What is the purpose of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England?

This week has been one where we have found ourselves observing and analysing the both the reality and the consequences of the global economic slow down. Yesterday gave us an opportunity to peer into the mind of a Bank of England policymaker and first Gertjan Vlieghe was keen to establish why he is paid the big bucks.

When the global economy is doing well, the UK usually tends to do well too. When the global economy is
sluggish, the UK economy tends to be sluggish too.

Thanks for that Gertjan! Next comes something that has been an issue since the credit crunch hit which has been the issue of what David Bowie called ch-ch-changes.

We are in a period of unusual uncertainty around the economic outlook.
There is a tendency to say every quarter that things are more uncertain than before, and of course that
cannot always be true. It must be that sometimes uncertainty is less than it was before.

Now put yourself in Gertjan’s shoes as someone who has been consistently wrong and has turned it into something of an art form. The future must be terrifying to someone like that and indeed it is.

Setting monetary policy requires making decisions even when the outlook is uncertain.

Actually the outlook is always uncertain especially if we look back for Gertjan and his colleagues.

The Forward Guidance Lie

Here is Gertjan making his case.

Rather, we need to respond to news about the economy as
we receive it, in a systematic and predictable way that agents in the economy can factor into their decisions.

There are several problems with this. Firstly how many people even take notice of the Bank of England. Secondly that situation will have only have been made worse by the way that the Forward Guidance has not only been wrong it has been deeply misleading, For example in August 2016 after more than two years of hints and promises about a Bank Rate rise Gerthan voted instead for a Bank Rate cut and £60 billion of Sledgehammer QE. So those who had taken the Forward Guidance advice and for example remortgaged into a fixed-rate were materially disadvantaged.

Not content with that Gertjan seems on the road to doing it again. So let us remind ourselves of the official view.

The Committee judges that, were the economy to develop broadly in line with its Inflation Report projections, an ongoing tightening of monetary policy over the forecast period, at a gradual pace and to a limited extent, would be appropriate to return inflation sustainably to the 2% target at a conventional horizon.

Yet Gertjan has got cold feet again.

I will discuss what news we have had about the economy in recent quarters, and how that has changed my
thinking about the appropriate path of monetary policy.

Why do I have a feeling of deja vu? Here is the old Vlieghe.

When I first spoke about the future path of Bank Rate a year ago, I thought one to two quarter point hikes per
year in Bank Rate was the most likely central case

Here is the new Vlieghe.

On the assumption that global growth does not slow materially further than it has so far, that the path to Brexit
involves a lengthy transition period in line with the government’s stated objectives, that pay growth continues
around its recent pace, and that we start to see some evidence of pay growth leading to upward consumer
price pressure, a path of Bank Rate that involves around one quarter point hike per year seems a reasonable
central case.

As you can see Gertjan is trying to present himself in the manner of an engineer perhaps fine tuning an aircraft wing design. The first problem is that last time he tried this his aircraft crashed on take-off as a promised Bank Rate rise turned into a cut. Next comes the issue of why you would raise Bank Rate once a year? After all it would feel like forever before anything materially changed. Five years of it would get Bank Rate to only 2%!

The reality is that if we look at his view of a slowing world economy it is hard to believe that he wants to raise interest-rates at all. Also as his speech is very downbeat about Brexit as the Bank of England consistently is then it is hard not to mull what he told the Evening Standard back in April 2016.

“Theoretically, I think interest rates could go a little bit negative.”

Even that was an odd phrase as of course quite a few countries had them including the country where he was born. Anyway here is my immediate response on twitter to his speech.

Shorter Gertjan Vlieghe : Can I vote for a Bank Rate cut yet please Governor?

If we step back and look at the overall Bank of England picture we see that the Monetary Policy Committee is becoming an increasing waste of time. We are paying eight people to say “I agree with Mark” and flatter the Governor’s ego.

Retail Sales

Here Gertjan Vlieghe had almost impeccable timing.

Domestic growth has slowed somewhat more than expected, especially around the turn of the year.

Just in time for this official release today about UK Retail Sales.

Year-on-year growth in the quantity bought in January 2019 was 4.2%, the highest since December 2016; while year-on-year average store prices slowed to 0.4%, the lowest price increase since November 2016.

Those figures confirm my theme that lower inflation leads to better consumption data via higher real wages. This is a very awkward issue for the Bank of England as it wants to push the 0.4% inflation above up to 2% in what would be a clear policy error.

In the three months to January 2019, the quantity bought increased by 0.7% when compared with the previous three months.The monthly growth rate in the quantity bought increased by 1.0% in January 2019, following a decline of 0.7% in December 2018.

A good January has pulled the quarterly numbers higher and the driving force is show below.

The quantity bought in textile, clothing and footwear stores showed strong year-on-year growth at 5.5% as stores took advantage of the January sales, with a year-on-year price fall of 0.9%.

Comment

This speech just highlights what a mess the situation has become at the Bank of England. A policymaker gives a speech talking about interest-rate rises whilst the meat of the speech outlines a situation more suited to interest-rate cuts. The economy is smaller due to Brexit morphs into world economic slow down and yet Gertjan apparently thinks we are silly enough to believe he intends to raise interest-rates. Even in a Brexit deal scenario he doesn’t seem to have even convinced himself.

