Saturday, February 28, 2009

Warning for the West as crisis spills onto streets
DOUGLAS HAMILTONFebruary 16 2009

The slump that has swept through developed nations like the UK, the eurozone and the United States is hitting the world's emerging economies with a speed and ferocity that has shocked even the most pessimistic analysts.

Until recently, many investors and economists thought such countries could provide a bulwark against the collapse in growth elsewhere. Instead, the latest data suggests that emerging economies as a group actually contracted late last year, and will likely shrink further in 2009.

The pace of the turnaround has caught policymakers and investors off guard. In a matter of months, key gauges of growth in trade and industrial production in a number of countries went from acceptable to alarming - even domestic demand is suffering.

Asia's economies have posted the starkest drops in economic activity, but the slide is evident from Latin America to Eastern Europe.

Economists are particularly concerned about conditions in the Baltic countries, Eastern Europe and Russia, which still has a formidable nuclear arsenal. In all three areas of the former Soviet empire, deteriorating economic conditions, marked by steep falls in the value of national currencies and gross domestic product, has led to weeks of civil unrest.

Analysts are worried that problems in Eastern Europe and Russia could have a negative impact upon western currencies and banks, which are big lenders and investors in the area.

They point to a sharp fall in the euro last Tuesday. The value of the 17-nation currency plunged after reports that Russian banks were seeking to reschedule as much as $400bn of foreign debts.

Russian banks had $198bn in outstanding foreign debt as of October 1 and non-financial institutions had $300bn, according to the latest data available from the central bank in Moscow.

Reports of rescheduling plans were denied by Moscow but this failed to help the single currency recoup all its losses.

Analysts said the episode illustrated just how vulnerable the euro remains to the problems of Central and Eastern Europe. The Russian rouble and the Hungarian forint have also weakened against the dollar.

In an ominous development, Russian companies, the biggest emerging-market borrowers during the last three years, have been shut out of the international bond market after yields jumped sixfold since August amid plunging energy prices and a weakening rouble.

The credit squeeze will force companies to rely on government bailouts to refinance their debt or face default, according to MDM Bank, VTB Group and Commerzbank.

In a move to restore confidence in the Russian economy, President Dmitry Medvedev last week pledged more than $200bn in emergency funds to support banks and companies as the 60% drop in oil prices since August and the rouble's 35% tumble against the dollar push the world's biggest energy supplier into its worst economic crisis since the government defaulted on $40bn of domestic debt in 1998.

Street clashes have broken out in Moscow and other cities and the government is clearly worried about further outbreaks of violence.

Fitch recently downgraded Russia's sovereign rating, citing a wave of corporate refinancings and the government's macroeconomic policy. Standard & Poor's made similar moves late last year and many observers expect Moody's to do the same soon.

Downgrades make it more expensive for companies and the government to obtain new debt.

The situation is little better in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, where governments have had to cut spending on key programmes.

Some experts are concerned that economic difficulties in the Baltic states will spill over into Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

There are also worries about larger economies such as Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. If they weaken further, it will put banks in Germany and Austria in even deeper trouble. Austrian banks have run up huge debts in neighbouring countries.

Last month saw the biggest demonstrations in Latvia and Lithuania for nearly 20 years. In Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, a mass protest against austerity measures ended up in a riot as protesters hurled eggs, rocks and snowballs at the police.

In Latvia's capital Riga, people dug up cobblestones from the street, smashed storefronts and trashed police cars. The protests followed the government's decision to push through massive cuts in social security payments.

Angry demonstrations have broken out elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The centre of the Bulgarian capital Sofia was brought to a standstill by protesters who surrounded the country's parliament building.

In Romania, thousands of workers walked out of factories and marched against government plans for more privatisation and budget cuts.

Tension is rising in Hungary, where unemployment has jumped to above 8%, according to analysts in Budapest. Last year, the government was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund to avert a debt default, and the economy is forecast to contract as much as 3% this year.

Meanwhile, some of the strongest emerging economies outside of Europe are also in trouble. Taiwan said last week that exports in January plunged a record 44% from the same month last year, pushing them down to a level unseen since 2005.

