2017 is seeing the return of the inflation monster

As we nearly reach the third month of 2017 we find ourselves observing a situation where an old friend is back although of course it is more accurate to describe it as an enemy. This is the return of consumer inflation which was dormant for a couple of years as it was pushed lower by falls particularly in the price of crude oil but also by other commodity prices. That windfall for western economies boosted real wages and led to gains in retail sales in the UK, Spain and Ireland in particular. Of course it was a bad period yet again for mainstream economists who listened to the chattering in the  Ivory Towers about “deflation” as they sung along to “the end of the world as we know it” by REM. Thus we found all sorts of downward spirals described for economies which ignored the fact that the oil price would eventually find a bottom and also the fact that it ignored the evidence from Japan which has seen 0% inflation for quite some time.

A quite different song was playing on here as I pointed out that in many places inflation had remained in the service-sector. Not many countries are as inflation prone as my own the UK but it rarely saw service-sector inflation dip below 2% but the Euro area for example had it at 1.2% a year ago in February 2016 when the headline was -0.2%, Looking into the detail there was confirmation of the energy price effect as it pulled the index down by 0.8%. Once the oil price stopped falling the whole picture changed and let us take a moment to mull how negative interest-rates and QE ( Quantitative Easing) bond buying influenced that? They simply did not. Now we were expecting the rise to come but quite what the ordinary person must think after all the deflation paranoia from the “deflation nutters” I do not know.

Spain

January saw quite a rise in consumer inflation in Spain if we look at the annual number and according to this morning’s release it carried on this month. Via Google Translate.

The leading indicator of the CPI puts its annual variation at 3.0% In February, the same as in January
The annual rate of the leading indicator of the HICP is 3.0%.

Just for clarity it is the HICP version which is the European standard which is called CPI in the UK. It can be like alphabetti spaghetti at times as the same letters get rearranged. We do not get a lot of detail but we have been told that the impact of the rise in electricity prices faded which means something else took its place in the annual rate. Also we got some hints as to what is coming over the horizon from last week’s producer price data.

The annual rate of the General Industrial Price Index (IPRI) for the month of January is 7.5%, more than four and a half points higher than in December and the highest since July 2011.

It would appear that the rises in energy prices affected businesses as much as they did domestic consumers.

Energy, whose annual variation stands at 26.6%, more than 18 points above that of December and the highest since July 2008. In this evolution, Prices of Production, transportation and distribution of electrical energy and Oil Refining,
Compared to the declines recorded in January 2016.

In fact the rise seen is mostly a result of rising commodity prices as we see below.

Behavior is a consequence of the rise in prices of Product Manufacturing Basic iron and steel and ferroalloys and the production of basic chemicals, Nitrogen compounds, fertilizers, plastics and synthetic rubber in primary forms.

The Euro will have had a small impact too as it is a little over 3% lower versus the US Dollar than it was a year ago.

Belgium

The land of beer and chocolate has also been seeing something of an inflationary episode.

Belgium’s inflation rate based on the European harmonised index of consumer prices was running at 3.1% in January compared to 2.2% in December.

The drivers were mostly rather familiar.

The sub-indices with the largest upward effect on inflation were domestic heating oil, motor fuels, electricity, telecommunication and tobacco.

These two are the inflation outliers at this stage but the chart below shows a more general trend in the major economies of the Euro area.

The United States

In the middle of this month the US Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed the trend.

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.6 percent in January on a seasonally adjusted basis, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index rose 2.5 percent before seasonal adjustment.

This poses some questions of its own in the way that it confirmed that the strong US Dollar had not in fact protected the US economy from inflation all that much. The detail was as you might expect.

The January increase was the largest seasonally adjusted all items increase since February 2013. A sharp rise in the gasoline index accounted for nearly half the increase,

Egypt

A currency plummet of the sort seen by the Egyptian Pound has led to this being reported by Arab News.

Inflation reached almost 30 percent in January, up 5 percent over the previous month, driven by the floatation of the Egyptian pound and slashing of fuel subsidies enacted by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in November.

Ouch although of course central bankers will say “move along now……nothing to see here” after observing that the major drivers are what they call non-core.

Food and drinks have seen some of the largest increases, costing nearly 40 percent more since the floatation, figures from the statistics agency show. Some meat prices have leaped nearly 50 percent.

Comment

There is much to consider here and inflation is indeed back in the style of Arnold Schwarzenegger. However some care is needed as it will be driven at first by the oil price and the annual effect of that will fade as 2017 progresses. What I mean by that is that if we look back to 2016 the price of Brent Crude oil fell below US $30 per barrel in mid-January and then rose so if the oil price remains around here then its inflationary impact will fade.

However even a burst of moderate inflation will pose problems as we look at real wages and real returns for savers. If we look at the Euro area with its -0.4% official ECB deposit rate and wide range of negative bond yields there is an obvious crunch coming. It poses a particular problem for those rushing to buy the German 2 year bond as with a yield of 0.94% then they are facing a real loss of around 5/6% if it is held to maturity. You must be pretty desperate and/or afraid to do that don’t you think?

Meanwhile so far Japan seems immune to this, of course there will eventually be an impact but it is a reminder of how different it really is from us.

UK National Statistician John Pullinger

Thank you to John and to the Royal Statistical Society for his speech on Friday on the planned changes to UK inflation measurement next month. Sadly it looks as if he intends to continue with the use of alternative facts in inflation measurement by the use of rents to measure owner-occupied housing costs. These rents have to be imputed because they do not actually  exist as opposed to house prices and mortgage costs which not only exist in the real world but are also widely understood.

The growing debt problem faced by Italy

Yesterday saw one of the themes of this website raised by a rather unusual source. The European Commission released this document yesterday.

