The UK Public Finances have an August stumble

Yesterday we looked at the plans of Lord Skidelsky for fiscal expansionism. Let me add to that the implication of his lines of thought is that he would boost government spending now. Whilst we are not in a 2008 style slump he was clear that he thinks we have not recovered from it and some metrics confirm that. For example if you look at Gross Domestic Product and employment we have, but the case is much weaker with GDP per head and invisible with real wages.

This brings us to a familiar issue which is whether we have had austerity or fiscal stimulus in the credit crunch era? The problem with the assertions of outright austerity is that we have run a fiscal deficit throughout the period. Language shifts over time and I can recall when that would have been called a fiscal stimulus. This does matter as I can easily name two countries who are running what might be called outright austerity in the sense of both having and planning for a fiscal surplus and they are Germany and Sweden. In the UK sense it has meant reducing the fiscal deficit and in overall terms there have been two phases as there was a change made around 2012 that softened the effort. In practice we have also seen something of a lagged response to the effort. What I mean by that is that the deficit numbers took a while to respond to the economic recovery but more recently have picked up the pace.

Putting the issue into two numbers you could say that the amount we are borrowing now offers some support for Lord Skidelsky as it was £39.4 billion in the last financial year. But the amount we have borrowed heads us in the other direction because if you take the collapse of Northern Rock as the start of the credit crunch we have added some £1.23 trillion to the UK National Debt since. For those of you wondering how we have possibly afforded this let me point you in the direction of Threadneedle Street as it is the £435 billion  QE Gilt purchases of the Bank of England which have allowed it via their impact on Gilt yields. In spite of the recent trend towards higher borrowing costs exemplified by the US ten-year Treasury Note yielding 3.09% the equivalent Gilt yields a mere 1.6%.

Borrowing Costs

Let me hand myself a slice of humble pie to eat. The reason for that is if you had asked me where Gilt yields would be a decade or so later when the credit crunch began the chances of me being right would have been slim to none ( and in line with the joke slim was out of town). In an area I was right ( long time readers will recall I was long of some UK index-linked Gilts anticipating correctly a rise in inflation), I did not envisage that one day conventional Gilt yields would be so low that the price of linkers would be driven higher because they offered some sort of coupon.Madness! Or rather the consequences of the Sledgehammer QE of August 2016 about which history will not be kind.

Today’s Data

National Debt

We can continue the Bank of England theme as it has had an impact here too and one can only imagine the panic back in July and August of 2016 when they managed to devise schemes to do this.

Since August 2017, the net debt associated with the Bank of England (BoE) increased by £44.6 billion to £193.2 billion. Nearly all of this growth was due to the activities of the Asset Purchase Facility Fund, of which the TFS is a part.

The TFS closed for drawdowns of further loans on 28 February 2018 with a loan liability of £127.0 billion. The TFS loan liability at the end of August 2018 was £126.5 billion.

Yet again we find ourselves at least in terms of the official statistics indebted to provide yet another subsidy to the banking sector. This is a shame as our performance on this metric has been improving.

Debt (Public sector net debt excluding public sector banks (PSND ex)) at the end of August 2018 was £1,781.9 billion (or 84.3% of gross domestic product (GDP)); an increase of £15.9 billion (or a decrease of 1.8 percentage points) on August 2017.

The debt has continued to increase but has done so more slowly than economic output or GDP so in relative terms it has declined.

The Fiscal Deficit

We have got used to a sequence of good numbers so I guess we were due something like this.

Borrowing (Public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks (PSNB ex)) in August 2018 was £6.8 billion, £2.4 billion more than in August 2017; this was the largest August borrowing for two years (since 2016).

It is hard not to have a wry smile as we investigate the reason for this because you may recall last month the UK had really crunched down on spending.

While current receipts in August have increased by 1.6%, to £55.6 billion compared with August 2017, total expenditure increased by 6.9% to £60.4 billion.

We are told that this was influenced by the “triple-lock” effect on the basic state pension (3%) but that seems weak to me as that has been in play since April. In fact every spending category was higher and after the excitement in Salzburg yesterday there is food for thought in this.

The UK contributions to the EU in August 2008 were £1.0 billion; a £0.6 billion increase on August 2017, seeing a return to a similar level as 2016 after a low 2017 due to an EU Budget surplus distributed to member states.

If we return to the underlying trend we see that in spite of this month we remain overall in a better phase for the deficit.

Borrowing (PSNB ex) in the current financial year-to-date (YTD) was £17.8 billion: £7.8 billion less than in the same period in 2017; the lowest year-to-date for 16 years (since 2002).

This is because the rate of growth of revenues at ~4% is higher than the rate of growth of spending at ~2%. The latest strong set of retail sales figures are backed up by the VAT data and income tax is doing pretty well too. Also the overall trend to lower inflation has reduced debt costs by £2.3 billion via the RPI.

One area which is of note is a confirmation of a slowing of the housing market as Stamp Duty revenues have dipped by £400 million to £5.5 billion.

Comment

The UK has made considerable progress in reducing its fiscal deficit and as ever a time like this brings us to something of a crossroads. Some will want to press on with this and others will be sympathetic to a Lord Skidelsky expansion. The latter are supported by the reality that austerity such as it is has in some cases hit the weaker members of our society. The former may note that whilst the cost of our debt remains low a continuation of the recent rise in Gilt yields will begin to get expensive. The simple truth is that we have so much more of it these days as if we return to the Northern Rock collapse we owed £0.54 trillion as opposed to the £1.77 trillion now (year to July). Putting it another way that is why some of you have replied on here saying we cannot afford interest-rates and yields of more than 3%.

