Down-Under Energy Opportunities: Ivor Ries

Ivor  Ries Most investors may not have Australian resource companies on their radar screens, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some great opportunities worth pursuing Down Under. In this exclusive interview with The Energy Report, Ivor Ries, utilities and energy analyst at E.L. & C. Baillieu Stockbroking Ltd., one of Australia’s oldest securities firms, describes the challenges faced by energy-related companies in his country and how they are taking advantage of the opportunities available both at home and in the U.S., Canada and South America.

The Energy Report: Your firm has been in the investment business for over 120 years. Can you give us an overview of the energy markets and the challenges and opportunities that energy companies in Australia face?

Ivor Ries: Australia has historically been the quarry and energy source to emerging Asian economies. As a result, our economy is inextricably linked with the progress of China, Korea, Japan, India and the other Southeast Asian economies. Initially, we were mostly a supplier of minerals, but in recent years, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) markets have become a very large part of our economy. We have two very large LNG projects in production and a third smaller one in Darwin. Another five LNG projects are now under construction, which will more than triple Australia’s LNG output over the next five or six years.

The LNG boom has its pros and cons. The investment spending is a huge boost to our economy, but it also has caused a huge shortage of contractors and manpower. The price of labor has gone through the roof in any business related to oil and gas. An unskilled laborer working on an LNG project in Australia is probably paid somewhere between two and four times as much as he or she would be elsewhere. Australia has very tight restrictions on labor coming in. At the moment, the industry is forcing the government to change that. The government recently announced it is going to reduce the visa requirements for American and Canadian oil and gas workers, so they can help plug that gap. That would be a huge relief for the industry. We have a very heavy-handed set of regulations here, and there has been a lot of media hysteria surrounding fracking, particularly in the coal-seam gas areas and a very strong campaign to have fracking stopped. Anyone running coal-seam gas or unconventional gas here has to run through a very stringent and time-consuming environmental approvals process, which probably adds two to three years to getting a project off the ground. When it comes to the cost of getting things done, everything takes longer and is more expensive than expected. That’s frustrating.

TER: What’s the breakdown of Australia’s energy production versus its consumption of oil, gas, coal and other energy sources?

IR: The domestic market in Australia is overwhelmingly coal driven. Australia is the world’s largest seaborne coal exporter, and our domestic power industry runs about 80–85% off coal and to a smaller extent off hydroelectric power and gas. Cheap coal gives us very low-cost baseload power across the entire economy. A population of only 23 million (M) people is just not enough to create a significant market for gas, and that has resulted in a terrible oversupply. Until we started shipping LNG, gas prices were incredibly low. We’re just now starting to see the connection between the domestic gas price and export prices. Typically, for the last five years, the price for gas on the east coast of Australia was about $3.50 per million British thermal units (MMBtu). Now we’re starting to see some longer contracts being signed at about $7–8/MMBtu.

TER: Do LNG exports offer a big potential opportunity?

IR: Yes. In Australia, unlike the U.S., the mineral resources belong to the government. So the people who own the land do not own the minerals underneath. In the States you have the overriding royalty system where the landowner typically gets a percentage of the production. Here in Australia, the state government gets a royalty that is typically about 10%. The net cost of producing coal-seam and conventional gas is very low. There is a good network of pipelines on the east coast for moving the gas around where cash production costs, particularly from the better coal-seam gas fields, are typically less than $1/MMBtu. That’s very cheap. With an LNG plant, the price is now around $12–13/MMBtu. Even after the pipeline charges and the LNG plant operating costs, that is quite a big margin. In the recent years, we’ve had quite a lot of consolidation with global names buying up the smaller coal-seam gas players to increase their reserves and have a bigger stake in LNG.

TER: Are most Australian energy companies geographically diversified with operations in other countries?

IR: Our bigger companies here tend to be multinationals, like BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP:NYSE; BHPLF:OTCPK), Rio Tinto (RIO:NYSE; RIO:ASX) and Woodside Petroleum Ltd. (WPL:ASX). The Australian market is so small that to grow beyond a certain size, you have to become multinational in some way. The next tier down is a huge drop in terms of size. Our biggest pure domestic gas play is probably Origin Energy Ltd. (ORG:ASX). It has about a $16 billion (B) market cap.

TER: About how many energy-related public companies are there in Australia?

IR: There are a lot. Our market is a bit like Calgary in that we have a lot of really small exploration companies here. There are probably more than 250 listed energy companies on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX).

TER: You have a fairly broad range of companies in your coverage list in terms of stage of development, type of business and the price of the stock. How do you decide what companies you want to cover?

IR: Many companies are working on a lot of small things. Our chief criteria is the company has to be involved in pursuing one or more core projects where the central resource is at least 100 million barrels oil equivalent (Mboe). Otherwise, there’s no point. Companies chasing smaller projects tend to burn through shareholders’ capital and then ask for more. We figure if you chase a 100MMbbl target and you derisk it, you may not actually produce it, but someone will come and pay you some real money for it. So that’s the first criterion. The other criterion is the quality of the management. Once we feel comfortable in that area as well, the company goes onto our coverage list. But as you can see, there are not many.

TER: What are your favorite companies right now?

