EUROPE: MIND ON THE MARKET WHILE CHARTING A BETTER WAY FORWARD

Posted on April 12, 2015. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

In the immediate aftermath, by agreeing to buy Euro 60 billion worth of public and private securities on a monthly basis until September 2016, under its recently launched quantitative easing ( QE ) program, the European central bank (ECB)  has quite clearly distorted the market. Also the initiative has given once in a life time type opportunity to Euro area countries to get their fiscal house in order by borrowing for longer duration and at a record low cost without being able to provide  or required to provide any fundamental justification to the market. And also by showing a willingness to buy European governments debt as low as minus 20 basis points, the ECB is probably attempting to harmonise the cost of borrowing of the EU states. So as a consequence, we are now living in a reality, where Portuguese and Spanish 10 years sovereign bond has a lower yield  than a U.S. Treasury of the same duration.

While the benefits of the QE to the European governments can’t be understated, European financial institutions from the likes of an insurance companies or a pension fund etc, who rely on investment returns to keep their business model sustainable will most likely have to reassess, or redesign their investment model factoring the new reality of low and negative yielding sovereign debt.

The ECB is clearly aiming to push investors out of what is considered safe haven assets, but investors could also opt to very well sell the Euro denominated European sovereign bonds, and instead buy US treasuries as ECB has very limited control over how investors will allocate capital, and the overall directional flow of the capital. Non European companies with stronger balance sheet could also benefit immensely by borrowing at very low rates in Euros, and there are ample evidence of that happening already as more and more companies flock to Euro to raise capital. So there remains an inherent risk with the approach, and capital will likely flow into various asset class outside of the Euro area.

Also in the last couple of years, a sizeable portion of the profits made by euro area based banks came from their sovereign debt holdings, and in the current environment, it will be interesting to see what sort of impact the change in dynamics will have on banks profitability. Although the banks are comparatively in a much better shape than few years ago, they are still struggling to make good money from their traditional day-to-day business.

Going forward, the QE initiative of European Central Bank (ECB) should improve the overall economic dynamics of the Euro Zone, and the signs are that it is in some way or the other heading in that direction. But a QE coupled with ultra low interest rate environment over a longer than desired period  isn’t all NET positive for the general well-being  of the economy. A sustained ultra low interest rate environment over a long period of time can cause misallocation of capital, mis-pricing of risks, and can also easily become addictive without really creating a big jump in the overall economic activity of the real economy. And here is an interesting data that I believe provides an interesting perspective. Based on various reliable estimates, Japanese savers have over US$ 7.1 trillion stashed in cash, and roughly around US $ 300 billion of cash is believed to be literally stashed under the carpet  across Japanese households creating a situation where excessive savings is not being utilised by the real economy as average household aren’t able to get the return they would expect from traditional channels of investments.

There are still a large number of savers who believe in the good old savings model, where a bank provides an attractive return to its clients on deposits. Also more than half of the population of the developed as well as developing world does not actively invests on a regular basis in stocks or bonds so therefore they are unable to reap the benefits of a record high stock market. And their savings get eroded over time through low to almost negligible return on their deposits while a small percentage of sophisticated institutional investors make good money from record high stock markets mostly driven by the easy QE money, which distorts the connection between the financial markets and the real economy.

And even in an economy where a large percentage of the savings comes from the higher valuation of the house prices, if through traditional channels, a saver is not getting decent enough return from the banks, the overall confidence in the economy suffers, and it is one of the reason why the economic data remains somewhat confusion creating volatility in the financial markets.

There are limitations to what a central bank and monetary policy can deliver or achieve on their own without a sound business and investment friendly economic environment. And this is where Europe continues to struggle. Euro zone economy is showing some signs of improvement  but it still has a long away to go.

A Europe where an entrepreneur as a value creator with credible ideas or project  is able to access right capital and start the journey without getting stuck in bureaucratic red tape is still a bit far from becoming a reality. In general, the market is turning optimistic on Europe’s prospect, but the EU leaders as well as the bureaucrats will need to be focused on delivering the essential reforms in order to make sure Euro Zone as an economic growth engine starts to fire, to ensure it stays relevant and competes better. So the European policy makers will need to keep their mind on the market while charting a better way forward for Europe.

