Category Archives: Euro area crisis

12/2/16: Deutsche Bank: Crystallising Europe’s TBTF Problems

This week was quite a tumultuous one for banks, and especially Europe’s champion of the ‘best in class’ TBTF institutions, Deutsche Bank. Here’s what happened in a nutshell.

Deutsche’s 6 percent perpetual bonds, CoCos (more on this below), with expected maturity in 2022, used to yield around 7 percent back in January. Having announced massive losses for fiscal year 2015 (first time full year losses were posted by the DB since 2008), Deutsche was under pressure in the equity markets. Rather gradual sell-off of shares in the bank from the start of 2015 was slowly, but noticeably eroding bank’s equity risk cushion. So markets started to get nervous of the second tier of ‘capital’ held by the bank - second in terms of priority of it being bailed in in the case of an adverse shock. This second tier is known as AT1 and it includes those CoCos.

Yields on CoCos rose and their value (price) fell. This further reduced Deutsche’s capital cushion and, more materially, triggered concerns that Deutsche will not be calling in 2022 bonds on time, thus rolling them over into longer maturity. Again, this increased losses on the bonds. These losses were further compounded by the market concerns that due to a host of legal and profit margins problems, Deutsche can suspend payments on CoCos coupons, if not in 2016, then in 2017 (again, more details on this below). Which meant that in markets view, shorter-term 2022 CoCos were at a risk of being converted into a longer-dated and zero coupon instrument. End of the game was: Coco’s prices fell from 93 cents to the Euro at the beginning of January, to 71-72 cents on the Euro on Monday this week.

When prices fall as much as Deutsche’s CoCos, investors panic and run for exit. Alas, dumping CoCos into the markets became a problem, exposing liquidity risks imbedded into CoCos structure. There are two reasons for the liquidity risk here: one is general market aversion to these instruments (a reversal of preferences yield-chasing strategies had for them before); and lack of market makers in CoCos (thin markets) because banks don’t like dealing in distressed assets of other banks. Worse, Asian markets were largely shut this week, limiting potential pool of buyers.

Spooked by shrinking valuations and falling liquidity of the Deutsche’s AT1 instruments, investors rushed into buying insurance against Deutsche’s default on senior bonds - the Credit Default Swaps or CDS. This propelled Deutsche’s CDS to their highest levels since the Global Financial Crisis. Deutsche’s CDS shot straight up and with their prices rising, implied probability of Deutsche’s default went through the roof, compounding markets panic.

Summing Up the Mess: Three Pillars of European Risks

Deutsche Bank AG is a massive, repeat - massive - banking behemoth. And the beast is in trouble.

Let’s do some numbers first. Take a rather technical test of systemic risk exposures by the banks, run by NYU Stern VLab. First number of interest: Systemic Risk calculation - the value of bank equity at risk in a case of systemic crisis (basically - a metric of how much losses a bank can generate to its equity holders under a systemic risk scenario).

Deutsche clocks USD91.623 billion hole relating to estimated capital shortfall after the existent capital cushion is exhausted. A wallop that is the third largest in the world and accounts for 7.23% of the entire global banking system losses in a systemic crisis.

Now, for volatility that Deutsche can transmit to the markets were things to go pear shaped. How much of a daily drop in equity value of the Deutsche will occur if the aggregate market falls more than 2%. The metric for this is called Marginal Expected Shortfall or MES and Deutsche clocks in respectable 4.59, ranking it 8th in the world by impact. In a sense, MSE is a ‘tail event’ beta - stock beta for times of significant markets distress.

How closely does Deutsche move with the market over time, without focusing just on periods of significant markets turmoil? That would be bank’s beta, which is the covariance of its stock returns with the market return divided by variance of the market return. Deutsche’s beta is 1.61, which is high - it is 7th highest in the world and fourth highest amongst larger banks and financial institutions, and it basically means that for 1% move in the market, on average, Deutsche moves 1.6%.

But worse: Deutsche leverage is extreme. Save for Dexia and Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA, the two patently sick entities (one in a shutdown mode another hooked to a respirator), Deutsche is top of charts with leverage of 79.5:1.

Incidentally, this week, Deutsche credit risk surpassed that of another Italian behemoth, UniCredit:

So Deutsche is loaded with the worst form of disease - leverage and it is caused by the worst sort of underlying assets: the impenetrable derivatives (see below on that).

Overall, Deutsche problems can be divided into 3 categories:

  1. Legal
  2. Capital, and
  3. Leverage and quality of assets.

These problems plague all European TBTF banks ever since the onset of the Global Financial Crisis. The legacy of horrific misspelling of products, mis-pricing of risks and markets distortions by which European banks stand is contrasted by the rhetoric emanating from European regulators about ‘reforms’, ‘repairs’ and ‘renewed regulatory vigilance’ in the sector. In truth, as Deutsche’s saga shows, capital buffers fixes, applied by European regulators, have yielded nothing more than an attempt to powder over the miasma of complex, derivatives-laden asset books and equally complex, risk-obscuring structure of new capital buffers. It also highlights just how big of a legal mess European banks are, courtesy of decades of their maltreatment of their clients and markets participants.