IR: The ones that stand out to me at the moment are companies like Karoon Gas Australia Ltd. (KAR:ASX), which is a midsize explorer/developer with an LNG project in Australia and a huge exploration project ahead in Brazil. Molopo Energy Ltd. (MPO:ASX) and Red Fork Enegry Ltd. (RFE:ASX) are essentially American companies that happen to be listed on the ASX. Molopo has acreage in the Bakken in Saskatchewan, Canada and a project in the Wolfcamp play in the Permian Basin in Texas. It has about 25,000 net acres in Texas. We’re very excited about that. Red Fork has about 75,000 net acres in the Mississippi limestone play in Oklahoma. It has been getting some good results from its early wells there. We think these stocks are all very undervalued relative to the size and quality of the land positions they have. The next 12–18 months for all three will be exciting because they have a lot of wells going in and production will be ramping up. If they get a reasonable run of drilling success, their share prices will be significantly higher than they are now.

Molopo’s Wolfcamp drilling areas are surrounded by a lot of very big players getting some really good results. These include EOG Resources Inc. (EOG:NYSE), El Paso Pipeline Partners L.P. (EPB:NYSE), Approach Resources Inc. (AREX:NASDAQ), ConocoPhillips (COP:NYSE), Pioneer Southwest Energy Partners L.P. (PSE:NYSE) and Devon Energy Corp. (DVN:NYSE). On some of their better wells, those guys are getting over 1.8 Mbpd from long laterals. Molopo has drilled three short lateral wells so far, and all have flowed oil. It is about to crank up production and put in somewhere between 8 and 10 wells there by year-end. Long, lateral wells will target much higher flow rates than achieved to date. As the company derisks the project, the market will really appreciate that asset.

TER: What about Red Fork?

IR: Red Fork is up in the Mississippi limestone area in Oklahoma. That’s a real hotspot, and the last time I looked, there were 240 drill rigs running in the area. Red Fork is run by some very experienced oil guys out of Tulsa. It’s had a couple wells on pump so far and has been getting some nice oil flows, and is about to crank that up. Red Fork has a very big land position. It will be getting a big following from the States as its production cranks up, going to somewhere between 10–12 wells this year. Toward the end of the year, I wouldn’t be surprised if its production was getting close to 2 Mbpd.

TER: Does that hold up or does it taper off relatively quickly?

IR: Because it has so much acreage, it will just keep drilling. I think it will eventually have more than 300 well locations that it can drill there. It will certainly be able to grow its production by just steadily increasing the footprint there. Its neighbors are getting 30-day initial production rates around 350–550 bpd on pretty low-risk wells. If it can string together a whole bunch of those, we think it will then be seen as a serious company. At the moment, Australians see Red Fork as purely speculative and they haven’t really bought the story yet.

I should talk about Karoon Gas Australia Ltd. for American investors. Over the years, it has looked long and hard at whether it should actually be listed in America simply because the Australian market is probably struggling to value it. It has three projects, including a huge gas condensate field discovery in a joint venture with ConocoPhillips in the Browse basin off the northern coast of West Australia. That’s the Poseidon fields, which have estimates ranging anywhere between 3 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) and 15 Tcf gas, with a P50 estimate of around 7 Tcf gas, and a reasonably high condensate cut in that. It’s drilling another five wells there with Conoco this year to get it to the point where it can have bankable reserves and then start going out and looking for customers. It’s not really an exploration project anymore, but more of an appraisal development-type thing. It will require very big capital and a contract offtake for at least 4 million tons (Mt) LNG before that project will stand up. We’re talking an $18–20B capex to get that project up and going. Karoon is the junior partner in that. It originally scoped it, found it and then took it to the market, and Conoco farmed into it. Since then, it’s just working it up to the point where it can start signing up customers. That’s its number-one project.

The other two projects are in Brazil and Peru. In Brazil, it won five blocks in a government tender two years ago. It has spent a huge amount of money and time on 3D seismic and developed a large number of 200–300 MMbbl targets there, which it will start drilling in the second half of this year. This is a very high-impact exploration program. Before it does that, Karoon is almost certainly going to farm it out to a larger player because it lacks the people and manpower to carry out a project of that size alone. Degolyer & McNaughton have done some work on this and estimate around about 900 MMbbl potential in those five Karoon blocks. So we’re expecting a strong interest in it.

TER: So that amounts to about $90B in the ground, correct?

IR: Yes. These are huge targets in not terribly deep, but not shallow water, either. These are $80–100M wells, and Karoon will be looking for someone to make a commitment to at least three wells and fund its back costs. Anyone coming through probably has to have a check in their pocket for $500M. That farm-out process is now almost complete with the partner announcement expected around mid-May, and drilling starting in the second half of the year. It already has a drill ship contracted so whoever buys into it is getting a fully worked-up project and it’s going to get instant excitement as soon as it buys.

In Peru, Karoon has some onshore and offshore leases with potential for up to 700 Mboe. Again, it’s looking for farm-in partners for that. The approval will probably come out toward the end of the year. This is a company that is chasing really big, high-impact projects. The stock is generally not held by Australian institutions. Most of the non-aligned shareholders are American pension and hedge funds and high net worth individuals.

TER: So it is definitely working in elephant country.

IR: That’s right. With these sorts of companies, the only way you can value them is by applying a probability or a risk factor to the chance of success. Poseidon is definitely a project. We just don’t know how big or how valuable it is. You have to apply some probability to the rest of the stuff. We end up with a valuation range of between $7.04 and $17.35/share. It is about $6 at the moment. Our midpoint value is $12.20. These are risked valuations with pretty heavy risk factors so if one of these things in Brazil, in particular, turns into a discovery, then obviously that valuation would increase very dramatically. It’s a high-risk, high-reward kind of stock, not for the faint-hearted.

TER: Are there any other companies you’d like to talk about or mention?

