The Greek crisis continues on its road to nowhere

Yesterday on my way to looking at the UK Public Finances I pointed out that Greece had a national debt to GDP ratio of 179% at the end of 2016. This came with some cheerleading from the Institutions ( they used to be called the Troika until the name became so damaged) and some of the media about a budget primary surplus of 4.2% of GDP although if we put debt costs back in the surplus shrinks to 0.7%. You may recall that the PSI or Private-Sector Involvement of 2012 was supposed to bring the debt position under control but the ongoing economic depression blew that out of the water as the economy tanked and debt rose.

A consequence of this situation is that as we head to the heights of summer Greece will need yet more funding as it has debt repayments to make. Actually repayments is too strong a word as the debt will in fact be rolled from one Euro area institution to another. Bloomberg updates us on the issue.

The heavily indebted Mediterranean nation needs the next installment of about 7 billion euros ($7.6 billion) to repay lenders in a few months

It always turns out like this as this is a road we have been down more than once.

The IMF says two conditions must be met before it co-finances the country’s ongoing third bailout. First, Athens must agree to a set of credible reforms, particularly of its pension and tax systems. Second, the IMF insists that the euro area ease Greece’s debt burden.

This is all so familiar as we are always told there has been great success on reform yet somehow more is always needed! Also the debt burden needs easing yet again.

Debt relief

The problem here comes from the number below.

The latest figures show Greece’s debt stands at 179 percent of its gross domestic product, or about 315 billion euros….. Currently the country owes about 216 billion euros to the European Stability Mechanism, the euro-area bailout fund (and its predecessor), as well as to other euro-area countries.

At the beginning of the saga Greece faced high interest costs as the theme was as US Treasury Secretary Timmy Geithner pointed out was one of punishment. This only made things worse as the economy shrunk further so the PSI was enacted. The flaw was that the ever-growing amount of debt held by the Euro area and IMF was excluded from any write-down as we muse the first rule of ECB club which is that it must always be repaid. As this ballooned an alternative more implicit rather than explicit debt relief programme was put in place . From the ESM ( European Stability Mechanism).

Moreover, the EFSF and ESM loans lead to substantially lower financing costs for the country. That is because the two institutions can borrow cash much more cheaply than Greece itself, and offer a long period for repayment. Greece will not have to start repaying its loans to the ESM before 2034, for instance.

It calculates the savings for Greece as follows.

Thanks to the debt relief measures approved by the Eurogroup, the Greek government saved an equivalent of 49% of its 2013 GDP. This includes savings of 34% of GDP thanks to eased conditions on EFSF loans to Greece.

You may note that Greece is always “saving” money and yet the debt burden gets worse. A clue to that is the section on economic progress which trumpets the current account, fiscal deficit and something which apparently the IMF needs to be told.

Greece has made major progress in carrying out structural reforms – it is the best performing economy in terms of implementing OECD recommendations on structural reforms.

Somehow it misses out what now must be called the Great Economic Depression which has ravaged the Greek economy. Also is this one of the reforms?

The government is preparing to honor a pledge to offer permanent status to civil servants in key posts of the public sector, Kathimerini understands, with legislation boosting their rights expected to head to Parliament soon.

 

Also a board member showed the confusion with this sentence in a speech on the 6th of March.

As the Eurogroup chairman Jeroen Dijsselbloem said, there is no immediate liquidity squeeze over the next months, but that does not mean that Greece does not need money.

Er?

The medicine

In spite of where we stand this remains the same as the FT points out.

Greece agreed this month to adopt measures that would improve its primary budget surplus – before paying debt servicing costs – by 2 per cent of gross domestic product.

It is a bit like the old-fashioned treatment of bleeding the patient where it was reported a success but sadly the patient died isn’t it? As usual the rhetoric is being revved up and last night Prime Minister Tsipras was doing exactly that although I note he has passed the responsibility for the changes to the next government.

The measures would be divided roughly equally between cuts in pensions due to be made in 2019 followed by a sharp reduction of the income tax threshold in 2020. But they could be implemented earlier if the budget surplus target veers off-track.

What is the economic outlook for Greece?

The background is favourable as the overall picture for the Euro area is good. However the business surveys do not seem to have picked this up. From the Markit PMI.

At 46.7 in March, down from 47.7 in February, the latest figure signalled a seventh successive deterioration in Greek manufacturing sector conditions. The rate of decline accelerated from the previous month, and was marked overall. Underlying the latest contraction was a sharp fall in new order intakes

There is a clear difference here with the official data which tells us this for January and February combined.

3.7% (rise) in the Manufacturing Production Index.

The official view is pretty much what it has been for the last five years.

Looking forward, the Bank of Greece expects GDP to grow by around 2.5% in 2017, although a downward revision of the December 2016 forecasts is likely due to the negative carry-over effect of the sharp decline in output in Q4 2016 (attributed mainly to the decline in gross fixed capital formation and government consumption). Downside risks to the economic outlook exist related to delays in the conclusion of the second review of the Programme, the impact of increased taxation on economic activity and reform implementation.

The situation regarding bank deposits in Greece is complex because the definition has changed however I note that the ECB gave Greece an extra 400 million Euros of Emergency Liquidity Assistance last month. So the money which left in 2015 has remained abroad. The latest bank lending survey of the Bank of Greece tells us this.

The demand for total loans remained also unchanged during the first quarter of 2017

Comment

This saga has been an economics version of Waiting for Godot. The price of Godot never arriving has been this.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in January 2017 was 23.5% compared to 24.3% in January 2016 and the upward revised 23.5% in December 2016…….