If a transition period is successfully negotiated, and a near term “no deal” scenario is therefore avoided, I
would expect the exchange rate to appreciate somewhat. The degree of future monetary tightening will in
part depend on how large this appreciation is.

Also 2018 taught us how useful the money supply data can be in predicting economic events and yet they have been ignored by Gertjan as we see a reason why he is groping in the dark all the time. That brings me to my point for today which is that the Bank of England has become one big echo chamber with a lack of diversity in any respect but most importantly in views. External members are supposed to bring a fresh outlook but this has failed for some time now. So it would be simpler if we saved the other eight salaries and let Governor Carney set interest-rates as really all they are doing is saying “I agree with Mark”. After all even the Bank of Japan with its culture of face manages to produce some dissent these days.

 

 

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Germany will be the bellweather for the next stage of ECB monetary easing

Today there only is one topic and it was given a lead in late last night from Japan. There GDP growth was announced as 0.3% for the last quarter of 2018 which sounded okay on its own but meant that the economy shrank by 0.4% in the second half of 2018. Also it meant that it was the same size as a year before. So a bad omen for the economic growth news awaited from Germany.

In the fourth quarter of 2018, the gross domestic product (GDP) remained nearly at the previous quarter’s level after adjustment for price, seasonal and calendar variations.

If you want some real precision Claus Vistensen has given it a go.

German GDP up a dizzying 0.0173% in Q4.

Of course the numbers are nothing like that accurate and Germany now faces a situation where its economy shrank by 0.2% in the second half of 2018. The full year is described below.

Hence short-term economic development in Germany showed two trends in 2018. The Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) reports that, after a dynamic start into the first half of the year (+0.4% in the first quarter, +0.5% in the second quarter), a small dip (-0.2% in the third quarter, 0.0% in the fourth quarter) was recorded in the second half of the year. For the whole year of 2018, this was an increase of 1.4% (calendar adjusted: 1.5%). Hence growth was slightly smaller than reported in January.

Another way of looking at the slowdown is to compare the average annual rate of growth in 2018 of 1.5% with it now.

+0.6% on the same quarter a year earlier (price and calendar adjusted)

If we look at the quarter just gone in detail we see that it was domestic demand that stopped the situation being even worse.

The quarter-on-quarter comparison (price, seasonally and calendar adjusted) reveals that positive contributions mainly came from domestic demand. Gross fixed capital formation, especially in construction but also in machinery and equipment, increased markedly compared with the third quarter of 2018. While household final consumption expenditure increased slightly, general government final consumption expenditure was markedly up at the end of the year.

Is the pick up in government spending another recessionary signal? So far there is no clear sign of any rise in unemployment that is not normal for the time of year.

the number of persons in employment fell by 146,000, or 0.3%, in December 2018 on the previous month. The month-on-month decrease was smaller than the relevant average of the past five years (-158,000 people.

Actually we can say that it looks like there has been a fall in productivity as the year on year annual GDP growth rate of 0.6% compares with this.

Number of persons in employment in the fourth quarter of 2018 up 1.1% on the fourth quarter of 2017.

Also German industry does not seem to have lost confidence as we note the rise in investment which is the opposite of the UK where it ha been struggling. But something that traditionally helps the German economy did not.

However, development of foreign trade did not make a positive contribution to growth in the fourth quarter. According to provisional calculations, exports and imports of goods and services increased nearly at the same rate in the quarter-on-quarter comparison.

In a world sense that is not so bad news as the German trade surplus is something which is a global imbalance but for Germany right now it is a problem for economic growth.

So let us move on as we note that German economic growth peaked at 2.8% in the autumn of 2017 and is now 0.6%.

Inflation

This morning’s release on this front does not doubt have an element of new year sales but seems to suggest that inflation has faded.

 the selling prices in wholesale trade increased by 1.1% in January 2019 from the corresponding month of the preceding year. In December 2018 and in November 2018 the annual rates of change had been +2.5% and +3.5%, respectively.
From December 2018 to January 2019 the index fell by 0.7%.

Bond Yields

It is worth reminding ourselves how low the German ten-year yield is at 0.11%. That according to my chart compares to 0.77% a year ago and is certainly not what you might expect from reading either mainstream economics and media thoughts. That is because the German bond market has boomed as the ECB central bank reduced and then ended its monthly purchases of German government bonds. Let me give you some thoughts on why this is so.

  1. Those who invest their money have seen a German economic slowing and moved into bonds.
  2. Whilst monthly QE ended there are still ECB holdings of 517 billion Euros which is a tidy sum especially when you note Germany not expanding its debt and is running a fiscal surplus.
  3. The likelihood of a new ECB QE programme ( please see Tuesday’s post) has been rising and rising. Frankly the only reason it has not been restarted is the embarrassment of doing so after only just ending it.

Accordingly it would not take much more for the benchmark ten-year yield to go negative again. After all all yields out to the nine-year maturity now are. Let me point out how extraordinary that is on two counts. First that it happened at all and next the length of time for which negative bond yields have persisted.

If we look at that from another perspective we see that Germany could if it so chose respond to this slowing with fiscal policy. It can borrow for essentially nothing and in both absolute and relative terms its national debt has been falling. The awkward part is presentational after many years of telling other euro area countries ( most recently Italy) that this is a bad idea!

