Is the US economy at a turning point?

Yesterday brought us some significant news from the US economy. One segment of this was the testimony given by the new Chair of the US Federal Reserve Jerome Powell as everyone combs his words looking for any signs of a change in policy. The sentence from the written testimony that has drawn most attention is below.

In gauging the appropriate path for monetary policy over the next few years, the FOMC will continue to strike a balance between avoiding an overheated economy and bringing PCE price inflation to 2 percent on a sustained basis. ( PCE is Personal Consumption Expenditure )

The reason for that is the use of the word “overheated” which brings with it all sorts of value judgements and implications. This was added to by the phrase he added to this.

My personal outlook for the economy has strengthened since December.

We also got an explanation of what was driving such thoughts.

 In particular, fiscal policy has become more stimulative and foreign demand for U.S. exports is on a firmer trajectory. Despite the recent volatility, financial conditions remain accommodative.

The nod to fiscal policy was a change of emphasis from his predecessor Janet Yellen as I am reminded of the analysis of the US Congress on the subject we looked at on February the 8th.

The Joint Committee staff estimates that this proposal would increase the average level of output (as measured by Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) by about 0.7 percent relative to average level of output in the present law baseline over the 10-year budget window.

The underlying position

The thoughts above added to the existing situation which Chair Powell described thus.

Turning from the labor market to production, inflation-adjusted gross domestic product rose at an annual rate of about 3 percent in the second half of 2017, 1 percentage point faster than its pace in the first half of the year.

So the fiscal policy will add to an already strengthening situation and the emphasis is mine.

Economic growth in the second half was led by solid gains in consumer spending, supported by rising household incomes and wealth, and upbeat sentiment. In addition, growth in business investment stepped up sharply last year, which should support higher productivity growth in time.

The reason I have highlighted that bit is because Chair Powell had explicitly linked it to wage growth.

Wages have continued to grow moderately, with a modest acceleration in some measures, although the extent of the pickup likely has been damped in part by the weak pace of productivity growth in recent years.

If we switch to the section on employment we see a continuing theme.

Monthly job gains averaged 179,000 from July through December, and payrolls rose an additional 200,000 in January. This pace of job growth was sufficient to push the unemployment rate down to 4.1 percent, about 3/4 percentage point lower than a year earlier and the lowest level since December 2000.

Are we seeing a hint of Phillips Curve style analysis which would predict wage growth acceleration? We did get told he likes policy rules.

Personally, I find these rule prescriptions helpful

Also you may note that he hinted at a pick-up in jobs growth in January which comes when the unemployment rate tells us that according to old policy rules we have what would have been considered to be full employment. It was also interesting that he skirted what we might call the missing eleven million or so via the drop in the participation rate.

the labor force participation rate remained roughly unchanged, on net, as it has for the past several years

I am not sure that it all be blamed on retiring “baby boomers” as we were told.

So we are told that the economy is strong and got a pretty strong hint that higher wage growth is expected and of course that follows the 2.9% growth seen in January in average hourly earnings.

Wages should increase at a faster pace as well.

What about inflation?

That is supposed to pick-up as well as we continue our journey on a type of virtual Phillips Curve.

 we anticipate that inflation on a 12-month basis will move up this year and stabilize around the FOMC’s 2 percent objective over the medium term.

These days it is something of a residual item in speeches by central bankers. This is for two main reasons. The first is that they have really been targeting output and the labour market. The second is that even after an extraordinary amount of QE they failed to generate the ( consumer) inflation they promised and so they are de-emphasising it.


This subject flickered onto some radar screens yesterday as they observed this from the Census Bureau.

The international trade deficit was $74.4 billion in January, up $2.1 billion from $72.3 billion in December.
Exports of goods for January were $133.9 billion, $3.1 billion less than December exports. Imports of goods
for January were $208.3 billion, $0.9 billion less than December imports.

This is something which has been rising as we note this from the Bureau of Economic Analysis or BEA earlier this month.

For 2017, the goods and services deficit increased $61.2 billion, or 12.1 percent, from 2016. Exports
increased $121.2 billion or 5.5 percent. Imports increased $182.5 billion or 6.7 percent.

So we may well be seeing economic growth sucking in imports yet again or a different form of overheating. Thus the words of Chairman Powell above on exports were both true ( they are up) and to some extent misleading as imports have risen faster. This is reinforced with my usual caution about monthly trade data by  the size of the January  goods deficit which is the largest for ten years. If we allow for the fact that the shale oil and gas boom flatters the figures the numbers take a further turn for the worse.

Consumer Confidence

We return to the same theme as we note this.

The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index® increased in February, following a modest increase in January. The Index now stands at 130.8 (1985=100), up from 124.3 in January. The Present Situation Index increased from 154.7 to 162.4, while the Expectations Index improved from 104.0 last month to 109.7 this month.

So another signal looks strong.


If we start with the analysis of Chair Powell we see that the US Federal Reserve plans to continue interest-rate rises this year and that it means to do so either 3 or more likely 4 times. This is based on the view that otherwise the economy will overheat as discussed above. Let me add a personal view to this which is the current madness of going along at 0.25%, why not raise by 0.5% in March and then sit back for a while and see what develops? Monetary policy has long lags and if you take ages to act you are at an ever greater risk of being proved wrong.

Another factor in this is the data I have looked at above as I have held something back until now which is troubling. Here is the extra bit from the consumer confidence figures.

Consumer confidence improved to its highest level since 2000 (Nov. 2000, 132.6).