Last week, Brazil posted industrial production numbers for December that showed a historic tumble of 12.4% from the previous month, shocking the country and forcing its president to calm nerves.

In South Korea, the December fall in industrial output over a year earlier was the largest since the country began keeping records. The South Korean won has shed nearly 10% of its value against the dollar.

Malaysia announced last week that its factory output fell at its steepest pace in 15 years in December from a year ago, reinforcing expectations the government will step up spending to fend off a recession.

It was the fourth straight month of decline in output in the South-east Asian country, which is grappling with collapsing demand for electronic goods, the biggest export revenue earner for the country.

"The magnitude of the deterioration (in emerging economies) is nothing short of dramatic," said Amer Bisat, an analyst at US investment firm Traxis Partners. "We're continually catching up with the data, and with continuing downward revisions, at a pace which to my mind is unprecedented."

Bleak economic figures have prevented some stock markets in developing countries from making gains this year. Benchmark indices in Brazil and China are up about 10% this year, but India's is down slightly and Russia's has fallen sharply. The Russian equity market is one of the worst-performing bourses in the world.

Analysts said a number of emerging markets are grappling with a series of blows such as declining trade, shrinking capital flows and slumping commodity prices. Domestic demand also is going into reverse.

JP Morgan forecasts that at least 11 emerging economies - among them South Korea, Taiwan, Russia, Turkey, and Mexico - will shrink in 2009, with another four posting no growth.

Brazil is the latest example of the swift reversal of fortune in emerging markets. Just last month, the country's finance minister predicted "good economic results" and gross domestic product growth of 4% in 2009 for South America's largest economy. But forecasts by private economists are in freefall, and many now predict no growth or very little this year.

JP Morgan economists predict that China, the giant of the emerging world, will grow 7.2% this year, a major deceleration compared to 2008 and 2007. Chinese imports and exports are falling at their worst rates in a decade, a sign not only of weak global demand, but of a retrenchment by Chinese companies and consumers.

The Chinese government has responded with an aggressive stimulus package and interest-rate cuts. A gauge of manufacturing posted a slight rebound for January, but is still signaling a contraction in activity.

In South Korea, the economy began spinning backwards late last year. Surging exports from its ports stalled and then fell more than 30% in January over a year earlier, a reversal that has outpaced declines the country experienced during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

In 2009, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines are expected to see a fall in exports that will outstrip what they experienced during the Asian financial crisis of 1998, according to Credit Suisse.

During that debacle, emerging nations were able to recover relatively quickly by relying on export markets like the United States to keep buying their goods - something they may not be able to count on this time around.

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Thousands of Opel Workers Demonstrate against GM

Some 60,000 employees of GM subsidiaries in Europe laid down their tools on Thursday to take part in protests aimed at saving their jobs. Huge losses in Detroit threaten to doom the German carmaker Opel, and the workers want a divorce from the parent company.

With American automotive giant General Motors struggling to survive amid the worst car industry downturn since 1982, employees of the company's European subsidiary Opel laid down their tools on Thursday to take part in mass demonstrations in a last ditch effort to save their jobs.


Click on a picture to launch the image gallery (13 Photos)

Over 15,000 workers gathered at Opel's flagship factory in the western German industrial city of Rüsselsheim near Frankfurt with a total of 60,000 people joining protests at 14 Opel factories across Europe. "It is no longer five to midnight, the clock has already struck midnight," Klaus Franz, head of Opel's works council, told the gathered workers at Opel headquarters. "There is only one single chance, and that is spinning off Opel from the GM group."

Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who will be running against Chancellor Angela Merkel in general elections this September, also attended the Thursday protest, saying he was doing everything he could for Opel. "We all agree that it is up to GM management. GM has long earned good money with Opel. It would be obscene were they now to throw away European factories like a squeezed-out lemon."

Graphic: GM in Europe

Graphic: GM in Europe

In addition to protests in Germany, workers were set to walk out at Saab in Sweden, at the Vauxhall division in Britain and at other factories in Austria, France, Spain and Hungary. Dozens of demonstrators in Germany carried signs evoking Barack Obama's recent successful presidential campaign, reading "Yes We Can, Without GM."