Yes it has fallen a bit but if we compare to the pre credit crunch low of 7.9% you get an idea of the scale of the issue. Also this now defines long-term unemployment especially for the young ( 15-24 ) where nearly half ( 48%) are unemployed.

As the band strikes up a familiar tune and we see claims of reform and progress I think this from Elvis is appropriate for Greece.

We’re caught in a trap
I can’t walk out
Because I love you too much baby

Why can’t you see
What you’re doing to me
When you don’t believe a word I say?

We can’t go on together
With suspicious minds
And we can’t build our dreams
On suspicious minds

 

 

What are the economic prospects for France?

This weekend sees the first stage of the French Presidential elections which seem to be uncertain even for these times. A big issue will be economic prospects which will be my subject of today. But before I do let me send my best wishes to the victims of the terrorist attack which took place in Paris last night. If we move back to the economic situation we can say that the background in terms of the Euro area looks the best it has been for a while. From French Statistics.

In Q1 2017 the Eurozone economy is expected to grow at a similar pace as registered at the end of 2016 (+0.4%), then slightly faster in Q2 (+0.5%) before returning to +0.4% in Q3 2017. The main force behind the expansion in aggregate activity should be private consumption which benefits from the increase in disposable income and favourable labour market conditions and despite the upturn in inflation which is eroding household purchasing power. Moreover investment is forecast to strengthen, driven by improved expectations about near term outlook. Also investment in construction should accelerate. Finally, the positive international environment will likely reinforce external demand growth and exports.

As you can see according to them Goldilocks porridge seems pretty much exactly the right temperature as everything is expected to rise.

What about France itself?

 Some perspective

If we look back 2016 was an erratic year where quarterly economic growth was 0.6%,-0.1%,0.2% and then 0.4%. So whilst it began and ended well there was a near recession in the middle. Overall the growth at 1.1% was in fact less than the 1.2% of 2015 and it does pose a question as that is the level of economic growth which has caused such problems in both Italy and Portugal. Indeed if we look back we see that as 2011 opened quarterly economic output was 509 billion Euros whereas in the last quarter of 2016 it had only risen by 4,4% to 531.6 billion Euros ( 2010 prices).

This lack of economic growth has contributed to what is the major economic problem in France right now.

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……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 fact so long after the credit crunch hit the unemployment rate is still in double-digits albeit only just echoes here. Also there is the issue of underemployment.

In Q4 2016, 6.2% of the employed persons were underemployed, a ratio decreasing by 0.1 percentage points quarter on quarter, and by 0.4 percentage points over a year. Underemployment mainly concerns people who have a part-time job and wish to work more.

Oh and if we return to the unemployment rate actually 10% is only a reduction because the previous quarter was revised higher. We could improve like that forever and remain at the same level!

The next consequence of slow/low economic growth can be found in the public finances.

At the end of 2016, the Maastricht debt accounted for €2,147.2 billion. It rose by €49.2 billion in 2016 after € +60.2 billion in 2015. It reached 96.0% of GDP at the end of 2016, after 95.6% at the end of 2015.

In essence this has risen from 65% pre credit crunch and the combination of an annual fiscal deficit and slow growth has seen it rise. France seems to have settled on an annual fiscal deficit of around the Maastricht criteria of 3% of GDP so to get the relative debt level down you can see how quickly it would need to grow.

What about prospects?

This morning’s business survey from Markit has been very positive.

The Markit Flash France Composite Output Index, based on around 85% of normal monthly survey replies, registered 57.4, compared to March’s reading of 56.8. The latest figure was indicative of the sharpest rate of growth in almost six years.

The idea that elections and indeed referenda weaken economies via uncertainty may need to be contained in Ivory Towers going forwards.

The numbers provide further evidence that the French private sector remains resilient to political uncertainty around the upcoming presidential election. Indeed, business optimism hit a multi-year high in April, with a number of respondents anticipating favourable business conditions following its conclusion.

Even better there was hope of improvement for the labour market.

Moreover, the rate of job creation quickened to a 68-month peak. Both manufacturers and service providers continued to take on additional staff, with the pace of growth sharper at the former.

However a little caution is required as we were told by this survey that there was manufacturing growth in February as the index was 52.2 but the official data told us this.

In February 2017, output diminished for the third month in a row in the manufacturing industry (−0.6% after −0.9% in January). It decreased sharply in the whole industry (−1.6% after −0.2%). Manufacturing output decreased slightly over the past three months (−0.3%)…..Over a year, manufacturing output also edged down (−0.5%)

Bank of France

In a reversal of the usual relationship the French central bank is more downbeat than the private business surveys as you can see below.

In March, industrial production rose at a less sustained pace than in February.

Whilst it describes the services sector as dynamic I note that its index for manufacturing fell from 104 in February to 103 in March leading to the overall picture described below.

According to the monthly index of business activity (MIBA), GDP is expected to increase by 0,3% in the first quarter of 2017. The slight revision (-0,1 point) of last month estimate does not change the overall perspective for the year.

The cost of housing

This is very different to the situation across La Manche ( the Channel) and a world apart from the Canadian position I looked at yesterday.

In Q4 2016, house prices slightly decreased compared to the previous quarter (−0.3%, not seasonally adjusted data) after two quarters of increase. This slight downturn was due to secondhand dwellings (−0.4%). However, the prices of new dwellings grew again (+0.7%).

Indeed some more perspective is provided by the fact that an annual rate of growth of 1.9% is presented as a rise!

Year on year, house prices accelerated further in Q4 2016 (+1.9% after +1.4% in Q3 and +0.7% in Q2). New dwelling prices grew faster (+2.9% y-o-y) than second-hand dwelling prices (+1.8%).

Not much seems to be happening to rents either.

