Archive for July, 2010

Seven European banks fail stress test

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Originally the regulators, the Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS), were only to look at the biggest European banks but they expanded the list to include 91, after there were some worries over some medium sized banks.  Collectively these 91 banks represent 65% of the European banking sector and the number and size of banks vary from country to country but must be at least 50% of each countries banking sector.

The failure rate was lower than expect as many experts predicted that as many as 12 would fail. Of the seven that failed 5 were from Spain (Diada, Espiga, Bianca Civica,Unnim and Cajasur, one from Germany (Hypo Real Estate) and one from Greece (ATEBank).

By conducting these tests it was hoped that international confidence would be restored to help finance economic recovery and to overcome the worry that European banks were either not strong enough to withstand a double dip recession or have large exposure to countries that might default on their debts. Also to identify any vulnerable bank so steps can be take to strengthen them. The aim is to continually test out the resilience of banks in the EU periodically and undertake a continuing program of improvement.

The banks were tested in scenarios where different assets might fall significantly in value, such as the collapse of a property market and if this resulted in losses so great that the banks capital was wiped out, then insolvency would result. E.g. if a loan cannot be recovered the bank writes down its capital by the amount of the loss and the investors take that loss and if the banks assets cannot repay all of its borrowings then insolvency follows.

The banks that failed will have to agree a plan over given time period to resolve their shortcomings.  The five Spanish banks to fail were regional savings banks with heavy losses due the downturn in the Spanish property market, but savings banks have been undertaking a restructuring process by the Bank of Spain so the overall picture in Spain is was considered sound.

The British Bankers Association said that work had already been  put in to strengthen UK banks and the four major UK banks RBS, Lloyds, HSBC and Barclays exceeded the standards set.  Also tested and passed was the Spanish giant Santander who own Abbey, Bradford and Bingley and the Alliance & Leicester in the UK, as was the Bank of Ireland who provide the banking services for the UK Post Office.

There are market concerns as although the EU set the parameters for these tests, they were conducted by national regulators who may have been lenient on their own banks. The test is against a ratio of tier one capital (capital of the highest quality) which is a core measure of the banks financial strength and a measure of insurance against loss. The trouble is that some of the forms of capital used in the test proved useless against losses in the recent crisis, thus the measure is more favourable to the bank. This pales into insignificance against the real problem with these tests and that is there is no test against sovereign debt, which is what brought us to crisis with Greece on the verge of bankruptcy.  So this appears to be more of a political exercise, as the EU will not even contemplate that a country within it, would default on its debt

However, the test that confidence has returned will be if today, the interbank lending market makes it easier for banks to borrow.

Read full report and results

Maurice Hall

Greeks queue to buy sovereigns

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

During World War II the British sovereign was the only tangible and reliable currency in Greece and they were hoarded and hidden in every conceivable place. A girls dowry would often include a cache of sovereigns.  They were parachuted in to fund the Greek resistance to the German occupation. War is a crisis but now the Greek population face the crisis of being unable to repay its debts and once again they turn to the sovereign as the currency of choice.

It is remarkable and a tribute to the sovereign that it remained legal currency long after the war due to the unstable drachma until eventually in 1965  the Greek government placed restrictions on trading resulting in many hoarders cashing in their stocks. Even so at the slightest hint of uncertainty, and there have been many, the Greeks turned to their favourite foreign gold coin.

GREECE CRIPPLED BY GENERAL STRIKEGreece has not really had a true period of financial stability for decades and markets are wondering whether they will default on repaying their debt given past behaviour  so the uncertainties  are understandable. The population is in panic resorting to strikes and riots and fear that Greece may leave the eurozone.

Once again  have returned to their known safe haven, the sovereign, as a hedge against financial collapse causing the the demand to increase year on year and the price to rise dramatically. For weeks citizens have been queueing at Athens central bank to buy sovereigns and have been prepared to pay the highest prices. It is estimated that in the first 4 months of the year 50,000 sovereigns were sold legally and as the demand increased so did the black market  and at least 100,000 were sold illegally with price up to €300 (£252).  The uncertainty and fear has driven people to pay a huge premium of almost 40% over the current value of the gold content to protect their wealth.

Without doubt the British sovereign has been the gold coin that has world wide recognition as mechanism for survival  whether it be a financial or physical crisis – see our article “Gold sovereigns open doors”

Maurice Hall

Is the case for gold weakened?

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

There are two camps of how to return the UK economy to growth and reduces our heavy debt, spend and cut or simply cut. What ever your personal view the new coalition government has decided that we will swallow the austerity pill with drastic cuts.  This has gone down well and the pound is at its strongest against the euro since November 2008 and the euro itself strengthened after the European central Bank has tightened monetary conditions.

We have seen a pull back in the gold price, but is this down to austerity which is the new buzz word in the UK and Europe. So as we start to live within our means does that mean that the need for gold as an insurance is weakened ?. We are rightly entangled in European economics as this is what affects our daily lives, but we found in 2008 that greed and subsequent collapse in America created an economic crisis in Europe, the worse since 1929 and the great depression. We are still feeling the affects and the steps taken to pump the economy lead to unprecedented sovereign debts and the collapse of economies in southern Europe. However, gold is intrinsically linked to the dollar so nothing has changed as the US try and spend there way out of the downturn, print more money to devalue the currency and have huge sovereign debt.

In the UK with CPI above 3% and more significantly the RPI above 5% it is virtually impossible after taxation  to get a ROI that does not lose money over the year. So that combined with economic fragility that could still lead to contagion means the case for gold is still strong.