In terms of the underlying economy our present trajectory continues to be one of bumbling along so it should support the fiscal position and mean that the Office for Budget Responsibility is wrong again.The OBR’s only hope is that the weak monetary data acts as a stronger drag on the economy which is an irony as I don’t think it has a monetarist on it. Meanwhile the boost provided by the booming housing market is fading away.

As some Friday humour I present this to you from the Washington Post.

I wanted to understand Europe’s populism. So I talked to Bono.

Me on Core Finance

 

 

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A critique of the Keynesian fiscal expansion plans of Lord Skidelsky

Last night I attended a lecture by Lord Skidelsky at the Progressive Economic Forum. On a personal note it was amusing not only to be so near to my alma mater the LSE but also to have a chat with one of my past tutors from there Willem Buiter. Returning to the economics the lecture was based on the faith that Lord Skidelsky has in fiscal policy and his argument that we should have expanded it in the face of the credit crunch. Putting it another way he is an out and out Keynesian although the claim in the introduction that he was the greatest expert on the subject seemed a little harsh to me on John Maynard Keynes himself.

If we start with a strength of his approach it was the point that we have seen an extraordinary monetary response to the credit crunch. He also mentioned his discussions with central bankers and how they debated what the response had been in terms of growth and inflation. It was clear that he was unconvinced that it had done much good, but whilst  he did not seem to address the point of who should be held responsible for this, he did have a proposed solution which was for the government to take back control of monetary policy. In some ways I support that as it would return at least some democracy to an important process but it also creates another type of what I call the British Rail problem. This is a situation where we do not like the current scenario and sometimes forget that the proposed alternative is something that we did not like much either when we had it. In other words there is a clear danger of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Indeed I found it troubling that when asked a question about QE and its consequences our noble Lord simply resorted to waffle.

Fiscal expansionism

The case here is that we would have been on a better path if in the dog days of 2008/09 and following we had expanded fiscal policy. The detail sounded like an argument for something of a control and command economy when the case was made for public investment “of course there will be mistakes but the private-sector makes mistakes too”. The latter point is true but glosses over the point that it is with their own money or with money given to them by shareholders. We know that it is far from perfect in a world where managers act as owners and even owners can appear on TV smoking weed and acting oddly.  But then again of course if we look at Tilray we see that taking advantage of people smoking weed is apparently the great new profit opportunity or something like that! The Steve Miller Band were of course on point many years ago.

I’m a joker
I’m a smoker
I’m a mid-night toker

The problem is that whilst Lord Skidelsky can assert his claims as so often in economics we lack evidence. The nearest example to a country I could think of to his preferred scenario is Japan. It’s fiscal deficit stayed quite high for a while in response to the credit crunch as in relation to GDP it went 9.5%, 8.3% twice, 8.1% and then 7.8%. Yet in terms of economic growth or wage growth it has seen its own struggles. Also one of the ways this has been financed has been by the QE bond purchases of the Bank of Japan which has bought 42% of the market now and its total balance sheet is just passing annual GDP. So via the depressive effect of  QE effect on bond yields, we see that a further stimulus was applied by QE, as otherwise a higher deficit would have been required for the same outcome. This brings me to another issue which I will expand upon more later but these thoughts seem unworldly with regard to financial markets, and a harsher critic might say from another world.

Another issue is a common one with advocates of expansionary monetary policy which is the “More, more,more” one. At whatever point we find ourselves we are told that the next step will lead us to the economic version of the land of milk and honey. It is of course not the fault of advocates of fiscal policy that the monetary policy advocates have pretty comprehensively queered this patch. But we are where we are and as Kelis points out.

Might trick me once
I won’t let you trick me twice
No I won’t let you trick me twice

Financial Markets

Here we got the strongest example of an unworldly line of thought which was the suggestion that UK banks should be restricted to domestic activities only. I could see two clear flaws in that. The first is that RBS and Barclays may well immediately collapse and HSBC would either shift to the places in its name and/or collapse. Next if we move to the international arena there is the case of Turkey where UK banks have lent around US $15 billion which presumably they would need to get rid of under the planned scenario. In its current state Turkish firms could hardly repay it and other banks would only take over the loans for quite a discount.

Regular readers will know that I am very critical of banking behaviour and am certainly no fanboy. But the problems with banking run deep as for example are we really expected to believe that Danske Bank somehow took on some US $234 billion of dodgy money in Estonia without anybody being aware of it? We cannot wish away this reality and retreat behind our own borders as we are likely to find the problem simply pops up somewhere else.

Next comes the issue highlighted by the mention of a requirement for capital controls to accompany the new policy. These were not specified and were rather vague leading to the fear that they might spread to more areas than intended. We also know that they have a patchy success record because if we look at China where some of the implementation has been ruthless we also see that a lot of money escaped via Bitcoin if nowhere else.

This was accompanied by the implication that financial markets are bad people and speaking from personal experience some of them certainly are. But in general they mostly represent investors and pensioners and if you are implementing policies they are worried about they have a right to ask for a higher rate of interest. This can be a dangerous downwards spiral which has become anaethetised to some extent in the credit crunch era because central banks have replaced investors as buyers of government debt. But as that option would not exist in Lord Skidelsky’s scenario as the government will be in charge of monetary policy we could see what would be regarded as outright monetisation of government debt. We have seen few examples of this but the one in Ghana we looked at a couple of years or so back was like an express lift going down.

