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Stagnation or recession: What threatens the banking system of Germany and the eurozone in 2020

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“One of Germany’s most acclaimed experts” in economic risk analysis, Marcus Krall, “predicts the collapse of the German banking system and the eurozone by the end of 2020.” Krall describes the euro as an “erroneous structure,” whose existence is maintained for political reasons. According to Krall, the euro has a negative impact on Germany’s competitiveness and “weakens the country’s banking system”. Most eurozone countries would “have gone bankrupt” long ago if the European Central Bank did not support them by lowering interest rates. “At the end of next year, Europe may face a dramatic decline in the availability of loans.” There will be massive bankruptcies of businesses, and the unemployment rate will soar. In an attempt to save the situation, the ECB will resort to emissions, which, in turn, will provoke a leap in inflation and “loss of savings not only of the Germans, but also of everyone who invested in euros.” The crisis in the European economy will undermine political support for the euro, “and countries will return to their national currencies.”  It sounds threatening, but let’s try to look at the details.

The slowdown of the German economy has been in place for several years. According to the returns of the year 2018, the GDP growth dropped to its lowest in the past 5 years and amounted to 1.5%, which is a decline of 0.7 compared to 2017. The largest EU economy “narrowly escaped a recession”. In the second quarter of this year, German GDP decreased by 0.1% against the same period the previous year; which, in annual terms, reduced the growth rate to 0.4%. Official forecasts for the results of the current year have been reduced to 0.5% – more than three times, compared with last year’s expectations. By early autumn, forecasts for a further decline in exports amid fears of a general slowdown in the global economy led to more expectations of a further slowdown of the economy.  The government of Angela Merkel, after expressing optimism about growth prospects for the current year, began to acknowledge the problem.

The economy of Germany is to a large extent dependent on exports, and any serious turmoil in international trade will cause Germany more damage than any other EU country. An important factor is the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, which is on the verge of a new escalation. What also creates a negative outlook for the entire European economy is the prospect of Brexit without an agreement between London and Brussels. Finally, the Chinese economy is slowing down, which has caused a decrease in demand for German export products, primarily cars. According to The Financial Times, in the first half of this year, the output in the car-manufacturing industry dropped by 12 percent. Also, the anti-Russian sanctions are hitting “the German farming sector and processing industries; German companies are losing jobs and profit,” – reports Gazeta.ru. Meanwhile, consumer spending and domestic investment continue to grow. Unemployment is at its lowest since the reunification of Germany. Reports of September 9 say that in July German exports rose again by 0.7%, rather than fall, as most observers had expected. Nevertheless, entrepreneurial confidence continues to decline in almost all sectors of the economy. Thus, the GDP growth rate in the 3rd quarter will make the key factor: in case of a decrease, we will be able to talk about a recession in Germany in the formal sense of the word.

Like most European banks, German comapnies have long been fighting a fierce battle to maintain the profitability of business amid the long-running period of ultra-low interest rates. Meanwhile, bond yields, especially long-term ones, continue to decline throughout Europe. The yield on German government bonds is negative for all securities with a validity term of up to 10 years inclusive. For 30-year bonds, the yield fluctuates around zero. The rate difference between short-and long-term borrowings – the main source of income for banks under normal conditions – is close to zero. As investors rush in search for safer assets, the forecasts are disappointing: negative rates will persist “for several more years.” Another negative prospect for the German banking system is the de facto negative rates on ECB deposits. In fact, banks have to pay the Central Bank for keeping their capital in its accounts. The prospect of a new drop in the ECB interest rate in the near future is causing more anxiety among investors.

The ECB is signaling its willingness to lower interest rates in order to neutralize the slowdown in the entire eurozone.  Experts predict that the ECB will either keep rates at the current low level or lower them even more, at least until mid-2020. In these conditions, the German government is likely to resort to tough measures to secure a deficit-free budget, at least in 2019. However, the policy of cutting the state debt could be revised. At the end of this summer, German Finance Ministry officials publicly spoke about a “package of economic incentives” that could be put into effect in the event of a recession in Germany. Depending on the extent of such stimuli, the balanced annual budget policy may be put at risk.

