About notayesmanseconomics

I am an independent economist who studied at the London School of Economics. My speciality was (and remains) monetary economics. I worked in the City of London for several investment banks and then on my own account over a period of 15 years. After initially working in the government bond department at Phillips and Drew Ltd. I moved on into the derivatives arena with options of all types being a speciality. I never lost my specialisation in UK interest rates and also traded as a local on the London International Financial Futures Exchange where I mostly traded futures and options on future and present UK interest rates. So with my specialisations of monetary economics and knowledge of derivatives I have plenty of expertise to deploy on the financial and economic crisis which has unfolded in recent years. I have also worked in Tokyo Japan again in the derivatives sphere and the Japanese "lost decade" made me think about what I would do if it spread,which is very relevant now. My name is Shaun Richards and apart from the analysis on here you may have heard me on Share Radio where I used to regularly analyse economic events and developments, Bloomberg Radio or on BBC Radio 4's Money Box. I also write economics reports for groups such as Woodford Investment Management and reports for pension funds on a particular speciality which is the analysis of inflation measurement. I can be contacted via the contact details on this website or on twitter via @notayesmansecon.

Good UK Retail Sales trip up the Bank of England

The morning has bought some better news for the UK economy which is welcome in these pandemic driven hard times. However it has been something of a problem for the Bank of England which tripped up yesterday. It decided to send a signal to markets via this section from its Monetary Policy Committee meeting Minutes.

The Committee had discussed its policy toolkit, and the effectiveness of negative policy rates in particular,
in the August Monetary Policy Report, in light of the decline in global equilibrium interest rates over a number of
years. Subsequently, the MPC had been briefed on the Bank of England’s plans to explore how a negative
Bank Rate could be implemented effectively, should the outlook for inflation and output warrant it at some point
during this period of low equilibrium rates. The Bank of England and the Prudential Regulation Authority will
begin structured engagement on the operational considerations in 2020 Q4.

We learn something from the language as the group of people who have cut interest-rates describe it as “the decline in global equilibrium interest rates over a number of
years.” So we immediately learn that they do not think it has gone well as otherwise they would be taking the credit themselves. After all if it is really like that then they are redundant and we could use a formula to set interest-rates.

Next comes something which is perhaps even more embarrassing which is that only now  around 6 months after the pandemic peak ( which in economics terms was March 19th) have they been briefed on implementing negative interest-rates. What have they been doing? I would have expected it in the first week if not on day one. For the reasons I have explained over time on here I would vote no given such a chance, but at least I know that and I also know why I think that.

Finally they will wait until the next quarter to discuss it with the Prudential Regulation Authority?

The Economic Outlook

There was a conceptual problem with all of this because the view as expressed in the Minutes was that the economy was doing better than they have previously thought.

For 2020 Q3 as a whole, Bank staff expected GDP to be around 7% below its 2019 Q4 level, less weak
than had been expected in the August Report.

This brings us back to the issues I have raised above. Why did they not prepare for negative interest-rates where the outlook was worse than now?

UK Retail Sales

Things got better for us but worse for the Bank of England this morning as the retail sales numbers were released.

In August 2020, retail sales volumes increased by 0.8% when compared with July; this is the fourth consecutive month of growth, resulting in an increase of 4.0% when compared with February’s pre-pandemic level.

The UK shopper has returned to his/her pattern of growth and ironically we are now doing better than the previous period because if you recall annual growth was dropping then whereas now we have solid growth.

Indeed there was even more woe for the inflationistas at the Bank of England in the detail.

In August, retail sales values increased by 0.7% when compared with July and 2.5% when compared with February.

The amount spent is lower than the volume increase meaning that prices have fallen. This is another piece of evidence for the argument I first made on here on the 29th of January 2015 that lower prices led to higher sales volumes. Meanwhile the Bank of England is trying to raise prices.

The MPC’s remit is clear that the inflation target applies at all times, reflecting the primacy of price stability in the
UK monetary policy framework.

Actually they are also not telling the truth as raising prices by 2% per annum would not only reduce any retail sales growth it is not price stability. It is very sad that the present policy is to pick policymakers who all toe the party line rather than some who think for themselves. The whole point of having external members has been wasted as the Bank of England has in effected reverted to being an operating arm of HM Treasury.

Retail Sales Detail

The obvious question is to ask why is the retail sector exemplified by the high street in such trouble?The report does give insight into that.

In August, there was a mixed picture within the different store types as non-store retailing volumes were 38.9% above February, while clothing stores were still 15.9% below February’s pre-pandemic levels.

As you can see there has been quite a shift there and it is not the only one. Fuel volumes are still only at 91.3% of the February level. That is somewhat surprising from the perspective of Battersea but there is context from the issue with Hammersmith Bridge and now Vauxhall Bridge.

Also one area and I am sure you have guessed it has seen quite a boom.

Looking at the year-on-year growth in Table 2, total retail sales increased by 51.6%, with strong increases across all sectors. This shows that while we see declines on the month, online sales were at significantly higher levels than the previous year.

We have fallen back from the peak but the trend was up anyway as pre pandemic volumes were around 50% higher than in 2016. In August they were 125.9% higher than in 2016.

Eat Out To Help Out

In case you were wondering this was not part of the growth today and may well have subtracted from it according to The Guardian.

Britons spent £155m less in supermarkets in August than in the previous month as many returned to workplaces and the government’s eat out to help out scheme encouraged visiting restaurants and cafes.

Alcohol sales in supermarkets dipped month on month, with wine down 5% and beer down 10%, as the scheme encouraged people to swap Zoom catch-ups for trips to bars and restaurants, according to market research firm Kantar.

Comment

It has been a curious 24 hours when our central banking overlords have displayed their leaden footedness. The issue of negative interest-rates is something we have been prepared for and with both the UK 2 and 5 year bond yields already negative markets have adjusted to. For a while the UK Pound £ fell and the bond market rallied but the Pound has rallied again. So what was the point?

Also as Joumanna Bercetche of CNBC reminded me Governor Andrew Bailey told her this on the 16th of March.

On negative interest rates – Evaluated the impact on banks/ bldg societies carefully “there is a reason we cut 15bps”. Bailey: “I am not a fan of negative interest rates and they are not a tool I would want to use readily”. Banks are in position to support the economy.

Never believe anything until it is officially denied……

 

The Central Banks can enrich themselves and large equity investors but who else?

We are in a period of heavy central bank action with the US Federal Reserve announcement last night as well as the BCB of Brazil and the Bank of England today. We are also in the speeches season for the European Central Bank or ECB. But they have a problem as shown below.

(Reuters) – London-listed shares tracked declines in Asian stock markets on Thursday as the lack of new stimulus measures by the U.S. Federal Reserve left investors disappointed ahead of a Bank of England policy meeting.

Is their main role to have equity markets singing along with Foster The People?

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You’d better run, better run, faster than my bullet
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You’d better run, better run, outrun my gun

We can continue the theme of central planning for equity markets with this from Governor Kuroda of the Bank of Japan earlier.

BOJ GOV KURODA: ETF PURCHASES ARE NOT TARGETING SPECIFIC STOCK MARKET LEVELS. ( @FinancialJuice )

In fact he has been in full flow.

BOJ’S GOV. KURODA: I DON’T SEE JAPAN’S STOCK MARKET GAINS AS ABNORMAL.  ( @FinancialJuice)

I suppose so would I if I owned some 34 Trillion Yen of it. We also have an official denial that he is aiming at specific levels. He might like to want to stop buying when it falls then. Some will have gained but in general the economic impact has been small and there are a whole litany of issues as highlighted by ETFStream.

Koll says the sheer weight of BoJ involvement is off-putting for others who might wish to get involved in the market. “When I go around the world, (the size of the BoJ’s holdings is) the single biggest push back about Japan from asset allocators,” he says. “This is the flow in the market.”