IR: In big-cap land, Origin Energy has been a great performer over the years. Its share price is really suffering at the moment because the market is so concerned about cost blowouts on LNG projects. It’s building a $20B LNG project with Conoco up in Queensland. Because other project costs are blowing out, the market is very wary, and its stock has really been sold off over the last 12 months. We think it’s really an excellent company, with about $2.5B/year cash flow from its domestic operations. It’s a really great business that’s been one of the best performers in the Australian market for as long as it’s been listed. If anyone wanted to play the big and liquid way, certainly Origin would be the standout.

TER: How would you summarize the big picture on energy investment opportunities in Australia?

IR: We think there is certainly a lot of value in Australia. Our market is somewhat thin and illiquid, so we don’t have the depth of analysis. We have a lot of companies often holding U.S. assets, which actually trade at a huge discount to what they would do in their home market. If you’re selective, you can find some real bargains here.

TER: Thanks again for joining us today

IR: Thank you.

Ivor Ries is a senior analyst and director of industrial research at E.L. & C. Baillieu Ltd., a long established stockbroking firm with offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Bendigo and Newcastle. Ries joined the world of stockbroking in 2001 after a 22-year career in media, included reporting and commentary roles with The Age, Business Review Weekly and The Australian Financial Review. Ries joined E.L. & C. Baillieu in July 2001. The firm specializes in research and corporate advice for medium-sized industrial and resource companies and counts many of the country’s major institutional investors as clients. Ries’ areas of specialization are utilities, oil and gas and online media and e-commerce. A native of Queensland, Australia, Ries lives in Melbourne with his wife and daughters. He is a Brisbane Lions supporter.

Global Monetary Relief from Asia

The ECB and BOE have shown their intent with their recent aggressive balance sheet expansions and the Fed is trying hard to keep the door open for more QE even as the data in the US continues to defy the general global slowdown.

In Asia however sticky inflation in India, a desire to nail property developers to the wall in China and a belief in a post earthquake recovery in Japan have kept the big Asian central banks from providing additional easing. Even in Australia where the economy has been teetering on the brink of a recession for 6 months, the central bank has refrained from any decisive moves.

In three out of the four cases above however things may slowly be about to change.

In India, the central bank recently opened the door for considerable easing in 2012 as headline inflation comes in. The market has already heavily discounted such a move with Indian equities up about 25% since mid December 2011 and some big ticket single names such as Tata Motors up more than 50%.

Quote Bloomberg

Reserve Bank of India Deputy Governor Subir Gokarn said the monetary authority will cut interest rates once it’s confident inflation will keep slowing.“The stance now is that we have reached the peak and any further action will be toward easing,” Gokarn, 52, said in an interview at his office while discussing the rupee, the government’s budget deficit and bond repurchases. The central bank isn’t concerned about the currency’s record monthly advance in January “because in a sense it’s a correction,” following last year’s 16 percent decline, he said. Emerging-markets have stepped up efforts to shield growth from the impact of Europe’s debt crisis, with Brazil, Russia and the Philippines cutting rates in recent months.

The road is not entirely clear for easing by the RBI where two issues may still derail the central bank’s intention to start an easing cycle.

Firstly, the government’s budget deficit continues to increase and while borrowing to invest in infrastructure etc in India is certainly worthwhile, monetary policy may still have to lean against excessively and essentially structural deficit spending by the government. This is particularly the case as supply side constraints may mean that such deficit spending adds substantially to inflation.

Secondly, the INR may be subject to substantial weakening on a resurgence in global volatility. The Fed’s USD swap lines as well as the the ECB’s efforts to backstop the European banking system have so far calmed things down. Nevertheless, should another period of strong and sudden INR weakness ensue, it means the RBI would not be able to reduce the yield difference to the rest of the world in any meaningful way.

In China, the economy is now visibly slowing. Foreign exchange reserve accumulation have ground to a halt and M1 growth is negative on the year. Even if the desire to cool down excessive credit growth and nailing property developers to the wall might still constitute top priorties, the balance is shifting towards easing.

Quote Bloomberg

China is seen making more cuts to banks’ reserve requirements to fuel lending and sustain economic growth as the housing market cools and Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis weighs on exports.The proportion of cash that lenders must set aside will fall half a percentage point from Feb. 24, the central bank said Feb. 18 on its website. Standard Chartered Plc forecasts at least three more reductions this year, while HSBC Holdings Plc (HSBA) sees a minimum of two.

So far, Chinese authorities seem content to use the reserve requirement ratio (RRR) as the main tool to provide easing. This makes sense in a command market economy where the government can be fairly sure to control the supply side of credit through loan quotas. I think however that the calls for no interest rate cuts until mid 2012 may turn out to be wrong if China is about to slow to the extent that our leading indicators show. Property prices have fallen (or failed to rise) for some time now in China and as growth slows further, the authorities may rightfully begin to argue that their near term objectives have been achieved.

Perhaps the most interesting development this week however came in Japan where the BOJ apparently got my memo as they restarted QE.

Quote Bloomberg

Japan’s central bank unexpectedly added 10 trillion yen ($128 billion) to an asset-purchase program and set an inflation goal after an economic slide fueled criticism it has been slower to act than counterparts.An asset fund increased to 30 trillion yen, with a credit lending program staying at 35 trillion yen, the Bank of Japan said in Tokyo today. The BOJ also said that it will target 1 percent inflation “for the time being.”

This decision appears to have gone completely under the radar, but I think it is very significant. Two points are particularly important to emphasize. Firstly, the entire 10 trillion yen added to the asset purchase program has been earmarked to JGBs which signals the BOJ’s willingness (or the MOF’s orders) that budget deficits in Japan are now to be directly monetised to a much higher degree than has earlier been the case. Secondly, the BOJ has now committed itself to an inflation target (1%) and will use balance sheet expansion to reach this goal.

