Category Archives: Euro area debt crisis

5/1/16: Debt Pile: Advanced Economies Lead

After some 8 years of crisis and post-crisis deleveraging, one would have expected a significant progress to be achieved in terms of reducing the overall debt piles carried by the world’s most indebted economies.

Alas, the case cannot be made for such improvements. Here is a chart based on the latest BIS data (through 1Q 2015) plotting the distribution of total real economic debt (Government, private non-financial corporates and households) across the main economies:

As the chart above indicates, there are at least 23 economies with debt/GDP ratio in excess of 200 percent, seven economies with debt to GDP ratio close to or above 300 percent and 3 economies with debt to GDP ratio in excess of 300 percent. But the true champs of the debt world are Japan and Ireland, where based on BIS data, debt to GDP ratio is in excess of 375 percent. 

It is worth noting that Germany is the only advanced economy in the chart that has debt/GDP ratio below 200 percent. Of all original Euro area 12 economies, Germany, Austria and Finland are the only three economies with debt/GDP ratio below 250 percent. Six out of top 10 most indebted economies in the chart are Euro area members.

Do note that the above omits local authorities and state bodies debts, so the true extent of debt pile up around the world is significantly larger than that presented in this figure.

27/7/15: IMF Euro Area Report: Debt’s a Mean Bitch…

The IMF today released its Article IV assessment of the Euro area, so as usual, I will be blogging on the issues raised in the latest report throughout the day.

The first post looks at debt overhang.

Per IMF, low inflation environment in the Euro area is "pushing up real rates, more in countries with higher debt burdens"

And here's a handy chart from the Fund:

Note: Net debt is the total economy’s financial liabilities minus assets.

Broadly-speaking, with annual expected inflation at or below 1%, we have serious pressure on Portugal and Spain, where Government borrowing costs (and by some proximity, banks funding costs) have not declined as dramatically as in, say, Ireland. The second sub-group at risk are countries with lower debt ratios, but still high enough funding costs - Slovenia and Italy. Ireland is in a separate category, having enjoyed significant declines in cost of funding, without a corresponding improvement in debt ratios. In other words, for Ireland, so far, the challenge is less of day-to-day funding of debt, but the quantum of debt outstanding. Short-run sustainability is fine, but longer run sustainability is still problematic.

The problematic nature of debt carried across the euro area goes well beyond the sovereign cost of funding and into the structure of European banks balance sheets.

Per IMF: "A chronic lack of demand, impaired corporate and bank balance sheets, and deeply-rooted structural weaknesses are behind the subdued medium-term outlook:

  • Insufficient demand. Business investment continues to lag the cycle, remaining well below pre-crisis levels, reflecting weak demand, as well as high corporate debt, policy uncertainty, and tight credit. While overall unemployment has begun to recede, it remains above 11 percent, with long-term and youth unemployment near historic highs. Fiscal policy is broadly neutral, but is not providing offsetting support.
  • Weak balance sheets. The ECB’s comprehensive assessment (CA) found that banks had raised capital, but also saw NPLs continuing to rise, reaching systemic levels in some countries. High levels of NPLs and debt have held back bank lending and investment, limiting the pass-through of easier financial conditions. Europe’s experience contrasts sharply with that of the U.S. recently and Japan in the 2000s where, after their financial crises, aggressive NPL resolution helped support a faster recovery in credit.
  • Low and divergent productivity. Progress on structural reforms has been piecemeal and uneven across countries, as highlighted by the slow implementation of Country-Specific Recommendation (CSR) reforms under the European Semester. Productivity remains well below pre-crisis levels and lags the U.S., especially in important sectors such as information technology and professional services."

Note, I wrote extensively on the three factors holding back credit cycle before and recently testified on the subject at the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, the Houses of the Oireachtas:

Here is a chart highlighting the state of NPLs across the Euro area, U.S. and Japan which shows just how dire are the conditions in European banking really are:

Even by provisions measure, Europe is a total laggard. Which means there is plenty more delve raging left in the system.