Comment

If you are a subscriber to the theme that Euro area monetary policy has generally been set for Germany’s benefit then there is plenty of food for thought in the above. Indeed it all started with the large devaluation it engineered for its exporters via swapping the Deutschmark for the Euro. That is currently very valuable because a mere glance at Switzerland suggests that rather than 1.13 to the US Dollar  the DM would be say 1.50 and maybe higher. Care is needed because as the Euro area’s largest economy of course it should be a major factor in monetary policy just not the only one.

Right now there will be chuntering of teeth in Frankfurt on two counts. Firstly that my theme that the timing of what you do matters nearly as much as what you do and on this front the ECB has got it wrong. Next comes the issue that it was not supposed to be the German economy that was to be a QE junkie. Yes the trade issues have not helped but it is deeper than that.

With some of the banks in trouble too such as Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank we could see a “surprise” easing from the ECB especially if there is a no-deal Brexit. That would provide a smokescreen for a fast U-Turn.

Me on The Investing Channel

Italy may be in a recession but more importantly its depression never ended

The last 24 hours have brought the economic problems and travails of Italy into a little sharper focus. More news has arrived this morning but before we get there I would like to take you back to early last October when the Italian government produced this.

Politics economy, reform action, good management of the PA and dialogue with businesses and citizens will therefore be directed towards achieving GDP growth of
at least 1.5 percent in 2019 and 1.6 percent in 2020, as indicated in new programmatic framework. On a longer horizon, Italy will have to grow faster than the rest of Europe, in order to recover the ground lost in the last
twenty years.

This was part of the presentation over the planned fiscal deficit increase and on the 26th of October I pointed out this.

If we look back we see that GDP growth has been on a quarterly basis 0.3% and then 0.2% so far this year and the Monthly Economic Report tells us this.

The leading indicator is going down slightly suggesting a moderate pace for the next months.

They mean moderate for Italy.So we could easily see 0% growth or even a contraction looking ahead as opposed some of the latest rhetoric suggesting 3%  per year is possible. Perhaps they meant in the next decade as you see that would be an improvement.

Political rhetoric suggesting 3% economic growth is a regular feature of fiscal debates because growth at that rate fixes most fiscal ills. The catch is that in line with the “Girlfriend in a Coma” theme Italy has struggled to maintain a growth rate above 1% for decades now. Also as we look back I recall pointing out that we have seen quarterly economic growth of 0.5% twice, 0.4% twice, then 0.3% twice in a clear trend. So we on here were doubtful to say the least about the fiscal forecasts and were already fearing a contraction.

Yesterday

All Italy’s troubles were not so far away as the statistics office produced this.

In the fourth quarter of 2018 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume measure of Gross
Domestic Product (GDP) decreased by 0.2 per cent with respect to the previous quarter and increased by
0.1 per cent over the same quarter of previous year.

Whilst much of the news concentrates on Italy now being in a recession the real truth is the way that growth of a mere 0.1% over the past year reminds us that it has never broken out of an ongoing depression. If we look at the chart provided we see that in 2008 GDP was a bit over 102 at 2010 prices but now it has fallen below 97. So a decade has passed in fact more like eleven years and the economy has shrunk. Also I see the Financial Times has caught onto a point I have been making for a while.

Brunello Rosa, chief executive of the consultancy Rosa and Roubini, has pointed out that, on a per capita basis, Italy’s real gross domestic product is lower than when the country adopted the euro in 1999. Over the same period Germany’s per capita real GDP has increased by more than 25 per cent, while even recession-ravaged Greece has performed better than Italy on the same basis.

On that basis Italy has been in a depression this century if not before. Indeed if you look at the detail it comes with something that challenges modern economic orthodoxy, so let me explain. In 1999 the Italian population was 56,909,000 whereas now it is just under 60.5 million. Much of the difference has been from net migration which we are so often told brings with it a list of benefits such as a more dynamic economic structure and higher economic growth. Except of course, sadly nothing like that has happened in Italy. As output has struggled it has been divided amongst a larger population and thus per head things have got worse.

Meanwhile this seems unlikely to help much.

Italy’s statistical institute will soon have a new president, the demographer Gian Carlo Blangiardo. He has recommended calculating life expectancy from conception – rather than birth – so as to include unborn babies. ()

Also population statistics in general have taken something of a knock this week.

Pretty interesting – New Zealand just found it has 45,000 fewer people than it thought. In a population of 4.9 million (maybe), that means economists might have to start revising things like productivity and GDP growth per capita. ( Tracy Alloway of Bloomberg).

Can I just say chapeau to whoever described it as Not So Crowded House.

The banks

I regularly point out the struggles of the Italian banks and say that this is a factor as they cannot be supporting the economy via business lending so thank you to the author of the Tweet below who has illustrated this.

As you can see whilst various Italian government’s have stuck their heads in the sand over the problems with so many of the Italian banks there has been a real cost in terms of supporting business and industry. This has become a vicious circle where businesses have also struggled creating more non-performing loans which weakens the banks as we see a doom loop in action.

What about now?

The GDP numbers gave us an idea of the areas involved on the contraction.

The quarter on quarter change is the result of a decrease of value added in agriculture, forestry and fishing
as well as in industry and a substantial stability in services. From the demand side, there is a negative
contribution by the domestic component (gross of change in inventories) and a positive one by the net
export component.