In Q1 2017, the Housing Rent Reference Index stood at 125.90. Year on year, it increased by 0.51%, its strongest growth since Q2 2014.

Just for perspective the index was 124.25 when 2013 began so there is little inflation here.

Comment

There is much that is favourable for the French economy right now. For example the European Central Bank continues with very expansionary monetary policy with an official interest-rate of -0.4% and 60 billion Euros a month of QE bond purchases. The Euro as an exchange-rate is below the level at which it started although only by 6%. So France finds that it gets a boost from very low debt costs as the recent rise in them only leaves the ten-year yield at 0.83%.

So 2017 should be a good one although there is the issue of why other countries have out-performed France. We only have to look south to see a Spain where economic growth has been strong. A couple of years of that would help considerably. But as I type that I am reminded of some of the comments to yesterday’s article especially the one saying house prices in Barcelona are on the march again. To get economic growth these days do we need booming house prices? This leads into my argument that we are calling what is really partly inflation as growth. The catch is that the numbers tell people they are better off but then they find housing ever more expensive and increasingly frequently unaffordable. As we stand France does better here but is that at the cost of higher unemployment?

 

 

 

 

House price growth in Toronto poses quite a problem for Canada

One of the economic themes of these times has been the boom in asset prices caused by ultra easy monetary policy and the way that establishment’s present this as “wealth effects” leading to economic growth when in fact some and often much of this is in my opinion inflation. For example those investing in government bonds have benefited from rises in prices and this is presented as a “wealth effect” but on the other side of the coin someone taking out an annuity faces much lower yields and much lower income from a set sum. Yet the “wealth loss” for them is not counted. There is also the issue of house prices where again rises are presented as an economic benefit which for some they are but both first-time buyers and those wishing to trade up in the market face higher prices.

The house price issue is one which has dogged economic comment about Canada and merited a substantial mention by the Bank of Canada last week. This is significant because central banks  look away from such matters until they feel they have no other choice. The emphasis is mine.

Housing activity has also been stronger than expected. We have incorporated some of this strength in a higher profile for residential investment, although we still anticipate slowing over the projection horizon. The current pace of activity in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and parts of the Golden Horseshoe region is unlikely to be sustainable, given fundamentals. That said, the contribution of the housing sector to growth this year has been revised up substantially. Price growth in the GTA has accelerated sharply in recent months, suggesting that speculative forces are at work. Governing Council sees stronger household spending as an upside risk to inflation in the short-term, but a downside risk over the longer term.

What is happening to house prices in Toronto?

Canada Statistics has an index for the price of new houses.

On the strength of price increases for new houses in Toronto, the NHPI rose 3.3% over the 12-month period ending in February. This was the largest annual growth at the national level since June 2010.

Chart 2 Chart 2: The metropolitan region of Toronto posts the highest year-over-year price increase
The metropolitan region of Toronto posts the highest year-over-year price increase

Chart 2: The metropolitan region of Toronto posts the highest year-over-year price increase

Toronto recorded an 8.6% year-over-year price increase, the largest among the metropolitan areas surveyed, followed by Victoria (+6.3%), St. Catharines-Niagara (+6.2%), and Windsor (+6.2%). The gain for Windsor was the largest reported since January 1990.

Care is needed with such measures as for example the UK has hit trouble. So let us look further, the editorial of the Toronto Sun told us this yesterday.

house prices are skyrocketing in Toronto (the price of an average detached home is now over $1 million and has risen 33% in the past year)

The Toronto Life has something that is even more eye-catching.

Sale of the Week: The $2.7-million house that proves asking prices are meaningless in Summerhill

Ah too high eh? Nope.

The listing agents say they priced the house at what they thought was market value. Eight offers came in, after which the agents gave everyone the chance to improve. Seven did, and the sellers accepted the offer with the fewest conditions and best price, for more than $750,000 over asking. This may not have been a complete fluke: two other houses on Farnham Avenue have sold in the $2.5-million price range in the past year.

You have to question the listing agents there of course but it is an interesting price for a house which is very smart inside but does not look anything special from the front. We do get perhaps more of a realistic perspective from yesterday’s “sale of the week” as we have a comparison.

Previously sold for: $659,000, in 2007

Okay and now.

The sellers made the easy decision to go with the highest offer, at more than $400,000 over asking, $1,656,000.

Yesterday the Royal LePage house price survey told us this.

In the first quarter, the aggregate price of a home in the Greater Toronto Area increased 20.0 per cent to $759,241, while the price of a home in the City of Toronto rose 17.0 per cent to $763,875. Home prices also increased significantly in the surrounding GTA regions, with suburbs such as Richmond Hill, Oshawa,Vaughan, Markham and Oakville posting increases of 31.5 per cent, 28.2 per cent, 25.8 per cent, 23.2 per cent and 23.1 per cent to $1,209,741, $500,105, $985,534, $970,216 and $987,001

What about monetary policy?

According to the Bank of Canada it is very expansionary or loose.

The neutral nominal policy rate in Canada is estimated
to be between 2 .5 and 3 .5 per cent, 25 basis points
lower than previously estimated

If we maintain a straight face at the chutzpah and indeed fantasy that they know that to that degree of accuracy we can see that with an official interest-rate of 0.5% they are some 2.5% below neutral.

If we look at the exchange-rate then there was another boost as the trade-weighted Loonie or CERI fell from the low 120s in 2011/12 to a low of 89 as 2016 opened. It then rallied a little and over the year from March 2016 has in fact started at 95 and ended there. There are two issues here that need to be noted. Firstly this is an effective exchange rate with an elephant in the room as the US Dollar is 76.2% of it! Secondly due to its plentiful stock of raw materials the currency is often at the mercy of commodity price movements.

