Friday, April 29, 2016

Bloomberg News - Austerity's Victims May Decide Britain's EU Vote

Prime Minister David Cameron should, if the pollsters and bookmakers are right, win his campaign to keep the U.K. in the European Union. But if things go wrong between now and the June referendum his biggest challenge will be to persuade the poor, for whom he has done little, that Brexit won't make them better off.
The economic case for leaving the EU has an apparent logic: Withdraw and the U.K. will be unshackled, free to do business with whomever it pleases and to tap into demand from fast-growing economies, such as China. In reality, Britain’s existing arrangements are already favorable to trade and there is little reason to believe they would remain as good post-Brexit. The empirical evidence is clear: Membership of the EU has lifted trade and incomes, and that has not come at the expense of relationships with nations outside the single market. For those seduced by the promise of new trade opportunities, disappointment beckons.
A sense of nationalism is also likely to drive some towards the exit and immigration may be the main motivation for others. About 4 million more people arrived in the U.K. than left between 1990 and 2014, and that has affected some of those already here more than others. Again, the evidence is clear. Migration has pushed down on earnings for those at bottom end of the distribution, even as it has lifted pay at the top. It’s little wonder that those in the lower social class bands aremost likely  to vote to leave the EU.
Doing so would be unlikely to improve their prospects, however. It’s possible that migration flows would be slower if Britain left the EU, but that would depend on whether the government was willing to close the door -- perhaps at the cost of market access. More importantly, the benefits that may accrue to workers thanks to less competition in the labor market are likely to be more than offset by the broader costs associated with the economy being smaller. It is unlikely that any income group will benefit from leaving the EU.
With opinion polls suggesting a tight race, the danger is that momentum in the Remain campaign stalls in the run up to the referendum. The big guns have already been fired: U.S. President Barack Obama has spoken and the Treasury has published its most important analysis. So how can the government limit the risks?
It was always going to be hard to persuade nationalists of the merits of EU membership. But here, the government can learn from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Ahead of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, he recognized that a campaign focusing on the good aspects of the union had a better chance of success than dwelling on the costs of leaving. His patriotic intervention in support of the U.K. is credited with reaching parts of the electorate others didn't. The conclusions for pro-EU campaigners to draw for June's referendum are clear.
The government has already appealed directly to those who expect the economy to be bigger outside of the EU. In a lengthy analysis , the Treasury put the long-term cost of leaving the EU at 6.2 percent of gross domestic product. That will probably have influenced the decision of some would-be leavers. The trouble is that everyone expected the Treasury to say the costs would be enormous and so, valid or not, many will regard its estimates with suspicion. Estimates by Bloomberg Intelligence put the trade benefit of remaining in the EU at as much as 2 percent of GDP – smaller than the Treasury’s analysis suggests, but still material. The government plans to publish a further analysis, which will probably suggest that Brexit's short-term implications for the economy are dire.
Hardest of all to reach will be those who believe they get a raw deal from the current system. The government is ill-placed to persuade them of anything, because rather than compensating those affected most by the free movement of labor in the EU, it has in recent years punished them. The burden associated with the government’s austerity program has fallen disproportionately  on those households at the bottom end of the income distribution. Naturally, that group is distrustful of the government and will take the most persuading that their interests are best served by keeping the existing arrangements.
Cameron may be hoping that enough has been done to secure Britain’s place in the EU, and it probably has; fear of the unknown should sway undecided voters to keep the U.K. where it is. Still, if momentum in the Remain campaign falters, the opinions of voters ill-disposed towards the government will suddenly become crucial.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Jamie Murray at
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Marc Champion at

Thursday, April 28, 2016

BBC News - EU rejects Greek request for emergency summit

The Greek parliament is seen behind a flag during an anti-austerity rally in Athens, Greece 22 July 2015.