This is textbook QE and should be bearish for the Yen and bullish for the Nikkei, but things may not be so simple of course. Chris Wood adds to the discussion in the latest version of Greed and Fear [1].

The second point is whether the latest news is a signal to short the yen. On the face of it, it should be. But the issue is whether the BoJ Governor Masaaki Shirakawa is going to follow the previous examples of his conduct of unorthodox monetary policy; whereby he raises thequantity of the so-called asset purchase programme but does not exactly accelerate the pace ofthe buying to fulfil the programme. Thus, the Bank of Japan has so far purchased ¥10.3tn of assets since the latest programme was first announced on 28 October 2010, amounting to only 52% of the previous target of ¥20tn set in October 2011.

In other words, how serious is this inflation target and over what horizon does the BOJ intend to reach it? Only time will tell, but given the persistence of deflation in Japan I would argue that any semi-serious adherence to this inflation target would require substantial balance sheet expansion by the BOJ.

As Chris Wood aptly puts it, the move by the BOJ is merely the latest evidence of the bull market in central bank balance sheet expansion and more importantly, relative central bank balance sheet. In a world where export driven growth is seen as everyone as the way out of debt purgatory you need expand and print more than your peers. On this, I also slightly disagree with Chris that Japan does not need a weaker JPY. My own analysis suggest that corporate margins in Japan are very sensitive to changes in the Yen. But that is a discussion for another time. For now, I will agree with Chris that we have seen the beginning of a sea change in Japan, but we need to see the BOJ backing up intentions.

Ultimately though, the most significant piece of news from Asia last week was the indication from both Japan and China that they would stand ready to offer their full support for the euro zone. The idea is simple; China and Japan would use the IMF as conduit to create the only real bazooka (apart from ECB monitisation).

Quote Bloomberg (my emphasis)

Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi said his nation and China will work together to help Europe solve its debt crisis through the International Monetary Fund.Europe needs a bigger so-called firewall of added funding to contain the crisis, even as Greece shows some improvement in solving its financial woes, Azumi told reporters in Beijing yesterday after meeting Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan. Azumi, who met Chinese Finance Minister Xiu Xuren during his visit, also said he asked China to make its currency more flexible.“We shared the view that Europe needs to make more efforts to create a bigger firewall,” Azumi said. “We also agreed to act together as the IMF will probably ask the U.S., Japan and China” to help boost its lending capacity.

This would indeed be global monetary relief from Asia.

Recruiting the right MD for the IMF

The recruitment of the IMF MD has turned into quite a controversy. For an interesting set of views, see this page on the website of The Economist. In a remarkable development, the EDs of India, China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa came out with a clear
joint statement
on the silliness that is afoot.

There are four perspectives on this question which are worth noting:

  1. There is an obvious gap between the power structure at the IMF, which reflects the way the structure of the world economy after the Second World War, as compared with the present reality. As an example, at present, the Netherlands has 2.08% while India has 2.35%. But the Indian GDP is now $1.6 trillion while Netherlands is at half that.
  2. The world would benefit from a competent and capable IMF. The best man (or woman) for the job will not be obtained by having any restrictions on nationality. As an example, in today’s world, a name that leaps out to me is Stan Fischer. But he’s not European, and hence was never even considered for the top job in the last decade. (As with Montek, he is now over age 65 and is hence not eligible for the job today). Given that a large fraction of the top economists of the world are not European, this rule yields a less capable IMF.
  3. I feel that a quota system where the IMF MD must now be from an emerging market is as bad as a quota system where the IMF MD is only recruited from a European country. The key is to get away from all these quota systems, to only recruit the best person for the job. The emphasis should be on technical capability. The person recruited should be a technical expert and not a politican. As an example, see how in the UK, they recruited an American into their Monetary Policy Committee.
  4. In the standard narrative, one hears the idea that in this crisis in Europe, the Europeans are gaining from their
    control of the IMF. I feel this is absolutely wrong. In the Asian crisis, it was good for Asia that the IMF was not conflicted
    by considerations of domestic Asian politics. Similarly, the IMF program in India in 1981 and 1991 was uncontaminated by domestic Indian political considerations. This helped produce a technically sound program, which helped jumpstart India’s growth. It is not accidental that we see structural breaks in India’s GDP growth around these two dates.

What Europe needs most is a tough IMF, which will be a stern taskmaster, which will force difficult political choices so as to heal the economy. Economic policy in Europe today needs to be cruel to be kind. Instead, by placing a string of career politicians from France into the IMF MD’s job, the valuable role which the IMF could have played in solving the European Crisis is being negated. This damages Europe. The wise thing for Europe today is to say: Give us a tough and competent taskmaster, and let him be
anything in the world but let him not be a European politican. The biggest loser from the present arrangement is Europe.

Poverty, Income Inequality and Economic Development

Financial Times reports (link) on the new measure of poverty proposed by economists from Oxford University. The authors suggested the modification of current measure of poverty which, defined by the World Bank in annually published World Development Report, is currently set at the threshold of $1.25 per day or less. The new measure proposed by economic researchers from Oxford University sets the definition of poverty in a more sophisticated framework based on the household availability of access to clean water, education, health care and other durable and non-durable goods. The new method, called Alkire-Foster approach, incorporates the qualitative elements into the measurement of poverty.