So let’s start churning through them one-by-one.

The Saudi Arabia of Legal Problems

Deutsche has been slow to wake up and smell the roses on all various legal settlements other banks signed up to in years past. Deutsche has settled or paid fines of some USD9.3 billion to-date (from the start of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008), covering:

  • Charges of violations of the U.S. sanctions;
  • Interest rates fixing charges; and
  • Mortgages-Backed Securities (alleged) fraud with respect to the U.S. state-sponsored lenders: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

And at the end of 2015, Deutsche has provided a set-aside funding for settling more of the same, to the tune of USD6 billion. So far, it faces:

  1. U.S. probe into Mortgages-Backed Securities it wrote and sold pre-crisis. If one goes by the Deutsche peers, the USD15.3 billion paid and set aside to-date is not going to be enough. For example, JP Morgan total cost of all settlements in the U.S. alone is in excess of USD23 billion. But Deutsche is a legal basket case compared to JPM-Chase. JPM, Bank of America and Citigroup paid around USD36 billion on their joint end. In January 2016, Goldman Sachs reached an agreement (in principle) with DofJustice to pay USD5.1 billion for same. Just this week ( Morgan Stanley agreed to pay USD3.2 billion on the RMBS case. Some more details on this here:
  2. Probes into currency manipulations and collusion on its trading desk (DB is the biggest global currency trader that is yet to settle with the U.S. DoJustice. In currency markets rigging settlement earlier, JPMorgan, Citicorp and four other financial institutions paid USD5.8 billion and entered guilty pleas already.
  3. Related to currency manipulations probe, DB is defending itself (along with 16 other financial institutions) in a massive law suit by pension funds and other investors. Deutsche says ‘nothing happened’. Nine out of the remaining 15 institutions are pushing to settle the civil suit for (at their end of things) USD2 billion. Keep in mind of all civil suit defendants - Deutsche is by far the largest dealer in currency markets.
  4. Probes in the U.S. and UK on its alleged or suspected role in channeling some USD10 billion of Russian money into the West;
  5. Worse, UK regulators are having a close watch on Deutsche Bank - in 2014, they placed it on the their "enhanced supervision" list, reserved for banks that have either gone through a systemic failure or are at a risk of such; a list that includes no other large banking institution on it, save for Deutsche.
  6. This is hardly an end to the Deutsche woes. Currently, it is among a group of financial institutions under the U.S. investigation into trading in the U.S. Treasury market, carried out by the Justice Department. 
  7. The bank is also under inquiries covering alleged fixings of precious metals benchmarks.
  8. The bank is even facing some legal problems relating to its operations (in particular hiring practices) in Asia. And it is facing some trading-related legal challenges across a number of smaller markets, as exemplified by a recent case in Korea (

You really can’t make a case any stronger: Deutsche is a walking legal nightmare with unknown potential downside when it comes to legal charges, costs and settlements. More importantly, however, it is a legal nightmare not because regulators are becoming too zealous, but because, like other European banks, adjusting for its size, it has its paws in virtually every market-fixing scandal. The history of European banking to-date should teach us one lesson and one lesson only: in Europe, honest, functioning and efficient markets have been seconded to manipulated, dominated by TBTF institutions and outright rigged structures more reminiscent of business environment of the Italian South, than of Nordic ‘regulatory havens’.

CoCo Loco

CoCos, Contingent Convertible Capital Instruments, are a hybrid form of capital instruments that are designed and structured to absorb losses in times of stress by automatically converting into equity should a bank experience a decline in its capital ratios below a certain threshold. Because they are a form of convertible debt, they are counted as Tier 1 capital instrument ‘additional’ Tier 1 instruments or AT1.

CoCos are also perpetual bonds with no set maturity date. Banks can be redeemed them on option, usually after 5 years, but banks can also be prevented by the regulators from doing so. The expectation that banks will redeem these bonds creates expectation of their maturity for investors and this expectation is driven by the fact that CoCos are more expensive to issue for the banks, creating an incentive for them to redeem these instruments. European banks love CoCos, in contrast to the U.S. banks that issue preferred shares as their Tier 1 capital boosters, because Europeans simply love debt. Debt in any form. It gives banks funding without giving it a headache of accounting to larger pools of equity holders, and it gives them priority over other liabilities. AT1 is loved by European regulators, because it sits right below T1 (Tier 1) and provides more safety to senior bondholders on whose shoulders the entire scheme of European Ponzi finance (using Minsky’s terminology) rests.

In recent years, Deutsche, alongside other banks was raising capital. Last year, Credit Suisse, went to the markets to raise some CHF6 billion (USD6.1 billion), Standard Chartered Plc raised about $5.1 billion. Bank of America got USD5 billion from Warren Buffett in August 2014. So in May 2014, Deutsche was raising money, USD 1.5 billion worth, for the second time (it tapped markets in 2013 too). The fad of the day was to issue CoCos - Tier 1 securities, known as Contingent Convertible Bonds. All in, European banks have issued some EUR91 billion worth of this AT1 capital starting from 2013 on.

