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Archive for May, 2008

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May 30 (Bloomberg) — Iceland’s lawmakers passed a bill allowing the central bank to sell as much as 500 billion kronur ($6.76 billion) of foreign-currency bonds, equivalent to more than a third of the country’s gross domestic product.

The bill was passed late yesterday, Thorsteinn Thorgeirsson, chief economist at the Finance Ministry in Reykjavik, said in a telephone interview. The move would allow the central bank to more than triple foreign reserves.

The bank needs to restore confidence in an economy whose currency slumped 20 percent against the euro this year on concern commercial banks may have expanded abroad too fast. The assets of Iceland’s three biggest banks were nine times the size of the economy last year. Kaupthing Bank hf, the biggest of the three, had 87 percent of its assets denominated in foreign currencies.

“This definitely helps to boost confidence in the economy,” said Bjarke Roed-Frederiksen, an economist at Nordea Bank AB in Copenhagen, the biggest Nordic lender. “But it’ll be an expensive loan, if they decide to act on it.”

The krona gained for the first day in four, rising 0.3 percent to trade at 115.4969 against the euro as of 12:16 p.m. in Reykjavik.

“The central bank will probably take advantage of the bill,” said Ingolfur Bender, head of economic research at Glitnir Bank hf in Reykjavik. “That’s what the government wants them to do and that’s what they will do.”

An official at the central bank, or Sedlabanki, declined to comment.

Currency Slump

The krona has tumbled this year on concern the global credit crunch may force some of the island’s banks, who rely on money- market funding to run their operations, to turn to the central bank for aid. Interest rates at a record high have failed to reverse the slump in the currency, which pushed the inflation rate to an 18-year high of 12.3 percent this month.

The central bank on May 22 kept the benchmark rate unchanged at a record 15.5 percent, indicating policy makers may prefer to boost foreign reserves to support the currency rather than raise rates further.

“I know the central bank is working quite hard on it right now; they’re on a roadshow talking to possible investors in London today and yesterday,” Bender said. “I definitely expect them to announce something within the next couple of weeks.”

The bank on May 16 entered an agreement with its Norwegian, Swedish and Danish counterparts to swap kronur for as much as 1.5 billion euros, allowing it to almost double its foreign reserves.

Reserves

“It’s clear that this move, and the swap agreement, are more significant at the moment than changes in the interest rate in supporting the krona,” Roed-Frederiksen said.

Currency reserves stood at 206.8 billion kronur at the end of April, the bank said on May 8. That compares with combined assets of 11.4 trillion kronur at Kaupthing, Landsbanki Islands hf and Glitnir Bank hf at the end of last year. Including the value of the swap agreement entered earlier this month and the debt sale approved today, reserves could rise as high as 880 billion kronur at today’s exchange rates.

Moody’s Investors Service cut Iceland’s credit rating on May 20 to Aa1 from Aaa citing concern that the government may have to cover liabilities at the nation’s banks.

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As noted here time and again, Iran has nothing to lose by waiting out the end of George Bush’s term.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said May 29 that Iran thinks U.S. voters want to change the foreign policies of President George W. Bush, and he said that the present U.S. presidential campaigns make that clear, The Associated Press reported. Mottaki, who would not endorse a candidate, said that foreign policy would play an important part in the election of the next U.S. president.

Iran could not have had a better March-May. A rumored Israeli Gaza offensive, against Iran’s proxy Hamas, failed to materialize. Hezbollah, staked by Iran, was forced to go all-in in Lebanon, won, and has returned to a defensive crouch.

Mottaki’s announcement is a signal to Ahmadinejad’s domestic foes that Iraq is worth waiting for for a little while longer. He happens to be right.

US econo-political analysis is divided into two camps. The “mainstream” camp sees US growth figures as credible, and takes at face value the idea that the US, by sheer economic vitality, has avoided a recession. This school views US inflation as temporary. It views 10/90 “right track/wrong track” numbers as merely a dubious poll, a product of stampeding pessimism, spawned by the media’s sensationalizing of US malaise. This group has faith in government and banking institutions, and little faith in consumers’ ability to assess or predict their own behavior. Curiously, this group is also disproportionately Republican and “free-market.” It does not see much potential for an economic- or inflation-driven political upheaval in November 2008.

The “cynics,” e.g., Bill Gross, Mish Shedlock, and John Williams, trust consumers’ perceptions over the government’s. Cynics argue that consumers are telling the truth when they say how pessimistic they are, and trace the dissonance between official and consumer perceptions to vagaries of BLS unemployment and inflation accounting–a story flogged to death here, and much more persuasively on other sites.

The cynics see much higher potential for political upheaval in November 2008.