Gold seasonal 40 years

What we are seeing is the seasonal adjustment that has been running for the last 40 years.  Gold has followed both seasonal and super cycles for decades and we are in the summer adjustment as predicted by my article on this blog in March (When is a good time to buy gold ?). However, gold has been stronger than my prediction by more than $100 per ounce, driven by more exposure to the fragility of world economies and unprecedented demand.  In fact we reached the end of year high I predicted before going into the summer recess so I would expect the price to now rise in Q4 to beyond $1300.  Traditionally investors who bought in summer made money by selling in Q4 a simple short term gain that has been repeated time and again.  Look also to the supercycle where the cycle and the seasonality meet in Q4 2011 and expect at least $1500 per ounce for the longer term investment.

The case for gold has not weakened and now is the time to buy gold the bull has a long way to run. Think also about ROI as gold and particularly legal tender gold coins (sovereigns and Britannias) stand out as a way to beat inflation and taxation. We have the best conditions in the UK for investing in gold coins no VAT or TAX applied.

Maurice Hall

House of cards

Monday, July 12th, 2010

In June our sister site (L’Or et l’Argent) has run a series of articles that follow the theme of a “house of cards” starting with Greece whose only resources, tourism and olive oil are not enough to lift them out of bankruptcy and a similar situation in Portugal. The next contagion is Spain, an economic giant in comparison, where unemployment is rife and debt would reach €225 billion in 2010. Although Spanish debt continues to grow, it remains lower than France which is the largest in the euro zone. Outside of the Euro Great Britain is cited as a contender for a “house of cards” following austerity measures announced at the budget and the marginalisation  of the GBP as we through national pride refused to join the eurozone.

This is an interesting take from a European prospective and draws attention to the two trains of thought in economic growth. The 2008 economic crisis still affects us today, we in the UK and most of the western world are in an era of fragility that needs to be stabilised. We could attempt to spend your way out of it as and stabilise growth before taking cost cutting measures as was the policy of the labour party or cut back immediately and risk stifling any growth. Meanwhile across the Atlantic Barack Obama seems to believe that the US can just spend their way out of it and print more dollars.

To me, if likened to a house hold, first you must recognise your debt and here in the UK we have gigantic debts to overcome, then you must take action. Spending on plastic has its day of reckoning and eventual you must cut your card in half, review expenditure and come up with a budget  that enables you to pay essential bills  and gradually repay your excesses with money saved. The economy of the country is no different, to improve your credit rating you cut wasteful spending, improve efficiency and live within means to gradually ease the sovereign debt. Austerity measures in the UK seems to have won respect in world markets as GBP has risen both against the Euro and the USD and the FTSE 100 has recovered to over 5100. More importantly the economy has grown marginally in the manufacturing section.

I have to say I have been pro Euro particularly when we could have joined in a position of strength but now I am in many ways glad we are still separate. Despite the Euro’s recent rally there is too much of a divide between the countries in the Euro zone, the efficient North and the chaotic South to the extent that the Germans would like to get out of the Euro as they feel they do not want to support the fragility of countries in crisis such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy.

Do not the French and other eurozone countries recognize that the cost of pensions will drive many countries to bankruptcy. When many Europeans look at the UK, they scoff particularly at the raising of the pension age that is likely to reach 70 over a period of time.  There average ages of retirement age varies but in most countries people retire in their fifties and in Italy and France only 12%  are working beyond 60 years old.

french_protestCitizens should realise that there is a pensions time bomb with the average continental EU state pension equating to almost 60% of salary and with a much longer period of retirement, governments cannot afford it and it will drive many countries to bankruptcy.  A recent survey of 25 countries scored the UK highly and the affordability and sustainability of our pensions and France at the bottom. Those countries with such generous pensions and early retirement ages simply can no longer afford them and it will drive them to ruin. There needs to be a massive reformation, not only to increase working age  but to reduce the actual value, which would be so unpopular that one wonders if the their governments have the guts to take the action necessary.

In another time we should be screaming at our government at the unfairness of our pensions which are the lowest in Europe but with the aging population, the ratio of workers to pensions set to double and the current crisis we are in a stronger position to survive than our neighbours. Meanwhile proposals to raise the retirement age in France have typically been met with mass protests for what is a diminutive step to fight debt.

I am not suggesting by any means that there is reason for complacency in the UK situation and there is still danger of stalling economic growth as the cuts bite deeper but at least we have recognised the seriousness of sovereign debt while other bury their heads in the sand.

In the fragile countries of the eurozone, where sovereign debt could precipitate a financial collapse and even  in countries that fear the contagion, people are turning to gold as a protection and nowhere more so than in the strongest economy, Germany, where there is unprecedented investment in gold. In Britain we do not have a history with private individuals turning to  gold but rather we might buy a gold coin for commemorative purposes.  We are fortunate that we have so far not suffered hyper inflation, major currency devaluation or physical invasion so we do not hoard gold or in general even understand how gold can protect family wealth even though we have some of the best conditions in the world for gold investment. No VAT, no Capital Gains Tax on legal tender gold coins and up to 40% tax relief if we use gold within a Self Investment Pension Plan (SIPP). We need to save more to pay for our retirement and make wise investments, diversify our portfolios, utilise SIPPs and last but not least be aware of the potential of gold to protect our wealth.

Maurice Hall



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"For a mountaineer, the important things are the effort, the posture and the muscles. The rope that holds him serves no purpose when everything works but it gives him a sense of security. In the same way, all gold does is ensure confidence; it's a safe haven."