Things were hot in the markets then. Enticed by a 6% original coupon, investors gobbled up these CoCos to the tune of EUR3.5 billion (the issue cover was actually EUR25 billion, so the CoCos were in a roaring demand). Not surprising: in the world of low interest rates, say thanks to the Central Banks, banks were driving investors to take more and more risk in order to get paid.

There was, as always there is, a pesky little wrinkle. CoCos are convertible to equity (bad news in the case of a bank running into trouble), but they are also carrying a little clause in their prospectus. Under Compulsory Cancelation of Interest heading, paragraphs (a) and (b) of Prospectus imposed deferral of interest payments on CoCos whenever CoCos payment of interest “together with any additional Distributions… that are simultaneously planned or made or that have been made by the issuer on the other Tier 1 instruments… would exceed the Available Distributable Items…” and/or “if and to the extent that the competent supervisory authority orders that all or part of the relevant payment of interest be cancelled…”

That is Prospectus-Speak for saying that CoCos can suspend interest payments per clauses, before the capital adequacy problems arise. The risks of such an event are not covered by Credit Default Swaps (CDS) which cover default risk for senior bonds.

The reason for this clause is that European regulators impose on the banks what is known as CRD (Combined Buffer Requirement and Maximum Distributable Amount) limits: If the bank total buffers fall below the Combined Buffer Requirement, then CoCos and other similar instruments do not pay in full. That is normal and the risk of this should be fully priced in all banks’ CoCos. But for Deutsche, there is also a German legal requirement to impose an additional break on bank’s capital buffers depletion: a link between specified account (Available Distributable Items) balance and CoCos pay-out suspension. This ADI account condition is even more restrictive than what is allowed under CRD.

This week, DB said they have some EUR1 billion available in 2016 to pay on EUR350 million interest coupon due per CoCos (due date in April). But few are listening to DB’s pleas - CoCos were trading at around 75 cents in the euro mark this week. The problem is that the markets are panicked not just by the prospect of the accounting-linked suspension of coupon payments, but also by the rising probability of non-redemption of CoCos in the near future - a problem plaguing all financials.

DB is at the forefront of these latter concerns, because of its legal problems and also because the bank is attempting to reshape its own business (the former problem covered above, the latter relates to the discussion below). DB just announced a massive EUR6.8 billion net loss for 2015 which is not doing any good to alleviate concerns about it’s ability to continue funding coupon payments into 2017. Unknown legal costs exposure of DB mean that DB-estimated expected funding capacity of some EUR4.3 billion in 2017 available to cover AT1 payments is based on its rather conservative expectation for 2016 legal costs and rather rosy expectations for 2016 income, including the one-off income from the 2015-agreed sale of its Chinese bank holdings.

Earlier this week, Standard & Poor’s, cut DB’s capital ratings on “concerns that Germany’s biggest lender could report a loss that would restrict its ability to pay on the obligations”. S&P cut DB’s Tier 1 securities from BB- to B+ from BB- and slashed perpetual Tier 2 instruments from BB to BB-.

Beyond all of this mess, Deutsche is subject to the heightened uncertainty as to the requirements for capital buffers forward - something that European banks co-share. AT 1 stuff, as highlighted above, is one thing. But broader core Tier 1 ratio in 4Q 2015 was 11.1%, which is down on 11.5% in 4Q 2014. In its note cutting CoCos rating, S&P said that “The bank's final Tier 1 interest payment capacity for 2017 will depend on its actual net earnings in 2016 as well as movements in other reserves.” Which is like saying: “Look, things might work out just fine. But we have no visibility of how probable this outcome is.” Not assuring…

DB is also suffering the knock-on effect of the general gloom in the European debt markets. Based on Bloomberg data, high yield corporate bonds issuance in Europe is down some 78 percent in recent months, judging by underwriters fees. These woes relate to European banks outlook for 2016, which links to growth concerns, net interest margin concerns and quality of assets concerns.

Badsky Loansky: A Eurotown’s Bad Bear?

Equity and debt markets repricing of Deutsche paper is in line with a generally gloomy sentiment when it comes to European banks.

The core reason is that aided by the ECB’s QE, the banks have been slow cleaning their acts when it comes to bad loans and poor quality assets. European Banking Authority estimates that European banks hold some USD 1.12 trillion worth of bad loans on their books. These primarily relate to the pre-crisis lending. But, beyond this mountain of bad debt, we have no idea how many loans are marginal, including newly issued loans and rolled over credit. How much of the current credit pool is sustained by low interest rates and is only awaiting some adverse shock to send the whole system into a tailspin? Such a shock might be borrowers’ exposures to the US dollar credit, or it might be companies exposure to global growth environment, or it might be China unwinding, or all three. Not knowing is not helpful. Oil price collapse, for example, is hitting hard crude producers. Guess who were the banks’ favourite customers for jumbo-sized corporate loans in recent years (when oil was above USD50pb)? And guess why would any one be surprised that with global credit markets being in a turmoil, Deutsche’s fixed income (debt) business would be performing badly?

