Wednesday, July 30, 2014

29/7/2014: Pause that hype about Russian reserves draining... for now

There is a lot of media 'noise' around Russia's foreign exchange reserves and the alleged links to sanctions as a causative driver for, what some report as dramatic, declines in Russian reserves.

Here is analysis of the official data.

Two charts first:

Total reserves:

As of the week of July 18, 2014, these stand at 472,500 million USD, down 4.2% on March 1, 2014 (20 days before the first round of sanctions announcements) and down 7.3% on January 1, 2014 (time around which the crisis in Ukraine started to take on sinister character, threatening directly the previous regime and drawing Moscow into it). Year on year the reserves are down 8%, which means that:

  1. Only around 1/2 of the entire decline in reserves can be linked to sanctions; and
  2. The declines down to sanctions were hardly dramatic.
The above (and below) does not deal with changes in foreign exchange valuations or gold price valuations, which can be significantly more than 4-8% swings in the recorded reserves.

Now, onto composition of reserves:

Table below summarises movements in all reserves (we only have official data through July 1, 2014 so far):

Note that while Russian reserves declined on foreign exchange side, they rose on gold side, so the net (combined) effect is shown in the last column of the table. At very worst, sanctions can account for roughly 3% decline in reserves. Again, hardly 'dramatic'.

I will update the above once August 1 data is out.

29/7/2014: Vera Graziadei Interview: Ukraine, Russia, Maidan...

This is a very insightful, personal-level interview with Vera Graziadei, who is a British TV presenter with Russian and Ukrainian roots, born in Donetsk, raised first in Eastern Ukraine, then in the UK, educated in LSE and so on...

Many personal feeling she narrates in the interview are shared by other people who have personal and familial ties to Ukraine and Russia. I would count numerous instances where reading her interview led me to think: "Me too! I felt the same." As an analyst, I too often hide behind the numbers, stats, expert opinions. But to all of us, there is also a personal connection that Graziadei develops strongly in her interview.

30/7/2014: Some Simple Maths Around Live Register Numbers

There are some positive news on Live Register front today, which you can read about here:

My friend, Marc Coleman noted in his commentary that:

Progress of sorts, I agree. However, several caveats apply:

  1. The above figures quoted by Marc omit outflows from LR due to expiration of benefits (e.g. two-earners household where one earner becomes unemployed, draws unemployment supports, but then runs out of benefits due to high income of the other earner, etc);
  2. The above reductions also reflect outflows of working age population out of Ireland;
  3. The above reductions reflect exits from LR due to entry into Activation Programmes (e.g. JobBridge) and general tightening of LR access (e.g. people made self-employed before they lost jobs etc).
Let's take a look at the numbers we do know:

  • July 2011: Live Reg total = 470,284;  Unem. rate = 14.3% (estimated at the time, not 14.5% - adjusted later); and State Training Programmes Participants = 54,287 (June - these numbers are reported with a lag of one month, so to make them comparable to currently available data, I took June numbers for 2011).
  • July 2014: Live Reg total = 404,515; Unem. rate = 11.5%; and STPs = 65,709 (June).
  • So STPs difference = 11,422
  • Net emigration 2011-2013 (25-64 years old only, so I exclude 15-24 year olds - the largest category - this gives me some comfort on relating these emigrants to unemployment or underemployment) = 28,900

And we have:

  • Net emigration 2011-2013 and net change in STPs = 40,322
  • Add 2013-2014 emigration at 1/2 rate of 2012-2013 rate for 25-64 year olds = 6,900
  • Live Reg total July 2011 relative to July 2014 change: -65,769
  • Net emigration and STPs change 2011-2013 (estimated): - 47,222
  • Not in the above: exits from LR due to expiration of benefits.

So even without exits from LR, potential improvement in LR for June-July 2014 compared to June-July 2011 is at maximum 18,547, over 3 years or roughly 6,180 per annum.

Reminder, Live Register supported numbers are at 404,515 (LR) +65,709 (STPs) = 470,224. Do the maths as to whether this rate of improvement is really significant enough…

My view is that it is great to see reductions in LR and (not in the current release) there are some good news from the QNHS side that covers new employment. But we need much, much more rapid reductions in unemployment and increases in jobs creation (especially jobs creation at domestic economy levels, not just in MNCs- dominated sectors) to even start talking about any significant 'progress' here.

Good thing, Marc agrees, somewhat:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

29/7/2014: Latest Round of EU Sanctions: Mirroring the U.S. and upping the ante...