As the Bank of Japan approaches 80% of the ETF market I am sure that readers can see the problem here. In essence is there a market at all now? Or as ETFStream put it.

So how can the BoJ extricate itself from the ETF market without crashing the stock market?

Also it is kind of theme to back the long-running junkie culture theme of mine.

As it stands, the market has become as hooked as any addict.

You also have to laugh at this although there is an element of gallows humour about it.

The recent slackening off in ETF buying might be an attempt to end this cycle of dependency,

That was from February and let me remind you that so much of the media plugged the reduction line. Right into the biggest expansion of the scheme! As an example another 80 billion Yen was bought this morning to prevent a larger fall in the market. It was the fourth such purchase this month.

The US Federal Reserve

It has boxed itself in with its switched to average ( 2% per annum) inflation targeting and Chair Powell got himself in quite a mess last night.

Projections from individual members also indicated that rates could stay anchored near zero through 2023. All but four members indicated they see zero rates through then. This was the first time the committee forecast its outlook for 2023. ( CNBC )

This bit was inevitable as having set such a target he cannot raise interest-rates for quite some time. Of course, we did not expect any increases anyway and this was hardly a surprise.

With inflation running persistently below this longer-run goal, the Committee will aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 percent for some time so that inflation averages 2 percent over time and longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored at 2 percent. The Committee expects to maintain an accommodative stance of monetary policy until these outcomes are achieved. ( Federal Reserve)

So there is no real change but apparently it is this.

Powell, asked if we will get more forward guidance, says today’s update was ‘powerful’, ‘very strong’, ‘durable’ forward guidance. ( @Newsquawk).

He has boxed himself in. He has set interest-rates as his main measure and he cannot raise them for some time and the evidence is that negative interest-rates do not work. So all he can do is the “masterly inaction” of the apocryphal civil servant Sir Humphrey Applebym or nothing. Quite how that is powerful is anyone’s guess.

Brazil

The same illogic was on display at the Banco Central do Brasil last night.

Taking into account the baseline scenario, the balance of risks, and the broad array of available information, the Copom unanimously decided to maintain the Selic rate at 2.00% p.a.

They have slashed interest-rates to an extraordinary low level for Brazil and seem to think they are at or near the “lower bound” for them.

The Copom believes that the current economic conditions continue to recommend an unusually strong monetary stimulus but it recognizes that, due to prudential and financial stability reasons, the remaining space for monetary policy stimulus, if it exists, should be small.

But telling people that is a triumph?

To provide the monetary stimulus deemed adequate to meet the inflation target, but maintaining the necessary caution for prudential reasons, the Copom considered adequate to use forward guidance as an additional monetary policy tool.

Seeing as nobody is expecting interest-rate increases telling them there will not be any will achieve precisely nothing. Let’s face it how many will even know about it?

ECB

They too are indulging in some open mouth operations.

ECB’s Rehn: Fed’s New Strategy Will Inevitably Have An Impact On The ECB, “We Are Not Operating In A Vacuum”

Regular readers will recall him from back in the day when he was often telling the Greeks to tighten their belts and that things could only get better. Nobody seems to have told poor Ollie about the last decade.

ECB’s Rehn: There Is A Risk That Inflation Will Continue To Remain Too Low Sees Risk That Euro Zone Will Fall In A Trap Of Slow Growth And Low Inflation For A “Long Time”

So we see more ECB policymakers correcting ECB President Christine Lagarde on the issue of the exchange rate. Also as the news filters around there is this.

Three month Euribor fixes at -0.501% … below the ECB’s deposit rate for the first time! ( StephenSpratt)

He is a little confused as of course this has happened before but whilst it is a very minor move we could see another ECB interest-rate cut. It will not do any good but that has not stopped the before has it?

Bank of England

There is this doing the rounds.

LONDON (Reuters) – The Bank of England is expected to signal on Thursday that it is getting ready to pump yet more stimulus into Britain’s economy as it heads for a jump in unemployment and a possible Brexit shock.

Actually nothing has changed and the Bank of England is at what it has called the lower bound for interest-rates ( 0.1%) and is already doing £4.4 billion of bond buying a week.

Still not everybody is seeing hard times.

Former Bank of England (BoE) governor Mark Carney has joined PIMCO’s global advisory board, which is chaired by former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.

Carney, who was appointed UN Special Envoy on climate action and finance in December 2019, is one of seven members of the global advisory board, alongside former UK Prime Minister and Chancellor Gordon Brown, and ex-president of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet. ( investmentweek.co.uk )

As Dobie Gray put it.

I’m in with the in crowd
I go where the in crowd goes
I’m in with the in crowd
And I know what the in crowd knows

Comment

We have arrived at a situation I have long feared and warned about. The central bankers have grandly pulled their policy levers and now are confused it has not worked. Indeed they have pulled them beyond what they previously thought was the maximum as for example the Bank of England which established a 0.5% interest-rate as a “lower bound” now has one of 0.1%. Now they are trying to claim that keeping interest-rates here will work when the evidence is that they are doing damage in more than a few areas. In terms of economics it was described as a “liquidity trap” and they have jumped into it.

Now they think they can escape by promising action on the inflation rates that as a generic they have been unable to raise since the credit crunch. Here there is an element of “be careful which you wish for” as they have put enormous effort into keeping the prices they can raise ( assets such as bonds,equities and houses) out of the inflation measures. So whilst they can cut interest-rates further and frankly the Bank of England and US Federal Reserve are likely to do so in any further downtown they have the problem highlighted by Newt in the film Aliens.

It wont make any difference.

That is why I opened with a discussion of equity purchases as it is more QE that is the only game in town now. Sooner or later we will see more bond purchases from the US Federal Reserve above the present US $80 billion a month. Then the only move left will be to buy equities. At which point we will have a policy which President Trump would set although of course he may or may not be President by them.

Oh and I have missed out one constant which is this sort of thing.

ECB Banking Supervision allows significant banks to temporarily exclude their holdings of banknotes, coins and central bank deposits from leverage ratio calculations until 27 June 2021. This will increase banks’ leverage ratios.

The Precious! The Precious!

 

 

 

Welcome news from UK Inflation

This morning has brought some good news for hard pressed UK consumers and workers from the Office for National Statistics.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 0.2% in August 2020, down from 1.0% in July…….The all items RPI annual rate is 0.5%, down from 1.6% last month.

As you can see there has been quite a fall which will help for example with real wages (which allow for inflation). After yesterday’s figures which showed us we have been seeing wages falls this is helpful. Although it would appear that someone at the BBC is keen to pay more for everything.

Before the latest figures were published, there had been fears that the UK inflation rate might turn negative, giving rise to what is known as deflation.

Economists fear deflation because falling prices lead to lower consumer spending, as shoppers put off big purchases in the expectation that they will get cheaper still.

They would have had REM on repeat if they had lived through the Industrial Revolution.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)

Briefly I thought my work was influencing them as I noted the start of the sentence below but the final bit is pretty woeful.  Mind you if you think that the Industrial Revolution was bad I guess you might also think that inflation is bad for borrowers.

Low inflation is good for consumers and borrowers, but can be bad for savers, as it affects the interest rates set by banks and other financial institutions.

What is happening?

Here is the official explanation.

“The cost of dining out fell significantly in August thanks to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme and VAT cut, leading to one of the largest falls in the annual inflation rate in recent years,” said ONS deputy national statistician Jonathan Athow.

“For the first time since records began, air fares fell in August as fewer people travelled abroad on holiday. Meanwhile. the usual clothing price rises seen at this time of year, as autumn ranges hit the shops, also failed to materialise.”