The head of the European Union has rejected Greece's request for an emergency meeting aimed at ending an impasse over the country's bailout.
EU Council President Donald Tusk said the group's finance ministers needed to resume talks themselves within days.
Greece agreed to a third rescue package worth €86bn (£60bn; $94bn) last year and faces a looming debt payment.
However, it has been unable to unlock the next loan instalment after clashing with its creditors over more reforms.
The International Monetary Fund and other European partners are demanding that Greece implement further austerity measures.
They are looking to generate nearly €4bn in additional savings or contingency money in case Greece misses future budget targets.
But the left-wing government led by Alexis Tsipras has said it will not agree to any "additional actions" to what it had already signed up to last summer.
A special ministerial meeting was supposed to be held on Thursday, but Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who is in charge of the Greece negotiations, called it off.

Debt repayment

There are worries that Greece may default on €3.5bn in debt payments due in July if an agreement is not reached soon.
Last summer, a crisis erupted after Athens defaulted on its debt payments and raised the spectre of an exit from the eurozone.
But Athens has faced stiff resistance from voters to the austerity measures, which include politically charged changes to its pension and tax system.
It is already looking to implement spending cuts that will amount to 3% of the country's gross domestic product or €5.4bn euros by 2018.
Greek shares slumped by more than 4% during the trading day on fears of renewed economic uncertainty in the country.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

BBC News - Greece bailout talks make 'progress'

euro note outside Greek parliamentImage copyrightGoogle
Eurozone finance ministers say they have made progress in talks about the bailout programme for Greece.
But they said after a meeting in Amsterdam on Friday that further work was still needed.
They said they are hopeful that an agreement can reached in the next few days and are ready to call an extraordinary meeting.
That would pave the way for the next payment under the bailout.
It's a familiar pattern.
Once again a review of the Greek government's policies has been delayed by months. So has the next payment of financial assistance.
This review, the first under a new bailout of more than €80bn and agreed in August 2015, was originally supposed to be completed last year.


The tone emerging from a meeting of eurozone finance ministers was, however, relatively positive. There has been progress, they acknowledged, but they want to see more in a number of areas, including privatisation and the strategy for the government finances.
That latter of these is also at the centre of a dispute between the finance minsters and the European Commission on one side and the International Monetary Fund on the other.
The IMF is sceptical about whether the measures under discussion are sufficient to meet the targets for reducing the government's finances - a surplus in the public accounts before interest payments on its debts equivalent to 3.5% of national income, GDP.
The IMF is also doubtful about whether it's realistic to expect that target to achieved at all over a long period.


One way that the eurogroup is trying to narrow the gap with the IMF is seeking an agreement on measures that Greece would automatically take if it misses its financial targets. If all were to go to plan, they wouldn't be needed, but they would be available as a backstop if needed.
The IMF has another concern. Its view is that debt relief is needed and that's why it is not contributing financially to this, the third bailout, though it did provide funds for the first two.
It would be willing to consider a contribution if it were satisfied that the programme puts Greece on the path to have a sustainable government debt burden.
The eurozone has in the past indicated a willingness to consider debt relief after the review, but more recently the German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has suggested none is necessary.

Potential turbulence

Broken piggy bank in Greek coloursImage copyrightReuters
Although the IMF is not currently financing the bailout its participation in monitoring Greek policy is important to Mr Schaeuble. Without it, he would find it very difficult to get the consent the German parliament would.
The looming deadline is debt repayments that Greece is due to make to the European Central Bank in July.
Without the next bailout instalment Greece would struggle to make that payment.
Apart from the potential financial turbulence that default could cause - renewing concerns about the stability of the eurozone - there are political considerations that are more pressing now than they were when the third bailout was agreed.
Greece is at the heart of the refugee and migration crisis that is affecting many European Union countries.
And there is the British referendum on EU membership.
A renewed flare up of the eurozone crisis, just as Britain votes in late June, would be a difficult background when other EU countries hope the result will be a UK decision to stay in the EU.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Bloomberg News - The Euro's Next Existential Crisis