The latter part is a bit awkward for Prime Minister Conte who has taken the politically easy way out and blamed foreigners this morning. As to the industrial picture this morning;s PMI business survey suggests things got worse rather than better last month.

“January’s PMI data signalled another deterioration in Italian manufacturing conditions, with firms struggling in the face of a sixth consecutive monthly fall in new business. Decreases in output, purchasing activity and employment (the first in over four years) were recorded, marking a weak start to 2019.”

The spot number of 47.8 was another decline and is firmly in contraction territory.

Comment

This is as Elton John put it.

It’s sad, so sad (so sad)
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd

Italy has been in an economic depression for quite some time now but nothing ever seems to get done about it. Going back in time its political leadership were keen to lock it into monetary union with France and Germany but the hoped for convergence has merely led to yet more divergence.

One of the hopes is that the unofficial or what used to be called the black economy is helping out. I hope so in many ways but sadly even that is linked to the corruption problem which never seems to get sorted out either. Oh and whilst many blame the current government some of that is a cheap shot whilst it has had its faults so has pretty much every Italian government.

 

Podcast

Argentina is counting the cost of its 60% interest-rates

In these times of ultra low interest-rates in the western world anywhere with any sort of interest-rate sticks out. In the case of Argentina an official interest-rate of 60% sticks out like a sore thumb in these times and in economic terms there is a second factor in that it has been like that for a while now. So the impact of this punishing relative level of interest-rates will be building on the domestic economy. Also the International Monetary Fund is on hand as this statement from Christine Lagarde yesterday indicates.

“I commended Minister Dujovne and Governor Sandleris on decisive policy steps and progress thus far, which have helped stabilize the economy. Strong implementation of the authorities’ stabilization plan and policy continuity have served Argentina well, and will continue to be essential to enhance the economy’s resilience to external shocks, preserve macroeconomic stability and to bolster medium-term growth.

“I would like to reiterate the IMF’s strong support for Argentina and the authorities’ economic reform plan.”

The opening issue is that sounds awfully like the sort of thing the IMF was saying about Greece when it was predicting a quick return to economic growth and we then discovered that it had created an economic depression there. Of course Christine Lagarde was involved in that debacle too although back then as Finance Minster of France rather than head of the IMF. Also the last IMF press conference repeated a phrase which ended up having dreadful connotations in the Greek economic depression.

It’s on track as of our last mission which was, you know, in December.

As the track was from AC/DC.

I’m on the highway to hell
On the highway to hell
Highway to hell
I’m on the highway to hell
No stop signs, speed limit
Nobody’s gonna slow me down

So let us investigate further.

Monetary policy

The plan is to contract money supply growth so you could look at this as like one of those television programmes that take us back to the 1970s.

In particular, the BCRA undertakes not to raise the monetary base until June 2019. This target brings about a significant monetary contraction; while the monetary base increased by over 2% monthly in the past few months, it will stop rising from now onwards. Then, the monetary base will dramatically shrink in real terms in the following months.

So you can see that the central bank of Argentina is applying quite a squeeze and is doing it to the monetary base because it is a narrow measure, Actually it explains it well in a single sentence.

The BCRA has chosen the monetary base as it is the aggregate it holds a grip on.

It is doing it because it can. Although I am a little dubious about this bit.

The monetary base targeting will be seasonally adjusted in December and June, when demand for money is higher.

It is usually attempts to control broad money that end up targeting money demand rather than supply. It is being achieved with this.

the BCRA undertakes to keep the minimum rate on LELIQs at 60% until inflation deceleration becomes evident.

Also there will be foreign exchange intervention if necessary, or more realistically there has been a requirement for it.

The monetary target is supplemented with foreign exchange intervention and non-intervention measures. Initially, the BCRA would not intervene in the foreign exchange market if the exchange rate was between ARS34 and ARS44. This range is adjusted daily at a 3% monthly rate until the end of the year, and will be readjusted at the beginning of next year. The BCRA will allow free currency floating within this range, considering it to be adequate.

Finally for monetary policy then monetary financing of the government by the central bank is over.

As it has already been reported, the BCRA will no longer make transfers to the Treasury.

Fiscal Policy

Another squeeze is on here as the BCRA points out.

Finally, the new monetary policy is consistent with the targets of primary fiscal balance for 2019 and of surplus for 2020.

Yes in terms of IMF logic but the Greek experience told a different story. There a weaker economy made the fiscal targets further away and tightening them weakened the economy in a downwards spiral.

So where are we?

The squeeze is definitely as my calculations based on the daily monetary report show that the monetary base has shrunk by just under 4% in the last 30 days. If we move onto the consequences of this for the real economy then any central bankers reading this might need to take a seat as the typical mortgage rate in December was 48%. To give you an idea of other interest-rates then an overdraft cost 71% and credit card borrowing cost 61%.

If we look for the impact of such eye-watering levels we see that mortgage growth was on a tear because annually it is 54% up of which only 0.1% came in the last month. Moving to unsecured borrowing overdraft growth has been -1.2% over the past 30 days but credit card growth has been 3.5% so perhaps there has been some switching.

Economic growth

This has gone into reverse as you can see from this from the statistics office.

