A bond issue does little for the problem of plunging investment in Greece

by Shaun Richards

Today brings a development which will no doubt be trumpeted across the media and it is explained by this from Reuters yesterday,

Greece will return to bond markets with a five-year issue “in the near future, subject to market conditions”, authorities said on Monday.

The sovereign has mandated BofA Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs International Bank, HSBC, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley and SG CIB as joint lead managers for the transaction, according to a regulatory filing to the stock exchange.

The near future is today as we mull that in spite of its role in the Greek economic crisis Goldman Sachs is like the Barnacles in the writings of Charles Dickens as it is always on the scene where money is involved. As to why this is happening the Wall Street Journal explains.

Greece‘s borrowing costs have dropped to a four-month low, and Athens plans to raise up to $3.4 billion in a bond sale.

Although it is not turning out to be quite as cheap as the 3.5% hoped for.

Greece Opens Books For New 5 Year Bond, Initial Guidance For Yield 3.75-3.875% – RTRS Source ( @LiveSquawk)

Why are investors buying this?

The obvious objection is the default history of Greece but in these times of ultra low yields ~3.8% is not be sniffed at. This is added to by the Euro area slow down which could provoke more ECB QE and whilst Greece does not currently qualify it might as time passes. In the mean time you collect 3.8% per annum.

Why is Greece offering it?

This is much more awkward for the politicians and media who trumpet the deal because it is a bad deal in terms of financing for Greece. It has been able to borrow off the European Stability Mechanism at not much more than 1% yield for some time now. Actually its website suggests it has been even cheaper than that.

0.9992% Average interest rate charged by ESM on loans (Q1 2018)

Past borrowing was more expensive so the overall ESM average is according to it 1.62%. So Greece is paying a bit more than 2% on the average cost of borrowing from the ESM which is hardly a triumph. Even worse the money will have to be borrowed again in five years time whereas the average ESM maturity is 32 years ( and may yet be an example of To Infinity! And Beyond!).

So there is some grandstanding about this but the real reason is escaping from what used to be called the Troika and is now called the Institutions. The fact the name had to be changed is revealing in itself and I can understand why Greece would want to step away from that episode.
As we move on let me remind you that Greece has borrowed some 203.8 billion Euros from the ESM and its predecessor the EFSF.

The economy

We can see why the Greek government wants to establish its ability to issue debt and stay out of the grasp of the institutions as we note this from Kathimerini.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced an 11 percent increase in the minimum wage during a cabinet meeting on Monday, the first such wage hike in the country in almost a decade.

Actually the sums are small.

The hike will raise the minimum wage from 586 to 650 euros and is expected to affect 600,000 employees. He also said the government will scrap the so-called subminimum wage of 518 euros paid to young employees.

There are two catches here I think. Firstly in some ways Greece is competing with the Balkan nations which have much lower average wages than we are used to. Also this reverses the so-called internal competitiveness model.

The standard mimimum monthly wage was slashed by 22 percent to 586 euros in 2012, when Greece was struggling to emerge from a recession.

A deeper cut was imposed on workers below 25 years, as part of measures prescribed by international lenders to make the labour market more flexible and the economy more competitive.

Productivity

Here we find something really rather awkward which in some ways justifies the description of economics as the dismal science. Let me start with a welcome development which is the one below.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in October 2018 was 18.6% compared to 21.0% in October 2017 and 18.6% in September 2018 ( Greece Statistics Office)

But the improving labour market has not been matched by developments elsewhere as highlighted by this.

we documented that employment had started to lead output growth in the early days of the SYRIZA government. Since such a policy is unsustainable, we have to include in any consistent outlook that this process reverses and output starts leading employment again – hence restoring positive productivity growth. ( Kathimerini)

That led me to look at his numbers and productivity growth plunged to nearly -5% in 2015 and was still at an annual rate of -3% in early 2016. Whilst he says we “have to include” an improvement the reality is that it has not happened yet as this year has seen two better quarters and one weaker one. We have seen employment indicators be the first sign of a turn in an economy before but they normally take a year or so to be followed by the output indicator not three years plus. This reminds us that Greek economic growth is nothing to write home about.

The available seasonally adjusted data
indicate that in the 3rd quarter of 2018 the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) in volume terms increased by 1.0% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2018, while
in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2017, it increased by 2.2%.

If it could keep up a quarterly rate of 1% that would be something but the annual rate is in the circumstances disappointing. After all the decline was from a quarterly GDP of 62 billion Euros at the peak in 2009 whereas it is now 51.5 billion. So the depression has been followed by only a weak recovery.

More debt

I looked at the woes of the Greek banks yesterday but in terms of the nation here is the Governor of the central bank from a speech last week pointing to yet another cost on the way to repairing their balance sheets

An absolutely indicative example can assess the immediate impact of a transfer of about €40 billion of NPLs, namely all denounced loans and €7.4 billion of DTCs ( Deferred Tax Credits).

Comment

Whilst I welcome the fact that Greece has finally seen some economic growth the problem now is the outlook. The general Euro area background is not good and Greece has been helped by strong export growth currently running at 7.6%. There have to be questions about this heading forwards then there is the simply woeful investment record as shown by the latest national accounts.

Gross fixed capital formation (GFCF) decreased by 23.2% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2017.

The scale of the issue was explained by the Governor of the central bank in the speech I referred to earlier.

However, in order to increase the capital stock and thus the potential output of the Greek economy, positive net capital investment is indispensable. For this to happen, private investment must grow by about 50% within the next few years. In other words, the Greek economy needs an investment shock, with a focus on the most productive and extrovert business investment, to avoid output hysteresis and foster a rebalancing of the growth model in favour of tradeable goods and services.

Yet as we stand with the banks still handicapped how can that happen? Also if we return to the productivity discussion at best it will have one hand tied behind its back by as the lack of investment leads to an ageing capital stock. So whilst the annual rate of economic growth may pick up at the end of 2018 as last year quarterly growth was only 0.2% I am worried about the prospects for 2019.

It should not be this way and those who created this deserve more than a few sleepless nights in my opinion.

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