Today’s 27 Country Reports (for all Member States except Greece, which is under a dedicated stability support programme) provide the annual analysis of Commission staff of the situation in the Member States’ economies, including where relevant an assessment of macroeconomic imbalances.

Greece is omitted presumably because it is all to painful and embarrassing although of course one of those presenting this report Commissioner Pierre Moscovici keeps telling us it is a triumph. Reality tells us a different story as this from Macropolis illustrates.

The employment balance stayed negative in January 2017, with net departures climbing to 29,817 from 9,954 a year ago, data from the Labour Ministry’s Ergani information system revealed on Tuesday.

But as we note that 13 countries in the European Union were investigated for imbalances or just under half with 12 found to have them ( oddly the troubled Finland was excluded) the Commission found itself in an awkward spot with regards to Italy. Here is the label it gave it.

excessive economic imbalances.

Which led to this.

a report analysing the debt situation in Italy

So let us investigate.

Italy’s National Debt

Firstly we get a confession of something regularly pointed out on here.

in particular low inflation, which made the respect of the debt rule particularly demanding;

No wonder the ECB is pressing on with its QE (Quantitative Easing) program and as I pointed out only yesterday seems set to push consumer inflation above target which will help the debtors. Also in that section was something awkward as you see it is a statement of Italy’s whole period of Euro membership.

the unfavourable economic conditions,

We have an old friend returning although of course pretty much everyone has ignored it even Germany.

namely: (a) whether the ratio of the planned or actual government deficit to gross domestic product (GDP) exceeds the reference value of 3%; and (b) whether the ratio of government debt to GDP exceeds the reference value of 60%, unless it is sufficiently diminishing and approaching the reference value at a satisfactory pace.

Yep the Stability and Growth Pact is back although these days in the same way as the leaky Windscale became the leak-free Sellafield it is mostly referred to as the Fiscal Compact. The real issue here for Italy though is the debt numbers are from a universe far,far away.

Italy’s general government deficit declined to 2.6 % of GDP in 2015 (from 3% in 2014), while the debt continued to rise to 132.3% of GDP (from 131.9 % in 2014), i.e. above the 60% of GDP reference value. For 2016, Italy’s 2017 Draft Budgetary Plan7 projects the debt-to-GDP ratio to peak at 132.8%, up by 0.5 percentage points from the 2015 level. In 2017, the Draft Budgetary Plan projects a small decline (of 0.2 percentage points) in the debt-to-GDP ratio to 132.6%.

We get pages of detail which skirt many of the salient points. So let me remind them. firstly a debt-to-GDP target of 120% was established back in 2010 for Greece to avoid embarrassing Italy (and Portugal). Since then both have cruised through it which poses a question to say the least for this.

Italy conducted a sizeable fiscal adjustment between 2010 and 2013, which allowed the country to exit the excessive deficit procedure in 2013

So as soon as it could Italy returned to what we might call normal although whilst it runs fiscal deficits they are lower than the UK for example. Whilst the EU peers at them they are not really the causal vehicle here. Regular readers of my work will not be surprised to see my eyes alight on this bit.

the expected slow recovery in real GDP growth

This is the driving factor here as we note that even in better times the Italian economy only grows by around 1% a year ( 1.1% last year for example) yet in the bad times it does shrink faster than that as the -3.2% annual growth rate of the middle of 2012 illustrates. The Commission describes it like this.

Italy’s GDP has not grown compared to 15 years ago, as against average annual growth of 1.2% in the rest of the euro area.

Putting it another way the economy seems set to get back to where it was at the opening of 2012 maybe this spring but more likely this summer. In such an environment any level of borrowing will raise not only the debt level but also its ratio to GDP. Thus the pages and pages of detail on expenditure would be much better spent on looking at and then implementing economic reform.

A fiscal boost

This has come form the policies of Mario Draghi and the ECB.

taking advantage of the fiscal space created by lower interest expenditure, which declined steadily from the peak of 5.2% of GDP in 2012 to 3.9% in 2016.

Of course debt costs have lowered across the world but the ECB has contributed a fair bit to this gain of over 1% per annum in economic output. I doubt Italy’s politicians admit this as they rush to spend it and bathe themselves in the good will.

Monte dei Paschi

Another old friend so to speak but it does illustrate issues building for Italy as the Commission admits. Firstly to the debt numbers explicitly.

For instance, in 2017, both the deficit and debt figures could be revised upwards following the EUR 20 billion (or 1.2 % of GDP) banking support package earmarked by the
government in December 2016.

But also implicitly as we mull current and future economic performance.

At the current juncture, following the protracted crisis, banks are burdened by a large stock of non-performing loans and may not be able to fully support the
recovery.

We left MPS itself on the 30th of December as it was socialised and in state ownership. You might reasonably think it would have been solved over the New Year break. Er no as this from the Financial Times today highlights.

Rome’s proposal to recapitalise MPS has been in limbo since December because the ECB, the bank’s supervisor, and the European Commission, which polices state aid, have different views on their responsibilities and the merits of taxpayer bailouts.

There was always going to be trouble over whether this turned out to be a bailout, a bailin or a hybrid of the two. Has any progress at all been made?

The two-month stand-off leaves fundamental questions over the rescue proposals, including the level of state support allowed, the amount of losses that creditors will suffer and the depth of restructuring needed to make the bank viable.

The creditor issue is one that resonates because ordinary Italian depositors were persuaded to buy the banks bonds in a about as clear a case of miss selling as there has been. The trouble is that the guilty party the bank’s management cannot pay on the scale required and nor can the bank inspite of it being in “optimal condition” according to Finance Minister Padoan.