The protests come as GM announced losses in the fourth-quarter of 2008 of fully $9.6 billion (€7.5 billion), bringing the company's minus for the year to $30.9 billion. The Detroit-based giant has said it will cut 47,000 jobs worldwide with 26,000 of those coming outside the US. Company head Rick Wagoner is in talks with Washington about a much-needed capital injection and has also asked foreign governments for $6 billion to prop up its foreign operations.

Partially as a result of GM's troubles, Opel too has been haemorrhaging money, losing $1.9 billion in 2008. The company did, however, manage to sell a record number of cars in Januaryas a result of a German measure aimed at stimulating car sales. The company employs 25,000 workers in Germany along with thousands more at factories in Britain, Belgium, Poland and Portugal.

In Germany, many say that a split from its Detroit parent is the only thing that can save the carmaker. And, as became clear on Thursday, Opel workers are furious with GM for the predicament they currently find themselves in. "They built up overcapacity around the world without regard for losses," Berthold Huber, head of the union IG Metall, told protesters at Rüsselsheim. "And they have built models with the aerodynamics of a barn door and the weight of a small tank." He said that, given high fuel costs and growing unemployment, such cars are "as necessary as freezers at the North Pole."

Berlin is currently waiting for Opel and GM to present a plan to streamline the company, expected on Friday, before deciding how to proceed. Chancellor Merkel said on Thursday that her government would only help if the plan was sustainable. "Only then can we consider what kind of aid is necessary," she said.

According to information obtained by SPIEGEL from government sources on Thursday, it is estimated that Opel, in addition to the €3.3 billion it is already thought to need, requires a further €2.3 billion in capital and liquidity. Until recently, the federal government estimated that it would have to provide Opel loan guarantees totalling €1.8 billion. But SPIEGEL reported only one week ago that the company's liquidity requirements had risen to €3.3 billion.

German news agency DPA also cited unnamed Opel and GM managers who said the company's capital needs would be €8 billion to €9 billion.

Opel boss Hans Demant denied the reports on Thursday. "I don't know anything about this figure -- it is absurdly high," he said at the company's Rüsselsheim plant. Works council chief Klaus Franz also stated the numbers were "nonsense."

Managers from the carmaker as well as representatives of the federal and state governments met on Tuesday to negotiate a possible aid deal. The German government has said one condition of any aid package would be that no money could flow into GM's coffers in the United States.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article SPIEGEL incorrectly reported it had information that Opel would require €9 billion in long-term aid. This has been corrected in the current version.

cgh -- with wire reports

'We're Not Paying For Your Crisis!'

Anger rises in Germany as the economy falls. Trade unions and globalization-critical protesters are planning demonstrations in Berlin and Frankfurt under the banner: "We're not paying for your crisis." Alexis Passadakis, 31, an activist from the group Attac, tells SPIEGEL what's wrong with the system.

Attac activists stage a protest action at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in Germany: "Disarm the Financial Markets!"

Attac activists stage a protest action at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in Germany: "Disarm the Financial Markets!"

SPIEGEL: What do you mean with your battle cry, "We're not paying for your crisis"? Don't you want to pay taxes anymore?

Passadakis: We believe that the cost of the economic crisis should be footed by those who profited most from globalization.

SPIEGEL: As a leading exporter, Germany too has profited.

Passadakis: No, the majority of people have not earned much from the boom -- instead they have had to deal with restraint in their wage agreements. The rich, on the other hand, have seen strong increases in their wealth. So it is only fair that they should pay extra duties.

SPIEGEL: You want to fleece the Aldi brothers and the Klatten and Otto families (Germany's richest people) among others?

Passadakis: Yes, they in particular should be ordered to come to the check out. We are calling for the rich to pay out between 5 and 20 percent of their wealth.

SPIEGEL: And by doing so, they should provide enough money to finance the economic stimulus packages?

Passadakis: The German government has now pledged €480 billion ($613 billion) in guarantees and cash injections for banks. In the year 2002 alone, private assets in Germany increased by almost €800 billion. There is lots to draw on. We just can't keep going on as we have been until now.