Now if we look at the trade in goods figures the deficit was last higher in January 2008 a time when consumer confidence was high in many places too. What happened next in both instances?

If we continue with that line of thought we find that the oil market may be giving a hint as well.

Another reason I think to act more decisively now as after all interest-rates will only be 1.75% to 2% after a 0.5% rise a level I have long argued for and then wait and see. After all we could be seeing a flicker of a road to QE4.


UK Inflation looks set to fall as 2018 progresses

Today brings us face to face with the UK context on what many are telling us has been the cause of the recent troubled patch for world equity markets. This is because a whole raft of inflation data from the consumer producer and housing sector is due. The narrative that inflation has affected equities markets has got an airing in today’s Financial Times.

The inflation threat has simmered for months, but the missing link had been wage growth, which made the rise in the US jobs figures for January so important, fund managers say. Indeed, the yield on the 10-year Treasury is 40 basis points higher this year, driven almost entirely by inflation expectations. Strong global economic data, coupled with sweeping tax cuts and the recent expansionary budget deal in Washington, should stir price pressures.

Actually that argument seems to be one fitted after the events rather than before as the rise in bond yields could simply be seen as a response to the expansionary fiscal policy in the US combined with interest-rate increases and a reduction albeit small in the size of the Federal Reserve balance sheet. Actually as the FT admits inflation is often considered to be good for equities!

While faster inflation would typically be good for stocks, lifting companies’ pricing power and suggesting economic growth is accelerating.


There is also a theme doing the rounds about wage inflation. Yesterday Gertjan Vlieghe of the Bank of England joined this particular party according to Reuters.

 a pick-up in wages ……..signs of a pick-up in wages

The problem for the Bank of England on this front is two-fold. Firstly it has been like the boy ( and in some cases) girl who has cried wolf on this front and the second is that the official data has picked up no such thing so far. Thus we are left essentially with one higher wages print of 2.9% for average hourly earnings in the United States. So the case is still rather weak as we wonder if even the current economic recovery can boost wages in any meaningful sense.


The first trend which should first show in the producer price numbers is the strength of the UK Pound versus the US Dollar over the past year. It was if we look back about 14 cents lower than the current US $1.388. Also the price of crude oil has dipped back from the rally which took it up to US $70 in terms of the Brent benchmark to US $62.47 as I type this. This drop happened quite quickly after this.

Goldman Sachs has held one of the most optimistic views on the rebalancing of the oil market and oil prices in the near term, and the investment bank is now growing even more bullish, predicting that the oil market has likely balanced, and that Brent Crude will reach $82.50 a barrel within six months. (

The Vampire Squid is building up quite a track record of calling the market in the wrong direction as back in the day it called for US $200 a barrel and when prices fell for a US dollar price in the teens. I will let readers decide for themselves whether it is simply incompetent or is taking us all for “muppets”.

Today’s data

The good news was that the trends discussed above are beginning to have an impact.

The headline rate of inflation for goods leaving the factory gate (output prices) rose 2.8% on the year to January 2018, down from 3.3% in December 2017…….Prices for materials and fuels (input prices) rose 4.7% on the year to January 2018, down from 5.4% in December 2017.

Tucked away was the news that the worst seems to be passing us as this is well below the 20.2% peak of this time last year.

The annual rate of inflation for imported materials and fuels was 3.5% in January 2018 (Table 2), down 1.7 percentage points from December 2017 and the lowest it has been since June 2016.

It is a little disappointing to see the Office for National Statistics repeat a mistake made by the Bank of England concentrating on the wrong exchange rate.

The sterling effective exchange rate index (ERI) rose to 79.0 in January 2018. On the year, the ERI was up 2.6% in January 2018 and was the fourth consecutive month where the ERI has shown positive growth.

Commodities are priced in US Dollars in the main.

Consumer Inflation

This showed an example of inflation being sticky.

The all items CPI annual rate is 3.0%, unchanged from last month.

However prices did fall on the month due to the January sales season mostly.

The all items CPI is 104.4, down from 104.9 in December

The inflation rate was unaffected because they fell at the same rate last year.

There was something unusual in what kept annual inflation at 3%.

The main upward contribution came from admission prices for attractions such as zoos and gardens, with prices falling by less than they did last year.

I will put in a complaint when I pass Battersea Park Childrens Zoo later! More hopeful for hard pressed budgets was this turn in food prices.

This effect came from prices for a wide range of types of food and drink, with the largest contribution coming from a fall in meat prices.

My friend who has gone vegan may be guilty of bad timing.

An ongoing disaster

The issue of how to deal with owner-occupied housing remains a scar on the UK inflation numbers. This is the way they are treated in the preferred establishment measure.

The OOH component annual rate is 1.2%, down from 1.3% last month. ( OOH = Owner Occupied Housing).

Not much is it, so how do they get to it? Well this is the major player.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in Great Britain rose by 1.1% in the 12 months to January 2018; this is down from 1.2% in December 2017.

If you are thinking that owner occupiers do not pay rent as they own it you are right. Sadly our official statisticians prefer a fantasy world that could be in an episode of The Outer Limits. They have had a lot of trouble measuring rents which means their fantasies diverge even more from ordinary reality.

If they had used something real then the numbers would look very different.

UK house prices rose 5.2% in the year to December 2017, up from 5.0% in November 2017.