Using the new method, the authors examined poverty rates in four Indian provinces and evaluated the approach in comparison to the existing income method which had been used in economic and policy analysis by the World Bank and other institutions of economic development. The authors found a significant divergence of poverty rates when measured in both methods. For instance, under Alkire-Foster approach, the poverty rate in Indian state Jharkhand is 50 percent higher compared to the rate of poverty measured under the income method. On the other hand, the authors of the new poverty measure have shown that in some Indian provinces such as Uttaranchal (link), the official measure of poverty highly over-estimates the effective poverty measure as defined by Oxford’s Poverty and Human Development Initiative. The multidimensional worldwide poverty index is also availible on the web (link).

The intuitive question arising from the data and empirical research on poverty is whether higher economic growth in less developed countries boosts the growth of income per capita and what is the role of institutional characteristics in economic development. The authors of the above-mentioned measure of poverty have shown that despite abundant economic growth in past years and falling income poverty rates, the share of population without access to clean water, sanitation and minimum required nutrition remained unchanged. The percentage of malnourished children in India decreased from 47 percent in 1998-98 to 46 percent 2005-06.

The theoretical and empirical literature on economic growth suggests that there is an inverse U-relationship between inequality and income per capita known as Kuznets curve (link). The intuition behind the relationship is simple. At the very low levels of income per capita, income inequality is low. Alongside the course of growing income per capita, income inequality steeply increases and, after reaching a maximum, it decreases as countries achieve higher levels of income per capita. The rate of income inequality is closely related to the evolution of economic policies over time. Wagner’s law, discussed in one of the previous posts, states that government spending over time increases due to long-run income elastic demand for public goods and capture of the democratic system by the particular interest groups that pose a permanent pressure on the growth of government spending and resist the reversals of government expenditures by trading votes.

There’s a wide array of disagreement among economists on the effect of income inequality on economic growth. Back in 2001, Joseph Stiglitz re-examined the East Asian economic miracle and concluded that the evidence from the period of high economic growth in East Asian countries suggests that income redistribution has a positive effect on economic growth (link). Stiglitz’s argument is based on the income distribution in East Asian countries during the economic miracle. East Asian countries have been known for relatively even distribution of income demonstrated by high Gini index and relatively high income tax rates.

On the other hand, the empirical investigation of the initial conditions in East Asian countries before the economic miracle shows that the political influence of interest groups had been relatively weak compared to Western Europe after the World War 2 when the productivity growth stalled from early 1970s onwards. The relative weakness of interest groups and a stable judicial system, inherited from English common law tradition, enabled high economic growth in the longer run given an enduring stability of property rights protection and the rule of law. In such conditions, income redistribution had relatively little effect on economic growth since the empirics of East Asian miracle suggests that the sizable proportion of growth in East Asian countries (Malaysia, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan) had been driven by technological progress, investment and export orientation. Considering export orientation, Rodrik et. al (2005) provided the evidence (link) on the positive effect of high-quality export orientation on economic growth. The productivity growth in East Asian countries between 1975 and 1990 had been a pure example of economic miracle defined by the share of growth that could not be explained by the contribution of labor and capital input. In Taiwan and Hong Kong (link), total factor productivity accounted for about 60 percent of output per capita growth. Between 1975 and 1990, in Singapore, output per capita had increased by 8.0 percent. Consequently, the resulting outcome of almost two decades of robust productivity growth had been a significant decrease in national poverty rates (link). The lowest poverty rate, as defined by the measures of home authorities, is in Taiwan where 0.95 of the population live below the poverty threshold.

The basic set of policies that alleviate extreme poverty such as providing access to clean water, nutrition, medical protection against HIV/AIDS and basic sanitary standards have a positive effect on the economic growth and the standard of living. However, the major cause of persistent under-development in Subsaharan and Tropical Africa is mostly the lack of institutional enforcement of property rights, the rule of law and independent judiciary. In spite of billions of USD of direct foreign aid, countries such as Zambia, Sierra Leone, Mali and Rwanda endure in persistent poverty and under-development. Esther Duflo, this year’s recipient of John Bates Clark Award, has shown in several studies how field experiments can enlighten the understanding of incentives in least developed countries (link). Understanding the significance of incentives in reducing poverty is crucial to further examination of the relationship betwen income inequality and economic growth.

Q&A on Asian Economies and their Place in the World

The good folks at Icfai University Press and specifically the editor of the magazine The Analyst have queried me to answer some question on the Asian economies and their ascend to the top position (or not) of the global economy and what this means. They have shipped me some questions, given me a deadline and below I provide some answers in Q&A format. Enjoy!

Question: History reveals that every international crisis leaves a lasting mark on the world, once the crisis is over and the difficulties it brought have been encountered, things tend to change. Similarly, do you think that the current global economic crisis must lead to a fundamental reassessment of how power and influence is expressed through the world?

I belive that the current financial crisis have accentuated what we already knew and what has been present in the data and the discourse for some time. Specifically I am talking about the idea that big emerging markets such as India, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Chile, Turkey etc have slowly but steadily taken over as the global powerhouses in terms of economic growth and thus it is also natural that they are gunning for more political and institutional power. When it comes to financial crises in particular the latest batch of proposals from the Obama administration to regulate the financial industry is another and more micro oriented theme which is a recurring event in the context of economic crises. Crises are often, in this way, catalysts for abrupt discrete changes in the economic and political environment.

Ultimately then I think that this fundamental reassessment of power and influence in the world (both politically and economically) have not been initiated by this crisis but it may be reinforced.

Question: As the Great Depression paved the way to World War II and to a new world order, how far the present crisis produce grave repercussions on the global economic order?