As you can see we have a market effect in travel and also a result of a government policy. It looks as though the latter was pretty successful.

Last month, discounts for more than 100 million meals were claimed through the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

In terms of the inflation data it had this impact.

Falling prices in restaurants and cafes, arising from the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, resulted in the largest downward contribution (0.44 percentage points) to the change in the CPIH 12-month inflation rate between July and August 2020.

As you can see they are desperate to try to push their CPIH measure. We can deduce from that number that the impact on CPI will be a bit over 0.5% via its exclusion of the fantasy imputed rents in CPIH.

If we switch to the RPI we see this.

Catering Annual rate -7.0%, down from +3.4% last month
Never lower since series began in January 1988.

In fact the catering sector reduced the RPI by 0.52%. There was also another significant factor in its fall.

Fares and other travel costs. Annual rate -8.4%, down from +0.9% last month
Never lower since series began in January 1957.

That sector resulted in a 0.33% fall in the index.

Moving onto other detail there are increasing concerns over pork prices after the discovery of a case of swine flu in Germany but so far any price changes have not impacted the UK. Pork prices were in fact 1.3% lower than a year ago with bacon 0.3% higher. I must be buying the wrong sort of tea as I am paying more yet apparently prices are 8.3% lower than a year ago.

Are we sure?

We are still failing to record more than a few prices.

we have collected a weighted total of 86.9% of comparable coverage collected previously (excluding unavailable items).

The next bit is curious as what is still excluded?

As the restrictions caused by the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have been eased, the number of CPIH items that were unavailable to UK consumers in August has reduced to eight……. these account for 1.1% of the CPIH basket by weight

When I checked it was things I should have thought of like football and theatre admission.

The Trend

There is downwards pressure on the goods sector in the short-term.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was negative 0.9% on the year to August 2020, unchanged from June 2020.

This has been reinforced by the fall in the price of oil.

The price for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process displayed negative growth of 5.8% on the year to August 2020, down from negative growth of 5.7% in July 2020…..The largest downward contribution to the annual rate of input inflation was from crude oil.

Owner Occupied Housing

It was hard not to laugh as I read this earlier.

The Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH) 12-month inflation rate was 0.5% in August 2020, down from 1.1% in July 2020.

Why? This is because the imputed rents used to keep the number lower have ended up producing a higher number than CPI.This is because they are smoothed are in fact on average from the turn of the year rather than now.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in the UK rose by 1.5% in the 12 months to August 2020, up from 1.4% in the 12 months to July 2020.

Quite a shambles may be building here because Daniel Farey-Jones has been following rent changes in London and here is an example from the last 24 hours.

Bloomsbury 1-bed down 21% to £1,300……….Waterloo 2-bed down 16% to £2,000……..Shoreditch 1-bed down 23% to £1,842.

Here is how this is officially reported.

London private rental prices rose by 1.3% in the 12 months to August 2020.

Whilst Daniel’s figures started as anecdotes he has built up a number of them which suggests there is something going on with rents that is very different to the official data.

Switching to house prices the official series is way behind so here is Acadata on the state of play.

In August, Halifax and Rightmove are showing broadly similar annual rates of price growth of 5.2%
and 4.6% respectively, with Nationwide and e.surv England and Wales reporting lower figures of 3.7%
and 1.5%

Comment

The lower inflation news is welcome but a fair bit of it is temporary as the Eat Out To Help Out scheme is already over. There is a feature in the numbers which is something that has popped up fairly regularly in recent times.

The CPI all goods index annual rate is -0.2%, down from 0.0% last month….The CPI all services index annual rate is 0.6%, down from 2.1% last month.

Goods inflation is lower than services inflation and in this instance went into disinflation.

However I think we are in for a period of price shifts as I note this.

The annual rate for CPI excluding indirect taxes, CPIY, is 1.8%, up from 1.0% last month.

So once the tax cuts end we will see a rally in headline inflation. Some places will need to raise prices but it is also true that others are cutting. For example Battersea Park running track and gym has just cut its monthly membership fee.

The UK underemployment rate rose as high as 18%

At a time of great uncertainty and not a little worry for many we should be able to turn to official statistics for at least a benchmark. Sadly the Covid-19 pandemic has found them to be wanting in many respects. Let me illustrate this with an example from the BBC.

The UK unemployment rate has risen to its highest level for two years, official figures show.

The unemployment rate grew to 4.1% in the three months to July, compared with 3.9% previously.

There are all sorts of problems with this right now which essentially come from the definition.

Unemployment measures people without a job who have been actively seeking work within the last four weeks and are available to start work within the next two weeks.

During this period many will not bother to look for work as for example some think they still have a job.

Last month, we reported on a group of employees who, because of the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, have reported that they are temporarily away from work and not getting paid. Similarly, there is a group of self-employed people who are temporarily away from work but not eligible for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). Although these people consider themselves to have a job and therefore are consistent with the ILO definition of employment, their lack of income means that they may soon need to look for work unless they are able to return to their job.

A sort of job illusion for some with the problem being is how many? I would like all of them to return to their jobs but also know they will not. The concept though can be widened if we add in the furlough scheme which was designed to save jobs but as a by product has driven a bus through the employment and unemployment data.

The number of people who are estimated to be temporarily away from work (including furloughed workers) has fallen, but it was still more than 5 million in July 2020, with over 2.5 million of these being away for three months or more. There were also around 250,000 people away from work because of the pandemic and receiving no pay in July 2020.

So we are unsure about 5 million workers which dwarfs this.

Estimates for May to July 2020 show an estimated 1.40 million people were unemployed, 104,000 more than a year earlier and 62,000 more than the previous quarter.

So we see that the number is simply way too low which means that all of the estimates below are at best misleading and in the case of the employment rate outright laughable.

the estimated employment rate for all people was 76.5%; this is 0.4 percentage points up on the year and 0.1 percentage points up on the quarter…….the estimated UK unemployment rate for all people was 4.1%; this is 0.3 percentage points higher than a year earlier and 0.2 percentage points higher than the previous quarter…….the estimated economic inactivity rate for all people was 20.2%, a joint record low; this is down by 0.6 percentage points on the year and down by 0.3 percentage points on the quarter

The economic inactivity measure is perhaps the worst because the worst level of inactivity in my lifetime is being recorded as a record low. This embarrasses the Office for National Statistics as we are in “tractor production is rising” territory.

What can we use?

A measure which is working pretty well seems to be this.

Between February to April 2020 and May to July 2020, total actual weekly hours worked in the UK decreased by 93.9 million to 866.0 million hours. Average actual weekly hours fell by 2.8 hours on the quarter to 26.3 hours.

This shows a much larger change than that suggested by the official unemployment measure. We can in fact learn more by looking further back.

Over the year, total actual weekly hours worked in the UK decreased by 183.8 million to 866.0 million hours in the three months to July 2020. Over the same period, average actual weekly hours fell by 5.8 hours to 26.3 hours.

On this measure we see that if we put this into the employment numbers we would see a fall approaching 6 million. So in effect the underemployment rate was in fact heading for 18%. If we simply assume that half of it was unemployment we have an unemployment rate of 11% which in economic terms I am sure we did. Now the economy is more open perhaps it is 7-8%.

The 8% unemployment rate does get some support from this.

Between July 2020 and August 2020, the Claimant Count increased by 73,700 (2.8%) to 2.7 million (Figure 10). Since March 2020, the Claimant Count has increased by 120.8% or 1.5 million.

It is hard not to have a wry smile as I type that because back in the mid 1980s Jim Hacker in Yes Minister told us nobody believes the unemployment figures and those are the one he was referring to. There are other references to that sort of thing as well.

Hacker: The school leaving age was raised to 16 so that they could learn more, and they’re learning less!

