The Italian economic job has led us to the current mess

After looking at the potential plans of the new Italian coalition government, assuming it gets that far yesterday let us move onto the economic situation. Let us open with some news from this morning which reminds us of a strength of the Italian economy. From Istat.

The trade balance in March 2018 amounted to +4.5 billion Euros (+3.8 billion Euros for non EU area and +0.7
billion Euros for EU countries).

There is an immediate irony in having joined a single currency ( Euro ) to boost trade and find that your main surplus is elsewhere. However some 55.6% of trade is with the European Union and 44.4% outside so there is a sort of balance if we note we are not being told the numbers for the Euro area itself. If we do an annual comparison then it is not a good day for economics 101 either as the relatively strong Euro has not had much of an effect at all as the declines are mostly within the European Union.

Outgoing flows fell by 2.2% for non EU countries and by 1.5% for EU countries. Incoming flows increased by 0.4% for EU area and decreased by 0.5% for non EU area.

Actually both economic theory and Euro supporters will get some more cheer if we look at the year so far for perspective as exports with the EU ( 5.5%) have grown more quickly than those outside it (0,5%). The underlying picture though is of strength as in the first quarter of 2018 a trade surplus of 7.5 billion Euros has been achieved. If we look back and use 2015 as a benchmark we see that exports are at 114.1 and imports at 115.9 so Italy is in some sense being a good citizen as well by importing.

The main downside is that Italy is an energy consumer ( net 9.4 billion Euros in 2018 so far) which is not going to be helped by the current elevated oil price.

Inflation

This is an intriguing number as you might think with all the expansionary monetary policy that it was a racing certainty. But reality as so often is different. If we look at the trading sector we see this.

In March 2018 the total import price index decreased by 0.1 % compared to the previous month ; the total twelvemonth
rate of change increased by 1.0%.

So quite low and this is repeated in the consumer inflation data series.

In April 2018, according to preliminary estimates, the Italian harmonised index of consumer prices (HICP) increased by 0.5% compared with March and by 0.6% with respect to April 2017 (it was +0.9% in the previous month).

Just for clarity that is what we call CPI in the UK and is not called that in Italy because it has its own measure already called that. Apologies for the alphabetti spaghetti. Such a low number was in spite of a familiar influence in March.

The increase on monthly basis of All items index was mainly due to the rises of prices of Non-regulated energy products (+1.1%) ( from the CPI breakdown).

Although there was also a reduction in regulated energy prices. But in essence the theme here is not much and personally I welcome this as I think that driving inflation up to 2% per annum would be likely to make things worse if we note the sticky nature of wage growth these days.

If we move to an area where we often see inflation after expansionary monetary policy which is asset prices we again see an example of Italy being somewhat different.

According to preliminary estimates, in the fourth quarter of 2017: the House Price Index (IPAB) increased by 0.1% compared with the previous quarter and decreased by 0.3% in comparison to the same quarter of the previous year (it was -0.8% in the third quarter of 2017);

The numbers are behind the others we have examined today but the message is loud and clear I think. Putting it another way Mario Draghi is I would imagine rather disappointed in the state of play here as it would help the struggling Italian banks by improving their asset base especially as such struggles draw attention to the legal basis for them known as the Draghi Laws which have been creaking.

Growth

The good news is that there is some as you see there is a case to be made that the trend rate of growth for Italy is zero which is not auspicious to say the least.

In the first quarter of 2018 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume measure of Gross
Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 0.3 per cent with respect to the fourth quarter of 2017 and by 1.4 per
cent in comparison with the first quarter of 2017.

If we stick with what Chic might call “Good Times” then Italy beat the UK and drew with Germany and France in the quarter just gone. However it was more their woes than Italian strength sadly as I note that even with this economic growth over the past four years has been 4.3%. This is back to my theme that Italy grows at around 1% per annum in the good times that regular readers will be familiar with and the phrase girlfriend in a coma. Less optimistic is how quarterly GDP growth has gone 0.5% (twice), 0.4% (twice) and now 0.3% (twice).

Labour Market

Here is where we get signs of real “trouble,trouble,trouble” as Taylor Swift  would say.

unemployment rate was 11.0%, steady over February 2018…..Unemployed were 2.865 million, +0.7% over the previous month.

The number has fallen by not by a lot and is still a long way above the 6-7% of the pre credit crunch era. So whilst it is good news that 190,000 more Italians gained jobs over the preceding 12 months that is very slow progress. Also wage growth seems nothing to write home about either.

At the end of March 2018 the coverage rate (share of national collective agreements in force for the wage setting aspects) was 65.1 per cent in terms of employees and 62.1 per cent in terms of the total amount of wages.

In March 2018 the hourly index and the per employee index increased by 0.2 per cent from last month.

