The good news from lower UK inflation ( think real wages) may not last

Today brings the various UK inflation numbers into focus as we get the updates for consumer, producer and house prices. Already though the Bank of England has given its view on the general outlook.

Second, the most likely outlook is a further period of subdued growth, and hence a disinflationary backdrop
of a persistent – albeit modest – output gap.

That is from Michael Saunders who is giving a speech in Northern Ireland and we see him backing up the previously expressed view of UK inflation falling towards 1.25% in the early part of this year. It is sad though that he still uses the “output gap” that has worked so poorly even some ex-central bankers are being forced to admit it has been a failure. Here is the former Vice-President of the ECB ( European Central Bank) Vitor Constancio.

In “FED listens” events, they found that:..”there is more “slack” than the Fed had thought — more people who could still come into the labour force, particularly in poorer areas”. I am sure the same is true in Europe. Forget output gaps

If only those still in power would see the light and accept reality!

There is an irony in all of this as we note that whilst the Bank of England expects lower inflation it is presently trying to raise it and Micheal Saunders has another go.

Fourth, against this backdrop, it probably will be appropriate to maintain an expansionary monetary policy
stance and possibly to cut rates further, in order to reduce risks of a sustained undershoot of the 2% inflation
target. With limited monetary policy space, risk management considerations favour a relatively prompt and aggressive response to downside risks at present.

This is via the impact of their words on the value of the UK Pound £ and the way a lower value ( mostly via the role of the US Dollar in setting commodity prices) tends to raise subsequent inflation. You may note that the bi-polar view of monetary policy space continues to be in play as he joins Mark Carney’s statement that it is limited from last Wednesday which morphed into the equivalent of a Bank Rate cut of 2.5% as quickly as Thursday. What a difference a day made!

twenty four little hours
Brought the sun and the flowers where there use to be rain ( Dinah Washington )

If we complete the points made by Michael Saunders we see something of an obsession with output gap theory.

First, with softer global growth and high Brexit uncertainty, the UK economy has remained sluggish. The
slowdown has created a modest output gap, and there are signs that the labour market is turning.

Also something perhaps even sillier.

Third, the neutral level of interest rates may have fallen further over the last year or two, both in the UK and
externally.

Or, of course, it may not.

Consumer Inflation

The backdrop was worrying because US consumer inflation had risen yesterday and Euro area inflation had risen last week and that is before we get to this.

Also, Zimbabwe’s annual inflation rate (the one that is officially concealed) rose to 521% in December. ( Joseph Cotterill)

But the numbers were good possibly showing that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 1.3% in December 2019, down from 1.5% in November 2019.

There were two main factors at play and I wonder if any of you spotted this one?

Restaurants and hotels, where prices for overnight hotel accommodation fell by 7.5% between November and December 2019, compared with a rise of 0.9% between November and December 2018;

Also the next one may have affects elsewhere because the last time we saw a burst of this as we saw retail sales rise in response ( thank you ladies) which is against the present consensus.

Clothing and footwear, where the largest individual downward contributions came from women’s casual jackets and cardigans, where prices fell between November and December 2019 but rose between the same two months in 2018. There were also small individual downward contributions from formal trousers and formal skirts

Also if we continue to look wider we see a possible impact from the slow down in car sales.

There was also a smaller downward contribution from the purchase of vehicles where prices overall were little changed in 2019 but increased by 0.7% in 2018.

Let us move on but not without noting that the impact of the UK Pound £ is for once zero compared to the Euro as we have the same inflation rate.

Euro area annual inflation is expected to be 1.3% in December 2019,

What Happens Next?

There is still a slight downwards push but the impetus has gone.

The growth rate of prices for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process was negative 0.1% on the year to December 2019, up from negative 1.9% in November 2019.

Indeed if we switch to output prices we see that there are ongoing albeit small rises in play.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 0.9% on the year to December 2019, up from 0.5% in November 2019.

If we look to future influences we know that 70% of the input number comes from the £ and the oil price. As we stand at US $64.40 for a barrel of Brent Crude that is where it roughly was in mid-December so maybe not much influence. With the Bank of England engaging in open mouth operations against the £ it may come into play.

House Prices

There was a worrying change here.

UK average house prices increased by 2.2% over the year to November 2019, up from 1.3% in October 2019……Average house prices increased over the year in England to £251,000 (1.7%), Wales to £173,000 (7.8%), Scotland to £155,000 (3.5%) and Northern Ireland to £140,000 (4.0%).

This adds a little credibility to the Halifax 4% reading for December although we await the official December data. As to the breakdown we have observed parts of the Midlands leading the line in recent times.

The annual increase in England was driven by the West Midlands and North West…..The lowest annual growth rate was in the East of England (negative 0.7%) followed by London (positive 0.2%).

Although that is for just England so we should also look wider and whilst it looks an anomaly there was this.

House price growth in Wales increased by 7.8% over the year to November 2019, up from 3.6% in October 2019, with the average house price in Wales at £173,000.

Comment

There is some much needed good news in today’s report for real wage growth as we see inflation dip. However we need context because if we switch to the UK’s longest running measure of inflation there is a different story in play.

The all items RPI annual rate is 2.2%, unchanged from last month.

The difference neatly illustrates my major theme in this area.

Other housing components, which increased the RPI 12-month rate relative to the CPIH 12-month rate by 0.06 percentage points between November and December 2019. The effect came mainly from house depreciation.