This makes inflation look much lower than it really is and is the true purpose in my opinion. A powerful response to this at one of the public meetings pointed out that due to the popularity of leasing using rents for the car sector would be realistic ( they do not) but using it for owner-occupied housing is unrealistic ( they do).

If you want a lower inflation reading thought it does the trick.

The all items CPIH annual rate is 2.7%, unchanged from last month.


The underlying theme is that UK consumer inflation looks set to trend lower as 2018 progresses which is good news for both consumers and workers. The initial driving force of this was the rally of the UK Pound £ against the US Dollar and as it has faded back a little we have seen lower oil prices. We also get a sign that prices can fall combined with annual inflation.

The all items CPI is 104.4, down from 104.9 in December…..The all items RPI is 276.0, down from 278.1 in December…….The all items CPIH is 104.5, down from 105.0 in December.

One issue that continues to dog the numbers is the treatment of housing and for all the criticisms levelled at it a strength of the RPI is that it does have house prices ( via depreciation).

The all items RPI annual rate is 4.0%, down from 4.1% last month.

Meanwhile the Bank of England seems lost in its own land of confusion. It cut interest-rates into an inflation rise and then raised them into an expected fall! This is of course the wrong way round for a supposed inflation targeter. Now they seem to be trying to ramp up the rhetoric for more increases forgetting that they need to look 18 months ahead rather than in front of their nose. Perhaps they should take some time out and listen to Bananarama.

I thought I was smart but I soon found out
I didn’t know what life was all about
But then I learnt I must confess
That life is like a game of chess



If UK growth has a “speed limit” of 1.5% how is manufacturing growing at 3.4%?

Yesterday saw the Quarterly Inflation Report of the Bank of England where its takes the opportunity to explain its views on the UK economy. There was a subject which Governor Mark Carney returned to several times and it was also in the opening statement.

It is useful to step back to assess how the economy has performed relative to the MPC’s expectations in order to understand the forces at work on it.

You are always in trouble when you have to keep telling your audience you got things right. I don’t see Pep Guardiola having to explain things like that or Eddie Jones and that is because things have gone well for them. Increasingly the Governor is finding himself having to field questions essentially based upon my theme that the Bank of England has a poor forecasting record. Actually tucked away in his statement was yet another confession.

GDP growth is expected to average around 1¾%
over the forecast period, a little stronger than projected in November.

I would like to present his main point in another way as we were told that policy is “transparent” and being done “transparently”. Okay so apply that test to this?

The MPC judges that, were the economy to evolve broadly in line with its February Inflation Report projections, monetary policy would need to be tightened somewhat earlier and by a somewhat greater extent over the forecast period than it anticipated at the time of the
November Report, in order to return inflation sustainably to the target.

So if they get things right which they usually do not then interest-rates will rise by more than the previous unspecified hint? That is opaque rather than transparent especially when you have a habit of saying things like this.

There’s already great speculation about the exact timing of the first rate hike and this decision is becoming more balanced…………..It could happen sooner than markets currently expect. (Mansion House June 2014).

What actually happened? The next move was a Bank Rate cut! Also I noted this in the Financial Times from back then.

This speech marks an important change of tone from the governor……..with rates rising earlier, further and faster than markets currently price in.

I noted this because it was from Michael Saunders who was of course giving bad advice to Citibank customers as we wonder if his enthusiasm for the Governor’s thoughts and words got him appointed to the Monetary Policy Committee?

Also I note that the 0.25% Bank Rate cut and Sledgehammer QE is claimed to have had an enormous impact.

this strategy has worked with
employment rising and slack steadily being absorbed

Yet this morning Ben Broadbent has contradicted this on BBC 5 Live’s Wake Up To Money.

dep gov Ben Broadbent said that was “true to some extent”, adding he didn’t think a couple of 25 basis point [0.25%] rises in a year would be a great shock

So if two rises are no big deal how was one cut a big deal? I guess if you send out your absent-minded professor out at the crack of dawn he is more likely to go off-piste.

Our intrepid Governor was also keen to expound on the Bank of England’s improvement in the area of diversity which he did as part of a panel composed of four middle-aged white men. As to policy independence regular readers will be well aware of my theme that the establishment took the Bank back under its control some time ago.

Today’s data

This was always going to be affected by the shutdown of the oil and gas pipeline for the Forties area in the North Sea as we already knew it has reduced GDP by around 0.05%.

In December 2017, total production was estimated to have decreased by 1.3% compared with November 2017; mining and quarrying provided the only downward contribution, falling by 19.1% as a result of the shut-down of the Forties oil pipeline for a large part of December.

Ouch indeed! However if we look deeper we see that production has been on an upwards sweep.

Total production output increased by 2.3% for the three months to December 2017 compared with the same three months to December 2016……….For the calendar year 2017, total production output increased by 2.1% compared with 2016,

Now that the Forties pipeline is back to normal there will be an additional push to the numbers.


This sector has been on a good run which has been welcome to see after years and indeed decades of relative decline.

In the three months to December 2017……..due to a rise of 1.3% in manufacturing;

As to the driving force well we have heavy metal football at Liverpool courtesy of Jurgen Klopp and maybe we have some heavy metal economics too.

Within manufacturing, 9 of the 13 manufacturing sub-sectors experienced growth; the largest contribution to quarterly growth came from basic metals and metal products, which increased by 5.7%.

If we look deeper we see this which compares the latest quarter with a year ago..

