Facebook Blogging

Edward Hugh has a lively and enjoyable Facebook community where he publishes frequent breaking news economics links and short updates. If you would like to receive these updates on a regular basis and join the debate please invite Edward as a friend by clicking the Facebook link at the top of the right sidebar.

Friday, July 18, 2008

What Is The Risk Of A Serious Melt-Down In The Spanish Economy?

Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past, the ocean is flat again
John Maynard Keynes

'As far as I am concerned, this is ... the most complex crisis we've ever seen due to the number of factors in play'
Spanish Economy Minister Pedro Solbes speaking this week to Spanish radio station Punto Radio

Jose Luis Borges tells a story about two rascally villains, eternal rivals, who - under sentence of death - are offered one last bet: rather than accepting a conventional execution they can agree to have their throats slit simultaneously, just to see who is a able to run the farthest. Immortality, rather than fame, in an instant. Now I mention this since tale I can readily anticipate the immediate feelings many will have on reading what follows (I am at the end of the day going to argue that it is necessary to inject money - and I do mean rather a lot of money - into a banking and construction system which many will want to argue is largely responsible for Spain's present distress, and indeed, that having made a good deal of money out of the operation, these are the very people who should now be forced to don that sackcloth and ashes costume which so behoves them (actually the way things stand they are much more likely to find themselves reduced to a sporting a loincloth, but still). I understand why many ordinary Spanish people may have such feeling, but I do think this is a time for cool heads, and that what is most needed here is an extreme dose of pragmatism coupled with a lot of emotional intelligence. There is no point in agreeing to have your own throat slit just to see people you don't like have their's slit first.

Martinsa Fadesa The First To Go

This week's filing by the Spanish property developer Martinsa-Fadesa for protection from its creditors has brought Spain's ongoing economic agony back to the headlines. The decision follows a request from Martinsa Fadesa last Friday to its creditor banks for a postponement of the deadline on their requirement that the company obtain a 150 million euro ($235.7 million) loan. The banks refused the request and the rest is now, as they say, history. The failure of Martinsa - Fadesa whose debts are in the region of 5 billion euros - is not only the largest corporate bankruptcy in Spanish history, it is also a reflection of the pain which must now be being felt in Spain's troubled banking and construction sectors, and a harbinger of what is, in all probability, going to be much worse to come.

Spain At Risk

So to come directly to the matter which has provided me with the header to this post, just what is the risk that the present recession in Spain is something a bit more than a mere recession? What is the risk of a real and serious economic melt down just across France's Southern border, a mere stone's throw away (by plane) from Brussels or Frankfurt, yet still on the other side of that intellectual and cultural divide which seems to be formed by that ever so picturesque natural barrier known as the Pyrennees? Well it is a non-negligable one, in my view. Let me explain a bit.

First, as background it would be worth reading my Artemio Cruz Syndrome post, since all the main macroeconomic arguments are presented there (and those who seriously want to know what is going on should definitely read the excellent "Spain:Bubble Bursting - We now expect a full-blown recession" desknote from PNB Paribas).

Secondly, we need a bit of vocabulary clarification, since the terminology being used has become somewhat confusing of late. We could reasonably break things down as follows I think:

i) Soft Landing
ii) Hard Landing
iii) Melt Down

Now, in terms of the available semantic space, why don't we allow that "soft landing" means a recession of the more or less garden variety (as Portugal or Italy have at this moment, or as say France may anticipate, or Denmark) and not consider this to mean avoiding recession completely, which is how some seem to have used the term in recent times (I think it is hard to imagine any EU 15 economy avoiding recession completely between now and Q2 2009). Possibly Hungary up to this point could also be said to have had a comparatively soft landing.

"Hard Landing", on the other hand would be what they are currently experiencing over in the Baltics, what they may well soon experience in Romania, Bulgaria, the UK, and Ireland, and what is now most certainly taking place in Spain. Thus by "hard landing" I mean a very sharp slowdown in growth, a medium sized contraction in consumption, financial distress and bankruptcy in some areas, and a recession which drags itself on for more than a mere two quarters (in and out of negative growth) and probably results in annualised negative growth for a period of at least 12 consecutive months. What happened in Turkey in 2000 was certainly a hard landing in this sense.

iii) "Melt Down", following such definitions, would then be a Hard Landing plus, a Hard Landing plus a shock (or in Hungary's case, where the shock would be a run on the forint, you could imagine what initially is only a Soft Landing being converted into a melt down, but arguably Hungary's case is very special given the very high level of exposure of household balance sheets to CHF denominated forex loans).

Such a shock could be a banking crisis, a run on the currency, a sovereign default (this is where Italy's series of perpetual soft landings could move decisively into meltdown mode one of these fine days if something isn't done to correct the low growth/high sovereign debt to GDP dynamic while there is still time).