As you can see our official statisticians are desperate to make everyone look at their widely ignored favourite measure called CPIH which I will cover in a moment. But for now we see that past house prices via depreciation are exerting an upwards pull on the RPI and November’s number suggests this may continue. Most will understand that for many house prices are a big deal but the fact that they usually pull inflation higher means the establishment has launched an increasingly desperate campaign to ignore them.

If we now cover the official CPIH measure it indulges in a fleet of fantasy by assuming that owners pay themselves rent and then includes this fantasy in its inflation reading. Even worse there have been problems in measuring rents so it may well be a fantasy squared should such a thing exist. Anyway the effort to reduce the inflation reading has backfired this month as CPIH is above CPI due to this.

In December 2019, the largest upward contribution to the CPIH 12-month inflation rate came from housing and household services. The division has provided the largest upward contribution since November 2018.

Oh well…..

Where next for the Japanese Yen and the Bank of Japan?

As the third most traded currency the Japanese Yen is one of the bedrocks of the world economy. In spite of the size and strength of the Japanese economy the currency tail can wag the economy dog as we saw on the period of the “Carry Trade” and its consequences. For newer readers I looked at the initial impact back on the 19th of September 2016.

 Ironically if done on a large-scale as happened back in the day with the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen it lowers the currency and so not only is the interest cheaper but you have a capital gain. What could go wrong? Well we will come to that. But this same effect turned out to make things uncomfortable for both Japan and Switzerland as their currencies were pushed lower and lower.

At that point borrowers were having a party as the got a cheaper borrowing rate and a currency gain but the Japanese ( and Swiss) saw their currency being depressed. However the credit crunch ended that party as currency traders saw the risk and that people might buy Yen to cover the risk. Thus there was a combination of speculative and actual buying which saw the Yen strengthen from over 120 Yen to the US Dollar to below 80.

There were various impacts from this and starting in Japan life became difficult for its exporters and some sent production abroad as the mulled an exchange rate of around 78 to the US Dollar. For example some shifted production to Thailand. Looking wider the investors who remained in the carry trade shifted from profit to loss. On this road in generic terms the typical Japanese investor often described as Mrs. Watanabe was having a rough patch as in Yen terms their investments went being hit. Actually that is something of a generic over my career for Mrs Watanabe as timing of investments in say UK Gilts or Australian property has often been poor. Of course as it turns out property in Oz did work but you would have needed plenty of patience.

Enter the Bank of Japan

The next phase was a type of enter the dragon as the Bank of Japan in 2013 embarked on an extraordinary monetary stimulus programme. Under the banner of Abenomics that was designed to weaken the Yen although it was not officially one of the 3 arrows it was supposed to fire. For a while this worked as the Yen fell towards 125 to the US Dollar. But just as economics 101 felt it could celebrate a rare triumph the Yen then strengthened again and actually rallied to 101 in spite of negative interest-rates being deployed  leading to yet another new effort called QQE and Yield Curve Control in September 2016.

So we see that Japan had some success in weakening the Yen but that then ended and even with negative interest-rates and the purchases by the Bank of Japan below there was a fizzling out of any impact.

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

But you see these things have unintended consequences as Brad Setser points out below.

Japanese investors have been big buyers of foreign bonds—and U.S. bonds in particular. The lifers, the Japanese government through the government pension fund (GPIF), the Japanese government through Post Bank (which takes in deposits and cannot make loans so it buys foreign bonds since it cannot make money buying JGBs), and Norinchukin*

So a policy to weaken the Yen has a side-effect of strengthening it and even worse makes the global financial system more risky. Back to Brad.

In broad terms, a number of Japanese financial institutions have become, in part, dollar based intermediaries. They borrow dollars from U.S. money market funds, U.S. banks, and increasingly the world’s large reserve managers (all of whom want to hold short-term dollar claims for liquidity reasons) and invest in longer dated U.S. bonds.

What about now?

Things are rather different to this time last year when we were trying to figure out what had caused this?

The Japanese yen soared in early Asian trading on Thursday as the break of key technical levels triggered massive stop-loss sales of the U.S. and Australian dollars in very thin markets. The dollar collapsed to as low as 105.25 yen on Reuters dealing JPY=D3, a drop of 3.2 percent from the opening 108.76 and the lowest reading since March 2018. It was last trading around 107.50 yen………. ( Reuters )

That was from January 3rd whereas overnight we see this.

The major was trading 0.1 percent up at 110.09, having hit a high of 110.21 earlier, its highest since May 23.  ( EconoTimes )

On its own this may seen the Governor of the Bank of Japan have a quiet smile and a celebratory glass of sake. But falls in the Yen are associated with something else which will please the head of The Tokyo Whale.

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Tokyo stocks rose Tuesday, with the benchmark Nikkei index ending above 24,000 for the first time since mid-December, as investor sentiment improved on expectations for further easing of U.S.-China trade tensions. ( The Mainichi)

The Mainichi seems to have missed the currency connection with this but no doubt Governor Kuroda   will be pointing out both thresholds to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Has something changed?

On Monday JP Morgan thought so. Via Forex Flow.

But because in recent years the yen is no longer being sold off in the first place, it is not acting as much like a safe-haven currency as in the past.

Okay so why?

if interest rates increase in other countries (opening a wider gap with rates in Japan)

Well good luck with that one! Maybe some day but the credit crunch era has seen 733 interest-rate cuts. However the Financial Times has joined in.