Compared with March 2017 both indices increased by 1.0 per cent.

So a very marginal increase in real wages.

Comment

One thing that has struck me as I have typed this is the many similarities with Japan. Let me throw in another.

According to the median scenario, the resident population for Italy is estimated to be 59 million in 2045 and 54.1 million in 2065. The decrease compared to 2017 (60.6 million) would be 1.6 million of residents in 2045 and 6.5 million in 2065.

A clear difference can be seen in the unemployment rate and of course even Italy’s national debt is relatively much smaller although not as the Japanese measure such things.

The bond yield is somewhat higher especially after yesterday’s price falls and the ten-year yield is now 2.12% but here is another similarity from a new version of the proposed coalition agreement.

I imagine this would mean asking banks to hold less capital for the loans they give to SMEs. This would make banks more fragile and – in the 5 Star/League world – could lead to more “public gifts” to private banks. ( @FerdiGuigliano )

The Bank of Japan had loads of such plans and of course the Bank of England modified its Funding for Lending Scheme in this way too. Neither worked though.

Meanwhile we cannot finish without an apparent eternal  bugbear which is the banks.

League and 5 Star also have plans for Monte dei Paschi, which has been recently bailed out by the Italian government. They want to turn it into a utility, where the State (as opposed to an independent management) decides the bank’s objectives.

Me on Core Finance TV

 

 

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Will Italy get a 250 billion Euro debt write-off from the ECB?

Up until now financial markets have been very sanguine about the coalition talks and arrangements in Italy. I thought it was something of calm before the storm especially as these days something which was a key metric or measure – bond yields – has been given a good dose of morphine by the QE purchases of the European Central Bank. However here is a  tweet from Ferdinando Guigliano  based on information from the Huffington Post which caught everyone’s attention.

1) Five Star and the League expect the to forgive 250 billion euros in Italian bonds bought via quantitative easing, in order to bring down Italy’s debt.

My first thought is that is a bit small as whilst that is a lot of money Italy has a national debt of 2263 billion Euros or 131.8% of its GDP or Gross Domestic Product according to Eurostat. So afterwards it would be some 2213 billion or 117% of GDP which does not seem an enormous difference. Yes it does bring it below the original 120% of GDP target that the Euro area opened its crisis management with but seems hardly likely to be an objective now as frankly that sank without trace. Perhaps they have thoughts for spending that sort of amount and that has driven the number chosen.

Could this happen?

As a matter of mathematics yes because the ECB via the Bank of Italy holds some 368 billion Euros and rising of Italian government bonds and of course rising. However this crosses a monetary policy Rubicon as this would be what is called monetary financing and that is against the rules and as we are regularly told by Mario Draghi the ECB is a “rules based organisation”. Here is Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty and the emphasis is mine.

Overdraft facilities or any other type of credit facility with the European Central Bank or with the central banks of the Member States (hereinafter referred to as ‘national central banks’) in favour of Union institutions, bodies, offices or agencies, central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of Member States shall be prohibited, as shall the purchase directly from them by the European Central Bank or national central banks of debt instruments.

Now we hit what Paul Simon would call “troubled water” as the ECB has of course been very close to the highlighted part. The argument for QE purchases rested on the argument that buying in the secondary market was indirect and not direct or as the ECB puts it.

There will be no primary market purchases under the PSPP, regardless of the type of security, as such purchases are not allowed under Article 123 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

It is a bit unclear as to when they become available but if I recall correctly as an example the Bank of England limit is one week.

The reason for this is to stop a national government issuing debt and the central bank immediately buying it would be a clear example of round-tripping. The immediate implication would be a higher money supply raising domestic inflation dangers  although there would be an initial boost to the economy. We did look at an example of this a couple of years ago in the case of Ghana and whilst we never get a test tube example in economics the Cedi then fell a substantial amount and inflation rose . Thus the two worrying implications are inflation and a currency plunge on a scale to cause an economic crisis.

Would this happen in the case of Italy? That depends on how it plays out. Inside the boundaries of the Euro maybe not to a  great extent initially but as it played out there would be an effect as Italy would not doubt be back for “More,More,More” once Pandora’s Box was open and of course others would want to get their fingers in the cookie jar.

Oh and if we go back to the concept of the ECB being a “rules based organisation” that is something that is until it breaks them as we have learnt over time.

Fiscal Policy

You will not be surprised to learn that they wish to take advantage of the windfall. Back to the tweets of Ferdinando Guigliano

5) The draft agreement would see the Italian government spend 17 billion euros a year on a “citizens’ income”. The European Commission would contribute spending 20% of the European Social Fund

That raises a wry smile as we mull the idea of them trying to get the European Commission to pay for at least some of this. Perhaps they are thinking of the example of Donald Trump and his wall although so far that has been more of a case of a “Mexicant” than a “Mexican.”