Now in this sense, Spain's economy is at some significant level in danger of having a melt down - lets define this as more than two years of negative GDP growth with a magnitude of more than one percentage point, coupled with (in the case of countries which have their own currency) very sharp devaluations, and in the case of those that don't severe and extended price deflation (ie a mini version of what happened in the USA in 1930).

Now the recession in Spain is, I think, more or less most certainly already served. The Spanish press were talking earlier in the week about a quarter on quarter contraction of 0.3% in Q2, and it is hard to see any acceleration of the economy in Q3. Pedro Solbes, when questioned explicitly by Punto Radio on the possibility that whole year growth for 2008 could turn negative replied diplomatically "It's not my feeling at the moment", which means basically that it might well turn out to be the case.

If this expectation if fulfilled then Paribas may have to revise their latest forecast slightly (see above link) since - in what is really an excellent general analysis - they pencil-in the recession to start in Q3 2008 and then move on to anticipate a contraction in the Spanish economy of 0.75% in 2009 (although as they freely admit all the risks here are skewed to the downside). My own personal call at this point is that the recession may well have started in Q2 (we will soon know) and that the contraction in whole year 2009 will be over 1 percentage point. Further than that I am not willing to go at this stage, since it all depends, and in particular it depends on whether or not we get a nasty "event" or series of events which send the economy hurtling out of the "hard landing" bracket and into the "melt down" one. It is because I strongly believe we be should doing everything we possibly can to avoid that eventuality that (and not continue to languish under our blankets with a heavy dose of the Artemio Cruz syndrome) that I am writing this post now.

Before continuing, however, I should point out that even the Paribas idea of negative growth in 2009 is still very nonconsensual, despite the widespread pessimism which currently surrounds the Spanish economy. The consensus economic survey for June gives a median 2009 growth forecast of 1.5%. The lowest forecast in the survey is 0.4% but most are grouped in the range 1.0-1.8%. Maybe the consensus will catch up with the curve in due course.

Structural Unwind

So what would be my justification for making such an apparently gloomy forecast? Well as I argue in my Artemio Cruz piece, and as Paribas re-iterate in their study, this is no ordinary crisis. It is taking place against a background of a severe credit crunch which affects the entire financial sector, in a country with an enormous external deficit (CA deficit over 1o% of GDP and rising), which has a strong external energy dependence, and at a time when food and energy prices have been rising sharply. All of this is bound to exert a very strong downward pressure on internal consumer demand, and as a knock-on impact on investment spending. At the same time slowing growth globally, and in the EU and eurozone economies in particular, makes for a very difficult external environment where increasing exports (even assuming Spanish export prices were currently competitive, which they aren't) becomes difficult, if not well nigh impossible.

Serious Structural Distortions

So let's take a quick look at some of the underlying structural issues. In the first place both Spanish households and corporates are extremely highly leveraged at this point in terms of their outstanding debt obligations. The levels of debt to GDP are really extraordinarily high when compared with their eurozone peers.

So how did Spain get into this rather precarious situation? Well I don't think you need to look too far to discover the answer. As can be seen in the chart below, Spain effectively had negative interest rates throughout the entire period between the start of 2002 and the autumn of 2006. That this state of affairs was produced in the very earliest years of the history of the eurozone was indeed, in my opinion, truly unfortunate, since it meant that inflation expectations had not had time to be "steered down" by a central bank track record. Thus a very widespread reaction on the part of ordinary Spaniards to what were generally perceived to be derisory interest rates for savers was to withdraw money from longer term deposit accounts and to place it in what was considered to be the safest of safe inflation hedges: property. Thus began what may well turn out to have been one of the most serious property bubbles in recent history.

The situation was also doubly unfortunate, since the ECB along with other central banks had lowered interest rates in an attempt to support economic weakness produced by a drop in stock market values following the collapse of the internet boom. In Spain's case however, the excesses caused by the internet boom never really had the opportunity to unwind, since as one boom ended, another one simply got going in its place. This effect can be clearly seen in the chart for long term quarterly GDP growth produced below, where we can see that following the 1992/93 recession (and up to Q2 2008) Spain simply hasn't had one single quarter of negative growth - that is during 15 years. Hence the legend of the Spanish economic miracle was born. But as with all legends, we should also really be asking ourselves what the reality was which lay behind it, since as we can now see, the absence of recession - and in particular the absence of recession in 2002/03 - simply means that we now have a lot of extra "distortion" lying out there and waiting to be "corrected" (the waste-pipes were effectively never flushed, which is why we are now faced with such a peculiar smell emmanating from the sewage system). This would be the main reason why I would argue that what we cannot now expect is a relatively smooth "return to trend" in 12 to 18 months time, since Spain has effectively been "off trend" for some six or seven years now, and the magnitude of the excesses (10%+ CA deficit, 5 million immigrants in eight years, corporate indebtedness pushing the 120% of GDP mark etc etc) is prima facie evidence for this. So even in the best of cases we are almost certainly now facing a significant period of negative and then very low headline GDP growth. But we may not be lucky enough to get away from all this with a simple best case scenario.

