an update of Chinese regulators’ efforts to curb the risks surrounding the growing popularity of informal securitisation, or the re-packaging of loans into wealth management and/or trust products, by Chinese banks. Ms. Chu was one of the earliest analysts to raise awareness about informal securitisation in China. She said that despite the recent tightening in regulations, net issuance of some wealth management and trust products has not slowed thus far in Q3, owing to a number of grey areas in the new rules that offer banks significant room to maneuver with this activity.

Li Zhenyu, director of financial institutions and structured finance at Lianhe Ratings, Fitch’s JV partner in China, also discussed the evolution of formal asset securitisation in China.

Contacts:

Andrew Colquhoun
+852 2263 9938
andrew.colquhoun@fitchratings.com

Jonathan Cornish
+852 2263 9901
jonathan.cornish@fitchratings

Charlene Chu
+86 10 8567 9898 ext 112
charlene.chu@fitchratings.com

Latin America: Economist Special Report

September 19, 2010
Latin America: anti-inflation consensus and strong fx reserves  Source: vivirlatinamerica.com
Latin America: anti-inflation consensus and strong fx reserves Source: vivirlatino.com

The Economist’s lengthy Special Report on Latin America last week is worth a read (see leader below), even though it failed to emphasize and adequately explain two critical causes of the region’s recent success — 1) the consensus among Latin American politicians that conquering inflation has benefitted the poor and strengthened democracy; and 2) the massive build-up in fx reserves that has insulated the region from the global crisis, driven in part by healthy macro policies.  These issues were mentioned in passing by The Economist, but not given the focus deserved.  On the other hand, the longer articles in the Report on education, the informal economy and productivity were rich in detail and deserve a read. 

Latin America’s performance during the global economic crisis that began in 2008 was notable for the fact that the recession there was mild and the subsequent rebound robust.  One used to say that when the United States sneezed, Latin America caught the flu, but this time, the region has been inoculated against the contagion that has spread throughout the advanced economies.  In the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s, when economic shocks occurred in the advanced economies — including rising interest rates and lower prices for commodities and financial assets, this led to fiscal and balance of payments crises in Latin America, and often near or outright sovereign defaults (a la Greece).  This time, the Latins were ready.  The reason — strong fx reserves immunizing them from shifts in international capital flows.  How did they achieve this Gibraltar of reserves?  Through higher demand for their commodities from China and others, to be sure, but also through sound macro policies — floating exchange rates, an inflation-targeting monetary policy, and at least some fiscal restraint.  These policies have ensured that the balance of payments (the supply and demand of foreign exchange) adjusts to shocks, thereby bolstering investor confidence, which in turn limits capital flight during a crisis.  It’s a completely new ball game for most Latin countries.  Let’s hope they don’t let the weakest of these pillars — the commitment to fiscal prudence — slip, or they risk a return to the bad old days of boom and bust, especially when commodity prices inevitably weaken.

The Economist likewise points to Latin America’s strengthening democratic institutions as providing the political stability required to promote growth.  No argument there, but I would give a lot of credit for this to the taming of the inflation monster in the region.  After years of hyperinflation, driven by fiscal deficits and monetary accommodation, Latins broke the cycle in the nineties.  When leftists subsequently came to power, the fear of a fiscally-induced return to inflation rocked the capital markets.  President Lula was a case in point (see my post on the matter).  During his election to a first term in 2002, the bond markets sold off to default spreads, but recovered early in his tenure when they realized that this leftist, former union leader, imprisoned by Brazil’s military regime in the 1970s, retained much of his predecessor’s macro policies.  He did so because he understood that his constituency, the poor, had been hurt by inflation more than any other segment in society.  You see, the poor cannot index to inflation.  The understanding of this dynamic has led to a broad consensus in Latin society on economic policy, even when political institutions are weak and ineffectual, as in Peru and Mexico and to some extent in Brazil.  Deeper reforms that would underpin improvements in productivity, education, and the state bureaucracy remain elusive.  However, the three key pillars to macroeconomic stability (and to the political consensus) — again, flexible exchange rates, inflation targeting and fiscal prudence — remain largely in place.  With GDP growth averaging 5.5% per year in the five years to 2008, the impetus to reform is currently lacking.  See my in-depth analysis of Latin democracy here in Scherblog, written during the region’s last major election cycle (2005-07), when I discussed the delicate balance between populism and reform.   