Moving to the money supply we see that the taps are open pretty wide. The broad measure has seen its annual rate of growth rise from the 4.5% of late 2010 to 7.7% in February of this year. There was a dip in narrow money growth in March but it is still increasing at an annual rate of 9%.

Household debt

Canada Statistics tells us this.

Total household credit market debt (consumer credit, and mortgage and non-mortgage loans) reached $2,028.7 billion in the fourth quarter. Consumer credit was $596.5 billion, while mortgage debt stood at $1,329.6 billion.

If we compare to incomes we see this.

Household credit market debt as a proportion of adjusted household disposable income (excluding pension entitlements) edged up to 167.3% from 166.8% in the third quarter. In other words, there was $1.67 in credit market debt for every dollar of adjusted household disposable income.

On the other side of the ledger that was something to please the Bank of Canada.

National wealth, the value of non-financial assets in the Canadian economy, rose 1.4% to $9,920.0 billion at the end of the fourth quarter. The main contributors to growth were real estate and natural resources. The value of real estate grew by $93.0 billion while the value of natural resource wealth increased $29.4 billion.

Although the rest of us will wonder how much of that $93 billion is from the Toronto area?

Comment

There is a lot to consider here as whilst the word bubble is over used it is hard to avoid thinking of it as we look at Toronto and its housing market. If we look at wages growth it has been slowing from around 3% to 0..9% in Canada in terms of hourly wages so it is not any sort of driver. The price moves are if anything even more extreme than seen in London.

If we move to the economics then if you own a property in Toronto and want to move elsewhere you have a windfall gain and good luck to you. A genuine wealth effect. But against that all new buyers are facing rampant inflation and there are clear wealth losses for them. We are back to a society of haves and have note here,

A big factor is we see another place where foreign funds are flowing in and like in the other cases we are left to mull this from Transparency International.

Transparency International Canada’s analysis of land title records found that nearly a half of the 100 most valuable residential properties in Greater Vancouver are held through structures that hide their beneficial owners.

Canada is of course far from alone in such worries.

Meanwhile the Bank of Canada finds itself not far off irrelevant which is awkward to say the least for a central planner. Of course where it is relevant it is making things worse.

 

 

The rally of the UK Pound from the lows matches a 1.25% Bank Rate rise

Yesterday was a day where we discovered a few things. For example we learned that  Prime Minister Theresa may was not going to be the new Dr. Who nor the new manager of Arsenal football club as we discovered that she was in fact trying to launch a General Election. I say trying because she needs to hurdle the requirements of the Fixed Term Parliament Act later today although if she does I presume it will fade into the recycle bin of history. Let us take a look at the economic situation.

The outlook

Rather intriguingly the International Monetary Fund or IMF published its latest economic outlook. There was good news for the world economy as a whole.

With buoyant financial markets and a long-awaited cyclical recovery in manufacturing and trade, world growth is projected to rise from 3.1 percent in 2016 to 3.5 percent in 2017 and 3.6 percent in 2018.

There was particular good news for the UK economy.

Growth in the United Kingdom is projected to be 2.0 percent in 2017, before declining to 1.5 percent in 2018. The 0.9 percentage point upward revision to the 2017 forecast and the 0.2 percentage point downward revision to the 2018 forecast reflect the stronger-than-expected performance of the U.K. economy since the June Brexit vote,

However this was problematic to say the least for Christine Lagarde who after the advent of Donald Trump is now the female orange one.

. Asset prices in the UK (and, to a lesser degree, the rest of the EU) would likely fall in the aftermath of a vote for exit…..In the limited scenario, GDP growth dips to 1.4 percent in 2017, and GDP is almost fully at its new long-run level of 1.5 percent below the baseline by 2019. GDP growth falls to -0.8 percent in 2017 in the adverse scenario,

There was more.

On this basis, the effects of uncertainty seem to be universally negative, and potentially quite strong and persistent, even if ultimately temporary.

In fact asset prices rose and the uncertainty had no effect at all. Of course the long-term remains uncertain and ironically the IMF after being too pessimistic has no become more optimistic just as the factor which is likely to affect us is around, that is of course higher inflation. Oh and the UK consumer spent more and not less.

If we stick with the higher inflation theme there is this from Ann Pettifor today.

UK govt promotes usury: interest on student debt rises later this year from 4.6% to 6.1% = RPI + 3%.

That is the same UK establishment which so regularly tells us that CPIH ( H= Housing Costs via Imputed Rents) is the most “comprehensive” measure of inflation so is it not used? Also if we look other UK interest-rates we see Bank Rate is 0.25% and the ten-year Gilt yield is 1.02% so why should student pay 5/6% more please? Even worse much of that debt will never be repaid so it is as Earth Wind & Fire put it.

Take a ride in the sky
On our ship, fantasize

So can anybody guess the first rule of IMF Fight Club?

UK Pound £

There was an immediate effect here and as so often it was completely the wrong one as the UK Pound £ dropped like a stone. Well done to anyone who bought down there as it then engaged some rocket engines and shot higher and at one point touched US $1.29. For those unfamiliar with financial market behaviour this was a classic case of stop losses being triggered as so many organisations had advised selling the UK Pound that the trade was very over crowded. My old employer Deutsche Bank was involved in this as it has been cheerleading for a lower Pound £ at US $1.21, Ooops.

So we only learn from yesterday’s move that the rumours a lot of organisations had sold the UK Pound £ were true. As they looked to cover their positions the momentum built and we saw a type of reverse flash crash.