SPIEGEL: Why not?

Passadakis: The European Commission estimates in a secret paper that the banks are still sitting on toxic assets worth several trillions of euros. To guarantee such sums would be beyond the means of any public fund. Instead, it would be better to let the banks go bankrupt in a controlled fashion, then put them under public control and then recapitalize them. Then the billions of taxes would be used in a sensible way.

SPIEGEL: Do you think many people will participate in your protest?

Passadakis: The crisis is still very abstract for many people. But still our membership numbers are rising fast. After the protests in France we are holding demos in Germany on March 28, shortly before the global finance summit in London.

Arsonists Torch Berlin Porsches, BMWs on Economic Woe

Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) -- When Berlin resident Simone Klostermann returned from vacation and couldn’t find her Mercedes SLK, she thought it had been towed. Police told her the 35,000- euro ($45,000) car had been torched.

“They’d squirted something flammable into the car’s engine block in the gap between the windshield and the hood,” said Klostermann. “The engine was completely destroyed.”

The 34-year-old’s experience isn’t unique in the German capital. At least 29 vehicles were destroyed in arson attacks this year, most of them luxury cars, according to police. The number is already about 30 percent of the total for 2008. The latest to go up in flames was a Porsche, on Feb. 14, two days after a Mercedes was set alight in a public car park.

While youths in Athens protest by throwing Molotov cocktails, in Paris by toppling barricades, and in Budapest by hurling eggs at politicians, protesters in Berlin rage at their economic plight by targeting the most expensive cars -- symbols of German wealth and power.

A group calling itself BMW -- the initials stand for Movement for Militant Resistance in German -- has claimed responsibility for several attacks in left-wing magazines and Web sites, police spokesman Bernhard Schodrowski said.

One-third of the incidents are classed as “political,” prompting officers to assign a special unit to investigate, Schodrowski said. No arrests have been made. Schodrowski attributed the arson to “a protest against the world economy and rising rents.”

‘Quick to Attack’

German unemployment began to rise last November after almost three years of declines. Deutsche Bank AG Chief Economist Norbert Walter predicts the German economy, Europe’s biggest, may shrink by more than 5 percent this year.

The worst recession since World War II is fueling anger among youths across Europe who “perceive their future as rather precarious,” said Margit Mayer, a politics professor at Berlin’s Free University.

“Whether you look at the Berlin events or these anarchist groups in other European cities and countries, they are all making reference to the deepening economic crisis and how the various governments are dealing with them,” said Mayer, a specialist in urban social and protest movements.

Some groups are “very quick to attack whoever they can make out as responsible for having robbed them of decent life prospects,” according to Mayer.

The Berlin car burnings have been concentrated in up-and- coming neighborhoods such as Prenzlauer Berg, where Klostermann’s car was destroyed in May.

‘Don’t Move in Here’

There, new housing and building redevelopments are pushing out the squatter scene that flourished after East and West Berlin were reunited in 1990, said Andrej Holm, a sociologist at Goethe University in Frankfurt who has studied the change.

Rents that were about half the city average 10 years ago are now about 40 percent above the average, and the car attacks are an attempt to drive wealthy newcomers away, Holm said.

“It means: ‘rich people, don’t move in here -- your cars will be trashed, we don’t want you here’,” he said.

Representatives from Porsche Automobil Holding SE, Daimler AG, the maker of Mercedes, and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG declined to comment on the attacks. Daimler spokeswoman Ute von Fellberg said the matter was about security in Berlin.

Berlin Matter

“This is not a matter for the producer, rather it’s a matter for the city of Berlin,” BMW spokesman Alexander Bilgeri said today in a phone interview.

While Prenzlauer Berg and other central neighborhoods such as Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg are thriving, at least in parts, Berlin as a whole remains Germany’s “subsidy capital” almost 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell, saidTobias Just, a real-estate economist with Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt. Unemployment, at 14.1 percent in February, is almost double the nationalaverage.

Oliver Kappelle, who moved with his wife and two children to Friedrichshain, is unfazed by the perceived threat.

One night last month, Kappelle came across a “heap of junk that used to be a Porsche the night before,” he said. “I was just relieved that he didn’t park in the empty space behind me.”