Comment

An unspoken theme here was the issue if how much control any government actually has these days? In the scenario suggested in the lecture we saw a firm grip being taken in some areas but in my opinion a lack of understanding of not only second order effects but also some first order ones. That could go wrong very quickly. On an initially more minor point the idea that Labour should have devalued the Pound £ in 1964 rather than 1967 provoked two lines of thought. Firstly my understanding of the 67 devaluation was that due to later revisions of the balance of payments it was not necessary so why do it earlier? Next comes a much less minor point that an outspoken sub-plot might be that a much lower £ is also part of the plan. That might be arrived at on day one if the reference to doing things without telling voters was carried out – interestingly the source of this line of thought was a political opponent Nigel Lawson- as it would be somewhat like financial dynamite I think.

Moving to strengths of the proposal there are indeed some. Firstly we do have some control over events and some freedom of manoever and there are times fiscal policy can help.There are certainly areas which could do with more public money. I agree that monetary policy has spiraled out of control with the list of its advocates shrinking.  Also the point that what we have has at best a patchy record and at worst has not worked is a fair one. But to my mind that is quite some distance from assuring us that it is a type of Holy Grail for our economic problems.

 

 

UK Inflation is back on the rise

Today brings us the full panoply of official UK inflation data. But before we look domestically an international perspective has again emerged overnight. This has come from Governor Kuroda of the Bank of Japan.

JPY BoJ Kuroda: BOJ still wants to achieve 2% inflation target as soon as possible ( @DailyFXTeam )

*DJ BOJ GOV. KURODA: EXPECT PRICES TO GRADUALLY MOVE TOWARD 2% ( @DeltaOne)

In spite of an enormous monetary effort involving negative interest-rates and a bulging balance sheer Abenomics continues to fail to get consumer inflation to its target of 2% per annum. Whereas we in the UK pass it regularly and will today discover we are above 2% on the official measure and 3% on others. Abenomics has driven asset prices higher but not consumer inflation giving us a reminder that whilst there are similarities between Japan and ourselves there are also differences.

The Inflation Outlook

A factor providing some upwards pressure in 2018 has been the price of crude oil. The current price of US $79 for a barrel of Brent Crude replaces the US $56 of a year ago. The Russian energy minister has via Platts updated us on why this has happened.

“According to estimates by experts and companies, oil price will be at around $50/b in the long-term. That means that the current situation, when oil prices have risen to $70-80/b, is linked to the temporary situation on the market and includes a premium to the price linked to various risks associated with the introduction of sanctions and oil supply cuts,” Novak said, as reported by Russia’s Prime news agency.

The higher oil price has fed into the cost of petrol and diesel.

Fuel prices have risen for a 10th successive week. The average cost of a litre of unleaded stands at more than £1.30 at UK forecourts, with diesel exceeding £1.34, Government figures show. Fuel has not been more expensive than current levels since July 2014. Since April, the cost of filling up a typical 55-litre family car that runs on unleaded or diesel has risen by around £6. ( I News)

That trend continued in the latest data so it is now eleven weeks and the annual comparison is shown below.

The price of ULSP is 11.7p/litre higher and the price of ULSD is 14.0p/litre higher than the equivalent week in 2017.

It has also had an effect on domestic heating and lighting costs with this change included in this months numbers.

E.ON has announced that it is increasing its standard variable electricity and gas prices. On 16 August, the unit price of E.ON’s standard variable tariff will increase by an average of 4.8% or £55 for customers taking both fuels, 6.2% or £36 for electricity only customers and 3.3% or £19 for gas only customers

There are others already announced from EDF Energy which will be in the September numbers and British Gas which will be in October.

The UK Pound £

The recent performance has been quite good as shown below.

So far this month, GBP has been the best performing major vs. USD with +3.20% total-returns while JPY has been the worst with -1.66% ( @DailyFXTeam)

Sadly for the August numbers the turn came just about when the survey is made but it should help the September numbers. Looking backwards we were around 2.5% higher a year ago but the differences are now much smaller than the period after the EU Leave vote. I note that the recent Brexit report suggested that raised inflation by 1.7% which is slightly higher than my calculations (1.5%).

Another way of looking at the state of play here is to compare our inflation number with the Euro area one for August which was 2%.

Today’s data

We got confirmation that the rally in the Pound £ came too late for the August data from this.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 2.7% in August 2018, up from 2.5% in July 2018.

Some of that was confirmed by the detail as the number below was influenced by the price of package holidays.

Prices for recreation and culture rose by 3.6% between August 2017 and August 2018, the highest 12-month rate since January 2010.

Also there was this.

Transport continues to make the largest upward contribution to the rate, with prices rising by 6.0% in the year to August 2018, the highest 12-month rate since April 2017. The largest contribution within the transport group continues to come from motor fuels.

What is on the horizon?

There was some better news here which started with this.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 2.9% on the year to August 2018, down from 3.1% in July 2018.

So a weakening of pressure around the corner which was accompanied by a weakening further up the road.

The growth rate of prices for materials and fuels for manufacturing (input prices) slowed to 8.7% on the year to August 2018, down from 10.3% in July 2018.

So much of this is driven by a factor we looked at earlier which is the price of crude oil.

The annual rate was driven by crude oil prices, which fell to 39.4% in August 2018 from 49.6% in July 2018, but maintains 26 months of positive annual inflation.

What about house prices?

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 3.1% in the year to July 2018 (down slightly from 3.2% in June 2018). This is the lowest UK annual rate since August 2013 when it was 3.0%. The annual growth rate has slowed since mid-2016 and has remained under 5%, with the exception of October 2017, throughout 2017 and into 2018.

The second sentence will echo around the corridors of the Bank of England as that is when the Funding for Lending Scheme began to push house prices higher. First-time buyers will be pleased to note that prices may still be increasing but are not doing so at past rates.

How is this reflected in the headline inflation data?

