Sunday, March 6, 2016

Grexit looms again as Greece economy unravels; Npower to cut 2,500 jobs; The bane of negative interest rates

1 Grexit looms again as Greece economy unravels (Helena Smith in The Guardian) European finance ministers will once again deliberate over how to treat Greece’s ongoing debt crisis this week despite the country desperately grappling with refugees pouring across its borders.

A meeting of finance ministers from the eurozone will determine whether creditors are to be given the green light to complete a long-delayed review of Greek economic recovery plans. The review has been held up by disagreement among lenders over how much more Athens needs to cut from public spending. It is seen as key to reviving Greece’s banking sector and restoring business and consumer confidence.

“I think the situation right now is more dangerous than it was last summer,” the former finance minister Gikas Hardouvelis said. “Then it was a question of the political will of a few people,” he said, referring to the tumultuous negotiations that paved the way to Athens receiving a third bailout in August. “Now it’s a question of implementing reforms and working hard and if a government doesn’t believe in them and implements them begrudgingly, progress becomes very difficult.”

The meeting comes at an especially sensitive time. Greek unemployment remains the highest in Europe at almost 25% – and just under 50% among the young. Many companies are relocating to Bulgaria, Albania, Romania and Cyprus as a result of over-taxation.

Meanwhile, the once booming tourism trade has taken a hit as bookings to Aegean isles have collapsed because of refugee arrivals. Last week, it was announced by Greece’s official statistics agency, Elstat, that the debt-stricken nation had dipped back into recession. After three emergency bailouts and the biggest debt restructuring in history, talk once again has turned to the country dropping out of the single currency.

2 Npower to cut 2,500 jobs (BBC) Energy firm Npower is to cut up to 2,500 jobs, more than a fifth of its UK workforce, with an announcement to staff expected this week. Npower, which is owned by the German energy giant RWE, employs 11,500 people in the UK and is one of the country's big six gas and electricity suppliers.

The company, which has not made any official comment, posted a loss of £48m for the first nine months of last year. It has lost about 200,000 UK customers and received the most complaints of the six biggest energy suppliers in 2015.

The cuts come as RWE, which generates energy as well as supplying it, has been hit by oil and gas prices falling more than a third in the last year. Last month, the company announced a 5.2% cut in its gas price, taking effect on 28 March - a £32 average annual reduction to customers on a standard domestic tariff.

3 The bane of negative interest rates (Goh Eng Yeow in Straits Times) Negative interest rate is now a fact of life in about a quarter of the global economy covering wealthy countries such as Japan, Switzerland and even an entire bloc of nations - the euro zone - as they unleash yet another unorthodox measure to battle anaemic inflation and seek to give their economies a boost.

Will this strategy have an impact on Singapore and the rest of Asia, where interest rates are still rudely in positive territory? Plenty, as it turns out, given the deep reach that some of their financial institutions have here.

So far, the countries that have adopted negative interest rates have little to show for it. In theory, if banks are charged interest on their idle cash balances, they will be incentivised to lend this money out. Similarly, their depositors would be encouraged to take the money out of the bank to spend if they have to pay for the privilege of keeping it there.

However, in Japan and Europe, where populations are ageing and consumer demand is not as robust as it used to be, banks are experiencing difficulties in finding enough creditworthy borrowers to take their surplus cash. And because it may be more costly to hold cash in countries with negative interest rates, there has been a mindless rush into gold.

The big lenders which have suffered the biggest hits to their share prices this year all come from economies which have adopted negative interest rates, or have big exposures to them. In the euro zone, these have included Germany, where Deutsche Bank has crashed 34 per cent in price since January, and France, where Societe Generale has plummeted 30 per cent.

Mr Stephen Roach, the former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, noted that in shifting to negative interest rates, central banks are penalising lenders for not making new loans, given the persistence of weak consumer demand worldwide. In doing so, he argues that central banks have ignored the risks of the financial instability they may be spawning.

Keeping cash under the mattress or storing gold - the sort of impact we dread from a negative interest rate environment - is not going to boost economic activity or improve our living standards. In extreme circumstances, it can even cause the real economy to crash by starving it of the much-needed cash that keeps it humming.

That would be a pity. In trying to cure ills like falling demand, negative interest rates may snuff out the entrepreneurship that creates jobs and puts new technologies to work - the very stuff that promotes economic growth in the first place.

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