Archive for the 'Europe' Category

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Terrible news from Apple (AAPL)

Apple just reported their profits for 2011Q4.  It turns out that they made rather a lot of money.  So much, in fact, that they blew past/crushed/smashed expectations as their profit more than doubled on the back of tremendous growth in sales of iPhones and iPads.  [snark] I’ll bet nobody’s talking about Tim Cook being gay now. [/snark]

It’s an incredible result; stunning, really. I just wish it didn’t make me so depressed.

I salute the innovation and cheer on the profits. That is capitalism at its finest and we need more of it.

It’s that f***king mountain of cash (now up to $100 billion) that concerns me, because it’s symptomatic of what is holding America (and Britain) in the economic doldrums.

The return Apple will be getting on that cash will be miniscule, if it’s positive at all, and conceivably negative.  Standing next to that, their return on assets excluding cash is phenomenal.

Why aren’t they doing something with the cash? Are they not able to expand profits still further by expanding quantities sold, even in new markets? Are there no new internal projects to fund? No competitors to buy out? Why not return it to shareholders via dividends or share buybacks?

Logically, a company holds cash for some combination of three reasons: (a) they use it to manage cash flow; (b) they can imagine buying an outside asset (a competitor or some other company that might complement them) in the near future and they want to be able to move quickly (and there’s no M&A deal that’s agreed upon faster than an all cash deal); or (c) they want to demonstrate a degree of security to offset any market perceived risk with their debt.

Apple long ago surpassed all of these benefits.  The net marginal value of Apple holding an extra dollar of cash is negative because it returns nothing and incurs a lost opportunity cost.  So why aren’t their shareholders screaming at them for wasting the opportunity?

The answer, so far as I can see, is because a significant majority of AAPL’s shareholders are idiots with a short-term focus. They have no goddamn clue where else the money should be and they’re just happy to see such a bright spot in their portfolio.  Alternatively, maybe the shareholders aren’t complete idiots — Apple’s P/E ratio has been falling for a while now — but the fundamental point is that they have a mountain of cash that they’re not using.

In 2005 that wouldn’t have been as much of a problem because the shadow banking system was in full swing, doing the risk/liquidity/maturity transformation thing that the financial industry is meant to do and so getting that money out to the rest of the economy.[*] Now, the transformation channel is broken, or at least greatly impaired, and so nobody makes any use of Apple’s billions. They just sit there, useless as f***, while profitable SMEs can’t raise funds to expand and 15% of all Americans are on food stamps.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s a graph from the Bank of England showing year-over-year changes in lending to small- and medium-sized enterprises in the UK.  I can’t be bothered looking for the equivalent data for the USA, but you can rest assured it looks similar.  The report it’s from can be found here (it was published only a few days ago).  The Economist’s Free Exchange has some commentary on it here (summary:  we’re still in trouble).

So what is happening to all that money?  Well, Apple can’t exactly stick it in a bank account, so they repo it, which is a fancy way of saying that they lend it to a bank (or somebody else in the financial industry) and temporarily take some high quality asset like a US government bond to hold as collateral.  They repo it because that’s all they can do now — there are no AAA-rated, actually safe, CDO tranches being created by the shadow banking system any more, they’re too big to make use the FDIC’s guarantee (that’s an excellent paper, btw … highly recommended) and so repo is all they have left.

But the financial industry is stuck in a disgusting mess like some kid’s hair with chewing gum rubbed through it. They’re all just as scared as the next guy (especially of the Euro problems) and so they’re parking it in their own accounts at the Fed and the BoE.  As a result, “excess” reserves remain at astronomical levels and the real economy makes no use of Apple’s billions.

That’s a tragedy.




[*] Yes, the shadow banking industry screwed up. They got caught up in real estate fever and sent (relatively) too much money towards property and too little towards more sustainable investments. They structured things in too opaque a manner, failed to have public price discovery and operated under distorted incentives. But they operated. Otherwise useless cash was transformed into real investment and real jobs. Unless that comes back, America and the UK will stay in their slow, painful household deleveraging cycle for another frickin’ decade.

It’s not a fiscal union and Cameron didn’t veto it

A fiscal union would have transfers from various parts of the union to various other parts over the business cycle.  A guarantee to stand behind somebody’s debt while simultaneously insisting that you’ll never actually need to cough up a cent because you’ve made them pinky swear is not a fiscal union.

A veto stops a thing from happening (think of the UN Security Council).  The fiscal compact is going to go ahead, just without Britain.  Therefore, Britain did not veto it; they declined to take part.