Sir Humphrey: We didn’t raise it to enable them to learn more! We raised it to keep teenagers off the job market and hold down the unemployment figures.

Pay

The opening salvo is less than reassuring.

The rate of decline in employee pay growth slowed in July 2020 following strong falls in the previous three months;

We find that the pattern is what we would be expecting.

Growth in average total pay (including bonuses) among employees was negative 1.0% in May to July, with annual growth in bonus payments at negative 21.4%; however, regular pay (excluding bonuses) was positive at 0.2%.

It has been the public sector which has stopped the numbers being even worse.

Between May to July 2019 and May to July 2020, average pay growth varied by industry sector . The public sector saw the highest estimated growth, at 4.5% for regular pay. Negative growth was seen in the construction sector, estimated at negative 7.5%, the wholesaling, retailing, hotels and restaurants sector, estimated at negative 3.2%, and the manufacturing sector, estimated at negative 1.7%.

However there was an improvement for many in July.

 For the construction, manufacturing, and the wholesaling, retailing, hotels and restaurants sectors, the July 2020 estimate of annual growth shows sign of improvement when compared with May to July 2020.

If we look at the construction sector then weekly wages rose from £573 in June to £620 in July so there was quite a pick-up of which £10 was bonuses.

Switching to an estimate of real pay we are told this.

In real terms, total pay growth for May to July was negative 1.8% (that is, nominal total pay grew more slowly than inflation); regular pay growth was negative 0.7%.

Although those numbers rely on you believing the inflation numbers which I do not.

Comment

We have found that the official ILO ( International Labor Organisation) methodology to have failed us in this pandemic. Even worse no effort has been made to fix something we have been noting ( in this instance looking at Italy) since the third of June.

and unemployment sharply fell

If you actually believe unemployment fell in Italy in April I not only have a bridge to sell you I may as well sell the river as well.

Looking at the data suggests an underemployment rate of the order of 20% in the UK giving us an actual unemployment rate perhaps double the recorded figure.

If we switch to pay and wages we need to remind ourselves of those who are not counted. For example the self-employed and companies with less than ten employees. Such omissions did not bother the Dr.Martin Weale review back in the day but perhaps one of the ONS Fellows could help like er Dr.Martin Weale. We are back to reliving Yes Minister again.

Meanwhile according to Financial News some are resorting to desperate measures to get GDP rising again.

‘It could get really messy’: Finance workers’ cocaine use spikes in lockdown

The rise and rise of negative interest-rates

The modern era has brought something that has been in motion all my career, although there have been spells which did not feel like that. I am discussing bond yields which have been in a secular decline since the 1980s. Regular readers will be aware that back when I was new to this arena I asked Legal and General why they were buying a UK Gilt that yielded 15%? Younger readers please feel free to delete such a number from your memories if it is all too much. But there is another shift as back then the benchmark was 20 years and not 10. However you look at it from that perspective a world in which both the 2 and 5 year UK bond or Gilt yields were around -0.13% would have been considered impossible it not unpossible.

Germany

These have been the leaders of the pack in terms of negative bond yields. Last week Germany sold a benchmark 10 year bond with no coupon at all. We should take a moment to consider this as a bond is in theory something with a yield or coupon so as it does not have one we are merely left with money being borrowed and then repaid. Except there was a catch there too as not all of it will be repaid. The price paid was 105.13 on average and you will only get 100 back. Or if you prefer a negative yield of the order of 0.5% per year.

This year has brought something that in the past would have ended the situation as this.

The German Federal Government intends to issue fixed income Government securities with an aggregate volume of € 210 billion in 2020 to finance
the Federal Government budget and its special funds.

Became this.

The auction volume in the first two quarters of the current year amounted to € 97 billion for nominal capital market instruments (planned at the beginning of the year: € 78 billion) and € 87.5 billion for money market instruments (planned at the beginning of the year: € 31 billion)…….Due to the adjustments, the third quarter auction volume for nominal capital market instruments will total € 74 billion (planned at the beginning of the year: € 41 billion).

As you can see there were considerably more bonds on offer but it has made little or no difference to investors willingness to accept a maturity loss or negative yield. Oh and maybe even more bonds are on the way.

In non-regular reopenings on 1 and 16 April, a total amount of € 142 billion of already existing Federal securities was issued directly into the Federal government’s own holdings. These transactions created the possibility to react flexibly to short-term liquidity requirements.

So we learn that the previous reality that Germany was benefiting from its austere approach to public finances was not much of an influence. Previously it has been running a fiscal surplus and repaying debt.

Switzerland

The benchmark yield is very similar here as the 10 year yield is -0.49%. There are many similarities in the situation between Germany and Switzerland but one crucial difference which is that Switzerland has its own currency. The Swiss Franc remains very strong in spite of an interest-rate of -0.75% that has begun to look ever more permanent which is an irony as the 1.20 exchange-rate barrier with the Euro was supposed to be that. The reality is that the exchange-rate over five years after the abandonment of that is stronger at just below 1.08.

So a factor in what we might call early mover status is a strong currency. This also includes the Euro to some extent as we note ECB President Lagarde was on the wires over the weekend.

ECB Lagarde Says Euro Gains Have Blunted Stimulus Boost to Inflation … BBG

This allows us to bring in Japan as well as the Yen has remained strong in spite of all the bond buying of the Bank of Japan.

Safe Haven

The ECB issued a working paper on this subject in January.

There is growing academic and policy interest in so called “safe assets”, that is assets that have stable nominal payoffs, are highly liquid and carry minimal credit risk.

Notice the two swerves which are the use of “stable nominal payoffs” and “minimal credit risk”. The latter is especially noticeable for a place like the ECB which insisted there was no credit risk for Greece, which was true for the ECB but not everyone else.

Anyway it continues.

After the global financial crisis, the demand for safe assets has increased well beyond its supply, leading to an increase in the convenience yield and therefore to the interest that these assets pay. High demand for safe assets has important macroeconomic consequences. The equilibrium safe real interest rate may in fact decline well below zero.

They also note a feature we have been looking at for the best part of a decade now.

In this situation, one of the adjustment mechanisms is the appreciation of the currency of issuance of the safe asset, the so called paradox of the reserve currency.

Quantitative Easing

The problem for the theory above is that the central banks who love to push such theories ( as it absolves them of blame) are of course chomping on safe assets like they are their favourite sweets. Indeed there is a new entrant only this morning, or more accurately an expansion from an existing player.

The Executive Board of the Riksbank has decided to initiate purchases of corporate bonds in the week beginning 14 September 2020. The purchases will keep
companies’ funding costs down and reinforce the Riksbank’s capacity to act if the credit supply to companies were to deteriorate further as a result of the corona pandemic. On 30 June 2020, the Executive Board decided that, within its programme for bond purchases, the Riksbank would offer to purchase corporate bonds to a
nominal amount of SEK 10 billion between 1 September 2020 and 30 June 2021.

There are all sorts of issues with that but for today’s purpose it is simply that the push towards negative interest-rates will be added to. Or more specifically it will increasingly spread to higher risk assets. We can be sure however that should some of these implode it will be nobody’s fault as it could not possibly have been predicted.

Meanwhile ordinary purchases around the world continue including in my home country as the Bank of England buys another £1.45 billion of UK bonds or Gilts.

Comment

There are other factors in play. The first is that we need to try to look beyond the present situation as we note this from The Market Ear.

the feedback loop…”the more governments borrow, the less it seems to cost – giving rise to calls for still more borrowing and spending”. ( Citibank)

That misses out the scale of all the central bank buying which has been enormous and gets even larger if we factor in expected purchases. The US Federal Reserve is buying US $80 billion per month of US Treasuries but with its announcement of average inflation targeting seems likely to buy many more

Also the same Market Ear piece notes this.