The largest upward contribution came from manufacturing, which increased by 3.4%, due to broad-based strength, with 9 of the 13 sub-sectors increasing. Transport equipment provided the largest upward contribution, increasing by 6.6%, with three of its four industries increasing. The largest upward contribution came from the manufacture of aircraft, spacecraft and related machinery, while motor vehicles, trailers and semi-trailers fell by 0.3%.

There is something of an irony for those who found it amusing to jest that the UK would have to export to space in future as we indeed seem to be doing so. Of course space has been in the news this week with the successful, launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket with the successful landing of two of the three boosters which according to the Meatloaf critique “aint bad” and was also awe-inspiring. As you can imagine I heartily approve of it playing Space Oddity on repeat and the way Don’t Panic flashes on the car dashboard in big friendly letters.

Returning to manufacturing we have nearly made our way back to the place we were once before as the Eagles might put it.

 both production and manufacturing output have risen but remain below their level reached in the pre-downturn gross domestic product (GDP) peak in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2008, by 5.2% and 0.5% respectively in the three months to December 2017.


The familiar theme is as ever of yet another deficit but the December numbers were even more difficult to interpret than usual due to the impact of the Forties pipeline closure. This was its impact on the latest quarter.

The 21.6% decrease in export volumes of fuels (mainly oil) had a large impact on the fall in export volumes. When excluding oil export volumes increased by 1.3%……The value increase in fuels imports was due largely to price movements, as fuels import prices increased by 14.2% while fuels import volumes increased by 0.3%.

If we look back 2017 was a better year for UK trade.

UK export volumes up 7.4% between 2016 & 2017, import volumes were up 4.1%

This meant that the trade deficit fell by £7 billion ( not by £70 billion as was initially reported) so the cautionary note is that we still have a long way to go.


Today’s numbers provide their own critique to the rhetoric of Mark Carney and the Bank of England. Let me show you the two. Firstly the data.

The largest upward contribution came from manufacturing, which increased by 3.4%

Yet according to the Bank of England this is the “speed limit”.

the MPC judges that very little spare capacity remains and that supply capacity will grow only modestly over the
forecast, averaging around 1½% a year.

If you think it through logically it is an area where you would expect physical constraints and yet it does not seem to be bothered. Indeed the other area where there are physical constraints has done even better on an annual comparison.

 construction output in Great Britain grew by 5.1% in 2017

So as ever the Bank of England prefers its models to reality and if you listened carefully to the press conference Ben Broadbent confirmed this. What he did not say was that he is persisting with this in spite of a shocking track record.

Just for clarity the construction numbers are correct but had really strong growth followed by the more recent weakness. However as I have pointed out many times care is needed as we regularly get significant revisions..





What are the consequences of a weak US Dollar?

So far 2018 has seen an acceleration of a trend we saw last year which is a fall in the value of the US Dollar. The latest push was provided by the US Treasury Secretary only yesterday at Davos. From Bloomberg.

“Obviously a weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities,” Mnuchin told reporters in Davos. The currency’s short term value is “not a concern of ours at all,” he said.

“Longer term, the strength of the dollar is a reflection of the strength of the U.S. economy and the fact that it is and will continue to be the primary currency in terms of the reserve currency,” he said.

The way it then fell it is probably for best its value is not a concern as the rhetoric was both plain and transparent.

A day before Trump’s scheduled arrival in the Swiss ski resort of Davos for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin endorsed the dollar’s decline as a benefit to the American economy and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the U.S. would fight harder to protect its exporters.

The response to the words is a pretty eloquent explanation of why policy makers have a general rule that you do not comment on the level of the exchange rate. Not only might you get something you do not want there is also the issue of being careful what you wish for! Sadly the Rolling Stones were not on the case here.

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime
You’ll find
You get what you need

However you spin it we are in a phase where the US government is encouraging a weaker dollar as part of the America First strategy. It has already produced an echo of the autumn of 2010 if this from the Managing Director of the IMF is any guide.

 “It’s not time to have any kind of currency war,” Lagarde said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

Criticising someone for rhetoric by upping the rhetoric may not be too bright. Also there are more than a few examples of countries trying to win the race to the bottom around the world.

What does a lower US Dollar do?

Back in November 2015 Stanley Fischer gave us the thoughts of the US Federal Reserve.

To gauge the quantitative effects on exports, the thick blue line in figure 2 shows the response of U.S. real exports to a 10 percent dollar appreciation that is derived from a large econometric model of U.S. trade maintained by the Federal Reserve Board staff. Real exports fall about 3 percent after a year and more than 7 percent after three years.The gradual response of exports reflects that it takes some time for households and firms in foreign countries to substitute away from the now more expensive U.S.-made goods.

Also imports are affected.

The low exchange rate pass-through helps account for the more modest estimated response of U.S. real imports to a 10 percent exchange rate appreciation shown by the thin red line in figure 2, which indicates that real imports rise only about 3-3/4 percent after three years.

This means that the overall economy is affected as shown below.

The staff’s model indicates that the direct effects on GDP through net exports are large, with GDP falling over 1-1/2 percent below baseline after three years. Moreover, the effects materialize quite gradually, with over half of the adverse effects on GDP occurring at a horizon of more than a year.

Okay we need to flip all of that around of course because we are discussing a lower US Dollar this time around. Net exports will be boosted which will raise economic output or GDP over time.

How much?