Deutsche and other european banks are caught in a dilemma. Low rates on loans and negative yields on Government bonds are hammering their profit margins (based on net interest margin - the difference between their lending rate and their cost of raising funds). Solution would be to raise rates on loans. But doing so risks sending into insolvency and default their marginal borrowers. Meanwhile, the pool of such marginal borrowers is expanding with every drop in oil prices and every adverse news from economic growth front. So the magic potion of QE is now delivering more toxicity to the system than good, and yet, the system requires the potion to flow on to sustain itself.

Again, this calls in Minsky: his Ponzi finance thesis that postulates that viability of leveraged financial system can only be sustained by rising capital valuations. When capital valuations stop growing faster than the cost of funding, the system collapses.

In part to address the market sentiment, Deutsche is talking about deploying the oldest trick in the book: buying out some of its liabilities - err… senior bonds (not CoCos) - at a discount in the markets to the tune of EUR5 billion across two programmes. If it does, it will hit own liquidity in the short run, but it will also (probably or possibly) book a profit and improve its balance sheet in the longer term. The benefits are in the future, and the only dividend hoped-for today is a signalling value of a bank using cash to buy out debt. Which hinges on the return of the markets to some sort of the ‘normal’ (read: renewed optimism). Update: here's the latest on the subject via Bloomberg

Back to the performance to-date, however.

Deutsche Bank's share price literally fell off the cliff at the start of this week, falling 10 percent on Monday and hitting its lowest level since 1984.

On bank’s performance side, concerns are justified. As I noted earlier, Deutsche posted a massive EUR6.89 billion loss for the year, with EUR2 billion of this booked in 4Q alone. Compared to 2014, Deutsche ended 2015 with its core equity Tier 1 capital (the main buffer against shocks) down from EUR60 billion to EUR52 billion.

Still, panic selling pushed DB equity valuation to EUR19 billion, in effect implying that some 2/3rds of the book of its assets are impaired. Which is nonsense. Things might be not too good, but they aren’t that bad today. The real worry with assets side of the DB is not so much current performance, but forward outlook. And here we have little visibility, precisely because of the utterly abnormal conditions the banks are operating in, courtesy of the global economy and central banks.

So markets are exaggerating the risks, for now. Psychologically, this is just a case of panic.

But panic today might be a precursor to the future. More of a longer term concern is DB’s exposure to the opaque world of derivatives that left markets analysts a bit worried (to put things mildly). Deutsche has taken on some pretty complex derivative plays in recent years in order to offset some of its losses relating to legal troubles. These instruments can be quite sensitive to falling interest rates. Smelling the rat, current leadership attempted to reduce bank’s risk loads from derivatives trade, but at of the end of 2015, the bank still has an estimated EUR1.4 trillion exposure to these instruments. Only about a third of the DB’s balance sheet is held in German mortgages and corporate loans (relatively safer assets), with another third composed of derivatives and ‘other’ exposures (where ‘other’ really signals ‘we don’t quite feel like telling you’ rather than ‘alternative assets classes’). For these, the bank has some EUR215 billion worth of ‘officially’ liquid assets - a cushion that might look solid, but has not been tested in a sell-off.

In summary: 

Deutsche’s immediate problems are manageable and the bank will most likely pull out of the current mess, bruised, but alive. But the two horsemen of a financial apocalypse that became visible in the Deutsche’s performance in recent weeks are worrying:
1) We have a serious problem with leverage remaining in the system, underlying dubious quality of assets and capital held and non-transparent balance sheets when it comes to derivatives exposures; and
2) We have a massive problem of residual, unresolved issues arising from incomplete response to markets abuses that took place before, during and after the crisis.

And there are plenty potential triggers ahead to derail the whole system. Which means that whilst Deutsche is not Europe’s Lehman, it might become Europe’s Bear Sterns, unless some other TBTF preempts its run for the title… And there is no shortage of candidates in waiting…

DB’s 2015 report presentation deck:
DB’s internal memo to employees on how “ok” things are:

4/10/15: Wither Capital: Why Euro Area Lacks New Investment Opportunities

Here is an unedited version of my 3Q 2015 contribution to the Manning Financial newsletter covering the topic of  capital investment in the Euro area.

Wither Capital: Why Euro Area Lacks New Investment Opportunities

Despite the positive signs of an improving economy, the euro area is hardly out of the woods, yet, when it comes to the post-crisis adjustments. The key point is that the cure prescribed for the ailing common currency area economies by Dr Mario Draghi might less than effective in curing the disease.

The key risk to the euro area today does not stem from the lack of funding for investment that ECB QE and other unorthodox policies target by attempting to flood the markets with cheap liquidity. Instead, they stem from the lack of sustainable demand for new investment.

Here are three facts.