Indeed some may be having nightmares about the return of a phrase that described so much economic destruction in Greece.

An Italian official said talks were on track.

Comment

This is a situation which continues to go round in circles. Europe concentrates on fiscal deficits and now apparently the national debt but ignores the main cause which is the long-term lack of economic growth. There is a particular irony that at every ECB policy press conference the Italian Mario Draghi reads out a paragraph asking for more economic reform and the place where it happens so little is his home country.

The implementation of structural reforms needs to be substantially stepped up to increase resilience, reduce structural unemployment and boost investment, productivity and potential output growth in the euro area.

Yet when the European authorities get involved we see as in the MPS saga that they “dilly and dally” as Claudio Ranieri might say. Exactly the reverse of what they expect from the Italian government and people. The next issue for the banking sector is that for all its faults the UK for example began dealing with them in 2008 whereas Italy has looked the other way and let it drag on. That poor battered can is having to be picked up.

My suggestion would be an investigation into what is now called the unregulated economy to see how much has escaped the net. Maybe people do not want to do so because they fear that it has increased but what is there to be afraid of in the truth?

Tip TV Finance

http://tiptv.co.uk/boes-deflection-strategy-not-yes-man-economics/

The ECB faces a growing policy dilemma

Today I want to look at what was one of the earliest themes of this blog which is that central banks will dither and delay before they reduce their policy easing and accommodation. Or to put it another way they will be too late because they are afraid of moving too soon and being given the blame should the economy hic-cup or turn downwards. Back in the day I did not realise how far central banks would go with the Bank of Japan seemingly only limited by how many assets there are in existence in Japan as it chomps on government bonds and acts as a Tokyo whale in equity markets. Actually it has made yet more announcements today including this from Governor Kuroda according to Marketwatch.

“There is not much likelihood that we will further lower the negative rate” from the current minus 0.1%, Kuroda said in parliament, citing Japan’s accelerating growth.

Last time he said something like that he cut them 8 days later if I recall correctly!

However the focus right now is on Europe and in particular on the ECB ( European Central Bank). as it faces the policy exit question I posed on the 19th of January.

If we look at the overall picture we see that 2017 poses quite a few issues for central banks as they approach the stage which the brightest always feared. If you come off it will the economy go “cold turkey” or merely have some withdrawal systems? What if the future they have borrowed from emerges and is worse than otherwise?

What has changed?

Yesterday brought news on economic prospects which will have simultaneously cheered and worried Mario Draghi and the ECB. It started with France.

The Markit Flash France Composite Output Index, based on around 85% of normal monthly survey replies, registered 56.2, compared to January’s reading of 54.1. The latest figure pointed to the sharpest rate of growth since May 2011.

Welcome news indeed and considering the ongoing unemployment issue that I looked it only a few days ago this was a welcome feature of the service sector boom.

Staffing numbers rose for the fourth consecutive month during February. The increase was underpinned by a solid rate of growth in the service sector,

Unusually for Markit it did not provide any forecast for expected GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth from this which is likely to have been caused by its clashes with the French establishment in the past. It has regularly reported private-sector growth slower than the official numbers so this is quite a change.

Next up was Germany and the good news theme continued.

The Markit Flash Germany Composite Output Index rose from January’s fourmonth low of 54.8 to 56.1, the highest since April 2014 and signalling strong growth in the eurozone’s largest economy. Output has risen continuously since May 2013.

The situation is different here because of course Germany has performed better than France in recent times illustrated by its very different unemployment rate. I note that manufacturing is doing well as it benefits from the much lower exchange rate the Euro provides compared to where any prospective German mark would be priced. Markit is much more willing to project forwards from this.

The latest PMI adds to our expectations that economic growth will strengthen in the first quarter to around 0.6% q-o-q, marking a strong start to 2017.

Whilst these are the two largest Eurozone economies there are others so let us add them into the mix.

“The eurozone economy moved up a gear in February. The rise in the flash PMI to its highest since April 2011 means that GDP growth of 0.6% could be seen in the first quarter if this pace of expansion is sustained into March.

There are actually two cautionary notes here. The first is that these indices rely on sentiment as well as numbers and as they point out March is yet to come. But the surveys indicate potential for a very good start to 2017 for the Eurozone.

As the objectives of central banks have moved towards economic growth there is an obvious issue when they look good and it is to coin a phrase “pumping up the volume”.

Also there was a hopeful sign for a chronic Euro area problem which is persistent unemployment in many countries.

February saw the largest monthly rise in employment since August 2007. Service sector jobs were created at a rate not seen for nine years and factory headcounts showed the second-largest rise in almost six years.

What about inflation?

Just like it fell more quickly and further than the ECB expected it has rather caught it on the hop with its rise. The move from 1.1% in December to 1.8% in January means it is just below 2% or where the “rules based” ECB wants it. There is an update later but even if it nudges the number slightly the song has the same drum and bass lines. Indeed yesterday’s surveys pointed to concerns that more inflation is coming over the horizon.

Inflationary pressures meanwhile continued to intensify. Firms’ average input costs rose at the steepest rate since May 2011, with rates accelerating in both services and manufacturing. The latter once again recorded the steeper rise, linked to higher global commodity prices, the weak euro and suppliers regaining some pricing power amid stronger demand.

In the past such news would have the ECB rushing to raise interest-rates which leaves it in an awkward position. The only leg it has left to stand on in this area is weak wage growth.

Asset prices

Mario Draghi’s espresso will taste better this morning as he notes this.

GERMANY’S DAX RISES ABOVE 12,000 FIRST TIME SINCE APRIL 2015 ( h/t Darlington_Dick)

Although even the espresso may provide food for thought.