The provisional estimate of the gross domestic product (GDP), in the third quarter of 2018, had a fall of 3.5% in relation to the same period of the previous year.
The seasonally adjusted GDP of the third quarter of 2018, with respect to the second quarter of 2018, showed a variation of -0.7%.

So a weaker quarter following on from a 4.1% dip in the second quarter of 2018 which was mostly driven by the impact of a drought on the agricultural sector. Looking back the Argentine economy did recover from the credit crunch pretty well but the recorded dip so far takes us back to 2011 or eight years backwards.

The IMF points out this year should get the agricultural production back which is welcome.

However,
in the second quarter, a rebound in agricultural
production (expected to fully recover the 30 percent
production lost in 2018 because of the drought)
should lead to a gradual pickup in economic activity.

But if we put that to one side there has to be an impact from the credit crunch. Also whilst this is good.

The recession and peso depreciation are quickly lowering the trade deficit.

It does come with something which has a very ominous sign for domestic consumption.

The adjustment mainly reflects
lower imports, reflecting a contraction in
consumption and investment.

Moving to inflation then here it is.

The general level of the consumer price index (CPI) representative of the total number of households in the country registered in December a variation of 2.6% in relation to the previous month.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here as we see a monetary squeeze imposed on an economy suffering from a drought driven economic contraction. Also I have form in that I warned about the dangers of raising interest-rates to protect a currency on May 3rd.

However some of the moves can make things worse as for example knee-jerk interest-rate rises. Imagine you had a variable-rate mortgage in Buenos Aires! You crunch your domestic economy when the target is the overseas one.

Interest-rates were half then what they are now and I have already pointed out what mortgage rates now are. As to what sort of a economic crunch is coming the latest from the statistics office looks rather ominous.

The statistics office’s monthly economic activity index fell 7.5% y/y in November after dropping 4.2% in the previous month.

As to the business experience this from Reuters gives us a taste of reality.

Like many small businessmen, Meloni has found himself caught in a vice. Sales from his plant in the town of Quilmes, 30 km (19 miles) outside the capital Buenos Aires, shrank by just over one third last year as Argentina’s economy sank deep into recession…..

 

Meloni said the plant, which makes fabrics, used to operate 24 hours a day from Monday to Saturday but now just operates 16 hours a day, five days a week. Like many other businesses, Meloni advanced the holidays to his roughly 100 employees with the hope that once summer ends in March, demand will pick up.

It is very expensive to make people in Argentina which keeps people in a job (good) but with lower pay from less work (bad) and if it keeps going will collapse the company (ugly).

Back in the financial world I also wonder how this is going?

About a year after emerging from default, Argentina has surprised investors by offering a 100-year bond.

The US-dollar-denominated bond is offered with a potential 8.25 per cent yield.

Podcast

Here are my answers to questions asked about the Euro area economy

Bank Carige. Monte dei Paschi and their impact on the economy of Italy

The Italian banks have certainly kept us busy in the credit crunch era. We have found ourselves observing a litany of cash calls, bad debts, crises, and official claims that there is no problem. Of the latter the worst was probably the claim by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi that equity investors in Monte Paschi dei Siena had a good investment whereas it was soon clear they had anything but. Actually it is back in the news but behind another regular feature which is Bank Carige which you may recall we were looking at this development on the eighth of this month.

Italy’s Banca Carige said on Friday it had raised 544.4 million euros ($645 million) following its recently concluded new share issue, topping minimum regulatory demands. ( Reuters)

Ordinarily on a cash call that would be it but we have learnt from experience that with banks and Italian banks especially these sort of cash calls are not get in what you can to keep the ship afloat for now not for good as it should be. So we should have been expecting this.

Italy’s Banca Carige (CRGI.MI) needs 200 million euros ($227 million) of fresh capital to clean its balance sheet from soured loans and to attract a potential buyer in the future, daily Il Sole 24Ore reported in Tuesday.

There never seems to be any accounting for what has just taken place as in that the prospectus for the recent share issue can hardly have told the truth. This is not just an Italian problem as in my opinion the RBS ( Royal Bank of Scotland ) cash call as its crisis built was a scandal it is just that Italy keeps having more of them. Also my country is hardly Mr(s) Speedy in bringing any such matters to court.

The first criminal trial of senior UK banking executives in the wake of the financial crisis is due to begin on Wednesday.

The case against four former executives has been filed by the Serious Fraud Office over Barclays’ £11.8bn rescue.

The bank avoided a UK bailout in 2008 by raising funds from Middle Eastern investors.

The executives are charged with conspiracy to commit fraud. All four have pleaded not guilty. ( BBC)

Returning to the Italian banks the essential problem has been highlighted with thanks to @DS_Pepperstone.

Deutsche Bank confirms that ROTE or Return on Tangible Equity is lower than the Cost of Equity at all Italian banks – That is they pay more for capital than they make from it. DBK says that fact is already reflected in the Italian bank’s share prices.

You might think that Deutsche Bank has a bit of a cheek saying that about other banks! But the point is that funds poured into Italian banks are a case of good money after bad and repeat.

What now?

Let us return to Reuters.

Italy is considering merging troubled banks Monte dei Paschi (BMPS.MI) and Banca Carige (CRGI.MI) with healthier rivals such as UBI Banca (UBI.MI) as it scrambles to avert a new banking crisis, sources familiar with the matter said.