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The Changing GAME, and the Global economy

Posted on December 6, 2014. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The recent movements in the markets and its overall behaviour is starting to indicate that the game is changing and has already changed somewhat, and the market participants are having to adapt to these changes rather quickly. And here is an example, so when my GrandMa suggested that never mind the good old correlation theory, the markets overall behaviour today has changed so we could very well see the stock going higher while the crude oil could go as low as 70 or even lower,some folks in the market thought, it hasn’t happened before, and probably won’t now because crude and stock pricing have had historical correlation. And that’s a very understandable observation. But in the past month, the stocks have clearly been on an upward trajectory while the crude has continued to be on a downward trend. And by relying on the old economic theory as a reference, some may argue that one of these stories might be not be true, but I would disagree with that old economic assumption that one of these stories must be lying. Not at all, it’s just that people have evolved, and some of the old rules don’t work that well in the markets today. And here is an attempt to explain both the stories.

The stocks have been supported by a number of factors. For example, the European Central Bank ( ECB ) has just started its quantitative easing ( QE ) program, and the Bank of Japan ( BOJ ) as well as the Bank of England (BOE) are still maintaining the level of their QE program, also there are no real indication that the FED or any another central bank for that matter in the developed world  is going to start raising rates around Q1 of 2015, it’s simply too risky. And although at some point, the FED and BOE might have to raise rates in 2015 , the central banks in China and India will most likely be lowering their rates, and PBOC ( the Chinese Central bank ) has already started the process so clearly the game is being played differently around different parts of the world today.

And with regards to the downward trajectory of the current crude pricing, it  isn’t all a reflection of a seriously deteriorating global macro economic condition. In fact the recent policy easing in China as well as the Euro 315 billion investment & growth plan announced by the European Union along with the quantitative easing (QE) plan of the European Central Bank is all aimed at creating  growth so the under normal circumstances, the markets should push the crude prices up but the underlying reasons for a falling crude isn’t all based on global macro issues. There are number of other factors at play, and one of them is that the US marching on to becoming a net exporter of energy, and OPEC mainly lead by Saudis are trying their best to maintain their position in the game by making the shale gas business unsustainable. It’s hard to project, if OPEC and the Saudis will eventually succeed but the game has obviously changed, and the old rules don’t really apply.

The other interesting thing happening today is the positive momentum build up over India. And if India is able to find a way to unleash its potential then quite frankly, the global economy will be better for it. But the Indian economy has to deal with a series structural issues, and inflation being one of them.I believe, the current RBI governor needs to sit down with the government, and help device a plan to carry out wholesale structural reforms in the economy. Monetary policy has its limitations, just look across the world, the central bankers aren’t really able to get a good handle on inflation anymore because as stated before, the game has changed. And we need to look at the  bigger context when talking about inflation today.

For example, the financial assets in the U.S. as well as other developed markets got highly inflated, but without a real increase in disposable income, there is simply no capacity in the real economy to drive up inflation in the developed world. And specifically in context of India, India’s inflation is hard wired into how the country’s economy is structured, and unless the economy is unclogged, taming the inflation isn’t going to work. So practically, it’s almost impossible for India to export its inflation overseas, a process through which the developed world including of the U.S. was able to to export its inflation to an economy like China while continuing to grow and keep a relatively high living standard. The RBI governor has done an extremely good job so far, and I believe , he along with other central bankers know the limitations of monetary policy tools. Also Indian economy isn’t efficient enough structurally to quickly respond to policy changes, and this is thanks to the old ways of doing things. So an incremental reform agenda aimed at unclogging the engine has to be at the forefront. Inflation will tame down going forward with the structural reforms in the economy and also the existing lower fuel prices etc, but without carrying out a thorough structural reform, any slow down in inflation can’t be sustained.  I believe, the current governor of the RBI shouldn’t hesitate to use inflation as a leverage to keep the pressure on the finance minister to keep the reform agenda at forefront. And in Mr Rajan as the governor of India’s central bank, India has found a central banker who has a global reputation, also a central banker who isn’t shy of a debate. And this is why he gets respect in the market.