As  a long-time Latam hand (I managed Fitch’s Latin American Sovereign Ratings group for seven years), I believe more emphasis than you will find in The Economist Special Report should be paid to the region’s 1) anti-inflation consensus, and 2) victory over the rollercoaster of balance of payments crises.   Have a read in any case…

Leader on Latin America from The Economist (Sept. 11-17):

The United States and Latin America

Nobody’s backyard

Latin America’s new promise—and the need for a new attitude north of the Rio Grande

Sep 9th 2010

THIS year marks the 200th anniversary of the start of Latin America’s struggle for political independence against the Spanish crown. Outsiders might be forgiven for concluding that there is not much to celebrate. In Mexico, which marks its bicentennial next week, drug gangs have met a government crackdown with mayhem on a scale not seen since the country’s revolution of a century ago. The recent discovery of the corpses of 72 would-be migrants, some from as far south as Brazil, in a barn in northern Mexico not only marked a new low in the violence. It was also a reminder that some Latin Americans are still so frustrated by the lack of opportunity in their own countries that they run terrible risks in search of that elusive American dream north of the border.

Democracy may have replaced the dictators of old—everywhere except in the Castros’ Cuba—but other Latin American vices such as corruption and injustice seem as entrenched as ever. And so do caudillos: in Venezuela Hugo Chávez, having squandered a vast oil windfall, is trying to bully his way to an ugly victory in a legislative election later this month.

Yet look beyond the headlines, and, as our special report shows, something remarkable is happening in Latin America. In the five years to 2008 the region’s economies grew at an annual average rate of 5.5%, while inflation was in single digits. The financial crisis briefly interrupted this growth, but it was the first in living memory in which Latin America was an innocent bystander, not a protagonist. This year the region’s economy will again expand by more than 5%. Economic growth is going hand in hand with social progress. Tens of millions of Latin Americans have climbed out of poverty and joined a swelling lower-middle class. Although income distribution remains more unequal than anywhere else in the world, it is at least getting less so in most countries. While Latin American squabbling politicians blather on about integration, the region’s businesses are quietly getting on with the job—witness the emerging cohort of multilatinas.

As they face difficulties in an increasingly truculent China, no wonder multinationals from the rich world are starting to look at Latin America with fresh interest. Sir Martin Sorrell, a British adman, talks of the dawn of a “Latin American decade”. Brazil, the region’s powerhouse, is the cause of much of the excitement. But Chile, Colombia and Peru are growing as handsomely and even Mexican society is forging ahead, despite the drug violence and the deeper recession visited on it by its ties to the more sickly economy in the United States.

Two things lie behind Latin America’s renaissance. The first is the appetite of China and India for the raw materials with which the continent is richly endowed. But the second is the improvement in economic management that has brought stability to a region long hobbled by inflation and has fostered a rapid, and so far sustainable, expansion of credit from well-regulated banking systems. Between them, these two things have created a virtuous circle in which rising exports are balanced by a growing domestic market. Because they were more fiscally responsible during the past boom than in previous ones, governments were able to afford stimulus measures during the recession. There is a lesson here for southern Europe: Latin America reacted to its sovereign-debt crisis of the 1980s with radical reform, which eventually paid off.


The danger of complacency

Much has been done; but there is much still to do. Building on this success demands new thinking, both within Latin America and north of the Rio Grande.

The danger for Latin America is complacency. Compared with much of Asia, Latin America continues to suffer from self-inflicted handicaps: except in farming, productivity is growing more slowly than elsewhere. The region neither saves and invests sufficiently, nor educates and innovates enough. Thanks largely to baroque regulation, half the labour force toils in the informal economy, unable to reap the productivity gains that come from technology and greater scale.