If we look at the US Dollar Index we see at 89.1 it has already fallen by more than 3% this year. The recent peak was at just over 103 as 2016 ended so we have seen a fall of a bit under 14%. The official US Federal Reserve effective exchange rate has fallen from 128.9 in late December 2016 to 116.8 at the beginning of this week so 116 now say. Conveniently that gives us a fall of the order of 10%.

So if we look up to the preceding analysis we see that via higher exports and reduced imports US GDP will be 1.5% higher in three years time than otherwise.

What about inflation?

There is a lower impact on the US because of the role of the dollar as the reserve currency and in particular as the currency used for pricing the majority of commodities.

While the Board staff uses a range of models to gauge the effect of shocks, the model employed in figure 4–as well as other models used by staff–suggests that the dollar’s large appreciation will probably depress core PCE inflation between 1/4 and 1/2 percentage point this year through this import price channel.

You may note that Stanley Fischer continues the central banking obsession with core inflation measures when major effects will come from food and energy. It would be entertaining when they sit down to luncheon to say that we are having a core day so there isn’t any! Have you ever tried eating an i-pad?

So inflation may be around 0.5% higher.

What about everybody else?

The essential problem with reducing the value of your currency to boost your economy via exports is that overall it is a zero-sum game. As you win somebody else loses.  So the gains are taken from somebody else as no doubt minds in Beijing, Tokyo and Frankfurt are thinking right now. Of course pinning an actual accusation on the United States is not easy because of its persistent trade deficits.

Furthermore the exchange-rate appreciation seen elsewhere will not be welcomed by the ECB ( European Central Bank) and particularly the Bank of Japan. The latter is pursuing an explicit Yen depreciation policy to try to generate some inflation whereas what it has instead seen is a rise towards 109 versus the US Dollar. Of course workers and consumers will have reason to thank the lower dollar as lower inflation will boost their spending power.

Later today we will see how Mario Draghi handles this at the ECB policy meeting press conference. He finds himself pursuing negative interest-rates and still substantial if tapering QE and a stronger currency. It is hard for him to be too critical of the US though when even Christine Lagarde is saying this.


Of course that takes us back to a past competitive depreciation which Germany arranged via its membership of the Euro.


There is a fair bit to consider here. As it stands it looks as though the US economy will benefit over the next 3 years (convenient for the political timetable) by around 1.5% of GDP at the cost of higher inflation of 0.5%. There are two main problems with this type of analysis of which the first is simply the gap between theory and reality. The smooth mathematical curves of econometrics are replaced in practice by businesses and consumers ignoring moves for as long as they can and then responding but by how much and when? So we see a succession of jump moves. The other issue is that exchange-rates are usually on the move and can change in an instant unlike economies leaving us wondering which exchange-rate they are responding too?

Next we have the awkward issue of a country raising interest-rates and seeing a currency depreciation. Theory predicts the reverse. I have a couple of thoughts on this and the first is about timing. In my opinion exchange-rates these days move on expectations of an event so they have already happened before it does. So the current phase of interest-rate rises was reflected in the US Dollar rise from the summer of 2014 to the spring of 2015. That works because if anything we have seen fewer rate rises than expected back then and the bond market has fallen less. As to the Federal Reserve well with the US Dollar here and inflation with a little upwards pressure it will therefore find a scenario which makes it easy for it to keep nudging interest-rates higher.

Meanwhile there are other factors which are hard to quantify but seem to happen. For example a lower dollar coming with higher commodity prices. Hard to explain and of course there are other factors in play, But it seems to have happened again.

Me on Core Finance TV



Of Bitcoin banks and electricity consumption

This morning opens with yet more Bitcoin headlines and news. I guess it is in keeping with the times that what was so recently a raging bull market should apparently so quickly become a bear one. From Reuters.


Bitcoin traded at $10,968, down 3.7 percent in Asia, after a fall of 16.3 percent on Tuesday, its biggest daily decline in four months.

Just over 24 hours ago it was above US $13,000 and of course in mid-December we saw a peak of over US $19,000.  It is also important to provide some perspective as if we look back a year we see that it was below US $900. Or to put it another way over a year we have quite a bull market and over a month a bear one.

Another way of putting it is shown below.

I think the mean needs to be higher but otherwise we get an attempt to explain human investing psychology with both its flaws and glory. One facet of this which I found particularly troubling came from CNBC just over a month ago.

Bitcoin is in the “mania” phase, with some people even borrowing money to get in on the action, securities regulator Joseph Borg told CNBC on Monday.

“We’ve seen mortgages being taken out to buy bitcoin. … People do credit cards, equity lines,” said Borg, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association, a voluntary organization devoted to investor protection. Borg is also director of the Alabama Securities Commission.

If only Borg had said “resistance is futile”! But he was on the ball in two big respects in that he was warning of a problem should people borrow into a surge and also later he pointed out that “innovation always out runs regulation”. It is hard not to note that the peak we have seen so far came quite quickly.

The banks and Bitcoin

However the apparently Bitcoin friendly behaviour of the banks did not last. From the Financial Times on Saturday.

Bitcoin investors trying to channel their new fortunes into UK property are being turned away by mortgage lenders and brokers who fear breaching anti money-laundering regulations.

There was a more specific example.

One public sector worker built up a deposit of £40,000 after investing in bitcoin, said Mark Stallard, a broker and principal at House and Holiday Home Mortgages. But he said he had been unable to arrange a loan because it was hard to prove where the funds had arrived from and to link them to his client.


“The first mortgage lender I rang asked me what a cryptocurrency was,” Mr Stallard said.