This intimately depends on how you define world order naturally. If I have to point towards the most enduring change which appears to have come on the back on this crisis it is the attitude to debt and long term sustainability of public finances. Those of us who have been interested in demographics and its effect on macroeconomic processes have long been waiting for (and predicting) the inflection point where the mismatch between expensive welfare systems and the increasingly broken demographic structure as as result of persistently below replacement fertility. In this way, the ability to take on debt today as a liability for the future and despite the theatricals on sovereign spreads and CDS on Greek and Spanish government debt, are in fact fundamentally driven by long term liability problems. For an excellent excursion into this topic in the context of Australia/New Zealand and beyond I warmly recommend this one by John Hempton.

Extrapolating to the idea of a new economic order this brings us into a fundamental dilemma. With every part of the national identity overlevered [1] and in need to rebuild their balance sheet most economies are looking to the last part of the identity to make up for the shortfall of savings; the external balance. The problem is that not everyone can export excess savings (i.e. run a current account surplus) at the same time. In my opinion this is where the big new emerging economies come in and despite by personal skepticism towards China pulling the world anywhere it remains obvious that those who can reasonably be expected to run sustainable net external borrowing positions (i.e. current account deficits) are exactly those economies mentioned above who are about to ascend as the new drivers of economic growth. If they don’t, it is not easy to see where the growth is going to come from.

Question: The world financial crisis has been a defining moment in the ascension of emerging economies onto the international economic stage. Please comment.

Not really. In my opinion this goes back to the idea of decoupling from the US economy and how, before the crisis, many observers had their hopes pinned on the Eurozone (and the Euro) as well as Japan (and the JPY) to take over the baton from the US economy in steering forward global demand. In the context of Bretton Woods II this seemed a turkey shoot of an argument. Just de-peg from the US dollar and re-peg to the Euro and it is all engines go. Obviously, this was always going to be a mirage and essentially a smoke screen puffed up by those who have a fundamental desire to see the US economy fail and cave in on itself. So, why this detour in answering the question above?

Well, quite simply, the world “decoupled” for the US and indeed the advanced (G7) economies a long time ago.

From 1980 to 2008 the share of total world GDP made up by G7 economies declined from 51.33% to 42% and the corresponding figure for newly industrialised Asian economies rose from 7.17% to 21% and according to IMF this trend is set to continue. This is the real decoupling and it represents a major structural change in the global economy which goes far beyond the current financial and economic turmoil. Whether there will be anything particularly defining about the role of emerging economies as a result of the financial crisis is too early to say. A sovereing default in Greece or elsewhere in the Eurozone should increasingly make investors aware that global risk is not primarily present in emerging markets but actually right at the heart of the G7 and OECD edifice. Perhaps this will be a definining moment, but the general ascend of big emerging economies to the center of the world stage is not a product of the current turmoil.

Question: To what extent will emerging economies remain the drivers of global economic growth in 2010?

To a very large extent I would argue. In 2010 the IMF estimates (in their October 2009 Outlook) that the world economy will resume growing at an annual rate of 3.1% after having contracted by -1.06% in 2009. Breaking this up on the major advanced economies (G7) and developing and emerging economies the IMF estimates that the former will grow by 1.7% and the latter by 5.1% in 2010. Yet this difference does not tell the whole story. Consider then the fact that measured in US dollars (current prices) the share of world GDP made up by the G7 as well as the emerging and developing economies was 53.8% and 30.7% respectively. Yet still, and out of a total estimated value of 2010 world GDP growth at trn 3.267 USD the G7 is expected to contribute to this with only trn 1135 USD while emerging and developing economies are expected to contribute with trn 1674 USD.

More generally, this is a tendency we should expect to continue. Consequently and while global GDP forecasts into 2014 are quite fickle, forecasts by the IMF has the current price value of total world output (in USD) rising from trn 60.429 USD in 2010 to trn 74.660 USD in 2014. Out of these trn 14.165 USD, the G7 and the emerging and developed world are expected to contribute with trn 4886 USD and trn 7871 USD respectively.

In this way and I hope that my readers will forgive me the excessive arithemetic; if we take the IMF’s forecast to heart, emerging markets are definitely going to be the main drivers of global headline GDP growth in 2010 and beyond.

Question: As the evolving international order is going to be Asia centered and polycentric for a variety of reasons. Do you think that India is ready to play a larger role to ensure stability, security and peace in the world?

I sure hope so. A lot of the future stake of the global economy is pinned on India, China, Brazil, etc to develop and evolve both politically and economically. India already plays a very big role in the global economy, but is somewhat dwarfed (in terms of attention at least) by China. However, I believe this will change. Despite some well described and severe issues with a growing gender gap (which is also an issue in China) India is set to enjoy a much more stable and slow demographic transition into old age than China who will age very quickly due to its one child policy.

In this sense I forsee that India will slowly but surely take over from China as the big global emerging economy powerhouse. However, and beyond the obvious political responsibility this entails it also comes with an economic ditto. Thus, one of the biggest problems with China is that she will never be able to run a respectable external deficit that would resolve and alleviate global macroeconomic imbalances. A deliberate mercantilist policy and the effects of the one child policy which strips the economy of the capacity to suck up its own (let alone foreign) savings are two crucial factors here. In my opinion we have one shot to correct these global imbalance and much will hinge upon India (and the rest of the emerging pack) here. Specifically, India must ensure that the demographic transition is kept in check from below as well as, currently, from above. By this I mean that Indian must ensure that it does not fall into a fertility trap with total fertility rates lingering below 1.5 children per woman. Secondly, India should shy away from mercantilist policy. Standard economic theory tells us that external borrowing is not an ill if matched by a sound and long term oriented investment policy as well as capacity in the economy proxied by a large share of young to mature workers out of the total population.