One: between 1991 and 2001, Euro area member states were moderate net investors, with annual capital spending exceeding savings by 0.6 percent of GDP on average, close to the World average of 0.8 percent of global GDP. This meant that savings generated within the Euro area were finding opportunities for investment at home, and to attract some net investment from the rest of the world.

Two: over the period of 2002-2014,  annual investment in euro area was, on average, lower than savings by some 1 percentage point of GDP. And, based on the IMF forecasts, this gap is expected to increase to 3.5 percent over 2015-2020 horizon, even as economy officially recovers. This implies that the future euro area recovery will be driven not by investment, but by something else. Per IMF forecasts, this new driver for growth will be external demand for goods and services from the euro area, plus a bounce from the abysmal years of the crisis. In other words, new growth will not be anything to brag about at the G7 and G20 meetings.

Three: as investment demand dropped across the euro area since 2002, global savings excess over investment actually rose, rising from a net deficit of 0.8 percent of GDP prior to 2002, to a net surplus of 0.2 percent over 2002-2014 period and to a forecast surplus of 0.3 percent of GDP for 2015-2020 period. This suggests that returns on private investment are likely to stay low, globally, pushing down net inflows of capital into the euro area. Chart 1 below illustrates.

Investment Funding Lacking?

Taken together, the above facts suggest that the euro area does not lack funding for investment, but lacks opportunities for productive capital allocation. Consistent with this, QE-generated funding, is flowing not to higher risk entrepreneurial ventures and capital investment, but into negative returns-generating government bonds. And, in the recent past, liquidity was also rushing into secondary markets for corporate debt, to be used to finance shares buy-backs instead of new technology, R&D or product innovation, or old fashioned building up of productive capital.

As the result we are witnessing a paradoxical situation. Companies’ reported earnings are coming increasingly under scrutiny, with rising investor suspicions that sell-side analysts are employing 'smoke and mirrors' tactics to 'tilt' corporate results to the satisfaction of the boards. Corporate earnings per share metrics are being sustained on an upward trajectory by shares repurchases. All along, bonds markets are running short of liquidity even as ECB is pumping more than EUR60 billion per month into them.

Recent analysis of S&P500 stocks in the U.S. has revealed that the difference between adjusted earnings and unadjusted bottom-line earnings or net income has increased dramatically in recent years. Some 20 percent of all companies surveyed posted adjusted earnings more than 50 percent higher than net income. According to the report complied by the Associated Press and S&P Capital IQ, some companies reporting profit on adjusted earnings basis are actually loss making. European markets data is yet to be analysed, but given the trends, it won't be surprising if euro area leading corporates receive a similar 'tilt'.

Of Debt, Leverage & Loose Monetary Policies

All of this reflects cheap debt and leverage finance available courtesy of central banks activism.

Loose monetary policy, however, can provide only a temporary support to the financial assets. It cannot address the deeply structural failures across the real economies.

The key problem is not the short term malfunctioning of the monetary transmission mechanism between ECB record-low interest rates and real investment, but the exhaustion of the structural drivers for growth. Over the 1990s and early 2000s, European economies accumulated debt liabilities to fund growth in domestic demand (public and private investment and consumption). Now, even at extremely low interest rates, the system no longer is able to sustain continued growth in debt. Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria - the net saving economies - are getting grey at an accelerating speed, reducing investors' willingness to allocate their surplus savings to productive, but risky, investments. Their companies, faced with slow growth prospect at home, are investing in new capacity outside the euro area - in Asia Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe, MENA and Africa.

The euro area has been leveraged so much, there is no realistic prospect of demand expansion here over the next decade.

As the result of this, surplus production generated in the saving countries has been flowing out to exports creating a contagion from domestic excess supply to external surpluses on trade accounts. Historically, reinvestment of surpluses converted them into investment abroad. The result was decline in interest rates worldwide. The Global Financial Crisis only partially corrected for this, erasing excess domestic demand and temporarily alleviating asset markets mis-pricing. But it did not correct for debt levels held in the real economy. In fact, current debt levels in the advanced economies are at the levels some 30 percent higher than they were during the pre-crisis period.

Neither did the surplus production and trade imbalances do much for a structural increases in productivity or competitiveness.

Since the start of the crisis, productivity growth declined in the euro area more than in any other developed region or major advanced economy.

At the same time, euro area's favourite metric – the unit labour costs-based index of harmonised competitiveness indicators – on average signaled lower competitiveness during the 2009-2014 period compared to the pre-euro era in eight out of the twelve core euro area states. Another two member states showed statistically zero improvement in competitiveness compared to pre-euro period.

The Key Lessons

The key lesson from the euro area's failed post-crisis adjustment is that debt overhang in the real economy compounds the problem of zero exchange rate flexibility within the common currency area. Flexible exchange rates allow countries to compensate for losses in productivity, competitiveness and for long term external imbalances. Flexible exchange rates also help to deleverage private economies whenever household and corporate debt is issued in domestic currency. In the case of the euro area states, this safety valve is not available.