The last piece of structural evidence I would offer in this post refers to the CA deficit situation. Since I deal with that reasonably exhaustively in the Artemio Cruz piece, I will only refer to one item here: the deteriorating balance on the income account.

Now this is important in my opinion. It is important since obviously any of the remedies to Spain's short term financing problems imply borrowing money (in some way, shape or form via the support which is offered by belonging to the eurosystem). Spain needs one of those proverbial "bailouts", even though since Spain does not have its own idependent currency this position is somewhat masked by the fact that everything is denominated in euros. But debts incur interest, and the more you borrow, the more you effectively have to pay, not only in capital, but also in interest. And if Spain country risk rises sharply in any way - as some analysts are suggesting it may have to - well then what is already a serious problem is only going to become a more serious one.

Land Prices

So where are the risks? Well I think it is no simple accident that Martinsa-Fadesa has been the first major developer to go, since a very large part of their portfolio is composed of land. According to press reports Martinsa Fadesa had land totalling 28.67 million square metres, 41 percent of which is outside Spain (and 50% of which is not "zoned", that is it is without the necessary premission to build). They also have a stock of more than 173,000 newly-built and unsold properties (again by no means all of these are in Spain). Now land is going to be a very important component in this whole "correction", since a lot of land (as we can see) has been accumulated with intent to build, and much of this land may now become virtually worthless. And land prices are already falling faster than house prices. Data from the Ministry of Housing shows that land for building fell to 251 Euros/m2 in March, a 7.7% drop when compared with March 2007. Land prices had fallen for 3 consecutive months by March with the average cost of land in Spain now being back somewhere around where it was at the end of 2004.

So I would say this is one of the first issues the Spanish government needs to tackle, and quite urgently. Frankly I can see little alternative to having the government intervene and take this land off the books of those who are holding it - not at market prices, they can handle some sort of "haircut" - but I don't think the government should be sitting idly back and watch one developer after another simply fold, since the end result of this is that the problem then moves over into an already overstretched banking sector.

Which brings me to my exhibit one: Japan land prices.

One of the key features in Japan's ongoing battle against deflation has been the way in which land prices were simply allowed to fall after the property bubble burst in 1991. The above chart shows the sharp rise in Japanese land prices from 1986 to 1990 - a period during which they more than doubled - and how they subsequently fell - albeit more gradually — by roughly two thirds from 1990-91 to 2005. Although urban land prices started to turn up slightly post 2006, land prices still continue to fall elsewhere, and of course we still haven't seen how the latest construction "bust" in Japan is going to leave things. Unsurprisingly, residential construction has remained virtually dormant in Japan over this entire deflationary period.So the question is, what is to stop this happening in Spain. I would be grateful to anyone who can present me with a reasoned argument as to why what happened in Japan won't happen here. Meanwhile the risk is evidently there.

The Builders In General

Obviously even if the most immediate and pressing problem in Spain is arising in the area of land prices, the rest of the housing related construction sector will not be far behind. This is a problem that is simply waiting to happen. According to the latest data from the Spanish housing ministry, average Spanish property prices fell by 0.3% in the 3 months to the end of June, but they were still 2% up on prices in Q2 2007, a factor which is leading many to question the reliability of the Spanish data (one more time Artemio Cruz strikes, since Spanish institutions are far from swift in responding to problems, and would seem to prefer denying that they exist). One explanation for the present situation may be that prices are being measured in terms of the initial asking price and not the final selling price. Whatever the explanation prices are certainly set to tumble, and even the the G-14 developers’ association, traditionally a staunch upholder of the immobility of property values, has had to admit that new-build prices have fallen by 15% in the last 6 months alone, while Cue Mariano Miguel, ex-president and present board member of the much troubled developer Colonial, is already predicting a fall in the region of 25% to 30% over the next two years. And new property in Barcelona (which is where I live) is now taking ten times longer to sell than it was only a year ago, according to real estate consultancy Aguirre Newman.