If we take stock we see the following which is that the UK Pound £ is now some 10.1% lower than a year ago against the US Dollar at US $1.282. As it sits just below 1.20 versus the Euro it is now only down some 5% on where it was a year ago. If we move to the effective or trade-weighted exchange-rate we see that at 79.1 it is some 6.7% lower than the 84.8 it was at a year ago. What a difference a day makes? Of course what we never have is an idea of what the permanent exchange rate will be or frankly if there is any such thing outside the economic theories of the Ivory Towers but if we stay here the outlook will see some ch-ch-changes. For example a little of the prospective inflation and likely economic slow down will be offset.

If we stay with inflation then there are other influences which are chipping bits off the oncoming iceberg. I have previously discussed the lower price for cocoa which offers hope for chocoholics and maybe even a returning Toblerone triangle well there is also this from Mining.com.

The Northern China import price of 62% Fe content ore plunged 5% on Tuesday to a six-month low of $61.50 per dry metric tonne according to data supplied by The Steel Index. The price of the steelmaking raw material is now down by more than a third over just the last month.

Shares and bonds

The UK Gilt market is extraordinarily high as we mull the false market which the £435 billion of QE purchases by the Bank of England has helped create. As someone who has followed this market for 30 years it still makes an impact typing that the ten-year Gilt yield is as low as 1.04%. This benefits various groups such as the government and mortgage borrowers but hurts savers and as I noted earlier does nothing for student debt.

The UK FTSE 100 fell over 2% but that was from near record levels. I do not know if this is an attempt at humour but the Financial Times put it like this.

The surging pound has pushed Britain’s FTSE 100 negative for the year

So a lower Pound £ is bad as is a higher £? Anyway they used to be keen on the FTSE 250 because they told us it is a better guide to the UK domestic economy which has done this.

So more heat than light really here because if we take a broad sweep the changes yesterday were minor compared to the exchange-rate move

House prices

Perhaps the likeliest impact here is a continuation of low volumes in the market as people wait to see what happens next. It seems likely that foreign buyers may wait and see as after all it is not a lot more than a month, so we could see an impact on Central London in particular.

In a proper adult campaign issues such as money laundering and the related issue of unaffordable house prices would be discussed. But unless you want to go blue in the face I would not suggest holding your breath.

Comment

The real change yesterday was the movement in the UK Pound £ which will have been noted by the Bank of England. I wrote only recently that some of it members would not require much to vote for more monetary easing such as Bank Rate cuts and of course should the UK Pound £ move to a higher trajectory that gives them a potential excuse. I do not wish to put ideas in their heads but since the low the rise in the UK Pound £ is equivalent to five 0.25% Bank Rate rises according to the old rule of thumb.

By the time you read this most of you will know the British and Irish Lions touring squad and as a rugby fan I look forwards to today’s announcement of the squad and even more to the tour itself. However just like economic statistics there seems have been an early wire about the captain.

By contrast the General Election announcement came much more out of the blue.

The 0% problem of Japan’s economy

Today I intend to look east to the land of the rising sun or Nihon where the ongoing economic struggles have been a forerunner to what is now happening to western economies. Also of course Japan is intimately tied up with the ongoing issue and indeed problem that is North Korea. And its navy or rather maritime self-defence force is being reinforced as this from Reuters only last month points out.

Japan’s second big helicopter carrier, the Kaga, entered service on Wednesday, giving the nation’s military greater ability to deploy beyond its shores………..Japan’s two biggest warships since World War Two are potent symbols of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to give the military a bigger international role. They are designated as helicopter destroyers to keep within the bounds of a war-renouncing constitution that forbids possession of offensive weapons.

We cannot be to critical of the name misrepresentation as of course the Royal Navy badged its previous aircraft carriers as through deck cruisers! There are of course issues though with Japan possessing such ships as the name alone indicates as the last one was involved in the attack on Pearl Habour before being sunk at Midway.

Demographics

This is a crucial issue as this from Bloomberg today indicates.

Japan Needs More People

The crux of the problem will be familiar to regular readers of my work.

Japanese companies already report they can’t find people to hire, and the future isn’t likely to get better — government researchers expect the country’s population to fall by nearly a third by 2065, at which point nearly 40 percent will be senior citizens. There’ll be 1.3 workers for every person over the age of 65, compared to 2.3 in 2015.

So the population is both ageing and shrinking which of course are interrelated issues. The solution proposed by Bloomberg is rather familiar.

It’s plain, however, that he needs to try harder still, especially when it comes to immigration……..Researchers say that to maintain the current population, Japan would have to let in more than half a million immigrants a year. (It took in 72,000 in 2015.)……..He now needs to persuade Japan that substantially higher immigration is a vital necessity.

There are various issues here as for example the Bloomberg theme that the policies of  Prime Minister Abe are working seems not to be applying to population. But as they admit below such a change is the equivalent of asking fans of Arsenal football club to support Tottenham Hotspur.

In a society as insular and homogeneous as Japan, any such increase would be a very tall order.

The question always begged in this is if the new immigrants boost the Japanese economy surely there must be a negative effect on the countries they leave?

The 0% Problem in Japan

I thought today I would look at the economy in different ways and partly as a reflection of the culture and partly due to the effect above a lot of economic and financial market indicators are near to 0%. This is something which upsets both establishments and central bankers.

Real Wages

Let me start with an issue I have been writing about for some years from Japan Macro Advisers.

The real wage growth, after offsetting the inflation in the consumer price, was 0% YoY in February.

The official real wage data has gone 0%,0%,0.1%, -0.1% and now 0% so in essence 0% and is appears on a road to nowhere. This is very different to what you may have read in places like Bloomberg and the Financial Times which have regularly trumpeted real wage growth in their headlines. There is a reason why this is even more significant than you might think because let me skip to a genuine example of economic success in Japan.