Shareholders in UBI Banca may immediately be fans of the Pet Shop Boys.

What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?
What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?

It is not as if they have been having a good time of it as I note the share price of 2.3 Euros is down 43% over the past year. Looking back on my monthly chart it was over 20 Euros back in early 2007 which in the heavily depreciated world of bank shares I suppose is healthier in relative terms than the two other banks. But then almost anything is.

As we look for more detail there is yet another scandal in the offing.

Monte dei Paschi, rescued by the state in 2017, and Carige, recently put into special administration by the European Central Bank (ECB), are struggling with bad debts and the prospect of asset writedowns that would eat into their capital.

Their problems threaten to reignite a banking crisis that Rome thought it had ended two years ago and could further damage an economy already at risk of slipping back into recession.

That is the issue of Monte Paschi where the state took a 68% stake but the problems are on such a scale that even that has not fixed things as we wonder if anything has improved over the past two years? It sounds a little like the Novo Banco ( New Bank ) in Portugal that was supposed to be clean but ended up having to effectively wipe out some of its bonds.

Monte dei Paschi is still battling with high bad loan ratios and faces legal claims for over 1.5 billion euros, making it risky to take over without any support from the state.

This issue came back to prominence in the middle of this month when the European Central Bank (ECB) said it wanted banks to raise their covering of non-performing loans to 100% by 2027. It set three categories of bank and  think you have already guessed which category Monte Paschi was in.

As you can see the troubles just go on and on which moves me to the next issue. When states and central banks invest in banks it is a case of can kicking into a hopefully better future. But the economy of Italy hasn’t got much better and right now is heading in reverse again.

The economy

This week a review of the century has been produced by Eurostat and if you compare the European Union with Italy you see that the latter line for GDP growth is always below the former. It is this lack of economic growth that is a major driver in all of this. It started in 2001 where the EU grew by 2.2% and Italy by 1.8% but things have got worse as the weakest year relatively was 2012 where the EU economy shrank by 0.4% but Italy’s shrank by 2.8%.

Even the Bank of Italy has now been forced to admit that the future looks none to bright either.

The central projection for GDP growth is 0.6 per cent this year, 0.4 points lower than the previous projection. The downward revision was on account of three main considerations: new information pointing to a sharper cyclical slowdown in the last part of 2018, which reduced the carry-over effect on growth by 0.2 points; the cutback in firms’ investment plans, as confirmed by recent surveys; and the expected slowdown in global trade…… In the two years 2020-21, the central projection for growth is 0.9 and 1.0 per cent respectively.

The other issue which has tightened something of a noose around the necks of the Italian banks is higher funding costs. We can illustrate this by looking at the Italian bond ten-year yield of 2.73%. That is an improvement on the peaks we saw last year but Germany has one of 0.24% and the UK 1.33%.

Comment

There is an element of ennui here as the establishment playbook is used one more time. But there are costs such as the equity and bond capital which has been lost and even worse the way that the Italian banks have been unable to operate in their prime function. Yesterday’s credit standard survey from the ECB confirmed this if we recall who has the Non Performing Loan or NPL problem on the biggest scale.

 euro area banks reported that their NPL ratios had a tightening impact on their credit standards for loans to enterprises and housing loans over the past six months. Over the next six months, they expect a net tightening impact of their NPL ratio on credit standards across all loan categories. NPL ratios led to a tightening of euro area banks’ lending policies over the past six months in net terms mainly through banks’ access to market financing.

In the end that is the real problem as the Italian economy continues to weaken the banks and the Italian banks weaken the economy with a grip that shows no sign of loosening.

Moving wider I expect the ECB to help with liquidity ( another TLTRO) but if extra liquidity helped significantly we would not be here would we?

Chinese economic growth looks set to slow further in 2019

This morning brings us up to date on what has been a theme for a little while now as we have observed one of the main engines of world economic growth starting to miss a beat or two. This from Bloomberg gives us some context and perspective.

China accounted for more than 36% of global GDP growth in 2016.

That sort of growth has led to this according to the Spectator Index.

China’s GDP as a share of US GDP. (nominal) 2009: 35.4% 2019: 65.8%

This has led to all sorts of forecasts around China overtaking the US in terms of total size of its economy with of course the same old problem so familiar of simply projecting the past into the future. Let us know switch to the official view published this morning.

In 2018, under the strong leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, all regions and departments implemented the decisions and arrangements made by the CPC Central Committee and the State Council, adhered to the general working guideline of making progress while maintaining stability, committed to the new development philosophy, promoted high quality development, focused on the supply-side structural reform, stayed united and overcame difficulties.

And I thought I sometimes composed long sentences! It also provokes a wry smile if we convert that to the country where we are in as I mull Theresa May telling the UK we “stayed united and overcame difficulties.”

Gross Domestic Product

Firstly we are told a version of tractor production being on target.

According to the preliminary estimation, the gross domestic product (GDP) of China was 90,030.9 billion yuan in 2018, an increase of 6.6 percent at comparable prices over the previous year, achieving the set target of around 6.5 percent growth for the year.

But then we get a version of slip-sliding away.