Overall, it looks like India is heading in the right direction. A country like India needed a strong government, and most importantly a strong leader. And on both these counts, the people of India have delivered, but India is a federal structure so if the states don’t participate in the growth and prosperity agenda of the federal government then it will be a struggle for the central leadership on their own to take the country forward. There is an overall positive sentiment around India today, and the country does have an immense potential. And the way, I would describe India’s potential is, if for example, the economic model followed by China has helped it create a Boeing 777 then India today has the chance to create Boeing a 777 X series plane, an upgraded version that will be largest and most efficient twine engine plane in the world, but for this to happen a lot has to go right for India.

Progress and reform has to be incremental, and also gradual. A steady take off requires the pilot to guide the plane making sure the climb is comfortable, and will not put the passengers as well as the plane at risk. And once the plane is flying at the desired altitude, a seasoned pilot as well as a passenger know that there will always be turbulence on the way. So the approach by the INDIAN  leadership shouldn’t be based around trying to blast off the country into outer space by carrying out one time wholesale Big Bang reforms. No progress or reform is permanent so the leadership and the policymakers should factor in a period of consolidation in the economy, and be always prepared to carry out the next set of reforms.

Also any well thought policy reform will fail to deliver the desired result, if the policy delivery mechanism isn’t fit for purpose. The current economic infrastructure of the economy is old and too  clogged up so the focus of the government should be to take immediate measures to unclog the system, and then the growth will start to trickle through. The road ahead won’t be a smooth ride but the focus should be on unclogging the system and changing the current administrative policy delivering mechanism set up in the country. Also, the rural India will need to be fully plugged into the overall progress agenda. This will create,and is already creating tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurs who are able to spot them. The strategy has to be tailored to make sure all parts of the economy is starting to perform efficiently, and won’t burden the ascend of the overall economy going forward.

Also most importantly a ” progress for all ” idea has to be sold to the entire nation, and by trying to make this into a national movement, the current PM of India is heading in the right direction. However, the people of the country will need to be willing participants by making their own contributions. So the leadership of the country should aim to pitch India as a potential B777 X, the latest and more powerful as well as more efficient version of the existing B777, and India can be that.

The government will need to discover an economic growth model that is sustainable over a long term period and also inclusive. Adopting and following an existing growth model will not work for a country like India, and this is why I always struggle to understand the idea proposed by some in the market that all emerging economies should follow the economic growth model of China as an example for their country without really understanding if that specific economic model is going to be sustainable for their respective economies.

China’s heavy reliance on investments to drive it’s GDP has created a massive over supply, and there are large amount of infrastructure assets that are simply sitting idle without creating any return for the tax payers so if we were to look in terms of return on investment basis then the picture is quite murky. In short they would fall under inefficient investments category, and we are talking about trillions of dollars worth of such investments here. And this is one of the reason why the leadership of China based companies are looking to invest overseas, and it makes good business sense because the companies in China do have tremendous experience in building substantial infrastructure assets.

So going forward, the state owned enterprise in China will look to invest overseas as there isn’t much to do at home, and in a way, this strategy works out well because the emerging economies that have massive infrastructure deficit might find that China based companies are more willing and flexible to help them develop and finance those projects than others. And as Europe and the U.S. gets more competitive, the foreign players currently operating in China will start to move their production facility closer to home, and it’s already happening as the cost of production is starting to get lower than that in China. The economic engine of China is going through a gear change, and the leadership will need to make sure the transition is well managed. And as the game continues to change, companies operating in the real economy will face different type of challenges but at the same time there will be many opportunities, and that’s just a natural process, the powerhouse of yesteryears will become irrelevant as the economy evolves.

