Despite slowdowns, economic stalemate between Europe and China is set to continue

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 3.44pm

Economic data from China is mixed. The bad news is that after first-quarter GDP growth of 8.1 per cent, second-quarter growth is being revised downwards from 9.5 per cent to 7.8 per cent by Caixin, one of China’s leading financial publications.

Reuters reckons second-quarter growth will fall even further, by 7.6 per cent, the weakest rise since 2008. Other indicators fare no better. Industrial production has risen by the lowest amount in three years, at 9.6 per cent. Electricity consumption fell to 3.7 per cent from 7 per cent in March. Property prices fell in over half of China’s seventy leading cities. And manufacturing PMI suffered its eighth consecutive month of contraction, from 48.8 in  June to 41.8 in May.

The second set of statistics paints a rather different picture. Exports were expected to clock a 6.8 per cent rise but instead surged by 15.3 per cent to $181.1 billion, mostly due to American demand. Not only that, imports only increased 12.7 per cent, giving a healthy trade surplus of around $18.7 billion. One of those imports was oil, which was bought at a record rate of six billion barrels a day in May due mainly to its low price and unstable future.

Bears point to a real estate bubble, over-capacity, over-investment, and a consequent lack of inflation as signs of over-extension. Bulls tend to side more with Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs who notes that the historical weight placed on production stats is misplaced and that “indicators of consumption are becoming more important”; and Jack Perkowski of Forbes who reckons “the phrase ‘property bubble’ will no longer be in the vocabulary” reasoning that it must have bottomed out after nine-months of decline.

The Chinese government, noticing a slow-down in demand, has not been slow in reacting. It has cut its interest rates for a second time. Consequently the yuan weakened against the US dollar in Shanghai.

Further measures are also being taken. The monetary authority is pumping 225 billion yuan into the financial system by conducting reverse-repurchase operations. The last steps to lower the amount of cash banks need in reserve, started in November and freeing up 1.2 trillion yuan for lending, are being implemented. And investment projects, many in the underdeveloped interior and western parts of the country, are being fast-tracked.

Beijing also hopes to boost energy demand by subsidising energy-saving white goods to the tune of 26.5 billion yuan. Such measures make a mockery of bullish claims that the Chinese government would intentionally try to cool the economy down in order to tactically restructure it.

China knows the oil that lubricated the post-war global economy is running dry. As the purchasing power of the Western consumer, based at first on rising wages but later on rising house prices has evapourated, no significant replacement has compensated for that lost demand. According to Bloomberg’s David Roseberg over 80 per cent of the world’s top economies are now posting a contraction in industrial activity. The EU and US together account for approximately 40 per cent of Chinese total exports but China knows that its long-term future lies with its own domestic consumer. This is why it has not been afraid to upset the laissez-faire apple cart by playing dirty with its currency, by using state funds to stockpile underpriced rare earths whilst imposing quotas and caps that ensure they remain in its domestic market, by refusing to “save” the eurozone, and by imposing duties worth £2.1 billion on US-made cars.

But the long term is naturally a long way off. Though there is talk in some quarters that the West needs to restructure its economy from a consumer-driven to an export-based one and that China needs to do exactly the opposite, the fact remains that the Chinese, with no real welfare state to speak of, are driven by both economic necessity and to a lesser extent culture, to save and supply rather than consume and demand. The West also has a tendency to overlook the old cronyist fundamentals of the Chinese economy which ensure the masses have little option but to stash their cash.

The fact is that much of the economy is still run on political rather than economical capital and that many bad debts are still sloshing round the system. Current generations are also living with the repercussions of the one-child policy legacy left to them by Xiaoping in 1979. They must save because demographically fewer and fewer people must support an ageing 1950s baby-boom generation.

In the short to medium-term the Chinese middle classes are not going to be either big enough or rich enough to fill the demand gap left by western homo consumericus and that gap remains unfilled by both BRIC and MIKT countries. This is the biggest single factor in the Chinese growth slow-down from averaging 10-13 per cent in the past decade to more humble 8-9 per cent IMF predictions this year.