In 20 years, the euro has turned Germany into a key EU economy, critical for the economic stability of the entire union. At the same time, it has become a major factor that cemented the isolation of Germany in Europe. As skeptics had predicted, the admission to the eurozone, despite tough selection criteria, of countries very different from the economic point of view, led to the fact that a deterioration in the global economic situation hits the weakest member countries the hardest. According to critics, “the euro exchange rate is clearly too high for France and Italy (this becomes a blow to their competitiveness), and too low for Germany.” During the Eurozone crisis of 2009, there appeared a vicious circle: the dominance of the Federal Republic of Germany’s economy in the EU allowed Berlin to dictate its conditions for strict budgetary savings to most of Europe. This, in turn, gave rise to an outbreak of anti-German sentiment in a number of countries on the continent, including Greece and Italy.

By now, Central Europe has turned into a supplier of semi-finished products and spare parts for German enterprises. The rest of the EU countries are a market for German goods. Simultaneously, Germany is forced to pay for the economic failure of an increasing number of its partners in the eurozone. Thus, the economic power of Germany, while being the backbone of the entire economic system of the EU, has become almost the main threat to the European integration project. Even though the German economy boasts a significant amount of strength, “weak domestic credit performance, the risk of a global trade recession and the slowdown in China” will continue to “push” Germany to recession, – SaxoBank analysts quoted by Gazeta.ru said in the middle of the year. According to the June results, industrial production went down by 5% year-on-year. The ZEW economic sentiment index has reached its lowest level since December 2011. According to Eurostat, published in early September, the total GDP of the euro area countries grew by only 0.2 percent in the second quarter, which is two times lower against the first three months of this year.

In late August, The Economist made a prediciton that Germany would follow the path of Japan, which has been waging an incessant struggle against the threat of stagnation for decades. Like Japan, present-day Germany is rich, burdened with a large state debt, as well as an aging population. Trends in the German bond market also signal “endless stagnation.” Concerns are growing that politicians have “forever” lost their ability to improve the state of the economy. Moreover, the decline in consumer prices “pushes” discount rates yet lower. As a result, many experts believe that Berlin may be faced with the need for a more “self-oriented” policy, at least in the economic sphere.

Meanwhile, considering EU membership criteria, the majority of the eurozone member countries are in no position to take  any significant steps  in the event of a genuinely unfavorable turn in the global economic situation. The presence of the euro and the “unprecedentedly” high degree of independence of the ECB with its extensive powers put severe restrictions on the possibility of influencing the economy of individual states. In accordance with the current requirements of the eurozone, governments have to either increase taxes or reduce government spending – even if it harms the national economy. Formally, there is a monetary mechanism to counter economic upheavals in a particular eurozone country to minimize their consequences for other participants. From the point of view of abstract macroeconomic indicators, this mechanism has been functioning well up to now. But, judging by what we witnessed in Spain, and then in Greece and Italy, its socio-economic and political costs are extremely high.

Also, the ECB itself is pretty hard-up at the moment. In the spring, it extended the program of preferential lending to the banking sector. However, inflation is steadily below the 2 percent target, and interest rates, as mentioned above, are fluctuating around zero. The government bond retirement program, especially in the case of Germany, is already approaching the limit established by the current legislation. Given the situation, economists fear that in the event of a new economic shock, there may simply be “no room left” for monetary policy measures. According to pessimists, “Europe has already reached this point.” Thus, for the first time in the past decade, we can talk about the need to use fiscal stimuli. And it is completely unclear whether the decisions, which are likely to be the result of numerous political and bureaucratic compromises, will prove effective. Thus, the recently announced plans in the fiscal sphere of individual countries indicate, according to economists, the high probability of an increase in the eurozone budget deficit – up to 0.8 percent of its total GDP in 2019, The Economist reports. While the budget deficit keeps growing in Italy and France, Germany does not lose hope for a small economic growth in annual terms. In the absence of a common eurozone budget, “general” fiscal measures can again turn out to be only the arithmetic average of the diverse decisions taken at the national level. Optimists expect fiscal stimuli to add 0.2-0.3 percent to eurozone GDP growth by the end of this year. Yet again, much depends on Germany with its extremely significant “space for maneuver”.

