September 22, 2023

Joblessness Edges Higher To Hit a Euro Zone Record

The jobless rate in the 17 countries that belong to the euro zone was 12.1 percent in May, adjusting for seasonal effects, according to a report from Eurostat, the European Union statistics agency. That figure compared with 12 percent in April, which was revised down from 12.2 percent reported earlier. Based on the revised figures, May unemployment was at a record high.

Eurostat estimated that 19.2 million people in the euro area were jobless in May, an increase of 67,000 from April. For all 27 countries in the European Union, the unemployment rate was unchanged at 10.9 percent. The European bloc expanded to 28 countries on Monday when Croatia officially joined.

Joblessness in the euro zone has been rising almost without interruption since early 2008, when the financial crisis began, declining only briefly at the beginning of 2011. And analysts see little prospect for a sustained decline anytime soon.

While economists expect the euro zone economy to stabilize in the course of this year, growth will most likely remain too slow to generate large numbers of jobs.

“The measure that offers the greatest potential for job creation in the short to medium term is an easing of credit conditions,” Marie Diron, an economist who advises the consulting firm Ernst Young, said in a statement. “This would allow companies to invest and as a result recruit in the euro zone.”

The European Central Bank will hold its monetary policy meeting on Thursday, but it is not expected to introduce more stimulus to the euro zone economy. A cut in the benchmark rate, to 0.25 percent from a record 0.5 percent, is possible, but many say it would be unlikely to do much to encourage lending in troubled countries like Spain and Italy.

Banks in those countries are trying to cope with rising numbers of bad loans and are reluctant to lend no matter how cheaply they can borrow from the European Central Bank. And the central bank remains reluctant to effectively print more money, as the Federal Reserve in the United States and Bank of England have done, because of opposition from Germany to more aggressive action.

Eurostat also reported on Monday that inflation in the euro zone rose to 1.6 percent from 1.4 percent because of a surge in energy prices. While inflation remains below the central bank’s target of about 2 percent, the uptick is likely to provide a further argument against increasing the benchmark interest rate.

Compounding the bank’s challenge, the numbers released showed that there remained a big difference in economic performance among euro zone countries. These differences make it difficult for the central bank to form a monetary policy that is appropriate for all members.

Unemployment rates in Spain and Greece were about 27 percent in May, with youth unemployment remaining well above 50 percent. In contrast, unemployment in Austria was 4.7 percent and in Germany was 5.3 percent. Both had youth jobless rates below 9 percent.

If there was any good news, economists said, it was that unemployment may not go up much more. “An end to the euro zone labor market downturn is not yet imminent,” Martin van Vliet, an economist at ING Bank, said in a note to investors. “However, with the recession across the euro zone petering out, the peak in unemployment should not be too far away, either.”

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High & Low Finance: Sorting Out a Chinese Puzzle in Auditing

To the Canadian affiliate of Ernst Young, the answer to both questions appears to be no.

How, asked one Ernst staff member involved in the audit in an e-mail to a colleague, “do we know that the trees” the auditors were being shown “are actually trees owned by the company? E.g. could they show us trees anywhere and we would not know the difference?” The answer was yes: “I believe they could show us trees anywhere and we would not know the difference,” replied the colleague.

That did not lead Ernst to change its procedures. Nor did it bother to look at documents that it knew were crucial to answering the questions about the Sino-Forest Corporation, which was based in Canada but had its operations in China.

Until the summer of 2011, Sino-Forest appeared to be a real success story, backed by underwriters like Credit Suisse and Toronto Dominion and with shares worth billions of dollars. Its bonds were rated as just under investment grade by Standard Poor’s and Moody’s. Then a short-selling operation known as Muddy Waters said it thought the assets were greatly exaggerated. Sino-Forest appointed a group of its independent directors to investigate, and in due course they concluded they could not even be sure just what trees the company claimed to own, let alone whether it owned them.

This week brought the Sino-Forest case close to a conclusion. Ernst agreed to settle a shareholders’ suit for 117 million Canadian dollars, or about $116 million, while denying it was liable. The company agreed to come out of bankruptcy with its assets, whatever they might be, owned by the creditors. The company had tried to find buyers, and a number looked at the documents, but nobody bid. There still seems to be no certainty about how much, if any, timber the company owns.

While Ernst settled the shareholder suit, it said it would fight new charges by the Ontario Securities Commission that the audit firm failed to follow proper audit procedures. It was the commission suit, filed this week, that disclosed the e-mails exchanged by the auditors.