Given the prevalent labor shortage situation in Japan, there should be an economic force encouraging wages to rise. At 2.8%, the current unemployment rate is the lowest since 1993. (Japan Macro Advisers )

Actually in another rebuttal to Ivory Tower economics we see that unemployment is above what was “full employment”.

One could argue it is a matter of time, but it has already been 2.5 years since the unemployment rate reached 3.5%, the level economists considered as full-employment equivalent. (Japan Macro Advisers )

Inflation

The latest official data hammers out an increasingly familiar beat.

The consumer price index for Japan in February 2017 was 99.8 (2015=100), up 0.3% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and down 0.1% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

If you compare 99.8 now with 100 in 2015 you see that inflation has been in essence 0%. This is quite a reverse for the policy of Abenomics where the “Three Arrows” were supposed to lead to inflation rising at 2% per annum. An enormous amount of financial market Quantitative Easing has achieved what exactly? Here is an idea of the scale comparing Japan to the US and Euro area.

As we stand this has been a colossal failure in achieving its objective as for example inflation is effectively 0% and the Japanese Yen has been reinforcing this by strengthening recently into the 108s versus the US Dollar. it has however achieved something according to The Japan Times.

Tokyo’s skyline is set to welcome 45 new skyscrapers by the time the city hosts the Olympics in 2020, as a surge of buildings planned in the early years of Abenomics near completion.

Although in something of an irony this seems to cut inflation prospects.

“This could heat up competition for tenants in other areas of the city”

A cultural issue

From The Japan Times.

Naruhito Nogami, a 37-year-old systems engineer in Tokyo, drives to discount stores on weekends to buy cheap groceries in bulk, even though he earns enough to make ends meet and the prospects for Japan’s economic recovery are brighter.

“I do have money, but I’m frugal anyway. Everyone is like that. That’s just the way it is,” he says.

Jaoanese businesses have responded in a way that will be sending shudders through the office of Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda.

Top retailer Aeon Co. is cutting prices for over 250 grocery items this month to lure cost-savvy shoppers, and Seiyu, operated by Wal-Mart Stores, cut prices on more than 200 products in February.

More of the same?

It would seem that some doubling down is about to take place.

The Abe government on Tuesday nominated banker Hitoshi Suzuki and economist Goshi Kataoka to the Bank of Japan Policy Board to replace two members who have frequently dissented against the direction set by Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda. ( Bloomberg)

Also Japan seems ever more committed to a type of centrally planned economic culture.

Japanese government-backed fund eyes Toshiba’s chip unit (Financial Times )

With the Bank of Japan buying so many Japanese shares it has been named the Tokyo Whale there more questions than answers here.

Comment

There is much to consider here but let me propose something regularly ignored. Why does Japan simply not embrace its strengths of for example full employment and relatively good economic growth per capita figures and abandon the collective growth and inflation chasing? After all lower prices can provide better living-standards and as  wages seem unable to rise even with very low unemployment may be a road forwards.

The catch is the fact that Japan continues to not only have a high national debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio of 231% according to Bank of Japan data but is borrowing ever more each year. It is in effect reflating but not getting inflation and on a collective level not getting much economic growth either. Let is hope that Japan follows the lead of many of its citizens and avoids what happened last time after a period of economic troubles.

For us however we are left to mull the words of the band The Vapors.

Turning Japanese
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so

Let me finish with one clear difference we in the UK have much more of an inflation culture than Japan.

UK employment improves and so does underemployment

As we look at the UK labour market today let us start with something which in one way is good news and in another poses questions. From Reuters last week.

Manchester United winger Jesse Lingard has signed a new contract that will keep him at Old Trafford until 2021, the Premier League club said in a statement on Thursday.

Lingard, who will earn up to 100,000 pounds a week according to British media reports, has an option to extend the deal by a further year.

Firstly congratulations to Jesse and for once it is nice to see an English player benefit from the largesse of the Premier League these days. There is invariably hype in the exact numbers but he seems to have approximately trebled his wages which will do there bit for the average wages series in the future. However those who watched an outstanding display by Juventus last night in the Champions League as they put Barcelona to the sword have been mulling the concept of relativity. From @Football_Tweet

– Paulo Dybala earns €3M a season at Juventus. – Jesse Lingard earns €6M a season at Man Utd.

we return to a familiar question which is how much of the wages growth is in effect a type of inflation?

The impact of Robots

If we look ahead on a more general level then we can expect to see not only more robots in our economy but more advanced ones appear. Not quite as advanced as the ones in the Foundation saga of Isaac Asimov that I am currently reading again but considerable advances are being made. According to Bloomberg such improvements are likely to have an impact on labour markets and wages especially.

Robots have long been maligned for job-snatching. Now you can add depressing wages and promoting inequality to your list of automation-related grievances.

Industrial robots cut into employment and pay for workers, based on an new analysis of local data stretching from 1990 and 2007. The change had the biggest impact on the lower half of the wage distribution, so it probably worsened America’s wage gap.

The exact results are as follows.

One additional robot per thousand workers reduces the employment-to-population ratio by 0.18 percentage points to 0.34 percentage points and slashes wages by 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent, based on their analysis.

Food for thought as we look forwards in years and decades and of course ground which many of the best science fiction writing has warned about.

Today’s data

The quantity data remains pretty strong as you can see.

There were 31.84 million people in work, 39,000 more than for September to November 2016 and 312,000 more than for a year earlier.

There was an additional kicker to this as we got a glimpse into a potentially improving situation regarding underemployment as well.

with an increase in full-time employment (positive 146,000) partly offset by a fall in part-time employment (negative 107,000)………….strong demand for labour is translating into a shift from part-time to full-time employment, and an increase in the average hours worked per week by both full time and part-time employees.