First, Japan is running trade deficits, which would imply a weaker currency. Second, domestic asset managers are busy buying higher-yielding foreign assets. Third, Japanese companies, confronting a chronic shortage of decent ways to deploy their capital at home, are increasingly spending it on deals overseas.

The last point is a really rather devastating critique of the six years of Abenomics as one of the stated Arrows was for exactly the opposite. Also there us more trouble for economics 101 as a lower Yen has seen a trade surplus switch to a deficit. Actually I think that responses to exchange rate moves can be very slow and measured in years so with all the ch-ch-changes it is hard to know what move is in play.

Comment

There is much to reflect on here. For example today may be one to raise a smile at the Bank of Japan as it calculates the value of its large equity holdings and sees the Yen weaken across a threshold. But it is also true that exactly the same policies saw the “flash rally” of over a year ago. In addition we see that the enormous effort in play to weaken the Yen has seen compensating side-effects which raise the risk level in the international finance system. Really rather like the Carry Trade did.

A warning is required because in the short-term crossing a threshold like 110 Yen sees a reversal but we could see the Yen weaken for a while. This is problematic with so many others wanting to devalue their currency as well with the Bank of England currently in the van. From a Japanese perspective this will be see as a gain against a nation they have all sorts of issues with.

“China has made enforceable commitments to refrain from competitive devaluation, while promoting transparency and accountability,” US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused China of allowing the value of the yuan to fall, making Chinese goods cheaper.

But, on Monday, the US said that the value of the yuan had appreciated since August, at the height of the trade war. ( BBC )

How will that play out?

 

 

 

The inflation problem is only in the minds of central bankers

Yesterday we looked at the trend towards negative interest-rates and today we can link this into the issue of inflation. So let me open with this morning’s release from Swiss Statistics.

The consumer price index (CPI) remained stable in December 2019 compared with the previous month, remaining at 101.7 points (December 2015 = 100). Inflation was +0.2% compared with the same month of the previous year. The average annual inflation reached +0.4% in 2019.These are the results of the Federal Statistical Office (FSO).

The basic situation is not only that there is little or no inflation but that there has been very little since 2015. Actually if we switch to the Euro area measure called CPI in the UK we see that it picks up even less.

In December 2019, the Swiss Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) stood at 101.17 points
(base 2015=100). This corresponds to a rate of change of +0.2% compared with the previous month
and of –0.1% compared with the same month of the previous year.

Negative Interest-Rates

There is a nice bit of timing here in that the situation changed back in 2015 on the 15th to be precise and I am sure many of you still recall it.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is discontinuing the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro. At the same time, it is lowering the interest rate on sight deposit account balances that exceed a given exemption threshold by 0.5 percentage points, to −0.75%.

If we look at this in inflation terms then the implied mantra suggested by Ben Bernanke yesterday would be that Switzerland would have seen some whereas it has not. In fact the (nearly) 5 years since then have been remarkable for their lack of inflation.

There is a secondary issue here related to the exchange rate which is that the negative interest-rate was supposed to weaken it. That is a main route as to how it is supposed to raise inflation but we find that we are nearly back where we began. What I mean by that is the exchange-rate referred to above is 1.084 compared to the Euro. So the Swiss tried to import inflation but have not succeeded and awkwardly for fans of negative interest-rates part of the issue is that the ECB ( European Central Bank) joined the party reminding me of a point I made just under 2 years ago on the 9th of January 2018.

For all the fire and fury ( sorry) there remains a simple underlying point which is that if one currency declines falls or devalues then others have to rise. That is especially awkward for central banks as they attempt to explain how trying to manipulate a zero-sum game brings overall benefits.

The Low Inflation Issue

Let me now switch to another Swiss based organisation the Bank for International Settlements  or BIS. This is often known as the central bankers central bank and I think we learn a lot from just the first sentence.

Inflation in advanced economies (AEs) continues to be subdued, remaining below central banks’ target
in spite of aggressive and persistent monetary policy accommodation over a prolonged period.

As we find so often this begs more than a few questions. For a start why is nobody wondering why all this effort is not wprking as intended? The related issue is then why they are persisting with something that is not working? The Eagles had a view on this.

They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast

We then get quite a swerve.

To escape the low inflation trap, we argue that, as suggested by Jean-Claude Trichet, governments
and social partners put in place “consensus packages” that include a fiscal policy that supports demand
and a series of ad hoc nominal wage increases over several years.

Actually there are two large swerves here. The first is the switch away from the monetary policies which have been applied on an ever larger scale each time with the promise that this time they will work. Next is a pretty breathtaking switch to advocacy of fiscal policy by the very same Jean-Claude Trichet who was involved in the application of exactly the reverse in places like Greece during his tenure at the ECB.

Their plan is to simply add to the control freakery.

As political economy conditions evolve, this role should be progressively substituted by rebalancing the macro
policy mix with a more expansionary fiscal policy. More importantly, social partners and governments
control an extremely powerful lever, ie the setting of wages at least in the public sector and potentially
in the private sector, to re-anchor inflation expectations near 2%.

The theory was that technocratic central bankers would aim for inflation targets set by elected politicians. Now they want to tell the politicians what to so all just to hit an inflation target that was chosen merely because it seemed right at the time. Next they want wages to rise at this arbitrary rate too! The ordinary worker will get a wage rise of 2% in this environment so that prices can rise by 2% as well. It is the economics equivalent of the Orwellian statements of the novel 1984

Indeed they even think that they can tell employers what to do.