Fixing these problems requires Latin America’s political leaders to rediscover an appetite for reform. Democracy has brought a welcome improvement in social policy: governments are spending on the previously neglected poor, partly through conditional cash-transfer schemes, a pioneering Latin American initiative. But more needs to be done, especially to improve schools and health care, if everyone is to have the chance to get ahead. Also needed is a grand bargain to tackle the informal economy, in which labour-market reform is linked to a stronger social safety-net. And, even if some things like infrastructure and research and development plainly need more government spending, the worry is that triumphalism over escaping the financial crisis may prompt a return to a bigger, more old-fashioned state role in the economy—despite the failure of these policies in the region in the past.

Getting these things right will be easier if relations with the United States improve. Latin America needs to shed its old chippiness, manifest in Mr Chávez’s obsession with being in the hated yanqui’s “backyard”. More sensible powers, notably Brazil, should be much louder opponents of this nonsense. As they start to pull their weight on the world stage, working with the United States will become ever more important.

The attitude of the United States needs to change too. Worries about crime and migration—symbolised by the wall it is building across its southern border—are leading it to focus on the risks in its relationship with the neighbours more than on the opportunities. This is both odd, given that Latinos are already the second-largest ethnic group north of the border (see article), and self-defeating: the more open the United States is towards Latin America, the greater the chances of creating the prosperity which in the end is the best protection against conflict and disorder. After two centuries of lagging behind, the southern and central parts of the Americas are at last fulfilling their potential. To help cement that success, their northern cousins should build bridges, not walls.

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.

Couples therapy: China and the U.S.

June 16, 2010
Nixon & Mao: Mutual dependence goes back a long way.   Source: www.china-profile.com
Nixon & Mao: Mutual dependence goes back a long way. Source: http://www.china-profile.com

I have long said in my China posts that China does not have a lot of options right now besides buying US treasuries.  The AP article below describes how China has increased its purchases of US debt in recent months.  If you are going to hold your currency undervalued in order to run massive current account surpluses and amass fx reserves — because you were spooked by how the likes of Korea, Indonesia and Thailand were brought to their knees with low fx reserves in the 1998 Asian Crisis — then you will have to invest your massive fx reserves somewhere.  The dollar is a logical choice because of trade, deep US markets and the dollar’s reserve currency status. 

Since the beginning of the Great Recession of 2008-09, many observers warned that Chinese fx reserves could be shifted suddenly to other currencies, perhaps the euro and the yen.  Even before the sovereign debt crisis in Europe unfolded earlier this year, I suggested that euro assets did not look so great — given the slow-growth, sclerotic economies in the euro zone.  The same goes for yen assets, given that Japan has barely grown in the last twenty years.   Other emerging market economies (Brazil, India) are growing smartly, but they have small asset markets, compared to the depth and variety of markets in developed countries.  Ben Bernanke used to argue before the Great Recession that capital floods the US market and causes, rather than finances, US current account deficits.  This is because the return on US assets — driven by robust US output growth — is better here than elsewhere.  Now, with the euro crisis in full swing and Japan still stagnant, his argument has some appeal again.  It is still specious because it gets US households with their abysmal savings record off the hook, and it gets Bush and his irresponsible tax cuts off the hook as well.  The latter got Bernanke appointed to the Fed, so was all in a day’s work.

Is there a problem with all this foreign investment in US assets?  Yes.  The US must reduce its imbalances with the rest of the world in order to avoid the financial havoc that a massive dumping of dollar assets in the future could wreak.  We’re okay now because dollar holders have few options and the rest of the world looks a bit dodgy.  But foreign holdings are large.  Foreign holdings of US treasuries represent 28% of US GDP, with China holding 23% of this and Japan coming in second with 20%.  The US government is in hock to East Asia.  