“I rang two other lenders and they said they would not touch it. “When I mentioned where the money had come from there was massive reluctance to help or understand the problem. I do not believe the mortgage providers in general are ready for this issue and research tells me that a lot more people will be knocking on our doors with funds made or raised in this fashion.”

There are various issues here as for example the client could say he has made the money by gambling/investing. Of course the latter issue of investing raises the issue of whether capital gains tax is due? So perhaps that is why there is a claimed issue with where the funds arrived from. Mind you the Building Societies Association have a cheek to say the least to say this.

“There is currently no regulation of these electronic currencies, which puts them into the highest risk category in relation to money laundering. In addition, it is well known that such currencies are popular with criminals, who use them to launder the proceeds of crime.”

Apparently you can however pay off your mortgage with Bitcoin profits.

Existing borrowers who want to use their bitcoin profits to pay down mortgage debts are free to do so. Daniel Hegarty, founder of online mortgage broker Habito, said a customer recently cancelled his remortgage application before it was completed, deciding instead to pay off his whole mortgage with his money from bitcoin investments.

So there is quite an inconsistency there as I again have a wry smile at the banking sector accusing others of facilitating money laundering and being popular with criminals!


This is an odd one with the cryptocurrencies.I am sure many of you know more about this than me but there is a clear contradiction in what we are told. Firstly we are regularly told that the trading is anonymous and that is one of the points of the system. Fair enough. But we are also beginning to be told that financial crimes can be spotted so we simultaneously do not know what is happening but we also do?!

Electricity and power

We are getting ever more stories about the energy consumption of Bitcoin as this tweet from John Quiggin suggests.

If mining ended tomorrow, China could reduce its coal consumption by an amount comparable to its entire import of Australian thermal coal (supporting calcs to follow)

Sadly he has not yet provided the mathematics behind this but there have been plenty of other suggestions in the same vein. For example from Bloomberg last week.

Miners of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies could require up to 140 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2018, about 0.6 percent of the global total, Morgan Stanley analysts led by Nicholas Ashworth wrote in a note Wednesday. That’s more than expected power demand from electric vehicles in 2025.

There are plenty of arguments about the numbers but suddenly hydro-electric power seems to be en vogue as this from Bloomberg yesterday suggests.

A Canadian utility has already voiced enthusiasm. Hydro-Quebec has said it’s in “very advanced” talks with miners about relocating to the province and that it envisions the miners soaking up about five terawatt-hours of power annually — equivalent to about 300,000 Quebec homes — from the surplus created by the region’s hydroelectric dams.

If we move onto future power demands of which Bitcoin and the other cryptocurrencies may turn out to be significant I have a question. Are we not going to run out of electricity? My own country has been something of a shambles in providing new power generation as the ultra expensive plans for  a new nuclear point at Hinkley Point demonstrate and yet we are told this. From the BBC today.

Three-fifths of new cars must be electric by 2030 to meet greenhouse gas targets, ministers have been warned.

There have been some movements on infrastructure as for example there are now nine charging points around Battersea Power albeit they seem to be rarely actually used. But in a future where they are used a lot and that is not so inconceivable where is the electricity going to come from? It is not that there has been complete failure as for example I have just checked and wind power is currently providing over 10 GW but of course it relies on the wind blowing. It is helping in this cold snap but what if people wanted to charge their vehicles on a cold windless night? Perhaps that is when Smart Meters will really come into their own and not in a good way.


There is a lot to consider here as we mull two concepts that would have been regarded as separate only a short time ago which are Bitcoin and electricity. Here is another way of looking at it from Chris Skinner.

Part of the problem is, that all those Bitcoin miners are racing to solve the same problem, but only the miner who solves the problem first gets to actually claim the block. All the other miners lose out, and their energy goes to waste. Even with that probability, with 1 Bitcoin at roughly US$20,000, there’s plenty of incentive to try.

There is still a fair bit at US $11000. But unfortunately trying it at home will not work.

Even so, a fairly typical computer with an average type of SHA isn’t going to cut it — a recent estimate was that to mine a single Bitcoin using an average computer would take you around 1,367 years

So you would need something like Carl Sagan’s SETI project. However one way of looking at the message from Alex Hern below would be to think is Hinkley Point a way of nobbling Bitcoin?

The power consumption of bitcoin mining is purely artificial, and its equilibrium is essentially at the level where the cost of all the electricity used is equal in the long run to the value of the bitcoin granted in mining rewards.

The energy problem is simply that renewable sources of electricity are sometimes outside our control whereas things we are shutting down such as coal generation we can control. Yet the potential demands for electricity are rising with no clear plan to provide for them unless of course cold fusion finally works or we find a way of being able to store power efficiently.


Is UK inflation rising or falling?

Today brings UK inflation data in to focus but before we get there we have received almost a message from the past from Nigeria. What I mean by that is that the inflation rate of 15.37% it has just reported for December is a reminder of past problems in the UK. Whilst it is a reduction on November consumers in Nigeria will be focusing on food price inflation of 19.4% no doubt whilst their central bank tells them it is non-core. We even have a hint of a consequence of hyper inflation as I note three different unofficial estimates for its inflation appearing and they are 600%, 3000% and 5067%. Aren’t you glad that’s clear?!