Especially the argument on preventing fertility to fall too far and too rapidly is quite politically incorret at the current juncture with climate and overpopulation (still) dominating the discourse. However, it is crucial in my opinion that we are able to differentiate the debate to look at both sides of this coin. Otherwise, India and the rest of us will regre it.

[1] – (investments, consumption and the government)

The IMF on Asia’s Recovery and its Sustainability

Update: Mr. Singh posts the third and, as far as I know, last installment in the series on Asia’s outlook written on the basis of the Regional Economic Outlook for the Asian and Pacific Region. The topic is perhaps the most interesting of all aspects of Asia’s aggregate economy, the high prevalence of savings and its excess over investment which produces a corresponding external surplus which, I’d might add, is structural at this point. See below for more comments.

In case you had not noticed, the IMF is blogging and it is not “merely” the garden variety IMF staffers they are rolling out to fill the pages; nope here we are treated to the likes of Blanchard, Atkinson, Lipsky, Cottarelli and a host of other of the Fund’s A-listers. Consequently, it would seem that in an already (over)crowded world of econblogging, the IMFdirect blog merits more than a little bit attention.

In the past week, the dual post coverage by Mr. Anoop Singh of the recent Regional Economic Outlook for the Asian and Pacific Region caught my attention in particular. In the first, Mr. Singh invokes among other things the puzzle of Asia’s relatively sharp recovery given the notion that the region is largely dependent on exports to grow. Two reasons especially are important here. One is the simple fact that as these economies moved into the crisis with bulging coffers (especially on the reserves vis-a-vis the rest of the world), the room for fiscal manoeuvre was greater and it was used decisively. According to calculations by the IMF, the collective stimulus programs in the Asia-Pacific region added 1.75% to GDP growth in the first half of 2009 and it makes the programs even more generous than those observed in the OECD and other emerging markets. Secondly, Asian economies has benefited from the, so far, V-shaped comeback by part of the global economy and key regions who are likely to grow smartly in h02-2009.

In general, Mr. Singh’s analysis appears cautiously tied to the great unknown of 2010 where it appears that we will see whether all those battered economies of the world will be able to hold their own in a world where quantitative easing from central banks and lax fiscal policies are withdrawn rather than enacted. Here, Singh’s remarks echo the general discourse where the the underlying tone is one of skepticism. A long period of risky asset buoyancy coupled with upbeat economic data releases have proved before to be crying wolf of an impending recovery and policy makers are advised to take this into account.

It is hard for me to disagree with Mr. Singh that the green shoots observed in the Spring of 2009 seem way too shaky a foundation on which to build a narrative of recovery. Yet, this is exactly what has happened and the famous inflection point will be reached when we discover that the recovery observed thus has been because of and not despite monetary and fiscal stimulus which makes the enforcement of exit strategies going into 2010 a very interesting experiment in the making. Some will make it, some won’t and some will inevitably fall back into recession (not just in Asia).

However, the most important part of Singh’s argument and indeed the most important part of IMF’s analysis in general is the question of whether Asia’s economic trajectory, in a post stimulus/recovery context, will be driven by domestic demand or not? To put it in the most reductionist form. Will Asia be a provider of net capacity to the global or economy or not? If yes, it would mean that a post crisis Asia had truly emerged as something new in the form of a force of a real addition to total demand. If not, it would mean that Asia would revert to old tricks and habits of relying on exports and foreign asset income to propel growth in national income.

Now, leaving the question of the number of export dependent economies the world economy can muster neatly to the side, I am not so optimistic here on Asia’s contribution to the rebalancing of global imbalances through a net expansion of domestic demand. Yet, let me also immediately qualify here that I am not very comfortable with talking about Asia/Pacific in one both because of the obvious heterogeneity amongst the economies, but more importantly; also because I am not really an expert here. I have done the analysis on Japan though and on this I can say with unequivocal certainty that we won’t we seeing any provision of excess domestic demand from this side.

Ultimately of course, Japan is of little real importance here and so is the rest of Asia really. What really matters on this topic is China and all the hopes currently pinned on her shoulders in the form of the ability of the economy to pull the global economy out of the mire. Traditionally, this has boiled down to a rather technical discussion about the RMB and an almost perennial Becketian wait for the shackles to break and an appreciating RMB to solve all problems. While I concede that the RMB should rise, it won’t solve any of the underlying problems inherent in China’s investment driven economy. Basically, chalk it down to culture and institutional specificity in the origin, but the simple fact remains I believe that just as China may evolve to become the economy we all hope and believe her to become (say in a 2020 context) the one child policy will have done its work so to speak and China will be sporting an OECD like age structure and is likely to even surpass many of OECD’s economies.

This is no recipe for an axis of rebalancing and although China will be the main story to follow for the immediate future I think we should look elsewhere to find the potential rebalancing candidates. This may indeed involve other parts of Asia (India for instance and Indonesia), but in the current discourse the likes of China, Japan (and Korea) hold little promise in terms of providing a decisive engine for rebalancing through sustainable growth in domestic demand which exceed the investment rate.

In this sense I remain cautious on the overall sustainability of the recovery in Asia mainly because of my skepticism towards the sustainability of overall global momentum where I acknowledge that I may be very wrong. Watch out for 2010 and all those exit strategies is what I say and particularly for the “post fiscal stimulus” world. This also means that I am more than a little bit skeptical on the prospects of a sustained recovery across Asia driven by domestic demand, especially in relation to Japan and China.

