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Armenia’s inability to solve pandemic-related economic problems

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According to data from the Armenian government, in 2019 the country’s economy grew by about 7.6%,which was the highest figure since 2008. Further data from the Statistical Committee of Armenia show that the trade and service sectors were the main drivers of economic development. In the same period, 9% growth in industrial output and a 4% reduction in agricultural output were also recorded. Inspired by these growth numbers, during a cabinet meeting in January, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that he was confident that, as a result of the joint efforts of government members, even higher figures will be registered in 2020. However, as a result of subsequent pandemic-related events, his confidence disappeared and difficulties in solving economic problems have proven the inability of the Armenian government to act independently.

Since the declaration of an emergency situation on March 16, economic activity has significantly slowed, thus leading to the creation of various economic problems and a financial deficit. Even though some restrictions were softened in May, that did not lead to a noticeable increase in economic activity. As a result, the economic forecasts for Armenia in 2020 worsened. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the economy of Armenia will contract by about3.5% in 2020 as a result of global uncertainty and falling demand. However, the Armenian government is more optimistic in its prediction of a decline in GDP of 2%.

One of the main problems created by the pandemic-related economic restrictions is the impossibility of implementation of government-approved budget projects for 2020. As the forecast for Armenia’s GDP worsens, it will lead to lower tax revenues than initially planned for. According to the Finance Minister, Atom Janjughazyan, with the forecast 2% decline of GDP at the end of the year, tax revenues will decrease by about 10% compared with the planned volume. If the economy diminishes by more than 2%,that will lead to an even greater reduction in tax revenues. Janjughazyan also noted that the government plans to keep budget spending unchanged in order to mitigate the negative consequences and create the preconditions for a quick recovery. Although this decision could help to prevent social discontent and avert some economic problems, it could have long-lasting economic consequences by significantly increasing the budget deficit. With a reduction in taxes generated of about 10%, the budget deficit will double, reaching 5% of the projected GDP or $676.4 million (1 Armenian Dram=0.0021 USD). To run the budgeted projects with such a high level of deficit, the government will have to amend the budget legislation in order to exceed existing restrictions.

Another financial problem for Armenia is related to the implementation of support programs. As the emergency situation has substantially impacted economic development, the government has had to implement support programs. Even though these programs have been important in supporting the economy, they have also created financial problems as the government does not have enough resources to implement them independently. To support the economy, the government approved a support package of $315 million. Of these funds, $168 million will be used for long-term economic development programs;$52.5 million for the elimination of economic problems, social tension and liquidity issues; and $42 million for the redistribution of reserve funds. So far, the Armenian government has approved 20 crisis measures for the implementation of support programs.

Financing the high budget deficit and extensive support programs creates financial problems as Armenia does not have sufficient financial resources. Therefore, Armenia must attract funds from other countries or international financial institutions. Based on the calculations of the Armenian government for financing the combined support programs and budget deficit,it needs to raise an additional$546 million. Armenia already has a large volume of external debt (40% of GDP in 2019) and raising additional funds will significantly increase that debt. Taking on an additional $546 million of debt will increase the government’s external debt by about 10%. Taking into account that, during 2019, the total public debt of Armenia increased by about 14.8%, the increase of external debt by about 10% from only one source shows how seriously it will affect the financial security of the country.

Armenia also is facing economic problems in the energy sector. On April 1,GazpromArmenia, the Russian-owned natural gas distributing company, declared that it was going to ask the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) for changes to gas prices in Armenia. It proposed to set the same price for all customers beginning from July 1. This change would eliminate the discount for low-income families, thus leading to a 35% increase in price for them but a2.2% decrease for consumers that use up to 10,000 cubic meters of gas per month. The Armenian government was dissatisfied with the offered gas rates as it was already dealing with pandemic-related economic problems and it requested that Russia decrease the price of gas that they sell to Armenia.