And here is the IMF chart on productivity:

Which really neatly highlights the debacle that is euro area productivity growth: we have a massive uplift in unemployment during the crisis. Normally, rising unemployment automatically induces higher labour productivity through two channels: by destroying more jobs in lower value-added sectors, and by destroying jobs of, on average, less productive workers. In Europe, of course, the former factor did took place, but there was no corresponding retainment of activity in the higher value-added sectors, and the latter factor did not take place because of inflexible labour markets (for example, unions rules preventing lay offs of less productive staff, basing any employment adjustments on superficial criteria of tenure and/or union membership/contracts structures). So net result: jobs destruction (bad) was not even contributive to improved productivity (bad). But things are actually even worse. Chart below shows the distribution of productivity growth by broader sector, comparing euro area and the U.S.:

This is truly abysmal, for the euro area, which managed to post negative growth in productivity in Professional Services, and undershoot U.S. productivity growth in everything, save agriculture (where U.S. already enjoyed significant pre-crisis advantage over the EU, which implies normally lower productivity growth for the U.S.) and Construction (where the U.S. has enjoyed more robust recovery since 2010 against continued decline of activity in the euro area).

Yeah, remember those flamboyantly delightful days of denial, when everyone was keen on repeating the Krugmanite thesis that 'debt doesn't matter'? In reality, debt overhang is such a bitch… especially when it comes to messing up value-added investment and productivity growth. But never mind - Europe is not about these capitalist concepts, with its Knowledge Economy (as measured by IT and Professional Services and Manufacturing) shrinking in both metrics compared to the U.S.

Stay tuned for more excerpts and analysis from the IMF report.

22/7/15: Paging from the Planet Debt…

Ah, good old Europe... Austerity, Reforms, Structural Changes, Improved Competitiveness, Return to Growth... and rising, rising, rising debt.

Per latest Eurostat release (see here), euro area Government debt/GDP levels have hit 92.9% of GDP in 1Q 2015, up on 92.0% in 4Q 2014 and up on 91.9% of GDP in 1Q 2014. Year on year, Government debt rose from EUR9.179 trillion to EUR9.433 trillion.

Of the five most indebted (fiscally_ economies (excluding Ireland, which did not report 1Q 2015 GDP figures):

  • Debt fell in the case of Greece by 8.3 percentage points between 4Q 2014 and 1Q 2015 to 168.8% of GDP; 
  • Debt rose in the case of Italy by 3 percentage points to 135.1% of GDP;
  • Debt fell 0.6 percentage points in Portugal to 129.6% of GDP;
  • Debt rose 4.5 percentage points in Belgium to 111.0% of GDP;
  • Debt fell 0.7 percentage points in Cyprus to 106.8% of GDP.

Italian debt is now at the highest level since the peak of Inter-war period in the 1920s:

Source: @Schuldensuehner 

Congratulations to the inhabitants of the Planet Debt...

26/1/15: If not Liquidity, then Debt: ECB’s QE competitive limping

I have written before, in the context of QE announcement by the ECB last week (see here: that the real problem with the euro area monetary and economic aggregates has nothing to do with liquidity supply (the favourite excuse for doing all sorts of things that the ECB keeps throwing around), but rather with the debt overhang.

In plain, simple terms, there is too much debt on the books. Too much Government debt, too much private debt. The ECB cannot even begin directly addressing the unspoken crisis of the private debt. But it is certainly trying to 'extend-and-pretend' public and private debt away. This is what the fabled EUR1.14 trillion (or so) QE announcement is about: take debt surplus off the markets so more debt can be issued. More debt to add to already too much debt, therefore, is the only solution the ECB can devise.

While EUR1.14 trillion might sound impressive, in reality, once we abstract away from the fake problem of liquidity, is nothing to brag about. Take a look at the following chart:

Forget the question in red, for the moment, and take in the numbers. Remember that 60% debt/GDP ratio is the long-term 'sustainability' target set by the Fiscal Compact - in other words, the long-term debt overhang, in EU-own terminology, is the bit of debt above that bound. By latest IMF stats, there is, roughly EUR3.5 trillion of debt overhang across the euro area 18, just for Government debt alone. You can safely raise that figure by a factor of 3 to take into the account private sector debts.

Which puts the ECB QE into perspective: at the very best, when fully deployed, it will cover just 1/3rd of the public debt overhang alone (actually it won't do anything of the sorts, as it includes private and public debt purchases). Across the entire euro area economy (public and private debt combined) we are talking about the 'big bazooka' that aims to repackage and extend-and-pretend about 10-11% of the total debt overhang. Not write this off, not cancel, not burn... but shove into different holding cell and pretend it's gone, eased, resolved.

This realisation should thus bring us around to that red triangle and the existential question: What for? Between end of 2007 and start of 2015, the euro area has managed to hike its debt pile by some EUR3 trillion, after we control for GDP effects. Given that this debt expansion did not produce any real growth anywhere, one might ask a simple question: why would ECB QE produce the effect that is any different?

The answer, on a post card, to the EU Commission, please.