The trend

This year has started with inflation concerns as a theme and they have come from two sources. One seems to be something of a rehash of the tired old “output gap” theory. This has perhaps been given a little more credence this year as the world economy has been doing well and finally as unemployment falls in so many places we will then supposedly see some inflation as the Phillips Curve leaps from its grave like Dracula. Or something like that. Putting it another way there are overheating fears based on similar lines. William Dudley of the New York Federal Reserve was expressing such fears last week in remarks and in the Wall Street Journal. The problem for such thinking is that “output gap” style theories have been consistently wrong in the credit crunch era.

What we actually have as I looked at on the of this month is rises in commodity prices. Another example of this was seen overnight as the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil nudged over US $70. It has dipped back below that today but the underlying message is of an oil price around US $14 higher than a year ago and US $25 higher than the  recent nadir of late June 2017. There are various ways of looking at the impact of this but below is one version.

The New York Fed has a go at measuring inflationary pressure as shown below.

The UIG derived from the “full data set” increased slightly from a currently estimated 2.96% in November to 2.98% in December. The “prices-only” measure decreased slightly from 2.22% in November to 2.18% in December.

This is a better method than the attempt to look at core measures ( which for newer readers mostly means excluding the most important things like food and energy). What it shows us is some upwards pull on inflation right now albeit that some of that is from financial markets and maybe self-fulfilling.


My theme that the UK is particularly prone to inflation gets another tick. From the BBC.

Coca-Cola has announced it will cut the size of a 1.75l bottle to 1.5l and put up the price by 20p in March, because of the introduction of a sugar tax on soft drinks from April this year.

Today’s UK data

Let us open with a welcome piece of news.

The all items CPI annual rate is 3.0%, down from 3.1% in November.

The only person who may be shifting in his seat is Bank of England Governor Mark Carney who has yet to write his explanatory letter to the Chancellor about it being over 3% and now of course it isn’t! Embarrassing.

The reasons for the dip are based on air fares and something parents will have welcomed.

The largest effects came from prices for games and toys, which fell between November and December 2017 by more than they did a year ago.

The air fares move is intriguing as it is a technical move based on them having a lower weighting or the implied view they are relatively less important. So they rose by a similar amount but had less impact, curious.

What happens next?

If we look a producer prices we get a glimpse of what is coming over the hill in inflation terms.

The headline rate of inflation for goods leaving the factory gate (output prices) rose 3.3% on the year to December 2017, up from 3.1% in November 2017.Prices for materials and fuels (input prices) rose 4.9% on the year to December 2017, down from 7.3% in November 2017.

As you can see the immediate impact is a small pull higher but behind that there is less pressure than before. On the latter point we see yet again the impact of the oil price.

The largest upward contribution to the annual rate in December 2017 came from crude oil, which contributed 1.69 percentage points (Figure 2) on the back of annual price growth of 10.6% (Table 3), down from 26.9% last month.

If we look at what has happened since the numbers were collected the oil price is up around US $4/5 but in a welcome development the UK Pound £ is up around 4 cents against the US Dollar. So we can conclude two things. Firstly the impact of the lower Pound £ is quickly washing out of the system and in fact as we look forwards it will be a reducing factor on inflation if it remains at these levels because as I type this it is around 13 cents higher than a year ago. Meanwhile the higher oil price I looked at earlier is moving things in the opposite direction. So if you prefer we are moving from an individual phase to more of a world-wide one.

There is a long section in the report on the trade-weighted £ which has many uses but in this area I am afraid that Men At Work were correct due to so many commodity prices being in US Dollars.

Saying it’s a mistake
It’s a mistake
It’s a mistake
It’s a mistake

A  much bigger mistake

The UK inflation establishment has pushed forwards a new inflation measure and when it was mooted back in 2012 it got a wide range of support. For example the committee which recommended and pushed it called CPAC included representatives from the BBC ( Stephanie Flanders although she left before the actual vote) and the Financial Times ( economics editor Chris Giles). But their main change has failed utterly unless you actually believe costs for those who own their own homes have done this over the past year.

The OOH component annual rate is 1.3%, down from 1.5% last month.

Does anyone actually believe that housing costs in the UK are a downwards drag on inflation? Even someone looking at us from as far away as Pluto could spot that one is very wrong. After all this morning also saw this released.

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 5.1% in the year to November 2017 (down from 5.4% in October 2017). The annual growth rate has slowed since mid-2016 but has remained broadly around 5% during 2017.

Not exactly the same month but if we look at the trend we see that what buyers regard as 5% has somehow morphed into 1.3%! They might reasonably become rather angry when they learn it is because something which does not exist and is never paid called Imputed Rent that is used to lower the number. This also leads me to have to point out that this from the Office of National Statistics deserves the banner of Fake News

mainly from owner occupiers’ housing costs (OOH),
with prices increasing by less between November and December 2017 than they did a year
ago. OOH costs have changed little since September 2017,

This implies they have measured the costs when the major influence is imputed instead.


It is a sad thing to report but UK inflation measurement has been heading in the wrong direction since at least 2012 and maybe 2003 since CPI was introduced. Much of the problem comes from our housing market which CPI mostly ignores ( the owner occupied housing sector is given a Star Trek style cloaking device and disappears). It leads to this problem.

The all items CPI annual rate is 3.0%, down from 3.1% in November…….The annual rate for RPIX, the all items RPI excluding mortgage interest payments (MIPs), is
4.2%, up from 4.0% last month.

Over time a gap like this is significant in many respects and has consequences. After all the inflation target was only moved by 0.5% so does the 1.2% gap highlight another possible cause of the credit crunch? Next whilst the gap is 1,1% to the headline RPI that means students pay more and reported GDP is higher. Of course GDP would be higher still if CPIH was used.