However, Berlin is still in two minds about it, probably, because in the case of fiscal stimulus measures, consensus is important, along with a good coordination of actions of the governments of different countries. Only in this case could fears of stagnation disperse. Finally, the scope of necessary incentive measures requires a high degree of political credibility. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that an economic recession in Germany could introduce substantial changes to the plans or dates of the transit of the supreme power scheduled for 2021. For Germany it took more than for other European countries to stop resisting the idea of fiscal stimulus for the economy. Now, observers argue whether the German authorities could go too far. In any case, they have yet to agree on such key parameters of the general budget of the eurozone as its size and permissible applications. Meanwhile, as pressure on the European economy keeps growing, a collapse of the eurozone can no longer be ruled out.

At present, there are still chances for Germany to avoid a recession, if not in the technical, then in the practical sense of the word. And even if it starts, the Federal Republic of Germany will enter it with one of the lowest unemployment rates among all countries of the world. By their nature, most factors that push the German economy “down” can be considered temporary. Nevertheless, more and more experts come to the conclusion that the economy of Germany “is balancing on the brink of recession.” The banking sector of Germany is busy struggling to maintain business amid zero or negative yield on assets, just like most banks in other countries of the euro area. Every day, it becomes clear that, in order to save the eurozone, the participating countries will have to make the difficult choice between delegating some part of fiscal sovereignty in favor of the hypothetical “common” supranational “finance ministry”, on the one hand,  and on the other, going on with their attempts, which are increasingly costly, if not utterly useless in the current conditions, to withstand cyclical fluctuations in the economy with the help of the ECB monetary measures alone. 

From our partner International Affairs

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Economy

China Development Bank could be a climate bank

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China Development Bank (CDB) has an opportunity to become the world’s most important climate bank, driving the transition to the low-carbon economy.

CDB supports Chinese investments globally, often in heavily emitting sectors. Some 70% of global CO2 emissions come from the buildings, transport and energy sectors, which are all strongly linked to infrastructure investment. The rules applied by development finance institutions like CBD when making funding decisions on infrastructure projects can therefore set the framework for cutting carbon emissions.

CDB is a major financer of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the world’s most ambitious infrastructure scheme. It is the biggest policy bank in the world with approximately US$2.3 trillion in assets – more than the $1.5 trillion of all the other development banks combined.

Partly as a consequence of its size, CDB is also the biggest green project financer of the major development banks, deploying US$137.2 billion in climate finance in 2017; almost ten times more than the World Bank.

This huge investment in climate-friendly projects is overshadowed by the bank’s continued investment in coal. In 2016 and 2017, it invested about three times more in coal projects than in clean energy.

The bank’s scale makes its promotion of green projects particularly significant. Moreover, it has committed to align with the Paris Agreement as part of the International Development Finance Club. It is also part of the initiative developing Green Investment Principles along the BRI.

This progress is laudable but CDB must act quickly if it is to meet the Chinese government’s official vision of a sustainable BRI and align itself with the Paris target of limiting global average temperature rise to 2C.

What does best practice look like?

In its latest report, the climate change think-tank E3G has identified several areas where CDB could improve, with transparency high on the list.

The report assesses the alignment of six Asian development finance institutions with the Paris Agreement. Some are shifting away from fossil fuels. The ADB (Asian Development Bank) has excluded development finance for oil exploration and has not financed a coal project since 2013, while the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) has stated it has no coal projects in its direct finance pipeline. The World Bank has excluded all upstream oil and gas financing.

In contrast, CDB’s policies on financing fossil fuel projects remain opaque. A commitment to end all coal finance would signal the bank is taking steps to align its financing activities with President Xi Jinping’s high-profile pledge that the BRI would be “open, green and clean”, made at the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April 2019.

CDB should also detail how its “green growth” vision will translate into operational decisions. Producing a climate-change strategy would set out how the bank’s sectoral strategies will align with its core value of green growth.

CDB already accounts for emissions from projects financed by green bonds. It should extend this practice to all financing activities. The major development banks have already developed a harmonised approach to account for greenhouse gas emissions, which could be a starting point for CDB.

Lastly, CDB should integrate climate risks into lending activities and country risk analysis.

One of the key functions of development finance institutions is to mobilise private finance. CDB has been successful in this respect, for example providing long-term capital to develop the domestic solar industry. This was one of the main drivers lowering solar costs by 80% between 2009-2015.