As the talks with Russia did not lead to desired results, the PSRC accepted the changes but kept the price for domestic users and low-income families unchanged. The PSRC wants the average weighted price of 1,000 cubic meter of gas be set at $266.7 USD,$16.43 below the price that Gazprom Armenia had proposed. The price of natural gas will increase from $212 to $224 per thousand cubic meters for agricultural companies, and from $242 to $255.92for consumers who use more than 10,000 cubic meters of gas per month. The new prices will enter into force on July 19, except for thermal power plants. Despite the fact that PSRC was able to prevent price changes for ordinary citizens, the new rates will create unemployment problems. In order to operate with accepted price changes Gazprom Armenia has to lay off about 1500 employees and reduce its annual revenues about 6%.

The inability of the Armenian government to solve its economic problems with its own financial resources or to diversify its energy imports will lead to significant economic problems. Many countries around the world are facing economic and financial problems and are therefore looking to obtain foreign assistance, and this reduces opportunities to access foreign finance by intensifying competition. Therefore, it is not currently easy for Armenia to attract financial resources. The dependence of the energy sector on the price policies of other countries also creates economic instability. Even though the PSRC was able to avoid natural gas price rises for ordinary citizens, it cannot prevent unemployment issues and price rises for businesses. Therefore, countries that are dependent on foreign financial assistance and are unable to implement independent economic and energy policies during the pandemic and in the post-pandemic period will face serious economic issues. Taking into account that social and economic problems were among the main drivers of the change of government in Armenia in 2018,the pandemic-related economic problems will also have political consequences.

Orkhan Baghirov is a leading research fellow in Baku based think tank named Center of Analysis of International Relations. He is PHD candidate in Public finance and fiscal policy. His areas of research include regional and international economic relations.

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Economy

‘Make That Trade!’ Biden Plans Unprecedented Stimulus for US Economy

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The revolving doors to the White House, the Senate, and the House are set to welcome president Joe Biden and his administration. Now that the Democrats control the executive and the legislative branches of government, they have carte blanche to push through unprecedented economic stimuli to benefit all Americans. Taking center stage is a massive $1.9 trillion stimulus on top of the $900 billion stimulus recently passed by Congress under President Trump. Combined with the $2.9 trillion stimulus in 2020, the US economy is now flush with cash.

All that money has plenty of different directions to go, including Wall Street and Main Street. Americans across the board are anticipating $1400 stimulus checks to go with the $600 released in December 2020. Dubbed the ‘American Rescue Plan,’ the stimulus money is intended to get the economy moving again, by empowering consumers who have faced sweeping job losses, cutbacks, and personal difficulties.

The stock markets have reacted to these stimuli as expected – bullishly. A snapshot of the US financial markets confirms the impact of the stimulus, and what’s to come. The 1-year change for the major US indices reflects strong gains for the NASDAQ composite index (38.44%), the S&P 500 Index (13.17%), and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (5%).

Markets across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia have performed poorly over the past 1 year, owing to the government enforced lockdowns vis-a-vis the pandemic. The best performing European market over the past 1 year was the DAX (+2.38%). This begs the question: How will all the stimulus money impact the stock markets, and demand for gold?

What Happens When Central Banks Start Flooding the Market with Trillions of Dollars?

Monetary stimulus is designed to assist struggling American households who through no fault of their own were furloughed, or now face tremendous economic uncertainty. SMEs across the board are cutting costs, and letting people go. In December 2020, hiring rates in the US dropped for the first time in 7 months. Industries affected most by the pandemic include service-related businesses, travel and tourism, restaurants and bars.

It’s not only low income families struggling against adversity; it’s middle income earners too. Several measures have been proposed, including raising unemployment benefits to $400 weekly, and increasing the minimum wage to at least $15 per hour. All of these bold initiatives have yet to be passed by Congress, and signed into law by the President.

The effects of these massive stimuli will reverberate across the economy. There are definite winners and losers from massive spending. The Deficit/GDP ratio is already 15%, and monetary supply growth has increased by 25%. Inflationary concerns are growing, but for now the stock markets are shrugging off the prospect of higher prices and welcoming the stimulus. Low-income earners will benefit most from the stimulus, but every action has a reaction in the financial markets.

Currently, the Federal Reserve Bank has indicated no change to interest rates. This is surprising, given that bond yields are increasing. Multiple economists are concerned that the infusion of trillions of dollars into the economy will ultimately lead to rising prices, and nullify the intent of the stimulus packages. Equity markets and housing markets have shown tremendous resilience, and growth in recent months. State governments will be getting their fair share of stimulus money, as ‘financial healing’ kicks off in earnest.