Specifically, the year-on-year growth of GDP was 6.8 percent for the first quarter, 6.7 percent for the second quarter, 6.5 percent for the third quarter, and 6.4 percent for the fourth quarter.

The trend is exactly as we have been expecting. Also let us take a moment to note how extraordinary it is that a nation as described below can produce its economic output data in only 21 days. There’s mud in the eye of the western capitalist imperialists.

By the end of 2018, the total population of mainland China was 1,395.38 million  an increase of 5.30 million over that at the end of 2017.

That brings us to a clear problem which is that we can I think have confidence in the GDP trend but not in the outright number. Not everyone seems to believe that as many have repeated this sort of line.

According to just-released official statistics, ‘s grew 6.6% in 2018. While it’s the lowest annual annual expansion in almost 30 years, it still is quite a robust rate for an that faced — and is facing — several internal and external uncertainties.

That was Mohammed El-Erian of Allianz.

Industrial Production

Perspective is provided as I note that 6.2% growth is described as “slow but stable” and we remain on message with this.

the value added of the state holding enterprises was up by 6.2 percent……. and enterprises funded by foreign investors or investors from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, up by 4.8 percent.

A clear superiority of the state over foreign private investors and especially the pesky Taiwanese. But they cannot hide this.

In December, the total value added of the industrial enterprises above the designated size was up by 5.7 percent year-on-year, 0.3 percentage point higher than that of last month, or up by 0.54 percent month-on-month.

We are told about the monthly improvement which is welcome but it is still below the average.

The real growth of the total value added of the industrial enterprises above the designated size in 2018 was 6.2 percent, with slow yet stable growth.

So with 6.2% being slow and stable if 5.7% just slow? Many countries would love such a rate of growth but not China.

Services

Again we see a monthly rise being reported.

In December, the Index of Services Production was up by 7.3 percent year-on-year, 0.1 percentage point higher than that of last month.

However this is also against a backdrop of a weakening over the full year.

In 2018, the Index of Services Production increased by 7.7 percent over that of last year, maintained comparatively rapid growth.

That theme continues as we note that year on year growth was 8.3% in December of 2017.

Retail Sales

We find ourselves in familiar territory.

In 2018, the total retail sales of consumer goods reached 38,098.7 billion yuan, up by 9.0 percent over last year which kept fast growth……..In December, the growth of total retail sales of consumer goods was 8.2 percent year-on-year, or 0.55 percent month-on-month.

If we look back the reported growth rate in December 2017 was 10.2%.

Property

This has been an area that has fueled growth in China but Reuters now have their doubts about it.

Real estate investment, which mainly focuses on the residential sector but includes commercial and office space, rose 8.2 percent in December from a year earlier, down from 9.3 percent in November, according to Reuters calculations based on data released by National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) on Monday.

That was just ahead of the slowest pace of growth last year at 7.7 percent recorded for October.

So the two lowest numbers were at the end of the year and compare to this.

For the full year, property investment increased 9.5 percent from the year-earlier period, down from 9.7 percent in January-November.

I note that in the official data whilst prices are still rising volume growth has slowed to a crawl in Chinese terms.

The floor space of commercial buildings sold was 1,716.54 million square meters, up by 1.3 percent. Specifically, the floor space of residential buildings sold was up by 2.2 percent. The total sales of commercial buildings were 14,997.3 billion yuan, up by 12.2 percent, among which the sales of residential buildings were up by 14.7 percent.

Trade

This was a factor in things slowing down as we note the faster import growth over 2018 as a whole.

The total value of exports was 16,417.7 billion yuan, up by 7.1 percent; the total value of imports was 14,087.4 billion yuan, up by 12.9 percent.

Those who consider the trade surplus to be one of the world’s economic imbalances should echo the official line.

the Trade Structure Continued to Optimize

Comment

So we find that the official data is catching up with our view of an economic slow down in China. Those late to the party have the inconvenience of December showing some data a little better on a monthly basis but the trend remains clear. Looking ahead then even the official business survey shows a decline because the 54s and 53s were replaced by 52.6 in December.

However if we switch to my favourite short-term indicator which is narrow money we see that the economic brakes are still on. The M1 money supply statistics show us that growth was a mere 1.5% over 2018 which is a lot lower than the other economic numbers coming out of China and meaning that we can expect more slowing in the early part of 2019. No wonder we have seen some policy easing and I would not be surprised if there was more of it.

Still it is not all bad news as it has been a while since there has been so little publicity about the annual shindig in Davos. Perhaps someone has spotted that flying to an Alpine resort to lecture others about climate change has more than a whiff of hypocrisy about it.

Lower UK inflation provides some welcome good news for real wages

This morning allows us to take a deep breath and move from last night’s excitement which rapidly turned to apparent stalemate to a whole raft of UK inflation data. As we stand the UK Pound has rallied a bit to US $1.288 and 1.129 versus the Euro but in inflation terms that represents a drop as it was around 7% higher versus the US Dollar a year ago. So that is what is around the corner as today the influence will be a bit more than that as the UK Pound was weaker in December versus the Dollar which is the currency in which commodities are priced.