Berlin has a history of political protest, with anarchist demonstrators regularly clashing with police on the streets of Kreuzberg during May 1 marches. Kreuzberg, which abutted the Berlin Wall, is represented in parliament by the Green Party’s Hans-Christian Stroebele, a former lawyer who defended members of the Baader-Meinhof gang in court.

Likewise, arson attacks on cars are not new: a Web site, “Burning Cars,” was set up to track the incidents in May 2007, one month before a summit in the northern German resort of Heiligendamm of the Group of Eight industrialized nations. There have been 290 attacks on cars since then, among them 55 Mercedes and 29 BMWs damaged or destroyed by fire, the site records.

“I wouldn’t advise someone to park their Porsche on the street” in Kreuzberg, Berlin police commissioner Dieter Glietsch told the Taz newspaper in June last year.

As the frequency of attacks increases, Klostermann, a company manager who has lived in Prenzlauer Berg for 12 years, remains unbowed.

“I would never want to be regarded as someone who can be driven out of a place where I enjoy living,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brett Neely in

Private military companies to supersede regular armies

Private military companies (PMCs) have become rather popular nowadays in terms of providing specialized expertise or services of a military nature. These units can compete with special services and regular armies. There are such companies in Russia, although they are not so widely spread in the country in comparison with their prototypes in the West. As experience shows, the PMCs will prevail in the future.

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The history of private military companies started on June 24, 1997, when experts of the US Intelligence Department proclaimed the PMCs as a major tool in the implementation of the military security policy of the United States and its allies in other countries.

The professional level of a private military company is its major advantage. Inexperienced military men are not welcome there. A PMC member is usually a man between 35-40 years of age. A human being of this age is resistant to stresses and emergency situations. In addition, a man of this age can also do routine work very well, which can not be said about younger men.

Potential fighters of the private military companies possess the required level of experience and have an adequate insight, which allows such units to achieve better results in their activities in comparison with regular armies.

A private military company can be very efficient in local conflicts, where the use of regular armies can be complicated for legal reasons. For example, Russia can not send its troops to Nigeria if Nigerian gunmen attack employees of Russian companies – it would be a gross violation of international laws.

Russian PMCs – Tiger Top Rent Security and Orel Antiterror - do not lag behind their US or British colleagues. The only difference is that Russian PMC fighters are paid a lot less.

Russian PMCs took part in the military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Lebanon and Palestine.

Russia’s largest companies such as Russian Aluminium (Rusal), Lukoil, Rosneft and Gazprom received a carte blanche to form military structures to protect their interests both inside and outside Russia.

Private military companies supply bodyguards for the Afghan president and pilot armed reconnaissance planes and helicopter gunships to destroy Coca crops in Colombia. They are licensed by the State Department; they are contracting with foreign governments, training soldiers and reorganizing militaries in Nigeria, Bulgaria, Taiwan, and Equatorial Guinea. The PMC industry is now worth over $100 billion a year.

Central banks don't want their leased gold back

Dear Friend of GATA and Gold:

Tonight your secretary/treasurer had an exchange about gold leasing with a participant in the wonderful forum sponsored by Centennial Precious Metals in Denver ( Since gold leasing is at the center of the gold suppression scheme and is a bit complicated, the exchange might be worth sharing, so it's appended.

CHRIS POWELL, Secretary/Treasurer
Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee Inc.

* * *

Gold Leasing by Government -- A Question

"How long can the U.S. government protect the dollar's value by leasing its gold to bullion dealers who sell it, thereby holding down the gold price?"

-- Former Assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul Craig Roberts in a recent essay (

I am hoping someone can provide me with an explanation of how this machination works. The government leases gold to a dealer. This means, I presume, that the dealer gets to take physical possession of the gold for a period of time and pays a fee for the privilege. What happens when that time expires? The gold must be returned to the government, and unless the price of gold has fallen, the dealer takes a bath. What am I missing?

-- Tahoma.


Tahoma, to reply to your question about gold leasing. ...

It works this way.