The scalability of modern technology means that stimulus is going into asset price inflation, not CPI

Just no. What it means is that consumer inflation measures have been manipulated to avoid showing inflation in certain areas. Thus via Goodhart’s Law and/or the Lucas Critique we get economic policy based on boosting prices in these areas and claiming they are Wealth Effects when for many they are inflation.

We get another shift because if we introduce the issue of capital we see that up to know bond holders will not care much about negative yields as they have been having quite a party. Prices have soared beyond many’s wildest dreams. The rub as Shakespeare would put it is that going forwards we face existing high prices and low or negative yields. It used to be the job of central banks to take the punch bowl away when the party gets going but these days they pour more alcohol in the bowl.

Meanwhile from Friday.

UK SELLS 6-MONTH TREASURY BILL WITH NEGATIVE YIELD AT TENDER, FIRST TIME 6-MONTH BILL SOLD AT NEGATIVE YIELD ( @fiquant )

Podcast

 

 

 

 

UK GDP is a case of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Today is an example of be careful what you wish for. No doubt the UK Office for National Statistics thought it would be clever to produce monthly GDP data. But now in addition to the usual problems they find them not only being scanned beyond their capabilities but for the unwary comparing them to the quarterly and annual ones creates quite a of confusion. Indeed we can go through them in Spaghetti Western style.

The Good

This comes from this part of the release where we how have had three months of economic growth in a row.

Monthly gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 6.6% in July 2020 as lockdown measures continued to ease, following growth of 8.7% in June and 2.4% in May.

In terms of detail we are told this.

“Education grew strongly as some children returned to school, while pubs, campsites and hairdressers all saw notable improvements. Car sales exceeded pre-crisis levels for the first time with showrooms having a particularly busy time.

“All areas of manufacturing, particularly distillers and car makers, saw improvements, while housebuilding also continued to recover.”

The latter component will, of course,please the Bank of England. I have to confess a wry smile at the mention of distillers, have we been driven to drink? As to car sales this was reinforced elsewhere.

wholesale, retail and repair of motor vehicles subsector (in particular, the motor vehicles industry), which recovered to above its February 2020 level after seeing record low levels of output in April and May.

This is an area which was affected by the lockdown as when I took my car in for its MOT in August I was told that in April last year they had done 110 and this year 18. Another area which was similarly affected also boomed in July.

Monthly construction output increased by 17.6% in July 2020 compared with June 2020, rising to £11,922 million, because of growth in all construction sectors.

Then and slightly confusingly not directly linked to the GDP numbers ( which are output not expenditure ones) these will not be included.

The total trade surplus, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, widened by £5.9 billion to £6.4 billion in the three months to July 2020, as imports fell by £8.5 billion and exports fell by a lesser £2.7 billion.

I point it out as it is rare for the UK to record a trade surplus which continues as we look for more perspective.

The total trade balance, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, increased by £35.8 billion to a surplus of £3.7 billion in the 12 months to July 2020.

The Bad

Our perspective shifts as we switch to something approaching the more normal quarterly measure for GDP.

Gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 7.6% in the three months to July 2020 following two consecutive quarterly falls, as government restrictions on movement dramatically reduced economic activity.

In case you are wondering how we can grow for 3 individual months but shrink over the total it is because we are comparing the latter with the previous 3 months which include some pre pandemic data.

The Ugly

This comes if we directly compare with where we were or more strictly where we thought we were before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Monthly gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 6.6% in July 2020, following growth of 8.7% in June 2020. Despite this, the level of output did not fully recover from the record falls seen across March and April 2020 and was still 11.7% below the levels seen in February 2020,

So we have picked up but the peak is still a fair way ahead. Or if you prefer.

July 2020 GDP is now 18.6% higher than its April 2020 low. However, it remains 11.7% below the levels seen in February 2020,

There is a sub-plot to this which is unusual for the UK.

In July 2020, the Index of Services is 12.6% below February 2020, the last month of “normal” trading conditions prior to measures introduced as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic…..There was a rise of 6.1% in the Index of Services between June 2020 and July 2020.

The area which is normally a strength and pulls the numbers higher has in fact under performed. One feature of this is hardly a surprise although we can expect a pick-up from the “eat out to help out” policy when we get the August numbers.

Total services output decreased by 8.1% for the three months to July 2020, compared with the months to April 2020; this was led by accommodation and food service activities, which fell by 62.7%.

On the other side of the coin production has been helping in relative terms.

In July 2020, the Index of Production (IoP) was 7.0% below February 2020, the previous month of “normal” trading conditions, prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic…..Production output rose by 5.2% between June and July 2020, with manufacturing providing the largest upward contribution, rising by 6.3%; there were also rises from electricity and gas (2.7%), water and waste (2.4%) and mining and quarrying (0.7%).

It was led by this.

The monthly increase of 6.3% in manufacturing output was led by transport equipment, which rose by 18.5%; all of the 13 subsectors displayed upward contributions.

However it had been in a weak spell anyway and then was hit hard so care is needed.

Comment

There are a lot of contexts and warnings required here many of which are driven by the unreliability of monthly GDP data. The unreliability will be worse right now due to the pandemic as we note something I was pretty much alone in reporting on August 12th.

This primarily reflects movements in the implied price change of government consumption, which increased by 32.7% in Quarter 2 2020. This notable increase occurred because the volume of government activity fell while at the same time government expenditure increased in nominal terms.

More was recorded as less which is a UK peculiarity and made our GDP numbers look worse by maybe 5% on the fall. But now we are seeing the other side of some of that as we note this from the July data.

The largest contribution to monthly growth is education, rising by 21.1%.

Now let me look at the mess which is health.

For example, the suspension of dental and ophthalmic activities (almost 6% of healthcare output), the cancellation and postponement of outpatient activities (13% of healthcare output), and elective procedures (19% of healthcare output) will likely weigh heavily on our activity figures.

If course for a spell Covid-19 treatment was booming well if we counted it.

 Further, our estimates may be affected by the suspension of some data collections by the NHS in England, which include patient volumes in critical care in England.

Oh and if you are struggling with quarterly numbers please run me by how you can get monthly GDP numbers?

For example, the quarterly activity estimates are only made available with a lag, necessitating a form of activity nowcasts.

That is a bit like the services monthly trade data which come mainly from a quarterly survey.

So we did not contract by as much as we thought and have not rebounded by quite as much either.

Looking ahead there are some further strengths for August as we have noted the potential rise in eating out and the Markit PMI reporting this.

A further surge in service sector business activity in August
adds to signs that the economy is enjoying a mini boom as
business re-opens after the lockdowns,

But the PMIs have been downgraded in importance quite a bit as time has passed. Looking further ahead there is this.

The UK has secured a free trade agreement with Japan, which is the UK’s first major trade deal as an independent trading nation, and will increase trade with Japan by an estimated £15.2 billion ( Sky News)

Oh and these things always promise more trade…..

Back to now whilst it was nice to have a bit of variety and be able to report a UK trade surplus it is also true it came from a bad route which is lower imports due to a weaker economy.

 

 

Trouble mounts for the ECB and Christine Lagarde

Today is ECB ( European Central Bank ) day where we get the results of their latest deliberations. We may get a minor move but essentially it is one for what we have come to call open mouth operations. This is more than a little awkward when the President has already established a reputation for putting her Hermes shod foot in her mouth. Who can forget this from March 12th?

Lagarde: We are not here to close spreads, there are other tools and other actors to deal with these issues.

If you are ever not sure of the date just take a look at a chart of the Italian government bond market as it is the time when the benchmark ten-year yield doubled. As many put it the ECB had gone from “Whatever it takes” to “Whatever.”