Another nettlesome problem of this foreign appetite for the relative safety of US treasuries is that it keeps interest rates low in America, putting less pressure on Barack Obama & Co. to come up with a medium-term fiscal consolidation plan.  They’re still talking about another fiscal stimulus.  US government debt is set to rise above 90% of GDP next year and deficits will hover near 10% this year and next.  Government debt is often measured relative to GDP, but a better measure is debt relative to government revenues; this is because governments after all must service debt with revenues.  US government debt to revenues last year was 300%, higher than just about any other investment grade country in the world, with the notable exceptions of Japan and India.  (Debt by this measure was likewise higher than in such euro-crisis countries as Greece and Italy.)  So, the US has a fiscal migraine, while the Obama administration fiddles.  The Economist last week said this about Obama: “…he has done little to fix the deficit, shown a zeal for big government and all too often given the impression that capitalism is something unpleasant he found on the sole of his sneaker.”  Scrape that off your sneaker, tell OMB Director Peter Orszag to zip up his pants, and get to work!

And let’s be glad the Chinese are still buying, but not get too cozy in the knowledge of the same…

Image above: Nixon and Mao: Mutual dependence goes back a long way.  Source:  http://www.china-profile.com

From AP:

China and other countries buy US Treasury debt

China boosts holdings of US Treasury debt by $5 billion, second consecutive monthly gain

ap

Martin Crutsinger, AP Economics Writer, On Tuesday June 15, 2010, 11:38 am EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — China boosted its holdings of U.S. Treasury debt in April for the second straight month as total foreign holdings of U.S. government debt increased.

China’s holdings of U.S. Treasury securities rose by $5 billion to $900.2 billion in April, the Treasury Department said Tuesday. Total foreign holdings rose by $72.8 billion to $3.96 trillion.

The sizable gains are being driven by fears that Greece and other European governments could default on their debt. Worries over possible defaults have sparked a flight to safety and that has benefited U.S. Treasury securities. Treasurys are considered the world’s safest investment — the U.S. government has never defaulted on its debt.

The April increases eased concerns that lagging foreign demand will force the U.S. government to pay higher interest rates to finance its debt with private economists forecasting strong gains in May as well because of the debt crisis.

“We will state the obvious that flight to safety will most likely continue to favor the United States in the second quarter,” said Win Thin, senior currency strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. in New York. “Given that the European crisis intensified in May, we would expert further large-scale inflows.”

Gregory Daco, U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, said that demand for U.S. debt was also being helped by the fact that the profit outlook for many U.S. companies is bright and the U.S. economy is forecast to grow at a stronger pace this year than Europe.

China is the largest foreign holder of Treasury securities. The monthly gains in March and April came after six consecutive months when China was either reducing its U.S. holdings or keeping them constant. The stretch raised concerns that China might shift money away from Treasury securities.

The 1.9 percent rise in total holdings of U.S. debt in April followed an even bigger 3.5 percent increase in March.

The Treasury reported that net purchases of long-term securities, covering U.S. government debt and the debt of U.S. companies, increased by $83 billion in April. That follows a record monthly gain of $140.5 billion in March.

The higher interest in U.S. bonds has helped push interest rates lower. It’s a welcome development for the government, which faces the task of financing record federal budget deficits. The federal deficit hit an all-time high of $1.4 trillion last year. It is expected to remain above $1 trillion this year and in 2011 as well.

Japan, the No. 2 foreign holder of Treasury securities, also increased its holdings in April. It boosted them by $10.6 billion to $795.5 billion.

Other countries registering gains in their holdings in April were the United Kingdom and various oil exporting nations.

Is there a Yuan bloc in Asia?