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GREECE – Discovering The Road To Prosperity In a Difficult Debt Terrain

Posted on October 15, 2012. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The gruesome reality of the ongoing European Crisis is that some countries in the EU including of Greece were living way beyond their means and in the last decade benefitted the most from the European Union idea without realizing that all the rise in the living standard and good times hasn’t been paid for. For example after Greece adopted Euro the public sector wages rose by over 50% during the 8 years period ( 1999 to 2007), which is by far the fastest rise in the Euro Zone.

As evident from the unfolding events of the past few years. There is no doubt that Greece was ill-prepared to cope with the global financial CRISIS and has thus seen its real GDP growth decline year-on-year since 2008. According to Eurostat, the real GDP Growth for Greece in 09 was -3.3%, for the financial year (FY) ending 10 was -3.5% and the projection for 2011 is -6.9% and for the year  2012 its around 3.8 – 4.4% . The human cost has been enormous. And the pain and sufferings of millions has gone from bad to worse.

Although people on the streets across Greece have vented their frustrations and anger continuously by rejecting the status quo. A large percentage of the population still wants to be in the European Union. The onus is on the politicians as well as the population to fully understand and appreciate the gravity of the situation. Greece should take this once in a life time opportunity to reconfigure its economy.

The rebalancing and reconfiguration of the economy is a process that will take time and will require all the parties with vested interest to work together without losing sight of the BIG PICTURE. The solution will come from an open and honest collaboration and each party delivering their side of the bargain.

Getting GREEK debt on a sustainable downward trajectory is KEY. And this will require the lenders as well the policy makers in Greece to agree on a clear road map outlining the debt reduction plan.

Based on various media reports the troika consisting of the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission is believed to be working on a Greek debt sustainability analysis and the officials are trying to figuring out ways to bring down the huge debt burden on the country. It is estimated that under the current scenario Greece’s debt to GDP ratio target set by the troika of 120% (of GDP) by 2020 is beyond reach. The median forecast for the economy is to shrink by 3.8 % in the financial year 2013, which will obviously be its sixth consecutive year of declining growth putting the overall debt to GDP ratio to around 180%. This falls way short of the initial goal and is clearly unsustainable going forward.

The need of the hour is to work out a plan incorporating the ground realities that has a real chance of SUCCESS. And creating a sustainable debt reduction strategy will require exploring all the feasible OPTIONS.

Here are some IDEAS worth considering. The suggestions below covers the debt held by troika including of the bonds held by European Central Bank (ECB), the bilateral loans as well as the IMF loans.

  • Consider recapitalising the GREEK banks through European Stability Mechanism (ESM) as planned for Spain.
  • Look at converting a portion (around 25-30%) of the agreed Euro 48 billion loan from European Financial Stability Fund ( EFSF ) marked for the recapitalisation of the banks into equity. This could be managed through the Central Bank of Greece.
  • Consider extending the overall maturity of the loan facility by additional 2 – 3 years  with a grace period on the interest payment.
  • The European Central bank (ECB) should consider taking a hair cut on the bonds it bought from the secondary market as investors or agree on a debt swap extending the overall maturity of the bonds by at least 2 years. Rules defining ECB’s role are vague and unclear but the central bank should take the initiatives here.
  • The policy makers in the EU should consider extending the bilateral state loan to Greece in the amount of euro 53 billion (already provided) by another 2-3 years with a reasonable grace period.
  • Greek government should fast track the planned privatisation process expected to bring in euro 40-45 billion and use part of the proceeds to buy-back the existing debts especially the post restructured PSI bonds that are currently trading at around 22-28% of the par value.

The above measures should reduce the overall debt burden on the Greek economy which is just over euro 330 billion but it won’t be sufficient especially if there are no clear strategy to GROW the economy and fill the fiscal hole from the revenue side. This will require a close cooperation between the Greek Government and Brussels. The politicians in Athens will have to set and drive the AGENDA forward at war footing.

The Government will have to start implementing the structural reforms including of reforming the complicated tax laws, increase competitiveness and productivity by  identifying champion sectors that will drive growth forward providing employment and support them with right legislation and tax incentives, use part of the  privatisation proceeds to support SMEs funding requirement, encourage investment in the real estate and other struggling sectors by inviting the Non- EU nationals to invest in the Economy through various programs that may include providing tax incentives and resident permits, provide flat tax rate to new foreign companies especially the GREEK Diaspora living overseas and explore all the other feasible options.