The euro's future still looks far from secure. The European Central Bank is defending its independence amid an attack on its negative interest-rate policies by Germany. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker admitted last week that "the European project has lost parts of its attractiveness." Greece is still wrangling over the terms of its next bailout payment. And at the end of this week, a geeky decision in a corner of the bond market could send the bloc back into crisis mode.
A credit-rating agency called Dominion Bond Rating Service is scheduled to complete its review of Portugal’s financial fitness on Friday. Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch all view Portugal as undeserving of investment-grade status; put another way, Portugal is deemed a risky, junk-rated borrower. DBRS, though, has maintained its country classification at investment grade.
So long as at least one of the four rating agencies judges Portugal to be worthy, its government debt remains eligible to participate in the ECB's bond-buying program. But if the country drops to sub-investment grade at all four, the ECB’s own rules forbid it from buying any more Portuguese government securities -- purchases which have ballooned to almost 15 billion euros ($17 billion) in the program's one-year lifetime.
So if DBRS lowers the nation’s grade -- a distinct possibility, given the weakness of the Portuguese economy and the fact that the judgments of three other assayers of creditworthiness are all worse than DBRS’s -- it could trigger a renewed crisis in the euro area.
The ECB's purchases are arguably responsible for keeping Portugal's 10-year borrowing cost at an average of a bit less than 3 percent in the past six months. Compare that with Greece, which doesn't qualify for ECB assistance and has had an average yield of almost 9 percent since October, and it becomes clear how valuable ECB eligibility is -- and how financially damaging it might be for Portugal if it was shut out after a downgrade:
Surely Portugal can’t be a kind of simultaneously dead-and-alive-Schrodingers-cat? Surely it either is or isn’t investment grade, and therefore either should or shouldn’t qualify for the ECB program?
Unfortunately, rating assessments are fraught with subjectivity and bias, as the world learned to its cost during the credit crisis. Where one analyst sees a life-threatening debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio, another may see indebtedness that’s merely troubling.
DBRS affirmed Portugal's investment-grade rank in February, but with some important caveats:
The high level of government debt remains a major challenge, exposing the country to shocks. Growth prospects remain modest, posing a risk to the sustained improvement in public finances. DBRS would be concerned if durable growth fails to materialize.
Portugal's annual economic growth rate slowed to 1.3 percent in the final quarter of 2015, down from 1.4 percent in the third quarter and 1.5 percent in the second. For the first quarter and second quarters of this year, economists are predicting a further slump to 1.2 percent. Unemployment, which peaked at 18.5 percent three years ago, is starting to tick up again, and rose to 12.2 percent in December from 11.9 percent at the end of the third quarter.
Moreover, Portugal's banks are becoming increasingly entangled in the government's balance sheet, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Jonathan Tyce. The government's reliance on its banks via loans and bond holdings has surged in the past year:
About 80 percent of that Portuguese bank exposure to sovereign risk is to their domestic government, with much of the rest likely to be Spanish exposure, says Tyce. A rating downgrade and a sudden spike in Portuguese yields would have a knock-on effect, driving up borrowing costs for Spain and Italy.
With the ties that bind bank vulnerability to government risk still not severed, a downgrade would spell big trouble for a banking industry that's already in less than perfect shape.
It might not happen. DBRS may decide that Portugal is still investment grade. But with a debt burden that's still hovering around 130 percent of GDP, up from 84 percent at the start of the decade and double what it was 10 years ago, and an economy that seems to still be deteriorating, that'd be a brave stance.
Even if DBRS does junk Portugal, the ECB might finagle a way to keep it in the bond-buying program by finding an excuse to grant a waiver on the rating qualification. That, though, would almost certainly prompt protests from Germany. Greece may then demand a similar exemption.
EU officials, who failed to make progress at the weekend on how to address the issue of sovereign risk in the finance industry, may find themselves scrambling for cover as Friday puts Europe's debt crisis back in the headlines. And, once again, the ECB may find itself forced into political decisions that really aren't part of its mandate. At least (sarcasm alert) there isn't an important referendum looming that could see the union starting to break up.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Mark Gilbert at
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at