While central banks traditionally have said they lease gold to earn a little money on a supposedly dead asset, in 1998 Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told Congress that this was not true. Central banks lease gold, Greenspan admitted, to suppress its price:

For years prior to 2000, gold leasing fueled what was called the gold carry trade. Investment houses leased gold from central banks, paying the central banks a tiny annual interest rate, usually well below 1 percent of the value of the gold leased, and then sold the gold into the market and invested the proceeds in government bonds, earning perhaps 5 percent annually. The huge difference in interest rates meant a virtually free stream of income for the investment houses, income paid by central banks as interest on the government bonds purchased by the investment houses, secure as long as the investment houses could be protected against sudden rises in the price of gold.

Gold-leasing governments liked this scheme because it supported government bond prices and government currencies and kept interest rates down — below where a free market would have set them. The results were the worldwide, credit-fueled boom, a vast misallocation of capital into unprofitable, unsustainable enterprises, and the worldwide bust now under way.

When the price of gold reached bottom in 1999 and turned up, threatening the investment houses that had sold leased gold even as Western central bank gold reserves began to decline markedly, the Western European central banks, under the supervision of the U.S. government, announced the Central Bank Gold Agreement:

The U.S. government was not formally a signatory to the agreement, but it was announced in Washington and has been called the Washington Agreement. So it is fairly surmised that the U.S. government helped organize the agreement and had a big interest in it -- the continuing support of the U.S. dollar and U.S. government bonds through gold price suppression. Gold price suppression was the essence of the "strong dollar policy." The Washington Agreement was a plan of dishoarding and sale of the gold reserves of the Western European central banks.

While the agreement's participants said they meant to support the gold price by limiting and co-ordinating their gold dishoarding, in fact they were arranging cash settlement of their gold loans, allowing the investment houses that were short gold to close their positions in cash rather than in gold itself. The investment houses were allowed to settle in cash because if they had been required to settle in gold, they would have had to go into the open market to get it and the gold price would have shot up very high, bankrupting the investment houses and greatly diminishing the value of all government currencies and bonds.

That is, central banks do not want their leased gold back. That is what you are missing.

Ever since the Washington Agreement in 1999 the Western central banks have been managing their controlled retreat with the gold price, letting gold rise a fairly steady 15-20 percent per year on average, stretching out their dishoarding as far as they can while trying to maintain some gold on hand for emergency intervention in the currency markets.

Barrick Gold, the biggest hedger (short) among the gold miners, confirmed all this when it announced some years ago that most of its gold loans had 15-year terms and were what the company called "evergreen" -- always allowed to be rolled over year after year so that the gold never had to be repaid as long as Barrick paid the tiny amount of cash interest due on it every year.

Barrick is short more than 9 million ounces of gold and until a few years ago was short much more than that. Who would lend so much gold indefinitely and for a mere pittance in interest? Only a central bank that meant to suppress gold as part of a scheme to keep government currencies and government bonds up and interest rates down.

Defending against Blanchard & Co.'s gold price-fixing lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Orleans in 2003, Barrick went so far as to claim to be the agent of the central banks when it leased and sold gold and to share their sovereign immunity against lawsuit:

That is, gold is only the tail on the dog here. But it's a very strong tail.

You can find more detail about the gold price suppression scheme here:

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Three Riskiest Banks - American Banker

capital-tceNice chart from American Banker comparing various U.S. banks' tangible common equity capital ratio (a highly conservative measure of solvency) and Tier 1 capital ratio (a marginally less conservative but regulator-favored approach).

As you can see, the differences are fairly stark at many U.S banks. Straight up, most U.S. banks are at or close to insolvency by TCE measure, which speaks at least as much to the harshness of the test as it does to the actual financial condition of many of the banks.

Nevertheless, by the TCE measure the "safest" (I use that word advisedly) U.S. banks are JP Morgan (JPM) and U.S. Bancorp (USB). The riskiest banks are Citi (C), BNY Mellon (BK), and Wells Fargo (WFC).

There are lots of reasons why you should (really!) be critical of TCE as a measure of bank solvency, but there is no doubt that skepticism towards bank capital is deserved, so other measures were always going to come forward.

More here.