Creation of the euro has amplified, not reduced, internal imbalances between its member states, while dumping surplus savings into global investment markets and contributing to the declines in the global return to capital and inflating numerous asset bubbles. Surplus supply euro economies, have in effect fuelled housing and financial assets bubbles in the ‘peripheral’ economies of the euro area.

The problem has not gone away since the burst of the bubble. Instead, it has been made bigger by the ECB policies that attempt to address the immediate symptoms of the disease at the expense of dealing with longer term imbalances.

Continuing with the status quo policies for dealing with these imbalances implies sustaining long term internal devaluation of the euro area. Table below shows the gap to 2002-2003 period in terms of overall labour competitiveness currently present in the economies, with negative values showing road yet to be travelled in terms of internal devaluations.

Large scale internal devaluations are still required in all new euro area member states, ex-Cyprus, as well as in Ireland, Italy, Belgium, Finland and Luxembourg. Sizeable devaluations are needed in Austria, France, Netherlands and Slovenia. Of all euro area member states, only Cyprus and Portugal are currently operating at levels of competitiveness relatively compatible with or better than 2002-2003 period average.

The problem with this path is that internal devaluations basically boil down to high unemployment and declines in real wages. In the likes of Ireland, for example, getting us back to 2002-2003 levels of competitiveness would require real wages declining by a further 16.7 percent, while in the case of Greece, maintaining current gains in competitiveness means keeping sky high unemployment unchecked. Political costs of this might be too high for the euro area to stay the course. And ECB policies can’t help much on this front.

An alternative to the status quo of internal devaluations would be equally unpleasant and even less feasible. This would involve perpetual (or at the very least - extremely long term) transfers from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands to the euro area weaker states. It is an unimaginable solution in part because of the scale of such transfers, and in part because the euro area core itself is running out of steam. Germany is now operating in an environment of shrinking labour force and rising army of retirees. The Netherlands and Austria are, potentially, at a risk of rapid growth reversals, as exhibited by Finland that effectively fell into a medium-term stagnation in recent years. Going by the structural indicators, even turning the entire euro area into a bigger version of Germany won’t deliver salvation, as the currency area combines divergent demographics: Berlin’s model of economic development is simply not suitable for countries like Ireland, Spain and France, and unaffordable for Italy.

The third path, open to Europe is to unwind the euro area and switch back to flexible currencies, at least in a number of weaker member states.

Speculations on the future aside, one thing is clear: euro area is not repairing the imbalances that built up over the 1998-2007 period. Even after the economic crisis that resulted in huge dislocations in employment, wages, investment and fiscal adjustments, productivity is not growing and demand is stuck on a flat trajectory.

Support from the ECB via historically unprecedented monetary measures and billions pumped into some economies via supranational lending institutions, such as EFSF, ESM and IMF are not enough to correct for this reality: euro area is new Japan, and as such, it simply lacks real opportunities for a new large scale boom in investment.

20/9/15: Euromoney: "Cyprus almost as safe as Portugal"

"The Cyprus risk score has steadily improved this year in Euromoney’s crowdsourcing survey, rebounding in Q2, and is seemingly on course for further improvement in Q3 as economists and other risk experts make their latest quarterly assessments. Chalking up almost 53.1 points from a maximum 100 allotted, Cyprus has managed to climb one place in the rankings to 56th out of 186 countries surveyed, leapfrogging India and closing in on Portugal into a more comfortable tier-three position:"

Read more here.

Here are my notes on the topic (to accompany the quote in the article):

In my view, Cypriot economy recovery after 3 years of deep recession and banking sector devastation is still vulnerable to growth reversals and deeply unbalanced in terms of sources for growth. Firstly, the rate of growth is hardly consistent with the momentum required to deliver a meaningful recovery. Cypriot GDP rose 0.2% y/y in 1Q 2015 and 1.2% y/y in 2Q 2015. This comes on foot of 14 consecutive quarters of GDP decline. Quarterly growth rate in 2Q came below flash estimate and expectations.

Positive growth was broadly based, but key investment-focused sector of construction posted negative growth. Deflationary pressures remained in the Cypriot economy with HICP posting -1.9% in August y/y on top of -2.4% in July. Over January-August 2015, HICP stood at -1.6% y/y.

Despite some fragile optimism, the Cypriot Government has been slow to introduce meaningful structural reforms outside the financial sector. The economy remains one of the least competitive (institutionally-speaking) in the euro area, ranked 64th in the World Bank Doing Business 2015 report - a worsening of its position of 62nd in 2014 survey. This compares poorly to the already severely under-performing Greece ranked in 61st place.

Thus, in my view, any significant improvements in the country scores relate to the policy-level post-crisis normalisation, rather than to a measurable improvement in macroeconomic fundamentals.