The next 6 to 9 months will be critical for Greece and the country should use this   CRISIS as an opportunity to come together with a strong resolve and  mindset that it will get over the line. And there is a road that leads to PROSPERITY but discovering it in this difficult DEBT terrain will require patience, perseverance and a right strategy.

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The SMEs Bank project – An Idea that could energize the SME sector in a gloomy outlook

Posted on September 22, 2011. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

In the past few weeks the markets have come to a realization that the developed world is struggling to generate growth and going forward the global growth projections put out by multilateral institutions including of the International Monetary Fund ( IMF ) and the World Bank paints gloomy picture. The growth outlook has been downgraded to a lower level from previous estimates. To counter the downturn in the economy the policy makers and the central bankers have been trying out various ideas to keep the economy growing. One of the widely used though unconventional monetary policy tool to stimulate growth has been to print more money through quantitative easing (QE) program by the central bankers. Although through their quantitative easing (QE) program the central bankers were able to provide critical support to the market it has had a limited affect on generating growth so far. And one could also argue that monetary policy tools on their own are not going to be enough to create growth.

Going forward the policy makers in the government will have to take the baton from the tiring hands of the monetary policy makers and have the courage to take bold decisions that goes beyond party politics and is right for the economy.  The people on the streets especially those in the U.S. and Europe as well as the markets are increasingly losing faith in their political leaders’ ability to fix the CRISIS.  And it is probably the right time for the politicians to stand up and deliver. In a recent speech delivered by the president of United States to joint session of the congress Mr. Obama proposed tax credit to the SMEs under Obama’s American Jobs act plan as one of his own initiatives to encourage SMEs to hire more and create jobs. He also proposed common sense based regulations to remove the regulatory burden on the SMEs. Although these are steps in the right direction but the tax credits and the removal of unnecessary regulatory burden on the companies won’t do much on their own to create the level of jobs growth that US economy needs. Besides the tax credits and regulatory reforms the SMEs also need to have an easy access to capital at very reasonable and flexible terms. The government will also need to energise the supply and demand side. Consumers’ confidence is going to be one of the key factors in turning the economy around and the government will need to work closely and tirelessly with all the parties to bring the confidence and positivity back in the system.

It is important to point out that a CRISIS born in a globalised world will need a global effort to fully overcome it. Although it is unwise to expect the developing world especially the BRIC nations to bailout European states it is in the best interest of both the developing and the developed world to work together closely on finding a long term sustainable solution.

In the aftermath of the CRISIS high street banks especially those in Europe and the United States have so far failed to support the SMEs and in fact most banks have reduced their lending to the sector significantly while increasing the cost of capital at which they will lend to the SME sector companies. Banks as one of the beneficiary of the quantitative easing program have not passed on the cash to the real economy and they are still struggling with their risk management strategy so to expect them to do more to support the economy and the SMEs sector is probably unrealistic at least for now.

The small and medium size enterprises ( SMEs ) are an important integral part  and the supporting pillar of any economy. Generally the sector tends to lead a country’s new and fast growing industries.  Some of the success stories of developing world today including of Korea, Taiwan among others has been built on the dynamism of the SME sector. Also due to its inherent structure the labour intensity is generally higher in the SME sector companies hence the sector is usually the largest employer in a country. For example over the last two decades the SMEs sector has accounted for around 65% of new jobs created in the U.S. and overall it accounts for about half of non-farm U.S. employment and within Europe the SMEs sector employs around 68 million people which in percentage terms translate to around 72% of the workforce in the non-primary private sector.