Oh I don’t know…Robusta coffee futures creeping back towards 5-1/2 year highs

That pesky inflation again. Oh sorry I mean the temporary or transient phase!

As to house prices there is a wide variation but central bankers always want more don’t they?

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 3.4% in the euro area and by 4.3% in the EU in the third quarter of 2016 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

Of course should any boom turn to bust then the rhetoric switches to it was not possible to forecast this and therefore it was a “surprise” and nobody’s fault. The Bank of England was plugging that particular line for all it’s worth only yesterday.

The Euro

Much is going on here and it has been singing along to “Down, Down” by Status Quo again. For example it has moved very near to crossing 1.05 versus the US Dollar this morning which makes us wonder if economists might be right and it will reach parity. Such forecasts are rarely right so it would be its own type of Black Swan but more seriously we are seeing a weaker phase for the Euro as it has fallen from just over 96 in early November 2016 to 93.4 now. Here economists return to their usual form as this has seen the UK Pound £ nudge 1.19 this morning or further away from the parity so enthusiastically forecast by some.

A factor in this brings us back to QE and ECB action. A problem I have reported on has got worse and as ever it involves Germany. The two-year Schatz yield has fallen as low as -0.87% as investors continue to demand German paper even if they have to pay to get it. This is creating quite a differential ( for these times anyway) with US Dollar rates and thereby pushing the Euro lower.

Comment

There are obvious issues here for the ECB as it faces a period where economic growth could pick-up which is of course good but inflation will be doing the same which is not only far from good it is against its official mandate. It does plan to trim its monthly rate of bond buying to 60 billion Euros a month from 80 billion but of course it still has a deposit rate of -0.4%. Thus the accelerator is still being pressed hard. But as we note that the lags of monetary policy are around 18 months then it may well find itself doing that as both growth and inflation rise. Should that lead to trouble then a so-called stimulus will end up having exactly the reverse effect. Yet the consensus remains along the lines of this from Markit yesterday.

No change in policy
therefore looks likely until at least after the German
elections in September.

 

 

Greece meets its final countdown one more time

A constant sad theme of this website has been the way that Greece got into economic trouble and then had a so-called “shock and awe” rescue which made everything worse and plunged it into what can now be called a great depression. Last week’s official national accounts detail just continued the gloom.

The available seasonally adjusted data indicate that in the 4 th quarter of 2016 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 0.4% in comparison with the 3 rd quarter of 2016, while it increased by 0.3% in comparison with the 4 th quarter of 2015.

I pointed out last week that the trumpeting of European Commissioner Moscovici only a day before was in very bad taste.

After returning to growth in 2016, economic activity in is expected to expand strongly in 2017-18.

You see Monsieur Moscovici and his colleagues have a serial record of saying a recovery is just around the corner. For example the 0.3% annual increase in GDP compares with 2.9% forecast in the spring of 2015.  There is a familiar theme here because if we look at the forecasts from the spring of 2016 they forecast more or less the same ( 2.7%) for 2017. This repeated failure where an optimistic forecast bears no relationship to reality has gone on since 2012 which was when the original 2010 bailout forecasts told us Greece would return to economic growth and from 2013 onwards would grow by you’ve guessed it by 2%+ per annum. As PM Dawn told us.

Reality used to be a friend of mine
Reality used to be a friend of mine
Maybe “why?” is the question that’s on you mind
But reality used to be a friend of mine.

The truth was that Greece had to be forecast as growing as otherwise the national debt numbers would look out of control and could not be forecast to be 120% of GDP in 2020. That was a farcical benchmark which exploded as it was chosen so as not to embarrass Portugal and Italy who cruised through it anyway. Greece of course blasted through it and the major reason was the economic depression.

The Great Depression

I will keep this simple so GDP in the third quarter of 2008 was the peak for Greece at 60.8 billion Euros and at the end of 2016 it was 44.1 billion Euros. So a decline of 27.5% which certainly qualifies as a Great Depression.

Austerity

Macropolis has pointed out the scale of the austerity applied to Greece and let us start with taxes.

The Greek economy has been burdened with 35.6 billion euros in all sorts of taxes on income, consumption, duties, stamps, corporate taxation and increases in social security contributions. When totting all this up, it is remarkable that the economy still manages to function.

Of course you could easily argue that in more than a few respects it does not function as we switch to the expenditure or spending ledger.

During the same period, the state has also found savings of 37.4 billion euros from cutting salaries, pensions, benefits and operational expenses.

So 5 months worth of economic output at current levels. Also like a dog chasing its tail they cry has gone up for what can be called “Moar, moar”.

The IMF’s Thomsen, now the director of its European Department, recently argued that Greece doesn’t need any more austerity but brave policy implementation. Somehow, though, the discussion has ended up being about finding another 3.5 billion euros in taxes and cuts to pension spending.

Of course dog’s have the intelligence to eventually tire of chasing their tale whereas the Euro area establishment continue with the same old song.

The official view

The ESM or European Stability Mechanism is the main supplier of finance to Greece these days and its head Klaus Regling has this on repeat.

Then, public creditors eased lending conditions significantly. This reduced the economic value of the country’s debt by around 40 per cent. As a result, Greece enjoys budgetary savings of about €8 billion annually — the equivalent of about 4.5 per cent of gross domestic product — and will continue to do so for years to come.

Sometimes what is true can be misleading. You see it is summed up in the word timing. Greece had an austerity program front loaded onto it and it was hit hard by it as I have described. Later the Euro area changed tack and made the loans much cheaper but by then it was too late as Greece was plunging into an economic depression at a rate exceeding 8% per annum in 2011 and much of 2012.