That is all.


Okay, that isn’t quite all.  Just to be clear, I think that Cameron did the wrong thing.  I believe that, at a minimum, he should have committed to bringing the proposal to the UK parliament.  It may well have been voted down at that point, but nevertheless it should have happened.  Parliament is sovereign in the UK.  This was a serious proposal with potentially significant consequences from either agreeing to it or walking away from it; the people of Britain deserved to have their elected representatives decide.

I am undecided on whether signing up to the pact would be in the best interests of the UK.

Policy options for the Euro area [Updated]

I here list a few policy options for the Euro area that I support, broadly in descending order of my perception of their importance.  Everything here is predicated on an assumption that the Euro itself is to survive and that no member nation of the Euro area is to exit the union.  I don’t claim that this would solve the crisis — who would make such a claim? — but they would all be positive steps that increase the probability of an ultimate solution being found.

  • Immediately establish a single, Euro area-wide bank deposit guarantee scheme.  A single currency must absolutely ensure that a Euro held as money in Greece be the same as a Euro held as money in Germany.  That means that retail and commercial deposits in each should be backed by the same guarantee.  I have no firm opinion on how it should be funded.  The classic manner is through a fee on banks proportional to their deposits, but if Euro area countries ultimately prefer to use a Tobin-style tax on transactions, that’s up to them.  Just get the thing up and running.  Of course, a unified deposit guarantee also requires a unified resolution authority in the event of an insolvent bank collapsing.  There are many and varied forms that fiscal union can take; this is the most urgent of them all.  I am shocked that this does not already exist.
  • The ECB should switch from targetting current inflation to expected future inflation.  The Bank of England already does this.  Accepting that any effect of monetary policy on inflation will come through with a lag (or at least acknowledging that current inflation is backward looking), they “look through” current inflation to what they expect it to be over the coming few years.  This is important.  Current inflation in the Euro area — i.e. the rate of change over the last 12 months — is at 3%.  On the face of it, that might make an ECB policymaker nervous, but looking ahead, market forecasts for average inflation over the coming five years are as low as 0.85% per year in Germany.  They will be much lower for the rest of the Euro area.  Monetary policy in the Euro area is much, much too tight at the moment.  At the very least, (a) interest rates should be lowered; and (b) the ECB should announce their shift in focus toward forward inflation.
  • The ECB should start to speak more, publicly, about forms of current inflation that most affect future inflation.  This follows on from my previous point, but is still logically distinct.  The Fed likes to focus on “core” inflation, stripped of items with particularly volatile price movements.  I don’t much care whether it is non-volatile prices or nominal wages, or even nominal GDP.  I just want the ECB to be speaking more about something other than headline CPI, because it is those other things that feed into future headlines.
  • The ECB’s provision of liquidity to the banking system, while currently large, is not nearly large enough.  The fact that “German Bunds trade below the deposit facility rate at the ECB and well below the Overnight Rate” is clear evidence of this.  I currently have no opinion on whether this ought to be in the form of increasing the duration of loans to Euro area banks, relaxing the collateral requirements for loans or working with member countries’ treasuries to increase the provision of collateral.  I certainly believe (see my second point above) that interest rates should be lowered.  The point, as far as is possible, is to make replacing lost market funding with ECB funding more attractive to banks than deleveraging.
  • A great deal of Euro area sovereign debt is unsustainable; hair-cuts are inevitable and they should be imposed as soon as possible (but, really, this requires that a unified bank resolution authority be established first).  The argument for delaying relies on banks’ ability to first build up a cushion of capital through ongoing profitability.  When banks are instead deleveraging, the problem is made worse by waiting.
  • Credit Default Swaps must be permitted to trigger.  The crisis may have its origins in the the profligacy of wayward sovereigns (frankly, I think the origins lie in the Euro framers not appreciating the power of incentives), but the fundamental aspect of the crisis itself is that various financial assets, previously regarded as safe, are coming to be thought of as risky.  By denying market participants the opportunity to obtain insurance, Euro area policymakers are making the problem worse, not better.  Market willingness to lend to Greece in 2025 will in no way depend on how we label the decisions made in 2011 and 2012.
  • Every member of the Euro periphery should be in an IMF programme.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Italy.  If the IMF does not have sufficient funds to work with, the ECB should lend to it.  All politicians in Euro periphery countries should be speaking to their electorates about multi-decade efforts to improve productivity.  These things cannot be fixed in two or three years.  They can, at best, be put on the right path.
  • For every country in an IMF programme, all sovereign debt held by the ECB should be written down to the price at which they purchase it.   If the ECB buys a Greek government bond at, say, a 20% discount to face value, then that bond should be written down by 20%.  The ECB should not be in a position to make a profit from their trading if Europe finds its way through the overall crisis.  Similarly, the ECB should not be in a position to take a loss, either — they should not be required to take a hair-cut below the price they pay for Euro area sovereign debt.