Friday, April 22, 2016

BBC News - Landlord 'surge' pushes up mortgage lending

A "late surge" among landlords aiming to beat a stamp duty rise led to a big jump in mortgage lending in March.
Gross mortgage lending hit £25.7bn last month, the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) said. This was 59% higher than in the previous March.
A 3% stamp duty surcharge was introduced on 1 April for purchases of homes that are not the buyer's main residence.
The CML said it now expected sales to drop off after the extra tax came in.
The stamp duty surcharge, announced in Chancellor George Osborne's Autumn Statement, relates to second homes and buy-to-let properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In Scotland, the equivalent tax - the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (LBTT) - has also been up-rated.
The result of the 1 April start date was a surge in purchases from landlords in March, according to the CML. This potentially had a knock-on to other buyers who might have found mortgage brokers and solicitors were busier than usual, slowing the buying process.
Gross mortgage lending was 43% higher than February, the CML said.
"The distortion caused by this stamp duty change appears to be larger than any previous stamp duty change we have seen," said CML economist Mohammad Jamei.
"As a result, we expect there will be about 10,000 fewer mortgaged transactions each month in the second quarter of 2016 than would otherwise have been the case, offsetting the increase in activity seen in March."
The surge was also recorded in property sales data from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
There were 161,990 properties sold in the UK during the month, the highest monthly number since June 2006, and up from 92,690 sales in February.
Stamp Duty Bands
Price bandStandard rateBuy-to-Let/ 2nd home
Up to £125,0000%3%
£125,001 to £250,0002%5%
£250,001 to £925,0005%8%
£925,001 to £1.5m10%13%
Source: HMRC (England and Wales)
A Treasury spokesman said: "The new higher rate of stamp duty on additional properties will help double the affordable housing budget and support even more first-time buyers fulfil their ambition of owning their own home. ‎
"House purchases vary widely across the seasons and we always expected some buyers to bring forward their purchases - indeed this was factored into our costing when the policy was announced. We expect this to level out in the coming months."
The Bank of England has announced plans to subject landlords to a series of new affordability tests.
Their personal income and expenditure could be scrutinised by lenders before they decide to give them a mortgage.
Landlords may also have to prove that they can afford a rise in borrowing costs.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

BBC News - Asian banks' bad debt pile highest since global financial crisis

Bad debts at Asian banks have climbed to their highest since the global financial crisis and the trend will likely worsen as regional economies battle against China's slowdown and volatile oil and commodities prices, a Reuters data analysis shows.
The bad loans pile at 74 major listed Asian banks, excluding Indian and Japanese banks, reached $171 billion at the end of 2015, the survey of banks showed, the highest since at least 2008. Non-performing loans (NPLs) jumped 28 percent from a year earlier, nearly twice the growth in 2013.
Indian and Japanese banks were not included as their fiscal year ends in March.
With economic growth in the region slowing, analysts expect the asset quality of Asian lenders will continue to deteriorate as banks start publishing quarterly earnings, forcing them to make writedowns that will hurt profit and depress valuations.
Asian central banks have cut interest rates to ensure abundant liquidity, but uncertain economic growth and weak export demand will likely lead to more loan defaults in the near term, analysts and bankers said.
"We expect asset quality to weaken and bad loans to increase ... the key factor we see is Asia entering into more challenging phase of the credit cycle," said Gene Fang, Moody's associate managing director for financial institutions group.
"In the recent past, we saw relatively strong growth and low interest rates, which encouraged loan growth and higher leverage. But growth has now weakened, most significantly in China, which is impacting the rest of the region."
The average ratio of bad loans to gross credit for 29 Asian banks for which this data is available stood at 1.9 percent last year - the highest since 2009, the survey showed. In 2008, the ratio stood at 2.5 percent.
In China, where the economy grew 6.9 percent in 2015 - the weakest pace in a quarter of a century - bad loans surged to a decade-high at the end of December, with Moody's expecting continued asset quality pressure over the next 12-18 months.
Top Chinese lenders including Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (601398.SS), Agricultural Bank of China (601288.SS) and Bank of Communications (601328.SS), will report March quarter results next week.
Last year, the total bad debt pile for all listed and unlisted Chinese banks stood at $297 billion.
Japanese banks' average ratio of bad loans to gross credit stood at 2.5 percent at the end of last year, a slight improvement from 2.7 percent at the end of 2014, Thomson Reuters data showed.
In India, where the central bank is forcing a debt clean-up, total distressed debt surged nearly a third between September and December to $120 billion. The March quarter will probably show a further increase, analysts said.
Thailand's fourth-largest bank Kasikornbank (KBANK.BK), which published quarterly results on Wednesday, expects the ratio of non-performing loans to total loans to rise to 3.5–3.6 percent this year from 2.7 percent last year, Admit Laixuthai, a senior vice president at the bank, told Reuters.
"NPLs for the whole banking system are likely to rise further this year as the overall economy remains weak … I can't tell when NPLs will peak. It depends on the economic situation."