In spite of the calamitous situation Klaus told the Financial Times in late January  that the future was bright.

Greek debt levels are no longer cause for alarm

Of course Klaus has to churn out such a line in an attempt to distract attention from this.

The European Financial Stability Facility and the European Stability Mechanism, the eurozone’s rescue funds, have disbursed €174 billion to Greece.

This brings me to a point where Bloomberg are to some extent peddling what might be labelled fake news today.

The 2-year yield is now 180 basis points higher than the 10-year yield

You see Greek bond yield twitter if I may put it like that refers to something which exists but is not the source of funding for Greece any more a reflects a market which as I have pointed out many times barely trades. Even Bloomberg points this out.

volumes are low, with just 26 million euros trading during January on the inter-dealer platform.

With volumes so low it is easy for those with vested interests to manipulate such a market.

Trouble ahead

Where a crunch can come is when a bond needs redeeming. This is where all the proclamations to triumph and success met a hard reality of a lack of cash or another form of credit crunch. Eyes are already turning to July on that front.

Greece faces a few maturities in the coming months, but the heavy lifting is in July, when 6.2 billion euros of debt matures.

This is the capital issue I highlighted on the 30th of January.

We can bring in that poor battered can now because the Euro area and the IMF thought they had kicked it far enough into the future not to matter whereas the IMF is now having second thoughts.

The Euro area can talk all it likes about interest repayments but this ignores the fact that it cannot repay the capital which might make Euro area taxpayers mull another of the promises of Klaus Regling.

We would not have lent this amount if we did not think we would get our money back.

In a couple of months time another 1.4 billion Euros is due. This is owed to the ECB and we know that the first rule of it’s debt fight club is that every last cent must be repaid.

The IMF

My theme about the IMF has been that it has been twisted by politicians so that it no longer is an institution dealing with trade balance problems. The Greek data for 2016 bear this out as with all the improvements Greece should be exporting more especially as many of its economic partners had a better economic year.

The total value of exports-dispatches, for the 12-month period from January to December 2016 amounted to 25,411.4 million euros (28,198.4 million dollars) in comparison with 25,879.3 million euros (28,776.8 million dollars) for the corresponding period of the year 2015, recording a drop, in euros, of 1.8%

So simply no as we mull again the lack of economic reform in Greece and note that the trade issue got worse and not better.

The deficit of the Trade Balance, for the 12-month period from January to December 2016 amounted to 18,551.2 million euros (20,310.3 million dollars) in comparison with 17,745.3 million euros (19,439.6 million dollars) for the corresponding period of the year 2015, recording an increase, in euros, of 4.5%.

Comment

Today’s Eurogroup meeting in Greece is being badged as a “last chance saloon” which of course is a phrase that long ago went into my financial lexicon for these times as it occurs so regularly. Still did the band Europe know how much free publicity the future would provide for their biggest hit?

It’s the final countdown.
The final countdown

Meanwhile as its economic prospects are kicked around like a football Greece itself is pretty much a bystander. If only it was a final countdown to a default and devaluation meaning it would leave the Euro. Meanwhile some reports are bizarre as this from the fast FT twitter feed last week proves.

Greece made a stunning exit from three years of deflation and low price growth in January

Greek workers and consumers however will be rueing any rises in prices as we wonder how higher prices in the UK can be a disaster according to the FT but higher prices in Greece are “stunning”?

Podcasts

I have been running a private trial of putting these updates out as podcasts as the world continues to change and move on. I thought I would ask how many of you use podcasts?

Of UK Retail Sales and a 5% cut in real interest-rates

A feature of my career and time working with and analysing finance and economics has been the fall in interest-rates and yields. This of course has ended up with us now facing a period where more than a few interest-rates and bond yields are in fact in negative territory. My subject of yesterday France has a central bank ( ECB) with a deposit and current account of -0.4% and its 2 year bond yield is -0.5%. But let me give you some perspective from the Bank Underground blog of the Bank of England.

Real interest rates have fallen by around 5 percentage points since the 1980s.

Eye-catching is it not? Just to break this down they were 0% in the 1970s, 4.7% in the 1980s, then 1.9% up to the credit crunch and since 2009 have been -1.3%, Oh and that is 6% and not 5% by the way. For clarity this is for the United States one year yield minus how inflation turned out to be in that year.

So in the period since the 1980s we have seen, as I have pointed out quite a few times before quite a stimulus applied to the world economy and of course a fair bit of this has come in the credit crunch era. We then face a rather awkward conundrum because the supposed cure of lower interest-rates and yields is in response at least in part to the problems created by lower interest-rates and yields! A sort of doubling the dose response to an addiction. How does that usually work out?

Of course some want ever more as I note individuals like Kenneth Rogoff who want to ban as much cash as they can as they fear that they will not be able to repeat the “cure” next time around. This plainly means interest-rates going even more negative and more places seeing them. For example the UK now has a Bank Rate of 0.25% after over 3 years of pretty solid economic growth so what happens when the next recession turns up? Such thoughts have the problem of why a cure needs to be repeated so often at ever higher dosages and with ever more side-effects?

As to the causes of this the Bank Underground tries to dismiss fears over secular stagnation by pointing out this.

In the late 1930s, Alvin Hansen developed the term “secular stagnation” to describe his concerns that structural factors such as stagnant technological development and weaker population growth prospects would weigh on growth permanently.  We know now that these concerns over secular trends proved misplaced, and played little role in weaker growth.

Rather ominously that was really only changed by the second world war which is hardly a hopeful precedent! The author hopes that things will get better so lets join him in that but the truth is we are much less sure and there is a sort of unmentioned sword of Damocles hanging all over this which is Japan where the lost decade has become the lost decades.