But the Chinese have so far refused to invest in European customers who live in a eurozone that, according to Jin Liqun, Chairman of CIC, they believe to be profligate, lazy and politically undecided. China wants a eurozone to rise in its own image, with a freer market at ground level and a more centralised political command.

However, both seem unlikely to materialise and so, ceteris paribus, until one side blinks the economic stalemate looks set to continue.

Follow Henry on Twitter @TheHolySmoke

The financial and Eurozone crises have changed the face of politics forever

Sara Benwell 6.45am

Economic policy has always been important in politics, and people have always cared about fiscal policies that affect them directly, but not such a long time ago broader economic strategy only made up a small percentage of the issues that mattered when people decided who to vote for.

Essentially, voters cared if their taxes were going up, but when it came to broader economic strategy the issues were sidelined compared to other policies that had more obvious effects on people’s lives. Moreover, much of the banking world and financial terminology remained a complete mystery to the majority of the electorate, so as long as things were going well, economic policy was seen to be less important. Everyone presumed that the government and the bankers knew what they were doing.

Then came recession and the onset of the Eurozone crisis - and everything changed.

Now more people have a better working understanding of finance. Almost everybody I meet has an opinion about Greece, about Spain, about whether the Eurozone will break up and most importantly about whether or not the Government is doing the right thing to deal with the financial crisis or whether now is the right time for a credible plan B, or even C.

People don’t merely care about the areas of policy that effect them; they now care about the broader economic strategy. The space allocated to business and financial news - not just in the broadsheets but also in the tabloids - is increasing and is reflective of a growing public interest. These days it’s rare you’ll see any business stories in the national press that don’t have a direct link to finance and the economic situation; more often the stories will reflect job creation or losses, financial results, or economic indicators.

While the economic crisis is clearly not a good thing, it’s arguable that the increase in public knowledge and awareness has to be the silver lining to the debt crisis cloud. How many people fifteen years ago knew about monetary policy decisions, about inflation and about quantitative easing, let alone had a good working understanding of these terms as well as an opinion on them? Wider comprehension has to be a good thing.

There has also been a shift towards people wanting their financial institutions and their government to be held accountable. Now that everybody has seen the impact of the poor financial policies of the last labour governments and the problems that can arise when the bankers are given a free rein with little or no fear of retribution, there is an increasing focus on making sure that somewhere somebody is held responsible.

This has been reflected by the recent ‘shareholder spring’. While I think this is an exaggeration, and the term is used too widely and too often, there is no denying that the recent spate of chief executives like Sir Martin Sorrell being denied their bonuses would have been unthinkable a few years ago and reflects growing popular demand for more accountability in the business world.

Furthermore, policies like the ring-fencing of the banks, which I have written about here before, illustrate a move by the Government to introduce financial legislation designed to protect the electorate. This policy has recently been watered down, but that doesn’t change the fact that political parties have recognised the importance of bringing in policies to ensure that an increasingly aware voting public are sheltered from having to bail out the banks once more.

One can quite easily argue that the Coalition will stand or fall on the success of its economic policies. And it is increasingly clear that you cannot spend your way out of a recession, despite what the Labour party might claim.

So the question confronting us now is whether the Coalition Government has enough time left for its economic policy to come good, or whether ministers need to be considering a new plan.

Rest assured that whatever the answers to those questions, the British public is no longer ignorant about economics. And if the Coalition partners, particularly the Conservative party, wants to win the next election, they shall need to prove the credibility of their economic strategy.

Follow Sara on Twitter @sarabenwell

Procrastination, prevarication & paralysis: an idiot’s guide to the Eurozone crisis

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 9.46am

I always thought that the EU had secured the winning hand.

In success, it could boast that its social democratic model, inching towards fiscal and ultimately political union, had created a permanent and enlightened route to general prosperity. In failure, the globalised proportions of its wreckage would ensure that only its supranational intervention could offer succour.