We get plenty of rhetoric from the Office for National Statistics.

The CPIH is the most comprehensive measure of inflation. It extends the CPI to include a measure of the costs associated with owning, maintaining and living in one’s own home, known as owner occupiers’ housing costs (OOH), along with Council Tax.

Sounds good doesn’t it? But really it is a heffalump trap which is a national embarrassment. The catch is that the measure used does not exist and is never paid. What happens is that it is assumed that if you own your own home you pay rent to yourself and it is that “rent” which is used. Why? Well if you take a look at the number you will get a powerful clue.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in Great Britain rose by 0.9% in the 12 months to August 2018, unchanged from the 12 months to July 2018.

As the owner occupied housing sector is around 17% of the CPIH measure you can see why it has consistently been below the other inflation measures. Even worse there are more than a few statisticians who think that via a poor balance between new and old rents the official rents data is too low anyway. That is to some extent backed up by the way the official rents series has weakened when we are told wage growth is rising.

So a series which is under serious question ( rents) is then used to measure inflation for those who by definition do not pay rent.

Comment

The establishment view was that inflation was in modern language, like so over. For example the NIESR published some new analysis last month suggesting it was heading straight back to its target. Yet today reminds us that unlike Japan we are an inflation nation as we are prone to it. To my mind that is one of the reasons why there has been such a campaign against the RPI because it produces numbers like this.

The all items RPI annual rate is 3.5%, up from 3.2% last month

Rather than engaging with people like me who support the RPI we have got rhetoric and propaganda. Just because I support it does not mean I think it is perfect but it is better than the woeful CPIH which the UK establishment has lined up behind.

Another example of establishment’s being economical with the truth has been provided today by Andy Haldane of the Bank of England in Estonia.

The first is so-called “forward guidance” about monetary policy………. By contrast, if you are a company or household considering whether to spend, a general idea
of the direction and destination of interest rates is likely to be sufficient.

The problem though is what he omits from the bit below.

The MPC first used the words “limited and gradual” in 2014 when describing the likely future course of
interest rates rises……….When the MPC did come to raise interest rates, in November 2017 and again in August 2018, it is interesting to see how well these were understood by companies and households.

This view presents matters as being well handled via the omission of the interest-rate cut and QE of August 2016 which punished those who acted on the original forward guidance. But apparently it is all part of this.

Central banks were put on earth to serve the public

 

What next from the war on cash?

This morning the BBC has posted an article on a subject I was mulling last Wednesday.  As I walked into an appointment for some treatment for my knee the person before me was paying for his appointment by using his phone and transferring the money directly. I by contrast had put some cash in my pocket so I could pay in that fashion. If we move on from me suddenly feeling rather stone age and he being much more cutting edge there was one work related issue on my mind. What does paying by phone do to the money supply? It reminds us that the money supply also includes the ability to borrow and whilst everyone obsesses about banks also reminds us that it can now come from other sources. Or perhaps I should correct that to their being more potential routes these days.

Paying by phone

Here is an example quoted by the BBC.

Nikki Hesford, 32, is a convert to person-to-person payment (P2P) apps, using PayPal to pay for services and Venmo to pay back friends.

“The only time in the last year I’ve drawn out cash is for the school fete cake stall and to pay my manicurist,” says Ms Hesford, who runs her own marketing support company for small businesses.

“If I go for a meal with friends I can’t be bothered messing about with two, three or four cards,” she says.

“One person will pay on a card and the others will transfer through an app. It takes seconds rather than minutes fussing around with who owes what.”

PayPal has been around for some time but the likes of Venmo seems a real change and I can see the attraction. Who has not been out to eat with a group and been in a situation where the money collected in is short but everyone claims to have paid? For all our thoughts that millennials and Generation Z have it tough they may have stolen a bit of a march on the rest of us here. Venmo will by its very nature record each transfer and provide a type of audit trail.

In terms of scale then the position is building.

Zelle, one of the most popular payment apps in the US backed by 150 banks, launched in June 2017, but has already processed more than 320 million transactions valued at $94bn (£72bn).

A recent report by Zion market research suggested that the global mobile-wallet market in general is expected to top $3bn by 2022, up from nearly $600m in 2016.

The argument in favour is that it is quick and convenient,

Rachna Ahlawat, co-founder of Ondot Systems, a payment services platform, perceives a marked change in consumer behaviour.

“We want transactions to happen in an instant and at the click of a button,” she says. “Consumers not only want to operate in real-time, but they are looking for technology that allows them to play a more active role in how they control their payments, and are finding new ways of managing their financial lives.”

Financial Crime

The official and establishment view is that cash is a curse and the high priest of such thoughts Kenneth Rogoff wants this.

Why not just get rid of paper currency?

His opening argument is that cash is a source of crime.

First, making it more difficult to engage in recurrent, large, and anonymous payments would likely have a significant
impact on discouraging tax evasion and crime; even a relatively modest impact could potentially justify getting rid of most paper currency.

Yet we discover that even the new white heat world of person to person payments has you guessed it found that the criminal fraternity are very inventive.

“Malware injections and reverse engineering attacks can be used by hackers to understand the app’s code and silently trick you, going undetected by the typical security measures.”  ( Pedro Fortuna from JScrambler )

The truth is that whatever financial area we move into we take the criminals with us and sometimes there are already there waiting for us to make a mistake.

“With the increasing number of apps all requiring some form of authentication, it’s all too tempting to reuse passwords across multiple services. This increases the risk of your data being hacked.”  ( Sam Devaney from CGI UK ).

The banks

There is a very inconvenient reality for the likes of Kenneth Rogoff which is that so much financial crime is to be found at the heart of the system “the precious”.