Meanwhile we learn from Jose Luis Malo de Molina, director general at the Bank of Spain (speaking at a recent conference in Valencia) that the number of new homes which will be completed in Spain in 2008 will beat all previous records (I said this was a system which was slow to react), simply piling one more house after another in order to add to that glut of newly completed homes that is already idly languishing and casting its long shadow over the Spanish property market. Muñoz's explanation for this phenomenon is simply that “the real estate sector can’t turn around quickly, it works in the medium and long term, so this year the properties started at the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006 will be completed, which means the number of new properties on the market will hit an all time high.” As I say, "just in time" may be an idea that has entered the heads of the more agile companies like the textile consortium Inditex, but most of Spain is a very, very long way from being able to offer an agile response. On the anecdotal front, a friend of mine recently went to visit family homes in the North West of Spain. In Vigo he spoke to the owner of a brick factory, and in Leon someone who had a quarry. In both cases production was continuing (there is simply no on/off switch here) but the inventory already had piled up to the extent of being now prepared to satisfy normal requirements for the whole of 2009 (in both cases), and of course, in 2009 requirements will not be normal, since housing starts in 2008 have collapsed to a forecast of below 200,000 (down from 600,000 plus in 2007).

At this point estimating the volume of unsold housing in Spain is really a question of "its anyone's guess" rather than a matter of scientific fact. The number 1 million is popular, but I suspect this is more a question of serving up an easily managed factoid than one of accurately measuring empty houses one by one. The same applies to the estimates for the size of the likely fall in property values. All we can safely say at this point, I think, is that the number in both cases is large.

The big question for our current concerns is who is exposed to the risk on all this, and the answer to that question is a lot simpler: Spain's already cash-strapped banking system.

One common estimate of the exposure of the banks to the builders would be somthing of the order of 300 billion euros - this is the opinion of Spanish analyst Inigo Vega at Iberian Securities (and it is one I more or less share). So we could say we have something in the region of 20% to 25% (or more) of Spanish annual GDP in play here.

Bank Exposure Through Mortgage Backed Securites

To this second order exposure of the banking system to the construction sector alone (and remember, through the negative impact of all this on the real economy, we should never lose sight of those non-construction corporates, you remember, the ones who had all that indebtedness we saw in the first chart) we need to add the exposure of the banks to the cedulas hipotecarias, which alone run to something in the 250 to 300 billion euro range (to which we need to add, of course, other classes of more conventional mortgage backed-securities ). If we add these two together - the builders and the cedulas - then we are obviously talking about a potential injection into something of over half of one years GDP in Spain.

According to Celine Choulet of PNB Paribas mortgage-backed securities in the broader sense of the term (ie including cedulas and MBS) now add up to around 37% of outstanding mortgage loans in Spain. She also estimates that asset backed securities held by non-residents may amount to as much as 81% of the total securities issued.

Outstanding home loans (for purchases and refis) represent a substantial percentage of the Spanish banking institutions’ balance sheets (21.5% of total assets and 35.6% of total loans to the non-financial private sector in the second quarter of 2007). In the second quarter of 2007, outstanding home loans amounted to 589 billion euros, 56.4% of which were distributed by cajas (29.8% of their assets), 37.2% by commercial banks (15.4%) and 6.4% by mutual institutions (30.9%).

If we add together home loans and the financing of real estate sector (construction and property services), the overall exposure of Spanish credit institutions has increased significantly over the last decade (37% of assets in the second quarter of 2007, 61.5% of total loans to the non-financial private sector). Exposure of Spanish banks to the real estate sector has exceeded, both in level and in growth rate, that of US, Japanese and British banks. In total, in the second quarter of 2007, cajas (49.7% of assets, 70.5% of loans) and mutual institutions (46% and 56.3% respectively) were almost twice as exposed as commercial banks (28% and 55.2% respectively).

According to Choulet - and just to take one example - in 2006 total new funding to the Spanish mortgage market reached 201.3 billion euros, of which 88.3 billion took the form of covered bonds (representing 43.9% of the total of mortgage securities market) and 113 billion was in mortgage-backed securities (56.1%).

And remember the cedulas all need to be "rolled over" in the next few years (with a big chunk coming up between now and 2012). And the problem starts this autumn. According to an article in the Spanish daily El Pais at the end of June the Spanish banking sector needs to raise 62 billion Euros before the end of this year just to rollover what they have coming up on the immediate horizon.

So what does all this add up to? Well, to do some simple rule of thumb arithmetic, just to soak up the builders debts and handle the cedulas mess, we are talking of quantities in the region of 500 to 600 billion euros, or more than half of one years Spanish GDP. Of course, not every builder is going to go bust, and not every cedula cannot be refinanced, but the weight of all this on the Spanish banking system is going to be enormous. Banco Popular is the most visible sign of the pressure, and their shares have already dropped by 44% this year, and by 7.9% on Tuesday alone (they were the listed bank which was most exposed to Mrtinsa Fadesa).

