Donnerstag, 30. Juli 2009

Reader Notice

As you may have noticed, posts have been a bit thin lately.

It's a combination of being somewhat busy, feeling that the topics are starting to become a bit repetitive, and generally being somewhat low on motivation.

Will start posting again in a little while.

Freitag, 24. Juli 2009

Germany's migration statistics

Now it's official:

In 2008, the number of people leaving Germany exceeded the number of newcomers by 56,000.

(There's a catch, though: The data regarding foreigners residing in Germany was extensively reviewed during 2008, and many non-existing residents were deregistered by the authorities. In other words, the negative balance is overstated, and nobody knows how many people really left the country last year...)

Mittwoch, 22. Juli 2009

Wealth Tax

The Vermögensteuer (wealth tax) is being hotly debated in the press once again. The latest study, this one authored by the DIW, suggests to raise an additional 25 bn € by levying a 1 % tax on private wealth in excess of 500,000 €.

In principle, I tend to agree that the lack of demand we are currently facing could be eased by taking money away from the rich (which tend to be big savers) and spending it on the poor (which tend to save little or nothing).

However, in practice this becomes rather tricky:

- How do you measure "private wealth"? One of the reasons why the Vermögensteuer was abolished was that revenue was comparatively small, yet the work involved in assessing it was quite big, i.e. lots of tax inspectors needed to toil away, and lots of tax advisers needed to help filling out the forms. It wasn't exactly an efficient way to raise tax revenue. In particular, how do you deal objectively with real estate and with stakes in non-traded company? The "old solution" was to tax it very lightly. But that of course is unfair, and it also reduces tax revenue.

- The other reason for abolishing the tax was that the constitutional court had declared it to be unconstitutional, because it implied a marginal tax rate of more than 50 % on the income of rich people, and for some reason, the German constitution does not allow for taxation in excess of 50 % (I never quite understood why, though).

- In any case, a wealth tax of 1 % in addition to the 25 % tax on capital income and 48 % top income tax bracket would surely drive many of the remaining ultra-rich abroad: An individual with a net worth of 1 bn € would have to pay an additional 10 m € per year in taxes, on top of what he is already paying.

- Considering the current low money-market of roughly 1 %, many people might even find it more attractive to turn their savings into cash and stash the cash in a safe box or under the mattress. After all, 1 % interest minus 25 % income tax and minus 1 % wealth tax equals -0.25 %. Putting the money under the mattress equals zero.

I'm not sure how the DIW arrived at 25 bn € in tax revenue. But considering all these points, I highly doubt that a 1 % tax on wealth in excess of 500,000 € would yield anywhere close to 25 bn €. But at least it would provide stable jobs to thousands of newly hired tax inspectors...

(According to Wikipedia, the Vermögensteuer was payable until 1996. In 1996, it yielded 4.5 bn € in revenues, and cost 150 m € to collect. Tax-rates were 0.5-1.0 %, depending on asset class. Sure, wealth has grown since 1996, but it hasn't exactly exploded. The gap between 4.5 bn € of revenues back then, and the claim of raising 25 bn € now seems hard to reconcile.)

Montag, 20. Juli 2009

Bank Recapitalisation

According to this Spiegel article, various high-profile German economists are asking the government to force banks to accept government equity participations.

The strange bit: They don't say which banks. Right now, the only major banks without government involvement are Deutsche Bank and HypoVereinsbank. And currently, those two banks appear to fulfill the solvency requirements. So on what grounds would Berlin be allowed to force a partial nationalization on them?

But it gets even better:

The reaons for the partial nationalisation are stated as follows:

Der Bund hätte zudem Einfluss auf die Geschäftspolitik und könne die Institute zur Kreditvergabe zwingen. Außerdem könne die Regierung die Banken von einer Rückkehr zu ihren früheren gefährlichen Geschäftspraktiken abhalten.

On one hand, the banks should be forced to lend more. On the other hand, the government can make sure that the banks will not return to "dangerous practices of earlier times". Right. State-owned banks do a much better job of avoiding "dangerous practices", as evidenced by the great shape of the Landesbanken. And of course being forced to lower lending standards in recessionary times does not constitute "dangerous practices".

(As posted many times already, I am not against nationalising banks that do not have an appropriate level of capital. But only to avoid setting the wrong incentives. Certainly not to force them to lend more or to institute superior risk management practices.)

Sonntag, 19. Juli 2009


In a Spiegel interview, Madeleine Schickedanz, the largest Arcandor shareholder, argues that ex-CEO Middelhoff can't possibly be accused of doing anything improper. His only possible mistake according to her: He may have given too much leeway to his CFO during the real estate crisis.

I see. So the fact that Middelhoff invested millions of his personal money into real estate sold by Arcandor to a fund where he was co-investor is due to the excessive leeway he gave to his CFO. Interesting way of seeing things...