This issue has continued and these days President Lagarde reads from a script written for her which begs the issue of whether the questions from the press corps are known in advance? It also begs the issue of who is actually in charge? This is all very different from when prompted by an admiring Financial Time representative she was able to describe herself as a “wise owl” like her brooch. Whoever was in charge got her to change her tune substantially on CNBC later and got a correcting footnote in the minutes.

I am fully committed to avoid any fragmentation in a difficult moment for the euro area. High spreads due to the coronavirus impair the transmission of monetary policy. We will use the flexibility embedded in the asset purchase programme, including within the public sector purchase programme. The package approved today can be used flexibly to avoid dislocations in bond markets, and we are ready to use the necessary determination and strength.

Next comes her promise to unify the ECB Governing Council and have it singing from the same hymn sheet, unlike the term of her predecessor Mario Draghi. This has been crumbling over the past day or two as we have received reports of better economic expectations from some ECB members. This has been solidified by this in Eurofi magazine today.

Now that we have moved past the impact phase of the shock, we can shift our attention toward the recovery phase. Recently, forward looking confidence indicators look robust, while high frequency data suggest that mobility is recovering. These developments solidify the confidence in our baseline projection with a more favorable balance-of-risks. However, even if no further setbacks materialize
economic activity will only approach pre-corona levels at the end of 2022.

That is from Klass Knot the head of the DNB or Netherlands central bank and any doubts about his view are further expunged below.

Relying too heavily on monetary policy to get the job done might have contributed to perceptions of a “central bank put” in the recovery from the euro area debt crisis, where the ECB bore all of the downside risk to the economy.

Might?!

Also it was only a week ago we were getting reports ( more “sauces” ) that the ECB wanted to get the Euro exchange-rate lower. Whereas so far on announcement day it has talked it up.

The Economy

There are several issues here of which the first was exemplified by Eurostat on Tuesday.

The COVID-19 pandemic also had a strong impact on GDP levels. Based on seasonally adjusted figures, GDP
volumes were significantly lower than the highest levels of the fourth quarter of 2019 (-15.1% in the euro area and
-14.3% in the EU). This corresponds to the lowest levels since the the first quarter of 2005 for the euro area.

Such a lurch downwards has these days a duo fold response. What I mean by that os that central banks have got themselves into the trap of responding to individual events which they can do nothing about. The real issue is where the economy will be by the time the policy response ( more QE and a -1% interest-rate for banks) can actually take effect. I still recall an ECB paper which suggested response times had got longer and not shorter as some try to claim.

Accordingly I can only completely disagree with those who say this should be an influence.

In August 2020, a month in which COVID-19 containment measures continued to be lifted, Euro area annual
inflation is expected to be -0.2%, down from 0.4% in July according to a flash estimate from Eurostat,

For a start there are ongoing measurement issues and anyway the boat has sailed. The more thoughtful might wonder how this can happen with all the effort to raise recorded inflation? But they are usually ignored.

Next the new optimism rather collides with this from a week ago.

In July 2020, a month marked by some relaxation of COVID-19 containment measures in many Member States, the seasonally adjusted volume of retail trade decreased by 1.3% in the euro area and by 0.8% in the EU, compared
with June 2020, according to estimates from Eurostat.

That is for July so in these times a while ago but we also face the prospect of more restrictions and maybe more lock downs. If we look at the news from France earlier production was better in July but still well below February.

 Compared to February (the last month before the start of the general lockdown), output declined in the manufacturing industry (−7.9%), as well as in the whole industry (−7.1%).

Italy has different numbers but a similar pattern.

In July 2020 the seasonally adjusted industrial production index increased by 7.4% compared with the previous month. The change of the average of the last three months with respect to the previous three months was 15.0%.

The calendar adjusted industrial production index decreased by 8.0% compared with July 2019 (calendar working days in July 2020 being the same as in July 2019).

The unadjusted industrial production index decreased by 8.0% compared with July 2019.

Comment

We start with two issues which are that some of the ECB are singing along with D:Ream.

Things can only get better
Can only get better if we see it through
That means me and I mean you too.

That is a little awkward if you want to talk the currency down as we note the FT has a claimed scoop which catches up with us from a week ago.

Scoop: For the first time in more than two years, the
@ECB  is expected to include a reference to the exchange rate in today’s “introductory statement” – here’s four things to watch for as the euro’s strength raises alarms at the central bank.

Then there is the background issue that Mario Draghi who knows Christine Lagarde well thought he was setting monetary policy for her last autumn when the Deposit Rate was cut to -0.5% and a reintroduction of QE was announced. So she would have a year or more to bed in and read up on monetary policy. What could go wrong?

This is a contentious area so let me be clear.Appointing a woman to the role was in fact overdue. The problem is that diversity is supposed to bring new talent of which there are many whereas the establishment only picks ones from their club. In this instance there were two steps backwards. The first is simply Christine Lagarde’s track record which includes a conviction for negligence. Next is the fact that the ECB is now headed by two politicians as the reverse takeover completes and it can set about helping current politicians by keeping debt costs low and sometimes negative. The irony is that if you go back to the beginning of this post Christine Lagarde seems to have failed to grasp even that.

The Investing Channel

How many central banks will end up buying equities?

Sometimes we can combine one of our themes with the news flow and today is an example of that. We can start with the role of central banks where what was considered extraordinary policy is now ordinary and frankly sometimes mundane. We have seen interest-rate cuts, then QE bond buying, then credit easing and of course negative interest-rates. Overnight even the home of the All Blacks has joined the latter party.

Some New Zealand wholesale rates fell below zero for the first time on Wednesday as investors increased bets on a negative policy rate. Two and three-year swap rates sank to minus 0.005%, as did the yield on the benchmark three-year bond. ( Bloomberg)

So we have negative bond yields somewhere else as the contagion spreads. Whilst it is only marginal the track record so far is that it will sing along with Madonna.

Deeper and deeper, and deeper, and deeper

Bloomberg thinks it is driven by this.

Most economists expect the RBNZ to cut its cash rate from 0.25% to minus 0.25% or minus 0.5% in April next year, and some see the chance of an earlier move.

However they seem to have missed the elephant in the room.

The Monetary Policy Committee agreed to expand the Large Scale Asset Purchase (LSAP) programme up to $100 billion so as to further lower retail interest rates in order to achieve its remit. The eligible assets remain the same and the Official Cash Rate (OCR) is being held at 0.25 percent in accordance with the guidance issued on 16 March. ( Reserve Bank of New Zealand 12 August)

So we are on the road to nowhere except according to Bloomberg it was a triumph in Sweden.

Negative rates were successful in Sweden because they achieved the aim of returning inflation to target without causing any significant distortions in the economy, said Lars Svensson, an economics professor in Stockholm and a former deputy governor at the Riksbank.

Only a few paragraphs later they contradict themselves.

Swedish mortgage rates dropped below 2%, causing house prices to surge to double-digit annual gains, but unemployment fell and the economy grew. Crucially, headline inflation rose steadily from minus 0.4% in mid-2015 to meet the central bank’s 2% target two years later. Inflation expectations also rose.

And again.

The Riksbank sent its policy rate into negative territory in early 2015, reaching a low of minus 0.5% before raising it back to zero late last year.

It worked so well they raised interest-rates in last year’s trade war and they have not deployed them in this pandemic in spite of GDP falling by 8%!

Oh and there is the issue of pensions.

In Sweden, the subzero-regime was advantageous for borrowers but brutal for the country’s pension industry, which struggled to generate the returns needed when bond yields turned negative.

So in summary we arrive at a situation where in fact even the Riksbank of Sweden has gone rogue on the subject of negative interest-rates. Going rogue as a central bank is very serious because they are by nature pack animals and the very idea of independent thought is simply terrifying to them.