EU finally agreed on the new round of sanctions against Russia - the full document is available here:

"In order to restrict Russia's access to EU capital markets, EU nationals and companies may no more buy or sell new bonds, equity or similar financial instruments with a maturity exceeding 90 days, issued by state-owned Russian banks, development banks, their subsidiaries and those acting on their behalf. Services related to the issuing of such financial instruments, e.g. brokering, are also prohibited." This is basically symmetric to the previous US sanctions (see: note: updated link to US sanctions here: though EU sanctions are covering all "state-owned Russian banks, development banks, their subsidiaries" not just those covered in the US sanctions.

"In addition, an embargo on the import and export of arms and related material from/to Russia was agreed. It covers all items on the EU common military list." These involve military equipment and equipment modified for military use, albeit some Mercedes G-Wagon retrofits, favoured by Russian vintage mafiosi, might qualify as well. Maybachs with protective plating will probably escape, unless someone orders an all-wheel-drive one...

"…prohibition on exports of dual use goods and technology for military use in Russia or to Russian military end-users." These are problematic as the lists are more ambiguous and broader. I am not an expert on this subject, but overall, such blanket prohibitions under what often amounts to relatiist testing procedures can have a much broader impact than intended.

"Finally, exports of certain energy-related equipment and technology to Russia will be subject to prior authorisation by competent authorities of Member States. Export licenses will be denied if products are destined for deep water oil exploration and production, arctic oil exploration or production and shale oil projects in Russia." This is symmetric to the US sanctions. It is interesting to note that the sanctions are designed specifically to hurt Russian energy sector in areas where the sector competes head-on with US and Canada: shale oil and arctic oil. On-shore traditional oil is not impacted.

Materially, and speaking strictly personally, I do not expect the new round of sanctions to have a direct impact on Irish bilateral trade with Russia, relating to goods, but we can see significant impact on transactions via IFSC ( You can see breakdown of goods flows with Russia here: The impact is intended, as in the case of the US sanctions, to be longer-term, restricting funding opportunities for major Russian companies and reducing their free cash flows (by forcing them to use cash flow to close off maturing debt). Ironically, also in the longer term, this can lead to Russian companies issuing more equity and debt domestically, deepening domestic financial markets, and carrying less debt overall, making their balancesheets stronger. The short-term impact is likely to be reputational and risk-related as some exporters and investors will opt to stay out of the Russian market in fear of future additional sanctions and faced with a prospect of dealing with EU and US bureaucracy (not to mention the prospect of dealing with their Russian counterparts).

On a geopolitical note, the sanctions are now starting to ramp up pressure on Russian leadership. What the reaction might be is anyone's guess, but I suspect we are not likely to see major and rapid de-escalation soon ( Which is not a good outcome for all parties concerned and especially for the Ukrainian people.

Updated: the US has now matched the broader EU sanctions: U.S. sanctions on banks remain in the area of funding, but not in the area of transactions.

29/7/2014: Are Irish Retail Sales Getting Better or Growing by Attrition?

Ah, so apparently Irish Retail sales are booming at historically record levels of increases. My view is - Retail Sales are rising, not booming, in Volume of sales and are posting basically shallow rates of increases in Value of sales.

Ok, spot the trends here:


  • Core retail sales by Volume are running below 2010 levels, below peak levels, below short-term trend, albeit the trend is rising. M/M the volumes are up +0.1% - not blistering, right? June reading is only 1.46% ahead of the crisis period average. 3mo average (Q2 average) is 4.5% up y/y - which is good. June reading is 3.6% up y/y which worse than the earlier part of the quarter. 6mo MA is up 3.4% y/y (so that is H1 2014 on H1 2013) - which is good. But sales volumes are still down 36.2% on pre-crisis peak. You do the maths as to when that recovery will get us back to pre-crisis levels of activity.
  • Core retail sales by Value (the stuff that pays wages and hires people in the sector) are running along the relatively shallow up ward trend. M/M there is zero change despite weather effects which should have driven sales up. Relative to crisis period average value of sales is down 1.1% in June 2014. Q2 2014 is up 2.6% on Q2 2013, but June 2014 is up 1.94% y/y so again, slowdown in the rate of growth toward the end of the quarter. H1 2014 is up only 1.5% y/y and Q2 2014 value of sales is down 40% on peak.
  • Meanwhile, consumer confidence is continuing to run at slightly more moderate rates than previously, albeit still well ahead of where retail sales are.
Year on year growth rates are next:

Things are healthier in H1 2014 than before, but still well below the rates of growth recorded before the crisis. Anyone claiming dramatically higher rates of growth in H1 2014 must be referencing the freakish jump in sales in April 2014. Stripping this out, we are still better off in H1 2014 than in H1 2013, but the rates of growth in 2014 are not exactly dramatic: ex-April average y/y growth in H1 2014 was 0.9% for Value and 2.75% for Volume, comparable figures for H1 2013 were (stripping out that 6mo most volatile month of April) 0.72% and 0.88%, respectively. 