Banks in Denmark, the Netherlands, Latvia and Malta have all been linked to criminal inflows from countries including Russia and North Korea. The EU has moved to centralize banking supervision, but money laundering has remained a national responsibility.

At the moment the European Union seems to be the weakest link in this area although of course it is far from unique. As an example the situation at Danske bank was so bad it even found itself being trolled by Deutsche Bank which claimed it was only accepting one in ten of past Danske bank clients. According to the Wall Street Journal around US $150 billion of transactions are being investigated according to Reuters the bank itself is discovering large problems.

the Financial Times cited the bank’s own investigation as saying the Danish bank handled up to $30 billion of Russian and ex-Soviet money through non-resident accounts via its Estonian branch in 2013 alone.

The European Union seems to be particularly in the firing zone in this area right now and much of it seems centred in the Baltic nations. That reminds me that back on the 19th of February I looked at the issues facing ABLV in Latvia which developed into a situation where the central bank Governor Ilmārs Rimšēvičs has been charged with taking a bribe.

Whilst the European Union is presently in the firing line we know that banking scandals of this sort occur regularly in most places. Yet the establishment ignore the way that the banks are the major source of financial crime in their rush to implicate cash.

Some new notes

A sign that there is indeed counterfeiting happen was provided yesterday by the European Central Bank or ECB although it chose to present it another way.

New €100 and €200 banknotes unveiled!

Sadly the excitement captured only a couple of journalists attention but the press release did hint at “trouble,trouble,trouble.”

The new €100 and €200 banknotes make use of new and innovative security features.

I think we know why! But there was another sign.

In addition to the security features that can be seen with the naked eye, euro banknotes also contain machine-readable security features. On the new €100 and €200 banknotes these features have been enhanced, and new ones have been added to enable the notes to be processed and authenticated swiftly.

It makes me wonder how many counterfeit ones are in existence. This seems likely to get Kenneth Rogoff to add those note to the 500 Euro ones he wants banned.

Comment

This is a situation which has a paradox within it. We see that technology is providing plenty of ways which provide alternatives to cash and in spite of presenting myself as something of a cash luddite earlier I find them convenient too. Yet we want more cash in the UK the £40 billion mark was passed in 2008 and now we have according to the Bank of England.

There are over 3.6 billion Bank of England notes in circulation worth about 70 billion pounds.

We are far from alone as for example in 2017 the growth rate was 7% for the US and Canada and 4% for the Euro area and Japan. Yet the Bank of England confirms that the medium of exchange case has indeed weakened over time.

Cash accounted for 40% of all payments in 2016, compared to 62% in 2006

The Bank will have something of an itchy collar as it notes that the increased demand for cash will be as a store of value and the rise accompanies its era of QE and low interest-rates. Kenneth Rogoff is much more transparent though.

Although in principle, phasing out cash and invoking negative interest rates are topics that can be studied separately, in reality the two issues are deeply linked. To be precise, it is virtually impossible to think about drastically phasing out currency without recognizing that it opens a door to unrestricted negative rates that central
banks may someday be tempted to walk through.

As Turkish points out in the film Snatch “Who da thunk it?”

 

 

The Central Bank of Turkey has voted for Christmas

Back on the 3rd of May I pointed out that yet another feature of economics 101 was not working these days. Here was my response to interest-rate rises from the central bank of Argentina or BCRA.

This is perhaps the most common response and in my view it is the most flawed. The problem is twofold. Firstly you can end up chasing you own tail like a dog. What I mean by this is that markets can expect more interest-rate rises each time the currency falls and usually that is exactly what it does next. Why is this? Well if anticipating a 27,25%% return on your money is not doing the job is 30.25% going to do it?

Since then the BCRA  has indeed ended up chasing its own tail like a dog, as interest-rates are now an eye watering 60%. But the sequence of rises has been accompanied by further currency falls, as back then an exchange rate to the US Dollar of 21/22 ( it was a volatile day) has been replaced by 39.4. To my mind this has been influenced by the second factor I looked at back in May.

Next comes the way that markets discount this in terms of forward exchange rates which now will factor in the higher interest-rate by lowering the forward price of the Peso. So against the US Dollar it will be of the order of 28% lower in a year’s time so the expected return in each currency is equal. This should not matter but human psychology and nature intervene and it turns out often to matter and helps the currency lower which of course is exactly the wrong result.

Right now the forward price of the Argentine Peso will be heavily discounted by the 60% interest-rate. At least the Argentines got some welcome good news on the rugby front on Saturday when they beat Australia. Although they currently seem unable to avoid bad news for long.

The Argentine peso has lost more than half its value, but U2 frontman Bono is advocating for the economic well-being of the Argentine people  ( Bloomberg ).

Turkey

As you can imagine the announcement below on the 3rd of this month from the Turkish central bank or CBRT made me mull the thoughts above.

monetary stance will be adjusted at the September Monetary Policy Committee Meeting in view of the latest developments.

On the day itself ( last Thursday) the water got very muddy for a while as President Erdogan again made a case for low interest-rates. He apparently has a theory that high interest-rates create high inflation. But the CBRT is not a believer in that.

The Monetary Policy Committee (the Committee) has decided to increase the policy rate (one week repo auction rate) from 17.75 percent to 24 percent.

The consensus was that this was a good idea as highlighted by the economist Timothy Ash.

Turkey – huge move by the CBRT, doing 625bps, taking the base rate to 24%. Respect. Difficult decision set against huge political pressure, but the right should set a floor, and gives the lira and Turkish assets, banks etc a chance.