Also the Riksbank of Sweden is well within the orbit of the supermassive black hole for negativity which is the European Central Bank or ECB. We learn much I think by the fact that in spite of economic activity being in a depression no-one is expecting an interest-rate cut from the present -0.5%. When we did have some expectations for that it was only to -0.6% so even the believers have lost the faith. This is an important point as whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has hit economies many were slowing anyway.

Policy Shifts

We are seeing central banks start to hint at ch-ch-changes.

Purchases of foreign assets also remain an option.

The Governor of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey has also been on the case and the emphasis is mine.

But one conclusion is that it could be preferable, and consistent with setting monetary conditions
consistent with the inflation target, to seek to ensure there is sufficient headroom for more potent expansion
in central bank balance sheets when needed in the future – to “go big” and “go fast” decisively.

He then went further.

That begs questions about when does the need for headroom become an issue? What are the limits? One
way of looking at these questions is in terms of the stock of assets available for purchase.

He refers to UK Gilts ( bonds) but he is plainly hinting at wider purchases.

Swiss National Bank

This has become something of a hedge fund via its overseas equity purchases. For newer readers this all started with a surge in the Swiss Franc mostly driven by the impact of the unwinding of the “Carry Trade” where investors had borrowed Swiss Francs. The SNB promised “unlimited intervention” before retreating and now as of the end of June had 863.3 billion Swiss Francs of foreign currency assets. It did not want to hold foreign currency on its own so it bought bonds. But it ended up distorting bond markets especially some Euro area ones so it looked for something else to buy. It settled on putting some 20% of its assets in equities.

Much of that went to the US so we see this being reported.

Swiss National Bank is one of the leading tech investors in the world. 28% of SNB’s Equity portfolio is allocated to tech stocks. Swiss CenBank has 17.4mln Apple shares worth $6.3bn or 538k Tesla shares worth $630mln. ( @Schuldenshelder )

So this is a complex journey on which we now note an issue with so-called passive investing. The SNB buys relative to market position but that means if shares have surges you have more of them each time you rebalance. So far with Apple that has been a large success as it has surged above US $2 trillion in market capitalisation as the recent tech falls are minor in comparison.But the 20% fall in Tesla yesterday maybe a sign of problems with this sort of plan. It of course has surged previously but it seems to lack any real business model.

The Tokyo Whale

The Bank of Japan bought another 80.1 billion Yen of Japanese equities earlier today as it made its second such purchase so far this month. As of the end of last month the total was 33,993,587,890,000 Yen. Hence its nickname of The Tokyo Whale.

Quite what good this does ( apart from providing a profit for equity investors) is a moot point? After all the Japanese economy was shrinking again pre pandemic and there was no sign of an end to the lost decades.

Comment

We find ourselves in familiar territory as central bankers proclaim the success of their polices but are always expanding them. If they worked it would not be necessary would it? For example the US Federal Reserve moving to average inflation targeting would not be necessary if all the things they previously told us would work, had. I expect the power grab and central planning to continue as they move further into fiscal policy via the sort of subsidies for banks provided by having a separate interest-rate for banks ( The Precious! The Precious!) like the -1% provided by the ECB. Another version of this sort of thing is to buy equities as they can create money and use it to support the market.

The catch of this is that they support a particular group be it banks or holders of assets. So not only does the promised economic growth always seem to be just around the corner they favour one group ( the rich) over another ( the poor). They have got away with it partly by excluding asset prices from inflation measures, but also partly because people do not fully understand what is taking place. But the direction of travel is easy because as I explained earlier central bankers are pack animals and herd like sheep. They will be along…..

Wages growth looks an increasing problem

Today gives us an opportunity to take a look at an issue which has dogged the credit crunch era. It is the (lack of) growth in wages and in particular real wages which has meant that even before the Covid-19 pandemic they had not regained the previous peak. That is one of the definitions of an economic depression which may well be taking a further turn for the worse. It has been a feature also of the lost decade(s) in Japan so we have another Turning Japanese flavour to this.

Japan

The Ministry of Labor released the July data earlier and here is how NHK News reported it.

New figures from the Japanese government show that both wages and household spending fell in July from a year earlier amid a resurgence in the coronavirus pandemic.

Labor ministry data show that average total wages were down 1.3 percent in yen terms from a year ago, to 3,480 dollars. It was the fourth straight monthly drop.

Overtime and other non-regular pay dropped nearly 17 percent, as workers put in shorter hours.

A ministry official says that despite some improvements, the situation remains serious because of the pandemic.

I find it curious that NHK switches from Yen to US Dollars but I suppose it has not been that volatile in broad terns in recent times. That is awkward for the Abenomics policy of Prime Minister Abe which of course may be on the way out. It was supposed to produce a falling Yen. Also it was supposed to produce higher wages which as you can see are falling.

The issue here is summarised by Japan Macro Advisers.

Wages in Japan have been decreasing relatively steadily since 1998. Between 1997-2019, wages have declined by 10.9%, or by 0.5% per year on average (based on the data before the revision).

The Abenomics push was another disappointment as summarised by this from The Japan Times in May 2019.

Japan’s labor market has achieved full employment over the past two years. Unemployment has declined over the past two years to below 3 percent—close to the levels of the 1980s and early 1990s—after peaking at 5.4 percent in 2012…………..The puzzling thing is why wage growth has been so sluggish despite the apparent labor shortage. It is true that average wages turned positive in 2014 and increased 1.4 percent in 2018. Nonetheless, regular pay, or permanent income, rose a paltry 0.8 percent in 2018. In real terms, average wage growth has failed to take off and recorded just 0.2 percent in 2018.

That is in fact a rather optimistic view of it all because if we switch to real wages we see that the index set at 100 in 2015 was 99.9 last year. So rather than the triumph which many financial news services have regularly anticipated it has turned out to be something of a road to nowhere. Any believers in “output gap” theories have to ignore the real world one more time.

The Japanese owned Financial Times has put its own spin on it.

“Buy my Abenomics!” urged Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2013. And we did.

No we did not. Anyway their story of triumph which unsurprisingly has quite a list of failures also notes this about wages.

Nor was this the only way Abenomics undermined its own credibility. For example, the government never raised public sector wages in line with the 2 per cent inflation target. Why, then, should the private sector have heeded Mr Abe’s demand for wage increases?

If only places like the FT had reported that along the way. But the real issue here for our purposes is that even in what were supposed to be good times real wages went nowhere. So now we are in much rougher times we see a year where they fall and we note that this adds to a fall last year. Indeed partly by fluke the fall for July is very similar to last year, but we look ahead nervously because if wages had already turned down we seem set for falls again.

Detail

In terms of numbers average pay was 369.551 Yen in July and a fair bit or 106.608 Yen is bonuses ( special cash earnings). The highest paid is the professional and technical one at 542,571 and the lowest is hotels and restaurants at 124,707 Yen. Sadly for the latter not only do they get relatively little it is also falling ( 7.3%)

Somewhat chilling is that not only is the real estare sector well paid at 481.373 Yen it is up 12.3% driven by bonuses some 30% higher. So maybe they are turning British. Also any improvement in the numbers relies on real estate bonuses.

The UK

The latest real wage numbers pose a question.

For June 2020, average regular pay, before tax and other deductions, for employees in Great Britain was estimated at £504 per week in nominal terms. The figure in real terms (constant 2015 prices) fell to £465 per week in June, after reaching £473 per week in December 2019, with pay in real terms back at the same level as it was in December 2018.

The real pay number started this century at £403 per week but the pattern is revealing as we made £473 per week on occasion in 2007 and 2008. So we were doing well and that ended.

Actually if we switch from the Office for National Statistics presentation we have lost ground since 2008. This is because the have flattered the numbers in two respects. One if the choice of regular pay rather than total pay and the other is the choice of the imputed rent driven CPIH inflation measure that is so widely ignored.