Finally, in a full employment context,
employers have an incentive to implement wage increases to keep their best performing employees
and, given that nominal labour costs of all employers would increase in parallel, they would able to raise
prices in line with the increase of their wage bills with limited risk of losing clients

Ah “full employment” the concept which is in practical terms meaningless as we discussed only yesterday.

Also as someone who studied the “social contracts” or what revealingly were called “wage and price spirals” in the UK the BIS presents in its paper a rose tinted version of the past. Some might say misleading. In the meantime as the economy has changed I would say that they would be even less likely to work.

Putting this another way the Euro area inflation numbers from earlier showed something the ordinary person will dislike but central bankers will cheer.

Looking at the main components of euro area inflation, food, alcohol & tobacco is expected to have the highest
annual rate in December (2.0%, compared with 1.9% in November),

I would send the central bankers out to explain to food shoppers how this is in fact the nirvana of “price stability” as for new readers that is what they call inflation of 2% per annum. We would likely get another ” I cannot eat an I-Pad” moment.

Comment

Let me now bring in some issues which change things substantially and let me open with something that has got FT Alphaville spinning itself into quicksand.

As far as most people are concerned, there is more than enough inflation. Cœuré noted in his speech that most households think the average rate in the eurozone between 2004 and last year has been 9 per cent (in fact it was 1.6 per cent). That’s partly down to higher housing costs (which are not wholly included in central banks’ measurement of inflation).

That last sentence is really rather desperate as it nods to the official FT view of inflation which is in quite a mess on the issue of housing inflation. Actually the things which tend to go up ( house prices) are excluded from the Euro area measure of inflation. There was a plan to include them but that turned out to be an attempt simply to waste time ( about 3 years as it happened). Why? Well they would rather tell you that this is a wealth effect.

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 4.2% in both the euro area and the EU in the
second quarter of 2019 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

Looking at the situation we see that a sort of Holy Grail has developed – the 2% per annum inflation target – with little or no backing. After all its use was then followed by the credit crunch which non central bankers will consider to be a rather devastating critique. One road out of this is to raise the inflation target even higher to 3%, 4% or more, or so we are told.

There are two main issues with this of which the first is that if you cannot hit the 2% target then 3% or 4% seems pointless. But to my mind the bigger one is that in an era of lower numbers why be King Canute when instead one can learn and adapt. I would either lower the inflation target and/or put house prices in it so that they better reflect the ordinary experience. The reason they do not go down this road is explained by a four letter word, debt. Or as the Eagles put it.

Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice
And she said: “We are all just prisoners here
Of our own device”

The Chinese way of economic stimulus has started already in 2020

Firstly welcome to the new year and for some the new decade ( as you could argue it starts in 2021). The break has in some ways felt long and in other ways short but we have begun a new year with something familiar. After the 733 interest-rate cuts of the credit crunch era the People’s Bank of China ( PBOC ) has started 2020 with this.

In order to support the development of the real economy and reduce the actual cost of social financing, the People’s Bank of China decided to reduce the deposit reserve ratio of financial institutions by 0.5 percentage points on January 6, 2020 (excluding finance companies, financial leasing companies, and auto finance companies).

This is a different type of monetary easing as it operates on the quantity of money ( broad money) rather than the price or interest-rate of it. By increasing the supply ( with lower reserves banks can lend more) there may be cheaper loans but that is implicit rather than explicit. As to the size of the impact Reuters has crunched the numbers.

China’s central bank said on Wednesday it was cutting the amount of cash that all banks must hold as reserves, releasing around 800 billion yuan ($114.91 billion) in funds to shore up the slowing economy.

Care is needed here as we see some copy and pasting of the official release. This is because that is the maximum not the definite impact and also because the timing is uncertain. No doubt some lending will happen now but we do not know when the Chinese banks will use up the full amount. That is one of the reason’s we in the West stopped using this as a policy option ( the UK switched in the 1970s) as it is unreliable in its timing or more specifically more unreliable than interest-rate changes, or so we thought.

Speaking of timing there is of course this.

Freeing up more liquidity now would also reduce the risks of a credit crunch ahead of the long Lunar New Year holidays later this month, when demand for cash surges. Record debt defaults and problems at some smaller banks have already added to strains on China’s financial system.

The PBOC said it expects total liquidity in the banking system to remain stable ahead of the Lunar New Year. ( Reuters).

Although for context this is the latest in what has become a long-running campaign.

The PBOC has now cut RRR eight times since early 2018 to free up more funds for banks to lend as economic growth slows to the weakest pace in nearly 30 years.

You could argue the number of RRR cuts argues against its usefulness as a policy but these days interest-rate changes have faced the same issue.

The translation of the official view is below.

The People’s Bank of China will continue to implement a prudent monetary policy, remain flexible and appropriate, not flood flooding, take into account internal and external balance, maintain reasonable and adequate liquidity, and increase the scale of currency credit and social financing in line with economic development and stimulate the vitality of market players. High-quality development and supply-side structural reforms create a suitable monetary and financial environment.

I would draw your attention to “flood flooding” but let’s face it that makes a similar amount of sense to what other central banks say and write!

I note that it is supposed to help smaller companies but central banks have plugged that line for some time now. The Bank of Japan gave it a go and in my country the Bank of England introduced the Funding for Lending Scheme to increase bank lending to smaller and medium-sized businesses in 2012. The reality was that mortgage lending and consumer credit picked up instead.