I have more than a few doubts about that. The simplest is what calculations bring you to a 6.25% rise, or was it plucked out of thin air?  Added to that is the concept of a floor and giving the currency and banks a chance. Really? The words of Newt from the film Aliens comes to mind.

It wont make any difference

Initially the Turkish Lira did respond with a bounce. It rallied to around 6.1 versus the US Dollar on the day and then pushed higher to 6.01 on Friday. In response I tweeted this.

In the case of Argentina the half-life of the currency rally was 24 hours at best….

So as I checked the situation this morning I had a wry smile as I noted the Lira had weakened to 6.26 versus the US Dollar. I also note that the coverage in the Financial Times had someone who agrees with me albeit perhaps by a different route.

But Cristian Maggio, EM strategist at TD Securities, said the central bank did not go far enough, because inflation was likely to rise beyond 20 per cent, and “higher inflation will require even higher rates”.

On the day some speculators will have got their fingers singed as the comments from President Erdogan sent the currency weaker at first, so following that the CBRT move whip sawed them. If that was a tactical plan it succeeded, but that is very different to calling this a strategic success.

Another issue is that the currency may well be even more volatile looking forwards. This is because holding a short position versus the US Dollar has a negative carry of 22% or so and against the Euro has one of 24% or so. Thus there will be a tendency to hold the Turkish Lira for the carry and then to jump out ahead of any possible bad news. The problem with that is not everyone can jump out at once! Any falls will lead to a mass exodus or panic and we know from the experience of past carry trades that the subsequent moves are often large ones.

Foreign Debt

Brad Setser has crunched the numbers on this.

Turkey has about $180 billion external debt coming due, according to the latest central bank data. And most of that is denominated in foreign currency. The Central Bank of Turkey’s foreign exchange reserves are now just over $75 billion, and the banks may have about $25 billion (or a bit less now) in foreign exchange of their own. I left out Turkey’s gold reserves, in part because they are in large part borrowed from the banks and unlikely to be usable.

The total external debt is now a bit over US $450 billion. Very little of that is the government itself although the state banks are responsible for some of it. The problem is thus one for the private-sector and the banks.

How this plays out is very hard to forecast as we do not know how many companies will not be able to pay, and how much of a domino effect that would have on other companies. Also we can be sure that both the government and CBRT will be looking to support such firms, but we can also be sure that they do not have the firepower to support all of them! This is another factor making things very volatile.

The domestic economy

There are a lot of factors at play here but let me open by linking this to the foreign debt. If we look back we would also be adding a current account deficit to the problems above but this is getting much smaller and may soon disappear. From the third of this month.

Turkey’s foreign trade deficit in August fell 58 percent on a yearly basis, according to the trade ministry’s preliminary data on Sept 1.

There should be a boost for exports which will help some but so far the main player has been a fall in imports which were 22.4% lower in the merchandise trade figures above. So a real squeeze is being applied to the economy which the GDP figures will initially record as a boost, as imports are a subtraction from GDP. So they will throw a curve ball as the situation declines.

Added to that is this which was before the latest interest-rate rise.

Switching to a year on year basis the impact so far of this new credit crunch is around three-quarters of the 2008/09 one. The new higher official interest-rate seems set to put this under further pressure as the banks tend to borrow short ( which is now much more expensive) and lend long ( which will remain relatively cheap for a while).

Comment

A major problem in this sort of scenario was explained by Carole King some years ago.

But it’s too late, baby, now it’s too late
Though we really did try to make it
Something inside has died and I can’t hide
And I just can’t fake it, Oh no no no no no

Regular readers will be aware that it is in my opinion as important when you move interest-rates as what you do. Sadly that particular boat sailed some time ago for Turkey ( and Argentina) and macho style responses that are too late may only compound the problem. Or as the CBRT release puts it.

slowdown in domestic demand accelerates

It must be a very grim time for workers and consumers in Turkey so let me end by wishing them all the best in what are hard times as well as a little humour for hard times.

 

 

 

Will UK house prices fall by 35% and is that a good thing?

Yesterday the Governor of the Bank of England attended the UK Cabinet meeting to update them on what the Bank thinks about the potential post Brexit economic situation. Typically the main area focused on has been house prices which of course is revealing in itself. Let us take a look at how this has been reflected in the Bank’s house journal otherwise known as the Financial Times.

Mark Carney, Bank of England governor, has delivered a “chilling” warning to Theresa May’s cabinet that a no-deal Brexit could lead to economic chaos, including a property crash that could see house prices fall by a third.

I pointed out on social media that whilst the journalists at the FT might find such a fall in house prices “chilling” first-time buyers would welcome it. Maybe they might start to find a few places to be affordable. So they might well welcome the fact that the FT then remembered that 35% is more than a third!

Among Mr Carney’s most stunning warnings was that house prices would be 35 per cent lower than would otherwise be the case three years after a disruptive no-deal Brexit — which would assume a breakdown in trading relations with the EU.

If you are wondering what would cause this then it was Governor Carney’s version of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The property crash would be driven by rising unemployment, depressed economic growth, higher inflation and higher interest rates, Mr Carney warned.

This is where the water gets very choppy for Governor Carney. This is because he has played that card before, and two of his horsemen went missing. Let me explain by jumping back to May 2016. From the Guardian.

The Bank warned a vote to leave the EU could:

  • Push the pound lower, “perhaps sharply”.
  • Prompt households and businesses to delay spending.
  • Increase unemployment.
  • Hit economic growth.
  • Stoke inflation.