The US

There was something of a curiosity here on Friday.

In August, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 11
cents to $29.47. Average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory
employees increased by 18 cents to $24.81, following a decrease of 10 cents in the prior month.

If you do not believe tat then you are in good company as neither does the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The large employment fluctuations over the past several months–especially in industries with
lower-paid workers–complicate the analysis of recent trends in average hourly earnings.

If we look back this from the World Economic Forum speaks for itself.

today’s wages in the United States are at a historically high level with average hourly earnings in March 2019 amounting to $23.24 in 2019 dollars. Coincidentally that matches the longtime peak of March 1974, when hourly wages adjusted to 2019 dollars amounted to exactly the same sum.

Comment

There has been an issue with real wages for a while as the US, UK and Japanese data illustrate.The US data aims right at the end of the Gold Standard and Bretton Woods doesn’t it? That begs more than a few questions. But with economies lurching lower as we see Japanese GDP growth being confirmed at around 8% in the second quarter and the Euro area at around 12%. Also forecasts of pick-ups are colliding with new Covid-19 issues such as travel bans and quarantines. So real wages look set to decline again.

The next issue is how we measure this? The numbers have been shown to be flawed as they do not provide context. What I mean by this is that we need numbers for if you stay in the same job and ones for those switching. If we look at the US we see recorded wage growth because those already having the disadvantage of lower wages not have none at all as they have lost their job. That is worse and not better. This opens out a wider issue where switches to lower paid jobs and lower real wages are like a double-edged sword. People have a job giving us pre pandemic low unemployment rates and high employment rates. But I would want a breakdown as many have done well but new entrants have not.

There has been a contrary move which has not been well measured which are services in the modern era which get heavy use but do not get counted in this because they are free. Some money may get picked up by advertising spend but to add to the problem we have we are also guilty of measuring it badly

Why I still expect UK house prices to fall

This morning has brought another example that to quote Todd Terry “there’s something going on” in the UK housing market. Of course there is an enormous amount of government and Bank of England support but even so we are seeing a curious development.

House prices rebound further to reach record
high, challenging affordability.

That is from the Halifax earlier who are the latest to report on this trend where the initial effect of the Covid-19 pandemic has been not only to raise recorded house prices, but to give the rate of growth quite a shove. Indeed prices rose by nearly as much this August on its own as in the year to last August.

“House prices continued to beat expectations in August, with prices again rising sharply, up by 1.6% on a
monthly basis. Annual growth now stands at 5.2%, its strongest level since late 2016, with the average
price of a property tipping over £245,000 for the first time on record.”

I would not spend to much time on the average price per see as each house price index has its own way of calculating that. But the push higher in prices is unmistakable as we look for the causes.

“A surge in market activity has driven up house prices through the post-lockdown summer period, fuelled
by the release of pent-up demand, a strong desire amongst some buyers to move to bigger properties, and
of course the temporary cut to stamp duty.”

I think maybe the stamp duty cut should come first, but the desire for larger properties is intriguing. That may well b a euphemism for wanting a garden which after the lock down is no surprise, but at these prices how is it being afforded? Wanting if one thing, be able to afford it is another.

Bank of England

It’s combination of interest-rate cuts. QE bond buying, and credit easing has led to this.

The mortgage market showed more signs of recovery in July, but remained weak in comparison to pre-Covid. On net, households borrowed an additional £2.7 billion secured on their homes. This was higher than the £2.4 billion in June but below the average of £4.2 billion in the six months to February 2020. The increase on the month reflected a slight increase in gross borrowing to £17.4 billion in July, below the pre-Covid February level of £23.7 billion and consistent with the recent weakness in mortgage approvals.

As you can see it has got things on the move but both gross and net levels of activity are lower and especially the gross one. That may well be a lock down feature as there are lags in the process.  But if the approvals numbers are any guide they are on their way

The number of mortgages approvals for house purchase continued recovering in July, reaching 66,300, up from 39,900 in June. Approvals are now 10% below the February level of 73,700 (Chart 3), but more than seven times higher than the trough of 9,300 in May.

Michael Saunders

It seems that the Monetary Policy Committee may have further plans for the housing market.

Looking forward, I suspect that risks lie on the side of a slower recovery over the next year or two
and a longer period of excess supply than the forecast in the August MPR. If these risks develop,
then some further monetary loosening may be needed in order to support the economy and prevent
a persistent undershoot of the 2% inflation target. ( MPR = Monetary Policy Report )

Seeing as interest-rates are already at their Lower Bound and we are seeing QE bond buying as for example there will be another £1.473 billion today. it does make you wonder what more he intends? Although in a more off the cuff moment he did say this.

Review of negative rates is not finished: Not theologically oppsed to neg rates. ( ForexFlow)

He seems genuinely confused and frankly if he and his colleagues were wrong in August they are likely to be wrong in September as well! Oh and is this an official denial?

But I wouldn’t get too carried away by this prospect of money-fuelled inflation pressures.

He did however get one thing right about the money supply.

In other words, the crisis has lifted the demand for money
– the amount of deposits that households and businesses would like to hold – as well as the rise in the
supply of money described above.

That is a mention of money demand which is more of an influence on broad money than supply a lot of the time. Sadly though he fumbled the ball here.

All this has been backed up by the BoE’s asset purchase programme, which (to the extent that bonds have
been bought from the non-bank private sector) acts directly to boost broad money growth.

It acts directly on narrow money growth and affects broad money growth via that.

Another credit crunch

Poor old Michael Saunders needs to get out a bit more as this shows.

And, thanks to the marked rise in their capital ratios during the last decade, banks have been much better
placed than previously to meet that demand for credit.

Meanwhile back in the real world there is this.

Barclays has lowered its loan to income multiples to a maximum of 4.49 times income.

This applies to all LTVs, loan sizes and income scenarios except for where an LTV is greater than 90 per cent and joint income of the household is equal to or below £50,000, and where the debt to income ratio is equal to or above 20 per cent.

In these two cases the income multiple has been lowered to 4 times salary. ( Mortgage Strategy)

There has been a reduction in supply of higher risk mortgages and such is it that one bank is making an offer for only 2 days to avoid being swamped with demand.

Accord Mortgages is relaunching it’s 90 per cent deals for first-time buyers for two days only next week. ( Mortgage Strategy)

Also according to Mortgage Strategy some mortgage rates saw a large weekly rise.

At 90 per cent LTV the rate flew upward by 32 basis points, taking the average rate from 3.22 per cent to 3.54 per cent…….Despite the overall average rate dropping for three-year fixes there was one large movement upwards within – at 90 per cent LTV the average rate grew from 3.26 per cent to 3.55 per cent.

Comment

If we start with the last section which is something of a credit crunch for low equity or if you prefer high risk mortgages then that is something which can turn the house price trend. I would imagine there will be some strongly worded letters being sent from the Governor of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey to the heads of the banks over this. But on present trends this and its likely accompaniment which is surveyors reducing estimated values will turn the market. Indeed even the Halifax is btacing itself for falls.

“Rising house prices contrast with the adverse impact of the pandemic on household earnings and with
most economic commentators believing that unemployment will continue to rise, we do expect greater
downward pressure on house prices in the medium-term.”

What can the Bank of England do? Short of actually buying houses for people there is really only one more thing. Cut interest-rates into negative territory and offer even more than the current £113 billion from the Term Funding Scheme ( to save the banks the inconvenience of needing those pesky depositors and savers). Then look on in “shock” as the money misses smaller businesses as it floods the mortgage market. But these days the extra push gets smaller because it keeps pulling the same lever.

Also can HM Treasury now put stamp duty back up without torpedoing the market?

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