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2008 economic outlook

Currencies, Economic growth, Financial Events, Leverage

Yesterday the European Central Bank opened its doors and lent €349bn to 390 banks seeking to shore up their reserves position for year-end. Will this help solve the credit crunch? Writing today in the Financial Times, their excellent banking editor (Gillian Tett) is doubtful. She worries that ‘the banks know something nasty that we don’t’, and that this is causing them to hoard ‘cash to an extraordinary degree’.

What does this mean for the chemical industry? Firstly, of course, it will add to CFO concerns about their ability to obtain reasonably priced loans, as I discussed last week. There are already reports of major M&A deals in the chemical sector being unable to raise long-term debt due to current market conditions.

Secondly, it seems to add to the uncertainty over the outlook for 2008. As one banker told me recently, the worry about Q1 is that auditors will not only find further problems in the lending books of some banks, but also find holes in the balance sheets of some companies, who had put subprime investments (knowingly, or unknowingly) into their reserves.

Helpfully, Gillian Tett has separately summarised the 3 major scenarios that describe how the current crisis might play out next year:

Consensus. The US narrowly escapes recession. US housing and banking markets stabilise in Q1, and there is little spillover into the rest of the economy, although auto sales growth and jobs growth decline. Emerging markets continue to boom, helping to balance slower Western growth.
Muddle through. The credit crunch slows global growth. Western economies come under pressure, and high levels of debt reduce corporate and individual flexibility. The US$ remains under pressure, as investors reallocate portfolios to other currencies.
Downturn. Today’s credit worries spread. Banks severely restrict lending as their current business model of securitising loans to 3rd parties stops working. They also suffer losses in other consumer areas (eg credit cards). A US recession leads to a second wave of financial turmoil, as highly indebted companies go bust.

What worries me about the consensus view, as with the consensus on oil prices that I discussed in October in ‘Budgeting for a downturn’, is that it is not a true base case. It is easily the most optimistic scenario. The other outcomes are both downside cases in terms of the 2008 outlook for the ‘real world’ in which the chemical industry operates.

The need for chemical companies to develop robust contingency plans, in case the consensus is wrong, is looking ever stronger.