Of the latest funds released, small and medium banks would receive roughly 120 billion yuan, the central bank said, stressing that it should be used to fund small, local businesses.

The banks

Having said that this was different to policy in the West there is something which is awfully familiar.

The PBOC said lower reserve requirements will reduce banks’ annual funding costs by 15 billion yuan, which could reduce pressure on their profit margins from recent interest rate reforms. Last week, it said existing floating-rate loans will be switched to the new benchmark rate starting from Jan. 1 as part of a broader effort to lower financing costs. ( Reuters ).

I guess central banks are Simon and Garfunkel fans.

And I’m one step ahead of the shoe shine
Two steps away from the county line
Just trying to keep my customers satisfied,
Satisfied.

The Chinese Economy

There is something of an economic conundrum though if we note the latest economic news.

BEIJING, Dec. 31 (Xinhua) — The purchasing managers’ index (PMI) for China’s manufacturing sector stood at 50.2 in December, unchanged from November, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said Tuesday.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion, while a reading below reflects contraction.

This marks the second straight month of expansion, partly buoyed by booming supply and demand as well as increasing export orders, said NBS senior statistician Zhao Qinghe.

“booming supply and demand”. Really? Well there is growth but hardly a boom/

On a month-on-month basis, the sub-index for production gained 0.6 points to 53.2 in December,

Even it is not backed up by demand.

while that for new orders fell slightly to 51.2, still in the expansion zone.

The wider economy is recorded as doing relatively well.

Tuesday’s data also showed China’s composite PMI slid slightly to 53.4, but was 0.3 points higher than this year’s average, indicating steady expansion in the production of China’s companies.

Stock Market

According to Yuan Talks it as ever liked the idea although it is only one day.

#Shanghai Composite index extends gains to 1.5% to approach 3100 mark. #Shenzhen Component Index and #Chinext index are surging near 2%.

Still President Trump would be a fan.

Yuan or Renminbi

Here we see that we have been on a bit of a road to nowhere over the past year. After weakening in late summer towards 7.2 versus the US Dollar the Yuan at 6.96 is up 1.2% on a year ago. So there have been a lot of column inches on the subject but in fact very little of them have been sustained.

Comment

It would appear that the PBOC does not have much faith in the reports of a pick up in the Chinese economy as it has already stepped up its easing programme. There are other issues in play such as the trade war and these next two so let us start with US Dollar demand.

China’s big bang opening of its $45 trillion financial industry begins in earnest next year — a step-by-step affair that’s unfolding just as economic strains threaten the promised windfall luring in global firms.

Starting with its insurance and futures markets, the Communist Party ruled nation will enact the most sweeping changes in decades to allow the likes of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and BlackRock Inc. to expand their footprint in China and compete for a slice of its growing wealth. ( Insurancejournal.com )

Will it need a dollar,dollar? We will have to see. Also this issue continues to build.

WARSAW (Reuters) – Bird flu has been detected in turkeys in eastern Poland, authorities said on Wednesday, and local media reported that the outbreak could require up to 40,000 birds to be slaughtered.

China has a big issue with this sort of thing and like in banking and economics the real danger was always possible contagion. So far it has had limited effect on UK pork prices for example as the annual rate of inflation is 0.7% but it is I think a case of watch this space.

Meanwhile according to Yuan Talks the credit may not flow everywhere.

Regulators in the city of Beijing warned financial institutions about risks in the lending to property developers with “extremely high leverage”, indicating the authority is not relaxing financing rules for the cash-starved sector as many anticipated.

Looking at it in terms of money supply growth an annual rate of 8.2% for broad money ( M2) may seem fast in the west but it has not changed much recently in spite of the easing and is slow for China.

 

 

Meet the new boss same as the old boss as the CFA Franc becomes the Eco

As Christmas approaches things usually quieten down but if turn out eyes to Africa and in particular West Africa there have been some currency developments over the weekend. So without further ado let me hand you over to Reuters.

West Africa’s monetary union has agreed with France to rename its CFA franc the Eco and cut some of the financial links with Paris that have underpinned the region’s common currency since its creation soon World War Two.

So we have both an economic/financial element and a colonial one. We have looked at the CFA Franc briefly before but now courtesy of LSE Blogs let us have a refresher.

Firstly, a fixed rate of exchange with the euro (and previously the French franc) set at 1 euro = 655.957 CFA francs. Secondly, a French guarantee of the unlimited convertibility of CFA francs into euros. Thirdly, a centralisation of foreign exchange reserves. Since 2005, the two central banks – the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) and the Bank of Central African States (BEAC) – have been required to deposit 50 per cent of their foreign exchange reserves in a special French Treasury ‘operating account’. Immediately following independence, this figure stood at 100 per cent (and from 1973 to 2005, at 65 per cent)……The final pillar of the CFA franc, is the principle of free capital transfer within the franc zone.

As you can see via their relationship with France the countries here became implicit members of the Euro, and follow the broad sweep of its monetary policy. If we return to Reuters the scope of the issue and ch-ch-changes is explained.

The CFA is used in 14 African countries with a combined population of about 150 million and $235 billion of gross domestic product.

However, the changes will only affect the West African form of the currency used by Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo – all former French colonies except Guinea Bissau.

The Central Bank of West African States or BCEAO

If we look at monetary policy here we do see one advantage of this.

The minimum interest rate for bidding on open market transactions (calls for bidding) and the interest rate applicable on the marginal lending window (repo rate), whose levels are currently set by the Monetary Policy Committee at respectively 2.50% and 4.50%, are the principal leading interest rates of the BCEAO.