Moving to the price of crude oil there will be a downwards influence on today’s numbers from it as we note a March futures price which peaked at US $84.58 and was more like US $56 around the time the UK numbers are collected. If we look at the weekly fuel prices we see that petrol prices dropped from being around 12 pence per litre dearer than a year before to more like 2 pence. However this gain has been offset to some extent by the way that diesel has become much more expensive than petrol with the gap between the two being around 4 pence in December 2017 but more like 10 pence in December 2018. Does anybody have a good reason for this?

Inflation Targeting

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney answered some online questions on the 9th of this month at what is called the Future Forum. Let me open with a point of agreement.

On your question about the level of the inflation target, long and varied experience has shown that price stability is the best contribution monetary policy can make to the public good.

The problem is that whilst I mean price stability he is being somewhat disingenuous as that is not what he means. Let me highlight with this.

There are good reasons why central banks around the world, including the Bank of England, target a low, positive rate of inflation not no inflation.

As you can see he talks the talk but does not walk the walk and here is his explanation.

 A little inflation ‘greases the wheels’ of the economy, for example by helping inflation-adjusted wages adjust more smoothly to changes in companies’ demand for labour and facilitating shifts in resources between sectors in response to changes in supply and demand. Moreover, a positive inflation rate gives monetary policy space to deliver better outcomes for jobs and growth

So it helps him to look like a master of the universe and helps wages adjust. Seeing as wages have adjusted downwards I hope he was challenged on that point. But there is more.

From a more technical point of view, the official rate of inflation might also over-estimate the true rate at which prices are rising because it is hard to strip out increases that reflect improvements in the quality of goods and services on offer. Aiming for a 0% inflation target would risk forcing the economy into deflation in the medium term.

That is really rather breathtaking! Let me explain why by comparing his “might” by the reality that UK consumer inflation has since the change to CPI as the inflation target in 2003 consistently under recorded inflation via the way that owner occupied housing is ignored completely. They always meant to get around to it but somehow forget until they managed to find a way ( imputed rent) of having one of the fastest areas of inflation recorded as one of the slowest in the new “comprehensive” CPIH measure.

At least he has dropped the effort to claim that relative prices could not move with a 0% inflation target. This is because I kept pointing out that when we had around 0% around 3 years ago there was a big relative price shift via the much lower price of crude oil which had driven it. So it is good that this particular fantasy had its bubble burst but not so good that the Ivory Towers responsible carry on regardless.

Also if we return to the quality issue a powerful point was made by the statistician Simon Briscoe who stood up and stated that each time he bought a new I-Pad it cost him more than a thousand pounds. But whilst he realised each one was better how does that work if he neither needs nor uses the additions or only uses a few of them?

Inflation

As we had been expecting the consumer inflation numbers provided some good news this morning.

The all items CPI annual rate is 2.1%, down from 2.3% in November……..The all items RPI annual rate is 2.7%, down from 3.2% last month.

The main driver here was transport costs as we expected because if we throw in the whole sector then annual inflation was cut by a bit more than 0.2% due to it. Actually slightly more for the RPI as it has a higher weight for air fares. Also the RPI was affected by something a little embarrassing for a Bank of England which had raised Bank Rate in November by 0.25%.

Mortgage interest payments, which decreased the RPI 12-month rate by 0.09 percentage points between November and December 2018 but are excluded from the CPIH.

Of course they are excluded from the woeful CPIH which essentially only includes things which do not exist in its calculations about owner occupied housing and ignores things which are paid. Here is its major player.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in the UK rose by 1.0% in the 12 months to December 2018, up from 0.9% in November 2018.

As you can see even at the new overall lower trend for house price growth (which was previously around 5% per annum ) it way undershoots the number.

Average house prices in the UK increased by 2.8% in the year to November 2018, up slightly from 2.7% in October 2018 (Figure 1). Over the past two years, there has been a slowdown in UK house price growth, driven mainly by a slowdown in the south and east of England.

The lowest annual growth was in London, where prices fell by 0.7% over the year to November 2018, unchanged from October 2018.

 

Comment

There are two entwined elements of good news here as we note first the fact that the annual rate of inflation has fallen and done so quite sharply if we look at RPI. The next is that it has helped UK real wage growth into positive territory on a little more clear-cut basis. Should total pay growth continue to exceed 3% ( it was last 3.3%) then it is hardly a boom but hopefully we will see a sustained rise. At a time when the economic outlook has plenty of dark clouds this is welcome especially as the outlook seems set fair.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 2.5% on the year to December 2018, down from 3.0% in November 2018. The growth rate of prices for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process slowed to 3.7% on the year to December 2018, down from 5.3% in November 2018.

Inflationary pressure in the system has slowed.

Moving to measurement I have some hopes for this from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee.

Next Thursday 17 January we will publish “Measuring Inflation”, our report on the use of RPI.

It did appear that something of a stitch-up was underway but efforts were made to provide an alternative view as for example I invited them to a debate at the Royal Statistical Society on the subject. They then became quite critical of the way that our official statistician have refused to update the RPI even for changes which would be simple. So fingers crossed! Although of course the establishment is a many-headed hydra.

Sticking with the RPI I referred yesterday to an article in the Financial Times about index-linked Gilts and here is the most relevant sentence.

 This implies inflation of about 3.2 per cent — well above current levels and the Bank of England’s 2 per cent target.

So it implies inflation of 3.2% which was well above the 3.2% the RPI was at the time the piece was written?!