Jim Armitage: Despite the Davos hype, Europe's economy is still neck-deep in crisis
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If the Alps around Davos were echoing to the sound of bankers' champagne corks popping last week, by this weekend the hangover had already set in.
All the talk at the World Economic Forum was of the worst being over, recovery around the corner, optimism on the rise.
True, things are clearly not nearly as bad as they were this time last year, but those financiers talking in such bullish tones in Switzerland are still neck-deep in crisis.
To hammer that point home, yesterday, the Dutch government was forced to nationalise its fourth-biggest bank, SNS Reaal, due to spiralling losses on property loans.
Crédit Agricole, meanwhile, signalled a €2.68bn (£2.33bn) writedown of the value of its assets, citing the tough economic climate and stricter accounting rules.
The previous day, Santander issued a miserable trading statement and Deutsche Bank wrote down €1.9bn. Later that evening, Italy's Banca Monte dei Paschi had its credit rating slashed by Standard & Poors. Although officials won't admit it, Monte dei Paschi is heading for nationalisation at the speed of a Maserati.
It would be wrong to draw too many wider conclusions from the Italian lender's plight. Clearly, this was a bank whose previous management had been hiding losses on an epic scale. Court hearings will eventually reveal more.
But for the others, the signals are clear: the region's economy remains weak, banks' losses on duff loans are still there, and tougher regulation is going to make it harder for them to make money in the future.
One reason for the bankers' optimism in Davos was that the festival of finance coincided with the loudly trumpeted event that banks had started repaying some of the hundreds of billions of euros they borrowed on the cheap from the European Central Bank.
But yesterday, the ECB admitted that next week's repayment will not be quite so impressive. About €20bn of repayments were expected – well down on the inaugural €137bn of the previous week, but still a respectable amount. Even that was way too optimistic, though. In the event, only €3.48bn has been pledged.
Pfffft… That's the sound of the party balloons deflating.
All of these events point in the same direction: Europe's banks, and by association the economies they serve (or prey on, depending on your view), are still in intensive care. They will be for many years to come.
Smaller operators like SNS will continue to collapse, bigger ones will keep pumping out writedowns, job losses will continue.
However, the big boys will survive, especially while ECB honcho Mario Draghi keeps them on the adrenalin drip of unlimited bond purchases and rock-bottom interest rates. They will eventually return to health. But we should certainly not be toasting their recovery yet, no matter how clear the skies looked in Davos.
Shale gas and LNG could be a big earner for the US
A few weeks back, I wrote here about what impact America's shale-gas boom might have around the world.
A potential reduction in US military ambitions in the Middle East? A possible swapping of America and China as cheerleaders for the House of Saud? It was all crystal-ball gazing stuff, based on predictions that the States will soon be self-sufficient in energy.
But another, less-obvious aspect emerged this week that few people had considered, principally because of the huge distances involved: America could start exporting gas in a big way to Asia, bringing back some much-needed currency to the US from the region.
This prediction came from the operators of the Panama Canal. They are six years into a multi-billion dollar expansion of the waterway, making it deeper and wider to carry bigger vessels, bearing more goods from Asia to the east coast of the US and back.
A problem with the expansion plan is that it was approved and started back in 2006 before the US was hit by recession.
Demand for those Asian imports in the eastern US states has fallen back somewhat since then, which kind of defeated one of the main reasons for doing it.
But now, the Panamanians are hoping it could make up some of the shortfall from ships going the other way. Not just with grain and other goods, but a new cargo: liquefied, natural gas (LNG) from the US to Asia.
LNG is clever stuff. You get your gas and chill it right down to minus-160 degrees Celsius. That reduces its volume by 600 times and turns it into a liquid which can be easily transported over long distances.
The US doesn't do much LNG yet. It's never really had the motivation to. But when shale gas really starts to flow by the end of the decade, Morgan Stanley predicts it will start producing some 50 million tons a year. That would make it the world's third-biggest producer behind the Aussies and Qatar. Much of that will be sent into the export markets.
Most would probably go to east Asia, where huge demand has pushed prices to a global high thanks to millions of tons being diverted to Japan. A tragedy-numbed Tokyo shut all but two of its 55 nuclear generators when Fukushima blew up.
While those plants will come back on stream in the next few years, demand for LNG will remain huge, giving the US a big new export product to the region for decades to come.
Given the shame that so many Americans feel at owing China and Japan $2 trillion, that might make them feel better about themselves.
This is the column from Saturday 2 February 2013
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