That is considerably lower than what is common in that part of Africa as Ghana is at 16% and Nigeria 13,5% so there is a gain here.

The Economy

According to Friday’s meeting of the council of ministers for the BCEAO things are in fact going really rather well.

The Council of Ministers has analyzed the recent economic and monetary situation in the Union. To this end, he noted the increased dynamism of economic activity in the third quarter of 2019 as well as the favorable economic outlook in the WAEMU countries. Indeed, growth in real gross domestic product (GDP) came out at 6.6% year-on-year, after 6.4% the previous quarter, under the effect of renewed dynamism in the tertiary and secondary sectors. Economic growth in the Union would be, in real terms, at 6.6% in 2019 as in 2020.

After a year of reporting slowing economic growth that is a cheerful and refreshing report. Indeed whilst more than a few would be screaming DEFLATION looking at the numbers below I welcome them.

The Council also noted the decline in the general level of consumer prices, with an inflation rate, year-on-year, of -1.0% in the third quarter of 2019, after -0.7% in the previous quarter, in combination with falling food prices, favored by abundant cereal production.

Firstly in spite of the fast rate if economic growth these are countries with plenty of poor people who will not only welcome lower food prices they may be a matter of life and death. Also low and indeed negative inflation can be combined with a good economic run and not need the economics establishment to rev up REM on their turntables.

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it

Although there is a catch if the price falls are for products produced and exported.

Thus, price reductions were recorded for cashew nuts
(-23.5%), palm kernel oil (-17.2%), robusta coffee (-7.1%) and cotton (-4.2%). On the other hand,
increases were noted for petroleum (+ 8.8%), rubber (+ 6.5%) and cocoa
(+ 5.0%).  ( BCEAO 2nd Quarter)

There is however a de facto consequence of implicit Euro area membership.

To this end, they invited the member states to continue efforts aimed at bringing the budget deficit below the Community standard of 3.0% of GDP, in particular by widening the tax base and improving performance. as well as the efficiency of tax administrations.

In case you are wondering about the other component of the Stability and Growth Pact it doesn’t really apply at the moment.

Preliminary data point to an increase in total debt to
52.5 percent of GDP in 2018 from 50.1 percent in 2017. ( IMF)

However bond yields are much higher so there are debt servicing issues.

and in total debt service to 33 percent of
government revenue in 2018 from 26.4 percent in 2017. ( IMF)

 

Also the burden is rising.

It rose by 17½ percentage points of GDP over
the last 5 years to reach 52½ percent
at end-2018. ( IMF )

Trade Is A Problem

The IMF puts it like this.

The external current account deficit is estimated to have increased to 6.8 percent in 2018 from 6.6 percent of GDP in 2017. This increase was underpinned by strong public capital spending but also by worsening terms-of-trade
on the back of higher world oil prices.

This is an issue and points straight at the currency being too high which is a challenge for the CFA Franc because it is a fixed exchange rate.

Ch-Ch-Changes

Back to Reuters.

Under the deal, the Eco will remain pegged to the euro but the African countries in the bloc won’t have to keep 50% of their reserves in the French Treasury and there will no longer be a French representative on the currency union’s board.

Comment

In economic terms this is a case of meet the new boss same as the old boss. The switches above are more symbolic than real economic changes as the broad reality is that the Eco is pegged to the Euro. As we stand that is not going too badly with economic growth having been strong for some time.

Despite adverse terms-of-trade shocks and security concerns in some member-countries, real GDP growth is estimated to have exceeded 6 percent for the 7th consecutive year in 2018, fueled by strong domestic demand. ( IMF)

Inflation is also low,

But whilst it is an establishment fashion to look at the fiscal deficit and of course that is a Euro area obsession and some might argue fetish the real issue for me is elsewhere. It is the trade position where we see that whether you call the currency the CFA Franc or the Eco it is too high and as inflation is low maybe a devaluation is in order. Where have we heard that before concerning the Euro?

Podcast

 

 

 

Good to see UK wage growth well above house price growth

Today brings the UK inflation picture into focus and for a while now it has been an improved one as the annual rates of consumer, producer and house price inflation have fallen. Some of this has been due to the fact that the UK Pound £ has been rising since early August which means that our consumer inflation reading should head towards that of the Euro area. As ever currency markets can be volatile as yesterdays drop of around 2 cents versus the US Dollar showed but we are around 12 cents higher than the lows of early August. The latter perspective was rather missing from the media reporting of this as “tanks” ( Reuters) and “tanking” ( Robin Wigglesworth of the FT) but for our purposes today the impact of the currency has and will be to push inflation lower.

The Oil Price

This is not as good for inflation prospects as it has been edging higher. Although it has lost a few cents today the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil is at just below US $66 has been rising since it was US $58 in early October. Whilst the US $70+ of the post Aramco attack soon subsided we then saw a gradual climb in the oil price. So it is around US $8 higher than this time last year.

If we look wider then other commodity prices have been rising too. For example the Thomson Reuters core commodity index was 167 in August but is 185 now. Switching to something which is getting a lot of media attention which is the impact of the swine fever epidemic in China ( and now elsewhere ) on pork prices it is not as clear cut as you might think. Yes the Thomson Reuters Lean Hogs index is 10% higher than a year ago but at 1.92 it is well below the year’a high of 2.31 seen in early April

Consumer Inflation

It was a case of steady as she goes this month.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 1.5% in November 2019, unchanged from October 2019.