However, the extent to which CDB has been successful in mobilising capital outside China has been more limited; in 2017, almost 98% of net loans were on the Chinese mainland. If CDB can repeat its success in mobilising capital into green industries in BRI countries, it will play a key role in driving the zero-carbon and resilient transition.

From our partner chinadialogue.net

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Oil-Rich Azerbaijan Takes Lead in Green Economy

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Now that the heat and dust of Azerbaijan’s parliamentary election on February 9thhas settled, a new generation of administrators are focusing on accelerating the pace of reforms under President Ilham Aliyev, who has ambitious plans to further modernise its economy and diversify its energy sources.

Oil and gas account for about 95 percent of Azerbaijan’s exports and 75 percent of government revenue, with the hydrocarbon sector alone generating about 40 percent of the country’s economic activity. Apart from providing oil to Europe, Azerbaijan successfully completed the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) with Turkey in November 2019 to transfer Azerbaijani gas to Europe.

Yet, with an eye on the future, the country has also begun to take huge strides in renewable energy. Solar and wind power projects have been installed, with their share in total electricity generation already reaching 17 percent. By 2030, this figure is expected to hit 30 percent.

Solar power plants currently operate in Gobustan and Samukh, as well as in the Pirallahi, Surahani and Sahil settlements in Baku.

The potential of renewable energy sources in Azerbaijan is over 25,300 megawatts, which allows generating 62.8 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. Most of this potential comes from solar energy, which is estimated at 5,000 megawatts. Wind energy accounts for 4,500 megawatts, biomass is estimated at 1,500 megawatts, and geothermal energy at 800 megawatts.

President Aliyev has supported the drive for renewable energy. He signed a decree in 2019 to establish a commission for implementing and coordinating test projects for the construction of solar and wind power plants.

Azerbaijan’s focus on renewable energy has drawn interest from its European partners, with leading French companies seeking to invest in the country’s solar and wind electricity generation.

Azerbaijan is France’s main economic and trade partner in the South Caucasus. According to French ambassador Zacharie Gross, “the French Development Agency is ready to invest in Azerbaijan’s green projects, such as solid waste management. This would allow using new cleaner technologies to reduce solid waste. This is beneficial for the environment and the local population.”

“I believe that one of the areas that have greatest development potential is urban services sector. An improved water distribution system can reduce the amount of water consumed, improve its quality, and also solve the problem of flood waters in winter,” the French ambassador added.

Azerbaijan is currently a low emitter of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. According to the European Commission, the country released 34.7 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2018, i.e. just 3.5 tons per capita. This is lower than the norm adopted by the world: 4.9 tons.

In contrast, in 2018 Kazakhstan generated 309.2 million tons of CO2, Ukraine generated 196.8 million tons,Uzbekistan101.8 million tons, and Belarus 64.2 million tons.

And the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by Azerbaijan has been consistently falling. In 1990, Azerbaijan emitted 73.3 million tons, but in 2018 this had dropped to 34.7 million tons. By 2030 the country plans to reduce its annual greenhouse gases emissions by a further 35 percent.

Measures taken by the government include the early introduction of Euro-4 fuel standards in Azerbaijan, with A-5 standards to be introduced from 2021. An increasing number of electric buses and taxis are now transporting passengers in the main cities.

Another key step is the clean-up of the environmental degradation caused by over 150 years of oil production. Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR is helping to recover oil-contaminated lands in Absheron Peninsula, particularly in the once critically contaminated area around Boyukshor Lake. This involves the removal of millions of cubic metres of soil contaminated with oil.

Azerbaijan is also reducing the amount of gas it wastes in flaring. In a study funded by the European Commission, Azerbaijan ranks first among 10 countries exporting oil to the EU in the effective utilisation of associated petroleum gas.The emission of associated gases decreased by 282.5 million cubic meters from 2009 through till 2015. This is expected to fall further to 95 million cubic meters by 2022.

The government is also encouraging large-scale greening of the land. In December 2019, a mass tree-planting campaign was initiated by First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva to celebrate the 650thanniversary of famous Azerbaijani poet Imadeddin Nasimi. 650,000 trees were planted nationwide, including 12,000 seedlings that were delivered by ship to Chilov Island.