June 8, 2010
Asian currencies tracking China's yuan?  Source:  Google Images
Asian currencies tracking China’s yuan? Source: Google Images

Interesting Economist article (below) discussing whether other Asian currencies — the Korean won, Thai Baht, Singapore dollar, Malaysian Ringgit, New Taiwan dollar, Vietnamese dong, Indian rupee, Indonesian rupiah — track the Chinese yuan in order to maintain competitiveness in US markets relative to China as well as access to the Chinese market.  There have been a number of econometric studies on the matter.  The bottom line is that many Asian currencies, like the Chinese yuan, track the US dollar closely — some call it Bretton Woods II — though the correlation has declined since the economic crisis, as the US economy and US monetary policy have been going through anomalous conditions.  Tying strictly to the US dollar right now might mean some unwanted inflation in accelerating Asian economies.  Still, China’s currency remains essentially fixed to the dollar.  Ultimately, a revaluation of the Chinese yuan, and its Asian brethren, is needed to address the current account imbalances that persist and threaten global economic stability.  The euro crisis has, however, thrown a wrench into that adjustment, leading to some safe haven capital flows into the US dollar, just when the greenback needs to decline in an orderly fashion.

 From the Economist on-line:

 Asian currencies

Chips off the block

Currencies around Asia are more flexible than you think

Jun 3rd 2010 | HONG KONG | From The Economist print edition

AMID all the diplomatic ding-dong over China’s yuan, it is easy to lose sight of emerging Asia’s other currencies. There is not much din over the dong, for example. While China has kept the yuan pegged to the dollar since July 2008, ignoring complaints that it is artificially cheap, Vietnam’s currency, the dong, has depreciated by 13% against the greenback over the same period, unremarked and unprotested. South Korea and Taiwan, the only countries besides China ever to be labelled currency manipulators by America’s Treasury, have seen their currencies cheapen by 17% and 6% respectively.

China’s critics justify their preoccupation by invoking a “yuan block”. China’s neighbours and rivals are reluctant to allow their currencies to rise too far against the yuan, for fear of losing China as a customer, or losing out to it as a competitor. Thus although China accounts for only 19% of America’s imports, its peg, it is argued, frustrates a broader realignment of currencies in the region.

Does such a yuan block exist? For over a decade before July 2005, it was impossible to say. Since the yuan did not move independently of the dollar, it was hard to know if China’s neighbours were in thrall to its currency or America’s. But for the following three years, China allowed the yuan to crawl slowly upwards against the dollar. A 2007 study by Chang Shu, Nathan Chow and Jun-Yu Chan at the Hong Kong Monetary Authority took advantage of this interlude to measure the influence of China’s yuan on other regional currencies.

Using a method popularised by Jeffrey Frankel of Harvard University and Shang-Jin Wei of Columbia, they looked at the fluctuations of Asian currencies against the Swiss franc. Insofar as the Thai baht and the dollar mirrored each other’s moves against the Swiss currency, the authors could conclude that the baht was under the dollar’s spell. But if the baht and the yuan strengthened against the franc when the dollar did not, they could identify the separate pull of China’s currency.

That pull was strongest on the Korean won, Thai baht, New Taiwan dollar and Singapore dollar. But it also seemed to reach as far as the Indonesian rupiah and even the Indian rupee. The economists’ results suggested that if the yuan were to appreciate by 1%, independently of the greenback, the Singapore dollar, New Taiwan dollar and the Thai baht would rise by 0.58%-0.68% in sympathy. The Korean won would strengthen one for one.

Since July 2008 the yuan has not moved an inch against the dollar. Does that mean that other members of the yuan block have also stood still? Hardly. Malaysia untethered its currency from the dollar one day after China in July 2005. But unlike China it did not retether it during the crisis. The ringgit fell by 15% from April 2008 to March 2009, before regaining much of that ground over the next 14 months. The won’s wobbles have been even greater. It lost 40% of its value from February 2008 to March 2009, and remains 25% below its pre-crisis peak.

Most of emerging Asia’s currencies strengthened against the dollar this spring. The ringgit rose by 8% from February to May, after Malaysia’s independent-minded central bank raised interest rates in March and again on May 10th. In April Singapore’s Monetary Authority said it would allow a “gradual and modest” appreciation of its currency. But since the debt crisis in Greece unnerved investors, these currencies have mostly lost value again.