Apparently, so does Iran.

Bush Administration policy vis-a-vis Iran/Iraq usually means dialing up tensions over Iranian nukes and weapons supplies into Iraq, bringing up aircraft carriers, launching large operations against Iran’s Mehdi Army Iraqi proxy, slapping sanctions on Iranian banks, using its own militias to incinerate strategic people inside Iran, etc.

After Hezbollah routed the US alliance in Lebanon (followed by an abrupt end to the US/Iraqi crackdown on Sadr in Baghdad) one would assume that the Bush Administration policy of “we’d like to talk, but we’re happy to pull the trigger too” attitude has lost credibility. Iran is quietly leveraging its gains by edging the US out of Iraq:

May 29, 2008 1419 GMT
Senior Iraqi official Sa’ad Javad Qandil told Alalam television May 29 that a draft of an agreement to extend U.S. troops in Iraq beyond 2008 was problematic, especially any condition that would allow the U.S. to establish a military base there.

Predictably, Qandil is a member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Teheran’s “mainstream” Iraq proxy (the Mehdi Army is, most of the time, its militant proxy). Hezbollah’s unanswered victory in Lebanon has ramifications across the entire region, not so much in the eyes of Americans as in the eyes of Arabs who were reminded, once again, that the personal bonds between Ahmadinejad and militia leaders can result in very quick and decisive action when Teheran’s interest are threatened.

Anyway, Iran hasn’t been deterred by US tough talk in the past, and there’s less reason than ever to think that louder tough talk will change Iran’s behavior at all. Lebanon has changed the game.

I would repeat my “sh*t or get off the pot” mantra about the US and Iran, but the US has backed down one too many times. I’m beginning to believe we should throw the Saudis the keys as soon as possible, to hedge against a probably adverse US election outcome while it’s still possible.

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Setser on the PBOC:

What cann’t go on still hasn’t slowed, let alone stopped (Chinese reserve growth)

… Back in 2004, it was considered rather stunning when China added close to $100 billion to its reserves ($95 billion) in a single quarter, bring its total reserves up to around $600 billion.. The dollar’s fall against the euro (and associated rise in the dollar value of China’s euros) explains around $15 billion of the rise. But at the time, $80 billion was considered a very large sum for China to have added to its reserves.

Now China has $1756 billion in reserves, after a $74.5 billion April increase. The dollar rose against the euro in April, so the underlying pace of increase – after adjusting for valuation changes – was more like $82 billion.

In a month.

And not just any month – in a month when oil topped $100 a barrel.

$82 billion a month, sustained over a year, is close to a trillion dollars. A trillion here, a trillion there and pretty soon you are talking about real money. If a large share of China’s reserves is going into dollars, as seems likely, this year’s increase in China’s dollar holdings could be almost as large as the US current account deficit.

The fact that one country’s government – and in effect two institutions (SAFE and the CIC) – are providing such a large share of the financing the US needs to sustain large deficits (particularly in a world where Americans want to invest abroad as well as import far more than they export) is unprecedented.

The real surprise in some sense is that the increase in China’s April preserves isn’t that much of a surprise. At least not to those who have been watching China closely.

Wang Tao – now of UBS – estimated that China added $600 billion to its foreign assets in 2007, far more than the reported increase in China’s reserves. Logan Wright (as reported by Michael Pettis) and I concluded that Chinese foreign asset growth – counting funds shifted to the CIC – could have topped $200 billion in the first quarter.

China hasn’t disclosed how much it shifted to the CIC, let alone when it shifted funds over to the CIC. But it seems likely that the surprisingly low increase in China’s reserves in March stems from a large purchase of foreign exchange by the CIC. Indeed, the CIC’s March purchase may have used up all of the RMB 1.55 trillion the CIC initially raised.

As a result, all of the increase in the foreign assets of China’s government seems to have showed up at the PBoC in April. Or almost all. China raised its reserves requirement in April, and the banks may have been encouraged to meet that reserve requirement by holding foreign exchange.

China’s current account surplus – adding estimated interest income to its trade surplus – was no more than $25 billion in April. FDI inflows were around $7.5 billion. Sum it up and it is a lot closer to $30 billion than $40 billion. Non-FDI capital inflows – hot money – explain the majority of the increase.

No wonder Chinese policy makers were so focused on hot money this spring. Hot money flows seem to have contributed to their decision to stop the RMB’s appreciation in April. But interest rate differentials still favor China – so it isn’t clear that a slower pace of appreciation will stem the inflows.

It certainly though helps to sustain the underlying imbalance that has given rise to massive bets on China’s currency.