So again, again and again: accelerating growth is present in Volumes sold, but not in Value of sales. If you think that Volumes of sales are creating jobs, increasing retailers' investments and rising sector contribution to the economy, good luck to you.

However, whatever increases in the retail sales might have been, as the chart below shows, we are still far away from getting back to pre-crisis peak levels of retail sector activity:

Now, when you realise that we are into seven years of the retail sales staying below their peak, you have to start wondering if 'getting better' is the same as 'growing by attrition'?..

Monday, July 28, 2014

28/7/2014: Steady decline in Russian Reserves since Q1 2013

Russia's firepower in financial terms is formidable at USD472 billion, albeit declining since the 'local' maximum at around Q4 2012-Q1 2013:

28/7/2014: Western Banks Exposures to Russia

Last week I posted two charts detailing largest FDI exposures to Russia. Here is a chart, courtesy of Bloomberg, showing banks exposure to Russia by country:

28/7/2014: Double Down or Stay Course in Ukraine: the Only Rational Alternatives for Moscow?

The latest reports from the U.S. strongly suggest that Russia is perceived as an un-yielding adversary in Ukraine and that Moscow is about to 'double-down' on its gambit in Ukraine (see here).

The point is that if so, then why and then what?

Why? Russia has currently no exit strategy from the conflict in Ukraine. Forcing complete and total closure of the separatists operations is

  1. Infeasible for Moscow (the separatists are not directly controlled troops that can be withdrawn on orders and indications are, they are not all too well coordinated and organised to be following any orders);
  2. Were it even theoretically feasible, will be immediately visible to the external observers. Note that, for Moscow, (1) means political benefits of such an action will not be immediately apparent, while (2) means political costs of such an action will materialise overnight.
  3. As sanctions escalate, the marginal returns of domestic political support become more important, since external economic benefits from cooperation vanish, but marginal costs remain (see below).
On marginal external benefits: it is absolutely uncertain what exact conditions Russia must fulfil to completely reverse the sanctions: is it

  • (a) compel the rebels to surrender unconditionally to Kiev troops? 
  • (b) compel them to surrender to either official troops or pro-Kiev militias, unconditionally? 
  • (c) compel them to surrender conditionally - without any conditions set and without any mechanism to enforce these in place? 
  • (d) compel them to declare a ceasefire - without any conditions set and without any guarantees of enforcement by the opposite side? 
  • (e) compel the separatists to engage in peace talks - not on offer by Kiev? 
  • (f) compel the separatists to stand down - in some fashion - and enter into negotiations with Kiev on Crimea? 
  • (g) Is Crimea at all on the table? and so on...
On marginal costs: the costs of sanctions are tied to Russia delivering some sort of compliance with Western demands. Can someone, please, point to me a website where these demands are listed in full and the states that imposed sanctions have signed off on a pledge that once these conditions are satisfied, sanctions will be lifted?

Thus, in simple terms, current Western position leaves little room for Moscow not to double down in Ukraine. The only other viable alternative for Moscow currently is not to escalate. De-escalation, as much as I would like to see it take place, is not within rational choice alternatives. The core reason for this is that when one constantly increasing pressure in forcing their opponent into the corner without providing a feasible exit route for de-escalation, the opponent's rationally preferred response, at certain point in time, becomes to strike back and double down.

Update: interestingly, Reuters editorial today (29/7/2014: provides very similar lines of argument on costs and incentives for Moscow to de-escalate the situation in Eastern Ukraine.

28/7/2014: Germany: Independent Views on Russian Sanctions

Two research institutes covering economic policy in Germany on Russia sanctions:

28/7/2014: Russia's Budgetary Framework 2015-2017

This month, Russian government approved the 2015–2017 Budgetary Framework, BOFIT issued a good summary of this and here are some of the main details.