So it is either inject a lot of money now - more than Spain itslelf can afford alone - or have several percentage points of GDP contraction over several years and very large price deflation - ie a rather big slump - in my very humble opinion. And it is just at this point that we hit a major structural, and hitherto I think, unforeseen problem in the eurosystem (although Marty Feldstein was scratching around in the right area from the start). The question really we need an answer to is this one: if there is to be a massive cash injection into Spain's economy, who is going to do the injecting? Spain alone will surely simply crumble under the weight, and it is evident that the problem has arisen not as the result of bad decisions on the part of the Spanish government, but as a result of institutional policies administered in Brussels and monetary policy formulated over at the ECB. And yet, the Commission and the ECB are not the United States Treasury and the Federal Reserve, no amount of talk about European countries being similar to Florida and Nebraska is going to get us out of this one: and it is going to be step up to the plate and put your money where your mouth is time soon enough. Yet, cor blimey, we are still busying ourselves arguing about the small print on the Lisbon Treaty.

Demographics and Construction

The third major area of risk I would like to highlight today relates to the problem of demographics and their impact on the construction outlook. PNB Paribas (see initial link) see demography as one of the principal downside risks to their forecast. They put it like this:

"With United Nations population projections pointing to growth of only 300k per year on a ‘high-population’ variant for 2010-15, housing starts could fall considerably further. Hence the risks to our central forecast of 30% off housing investment by end-2009 are to the downside. The correction could be more rapid than expected. If not, it is likely to persist into 2010. ...........Our forecast has housing investment converging to levels consistent with relatively strong population growth. A weaker population assumption or some undershoot of the ‘equilibrium’ level would lead to a worse outcome."

Basically, I think the big topic in this context is the coming rate of new household formation. And here it is worth remembering that while the countries most affected by the property-driven credit crunch in the EU would appear to be Spain, Ireland and the UK, the UK is rather different from the other two, since while housebuilding grew by 187% in Spain between 1996 and 2006 (and by 177% in Ireland), the equivalent increase in the UK was just 12%. Planning restrictions in Britain meant fewer homes were built and the resulting relative scarcity may provide one part of the explanation for why house prices have almost doubled, in real terms, in the UK since 1999 despite the comparatively low percentage of new builds (this would bring us back to the huge zoned and un-zoned lang overhang in Spain, and what the dynamics are that produced it). That is, while the UK can to some extent offset the impact of the crisis in the longer term by increasing homebuilding (to house, for example, all those extra people from Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe), in Spain and Ireland the problem is going to be very different, since they both have to sharply reduce housebuilding capacity.

So what are the main sources of new household formation in Spain? Well basically they are threefold: natural population development, migration, and second homeowners from the north of Europe. Now if we start with the question of natural population evolution in Spain, ex-migration the Spanish population is virtually stationary at this point - with an average annual increase of a mere 30,000. But what matters in housing terms is not so much the size of the population as its age structure, and here we don't need to go to the level of refinement involved in looking at longer term UN population projections (high, median or otherwise) because in terms of Spanish property from now to 2020 (at least in terms of natural population drift) the deal is now done (or rather the goose is now cooked), and a quick glance at the US Census Bureau IDB population pyramid for 2000 should make this abundantly clear (see below).

What we can effectively see is that in 2000 (and please click on the image if you want a better look) Spain's three historically largest 5 year cohorts constituted the 25 to 40 age group. But if we mentally fast forward as far as 2015 we will see that the aggregate size of the cohorts in this age range is very significantly smaller, and if we fast forward again to 2020, we will see that what we have are the three smallest cohorts in the last forty years. And from here on in we only go down and down - talk about absence of sustainability!

So we are left with North Europeans is search of second homes and migrants to offer some support to Spain's rapidly crumbling housing sector in the coming years. Well on the North Europeans front the picture doesn't look exactly promising either, since the bulk of the buyers in recent years have been British (Britons own an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 properties in Spain), and they are already having their own problems, plus the fact that changes in the value of the GBP and interest rates mean that affordability is becoming an issue, an issue to which you have to add the drop in attraction of properties whose prices may now be set to seriously deflate, and over a significant number of years.

Indeed, according to Manuel Gandarias, president of the ‘Live in Spain’ holiday-home developers’ association, sales of holiday homes in Spain are now down by 50% from the peak “In recent years between 120,000 and 125,000 holiday homes were sold each year, this year it will be half that,” he is quoted as saying. And of course it isn't only the cost of buying the home that has been going up, it is also the cost of servicing the debt that buying the home brings with it. Josep Suárez, director at Solbank in London estimates that the combined impact of rising Euribor rates and the appreciation of the Euro against the pound (15% in the last 9 months) means that mortgage payments for Britons with mortgages in Spain are now 25% higher than they were a year ago.

So the outlook on the North European second home market doesn't exactly look bright either, which leaves us with the migrants. As is now generally well known, Spain's population has increased dramatically in recent years - from around 40 million in 2000 to around 45 million in 2008 - and this increase has been almost exclusively (natural increase is no more than a quarter of a million) the result of huge inward migration.