Here is the analysis of hours worked.

Average hours worked per week increased from 32.0 to 32.4 in the 3 months to February 2017, the highest since July to September 2002, largely due to more hours being worked over the Christmas and New Year period compared with recent years.

Fewer part-time workers are looking for full-time work.

Data released today (12 April 2017) show that this measure continued to contract with the proportion falling to 12.6%, down from 14.2% a year ago (and down from a peak of 18.4% in 2013). This proportion is now at its lowest since March to May 2009, but still well above its pre-crisis average of 8.3%.

So it looks as though the situation regarding underemployment has improved as well although the data is only partial and let us finish this section with the unemployment numbers.

There were 1.56 million unemployed people (people not in work but seeking and available to work), 45,000 fewer than for September to November 2016 and 141,000 fewer than for a year earlier.

What about wages?

These were the same as last month in terms of growth.

Between the three months to February 2016 and the three months to February 2017, in nominal terms, total pay increased by 2.3%, the same as between the three months to January 2016 and the three months to January 2017.

Actually there was a rise in the month of February by 2.9% on the year before so maybe a hopeful hint of a pick-up! We will find out as we go through the bonus months of March and April. One thing we do know is that both Sky News and the Financial Times ( “UK wages have grown at their weakest pace in seven months,”) have not checked this.

The official numbers on real wages are below.

adjusted for inflation, average weekly earnings grew by 0.2% including bonuses and by 0.1% excluding bonuses, over the year, the slowest rate of growth since 2014.

So we have something of a discontinuity as we had some real wage growth in February it would appear. Let us cross our fingers that it continues but sadly it seems unlikely ( the comparison is flattered by bonuses falling last year). Of course even if we use the figures for February alone then real wage growth was negative if we compare it to the Retail Price Index.

Also the exclusion of the self-employed from the wages data gets ever more shameful.

self-employed people increased by 114,000 to 4.78 million (15.0% of all people in work).

Can we increase tax on income from wages?

After the debacle of the U-Turn on higher National Insurance contributions from the self-employed there have been arguments that the UK is unable to ever raise more taxes from income. It was interesting therefore to see some international comparisons from the OECD today.

The average single worker in Belgium faced a tax wedge of 54.0% in 2016 compared with the OECD average of 36.0%…..Belgium had the 4th highest tax wedge in the OECD for an average married worker with two children at 38.6% in 2016, which compares with the OECD average of 26.6%.

Not the best place to be single and childless it would appear! But now the UK.

The average single worker in the United Kingdom faced a tax wedge of 30.8% in 2016……..The United Kingdom had the 22nd lowest tax wedge in the OECD for an average married worker with two children at 25.8% in 2016,

So in theory we could if we wished to reach the peak that is Belgium. The Anglosphere ( US, Australia and Canada) if I can put it like that has similar numbers to the UK although the Kiwis stand out at only 17.9% for a single person. The lowest is Chile at 7%.

Interestingly with its debt and deficit problems income in Japan is slightly more taxed than here.

Comment

I would like to take a step back and consider the last couple of years. Remember the number of economists and media analysts who warned about what they called “deflation” and sometimes they shouted it so loud it was “DEFLATION”? Well it morphed into this.

By late-2014, an increase in nominal wage growth and low CPIH inflation, led to average real earnings increasing by 1.7% in the 18 months to mid-2016. ( Office for National Statistics).

This of course boosted the economy mostly via the retail sales boom but also in other ways as I pointed out on the 29th of January 2015.

However if we look at the retail-sectors in the UK,Spain and Ireland we see that price falls are so far being accompanied by volume gains and as it happens by strong volume gains. This could not contradict conventional economic theory much more clearly. If the history of the credit crunch is any guide many will try to ignore reality and instead cling to their prized and pet theories but I prefer reality ever time.

If there was a musical theme to the deflation paranoia then it was “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right” from Stealers Wheel. Please do not misunderstand me I am talking about the so-called experts here not those influenced by them. Sadly we seem to be heading into a period where something they wanted ( higher inflation) will slow the economy down. I wonder how the inflationistas will spin that?

 

 

 

 

 

Gloomy Gertjan of the Bank of England could easily vote for another Bank Rate cut

Yesterday gave us another opportunity to discover what a Bank of England policy maker is thinking. This was because former hedge fund manager Gertjan Vlieghe gave a speech at the headquarters of Bloomberg in London in . Sadly Gertjan is yet another policy member of the Bank of England who has had trouble with his ethical radar. From the Guardian in July 2015.

“Despite the fact that there would be no conflict of interest between my future role and any continued passive stake in Brevan Howard, we have now come to an agreement whereby I shall be bought out of my remaining interest in the partnership before taking up my position on the MPC. As of 31 August I will have severed all financial and other ties with Brevan Howard. I have taken this step to avoid any mistaken impression of a conflict of interest,” said Vlieghe.

If Gertjan had wanted to avoid the impression that he was focused on the City of London perhaps Bloomberg was not the best place to give his speech.

What did he say?

Forecasting problems

Gertjan is obviously troubled by the fact that the Bank of England got the post EU leave vote economic forecasts wrong.

I will argue that there is an important distinction to be drawn between good monetary policy and making accurate forecasts………..And there have been times, just recently, when forecast errors were small and policy was broadly right.

Ah so he was right by being wrong apparently! If we go back to August we were told this by the Bank of England in the monetary policy minutes.

the outlook for growth in the short to medium term has weakened markedly.

Now the medium term has yet to happen but in the short-term the error was not small as the UK economy mimicked the film “Carry on Regardless” . If you had looked at economic growth without knowing about the referendum vote you would have seen 2016 as a pretty constant year.