This block isn’t scared any more

The flexibility shown by Asia’s currencies is noteworthy, even if most of their flexing has been downwards. Economists used to accuse the region of a “fear of floating”. In 2003 Michael Dooley of the University of California, Santa Cruz, with David Folkerts-Landau and Peter Garber of Deutsche Bank argued that a de facto dollar standard prevailed in much of the region, akin to the “Bretton Woods” regime of fixed dollar parities that emerged after the second world war. But a paper published on May 19th by Ila Patnaik and her colleagues at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in Delhi documents a gradual thinning out of the Bretton Woods II regime.

They use a similar method to Messrs Frankel and Wei to show how closely Asia’s currencies track the dollar, euro, yen and pound. They give each country a Bretton Woods II score, based on the rigidity of its currency, especially relative to the dollar. In 2003 the average score in Asia was about 0.85 (a score of one represents a hard peg to the dollar). But the score has since dropped steadily to 0.75.

The new flexibility should stand Asia’s economies in good stead. Their ties to the dollar once guaranteed stable prices at home, as well as competitive exports abroad. But America’s monetary policy, suited to an economy with flat prices and high unemployment, is too loose for a region now growing so rapidly. As Asia’s recovery outstrips America’s, the region’s central banks will have to raise interest rates, as Malaysia, Vietnam and India have already done. Their currencies will appreciate as a result.

This appreciation will be easier to stomach if the yuan also strengthens. But China’s neighbours should not wait for this to happen. Even members of the so-called yuan block should not let the yuan block their progress.

Hotspots for sovereign credit risk: Fitch report

June 1, 2010
What Greece needs is a thunderbolt from Zeus, not a bailout from Frankfurt.  Source: http://jermination.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/greek_gods400.jpg
What Greece needs is a thunderbolt from Zeus, not a bailout from Frankfurt. Source: http://jermination.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/greek_gods400.jpg

 

Like a thunderbolt from Zeus, financial markets are struck by the perils of a sovereign debt default.  In financial crises, markets and policy makers fight the last war.  In the Great Depression, countries made the mistake of balancing budgets instead of offering a Keynesian stimulus; in today’s crisis, they are spending like crazy by issuing debt (like crazy).  Sovereign balance sheets are in a woeful state. 

Fitch Ratings explains what is going on in Greece, what countries like the US must do to keep their AAA ratings, and what Latin America’s outlook is.  Fitch delivered its annual Sovereign Hot Spots seminar, which I used to run in New York.  Read the summary below and access the powerpoint presentations and the video of the conference to bone up on sovereign credit risk, which preoccupies global markets these days, as it well should.

Fitch belatedly downgraded Mexico, which lacks a dynamic economy and resists reforms to the oil sector and taxes that could improve creditworthiness.  These factors have long been at play in Mexico.  In addition, Fitch highlights Mexico’s dependence on the US market, as opposed to peer countries such as Brazil that export increasingly to China.  This factor is discussed as a weakness for Mexico these days, whereas for years it was alluded to as a strength.  (Who better to export to than the US, went the argument.) On the other hand, Brazil’s ratings are being held down because of its woeful fiscal accounts, in spite of its strong external balance sheet (which Mexico lacks).  I won’t quibble with the importance of public finances to sovereign creditworthiness; I will just point out that time and time again, analysts have let sovereigns off the hook that had strong public finances and weak external finances (e.g. Asia crisis countries and some countries today in Eastern Europe).  This has caused lots of Wall Street analysts to get it badly wrong in the past. (Did they call the 1998 Asia crisis or the problems Eastern Europe is currently having? No.)  Brazil has the reverse profile — strong fx reserves and weakening (though not fragile) public finances.  By penalizing Brazil too much for Lula’s loosening of the fiscal purse, analysts may miss the boat on Brazil (or may already have).