Missing from that list is the higher mortgage rates that he had suggested earlier in 2016. Three of the points came true to some extent as the Pound £ fell and due to it inflation by my calculations rose by 1.25% to 1.5%. This reduced real wages and hit UK economic growth. But unemployment continued to fall and employment rise. Also the delays in spending did not turn up. Or to be more specific whilst there may have been some investment delays, the UK consumer definitely did go on quite a splurge as retail sales boomed.

Where the Governor also hit trouble was on the recession issue. This was partly due to his habit of playing politics where he associated himself with forecasts suggesting there would be one. The actual Bank of England view was careful to use the word “could” but the HM Treasury one was not.

a vote to leave would represent an immediate and profound shock to our economy. That shock would push our economy into a recession and lead to an increase in unemployment of around 500,000, GDP would be 3.6% smaller, average real wages would be lower, inflation higher, sterling weaker, house prices would be hit and public borrowing would rise
compared with a vote to remain.

Partly due to his own obvious personal views Governor Carney got sucked into this. It did not help that the HM Treasury report was signed off by the former Deputy Governor Sir Charlie Bean which gave it a sort of Bank of England gloss and sheen. The May 2016 Inflation Report press conference had question after question on the recession issue which illustrates the perception at the time. Then this was added to in July and August 2016 when the Bank of England and in particular its Chief Economist Andy Haldane again raised the recession issue by telling us the Bank needed a “Sledgehammer” response and then delivering it. Or half delivering it because by the time we got to the second part being due ( November 2016) it was clear that the chief economist had got it wrong. But that phase seemed to be driven by a Bank of England in panic mode looking at a later section of the HM Treasury report.

In this severe scenario, GDP would be 6% smaller, there would be a deeper recession, and the number of people
made unemployed would rise by around 800,000 compared with a vote to remain. The hit to wages, inflation, house prices and borrowing would be larger. There is a credible risk that this more acute scenario could materialise.

Did the Bank of England Sledgehammer stop a recession?

Over the past 2 years this has come up a lot with journalists and ex Bank of England staff suggesting that it did. If so it would have been the fastest real economy response to monetary action in history. That would be odd at a time the ECB was telling us it thought the reaction function had slowed, But anyway rather than me making the case let me hand you over to Mark Carney himself and ony the emphasis is mine.

Monetary policy operates with a lag – long and
variable lag, as you know – and if there is a sharp adjustment in demand, in activity, from whatever event, it will take some time for stimulus, if it’s provided – if it’s appropriate to be provided – for it to course through the economy and offset, to cushion that fall in demand. ( May 2016 Inflation Report press conference)

Although he did later claim to have “saved” 250,000 jobs showing yet again the appropriateness of the word unreliable in his case.

Interest-Rates

This is another awkward area for the Governor as he is back to predicting higher interest-rates. The last time he did that he cut them! Still maybe he has learnt something as his critique of a future cut is a description of what happened after the August 2016  one.

“If you cut rates you would end up with higher inflation.”

Public Finances

Moving away from the Governor to the Chancellor he appears to be unaware that the deficit figures have improved considerably.

Mr Hammond said the Treasury would be constrained in its ability to tackle the crisis by boosting spending, noting the country was still recovering from the aftermath of the 2008 crash and questioning the effectiveness of a fiscal stimulus in one country.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here. Let us start with house prices which have proved to be rather resilient in 2017/18, and I mean the dictionary definition of resilient not the way central bankers apply it to banks and growth. I thought we would see the beginnings of some falls but whilst there have been some in London the national picture has instead been one of slowing growth. The ideal scenario in my opinion would be for some gentle falls to deflate the bubble.Some argue that it could be done by them being flat for a while but with wage growth seemingly stuck in the 2% to 3% range that would take too long in my opinion.

But house prices are too high and the Bank of England and the government have conspired and operated to put them there. The use of the word “help” in some of the policies has been especially Orwellian as the result of it is invariably to push house prices even higher and thus even more out of reach. So to them a 35% fall seems dreadful and I can imagine the gloom around the cabinet table as it was announced. The Governor would have been gloomy too as the fall would be slightly larger than the rises his policies have helped to engineer as we mull whether that is why 35% in particular was chosen?

So overall a 35% fall in house prices would bring benefits but it would not be a perfect policy. I have had various replies on social media from people who have recently bought and I have friends in that position. I wish them no ill which is why my preference is for the scenario I have outlined. But the housing market cannot be a one way bet forever .

Also let us take some perspective. You see there is little new in the forecast we have discussed today as it has been the Bank of England no-deal Brexit forecast for some time now. So let me finish on a more optimistic note tucked away in the FT article.

However, he boosted Mrs May’s position when he said that if she struck a Brexit deal based on her much-criticised Chequers exit plan presented to Brussels in July, the economy would outperform current forecasts because it would be better than the bank’s assumed outcome.

A reward for his extra seven months? At that point the Prime Minister might have mused how much nicer he might have been if she had given him an extra year.

 

The history of the credit crunch continues to be rewritten

Today is a day for central bankers as both the Bank of England and European Central Bank declare the results of their latest policy decisions. However it will be a Super Thursday only in name as  the main news concerning the Bank of England this week has been the extension of Governor Carney;s term by seven months to January 2020. A really rather extraordinary move on both sides, as we mull not only the possibility of future monthly or even weekly future extensions,, and on the other side what happened to the personal circumstances that supposedly stopped him staying for longer in the first place?

Moving to the ECB the rumour yesterday was that its economic forecasts will be revised down slightly which is likely to reduce the rhetoric about the Euro area economy being resilient. But apart from that there is little for it to do apart from play down the recent news about money laundering via banks being rife in some of the smaller ( Malta and Estonia) Euro area countries. President Draghi may also repeat the hints he keeps providing that he has no intention of raising interest-rates n his term of office. This may have a market impact as more than a few have convinced themselves that a 0.2% rise is due this time next year. Apart from the fact that the ECB changes interest-rates by 0.25% and not 0.2% the apparent slowing of the Euro area economy makes that increasingly unlikely.