The all items CPIH annual rate is 2.7%, down from 2.8% in November

No wonder more and more people are losing faith. Let me end on a positive note which was my subject of the 19th of December which highlighted a better way.



What is going on at the Bank of Japan?

It is time to take another step on our journey that Graham Parker and the Rumour would have described as discovering Japan as quite a bit is currently going on. On Tuesday eyes turned to the Bank of Japan as it did this according to Marketwatch.

The central bank cut its purchases of Japanese government bonds, known as JGBs, expiring within 10-25 years and those maturing in 25-40 years by ¥10 billion ($88.8 million) each.

It created something of a stir and rippled around financial markets. There were two pretty clear impacts and the first as you might expect was a stronger Yen which has become one of the themes of this week. An opening level of above 113 to the US Dollar has been replaced by just above 111 and any dip in the 110s will give a sour taste to the Friday night glass of sake for Governor Kuroda.

If we look back to this time last year we see that the Yen is stronger on that measure as back then it was above 114 versus the US Dollar. This may seem pretty poor value in return for this.

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

Even in these inflated times for assets that is a lot of money and the Bank of Japan is not getting a lot of bang for its buck anymore as we have discussed. It would be particularly awkward if after not getting much progress for the extra (Q)QE any reduction or tapering took it back to where it began. The impact of Quantitative Easing on currencies is something we regularly look at as the impact has become patchy at best and this week has seen us start to wonder about what happens should central banks look to move away from centre stage. That would be a big deal in Japan as a weaker currency is one of the main arrows in the Abenomics quiver. As ever we cannot look at anything in isolation as the US Dollar is in a weaker phase as let me pick this from the Donald as a possible factor partly due to its proximity to me.

Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!

Mind you that is a lot better than what he called certain countries! If nothing else this was to my recollection also planned before the Obama administration.

Bond Markets

You will not be surprised to learn that the price of Japanese Government Bonds fell and yields rose, after all the biggest buyer had slightly emptier pockets. However in spite of some media reports the change here was not large as 0.06% for the ten-year went initially to 0.09% and has now settled at 0.07%. Up to the 7 year maturity remains at negative yields and even the 40 year does not quite yield 1%. If we look at that picture we see how much of a gift that the “independent” Bank of Japan has given the government of Shinzo Abe. It runs a loose fiscal policy where it is borrowing around 20 trillion year a year and has a debt of 1276 trillion Yen as of last September which is around 232% of GDP or Gross Domestic Product. So each year QQE saves the Japanese government a lot of money and allows it to keep its fiscal stimulus. We do not get much analysis of this in the media probably because the Japanese media is well Japanese as we mull the consequences of the owning the Financial Times.

A stronger effect was found in international bond markets which were spooked much more than the domestic one. US government bond prices fell and the 10-year yield went above 2.5% and got some questioning if we were now in a bond bear market? After around three decades of a bull market including of course these days trillions of negative yielding bonds around the globe care and an especially strong signal is needed for that. Maybe we will learn a little more if the US 2-year yield goes above 2% as it is currently threatening to do. But in a world where Italian 10-year bonds yield only 2% there is quite a way to go for a proper bond bear market.

The real economy

If we look at the lost decade(s) era then Japan is experiencing a relatively good phase right now. From The Japan Times.

The economy grew an annualized real 2.5 percent in the July-September period, revised up from preliminary data and marking seven straight quarters of growth — the longest stretch on record —.

Someone got a bit excited with history there I think as there was a time before what we now call the lost decade. However for those who call this success for Abenomics there are some things to consider such as these.

Exports grew 1.5 percent from the previous quarter amid solid overseas demand as the global economy gains traction.

Japan is benefiting from a better world economic situation but like so often in the era of the lost decades it is not generating much from within.

But private consumption, a key factor accounting for nearly 60 percent of GDP, continued to be sluggish with a 0.5 percent decline from the previous quarter as spending on automobiles and mobile phones fell.

Let us mark the fact that we are seeing another country where car demand is falling and move to what is the key economic metric for Japan.

Workers will see a 1 percent increase in their total earnings next year, the most since 1997, as rising profits and the tightest labor market in decades add upward pressure on pay, a Bloomberg survey shows.

Actually what we are not told is that compared to so many Bloomberg reports this is a downgrade as in its world wages have been on the edge of a surge for 3-4 years now. But reality according to the Japan Times is very different as we note the size of the increase it is apparently lauding.

In a sign that worker could receive better pay, a separate survey on the average winter bonus at major companies this year showed a slight increase — 0.01 percent — from a year earlier to ¥880,793, up for the fifth consecutive year.


There are quite a few things to laud Japan for as we note its ultra low unemployment rate at 2.7% and the way it takes care of its elderly in particular. At the moment the economic wheels are being oiled by a positive world economic situation which of course helps an exporting nation. That poses a question for those crediting Abenomics for the improvement as we note the more recent surveys are not as positive and the rises in commodity and oil prices and the likely effect on a nation with limited natural resources.

But more deeply this weeks market moves are tactically perhaps just a response to the way that “Yield Curve Control” works in practice which currently requires fewer bond purchases. But strategically the Bank of Japan is left with this.


That tweet misses out the QQE for Japan and QE for the latter two but we return yet again to monetary policy being pro cyclical and in the case of Japan fiscal policy as well. What could go wrong in a country where demographics are a ticking economic time bomb?