TheFed’s bond-buying program continues in earnest as quantitative easing goes into overdrive. Millions of Americans remain out of work, and the unemployment rate is at pre-pandemic numbers. If the proposed economic boom kicks in, inflation will likely result before the end of the year. Markets across the US rallied in 2020, and bullish sentiment continues into 2021.

Analysts point to high valuations in the stock markets that are not supported by the fundamentals. The CARES Act was like a steroid shot for the market. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) ensured that at least some of the $1200 + $600 checks found a way to stock markets. Brokerages across the board reported increased registrations and trading activity. Americans are certainly taking to stay-at-home work/life by actively engaging in the financial markets. This will likely continue with an additional $1400 stimulus check.

Which Stocks Will Benefit?

Source: StockCharts.com SPX 500 Large Cap Index

Major US banks are set to benefit over the short-term, thanks to their ability to borrow money at short-term interest rates, and lending that money out over the long-term at higher rates. The biggest US banks should all see an uptick in stock price performance. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) has a market capitalization of $285.563 billion, and the performance outlook for the stock is bullish over the short-term, mid-term, and long-term.

Wells Fargo & Company (NYSE: WFC) has a market capitalization of $132.469 billion, with a medium-term and long-term bullish performance outlook. Much the same is true for Citigroup (NYSE: C) with a market cap of $133.77 billion, and a medium-term bullish outlook. Energy efficient stocks will also benefit from the Biden administration. Companies like Tesla stand in good stead with a green energy-focused Presidency, House, and Senate

Analysis of bank stocks provides interesting insights. For example, BAC has climbed from November lows of under $24 per share to $33 per share. The stock price is higher than its short term moving average (50-day MA), and the long-term moving average (200-day MA) of $29.04 and $25.26 respectively. Technical analysis of BAC, using the Ichimoku Cloud confirms bullish momentum moving forward.

Indeed, experts at Bank of America attested to the benefit of passing the stimulus, without which a recession would have occurred. In a similar way, WFC stock, and C stock are also up sharply since the November 2020 lows. Bollinger Bands indicate that the run on bank stocks is likely to continue as momentum is clearly on rising prices for bank stocks.

Source: StockCharts AAPL

Besides bank stocks, there are plenty of other stocks to watch, including (NASDAQ: BKNG), Renesola Ltd (NYSE: SOL), Snap Inc (NYSE: SNAP), and Apple Inc (NASDAQ: AAPL).Pictured above, AAPL is currently trading around $127.14 per share [January 18, 2021]. It is bullish, compared to the 50-day moving average of $124.24 and 200-day moving average of $103.77 per share.

Bollinger Bands for Apple indicate a slight tightening,and stabilisation of prices at a much higher level than the lows recorded in July and August 2020. As the world’s most valuable company, AAPL is on the rise once again.  Momentum indicators such as Ichimoku Cloud tend to suggest that AAPL is set for additional gains.

Which Sectors of The Stock Market Will Flop?

The shift away from crude oil and natural gas to green energy will cripple the oil industry and all the stocks that populate it. If these companies don’t start switching to alternative energy investments they will stagnate. WTI crude oil is currently trading around $52.09 per barrel, while Brent crude oil is trading around $54.76 per barrel [January 18, 2021].

The long-term charts of companies like Exxon Mobil Corp, Chevron Corporation, Royal Dutch Shell all point in the same direction – decline. In fact, these major multinational companies are at their worst levels in 10 years. US oil consumption is flattening out, while that of global oil consumption is increasing. Overall, nonrenewable energy sources such as oil and natural gas are long-term bearish, and best avoided. The global focus is on clean energy, not oil and natural gas.

Other long duration assets such as biotech stocks will likely slump over the short-term. Given that these stocks are discounted to the present, makes them unattractive to investors right now. However, any attempts to expand the Affordable Care Act will work to the advantage of biotech stocks, and pharmaceutical stocks, because people have greater access to healthcare.

The lukewarm reaction of stocks to the stimulus plan is predicated on the notion that additional stimulus will invariably result in additional taxes. If lawmakers in Congress require that taxes be raised in order to pay for the income redistribution, stocks will slump. The cruise ship industry, hotel industry, and entertainment industries still have a ways to go before a recovery is on the cards.