Rewriting History

This week has seen a lot of reviews of the crash of a decade ago but the most significant comes from the man at the centre of the response which was Ben Bernanke of the US Federal Reserve. He has written a paper for Brookings which to my mind illustrates why central banks have put so much effort into raising asset and in particular house prices.

Recent work, including by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, proposes that the accumulation of debt during the housing boom of the early 2000s made households particularly vulnerable to changes in their net worth. When house prices began to decline, homeowners’ main source of collateral (home equity) contracted, reducing their access to new credit even as their wealth and incomes declined.  These credit constraints exacerbated the declines in consumer spending.

Or if you want the point really rammed home here it is.

Mian and Sufi and others attribute the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009 primarily to the boom and subsequent bust in housing wealth,

Thus central bankers including Ben decided that the response to the bust in housing wealth was to create another boom. Many of them including Ben himself did so well before the paper he quotes was written. For example the US Federal Reserve bought mortgage-backed securities as follows.

From early 2009 through October 2014, the Federal Reserve added on net approximately $1.8 trillion of longer-term agency MBS and agency debt securities to the SOMA portfolio through its large-scale asset purchase programs. ( New York Fed).

Thus we see than Ben Bernanke is being somewhat disingenuous in pointing us to a paper written in 2014 when he made his response in 2009! Anyway there is a statistic you may like in the paper.

that the total amount of debt for American households doubled between 2000 and 2007 to $14 trillion?

The banks

They would have been helped in a variety of ways by the response to the credit crunch. Firstly by the large interest-rate cuts and next by the advent of QE ( Quantitative Easing) which helped them both implicitly by raising the value of their bond holdings and explicitly via the purchase of mortgage debt. Some were also bailed out and that mentality seems to be ongoing.

 We need to make sure that future generations of financial firefighters have the emergency powers they need to prevent the next fire from becoming a conflagration. We must also resist calls to eliminate safeguards as the memory of the crisis fades. For those working to keep our financial system resilient, the enemy is forgetting.

That is from an opinion piece in the New York Times from not only Ben Bernanke but the two US Treasury Secretaries which were Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner. What powers do they want?

Among these changes, the FDIC can no longer issue blanket guarantees of bank debt as it did in the crisis, the Fed’s emergency lending powers have been constrained, and the Treasury would not be able to repeat its guarantee of the money market funds. These powers were critical in stopping the 2008 panic.

In other words they want to be able to bailout and back stop the banks again. Or if you prefer take us back to the world of privatising profits and socialising losses. For the establishment in the US that worked well as the government made a profit and the banks were eventually able to carry on regardless. Indeed the next stage of fining banks also was something of an establishment merry go round as you can argue that it was just another way of the banks repaying the establishment for the bailouts.

On the other side of the coin ordinary people did lose money. Some had their homes foreclosed on them and others lost their savings. The unfairness of this arrives when we look at bank shareholders who had losses. In itself that is not a crime as by being shareholders they take a clear risk. But the rub is that the losses were driven by a combination of fraud and malpractice for which so few have been punished. If we move onto the bank fines we see that yet again punishment hit bank shareholders whereas bank executives might see a lower bonus but otherwise remained extremely well rewarded. We are back to the theme of the 0.01% being protected whilst the 99.99% bear any pain.

Putting it another way here is former Barclays boss Bob Diamond from the BBC website earlier.

Former Barclays boss Bob Diamond has said he fears banks have become too cautious about taking risks.

Mr Diamond told me the risk-averse culture means they can’t support the economy and generate jobs and growth.

Support the economy or bankers pay?

Inequality

Here is perhaps the biggest rewriting of history as we return to the thoughts of Ben Bernanke at Brookings.

“There’s some folks who don’t like QE, and as each argument fails, they move down the ladder. And so now you have hedge fund managers writing in the Wall Street Journal how QE is creating inequality as if they cared.”

You may note that there is no actual denial that QE creates inequality. Frankly if you boost asset prices which is its main effect you have to benefit the asset rich relative to the poor. However back in March the Bank of England assured us this.

Monetary policy had very little effect on overall inequality

How? Well let me show you their example of inequality being unaffected.

 But it is worth noting that existing differences in net wealth mean that a 10% increase for all would equate to £200 for the bottom decile and £195,000 for the richest.

Apart from anything else this was awkward for the previous research from the Bank of England which assured us QE had boosted wealth for those with pensions and shareholders. I guess they were hoping we had forgotten that.

Comment

The last few days have seen quite a bit of rewriting history about the credit crunch as the establishment wants us to forget three things.

  1. It was asleep at the wheel
  2. Those who caused it got off scot free in the main and were sometimes handsomely rewarded whereas many relative innocents suffered financial hardship.
  3. The response not only boosted the already wealthy but contributed to an economic world of struggling real wage growth

The first problem will recur we know that in spite of all of the official claims to the contrary. As to the response one issue is that those in charge are invariably unsuited to the role. They are picked out of academia and/or the establishment and suddenly find that they go from a cosy slow-moving world to one that is exactly the reverse, so we should not be surprised if they act like rabbits caught in a car’s headlights. So on that score I think we should cut Ben Bernanke some slack but that does not eliminate points two and three which are critiques of the economic regime he implemented.

Also if we stay with central banks it could all have been worse as imagine you are at Turkeys central bank the CBRT deciding how much to raise interest-rates and you read this!

Erdogan says must lower interest rates ( @ForexLive )