7/6/15: Greece: How Much Pain Compared to Ireland & Italy

Today, I took part in a panel discussion about Greek situation on NewstalkFM radio (here is the podcast link during which I mentioned that Greece has taken unique amount of pain in the euro area in terms of economic costs of the crisis, but also fiscal adjustments undertaken. I also suggested that we, in Ireland, should be a little more humble as to citing our achievements in terms of our own adjustment to the crisis. This, of course, would simply be a matter of good tone. But it is also a matter of some hard numbers.

Here are the details of comparatives between Ireland, Italy and Greece in macroeconomic and fiscal performance over the course of the crises.

Macroeconomic performance:

Fiscal performance:

All data above is based on IMF WEO database parameters and forecasts from April 2015 update.

The above is not to play down our own performance, but to highlight a simple fact that to accuse Greece of not doing the hard lifting on the crisis response is simply false. You can make an argument that the above adjustments are not enough. But you cannot make an argument that the Greeks did not take immense amounts of pain.

Here are the comparatives in various GDP metrics terms:

2/4/15: Greece: Of Debt, Dreams and Realities

This is an unedited version of my current column in the Village magazine:

Ever since the October 2009 when the Greek Government finally faced up to the bond market pressures and admitted that its predecessor has falsified the national accounts, the euro area has been unable to shake off its sovereign debt crisis.

When the dust finally settled on revisions, the Greek debt to GDP ratio shot up from 98 percent at the start of 2009 to 133 percent of GDP in early 2010. Five years of subsequent Troika interventions, support programmes, enhanced agreements and debt restructurings underwritten the Greek debt to GDP ratio rise to 175 percent of GDP, the highest in the world for any country with a fixed exchange rate.

As The Economist wrote in April 2010, "Greece has become a symbol of government indebtedness. …It cannot grow out of trouble because of fiscal retrenchment and its lack of export prowess. It cannot devalue, because it is in the euro zone.” (Source: The Economist went on to claim that despite these realities, Greeks “…seem unwilling to endure the cuts in wages and services needed to make the economy competitive.”

As we know now, the reality is far worse than that.

Contrary to The Economist (and the prevailing consensus across European elites and analysts), it was not the lack of the Greeks willingness "to endure the cuts in wages and services" that persistently and consistently undermined Athens' ability to reverse its economic fortunes.

Reality of Internal Devaluation

On the economy side, macro figures tell the story that can also be narrated through social and personal experiences of the Troika-impoverished nation.

Greek GDP per capita declined 22.5% in real terms from the end of 2007 through 2014, based on the latest estimates from the IMF. Ireland's decline (second largest in the Euro area) was half that at 11.9%. Total investment, as a share of GDP, fell 12.3 percentage points in Greece, against 10.8 percentage points in Ireland. This decline in investment was clearly accompanied by the internal devaluation: savings, as percentage of GDP, rose by 2.4 percentage points in Greece. In contrast, savings rate fell in Ireland by 3.0%.

Ireland is commonly presented as a country that has managed to deliver an exports-led recovery, while Greece is usually seen as a laggard in this area. This too is false. Greek current account balances improved by USD46.4 billion between January 2008 and the end of 2014, while Irish current account rose by USD22.5 billion. And as percentage of GDP, Greek current account gains amounted to 14.7 percentage points, against Ireland's 7.8 percentage points.

By all indicators, Greece has been dealing with the problems it faces, solidly in the Troika-prescribed direction.

In line with the internal devaluation ‘success’, the country employment and unemployment situation remain dire. Ratio of those in employment as percentage of total population, has declined 7.3 percentage points between 2007 and 2014 in Greece, much steeper than in Portugal (-4.6 percentage points), but less than in Ireland (-9.0 percentage points). Overall employment is down 18.8 percent on 2007 levels, compared to Ireland's 10.3 percent. Unemployment rate rose 17.5 percentage points between the end of 2007 and the end of last year in Greece, almost triple the rate of increase in Ireland (6.5 percent).

Unemployment and collapse in economic activity are two core factors driving down Government revenues and pushing up social protection spending. In Greece, state revenues fell 10.6 percent between 2007 and 2014, less than in Ireland (down 12 percent). Following Troika orders, Greek government expenditure was down 18.8 percent by the end of 2014 compared to the end of 2007. Ireland's 'best-in-class' austerity performance shrunk public spending by only 0.7 percent over the same period of time.

The 'un-reforming Greeks' have, thus, endured a much sharper rebalancing of public spending (a swing between revenue and expenditure adjustments of over 15 percent) than Ireland (downward adjustment of 6.4 percent).

The same is reflected in Government deficit figures. In 2007, Greek Government deficit was 6.81 percent of GDP. By the end of 2014 this fell to 2.69 percent - an improvement of 4.1 percentage points. In the same period of time, Irish deficits worsened 4.4 percentage points. Greek austerity was even more dramatic in terms of primary deficits (public deficits excluding interest payments on debt). Greek primary balance in 2014 was in surplus of 1.5 percent of GDP, up 3.52 percentage points on 2007 performance. Irish primary balance was in a deficit 0.3 percent of GDP, marking 1.1 percentage point worsening on 2007.

Is Competitiveness the Real Achilles’ Heel?