“We are confident that Ernst Young Canada’s work was conducted in accordance with Generally Accepted Auditing Standards (GAAS) and met all professional standards,” the firm said in a statement. “The evidence we will present to the O.S.C. will show that Ernst Young Canada did extensive audit work to verify ownership and existence of Sino-Forest’s timber assets.”

However extensive the work, the audit failed to uncover the essential truth: the assets were fake.

Frauds, and audit failures, can happen in many countries. But China is a special case because the authorities there seem to be completely uninterested in getting to the bottom of scandals whose victims are American or Canadian investors. Even regulators in Hong Kong have voiced frustration with their mainland colleagues.

Last week China sent another delegation to the United States to talk about these issues with American regulators, and a Chinese official was quoted by The Financial Times as telling a Hong Kong audience that audit working papers should be shared with other regulators — something the Chinese supposedly agreed to a decade ago but had never actually done. “I think we’ll shortly be able to work out a way to deliver those papers,” he said.

The American regulators have heard those stories before. In July, the chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Guo Shuqing, told Mary L. Schapiro, then the chairwoman of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, that he thought an agreement could be reached. It turned out that the Chinese insisted they would provide documents only if the S.E.C. promised not to use them in an enforcement proceeding without Chinese permission.

The week the S.E.C. filed court papers, in connection with its pending case against a Chinese affiliate of Deloitte, laying out case after case in which American regulators asked for assistance through obtaining audit work papers or even something as simple as verifying that a Chinese company existed. Repeatedly, the Chinese said something could be worked out, but somehow nothing ever was.

Floyd Norris comments on finance and the economy at

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European Central Bank Picks Belgian as Top Economist

Mr. Praet, a former economist at the International Monetary Fund who has been a member of the central bank’s executive board since June, will succeed Jürgen Stark as head of the economics department. Mr. Stark resigned at the end of 2011 because he had opposed the bank’s intervention in sovereign bond markets.

The appointment of Mr. Praet, 62, is part of a significant shift in top management at the central bank that could lead to a slightly less hard-line approach by the institution with the most direct control over the fate of the euro.

Jörg Asmussen, a former top-ranking official in the German Finance Ministry, moved to the central bank effective Jan. 1. Benoît Coeuré, former deputy director general of the French Treasury, also joined the six-member executive board at the beginning of the month, succeeding Lorenzo Bini Smaghi of Italy.

Both Mr. Asmussen, 45, and Mr. Coeuré, 42, were said to have coveted the economics portfolio, and the choice of Mr. Praet appears to have been a compromise. A spokesman for the German Bundesbank declined to comment on the appointment.

The head of the economics department briefs the bank’s governing council on the state of the euro zone economy. That person can play an important role in setting monetary policy. Before the tenure of Mr. Stark in the economics department, it was overseen by Otmar Issing, a forceful personality who played a crucial role in ensuring that the bank focused on fighting inflation above all else.

The views of Mr. Praet, the former executive director of the National Bank of Belgium, are not well known, but he is unlikely to be as militant on inflation as his predecessors.

In any case, the economics position is not as influential as it once was, said Marie Diron, a former central bank staff economist who now advises the consulting firm Ernst Young.

In part that is because the governing council, which includes chiefs of national central banks, has a number of other members with economics degrees — not least Mario Draghi, who took over as president in November. Mr. Draghi has a doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The chief economist “is less powerful and less determinant than he might have been five years ago,” Ms. Diron said. “The president and other members are able to really provide quite deep economic insights, and there is not so much reliance on the chief economist.”

Mr. Asmussen’s portfolio will include responsibility for the central bank’s relations with European governments. He played a similar role at the German Finance Ministry and has been a main figure in negotiations on how to deal with the sovereign debt crisis. Mr. Coeuré will be responsible for market operations, which include interventions in bond markets.

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Economix Blog: Beer Drinking in Europe

Declining beer consumption may be contributing to the European debt crisis — at least according to a study commissioned by those who brew it.

The conclusion is not as preposterous as it might sound. Europeans are saving money by drinking at home rather than in pubs, which is costing jobs in the hospitality industry and depressing tax revenue, according to the study by Ernst Young, which was paid for by the Brewers of Europe, an industry group.

The shift to home consumption has a disproportionate effect on unemployment, because 73 percent of jobs associated with the European beer industry are outside breweries. They are found instead in bars, hotels and restaurants.

‘‘Obviously, the crisis has had an effect,’’ said Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, secretary general of the Brewers of Europe.

Beer consumption in Europe fell 8 percent from 2008 to 2010, the period covered by the study. But employment in the beer industry fell by 12 percent, or 260,000 jobs, the study said. That compares with a 2 percent decline in employment for Europe as a whole.

Job losses can exacerbate the debt crisis because unemployed people typically collect benefits rather than pay taxes. When beer consumption declines, governments also collect less sales tax on beer sales.