The multi-annual framework is subject for frequent adjustments, but serves the purpose of introducing at least indicative / directional targets to fiscal policy.

Over the 3 years horizon, Russian Government aims for total (federal and regional budgets and social funds) revenues increasing at 6‒6.5% pa, slightly ahead of inflation forecasts. Oil and gas production taxes and export duties revenues are projected to rise in 2014, but remain flat thereafter. The Framework assumes roughly USD100/barrel price of Urals-grade oil.As the result, revenue share of GDP is expected to fall from 36.5% of GDP in 2013 to 35% in 2017.

One innovation - discussed for some time and yet to be adopted - is that the Government is considering given local (regional) authorities power to introduce local sales taxes.

The Framework projects government deficit rise slightly to around 1.5‒2% of GDP, driven primarily by regional not federal deficits. Federal budget deficit is projected at around 0.5% of GDP, well below the 1% Budget Rule ceiling.

Between 2014 and 2016, the Framework expects a rise in Government expenditure, but rates of increases are set below inflation rate. From 2016, spending as a share of GDP is forecast to fall gradually below 37% against 38% in 2013.

Capital investment spending will be funded by long-term lending from the National Welfare Fund - cumulative spending between 2015 and the end of 2017 will involve close to 1/4 of the National Welfare Fund (roughly 1% of GDP).

Federal debt (including government guarantees) is expected to rise closer to 15% of GDP by end-2017, of which debt will amount to around 10% of GDP. On net debt side, assets in Federal Reserve Fund are forecast to increase slightly. The combined value of the Federal Reserve Fund and the National Welfare Fund will stay just below 10% of GDP.

BOFIT provides a chart summarising the Budgetary Framework 2015-2017:

28/7/2014: Of Savings, Cash and Hedge Funds...

The current crisis, on monetary aggregates side, can be characterised by the rising prevalence of cash over savings. In other words: shrinking stock of credit and deposits relative to cash.

The current crisis, on media commentary side, can be characterised by the endless talk about high savings rates in the private sector.

Here is the problem: savings = inflows into stock of savings (aka, deposits) or investment or divestment out of loans (including forced restructurings, bankruptcies, insolvencies and foreclosures). We know that Irish investment is not growing at the rates worth even mentioning. Which means that Either deposits should be growing to reflect 'high savings' or debt should be shrinking.

Take a look at the difference between M3 money supply and M1 money supply.

By definition:

  • "Money Supply (M1) to euro area -M1 is the sum of overnight deposits and currency issued (this comprises the Central Bank's share of euro banknotes issued in the Eurosystem, in proportion to its paid-up shares in the capital of the ECB, plus coin issued by the Bank less holdings of issued euro banknotes and coin by the MFI sector). " 
  • "Money Supply (M2) to the euro area -M2 is the sum of M1 plus deposits (with agreed maturity of up to 2 years; redeemable at notice of up to 3 months and Post Office savings bank deposits)."
  • M3 is M2 plus deposits with maturity over 2 years.
So the gap between M1 and M3 is deposits.

The M3-M1 gap has fallen since the onset of the crisis. It has fallen along the steady trend line, with some volatility around the dates of banks recapitalisations. And it continues to fall. In fact, between December 2013 and May 2014 we have the longest uninterrupted decline in deposits in history of the series. Current level of the gap is sitting only EUR7 billion above the all-time historical record low. In fact, during this 'historically high savings rates' period, Irish monetary system has managed to reduce the stock of deposits, compared to pre-crisis levels, by EUR85.91 billion.

But while savings (deposits) are falling, 'savings' (debt deleveraging) is all the rage:

You can see what has been happening in the Money Supply territory and private credit here:

With all of these 'high savings' promoted by the official statistics and 'new lending' promoted by the Banking Federation, the Central Bank is now officially giving up on getting those 'repaired and recapitlaised banks' to lend into the real economy (something they were supposed to do since early 2009 - based on the promise of the October 2008 Guarantee, then since early 2010 - based on the various Government programmes, then since first half 2011 - based on the banks recaps and PCARs, then since 2012, based on Government programme agreed with the Troika, then since early 2013, based on Government spin of a turnaround in the economy...). Instead of hoping for the Pillar Banking System to miraculously come back to life, the Central Bank is opening up the floodgates for the hedge funds (here courtesy of fire sales of assets by Nama) to lend into economy, despite the fact that such lending is considered to be a high-risk activity. Nothing like selling pennies on the euro and then celebrating euros on pennies debt reload...