Basically the future of all these migrants is now deeply uncertain. I would even say that losing the migrants constitutes the most important of all the downside risks to the Spanish economic crisis for the impact it will have on urban rents and mortgage delinquency in the short term (since many of the migrants have bought flats), and for the consequences for Spain's housing market and pensions system in the mid term. Evidently, since most of the migrants are economic migrants the inward flow must surely be about to dry up (since there are few if any jobs for them) and thus our attention should be focused on the need to hold onto those we already have.

Is There A Rescue Plan Available?

Basically, and on the basis of all the above, I would like to now put forward a five point "rescue" plan for the Spanish economy. It would look something like this:

1/ Set up a national land agency, to buy up land and to irrevocably convert it to other uses (agriculture wouldn't be a bad bet where possible given present food prices). This to include the proviso that such land could never again be zoned.
2/ Buy out and close down the bankrupt builders as part of a general restructuring programme such as the one which was developed for the shipyards and the mines.
3/ Buy up and burn immediately ALL outstanding cedulas hipotecarias. Well, I'm exaggerating here, but something very decisive needs to be done to take these things out of circulation in the longer term, or we will never ease Spain out from under this.
4/ Establish a programme to help immigrants in difficult circumstances, and offer training etc to prepare for the future. Abasic focus of policy needs to be on trying to persuade migrants to stay.
5/ Restructure all existing mortgage contracts - which will involve every one paying more - in order to put mortgage financing in Spain back on a sound footing. This will obviously require legislative intervention, and will equally obviously involve breaking the direct tie with one year euribor. It has been following euribor up and down which has gotten the Spanish mortgage market into this mess in the first place.

OK, I warned you. I said none of this was going to be popular. And none of these propsals should be consider as carved in stone. Better ones could well, I am sure, be put forward, but in the absence of anything credible in the way of alternatives I am putting them forward now. As I said at the start, there is no point in agreeing to have your own throat slit just to see people you don't like have their's slit first.

It is very, very important that some form of "corta fuegos" (fire break) is put in place, and put in place now, otherwise the whole of Spain could very easily burn down in just the same way the Liceu opera house did here in Barcelona, simply because some chump decided to do on-stage soldering repairs with the safety curtain up! Risk sir, there's no risk here. It's all as safe as houses.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

German Investor Confidence Drops To 16 Year Low In July

German investor confidence fell to a record low in July as surging inflation and slowing export growth started to cloud the outlook for growth in Europe's largest economy. The ZEW Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim said its index of investor and analyst expectations dropped to minus 63.9, the lowest since the index was first compiled in December 1991, down from minus 52.4 in June.

As a stronger euro weighs on exports and the U.S. housing slump damps confidence worldwide, Germany's benchmark DAX share index has dropped 7 percent in the past month and 23 percent this year. The dollar fell to a record low against the euro again this morning, hitting $1.6038 at one point. The dollar thus extended this year's 10 percent slide following concern that confidence in the debt of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will deteriorate even after the U.S. government pledged support for the buyers of home loans. The stronger euro is putting pressure on German exporters already coping with a slowing global economy. The currency has gained 15 percent against the dollar over the past year, while the crisis in U.S. subprime mortgages has been sending shock waves through financial markets and reducing the outlook for global growth.

German exports declined the most in almost four years in May, as a slowdown in some key eurozone economies (Spain, Italy) and a stronger euro curbed demand. Sales abroad, adjusted for working days and seasonal changes, decreased 3.2 percent from April, the Federal Statistics Office said this morning. That was the biggest drop since June 2004.


There seems to be a general consenus at the present time that the German economy is slowing. Where there is no real consensus is over the rate at which it is slowing and where and when the slowdown will settle. It is already clear, however, that GDP growth in 2008 will be below the heady 2.9% annual rate achieved in 2006, or the 2.5% clocked up in 2007.

The median of five forecasts published in June by the major German economic institutes sees growth in the German economy this year of 2.2%. This really now seems a highly optimistic number, especially bearing in mind the economy may in fact have shrunk in the second quarter after expanding 1.5 percent in the first three months, according to the recent statement of Deputy Economy Minister Walther Otremba.

I personally will be very surprised if we see growth at or near the 2.2% the institutes are forecasting (and much less the 2.5% put forward in the now somewhat dated EU commission April forecast, although Eurostat now have a 1.8% forecast pencilled into their database). I even consider the 1.7% from the OECD and 1.9% from Morgan Stanley to be still on the high side given the extent of downside risk and the sort of real economy data we are now seeing.

At the start of the year the German government was reckoning on a growth rate of 1.7 per cent, while Peer Steinbrück is basing himself on 1.2% for the draft budget.