The scale of China’s reserve growth suggests that China’s government is no longer just lending the US what it needs to buy Chinese goods. And it is now lending the US – and indeed the world – far more than the world needs to buy Chinese goods. Vendor financing is a fair description for China’s reserve growth in 2003 or 2004, but not now.

China’s government is increasingly acting as an international as well as a domestic financial intermediary. It has long borrowed — whether through the sale of PBoC bills of Finance Ministry bonds to fund the CIC – rmb to buy dollars, effectively taking the foreign currency domestic Chinese savers do not want to take. Now though it is borrowing from the rest of the world to lend to the rest of the world.

Most intermediaries though make money. Or at least try to. By contrast, China’s government is almost sure to lose money on its external financial intermediation. Selling RMB cheap to buy expensive dollars and euros is not a good business model.

China cannot be entirely comfortable with all the money that is pouring into China. But it isn’t at all clear that Chinese policy makers are willing to take the steps needed to shift decisively toward a new set of policies. It is clear that the costs of China’s current policies are rising.

Remember, China looses [sic] money on its reserves. More isn’t better.

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“With Bold Steps, Fed Chief Quiets Some Criticism”:

[…]

“It has been a really head-spinning range of unprecedented and bold actions,” said Charles W. Calomiris, professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School, referring to the Fed’s lending activities. “That is exactly as it should be. But I’m not saying that it’s without some cost and without some risk.”

[As yours truly noted back in November, Charles Calomiris wrote a verbose and obtuse article for VoxEU which proclaimed that there was no credit crisis — a restatement of his August claim that there was no credit crisis. I guess that makes him almost as good a forecaster as Bernanke is. ]

Timothy F. Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and a close Bernanke ally, defines the Fed chief’s “doctrine” as the overpowering use of monetary policies and lending to avert an economic collapse. “Ben has, in very consequential ways, altered the framework for how central banks operate in crises,” he said. “Some will criticize it and some will praise it, and it will certainly be examined for decades.”

Mr. Bernanke’s actions have transformed his image as a self-effacing former economics professor.

“I am tempted to think of him as somewhat Buddha-like,” said Richard W. Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. “He’s developed a serenity based on a growing understanding of the hardball ways the system actually works. You can see that it’s no longer an academic or theoretical exercise for him.”

Did he just say “Buddha-like”?

Within the Bush administration, Mr. Bernanke’s willingness to work with Democrats in Congress on measures to prevent mortgage foreclosures has stirred unease. “The fact that he, an appointee of George Bush, has come very close to advocating — though he hasn’t quite advocated it — a piece of legislation that George Bush threatened to veto is an illustration of his willingness to put his head on the chopping block,” said Alan S. Blinder, a professor of economics at Princeton and friend of the Fed chief.

One reason Mr. Bernanke is sticking his neck out is that he believes the broader economy’s recovery depends on the housing sector, which remains in a serious slump. Plenty of new evidence surfaced on Tuesday that this year’s spring home-buying season will be dismal, with one report showing that prices fell 14.1 percent in March from a year earlier and another that new-home sales are down 42 percent over the last year.

Among Democrats, Mr. Bernanke, a Republican, had previously been criticized by such party luminaries as the two former Clinton administration Treasury secretaries, Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence E. Summers, who worried that he was downplaying the dangers of a recession. But that view has changed.

“I think in the last few months they’ve handled themselves very sure-footedly,” Mr. Rubin said of the Fed. Many Democrats in Congress agree.

“They say that crisis makes the man,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. “He’s made believers out of people who were just not sure about him before.”

To lessen the chances of a financial collapse, Mr. Bernanke engineered the takeover of one investment bank, Bear Stearns, and tossed credit lifelines to others with exotic new lending facilities — the Fed now has seven such lending windows, some of them for investment banks as well as commercial banks.

He also allowed the Fed to accept assets of debatable value — mortgage-backed securities, car loans and credit card debt — as collateral for some Fed loans. For the first time ever, he installed Fed regulators inside investment banks to inspect their books.

Much to the dismay of conservative economists, Mr. Bernanke has also presided over an extraordinarily aggressive series of interest rate cuts, lowering the fed funds rate seven times, to 2 percent from 5.75 percent, since last September, though it has signaled a pause in further rate-cutting barring a further crisis. …

Bernanke and Paulson are the worst thing that’s happened to capitalism since Arthur Burns and Richard Nixon. Carter would have been awful, but conditions were so bad by 1979 that he had to authorize significant deregulation and capital gains tax cuts (from 35% to 28%, from memory) kicking and screaming.

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MZM (NSA) v USD value v commercial lending

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via

Using figures compile [sic] by independent research house GFMS Ltd., the council says the consumption of 31.5 tons in the first quarter shows a steep increase of 110% year-on-year and accounting for 43% of the world’s net retail investment demand of 72.2 tons in the period.