Samstag, 18. Juli 2009


According to press reports, it's more and more likely that Wiedeking will step down from his post as Porsche's CEO. Apparently, his contract goes until 2012, and if he agrees to leave early, he would be able to claim a golden parachute worth more than 100 m €.

Now let me get this straight:

Here's a guy who was paid 80 m € last year because of Porsche's record profit caused by a huge bet on VW's share price. Then it all turned sour, and Porsche now desperately needs to be bailed out by VW and/or foreign investors. Yet if the owners want to get rid of him, they have to throw in another 100+ m €?

Why on earth did they give him a contract that entitles him to such a crazy sum in spite of screwing up?

(Though if I read the press reports right, they are speculating. They don't actually know what's in the contract. But I suppose we'll know soon enough if the number turns out to be true.)

Freitag, 17. Juli 2009

International Air Travel

International air travel continues to be extremely weak. In particular, business class traffic appears to be collapsing:

"Passengers travelling on premium tickets in May were down 23.6 per cent, after a 22 per cent decline in April and a 19.2 per cent fall in the first quarter. This means that premium travel numbers have been in decline now for 12 consecutive months. Economy travel numbers were also down in May - by 7.6 per cent. And total passenger numbers in international markets was down 9.2 per cent, after a 2 per cent fall in April and an 8.2 per cent fall in Q1. Premium passengers account for almost 30 per cent of airline revenue but only about 10 per cent of numbers, so total travel is shaped mainly by movements in economy ticket numbers ... In the Far East, premium travel was down 31.6 per cent in May; across the Pacific, it was down 30.7 per cent; and from Europe to the Far East, down 26.3 per cent - all following smaller declines in Q1. Intra-Asia economy class travel fell 15.9 per cent in May, after a 10.4 per cent decline in the January-March quarter. Fear of H1N1 flu may account for a large part of the May deterioration, with the region sensitive to such issues following Sars in 2003, Iata said. The impact of H1N1 on air travel was shown in the 62.4 per cent fall in total passenger numbers within central America during May."

(Source: Singapore Business Times, July 17; no link, because links to their articles tend to break down within a few hours)

Note that this is about international air travel only, i.e. domestic trips are not included in the data. In particular, domestic plane traffic in China appears to be growing at a 10-15 % pace based on official data.

Unemployment Rates

The FT has an interesting graph showing how unemployment rates have changed compared to a year ago:

Spain: +8.2 percentage points
Ireland: +6.2 percentage points
US: +3.8 percentage points
Japan: +1.2 percentage points
Germany: +0.3 percentage points

Interestingly, the recession has hit hardest in Japan and Germany when measured by "drop in GDP", with Spain and the US seeing much smaller GDP contraction.

However, Spain's unemployment rate has skyrocketed, whereas it has hardly budged in Japan and Germany.

Part of the reason is probably the German Kurzarbeitergeld, and large companies' reluctance to lay off core staff. In contrast, Spain has presumably shed lots of low value-added, low-paid jobs in the construction sector.

Still, it's hard to fathom how there can be such a huge divergence between Germany and Spain.

As for the US, the article mentions that the number of US workers "forced into part-time work for economic reasons" stands at roughly 9 million people, 6 % of the labor force. And 1 in 9 Americans now rely on food stamps.

Mittwoch, 15. Juli 2009

German Pensions

According to press reports, "experts" of the Deutsche Rentenversicherung have calculated that Germany's public pension system is not in fact a bad deal for the contributors.

Specifically, an average income-earner retiring between 2030 and 2040 will receive a return of 2.8 % (male) / 3.3 % (female) on the contributions made.

Sounds decent.

The catch:

Nobody tells us what the assumptions are. And the assumptions (inflation, real income growth, number of contributors, taxpayer subsidies) are crucial. The calculation results are completely meaningless without knowing the assumptions.

I tried to find the study on the website of Deutsche Rentenversicherung, but it doesn't seem to be there. Or maybe they are hiding it in some obscure corner of the website.

Montag, 13. Juli 2009

Salary Caps at German Banks

Banks that receive government funds are only allowed to pay their top management a maximum salary of 500,000 €. HSH Nordbank is one of the biggest basket cases in German banking, so surely CEO Nonnenmacher is subject to the cap, right?

Turns out he isn't. According to the FTD, he will receive a bonus and a pension entitlement totalling 2.9 m €. That's on top of his regular salary (no idea how high that is).

How can that be? Well, technically HSH has not received money from Soffin. It "only" received guarantees of 30 bn €. The equity injection of 3 bn € came from the states of Hamburg and Schleswig Holstein, not from Soffin. So state-owned HSH can pay its CEO as much money as it likes.