Although the author would not put it like this there is quite a critique of current Bank of England policy tucked away in the blog.

When agents assign a low probability to the central bank remaining hawkish towards inflation, real rates must rise by a significantly larger amount in response to a given shock to stabilise inflation.  The required response decreases as credibility improves.

So as the credibility of Forward Guidance is only for the credulous now and the Bank of England plans to “look through” rising inflation then the logic applied there suggests real rates will have to rise substantially. Awkward.

Retail Sales

Speaking of rising inflation there was this in the data released this morning.

Average store prices (including fuel) increased by 1.9% on the year, the largest contribution to this increase came from petrol stations, where year-on-year average prices were estimated to have risen by 16.1%.

Regular readers will be aware that I was ahead of the pick-up in retail sales in the UK and quite a few other places by explaining that the lower inflation driven mostly be lower crude oil prices would raise consumption via a boost to real wages. So we are now beginning to see the mirror image of that relationship. It was only on Wednesday that I pointed out the real wage growth was fading and on some inflation measures had now gone negative. The price rise was just not from fuel as this from the food sector shows.

In January 2017, prices increased by 0.5% compared with December 2016, the largest month-on-month rise since April 2013, while the year-on-year increase of 0.2% is the highest since June 2014,

Thus the numbers today are not the surprise they have been presented as.

Month-on-month the quantity bought is estimated to have fallen by 0.3%.

If we look for more perspective we see this.

The underlying pattern as suggested by the 3 month on 3 month movement decreased by 0.4%; the first fall since December 2013.

In annual terms there is still growth but it has faded substantially for the heady days of late 2016.

In January 2017, the quantity bought in the retail industry is estimated to have increased by 1.5% compared with January 2016, the lowest growth since November 2013.

Actually so much of the change can be found in the sector where prices have risen the most.

The year-on-year increase in fuel stores is the largest rise since September 2011, contributing to the strong growth seen in the amount spent in fuel stores on the year. However, the quantity bought has decreased following the rise in fuel prices, suggesting that consumers are more cautious with spending in this sector.

Have readers noticed less traffic on the roads?

Tourism

There was some good news here albeit with an odd kicker.

Overseas residents made 9.2 million visits to the UK in the 3 months to December 2016. This was 6% higher than the same 3 months in 2015. The amount spent on these visits was unchanged at £5.3 billion.

It is no great surprise that the lower UK Pound £ has led to more visitors but I am curious that they spent no more. For a start how do we know? Does someone follow them into every shop? Also this goes against the argument made by some that past retail sales growth in the UK was added to by foreign purchasers using lower price for them.

Whatever the state of play there we do seem to be seeing more US tourists as we wonder if Trump fears are higher than Brexit ones?

Visits from North America increased by 15% in the 3 months to December 2016, when compared with the same 3 months in 2015.

Comment

We see that we have been living our lives in an extraordinarily favourable interest-rate environment. Many reading this will have lived their whole lives in it. The catch is that it has ended up being associated with trouble on two fronts. Firstly it did not avert a credit crunch and in fact ended up contributing to it and secondly if it was a cure we would not be where we are. Although care is needed as there were plenty of economic gains back in the day. As for now well some old fears have reappeared.

More Americans fell behind on their car loan payments in the fourth quarter, bringing auto delinquencies to their highest since the height of the financial crisis, Federal Reserve Bank of New York data released on Thursday showed…….

In the fourth quarter, $142 billion in car loans were generated, giving 2016 the most auto loan originations in the 18-year history of the data, the New York Fed said.

Auto debt hit $1.16 trillion, with a $93 billion rise over the year.

Sub-prime car loans anyone?

If we move to the UK then the consumer surge is fading. The numbers are erratic and influenced by the rise in the price of fuel but even taking that out annual growth fell to 2.6%. It remains a shame that the Bank of England last summer contributed to the inflation rise via the way that their rhetoric and Bank Rate cut and QE pushed the UK Pound £ lower. Before this is over I expect what was badged as a stimulus to turn out to be the reverse via its impact on real wages.

The unemployment rate in France continues to signal trouble

It is time for us to nip across the Channel or perhaps I should say La Manche and take a look at what is going on in the French economy. This morning has brought news which reminds us of a clear difference between the UK and French economy so let us get straight to the French statistics office.

In Q4 2016, the average ILO unemployment rate in metropolitan France and overseas departments stood at 10.0% of active population, after 10.1% in Q3 2016.

Thus we note immediately that the unemployment rate is still in double-digits albeit only just. Here is some more detail.

In metropolitan France only, the number of unemployed decreased by 31,000 to 2.8 million people unemployed; thus, the unemployment rate decreased by 0.1 percentage points q-o-q, standing at 9.7% of active population. It decreased among youths and persons aged 50 and over, whereas it increased for those aged 25 to 49. Over a year, the unemployment rate fell by 0.2 percentage points.

So unemployment is falling but very slowly and it is higher in the overseas departments. It is also rising in what you might call the peak working group of 25 to 49 year olds. It was only yesterday we noted that the UK unemployment rate was much lower and in fact less than half of that above.

the unemployment rate for people was 4.8%; it has not been lower since July to September 2005

Thus if we were looking for the key to French economic problems it is the continuing high level of unemployment. If we look back to pre credit crunch times we see that it was a little over 7% it then rose to 9.5% but later got pushed as high as 10.5% by the consequences of the Euro area crisis and has only fallen since to 10% if we use the overall rate. Thus we see that there has only been a small recovery which means that another factor is at play here which is time. A lot of people will have been unemployed for long periods with it would appear not a lot of hope of relief or ch-ch-changes for the better.