Note that I have not yet used the phrase “Euro bond” anywhere.  Note, too, that a central bank is only meant to be a lender of last resort to banks.  The lender of last resort to governments is the IMF.

If Euro area policymakers really want to engage in a fiscal union (a.k.a. transfers) beyond the absolutely essential creation of a unified bank deposit guarantee scheme, it is perfectly possible to do so in a minimal fashion that does not lessen the sovereignty of any member nation:  Have a newly created European Fiscal Authority (with voluntary membership) provide the minimum universally agreed-on level of unemployment benefits across the entire area, funded with a flat VAT.  Any member country would retain the ability to provide benefits above and beyond the minimum.  This will have several benefits:

  • Since its membership would be voluntary and it would provide only the minimum universally agreed level, it cannot, by definition, constitute a practical infraction on sovereignty;
  • It will help provide pan-European automatic stabilisers in fiscal policy;
  • It will provide crucial intra-European stabilisation;
  • It will increase the supply of long-dated AAA-rated securities at a time when demand for them is incredibly high; and
  • It will decrease the ability of Euro member countries to argue that they should be able to violate the terms of the Maastricht Treaty at times of economic hardship as at least some of the heavy lifting in counter-cyclical policy will be done for them.


Update 30 Nov 2011, 13:05 (25 minutes after first publishing the post):

It would appear that the world’s major central banks have announced a coordinated improvement in the provision of liquidity to banks.  This is a good thing. Press releases:

The ECB starts raising interest rates (updated)

[Updated to include labour cost inflation too]

Here are the stories at the FT, the WSJ, the Economist (in their blogs) and for a won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children perspective, the Guardian [1].

There are plenty of arguments against the increase.  You could argue that there’s a sizeable output gap, so any inflation now is unlikely to be persistent.  You could argue that core inflation is low and that it’s only the headline rate that’s high.  You could argue that with the periphery countries facing fiscal crises, they need desperately to grow in order to avoid a default or, worse, a breakup of the Euro area.  You could argue that a period of above-average inflation in Europe’s core economies and below-average inflation in the periphery would allow the latter to (slowly) achieve what a currency devaluation would normally do:  make them more competitive, attract business and allow them to grow in the long run (above and beyond the short-run stimulus of low interest rates).

On that last point, though, it’s worth looking at the data.  It’s a great idea, in principle, but unfortunately and despite all the austerity packages, the data show exactly the opposite picture at present.  Here’s the current year-over-year inflation rate broken down by country, from Eurostat (HICP and Labour Costs):



Economy HICP Labour Cost Index
Euro area as a whole 2.4% 2.0%
Germany 2.2% 0.1%
France 1.8% 1.5%
Greece 4.2% 11.7%
Ireland 0.9% n/a
Portugal 3.5% 1.0%
Spain 3.4% 4.1%



For some reason Ireland doesn’t seem to be included in the Labour Cost data.  Look at Greece and Spain.  They’re getting more expensive to do business in relative to Germany and France.  Portugal is in the right area, but with Germany’s growth rate in Labour Costs so low, they’re still coming out worse.  The same story is painted in consumer inflation.  It looks like Ireland is doing what it needs to, but Greece, Portugal and Spain are all getting even less competitive.

Here’s my theory:  The ECB hates the fact that they’re temporarily funding these governments, but can’t avoid that fact.  Furthermore, they reckon that Greece, Ireland and Portugal are eventually going to restructure their debt.  Given that they cannot shove the temporary funding off onto some other European institution, the ECB either doesn’t care whether it’s in 2013 or today (they’ve already got the emergency liquidity out there and it can just stay there until the mess is cleaned up) or quietly wants them to do it now and get it over with.  Either way, the ECB is going to conduct policy conditional on the assumption that it’s as good as done.


[1]  Just kidding, Guardian readers.  You know I love you.  Mind you, the writing in that article could have been better — it says that inflation has gone above the ECB’s target of 2% and never mentions what it actually is, but later mentions the current British inflation rate (4.4%) without explaining that it is for Britain and not the Euro area.