The strongest-performing sectors include many household names. The likes of shopify, Nvidia, cryoport, Pinduoduo, and Albemarle were considered winners in 2020. The biggest losers were airlines such as Boeing, and United, real estate and retail operations such as Simon, and oil and gas industries like British Petroleum.

Overall, the stocks which outperformed market expectations included freight and logistics, basic materials, Internet retail, software applications, and semiconductors. Heading into 2021, the S&P 500 index was up 16.3%, and growth continues. There are ‘moral hazard’ concerns with any big stimulus. Prior to the pandemic, approximately 20% of public companies were operational, but unable to repay their debts. After the pandemic hit, that number swelled to 32%.

How will the Stimulus Affect Demand for Gold?

Source: MarketWatch SPDR GLD

Traders and investors tend to buy gold when stock markets are performing poorly. The pandemic hit the brakes on the economy, and gold benefited. During uncertain times, gold becomes the go-to commodity, as it functions as a store of value. With trillions of dollars in stimulus money finding its way into the markets and households, there is no threat of a recession anytime soon. Gold prices such as GLD are off their highs, and trading at weaker levels.

When the Fed decides to raise interest rates once again, possibly to curb inflation, gold will again get hit. Since gold is not an interest-bearing commodity, it doesn’t benefit investors the same way that interest earning bonds do. As the 10-year yields on bonds continues to increase, capital will exit gold stocks, ETFs, and holdings and move to the bond markets, and interest-bearing accounts. That the gold price forecast is bearish is par for the course under current conditions.

It is against this backdrop of change and uncertainty that trillions of dollars in stimulus will weave its way into the fabric of the American economy through households and businesses. How that plays out in the stock markets remains to be seen, but for now all signs are positive.

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Bitcoin Price Bubble: A Mirror to the Financial Crisis?

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The Financial Crisis 2007-09 is without a doubt a nightmare the world once lived through and what still finds some traces in the financial systems today. The Real estate price bubble followed by a blind market crash led many of the Too-Big-To-Fail institutions to the verge of bankruptcy. In its retreat, the crisis laid the very foundation for risk management charters; like Basel Accords III stressing on the credit risk regimes and bank controls to avoid future market fiascos and averting any possibility of another financial turmoil. However, the financial crash coincided the emergence of an alternative financial system that not only bypassed the apparently faltering centralised banking systems but revolutionised the currency we knew in light of the financial crash.

The digital currency came into light in the same period when the world dealt with the smattering banking systems and volatile market conditions. Bitcoin, the first of its kind cryptocurrency, was created back in January 2009 just as the immediate effects of the financial crisis started to fade. The mysterious creator, under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, designed Bitcoin was an alternate currency to the traditional fiat money controlled by the centralised systems of federal and state banks of the countries denominating the currency of exchange. The intent behind Bitcoin laced the intension of a borderless currency to synchronise the global economy and markets into one absolute and seamless channel of trade. Bitcoin acted as a token-like element in exchange of real-life currency over a decentralised collection of systems controlled by users globally in a chain of command known as the Blockchain.

Although the ascent of Bitcoin was stagnant at first, it soon surged in popularity and subsequently in value over the course of years. Bitcoin bloomed up and beyond expectations, taking valuation of thousands of US dollars while its variants traded on a much lower price tag. The proponents of the cryptocurrency, also the main critics of the institutionalised nature of the global financial system, failed to realise, however, the dangers and pitfalls of a decentralised system of currency exchange and the total shit to digitalised units of trade. The latest Basel accords and their rendition of the laid principles and measures in the financial algorithms devalued over the years following the financial crisis are ultimately rendered futile in the world of unregulated cryptocurrency markets denominated in kinds of Bitcoin. Thus, although the probability of fraudulent activities is shunned to zilch courtesy of the complex disintegrated protocols associated to blockchain mechanisms incorporated in Bitcoin, the price controls are virtually impossible to place. This is due to the fact that digital currencies are already rendered extremely difficult to value accurately given the sheer volatility of the prices, making Bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies almost impossible to distinguish artificial price bubbles from the actual gain of value.