Yet the EU’s problem is that its chief creditor, Germany, has been thinking like a nation, rather than a supranational overseer. It is not that Germany is not willing to play paymaster to a transparently political project. Rather, Germany resents the fact that beneath the surface, economically the EU project resembles a cheese grater.

ClubMed, eager to ignore the holes, yearns for closer political unity because of the accompanying German credit card.

The Germans, not wanting to subsidise the European periphery forever, has suggested mandatory terms and conditions and requested appropriate collateral in return for pooling proportions of debt, privatisation, teutonic budgetary discipline, and flexible employment laws. ClubMed baulks at the small print.

The tension between German realism and Mediterranean myopia is painfully apparent. Angela Merkel has said that under no circumstances would she consider Eurobonds. Italy’s ex-prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, retorts that if Germany continues to prevent the ECB from printing money she should quit the euro. Italy’s current leader, Mario Monti, tells the German chancellor that “six decades of integration are at stake”.

In the past, at least, political obfuscation of economic realities was intelligible while the the direction of the EU’s hopes was centripetal. However, with the EU’s economically strongest member now in direct confrontation with the rest, the outcome of the crisis is far from predictable.

The impending Spanish bank bailout ought to be as conventional as a banking crisis can be, following a relatively simple process. Nonetheless, foreign investors are shunning the prospect - not just because they believe the books are cooked but because how they might be cooked is no longer discernible. An efficient and free market should not be run on fiddled facts but it routinely is. Cynicism does not ruin markets on its own. Rather confusion over the target and form of that cynicism, as with the current EU chaos, appears to. It certainly paralyses credit flows, meaning that Spain is now required to spend $600,000 to insure merely $10 million of debt.

The president of the ECB, Mario Draghi, has identified the systemic weaknesses and trends and said it cannot continue, recently describing the Eurozone as “unsustainable”.

Exasperation is noticeable even in the EU’s own reports. Its top brass has informed the new French president, Francois Hollande, that the economic assumptions behind his budget plans are “optimistic”, measures to hit budget targets “not sufficiently specified”, and France’s record on meeting past targets has been “mixed”.

In this febrile climate, the technical solutions suggested in answer to the European crisis - from a ‘Grexit’ to Eurozone deposit schemes - seem to me to be superfluous. At this pretty pass the repair of the EU body seems more dependent on the cogency and cohesiveness of its soul than any mere physical tinkering.

As Europe sinks we should look to new horizons

Alexander Pannett 12.30pm

This week it became clear that the procrastinated efforts to save the European single currency have failed.

Greece will leave the single currency when it votes for anti-austerity political parties in a month’s time. Possibly even the European Union too if Greek anti-European sentiment continues to grow.

What must be done now is ensure the contagion does not spread to other peripheral countries: Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy. This may even be too late, as we receive reports of a bank run in Spain. If the markets lose confidence in these countries’ ability to manage their debts it will precipitate a collapse of the entire European banking system as capital flight prompts liquidity to dry up, as in 2008.

David Cameron has called for fiscal and political union as the only way to shore up confidence in the euro and stop it being seen as less a single currency and more a strict exchange rate union ready to be un-raveled.

The Prime Minister echoes calls from other European leaders for more concerted action to save the euro, notably via the use of 'eurobonds'. I proposed on these pages in November last year that without further political solidarity the euro was doomed.

Political solidarity has not emerged. Instead there is growing acrimony and competing ideas. If anything, the unfolding disaster has exposed the fractious concept of common citizenship behind the entire European project, something Nik alluded to earlier this week.

There is no interest in Europe. There is only a Europe with interests.

It is not too late to salvage the ambition of closer union. But for now this can only be a Franco-German union. Only those nations who will accept being absorbed under the dictates of Paris and Berlin shall join. For the rest, the EU will remain a trading block, and an economically and politically impoverished one at that.

It seems that the great play of world history is about to leave the European stage and transpose itself to the more exciting and economically dynamic scene of Asia. Whether this new Act will be of tragedy or farce is as of yet unknown.