This does not mean that there were no changes within it which included some bad news for chocoholics.

Food and non-alcoholic beverages, where prices overall rose by 0.8% between October and November 2019 compared with a smaller rise of 0.1% a year ago, especially for sugar, jam, syrups, chocolate and confectionery (which rose by 1.8% this year, compared with a rise of 0.1% last year). Within this group, boxes and cartons of chocolates, and chocolate covered ice cream bars drove the upward movement; and • Recreation and culture, where prices overall rose between October and November 2019 by more than between the same two months a year ago.

On the other side of the coin there was a downwards push from restaurants and hotels as well as from alcoholic beverages and tobacco due to this.

The 3.4% average price rise from October to November 2018 for tobacco products reflected an increase in duty on such products announced in the Budget last year.

Tucked away in the detail was something which confirms the current pattern I think.

The CPI all goods index annual rate is 0.6%, up from 0.5% last month……..The CPI all services index annual rate is 2.5%, down from 2.6% last month.

The higher Pound £ has helped pull good inflation lower but the “inflation nation” problem remains with services.

The pattern for the Retail Prices Index was slightly worse this month.

The all items RPI annual rate is 2.2%, up from 2.1% last month.

The goods/services inflation dichotomy is not as pronounced but is there too.

Housing Inflation ( Owner- Occupiers)

This is a story of many facets so let me open with some good news.

UK average house prices increased by 0.7% over the year to October 2019 to £233,000; this is the lowest growth since September 2012.

This is good because with UK wages rising at over 3% per annum we are finally seeing house prices become more affordable via wages growth. Also you night think that it would be pulling consumer inflation lower but the answer to that is yes for the RPI ( via the arcane method of using depreciation but it is there) but no and no for the measure the Bank of England targets ( CPI) and the one that our statistical office and regulators describes as shown below.

The Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH).

Those are weasel words because they use the concept of Rental Equivalence to claim that homeowners pay themselves rent when they do not. Even worse they have trouble measuring rents in the first place. Let me illustrate that by starting with the official numbers.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in the UK rose by 1.4% in the 12 months to November 2019, up from 1.3% in October 2019.

Those who believe that rents respond to wage growth and mostly real wages will already be wondering about how as wage growth has improved rental inflation has fallen? Well not everyone things that as this from HomeLet this morning suggests.

Newly agreed rents have continued to fall across most of the UK on a monthly basis despite above-inflation annual rises, HomeLet reveals.

Figures from the tenancy referencing firm show that average rents on new tenancies fell 0.6% on a monthly basis between October and November, with just Wales and the north-east of England registering a 1.1% and 0.4% increase respectively.

Both the north-west and east of England registered the biggest monthly falls at 0.8%.

Rents were, however, up 3.2% annually to £947 per month.

This is at more than double the 1.5% inflation rate for November.

As you can see in spite of a weak November they have annual rental inflation at more than double the official rate. This adds to the Zoopla numbers I noted on October 16th which had rental inflation 0.7% higher than the official reading at the time.

So there is doubt about the official numbers and part of it relates to an issue I have raised again with the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords. This is that the rental index is not really November’s.

“The short answer is that the rental index is lagged and that lag may not be stable.I have asked ONS for the detail on the lag some while ago and they have yet to respond.”

Those are the words of the former Government statistician Arthur Barnett. As you can see we may well be getting the inflation data for 2018 rather than 2019.

The Outlook

We get a guide to this from the producer price data.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 0.5% on the year to November 2019, down from 0.8% in October 2019……..The growth rate of prices for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process was negative 2.7% on the year to November 2019, up from negative 5.0% in October 2019.

So the outlook for the new few months is good but not as good as it was as we see that input price inflation is less negative now. We also see the driving force behind goods price inflation being so low via the low level of output price inflation.

Comment

In many respects the UK inflation position is pretty good. The fact that consumer inflation is now lower helps real wage growth to be positive. Also the fall in house price inflation means we have improved affordability. These will both be boosting the economy in what are difficult times. The overall trajectory looks lower too if we add in these elements described by the Bank of England.

CPI inflation remained at 1.7% in September and is expected to decline to around 1¼% by the spring, owing to the temporary effect of falls in regulated energy and water prices.

However as I have described above these are bad times for the Office for National Statistics and the UK Statistics Authority. Not only are they using imaginary numbers for 17% of their headline index ( CPIH) the claims that these are based on some sort of reality ( actual rental inflation) is not only dubious it may well be based on last year data.

The Investing Channel

 

Sweden has a growing unemployment problem

Today is one for some humility and no I am not referring to the UK election. It relates to Sweden and developments there in economic policy and its measurement which have turned out to be extraordinary even for these times. Let me start by taking you back to the 22nd of August when I noted this.

I am less concerned by the contraction than the annual rate. There had been a good first quarter so the best perspective was shown by an annual rate of 1.4%. You see in recent years Sweden has seen annual economic growth peak at 4.5% and at the opening of 2018 it was 3.6%.

We now know that this broad trend continued into the third quarter.

Calendar adjusted and compared with the third quarter of 2018, GDP grew by 1.6 percent.

What was really odd about the situation is that after years of negative interest-rates the Riksbank raised interest-rates at the end of last year to -0.25% and plans this month to get back to 0%. So it has kept interest-rates negative in a boom and waited for a slow down to raise them. But there is more.

The Unemployment Debacle

If we step forwards to October 24th there was another development.