This was proven within a decade of Bitcoin’s invention, back in 2017, when Bitcoin’s surged in value from trading below $3,000 to a whopping $2,0000. The price bubble was attributed to the gain of trust in the champions of Bitcoin, known as miners, gaining popularity in the digital fanatics while simultaneously driving heavy criticism from the financial industry gurus. The bubble, however, brutally popped on 22nd December 2017; crashing from a record peak of the time of $19,783.06 to below $11,000 in mere 5 days. While many of the venerated financial institutions, like JP Morgan, mocked the craze of Bitcoin, they also warned of the worst market crash the world has ever seen over the obsession and the relentless rise in value of Bitcoin despite of the steep risks involved.

With the onset of 2021, however, the financial institutions who once steered clear of the digital phenomenon, now have taken a polar position of yet another price surge rippling Bitcoin. This time around, the high volatility in Bitcoin is associated to Institutional investors as opposed to the speculators deemed culprit of the bubble back in 2017. However, the waves are more raucous than ever. Trading at $40,797.61, Bitcoin slumped down to $34,039 on closing of 12th January 2021, just in a span of 4 days. Bitcoin has posted an astounding 300% growth in returns; bouncing from $5,000, just before the hit of the Covid pandemic, to the record highs above $40,000 looming the Bitcoin trends. Though many sage minds associate the inflation-resistant characteristics and fixed supply features of Bitcoin to its surge of value and touching the shock resistant nature of Gold, many believe that the value is found to cascade since it’s not real investment in their definition. Now as the growing economies like UAE and China are spreading wings towards blockchain variants, stability in Bitcoin is a possibility overtime. Yet, is the worst of the rough price bubbles behind us or is a crash still imminent?

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Flourishing Forex Market amidst Covid pandemic

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The Covid-19 outbreak has halted the normal channel of life, people losing their livelihood and income has dwindled over the past eight months all over the world. However, in the tailspin the world has faced, the Forex accounts have witnessed a phenomenal growth over the pandemic-ridden months. Month-on-month growth has been recorded as close as 25-50% while the total volume has expedited at an all-time high of 300% growth. Over the past decade such a phenomenal growth was hardly ever seen since the last record high was a close to 40% which is mere compared to the colossal figure posted on the stage in June 2020.

The developing markets, however, post a lucrative section to invest in since the region has been the biggest contributor to the FX rise: close to 60% being the beneficiary of Europe, Africa and South Asian countries. Safe to say that this trend has been so steep largely due to the investors being ridden with optimism over the volatile prices of many of the commodities that were rendered stagnant over the previous decades. This includes the oil prices, gold valuation and even the real estate market that despite being involved in a price bubble leading to the worst financial crisis of the millennial, still stood relatively steady over the past 11 years.

The FX market is oozing optimism to say anything about the trend which could be directly associated to the unprecedented financial climate and the looming atmosphere of recession and financial crisis pushing people towards adopting a new income stream. As conventional income channels come to a dead stall and people having time and focus to spare towards trading, the large volume of cumulative accounts could be further expected to extrapolate since price volatility and unexpected events both in the trade and world affairs have had a conducive effect on even the layman to dip into the trading cycle: FX market being the coherent choice due to safe commodity and currency investments and quick gains.

Exacting one’s mind towards the milestones achieved this year, be it the plunge of global oil prices to the negative scale of the exchange or the sharp fall and sudden rise of DJI or even the injection of one of the largest stimulus packages in the United States since the infamous financial crisis, this year marks the focal point of risks and opportunities. The prospects of a new vaccine are still trailing to the second quarter of 2021 despite some countries picking up the pace to vaccinate early means the trend in the market is not short term unless a breakthrough is imminent. On the market front, the interest rate crunch with UK expected to nudge the rates in the negative along with global relief to debt financing, traders have a global ticket on both the borrowing and the lending front to turn up abnormal gains. However, reliable brokers are a tough nook to find since the uncertainty also grips the traders regarding investments in the skewed conditions as such. Moreover, with naïve traders entering the market, small scale brokers clustering the exchanges and limited physical interactions due to social distancing protocols are all but exhaustive factors that could easily deteriorate the growing trend and bring about a financial crisis much sooner than expected if not regulated efficiently.

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