For Britain, we are too old an actor to play outside the limelight. Our pride is too heavy and dress bill too dear. It is time we pursued a new free trade pact with countries in Asia.

We could start with Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, America, Indonesia and Singapore, perhaps with the old Commonwealth as the foundation. This could and should include those European nations that share our interests in global trade.

Such a free trade organization would also be able to promote a more responsible capitalism in global trade that protected the environment, traditional cultures and social values. Far better to promote progressive humanitarian standards by engaging with Asia rather than heckling it behind trade barriers.  

We should mirror America’s re-orientation to Asia by reversing the Suez doctrine and re-establishing naval bases in Asia. Singapore may value such a presence. This does not even have to be a military base but could be a humanitarian crisis response centre, in readiness for when another natural disaster strikes that seismically vulnerable part of the world.

Europe will still remain important to Britain. But it should be seen and supported as a neighbour. Not as our place of work.

For that we will need to travel further afield.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

PMQs review: Score draw but the Prime Minister’s arsenal is worryingly bare

Jack Blackburn 2.08pm

The Government’s fortunes and the composure of its ministers have crumbled over recent months, though it is worth noting that the Leader of the Opposition’s polling numbers have still not managed to match his party’s.

So as we arrived at the first PMQs since April we found a leadership vacuum, created by a Government in disarray, a Prime Minister under pressure from all sides, and a Labour party leader seemingly unable to act like a leader.

This PMQs also took place in a very different context to the last. Disastrous local election results (London’s Mayor aside) for the Coalition parties still sting. The national economy seems to have tumbled into a double-dip recession. We are being badly buffeted by continuing turmoil in the Eurozone, where an anti-austerity Frenchman has just taken up residence in the Élysée palace and Greece is crippled by political upheaval.

To use a recent (and for me painful) sporting illustration, the leaders were level on points going into today’s match, with Mr Miliband ahead on goal difference. This was a mid-term fixture rather than an end-of-season cliff-hanger, but it as was scrappy, messy and confused as the Premier League’s climax, if nowhere near as exciting too.

Mr Miliband has plenty of arsenal at his disposal at the moment. Dreadful growth figures, unhappy nurses, protesting police officers, the controversial Leveson Inquiry, electoral reverses and the seemingly changing political breeze in Europe should have meant that Mr Cameron was in for a torrid time at the Despatch Box. Nevertheless, there was a crumb of comfort for the Prime Minister today in the form of falling unemployment.

Mr Cameron began by using this to his advantage, welcoming a question from his own backbenches, but stressing (as all the Cabinet has done this morning) that the Government is not complacent. There is more to be done. Etcetera. And for once, Mr Miliband also welcomed good economic news, but was quick to try to press home some advantage by questioning what discussions the PM had taken part in with President Hollande about growth plans for France and Europe.

The answer could have simply been, “Well, haven’t really spoken to him since he was elected.” So Edward suggested a text message with “LOL” in it would probably be sufficient. Uncharacteristically funny, and well delivered.

In fact, Mr Miliband’s entire style of performance has improved immensely. He is calm, considered and no longer whiny. Nonetheless, Mr Cameron remains an adept performer himself, and responded strongly: “I may well have used my mobile phone too much, but at least as Prime Minister I know how to use one rather than just throw it at those who work with me”. The Rt Hon Member for Kirkcaldy was, as usual, nowhere to be seen.

Mr Miliband was indeed more impressive today, though still blew it by failing once again to capitalise effectively on the Prime Minister’s all-too-evident woes. He left the economy debate too quickly, so eager was he to cram in questions on policing and nurses, while also failing to pose a question on his sixth time of coming. The eyes were bigger than his abilities.

Yet Mr Cameron also fumbled the ball today, particularly with his final response to his opponent, when he attempted to criticise Labour’s new policy supremo John Cruddas as someone too close to the trades unions. At moments such as those, one realises just how little ammunition the Prime Minister has at his disposal.