In fact, Greece has been one of the countries hardest hit by the beer recession. Annual per capita consumption fell to 36 liters from 41 liters from 2008 to 2010, while employment in the beer industry plunged 15 percent to 59,600 jobs.

The beer industry complains that some of the decline is due to steep increases in the value-added tax imposed on beer by some countries, including Greece.

‘‘Governments tend to look at some sectors as cash cows,’’ Mr. Bergeron said. He argues that such increases are counterproductive because they push down consumption and ultimately cost jobs and result in lower revenue.

But not all the news is bad for the brewers. Mr. Bergeron said he saw signs that a long-term decline in beer consumption in Europe, driven in part by health concerns and tougher drunken driving laws, could be coming to an end. A proliferation of microbreweries means that beer drinkers are being offered some of the variety and local character that makes wine appealing, making beer more attractive to younger, more affluent consumers.

When Mr. Bergeron joined the brewers organization a decade ago, he said, there were just 14 members from his home country of France. Today there are 80, with most of the new entrants small breweries.

Brewers are also seeing big growth in nonalcoholic beer, thanks to improved production methods that provide a better-tasting beverage, Mr. Bergeron said.

He even is cautiously optimistic that beer consumption could rise again, as consumers choose to drink beer with their meals rather than more costly wine. ‘‘When people look at the wine list, they will decide to stick to beer,’’ Mr. Bergeron said. ‘‘The next decade will be interesting.’’

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High & Low Finance: Troubled Audit Opinions

On the other is an investment research firm using the name Muddy Waters Research. It says the company, the Sino-Forest Corporation, is a fraud, and that its shares are worthless.

As this is written, there is no definitive answer as to who is right. But the initial reaction of the markets seemed to be that they had more trust in the short-seller — a company whose Web site gives no address — than in the auditor’s opinion.

The shares, traded in Toronto, lost more than 70 percent of their value in two days, shaving $3 billion off its valuation. Bond prices also plunged. Prices had to fall sharply before speculators could be found who were willing to bet that the financial statements really did, in the boilerplate words of the auditor’s letter, “present fairly, in all material respects, the financial position of Sino-Forest Corporation.”

If there was a fraud, there is no doubt that Ernst Young will be sued, and there is even less doubt that it will deny responsibility. After all, its letter did make clear that management was responsible for the internal controls needed to assure the statements are “free from material misstatement, whether due to fraud or error.”

To the auditing industry, the fact that investors tend to blame auditors when frauds go undetected reflects unrealistic expectations, not bad work by the auditors. The rules say auditors are supposed to have a “healthy degree of skepticism,” but not to detect all frauds.

“There is a significant expectations gap between what various stakeholders believe auditors do or should do in detecting fraud, and what audit networks are actually capable of doing, at the prices that companies or investors are willing to pay for audits,” stated a position paper issued in 2006 by the chief executives of the six largest audit networks.

Note that last part. They suggested that if investors were really worried about fraud, they should consider paying more for a “forensic audit” that would have a better — but not guaranteed — chance of spotting fraud. Don’t like our work? Pay us more.

There is no doubt that some companies are easier to audit than others, and that Sino-Forest falls on the harder side. While it has headquarters in Toronto and Hong Kong, its operations are — or at least are claimed to be — spread out over much of China. The company says it manages nearly two million acres in forest plantations across China. Muddy Waters says that is a lie, and that its actual operations are much smaller.

Investors trying to decide whether to believe the Muddy Waters report, with its detailed assertion that the company’s claims are contradicted by Chinese records, would love to know just what Ernst did to check. What records did it inspect? Which tree plantations did it visit? Who did the work? Was it people from Ernst’s Toronto office, which signed the report, or people from a Chinese affiliate? How many auditors did the work, over what period of time?

Ernst’s audit opinion does not say, which is no surprise. Virtually every audit opinion in the world says almost the same thing, with no details about the company being audited. Auditors are paid millions of dollars to produce a report that no one thinks is worth reading.

On June 21, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which regulates auditors in the United States, plans to ask for public comments on whether to require auditors to do more and say more.

One idea the board is expected to consider is requiring auditors to disclose more about what they did, and did not, do. Ideally, auditors would point to things that they could not audit. There are a lot of them now, and sometimes they are crucial.

“The foundation” of the Sino-Forest fraud, stated the Muddy Waters report, “is its convoluted structure whereby it runs much of its revenues through ‘authorized intermediaries.’ ” Those organizations supposedly process tax payments owed to China on wood production, the report said, thereby assuring the company “leaves its auditors far less of a paper trail.”

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