At least, this would be my humble argument here a murky Monday morning in Copenhagen. In any case, you might want to punch the IMFdirect blog into your RSS reader, just to make sure that you know what the IMF is up on a daily “research” basis.

It is interesting that Mr. Singh chooses to put his focus on corporate governance and, by derivative, the inability of Asian households to extract value from companies through dividends (because companies pay none) and the reluctance of households to leverage their assets to consume. The solution, according to Mr. Singh, is an improvement in institutional quality and essentially a two-pronged strategy in which corporate governance and financial market development are evolved, essentially, into a more Anglo-Saxon variety (or at least, this is underlying narrative I take from it).

This is also where I have, rather decisively, to part ways with Mr. Singh. It is not that I don’t recognize the basic intuition but the implicit idea that it would serve Asia, and the rest of us through rebalancing, better by moving in the way of an Anglo-Saxon institutional setting is too simple a discourse; in fact, I think it is flawed.

Consequently, I think it is important to note that while it sure may seem inefficient for all these savings to be sitting around in the coffers of companies as well as in the asset holdings of households, they do actually serve a purpose. More specifically, they finance investment elsewhere and through this, they act as an important contribution to national output in the absence of growth in domestic demand. Now, I am full well aware that it is exactly this we would like to change, but can we?

To some extent I am sure we can, but for example in Japan I can tell you that you better forget, very quickly, about any kind of surge in domestic demand (because of demographic reasons) and in this way, the excess savings over investment become important for the maintanance of output growth. Is this the same for China?

Hardly at this point, but the inflection point is coming nearer due to the one child policy.

In fact, if you extrapolate to the entire Asian edifice I think it is safe to say that if you peel away the excess investment that creates the external surpluses the nature and momentum of growth that could be sustained on the basis of domestic demand alone would dissappoint and make Asia’s recovery, well not a recovery at. And in this of course lies the rub.

Decoupling Theory: How Well-Insulated Are Asia and Australia?

The Australian dollar reaching for parity with the U.S. dollar, marked by the horizontal green line near the top of the black screen. So close. As the U.S. economy slowed during the fourth quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008, everybody knew that Canada would, sooner or later, be dragged down along with it. The two economies are intimately entwined—around 80% of Canadian exports, both commodities and manufactured products, head due south, and their northern neighbor is a bigger market for U.S. goods than all 27 members of the Eurozone combined. With these two nations particularly sensitive to each other’s economic sneezes, when the Federal Reserve began chopping interest rates with an ax, the Bank of Canada stood right behind them and hewed their own rates by 33% between December 2007 and April 2008.

During that same period of time, however, the Reserve Bank of Australia was raising interest rates to battle surging inflation and contain the effects of a huge influx of capital from soaring commodities prices and a 20% increase in their terms of trade. Flooding in Queensland coke mines and steady demand in Japan, India, South Korea and Taiwan caused the price of coal, Australia’s top export, to triple this year as fresh Chinese demand made it a seller’s market. Negotiated prices of iron ore, their second most important export, nearly doubled, again with Chinese impetus, and there’s really no reason to mention what happened to the prices for Australia’s other commodity goods, such as gold, crude oil, beef and copper.

Asia and Australia

Although there were clear signs the economic slowdown in the U.S. and Canada was spreading to the UK, it seemed that it would make no mark on the Australian and Asian boom, which had seemingly “decoupled” from the Western hemisphere’s problems. The demand surge for commodities in Asia, led by the insatiable maw of that newest kid on the block—you know, the one hosting the Olympic games—turned Australia’s trade deficit into a surplus in June 2008 and looked set to keep it that way for a long time.

After all, the reasoning went, 68.7% of Australia’s exports went to nations in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and another 12.8% went to China. Only 7.3% of all Australia’s exports went to the U.S., and that share was falling anyways. So if it declined further, well, there would be another hungry nation ready to take up the slack.

This decoupling theory for Australia and Asia gained popularity among traders who liked the down-under markets. In the second quarter of 2008, while credit market losses sent depository and investment banks reeling in the U.S. and UK, the Australian dollar embarked on an unbroken nine-week climb against the greenback. It looked amazingly similar to the Canadian dollar’s 17% surge against the U.S. dollar in 2007 that took it to parity and beyond, and foreign exchange traders confidently predicted the same would happen for the Aussie.

But something funny happened on the way to parity.

That creeping economic malaise from the U.S., Canada and the UK spread to their immediate trading partners, including the Eurozone and Japan, and from there it spread further as that other economic theory—globalization—reasserted itself. It took months because the U.S. slowdown began in the housing market, generally a domestic-only sector (not counting imported building materials), but the erosion of discretionary funds ate away at U.S. imports while the weak greenback made U.S. exports more affordable overseas, shifting the balance of trade in ever-spreading ripples across the globe. Partly due to these ripples, gross domestic product for Japan and the Eurozone are both expected to be in red ink for the second quarter of 2008, a point passed by the U.S. in the fourth quarter of 2007.

With global demand starting to fall, commodity prices slid to follow, and with such a large percentage of the Australian economy dependent upon commodity exports, it followed suit. On July 15, the exchange rate between the Australian dollar and the greenback touched 0.9848, a penny and a half beneath parity. Then on August 5, the Reserve Bank of Australia reached for the ax and announced that soon it would need to cut interest rates, too, like almost every other central bank around the world. The Aussie fell off the table, decoupled no more.

In the modern small market world, one might say, no economy is an island—not even Australia.