Staying with the forecasting problem Gertjan is keen to put in our minds the view that it does not matter.

But the existence of forecast errors per se, whether large or small, is not necessarily a sign of either wrong policy or of using the wrong framework

Also in an increasingly desperate effort he tries to claim that it was unpredictable.

Sometimes forecast errors simply tell you things happened that could not have been foreseen.

All you have to do is look back to last summer on this website when I pointed out the powerful effect of the then lower UK Pound £. Either Gertjan is not aware of that or he chose to ignore it.

Also if we step back for a moment Gertjan also offers a critique of his own policy because this below is one of his own central planning policies.

We only have an imperfect notion of how the economy works, we only have partial information about the state of the economy at any point in time, and the economy is constantly hit by unanticipated shocks.

Yet he charged in with policy easing on August 4th 2016 anyway. Apparently as he splashed around in his speech this policy easing was the equivalent of this from a doctor.

a doctor can perform life-saving procedures, such as administering blood-thinning medication, widening the coronary artery, or performing a coronary artery bypass.

What about policy then?

This is where the forecast errors came in as Gertjan explains his thinking back then.

First and foremost, short-term indicators of the economy, such as business surveys, consumer confidence, housing indicators, had turned down sharply. We always monitor published data that, historically, has given a decent but not perfect signal of where the economy is heading in the near term . And these data were falling rapidly in the immediate aftermath of the referendum. For example, the Composite PMI, an indicator of business activity growth, had fallen to its lowest level since 2009.

He then makes another step.

actual published data on economic activity  and uncertainty

You see if you look at what he was using yes they were published but in the main they were sentiment indicators rather than actual numbers. Acting on sentiment is of course a feature of a hedge fund manager but a central banker faces many other issues.

If we add into this that Gertjan seems a naturally gloomy chap then an easing was on the cards.

I already saw considerable weakness in nominal growth as we headed into the referendum, and I was starting to think the economy might need more stimulus even in the status quo scenario of a remain vote.

and

We have gone from expecting a short and sharp slowing, to pencilling a much milder and more protracted slowing.

Indeed he is so troubled by accusations that he is gloomy he feels the need to deny it.

My main point regarding our August forecast is that we were not possessed by some innate feeling of gloom,

This gloom led Gertjan to being completely wrong.

we put in place a stimulus package in August, of a 25bp Bank Rate cut, a funding scheme to make sure the rate cut was passed on, additional gilt purchases, and corporate bond purchases……. I thought our August package would be the start, and further stimulus would be needed.

Not only was that completely wrong the Forward Guidance ( to the November meeting) was wrong as well.

We get four explanations of why he was wrong and none of them mention the impact of the UK Pound £ so having given him the benefit of the doubt at the beginning I do not do so now. This is rather poor. Also his claim of a “fiscal reset” is contradicted by the UK fiscal statistics as I have reported on here.

Future policy

Oddly the lower exchange rate now does get a mention! Accordingly we will get higher inflation and there is also a mention which if you blink you will miss of an economic boost too. But of course gloomy Gertjan has a couple of other things to worry about. The first is wage growth.

 Let’s be clear, wage growth has picked up somewhat from the sub-1% pace in 2013 and 2014, but not nearly as much as we had expected, given the fall in the unemployment rate

 

Ah another forecasting error. Anyway this will lead to a consumer slow down.

The consumer slowdown, which initially did not materialise, now appears to be underway…….. I think the slowdown is more likely to intensify than fade away.

Added to this I note that the inflation will be in Gertjan’s words.

Inflation is set to rise, but that seems entirely accounted for by exchange rate pass-through, which, although persistent, will ultimately fade as long as inflation expectations remain well anchored.

Of course we all ultimately fade along the lines of the famous statement by JM Keynes “In the long run we are all dead” but I have no idea how that helps in the intervening period.

Comment

Gloomy Gertjan seems to be in denial here. He placed his faith in the wrong factors last August and made a mistake based on unsurprisingly for him a gloomy forecast. Is it not intriguing to wonder why a financial sector insider ( ex-hedge fund manager) is so gloomy? Of course we can add to that the issue of why the Bank of England needed another representative of the financial sector onboard?

Sooner or later he will be right as of course economic slow downs eventually arrive a like a watch that has stopped gloomy Gertjan will then claim he was right all along. But in his speech was a single sentence which explains in my opinion where he has gone wrong.

Until mid-2016, inflation was close to zero, courtesy of the earlier drop in oil prices and the strength of sterling. That meant that real household labour income growth was close to 3%, despite subdued nominal wage growth.

Lower inflation led to an economic boost via stronger real wage growth so in my opinion the objective is to keep inflation low, as wage growth seems set to be subdued. However whilst claiming he has provided an economic boost the expectation and then arrival of the Bank of England easing last August pushed the Pound £ lower and inflation higher. Thus via the real wage effect the likelihood is that gloomy Gertjan has created his own future gloom by repeating the errors made in 2010/11. If he continues on that road he will probably cut Bank Rate again in spite of his talk of a rise.

Also if we continue his rather bizarre medical analogy the side-effects are growing.

Consumer credit growth has been accelerating over the past few years, and has accelerated further in the second half of last year, suggesting that the resilience of household spending was in part financed by credit,

Chocolate bars

We have been through a phase where prices have risen and chocolate bars have suffered from shrinkflation due to higher costs and a lower £ .Well there is this.

Cocoa futures in London have slumped by about a third since reaching a six-year high in July. ( Bloomberg).

Any chance of an extra Toblerone triangle?

Me on TipTV Finance

http://tiptv.co.uk/look-nova-banco-mess-czech-currency-peg-not-yes-man-economics/