Finally, it might not be enough to say, as Fitch does, that AAA countries remain AAA because of their financial flexibility, but must find an “exit strategy” from all the rising debt over the medium term, as the US and others sure need to do.  This is ratings stickiness again, folks.  Rating agencies have a difficult time adjusting their ratings because it suggests their analysts might be wrong.  Maybe some AAA countries should have already lost their stellar ratings.  Economists are always good at finding powerful intellectual arguments to explain their current positions — remember Alan Greenspan before Congress on low interest rates.  Have a read of the Fitch summary below — it is chock full of good sovereign credit analysis. 

From Fitch:

“Sovereign Hotspots: Diverging Trends” began Tuesday, 2 March, with a conference in New York discussing the divergence of fiscal prospects between high-grade advanced economies and emerging markets. The conference focused on recent credit pressures and bond market volatility in Europe, as well as credit trends in Latin America. Additionally, Fitch distributed a press release commenting on Chile’s sovereign ratings following the country’s catastrophic earthquake and aftershocks. The event concluded with an analyst panel providing more details on specific countries in Latin America and an investor panel debating recent developments and prospects for the global economy and emerging markets in particular.

 
Below are some highlights of the conference, followed by links to each presentation. If you would like to hear a replay of the event, please click here. For information on next week’s events in London, Frankfurt and Paris, which will include presentations on Emerging Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, please click on www.fitchratings.com/events or contact Katie Donnelly at 1-212-908-0828.
New York Conference Highlights:
 
High Grade and Euro Area Sovereign Risk      
Diverging Trends – ‘Advanced’ and ‘Emerging Market’ Sovereigns

Emerging markets (EM) have weathered the global economic and financial crisis relatively well due to their generally strong balance sheets.  Foreign exchange reserves for EM excluding China have shown a strong recovery since February 2009 and are now near pre-crisis levels.  In addition, lower public debt ratios, combined with less sensitive tax bases have led to more solid fiscal positions in EM relative to developed markets (DM).  Over the next two years, Fitch foresees a continued divergence in public debt paths, with government debt/GDP declining in EM and increasing in DM.
 
High Grade Sovereigns and the Meaning of ‘AAA’

Countries with high financing flexibility are better positioned to withstand economic/financial shocks than countries that are less flexible in terms of funding, with financing flexibility largely depending on the size of the economy (i.e., the amount of real & financial assets to absorb sovereign liabilities) and the depth of demand for a country’s currency (reserve currency status implies strong underlying demand for assets in that currency).  However, while high-grade sovereigns have the capacity to maintain solvency and the cost of debt service is still below mid-1990s levels, Fitch views these sovereigns’ fiscal exit strategies as key to their ratings outlook, with the urgency among the larger AAA-rated countries being greatest for the UK, Spain and France. 
 
Greece and the Euro Area

With Greece’s greatest problem being its non-credible statistics and poor track-record, Greece needs to bolster credibility and investor confidence in the long-term solvency of the state in order to gain market access at an ‘affordable’ price. At present, the EU is playing a game of “constructive ambiguity” aimed at stabilizing markets and reducing liquidity risk while putting additional pressure on Greece to restore fiscal discipline.  However, it should be noted that at this stage it is not clear that contagion risk is that severe, as so far spread widening has been ‘rational’, focusing on large deficit countries.
 
 
View full presentation
            
Latin America Overview

Although the average rating continues to be higher for Emerging Europe than for Latin America, the change in the average regional rating has been much better for the latter, with five positive rating actions taking place since July 2009.   Thus, while Latin America has been a mixed bag, with the number of negative rating actions exceeding the number of positive rating actions since the onset of the crisis, the region has generally been quite resilient to the global economic storm.  After an estimated 3% decline in GDP in 2009, Fitch anticipates overall GDP to grow by 4% in 2010, aided by supportive monetary and fiscal policies, a renewed credit cycle and stronger domestic demand (particularly in Brazil, Chile, Panama and Peru), as unemployment rates (which rose only modestly during the crisis) are declining, real wages are recovering and consumer confidence is increasing across the board.  In addition, both domestic and foreign direct investments are expected to rebound, general government debt is anticipated to stabilize and current accounts to remain resilient in 2010, with further accumulation of international reserves taking place.