As economic activity has entered a phase of lower growth in
2019, the labour market has also cooled down. Unemployment is deemed to have increased slightly during the year. ( Riksbank)

Actually it looked a bit more than slightly if we switch to Sweden Statistics.

In September 2019, there were 391 000 unemployed persons aged 15─74, not seasonally adjusted, an increase of 62 000 compared with September 2018.

The Riksbank at this point was suggesting it would raise to 0% but gave Forward Guidance which was lower! Make of that what you will.

But in late October Sweden Statistics dropped something of a bombshell.

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Recent Swedish jobless figures – which that have shown a sharp rise in unemployment and led to calls for the central bank to postpone planned interest rate hikes – are suspect, the country’s Statistics Office said on Thursday………….The problems also led to the unemployment rate being underestimated at the start of the year and then overestimated in more recent months.

The smoothed unemployment rate was lowered from 7.3% to 6.8% in response to this and changed the narrative, assuming of course that they had got it right this time. The headline rate went from 7.1% to 6%.

This morning we got the latest update and here it is.

In November 2019, there were 378 000 unemployed persons aged 15─74, not seasonally adjusted, which is an increase of 63 000 persons compared with the same period a year ago. The unemployment rate increased by 1.0 percentage points and amounted to 6.8 percent.

As you can see eyes will have turned to the headline rate having gone from 6% to 6.8% making us wonder if the new methodology has now started to give similar results to the old one. It had been expected to rise but to say 6.3% not 6.8%. We get some more insight from this.

Among persons aged 15–74, smoothed and seasonally adjusted data shows an increase in both the number of unemployed persons and the unemployment rate, compared with nearby months. There were 384 000 unemployed persons in November 2019, which corresponds to an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent.

A much smaller move but again higher and because it is smoothed we also start to think we are back to where we were as this from Danske Bank makes clear.

Ooops! The very unreliable revised new #LFS data showed a significant bounce back up to 7.3 % seasonally adjusted! This is very close to what our model suggested. Ironically, this is just as bad as the old figures suggested. But perhaps these are wrong too? ( Michael Grahn )

So the new supposedly better data is now giving a similar answer to the old. Just for clarity they are taking out the smoothing or averaging effect and looking to give us a spot answer for November unemployment.

The Wider Economy

One way of looking at the work situation is to look at hours worked.

On average, the number of hours worked amounted to 154.3 million per week in November 2019.

But that is lower than under the old system.

On average, the number of hours worked amounted to 156.5 million per week in September 2019…..On average, the number of hours worked amounted to 156.2 million per week in August 2019.

This is really awkward as under the new system Sweden has just under an extra half a million employees but the total number of house worked has fallen. Make of that what you will.

If switch to production we saw a by now familiar beat hammered out earlier this month.

Production in the industry sector decreased by 3.0 percent in October in calendar adjusted figures compared with the same period of the previous year. The industry for machinery and equipment n.e.c. decreased by 6.8 percent in fixed prices and accounted for the largest contribution, -0.2* percentage points, to the development in total private sector production.

Monthly output was up by 0.2% seasonally adjusted but as you can see was well below last year’s. This means Sweden is relying on services for any growth.

Production in the service sector increased by 1.1 percent in October in calendar adjusted figures compared with the same period of the previous year. Trade activities increased by 3.6 percent in fixed prices and contributed the most, 0.5 percentage points, to the development in total private sector production.

So Sweden has maybe some growth which will get a boost from construction.

Production in the construction sector increased by 2.1 percent in October in calendar adjusted figures compared with the same period of the previous year. This sector increased by 2.1 percent in fixed prices, not calendar-adjusted.

If we switch to private-sector surveys then Swedbank tells us this.

The purchasing managers’ index for the private service sector (Services PMI) dropped in November for the third month in a row to 47.9 from 49.4 in October. The
decrease in the index means that service sector activity is continuing to decline in the fourth quarter to levels that have not been seen in six years and that are
contributing to lower hiring needs in service companies,

So maybe the service sector growth has gone as well. The overall measure speaks for itself.

Silf/Swedbank’s PMI Composite index dropped for the third straight month to 47.2 in November from 48.5 in October, reinforcing the view that private sector activity is
slowing in the fourth quarter. Since November of last year the composite index has fallen 7.6 points

Comment

There are two clear issues in this. Of which the first is the insane way in which the Riksbank kept interest-rates negative in a boom and now is raising them in a slowing.

Updated GDP tracker after Nov LFS dropped to a new low since 2012, just 0.26% yoy. ( Michael Grahn of Danske )

Some signals suggest that this may now be a decline or contraction. But whatever the detail the Swedish economy has slowed and will not be helped much by the slower Euro area and UK economies. An interest-rate rise could be at the worst moment and fail the Bananarama critique.

It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
And that’s what gets results

Next is the issue of lies, damned lies and statistics. I am sure Sweden’s statisticians are doing their best but making mistakes like they have about unemployment is a pretty basic fail. It reminds us that these are surveys and not actual counts and adds to the mess Japan made of wages growth. So we know a lot less than we think we do and this poses yet another problem for the central bankers who seem to want to control everything these days.

Let me end with the thought that UK readers should vote and Rest In Peace to Marie Fredriksson of Roxette.

She’s got the look (She’s got the look) She’s got the look (She’s got the look)
What in the world can make a brown-eyed girl turn blue
When everything I’ll ever do I’ll do for you
And I go la la la la la she’s got the look