Even though the SMEs are seen as an important part of an economy and play a very crucial role in jobs creation in general the sector is not serviced well by banks today. The banks who mostly play the role of an underwriter of loans or suppliers of credit to an enterprise are limited in their abilities to offer a flexible funding solution to the sector and provide the right support  to the SMEs due to a number of reasons, including banks being very cautious in their lending approach, uncertainty about the future and the changing market conditions, a changing mandate from their shareholders and the board, lack of commitment to the sector as well as the lack of the supporting secondary market infrastructure that will encourage and allow the banks to make good PRIMARY loans to the SME sector and be able to refinance in the secondary market if and when required. Financing SMEs do pose real challenges for the banks especially in the current environment where they are continuously feeling the pressure on their balance sheet and struggling to keep their heads above water. Also it is important to point out that while there is an immediate need to address the lack of capital availability to the SMEs it is important that the solution is sustainable and will add value in the long term.

The idea behind the new SME bank or the SME financing vehicle will be to work closely and directly with the sector as well as other banks, credit guarantee agencies, regional development agencies, usiness associations among others to provide direct and right funding solutions to the SMEs and also help in developing the secondary market infrastructure that will allow existing banks and lenders extending loans to SME sector companies to refinance their loan books.

Most Small and Medium Size enterprises require a flexible funding solution that is right for their business and will support them fully and won’t be called back or withdrawn living their business in limbo like an overdraft facility or credit line due to changes in the market conditions or a change in the strategy of the bank. SMEs like any other sector of the economy will prefer certainty and also a ring fencing of their funding commitments from the banks so they can make business decisions.

The inception & operational strategy of the proposed SME Bank

  • The Central banks and the governments could create a SME Bank or SME Financing Vehicle in partnership with financial institutions including of development banks, private investors and other investors with focus on SMEs or similar investment asset class.
  • The investment strategy and the role to be played by the SME Bank should be multifaceted and flexible to allow it to meet a range of capital requirements coming out of the SMEs. A single funding solution or investment strategy may not provide the right support to the sector.
  • The SME bank should also be able to work with traditional and nontraditional lenders to SMEs including of high street banks.
  • The SME bank should also provide a third party service to others and help other banks manage and monitor their existing SME loan books better and get paid a fee for its services.
  • Buy off the existing loans from the balance sheet of the banks enabling them to refinance their loan book and use the new money to extend more loans.
  • Also act as a guarantor to the SME sector companies that are looking to secure funding or provide performance bonds to their counterparties/clients if and when required.
  • Be able to securitise SME loans under special tax free investment provisions for a limited period to attract investors into the asset class.
  •  Provide advisory and consultancy services to SMEs and work intimately with the sector.

 Proposed Shareholders/Participants of the SME Bank (or the SME financing Vehicle) 

The government or the central banks, development agencies, multilateral institutions, local banks, credit guarantee agencies, private investors and financial institutions among others

Proposed Capitalisation and Guarantees

A part of the capital commitment to the SMEs bank could come from the Central banks using the government bonds purchased through their QE program and the remaining from its prospective shareholders. The capitalization of the bank should be based on the real funding requirement of the sector and should be sufficient to service good SMEs.

Benefits of the SMEs Bank

The SMEs bank will play a very important role with huge benefits to the SMEs sector companies, high street banks, lenders focused on SMEs, credit guarantee agencies as well as development banks and other market players. It will also act as an additional pillar supporting the market in the long run and will be a good value ADD going forward.

The local banks, credit guarantee agencies and other lenders or service providers to the SMEs by working closely with the SMEs Bank will be able to take a preemptive action on any loans or services extended to the SMEs that has a possibility of becoming a non performing loan. Also banks could easily offload good and performing loans to the SMEs Bank (or the SME financing Vehicle). While the SME Bank will do direct primary loans and investments to the SMEs sector companies it also will also help develop the secondary market for SMEs loans underwritten by the local banks and other lenders. It could also play the role of the credit guarantee agency to the SMEs sector.

Exit strategy for the shareholders

The shareholders could EXIT if and when required through an IPO in few years time when the markets are going to be much calmer.

The SMEs bank will energize the sector by providing a critical support to the SMEs with a range of financing solutions and will also add significant value to the existing system on a long term basis. It is an idea that needs to be seriously explored by the policy makers.

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