(Additional reporting by Manunphattr Dhanananphorn in BANGKOK; Editing by Lisa Jucca and Jacqueline Wong)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

BBC News - UK unemployment rises to 1.7m

UK unemployment rose by 21,000 to 1.7 million between December and February, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) says.
That is the first increase since the May-July period of last year.
The unemployment rate remained at 5.1%, which is still down on the same time last year, when it was 5.6%.
Earnings, including bonuses rose by 1.8% in the three months to February, which is a slowdown from the 2.1% rate for the previous three-month period.
"It's too soon to be certain, but with unemployment up for the first time since mid-2015 - and employment seeing its slowest rise since that period - it's possible that recent improvements in the labour market may be easing off," ONS statistician Nick Palmer said.
There were 31.41 million people in work in the three months , a rise of 20,000 on the September to November period.

Delayed hiring?

Some economists believe uncertainty linked to the 23 June referendum on EU membership could be deterring companies from taking on new staff.
"Last week the Bank of England said that concerns about the EU referendum had begun to affect the real economy," said Ben Brettell, senior economist at Hargreaves Lansdown.
"The increase in unemployment announced today adds some weight to that hypothesis. It's possible businesses are delaying decisions about hiring and investment until after June's vote, which could lead to a slowdown in the first two quarters of this year.
"Nevertheless, the bigger picture is that the UK labour market remains in reasonable health," he added.
The increase in unemployment was too low to change the rate when expressed to one decimal place, which stayed at a decade low of 5.1%.

Public sector falling

The figures also show that there were 5.35 million people employed in the public sector for December 2015. This was scarcely change compared with September 2015 but it was down 50,000 from a year earlier.
The ONS said the number of people employed in the public sector has been generally falling since March 2010.
In the private sector there were 26.07 million people employed for December 2015 - that is 113,000 more than for September 2015 and 529,000 more than for a year earlier.
In the October to December 2015 period the number of UK nationals working in the UK increased by 278,000 to 28.2 million compared with the same time in 2014. At the same time the number of non-UK nationals working in the UK increased by 254,000 to 3.22 million

Monday, April 18, 2016

Bloomberg News - U.K. Plans Unlimited Fines for Helping Corporate Tax Evasion

Companies whose staff help people evade tax face being hit with unlimited fines under proposed U.K. rules.
HM Revenue & Customs on Sunday published a 59-page consultation setting out draft legislation for the new corporate crime of failing to prevent tax evasion. This makes employers liable for the actions of staff unless they put “reasonable” precautions in place to prevent such behavior.
“The new corporate offense aims to overcome the difficulties in attributing criminal liability to corporations for the criminal acts of those who act on their behalf,” the document said. “Attributing criminal liability to a corporation normally requires prosecutors to show that the most senior members of the corporation were involved in and aware of the illegal activity.”
The consultation said this had the effect of encouraging management in large corporations to “turn a blind eye to the criminal acts of its representatives in order to shield the corporation from criminal liability.” By making them liable by default, the aim is to encourage them to understand what staff are up to.
The new rules were proposed before the publication of the “Panama Papers,” which have dragged Prime Minister David Cameron’s government into a row about tax. He was forced to publish his personal records this month after his father was named in the leaked papers, in relation to an investment fund he set up in Panama.