We have misunderstood the role of auditors in the financial crash

Matthew Robertson 9.47am

"It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question." Eugene Ionesco.

I regularly receive updates from LinkedIn, telling me how more of my friends and colleagues have connected to an ever-increasing network of workers. My typical reaction is to head for the delete button but lately a headline grabbed my attention: ‘The nation’s auditors find themselves more than ever under public scrutiny.’

Well. It is certainly the case that auditors were at least partly culpable in not spotting systemic problems in banks prior to the financial crisis hit in 2008. In particular, the off-balance sheet items that concealed banks’ toxic assets went unidentified.

Couple this with the Enron scandal, which toppled top-5 firm Arthur Andersen, and it is not difficult to see why auditors have acquired a bad reputation.

Political cynics might also point out that the following ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales) members were MPs during the expenses scandal: Peter Bone (husband to the famous Mrs Bone and rebellious Tory MP for Wellingborough), Nick Gibb (now a schools minister), Justine Greening (Transport Secretary), Mark Harper (a Cabinet Office minister), Mark Hoban (Financial Secretary to the Treasury) and Iain Wright (Labour MP for Hartlepool and a former schools minister). Nothing like an expenses scandal to confirm the notion that all accountants ‘fiddle the books’…

But the perception held in some quarters that accountants are unethical and too close to their clients is an unfair one. It was true in the case of Enron, where Arthur Andersen was relying on large consulting fees generated by their client - comprising roughly 27 per cent of the audit fees for Arthur Andersen’s Houston office. That was a classic conflict of interest case, which prevented auditors from applying proper professional scepticism.

Professional scepticism is the bedrock of the entire accountancy and auditing world. It is an attitude that comprises a questioning mindset, being alert to conditions that might indicate misstatement due to error or fraud, and a critical assessment of audit evidence.

Truly to understand the importance of professional scepticism needs some understanding of the purpose of audit itself, namely to enable an auditor to express an opinion as to whether the financial statements are prepared, in all material respects, in accordance with an applicable financial reporting framework. Its benefit is in instilling confidence in the financial statements of companies for those who use them, such as the Government, banks, shareholders, investors and so forth.

The common misunderstanding of the auditor’s role is around the level of assurance that is provided. Due to the nature of evidence available and time or financial constraints, it is impossible to provide absolute assurance that a financial statement is a true and fair reflection of the company. Instead an audit offers reasonable assurance.

'Reasonable assurance' is the measure of confidence that a financial statement has not been materially misstated by an auditor exercising professional skill and due care. This is not the same as saying a financial statement is correct, nor an opinion on the financial health of a company. It is merely stating that auditors are able provide an opinion to what extent the financial statements give a true and fair view of the company.

A further problem is that an auditor’s confidence is subjective. Users of financial statements derive their own confidence from many sources, including the knowledge that auditors work to professional standards (including a code of ethics) and within a regulatory framework. The company is also presumed to be subjected to strict reporting standards.

Auditors will not find every problem or irregularity in a company but they will use professional scepticism to ask the difficult questions that push management to exercise adequate controls. My favourite analogy is that auditors are the little voice inside your head that constantly asks ‘Why?’

The challenge the accountancy profession faced prior to the financial crash, and one it still faces, is the ever-increasing complexity of the financial system. More companies are today trading in an international context, which requires auditors to understand multiple reporting frameworks, different economies and to an ever greater extent, to have a knowledge of different IT systems. This can hinder their ability to ask the correct questions and thus exercise professional scepticism.

What was striking about this financial crash is found in this complexity. Merely a small population of mathematicians truly understood how financial securities such as CDOs and CDSs functioned. The financial system relied on computers designed by physics, engineering and mathematics graduates drawn into the lucrative world of investment banking. When it all came crashing down, as we now know, few could confidently value the assets banks held.

Auditors did not have the skill set to ask the appropriate questions. This allowed banks to hide their assets off-balance. The fundamental principle of professional scepticism was compromised.