“Now the president of the Bundesbank told the cabinet it might be 2 per cent, to my surprise,” Peer Steinbrück informed the Financial Times recently. “For my 2009 budget, I estimated growth at around 1.2 per cent, which accounts for all the downside risk ... Some people say it might be 1.4 or 1.5.”

Obviously I am one of the people in question, since I would go much nearer to the 1.4% rate forecast by the IMF in its April World Economic Outlook forecast, and my reasoning would be as follows. We have already had 1.5% growth in the first quarter, but we may have a negative number to put next to it in Q2. Lets make a guess: -0.2%. That brings us back to around 1.3% (its not as simple as this in practice, but bear with me for a second). So then, what if we get, say, a reasonably positive Q3: 0.4% expansion, say. But what then if we get a contraction in Q4? Then everything would depend on the rate of contraction.

Well, there's a lot of guessing going on here, and we will be a little clearer when we get the Q2 number, but the basic structure of the situation is, I think, the one I am suggesting here. Very weak (and possibly negative) growth in Q2 followed by a "bounce back" in Q3, and then a second negative quarter in Q4, a quarter which could well by that point be the first of two consecutive quarters of negative growth, that is the first part of a recession.

In addition all the indications suggest that German consumption will continue to be weak throughout 2008. So if consumer consumption is at best flat, government consumption equally so, and investment and construction weakening, we are simply lefy with export growth, and here the outlook is definitely more negative in 2008 than it was in 2007. So I would say that, based on current data, 1.4% growth in Germany in 2008 looks to be a reasonable estimate at this point, and if there is risk to this call, then I would say that it was mainly downside.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Major Spanish Builder Suspends Trading As Consumer Confidence Plummets

Reuters are reporting that the listed Spanish property company Martinsa Fadesa have been suspended from trading this morning following the request from the Spanish property firm last week for extra time from the banks to obtain additional credit in order to maintain its refinancing obligations. Martinsa Fadesa said on Friday it had asked creditor banks to waive a requirement that it obtain a 150 million euro ($235.7 million) loan - to make scheduled interest repayments - until August 7 after the deadline for obtaining it expired.

The company is due to hold a board meeting at 14:30 CET.

Shares fell 25 percent to 7.30 euros this morning before the Spanish stock exchange regulator suspended trading. On Friday, they fell almost 34 percent after the company said it had asked creditor banks to give it until Aug. 7 to obtain a loan the loan it needed as part of a refinancing agreement reached in May. In a regulatory filing, the company added that it had asked for the waiver because the deadline for obtaining the loan had expired.

Martinsa Fadesa On The Ropes

Former Real Madrid President Fernando Martin's company Martinsa Fadesa started to be back in the news again last Friday, simply becuase they found themselves unable to raise a 150 million euros payment they should have made as part of a refinancing agreement reached in May which would have let the company put off paying the lion's share of its approximately 5 billion euros of debt until at least 2011.

Basically back in May Fadesa was forced to renegotiate 4 billion Euros of its debt with a consortium of lenders (including several big bank names like Ahorro Corporacion Financiera, La Caixa, Caja Madrid and Morgan Stanley - who are all lead arrangers of the company's 5.1 billion euro loan, and hold more than half of it. Other debtholders include hedge funds and Collateralised Loan Obligations (CLOs) who reportedly control "less than 10 percent" of the debt). Now Martinsa Fadesa has failed to meet a key condition of the agreement then reaced, namely to secure a 150 million Euro loan from Spain’s Institute of Official Credit (ICO). The ICO has refused a loan on the grounds that it does not finance private housing developments. Essentially Martinsa-Fadesa should have known that at the outset, so they seem to have only been trying to buy time with the application. That time has now run out.

So Martinsa-Fadesa announced on Friday that it had asked its creditor banks for an extension to the deadline for the 150 million euo payment to August 7. Obviously without the loan Fadesa may well be forced into voluntary administration to seek protection from its creditors.

My view is that even acquiring the loan would simply have been putting of the inevitable, but of course the banks are very reluctant to accept a complete default onto their books, since under Spanish law they would have to put the full amount of the outstanding debt - estimated at around 5 billion euros - aside until the receivership process is terminated (which would take some time) and they are already short of cash.

Obviously everything in the mortgage backed securities and construction area moved up a notch on Friday, with the much heralded problems of FannyMae and FreddyMac, as well as the less widely covered failure of IndyMac, and the urgent rescue of Roskilde Bank in Denmark.

Basically, the already parlous state of the cedulas hipotecarias just got a touch more parlous, while the prospect of any early opening of the international wholesale money markets to securities issued by Spanish banks seems now to be shooting off over a very distant horizon.

