Thursday, 7 January 2010

E. Balls, A. Balls, PIMCO and Gilts

I was just skimming through the comments beneath Jeff Randall's latest all-out assault on Labour's epic economic incompetence when I stumbled upon something rather interesting of which, in my ignorance, I knew not (thanks to the poster "BD MATHERS," I do now). The European portfolio manager (chief buyer) of the biggest bonds and gilts dealer in the world, PIMCO, is none other than one Andrew Balls, Ed Ball's much smarter little brother.

"So what?" you may well ask. Well, for one thing, PIMCO holds $183Bn of assets and, as such, is the biggest company of its kind in the world. What is more, it's playing a vital role in keeping the British economy's head just about above water, for now - (or, at least, keeping the Labour shipwreck afloat). However, PIMCO announced yesterday that it will be withdrawing from both the US and the UK markets. The US will just about be able to cope with this since it has many other options open to it. Not so the UK, a far smaller economy where debt dependency means we are orders of magnitude more leveraged than the States. As the "economic voice" blog says:
In what amounts to a massive vote of no confidence PIMCO has announced that it will cut back on its UK and US government debt holdings. They see government borrowing rising and the central banks no longer buying through quantitative easing, which will push the supply / demand balance into negative territory for them. They are expected to move into European government bonds as these have not had the same level of government support. If a flood of UK Gilts are dumped on the market we could see yields rise (prices drop) more than anticipated.

This leaves the questions of where will the government raise the circa £180 billion it needs for the next year? And how much more of a premium in the form of increased bond coupons (interest) are we going to have to offer before investors are happy to take the risk of buying new Gilts? Also, when will the Bank of England be able to sell its accumulation of Gilts back into the markets without suffering a massive loss?

Next stop the IMF?

Indeed. This is a very, very serious development which has all-but been drowned out by all the noise coming from Brown's latest pathetic leadership crisis over the last 24 hours or so, although some bloggers, most economists and some broadcasters did pick it up. It is a stark truth, but Jeff Randall is absolutely right: Britain is broke; the coffers are [worse than] empty. He was wrong, however, in his assessment that both main parties are too scared to talk about managing this calamity. As I said earlier, Philip Hammond was refreshingly candid, forensic and solid in appraisal of the Labour-led crisis in the PBR debate today. It's only Labour that's delusional about the scale of the problem, in particular the Prime Mentalist himself - oh, and one Edward Balls.

Which brings me back to the theme of this post: the embarrassment the Balls brothers connection might (should) cause the government. Why? Guess who will be steering through PIMCO's dumping of UK gilts. One Andrew Balls, European portfolio manager. The "economic voice" again:
Apart from the economic repercussions for Britain, it also embarrassingly appears that Andrew Balls (younger brother of Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families) will be overseeing this withdrawal as head of PIMCO’s European investment team.
But in a huge, gobbledigook in-house interview posted after Christmas on the PIMCO Europe website, Balls Minor puts a bit of English on what the company calls its "European Cyclical Outlook and Strategy" (aka, its "Get the hell out of the UK as fast as possible" plan).
...there is more uncertainty around the forecasts than usual, and it is even more difficult to identify the turning point in the economic cycle because larger, secular changes are also underway. Over the long term, we expect to see a major shift to lower growth in the developed economies, higher growth in the emerging economies and greater government intervention and regulation overall. PIMCO calls this new economic reality the New Normal.
Compared with the core eurozone countries Germany and France, we see the UK as having a more difficult adjustment to make to the New Normal due to weaker initial conditions, greater ongoing need for deleveraging and, in the household sector, the need to rebuild savings, which are low compared with the savings rates you see in Germany or France.

However, the UK has benefited from more aggressive policy interventions and related to this, the depreciation of the British pound versus the euro and the dollar. We also consider the UK a more flexible economy than Germany or France. That is a benefit for the UK in terms of handling the big shocks we have seen hit these economies.

Taking all these factors into account, the growth forecast ranges are similar for the UK and the eurozone as a whole, and their outlooks are broadly similar, but the midpoint for the UK is a little bit higher than that for the eurozone.

Another important point is that while we see unexciting growth at the eurozone aggregate level, we expect to see considerable differentiation across member countries because of weaker initial conditions and greater deleveraging requirements in some countries.

Get that last bit? "Weaker initial conditions and greater deleveraging requirements in some countries [in Europe]." For 'some countries,' read the UK. For 'weaker initial conditions,' read Gordon Brown's total cluelessness in his decade of lunatic spending into a massive property bubble that he helped to create and fuel. Seems spinning the facts could therefore be in the Balls family genes. To be fair to A. Balls, though, he is stuck between a very thick rock (filial loyalty to an older brother - and sister-in-law - who helped cause the UK's current economic chaos) and a very hard place (doing his job). It seems he plumps for the latter in the end, though, in his assessment, stating (in econo-nerd speak, naturally) that:
In the UK there is also uncertainty over what the Bank of England (BoE) will choose to do with the stock of gilts it has bought during 2010. The BoE has bought gilts across the curve, whereas the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing purchases have largely been focused on mortgage-backed securities. So there is a bigger question mark over the exit strategy here for the BoE, whether it will continue to hold these bonds or whether it will at some point try to reduce those holdings.

Because the eurozone does not have large-scale quantitative easing programmes to unwind, we remain moderately bullish on eurozone duration. We also remain positive on covered bonds in the eurozone. The impact of ECB purchases of covered bonds is very minor compared with the quantitative easing programmes in the UK and the US...

This is why his bosses have told him to dump the UK (and US) and buy European debt instead. He goes on (boy, he goes on!)...
On the UK side, in addition to the risk associated with the end of quantitative easing, there is also political uncertainty surrounding the elections, most likely happening in May, and the implications there for fiscal retrenchment and for fixed income markets. The chance of renewed pressure on the British pound remains a source of tail risk, a risk that poses a market crisis or systemic event that can severely hurt portfolio returns, in the UK.
In other words, the UK is the most likely candidate for basket case status in the entire continent of Europe. I wonder if Ed knows what his brother's been up to? Andy knows what Ed's been up to, that's for certain. You know what, I think Britain ended up with the wrong Balls in the government.

Anyway, that's enough of that. It's all just too unspeakably depressing for words. My God this country has been fubar-ed by Labour. Again.

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