Nonetheless, Latin America still faces important challenges as it copes with a sluggish global economic recovery as well as significant budgetary rigidity, which may hinder fiscal consolidation.  Additional challenges for the region include sustaining prudent policies through a sluggish recovery and avoiding election-related market uncertainty as presidential elections approach in Colombia (May 2010), Brazil (Oct 2010), Peru (Apr 2011), Guatemala (Aug 2011) and Argentina (Oct 2011).  Thus, while Latin America’s economy will rebound in 2010, the pace of the recovery will differ across countries and growth will still be below the rates observed in 2006-2007.  Since Fitch is currently not seeing a strong reform momentum throughout the region, sovereign creditworthiness trends are likely to remain stable to slightly positive.
 
Mexico: Explaining the Downgrade

Mexico was downgraded to ‘BBB’ with Stable Outlook in November 2009 primarily for structural reasons, including its low non-oil tax base and high oil dependence, combined with uncertain oil prospects (in fact, oil production has been declining in recent years despite an increase in capex, indicating the need for further reforms at Pemex).  In addition, the 2009 tax package, while in the right direction was insufficient, demonstrating the reluctance of political parties to come together to implement major fiscal reforms to improve tax revenues.  Other factors that led to the downgrade include a relatively modest fiscal buffer (the commodity stabilization fund is small compared with Chile’s, Russia’s and Kazakhstan’s), a limited external cushion (i.e., a weak international liquidity ratio compared with ‘BBB’ peers) and Mexico’s historical growth performance, which has been lagging that of its peers.  While Peru, Chile and Brazil have increased their trade links with China and reduced their ties with the US, Mexico still exports over 70% of its products to its North American neighbor.  As a result, the sluggish rebound of the US economy will continue to constrain Mexico’s growth in 2010.  Factors that led Fitch to change its Outlook on Mexico from Negative to Stable include the country’s well capitalized banking system and low balance of payment risk, as well as its track record of disciplined macroeconomic policies, its smooth external debt profile and its demonstrated ability to tap international markets under difficult external conditions.
 
Brazil: Beyond the Economic Resilience

Investor confidence towards Brazil is supported by the country’s strong external balance sheet, its robust external solvency ratios (Brazil has long been a net external creditor) and the healthy economic rebound anticipated for 2010, with the expected 5.5% growth in GDP being the strongest in Latin America and only behind India’s and China’s.  However, Fitch has not taken a positive rating action as the agency considers that Brazil’s resilience is already captured in its current ratings to a certain degree and that its stronger external balance sheet has been at a fiscal cost.  In fact, the deterioration in public finances and high government debt burden due to double-digit current spending and significant budget rigidity are dampening the country’s upward credit trajectory.  Moreover, Brazil’s domestic debt composition needs to improve further, as a large proportion of its debt is still contracted at floating rates and 2010 maturities are on the higher side when compared to those of its peers.  Finally, with 2010 being an election year, needed reforms are likely to stall until the next administration takes over.  Fitch will observe how the next administration will handle challenges such as the realization of expenditure reforms, the definition of BNDES’ role and the simplification of the tax system, as well as the management of oil sector development given recent discoveries, among other things.
  
 
View full presentation 
 
The presentations will be available free of charge for three months. If you have problems accessing these presentations or for more information, please email Frank Laurents at frank.laurents@fitchratings.com, or telephone +1 212-908-9127.

Additional information can be found on the Fitch Ratings website, www.fitchratings.com.

If you know others who would like to receive this e-mail, please forward this to a colleague.

Image: What Greece needs is a thunderbolt from Zeus, not a bailout from Frankfurt. Source: http://jermination.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/greek_gods400.jpg

(from a blog post of March 5, 2010.)

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!