Spanish Government Postpones Bond Sales

In a move whose connection with what is happening to Martinsa-Fadosa is not at all clear at this stage, the Spanish government postponed last Friday a planned sale of 15-year bonds - ostensibly because investors are shunning the debt on concern that the fastest inflation and slowest economic growth in more than a decade will erode returns, however we should not forget that Spain's banks are leaking money, as they are forced to find the ways and means to both fund the country's 9 billion euro monthly current account deficit and provide some fresh lending for mortgages for the hard pressed construction sector.

Ivan Comerma, Barcelona-based head of fixed income at Caixa Calatunya is quoted as saying the government will wait until demand improves. Comerma said he had been approached bythe banks hired to sell the securities.

Raphael Gallardo - strategist at Axa Investment Managers in Paris - who was also approached, is quoted as saying that the deal was "put on hold" due to "the string of bad cyclical news coming out of Spain in recent weeks has turned investors more cautious on the credit."

Spain's bonds gave investors a loss of 3 percent in the three months to the end of June, the worst quarterly performance in 14 years, according to Merrill Lynch & Co's Spanish Government Index.

Enrique Ezquerra, deputy director of public debt at the Treasury in Madrid, is quoted as saying that the government is "monitoring the market" and will issue the bonds in the third quarter "if market conditions are favorable."

Spain appointed Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA, Calyon, Dresdner Kleinwort, HSBC Holdings Plc, Banco Santander SA and Societe Generale last month to arrange the sale of the euro-denominated debt, its debut issue of 2023 securities.

Spain's Consumer Confidence Index Plummets

Well, in this sort of environment it is hardly surprising, but Spain's confidence index hit a new historic low this month. I guess that isn't saying too much, since the index was only started up at the begining of 2005, but still, as can be seen from the chart below the fall in the Instituto de Credito Oficial (yep, the same people Martinsa-Fadesa wanted to borrow money from) consumer confidence general index has been striking and unrelenting since last July, and indeed we are now down to nearly 50% of the from the April high point, having fallen from 94.4 to the current 51.7.

All the sub components in the index have been falling sharply, but perhaps most interesting of all is the appreciation that most Spaniards now seem to have of the economic situation of their country, which has fallen from the April 2007 high of 83.7 to the current 17.4.

More On The Property Glut

El Pais carried an interesting article last week on the situation in Seseña, a huge new "jumbo housing estate" of 13,500 apartments in the province of Toledo (Castilla-La Mancha) south of Madrid (Spain is the country not only of "jumbo" securities, but also of "jumbo" development). Seseña developer, Francisco Hernando is struggling to sell, and so far only 2,500 of the properties at Seseña have a first occupation licence, and only 750 people actually live there. In the Castilla-La Mancha region as a whole, 123,000 new properties have been built in the last 3 years, of which only 39,000 have been sold, implying an overhang of around 84,000 surplus new properties. That is 2 out of 3 of all new properties built in Castilla-La Mancha since 2005. According to the El Pais article, the number of housing starts in the region has risen dramatically in recent years: 31,000 in 2005, 37,500 in 2006, and 47,500 last year. But during the same period demand has remained more or less flat, at around 12,000 sales a year.

How Much Will House Prices Now Fall?

On other fronts, while I personally adamantly refuse to try to put numbers on how far Spanish property prices may fall, since at this point it really is impossible to tell, it is interesting to note that some developers themselves, after having resolutely denied the possible eventuality of a serious price fall, are now begining to recognise the painful reality. This week it has been the turn of Cue Mariano Miguel, ex-president and present board member of the quoted developer Colonial,(which incidentally is itself struggling to stay afloat in a sea of debt). Speaking at a recent conference organised by the Spanish savings bank Caja Madrid, Miguel said that he expects property prices to fall in real terms (after inflation) by between 25% and 30% over the next 2 to 3 years. Well, well, well.

New Homes To Hit An All Time High in 2008

And most ironically of all, according to Jose Luis Malo de Molina, director general of the Bank of Spain, speaking at a recent conference in Valencia, "The number of new homes this year will hit an all time high, more than in 2007." Now isn't that just what the doctor ordered! This means of course that the supply of unsold properties is only set to rise in the short to medium term. The reason for this is that there is quite a long lag between the granting of planning permission and the completion of construction. Benjamín Muñoz, general secretary of the property developers association in Valencia (and speaking to the regional daily ‘Las Provincias) put it this way: “the real estate sector can’t turn around quickly, it works in the medium and long term, so this year the properties started at the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006 will be completed, which means the number of new properties on the market will hit an all time high.”

So we have a two or three year time delay, which means that any improvement in construction activity (should there eventually be one) will be a longish time coming, and the slump in the construction sector (which has yet to really bite in) will be of some considerable duration. New starts are down this year from last years 600,000 to a current forecast of 200,000, though when the properties being built will actually be sold is, at this point, anyones guess.