If internal devaluation were to be a measure of success, then Greece should be outstripping Ireland in terms of economic improvement. In reality it is severely lagging them.

The driving factor behind this outrun is not the current state of the Greek economy's competitiveness, but the legacy of pre-crisis debts accumulated by the country, plus the idiosyncratic nature of Greek and Irish crises and recovery paths.

Ireland came into 2008 with two economies running side-by-side: the domestic economy, dominated by the building and construction sector, rampant banks lending, asset bubble in property and unsustainable sources of funding for the Exchequer. This domestic side of the economy was contrasted and financially supported by the multinationals-led exporting economy based on decades-long tax arbitrage paraded in PR-speak as FDI. Collapse of the former economy was painful, but it helped sustain the latter economy, as the state avoided passing the pain onto the multinational sectors and dumped the entire economic adjustment burden onto households and domestic companies.

Greece had no such choice available. Its economy, when it comes to domestic firms, was marginally more competitive than the Irish one. But it had no MNCs-dominated tax arbitrage model on the exports side. Strikingly, pre-crisis, the index of unit labour costs – an imperfect, but still indicative metric of economic competitiveness –was signaling lower competitiveness in the Irish economy (including the MNCs) than in Greece. Since 2009, however, Greece deflated its labour costs by 26 percent more than double the 11 percent reduction achieved by Ireland.

Debt. Glorious Debt.

So the immediate problem with Greece is not a lack of competitiveness or a deficit of conviction to cut back on unsustainable expenditures. Instead, the problem is exactly the same one that plagued the country at the time of its national accounts revisions in 2009, and at the moment of it signing the first Memorandum of Understanding with the Troika in May 2010, as well as in February 2012, when the second bailout was ratified by the funding states.

That problem is the level of debt carried by the country.

Troika disbursed to Greece, directly and indirectly, vast amounts of funds over 2011-2012: some EUR337 billion worth of various financial assistance, mostly in the form of new debt, but also via restructuring of privately-held Government bonds.

As one third of the funds disbursed in both bailout programmes was used to retire maturing debt, parts of the old debt got swapped for the new one. Interest payments on debt swallowed another 1/6th of the entire bailout. In total, payouts to the private sector bondholders, banks recapitalisations and debt swaps and interest payments used up 81 percent of the total lending to Greece.

Little of the bail-out funding went on to lower the debt burden carried by the Greek economy and much of it went to increase the debt burden.

Instead of funding debt redemptions and interest payments at par via new debt, the EU could have written off close to one third of Greek debt held by the official lenders on terms similar to those carried out in the private sector restructuring. The new restructured debt could have been held interest-free in long maturities within the Eurosystem and/or indexed to economic recovery performance.

As we know, the Troika did no such thing, continuing to insist, throughout 2013 and 2014 that Greek debts are sustainable, until latest political reshuffling in Athens brought about yet another iteration of the crisis.

At the time of writing, Greece is facing an uncertain future.

In securing four months-long extension to the bailout in February, Athens had to sacrifice a number of core principles that served as the election platform for Syriza. The first victim was the idea of debt restructuring. Athens failed to ask for any debt writedowns in negotiating the extension. The second was the promise that the Government will not allow any extensions of the existent programme. Prior to the February agreement with the Eurogroup, Syriza planed for expanded public works programmes. These, along with other measures in the Syriza manifesto, were costed at EUR12-28 billion. February agreement puts Athens back onto pre-Syriza spending path. Syriza plans for using the funds left over from recapitalization of the banks to fund a fiscal stimulus programme have been effectively blown out of the water. And the dreaded Troika – the one that the new Government committed to abolishing – is still there, conveniently renamed ‘Institutions’.

With this, Greece has a very weak hand in shaping the post-June agreement.

Firstly, the ECB and the IMF have both already stressed that any new agreement will require Athens adhering to the terms and conditions of the previous programme.

Secondly, both the ECB and the IMF are holding serious trump card: over H2 2015, IMF is due repayment of EUR4.2 billion of maturing debt and the Eurosystem is due EUR6.7 billion. There’s roughly EUR 2 billion more of short-term debt maturing in July on top of that. Needless to say, even with the funds held by the EFSF, Greece has not enough money to cover these maturities and coupons due – a problem only exacerbated by the fact that January-February 2015 tax collection was severely impaired by the political mess.

All of this makes Greece insolvent and explains why the Syriza made such a public turnaround in its negotiations with the Troika in February. But it also means that following February decisions, the Greek crisis is now moving into a new stage not that much different from all the previous stages. Risks of policy errors,  political instability and the high likelihood of further deterioration in the fiscal and economic performance on foot of these cannot be left out of the equation.

Neither debt, nor economic stagnation, nor social decline, nor democratic will of the sovereign people can derail Europe’s dogmatic insistence on the self-destructive shaped by the self-defeating European institutions. As a living embodiment of Jean-Claude Juncker’s formula for Europe that “There can be no democratic choice against the treaties,”  Greece is set to soldier on: from one crisis to the next.