A 2018 survey, carried out in cooperation with Turkish specialists, found that forest area is 1.2 million square meters in Azerbaijan, i.e. 11.4 percent of the total area of ​​the country.A new requirement was introduced last year to halt deforestation and to reduce the negative impact of business projects on the environment.

For a country with the 20th largest oil reserves in the world, Azerbaijan could well have chosen to stick to a hydrocarbon future. But it has instead dared to think beyond oil and gas in its energy, transportation, economy and environment. The country is setting a template that should inspire other large oil producers to emulate.

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China-US: How Long Will the Phase One Agreement Hold?

Osama Rizvi

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Although the recently signed Phase One agreement between the US and China has put a halt to the ongoing trade war between the two global economic superpowers, it cannot be viewed as a long-term solution. At its best, it is a temporary truce. The language of the eighty-six page document, including its ambiguities and the unrealistic promises upon which the entire agreement is based, suggests that it is based on two unreconcilable compromises between the two parties.

Some of the main highlights of the deal include: China must give an action plan on “strengthening intellectual property protection” and it must reduce the  pressure on international companies for “technology transfer.” China has promised to increase the purchase of goods and services from US by $200 Billion over two years. Other key points include easy access to Chinese markets. The 15th December tariffs of $160 Billion have been delayed in December 2019. Tariff rates on $120 bn of goods (imposed on September 01, 2019) have been reduced from 15 to 7 percent although tariffs of $250 Billion at a rate of 25 percent will remain.

The 86 page document, when analyzed, displays an ambiguity in its language, as well as the absence of any enforcement plan and dispute settlement process. Therefore, whenever an issue might arise (and it will) there is a likelihood the deal may implode. For instance, whilst mentioning enforcement of payment of penalties and other fines, the word “expeditious” remains unclear. What is the time period and how will enforcement be accomplished? At another point, while referring to China to send a case for criminal enforcement the word “reasonable suspicion” which can be based on “articulable facts” makes it very abstract. Chad Brown, a trade expert in an article for Business Insider, says that there is no specific way mentioned in the document to penalize the party who violates any provision. Moreover, there is no body (like WTO) that will take decisions but is rather left to the USTR and discussions with Chinese counterparts – a recipe for confusion.

Then there are the promises. But we have to consider different variables. But if it turns out that China carries out its promise to buy crude oil, LNG and coal, the global commodity markets will feel the heat – in a negative way. Under the agreement China will buy an additional $52 bn of energy products in the span of coming two years- 418.5 Billion in 2018 and $33.9 in 2021. This year China will have to buy about $27 Billion energy purchases from U.S. To put this in context, China imported 14 million barrels of oil in November 2018 which is its highest ever. Assuming that China buys the same amount for 12 months it would yield only $9 to $10 billion in revenue! In a similar calculation for coal and LNG, Clyde Russell, in an article for Reuters, concludes that in order to fulfill the above target (of $27 Billion) China would have to double the amount of these imports from US!

Moreover, the Phase One agreement has a snapback clause which implies that upon quarterly reviews if the Chinese side isn’t holding true to their promises the agreement can become null and void.

Even if China fulfills its promise, the purpose wouldn’t be served:  the US. deficit won’t reduce significantly.  The US trade deficit with China for the first 10 months of 2019 was $294 Billion – in other words, roughly 40 percent of the country’s total trade gap. However, for the same period, Chinese sold goods more than four times that amount (or about $382 bn). China will need to half its exports to the U.S. for a “meaningful” drop in the deficit – something that seems highly unlikely.

Also, the US might even end up more dependent on China. Increased demand for US oil will spike its prices and might trigger other suppliers of China to increase their output in order to fight for the market share. The global energy and commodity markets could face disruption. Similarly, Brazil and other countries, beneficiaries of this trade war, can decrease soy bean prices in order to retain their market share, giving farmers in the US a tough time.

As the U.S. Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said that tariffs can remain in place even after a Phase Two agreement, we, therefore, have to be patient and observe the trajectory of Phase One trade agreement carefully.  Chinese promise of $200 bn purchases, the lack of a proper dispute resolution mechanism and technical loopholes in language puts the future of the agreement in doubt.

Both sides are keeping some cards in their deck; we have yet to witness the end of this trade-war saga.

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