The question is where the auditing profession goes from here. Increased regulation means that auditors must document and test more findings than ever before. This is certainly a welcome development where the auditing of major companies is concerned. However, does a letting management company based in the UK need to document the risk from currency translation into euros? Or a church need to document risks associated with financial derivatives?

There comes an extent beyond which regulation undermines an auditor’s work. Auditing ought to be a thinking man’s profession, not a process of regulatory box-ticking for the sake of it.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @FlatFootTory

Does a vigneron in Rousillon shed a tear for the Greeks?

Nik Darlington 9.42am

Suppose that North-Eastern England, the region tending to be most heavily dependent on internal transfer payments, went bust, à la Grèce. Would the rest of England feel happy, or even obliged, to bail the region out? Of course it would.

Even if Scotland went belly up, despite all the rumblings of independence, the rest of the UK would come to its aid - as it did, for instance, to bail out Scotland’s biggest financial institutions (and the North-East’s, come to think of it).

But does a vigneron in Rousillon shed much of a tear for the Greeks? Or more to the point, a bank manager in Berlin? Or a station master in Stockholm?

The emotional flaw at the centre of the European Union is that however many years of postwar ‘good Europeanism’ there have been, Europe’s citizens (has that term ever felt less secure?) still feel the tug of the historic, the local and the familiar, more than the modern, the continental and the abstract.

A Greek default and eurozone exit makes dreadful economic sense, unless, perhaps, you’re Greek. Yet Europe’s emotions are directing the popular response, and, in the case of those northern Europeans with apparently unimpeachable morals, even the economic response too.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

While the Euro remains on life support, it’s business as usual for the City

Daniel Cowdrill 10.04am

Listening to David Cameron’s opponents during the weekend, you would think his veto signals the end of civilisation - or at least the UK’s participation in it.

One of their scare stories is that the City of London is worse-off than before the EU summit. In reality, however, it is in much the same position.

The sticking point was the financial transaction tax (FTT). This is a tax on every sale or purchase of stocks and bonds or other financial products by banks. On these pages, Craig has dismissed a FTT as an unhelpful ‘soundbite tax’, while Alex described it as ‘misguided’. Elsewhere, Sir John Major has labelled it a ‘heat-seeking missile aimed at the City of London’.

As 75 per cent of the EU’s financial services industry is located within the City of London the burden of this tax would fall disproportionately on the UK economy and the two million people who are employed in financial services in this country.

Unfortunately, France was not willing to listen to British demands. President Sarkozy’s refusal to concede led to a fiscal ‘pact’ rather than the fiscal union the markets had desired. What is set to be agreed over the coming months without the UK is unlikely to be enough to stop the deterioration of the European debt crisis, and President Sarkozy won’t be so ‘heartened’ if (or when?) France’s credit rating is downgraded.

However, beyond all this the fundamentals remain the same for the City. The UK remains part of a single market that allows the (reasonably) free movement of people, capital and services across a trading block of 500 million people. The City will continue to benefit from the single market - Mr Cameron’s veto does nothing to alter this.

To be sure, it could be argued that the new 17+ euro block will foist regulations on the City when Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) is introduced in 2014. But these are future deals that are yet to be negotiated and agreed. When the time comes there is no reason why Britain can’t win support and obstruct the worst that might come our way.

In any case, there are some people who believe that had the UK not vetoed the new treaty the French would be less determined to impose other regulations on the City. This thinking is deluded. French dirigiste tendencies have been strengthened by a financial crisis that many in France perceive as the fault of speculators in the City of London. This isn’t going to change no matter how much sovereignty we sign away.

Furthermore, access to the single market is not the only thing that attracts business to the City. In the 1980s the ‘Big Bang’ attracted financial services to London from all over the globe, not just Europe.

The UK’s competitive regulatory and tax framework continues to attract financial services to these shores. We are also near the main European continent and, of course, we speak English. Even the EU tends to deliberate great matters in English - now the global lingua franca (such irony might be lost on the French).

The City will live to fight another day. The euro, on the other hand, may not.