Among unemployed, 1.2 million were seeking a job for at least one year. The long-term unemployed rate stood at 4.2% of active population in Q4 2016. It decreased by 0.1 percentage points compared to Q3 2016 and Q4 2015.

The long-term unemployment rate is not far off what the total UK unemployment rate was for December (4.6%) which provides a clear difference between the two economies. Here is the UK rate for comparison.

404,000 people who had been unemployed for over 12 months, 86,000 fewer than for a year earlier

It is not so easy to get wages data but the non-farm private-sector rise was 1.2% in the year to the third quarter. So there was some real wage growth but I also note the rate of growth was slowing gently since the peak of 2.3% at the end of 2011 and of course inflation is picking up pretty much everywhere as the US “surprise” yesterday reminded pretty much everyone, well apart from us. Unless French wage growth picks up it like the UK will be facing real wage falls in 2017.

Productivity

There is an obvious consequence of the UK producing a broadly similar output to France with a lower unemployment rate if we note that productivity these days is in fact labour productivity. There are always caveats in the numbers but the UK Office for National Statistics took a look a year ago.

below that of Italy and France by 14 and 15 percentage points respectively ( Final estimates for 2014 show that UK output per worker was:)

My worry about these numbers has always been Japan which for its faults is a strong exporter and yet its productivity is even worse than the already poor UK.

above that of Japan by 14 percentage points

Economic growth

This remains poor albeit with a flicker of hope at the end of 2016.

In Q4 2016, GDP in volume terms* accelerated: +0.4%, after +0.2% in Q3. On average over the year, GDP kept rising, practically at the same pace: +1.1% after +1.2% in 2015. Without working day adjustment, GDP growth amounts to +1.2 % in 2016, after +1.3 % in 2015.

However the pattern is for these flickers of hope but unlike the UK where economic growth has been fairly steady France sees quite wide swings. For example GDP rose by 0.6% in Q1 so the economy pretty much flatlined in Q2 and Q3 combined. Whether this is a measurement issue or the way it is unclear. We do know however that it seems to come to a fair extent from foreign trade.

All in all, foreign trade balance contributed slightly to GDP growth: +0.1 points after −0.7 points. ( in the last quarter of 2016).

But as we look for perspective we do see an issue as for example 2016 should have seen two major benefits which is the impact of the lower oil price continuing and the extraordinary stimulus of the ECB ( European Central Bank). Yet economic growth in 2015 and 2016 were both weak and show little signs of any great impact. If we switch to the Euro then its trade weighted value peaked at 113.6 in November 2009 and has fallen since with ebbs and flows to 93.5 now so that should have helped overall. In the shorter term the Euro has rotated around its current level.

Production

With its more dirigiste approach you might expect the French economy to have done better here but as I have pointed out before that is not really so. If we look at manufacturing France saw growth in 2016 but we see a hint of trouble in the index for it being 103 at the end of 2016 on an index based at 100 in 2010. So overall rather weak and poor growth. Well it is all rather British as we note the previous peak was 118.5 in April 2008. Actually with its 13% decline that is a lot worse than the UK.

manufacturing (was) 4.7% lower when compared with the pre-downturn peak in February 2008.

Of course there are also links as the proposed purchase of Opel ( Vauxhall in the UK) by Peugeot reminds us.

Oh and those mulling the de-industrialisation of the West might want to note that the French manufacturing index was 120.9 back in December 2000.

Debt and deficits

This has received some publicity as Presidential candidate Fillon said this only yesterday. From Bloomberg.

Reviving a statement he made after becoming prime minister in 2007, Fillon said France is essentially bankrupt and warned that it can face situations comparable to those of Greece, Portugal and Italy. “You think it can’t happen here but it can,” he said.

As to the figures the fiscal deficit at 3.5% of GDP is better than the UK but of course does fall foul of the Euro area 3% limit. The national debt to GDP ratio is 97.5% and has been rising. On the 7th of this month I pointed out that France could still borrow very cheaply due to the ECB QE program but that relative to its peers it was slipping. That has been reinforced this week as for the first time for quite a while the Irish ten-year yield fell to French levels.  It may seem odd to point this out on a day when France has been paid to issue some short-tern debt but the situation has gone from ultra cheap to very cheap overall and there is a cost there.

Comment

I pointed out back on the 2nd of November last year that there were more similarities between the UK and French economies than we are often told but that there are some clear differences. We have looked at the labour market today in detail but there is also this.

There is much to consider here as we note that for France the new economic growth norm seems to be 1% rather than the 2% we somewhat disappointedly recognise for ourselves. Over time if that persists the power of compounding will make it a big deal.

Oh and of course house prices if we look at the UK boom which began in the middle of 2013 we see that France has in fact seen house prices stagnate since then as the index was 103.03 ( Q2 2013) back then compared to 102.82 in the third quarter of 2016

With UK inflation heading above target why are we getting more Bank of England QE?

Today we arrive at the latest UK inflation data series and the Bank of England will be facing a situation it has not been in for a while. This is that consumer inflation is now quite near to its official target as the CPI ( Consumer Prices Index) gets near to 2%. This poses yet another question about its policy as we see that the Bank of England is buying another £775 million of UK Gilts today. Even worse these are longs and ultra longs as it will be making offers out into the 2060s. So it will be creating a problem for our children and grandchildren all in the name of boosting an economy which has so far down well and boosting inflation which is now pretty much on target.

Of course the Bank of England thinks that inflation will rise further in 2016 as it explained at its Inflation Report earlier this month.

Beyond that, inflation is expected to increase further, peaking around 2.8% at the start of 2018, before falling gradually back to 2.4% in three years’ time. This overshoot is entirely because of sterling’s fall, which itself is the product of the market’s view of the consequences of Brexit.