Friday, April 15, 2016

BBC News - Five EU nations launch tax crackdown

The five largest economies in the European Union have agreed to share information on secret owners of businesses and trusts.
A sign announcing the 2016 spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank
It is a concerted attempt to show their leaders are responding to public concern over the Panama Papers leak.
The UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain have agreed to the data exchange.
Treasury officials told the BBC the move would make it harder for businesses and wealthy individuals to operate without paying correct taxes.
Information on the ultimate "beneficial owners" of companies and trusts would now be automatically exchanged.
The five countries are now pushing for the rest of the G20 nations with the world's largest economies to follow suit.
That would mean data exchange on previously secret tax information between countries such as America, Saudi Arabia and China.
Some might see any such extension as unlikely.
The UK government has already announced that it will make its register of beneficial ownership public - and is privately urging the other four signatories of the deal to agree that the public can have access to the information.
"Today we deal another hammer blow against those who hide their illegal tax evasion in the dark corners of the financial system," Mr Osborne said at the annual International Monetary Fund spring meeting in Washington.
"Britain will work with our major European partners to find out who really owns the secretive shell companies and trusts that have been used as conduits for evading tax, laundering money and benefitting from corruption."
The exchange is unlikely to placate critics who say that not enough has been done to crack down on global tax avoidance and tax evasion, often via offshore trusts and companies based in tax havens.

'Working together'

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has suggested that some tax havens under British jurisdiction such as the British Virgin Islands should face direct rule from the UK if they do not reform their tax laws.
The move on data exchange comes ten days after the leak of 11.5 million documents known as the Panama Papers which revealed how some businesses and wealthy individuals avoided and evaded tax using complicated networks of highly secretive companies.
"It is Britain and our European partners setting the pace on beneficial ownership transparency of not just companies but also trusts with tax consequences - and I expect that the rest of the world will move to follow our example," Mr Osborne said.
"It shows the benefit of working together. No single country can tackle international tax evasion alone - and Britain should never fool itself into thinking that it can do this by itself."
The agreement was announced at an unprecedented joint press conference of the finance ministers of the five EU countries at the IMF.
Mr Osborne was joined by Wolfgang Schauble of Germany and Michel Sapin of France.
Also at the announcement was Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, and Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the OECD, the international body charged with setting new global tax rules on information sharing and transparency.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Reuters News - With plenty of punch, central bankers wait in vain for the world to drink

Central bankers usually worry about when to remove the punch bowl of cheap finance but when they gather in Washington, D.C. this week they will face a different problem: how to force the world to drink.
Amid a flood of cheap money and a historic experiment with negative interest rates, households, corporations and banks in the developed world have turned their backs on borrowing. Credit growth has flat-lined and an array of metrics indicate the world has become a more cautious place, potentially upending whatever bang for the buck central banks might expect.
In the U.S. households are paying down mortgages instead of borrowing against homes to fund consumption, altering behavior that arguably helped fuel the 2007 financial crisis but that also contributed to economic growth. A Chicago Federal Reserve Bank composite index of household, bank and corporate leverage has been below average for nearly four years.
European and U.S. companies are socking away cash and the Bank of Japan's descent into negative rates has yet to boost consumption, corporate investment, or even faith in an economic rebound.
Even as global liquidity expands, the appetite for it remains moribund.
“You can’t create demand from thin air. What’s needed is to create an environment in which companies and households feel confident to spend,” said a senior Japanese policymaker directly involved in Group of 20 negotiations that will continue in Washington this week.
“There’s a growing sense globally that monetary policy alone cannot cure all problems.”
The policymakers assembled in Washington will be focused on how to inflate demand. Along with more cautious consumers and companies in developed nations, China is in retreat and likely to scale down investment and purchases of raw materials as its economic transition continues.
The IMF's preferred and oft-repeated solution is for government spending to pick up the slack, particularly on infrastructure, as well as for labor market and other reforms that will make economies grow faster because they are more efficient.

Absent those measures, the economic outlook is likely to remain mediocre. The IMF cut its growth forecast for the fourth time in a year.