Vietnam’s arrival into pole position in the retail investment sector ousts India from the top slot with 31 tons, a decline by half from the first quarter in 2007 as Indian purchasers withdrew from the market and waited for lower and more stable prices.

The report says the surge in Vietnam’s demand was partly a response to soaring inflation, which hit 11.6% in 2007 and prompted a rush to buy gold, reflecting its perceived qualities as a hedge against inflation.

Demand was also spurred by the performance of gold relative to other investments such as equities and real estate, which have declined in value over recent months while gold has strengthened.

Furthermore, gold investments have been increasingly marketed by Vietnamese banks. High interest rates enable local banks to offer an interest rate on gold deposits since they can profitably sell the gold for dong, lend the dong out at high interest rates and hedge their gold position by entering into a forward buying agreement with an international bank.

Many Vietnamese prefer to hold gold rather than dong and the fact that this gold can earn interest from commercial banks makes it still more appealing as for investment option, says the report.

Vietnam’s gold demand for jewellery in the first quarter was 5.3 tons, that is stable from the previous quarter but down by 18.9% on a year-on-year comparison and the high price of gold was the primary reason for the decline.

Gold demand is divided into three purposes, jewellery demand, industrial and dental demand, and identifiable investment, comprising net retail investment (primarily bars and coins) and investment in Exchange Traded Funds and similar products (ETFs), the latter not yet available in Vietnam.

The world’s total gold demand in the first quarter fell 16% from a year earlier to 701.3 tons. Of which, jewellery demand was 445.4 tons, down 21%, industrial and dental demand fell 5% to 110.3 tons, while investment in ETFs was double to 72.9 tons and net retail investment dropped 35% to 72.2 tons.

(Source: SGT)

In some parts of the world, gold consumption and CPI are apparently correlated. Who knew?!

Let’s hope the rest of Asia picks up on the trend.

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Cokeflation

Sometimes anecdotal evidence is the best evidence” …

For decades, the Drug Enforcement Administration has measured the price and purity of illicit drugs. Its methodology is cryptic, but the dea says it’s a reliable way to spot trends.

And it says it has spied one: The cost of pure coke rose 44 percent in the United States between January and September 2007. The dea credits its own efforts, of course, along with increased Mexican and Colombian cooperation, for the downturn in supply it says caused the price hike.

But the agency omits an important factor: the plummeting value of the dollar, especially as compared to the soaring euro. Even as the dea has made it more bothersome to bring coke into the United States, the sliding dollar has made importing it less profitable. Both the UN and dea note that a kilo of coke brings in two times as much in Europe as it does in America.

As with any commodity, producers look to maximize earnings by selling in markets with the strongest currencies. But unlike oil, for instance, the value of which is measured in dollars, the cocaine market is more fluid. “The euro has become the preferred currency for drug traffickers,” declared then-dea administrator Karen Tandy at an anti-drug conference last May. “We’re seeing a glut of euro notes throughout South America,” she said, adding that “9 of 10 travelers who carried the $1.7 billion euros that came into the United States during 2005 did not come from Europe…They came from Latin America.”

Europe has become attractive to traffickers not just because of its healthy economy, but also for its open borders, less stringent drug policies, and increasing demand. American officials estimate that just a few years ago U.S. consumers snorted several times more blow than their Old World counterparts. That gap has dramatically narrowed as Europe feeds a cocaine binge that has been compared to America’s in the ’80s.

This new European focus is changing global drug-supply routes. West African nations have become important staging areas for packages on the way from South America to Spain and Portugal, the region’s main points of entry. The UN estimates that cocaine seizures in Africa increased nearly sixfold between 2005 and 2007 and that more than 90 tons of coke were intercepted in Portugal and Spain in 2006, more than was seized in all of Europe in 2004.

So how does all this affect the end market here at home? “The guy from the suburbs may be paying a little more, but there are no crackheads going without crack,” says Dale Sutherland, a narcotics investigator with the Washington, D.C., police department. That’s likely because increased costs are passed on down to low-level slingers who are more inclined to cut their product with talcum powder than risk being undercut by competitors. Indeed, the dea reported that during the same period when prices rose, there was a 15 percent decline in the purity of coke that officers seized or bought on the street. As they say on The Wire, “All in the game, yo. All in the game.”

The Wire was great, although too many main characters were dead or put away by the end of the third season, and anyway I won’t have the time to watch 4 & 5 for some while. Plus, the gratuitous seediness-to-plot ratio had deteriorated significantly.

It seems like when the cable shows start the ratings slide, they really go all-out on the skin…

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