The Sterling fall was exacerbated by the policy easing from the Bank of England which drove it lower when the UK economy was already getting a substantial boost. To be specific it was expectations of easing which drove it lower after Governor Carney’s rhetoric promised it and ignored the fact that there are 8 other voting members.

As an aside I await the views of the inflationolholics who want a 4% inflation target such as Professor Tony Yates and Professor Wren-Lewis. No doubt their Ivory Tower models love the inflation rise as their economic models tell them that wages will rise in response although of course the real world is apt to remain so inconvenient and inconsiderate. Of course I suppose Professor Yates has a model which shows he was right when he and I debated monetary policy last September on BBC Radio 4’s Moneybox whereas of course the real world shows exactly the reverse.

Today’s data

Let me first open with an alternative universe.

The annual rate for RPIX, the all items RPI excluding mortgage interest payments (MIPs) index, is 2.9%, up from 2.7% last month.

So this has gone even further above its old target of 2.5% and would now be signalling that it was time for the Bank of England to consider reducing all its monetary stimulus rather than adding to it. No wonder it was scrapped! However we do learn something by looking at the new measure.

The all items CPI annual rate is 1.8%, up from 1.6% in December.

So we immediately learn two things the first is that there is a gap of 1.1% between two measures which are supposed to both measure UK inflation. You will no doubt not be surprised that the lower number has got the official nod or we have seen an “improvement”. But there is the secondary issue of the fact that the target was only changed by 0.5% or less than half. So there was a monetary policy easing that gets little publicity. Some of the difference is that in spite of the fact that mortgage costs are excluded RPIX still has an influence from owner occupied housing costs which the official CPI turns its blind eye to.

What are house prices doing?

Here are the numbers.

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 7.2% in the year to December 2016 (up from 6.1% in the year to November 2016), continuing the strong growth seen since the end of 2013.

Many of you will no doubt be having a wry smile at the way these were moved out of the headline inflation number (2003) just ahead of a boom in house prices. But the UK establishment is about to claim it is including them whilst not actually doing so. I explained in full detail on the 15th of November last year.

There is another issue which the National Statistician has attempted to fudge by writing “the inclusion of an element of owner occupiers’ housing costs”. How very Sir Humphey Appleby! I have noted that many people have reported that house prices are being included but you see they are not. Instead there is a statistical swerve based on the Imputed Rent methodology where they assume house owners receive a rent and then put growth in that in the numbers. The same rental growth measurement that according to their own missives  they need to “strengthen”.

Let us look at this month’s number.

The all items CPIH annual rate is 2.0%, up from 1.7% in December.

Lets is start with the good which is that when it becomes the first measure on the statistical bulletin next month it will give a higher number than the one it replaces. The bad is that if you look at  house prices it is still way behind them because the number it makes up or “imputes” tells us this about housing costs.

The OOH component annual rate is 2.5%, down from 2.6% last month.

Apologies to any first time buyers who are now choking on their coffee or tea. The ugly is that this made up number is not even a national statistic because of their failures in simply measuring rents. This has led to revisions and an abandonment of the past rental series.

I made these points to the UK National Statistician John Pullinger in late January as I reported on the 31st.

I was pleased to point out that his letter to the Guardian of a week ago made in my opinion a case for using real numbers for owner-occupied housing such as house prices and mortgage-rates as opposed to the intended use of an imputed number such as Rental Equivalence.

What drove things this month?

If we look at the detailed data then it was clothing and footwear which held inflation back.

Overall, prices fell by 4.2% between December 2016 and January 2017, compared with a smaller fall of 3.1% last year

That tugged it back by 0.1% on the annual rate and offset some of the 0.29% rise from transport costs.

What is coming over the hill?

I am sorry to say that our valiant professors will be pleased by this.

Factory gate prices (output prices) rose 3.5% on the year to January 2017, which is the seventh consecutive period of annual price increases and the highest they have been since December 2011.

So as you can see the heat is on and that is being pushed by prices further up the chain.

Prices for materials and fuels paid by UK manufacturers for processing (input prices) rose 20.5% on the year, which is the fastest rate of annual growth since September 2008.

These only impact on some of the numbers and so get filtered out as well as reaching consumer inflation but they will continue to nudge consumer inflation higher as we move into the spring of this year.

Comment

There is much to consider here as we note that under our old regime inflation would be above target rather than just below it. However where we are poses a serious question for the Bank of England as it is pushing inflation higher with its ongoing monetary easing which even the inflationistas must now question. Indeed even the CPIH measure which next month will be first in the statistical bulletin with its imputed rents would if it had a 2% annual target be on it. I do hope that Governor Carney and Chief Economist Andy Haldane will soon be available to explain why a solidly growing economy with inflation heading above target needs a “Sledgehammer” of monetary easing. Actually Andy has been quiet of late has he been put back in the cellar he has spent most of the last 28 years in? How can he build an Ivory Tower from there?

Meanwhile the rest of us face higher inflation and I fear we will see 3% inflation on the CPI measure and 4% on the RPI measure as 2017 develops. I can say that I will be having more contact with the UK statistics establishment on the subject of their planned changes and will express my views to the best of my ability.

Seer of the year

There are many candidates for this but to be so wrong in only 24 house deserves a special mention. So step forwards European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici only yesterday.

After returning to growth in 2016, economic activity in is expected to expand strongly in 2017-18.

And the Greek statistics authority today.

The available seasonally adjusted data1 indicate that in the 4 th quarter of 2016 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 0.4% in comparison with the 3 rd quarter of 2016,

To coin a phrase Pierre is a specialist in failure. Still he does have a famous song to sing.

Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.