Next came this.

According to , the 5 Star/League draft document says there would be a “flat tax”… but with several tax rates and deductions

So flat but not flat well this is Italy! Also we see what has become a more popular refrain in this era of austerity.

Italy’s pension reform would be dismantled: workers would be able to retire when the sum of their retirement age and years of contribution is at least 100.

Over time this would be the most damaging factor as we get a drip feed that builds and builds especially at a time of demographic problems such as an aging population.

So a fiscal relaxation which would require some changes in the rules of the European Union.

The two parties want to re-open European Treaties and to “radically reform” the stability and growth pact. The coalition would also want to reconsider Italy’s contribution to the EU budget.

Market Response

That has since reduced partly because the German bond market has rallied. Partly that is luck but there is an odd factor at play here. You might think that as the likely paymaster of all this Germany would see its bonds hit but the reality is that it is seen as something of a safe haven which outplays the former factor. On that road it issued some two-year debt yesterday with investors paying it around 0.5% per annum. Also I think there is such a shock factor here that it takes a while for the human mind to take it in especially after all the QE anaesthetic.

The Euro has pretty much ignored all of this as I use the rate against the Yen as a benchmark and it has basically gone “m’eh” as has most of the others so far.

Comment

There are quite a few factors at play here and no doubt there will be ch-ch-changes along the way. But the rhetoric at least has been raised a notch this morning.

We are in favor of a consultative referendum on the euro. It might be a good idea to have two euros, for two more homogeneous economical regions. One for northern Europe and one for southern Europe. ( Beppe Grillo in Newsweek)

I do not that the BBC and Bloomberg have gone into overdrive with the use of the word “populists” as I mull how you win an election otherwise? If we stick to our economics beat this is plainly a response of sorts to the ongoing economic depression in Italy in the Euro era. Also it was only on Monday when the Italian head of the ECB was asking for supra national fiscal policy. For whom exactly? Now we see Italy pushing for what we might call more fiscal space.

Meanwhile if we look wider we see yet more evidence of an economic slow down in 2018 so far.

Japan GDP suffers first contraction since 2015

Very painful for the Japanese owned Financial Times to print that although just as a reminder Japan is one of the worst at producing preliminary numbers.

An expansion of fiscal policy in the Euro area might help to keep Italy in it

After the action or in many ways inaction at the Bank of England last week there was a shift of attention to the ECB or European Central Bank. Or if you prefer from Governor Mark Carney to President Mario Draghi. This is because tucked away in a rather familiar tale from him in a speech in Florence was what you might call parking your tanks on somebody else’s lawn. It started with this.

One is the ECB’s OMTs, which can be used when there is a threat to euro area price stability and comes with an ESM programme. The other is the ESM itself.

Actually rather contrary to what Mario implies Outright Monetary Transactions or OMTs were never required as the ECB instead expanded its bond puchases via the Quantitative Easing programme which is ongoing currently at a flow of 30 billion Euros a month. One might also argue the European Stability Mechanism has caused anything but in Greece however the fundamental point is that via such mechanisms monetary policy has slipped under and over and around the border into fiscal policy. For example after the progress in the coalition talks in Italy the financial media has moved onto articles about the Italian national debt being un affordable when in fact the factor that has made it affordable is/are the 342 billion Euros of it that the ECB has purchased. The Italy of 7% bond yields at the time of the Euro area crisis would not have reached now in the same form whereas the current Italy of around 2% yields has.

But there is more than tip-toeing onto the fiscal lawn below.

So, we need an additional fiscal instrument to maintain convergence during large shocks, without having to over-burden monetary policy. Its aim would be to provide an extra layer of stabilisation, thereby reinforcing confidence in national policies.

As no doubt you have already recognised that particular lawn has been mined with economic IEDs as Mario then implicitly acknowledges.

And, as we have seen from our longstanding discussions, it is certainly not politically simple, regardless of the shape that such an instrument could take: from the provision of supranational public goods – like security, defence or migration – to a fully-fledged fiscal capacity.

The only one of those that is pretty non contentious these days is the security issue and that of course is because of the grim nature of events in that area. However the movement of ECB tanks onto the fiscal lawn continued.

But the argument whereby risk-sharing may help to greatly reduce risk, or whereby solidarity, in some specific circumstances, contributes to efficient risk-reduction, is compelling in this case as well, and our work on the design and proper timeframe for such an instrument should continue.

All of that is true and just in case people missed it then the ECB broadcasted it from its social media feeds as well.

Why has Mario done this?

One view might be that as he approaches the end of his term he feels that he can do this in a way he could not before. Another ties in with a theme of this website which is to use the words of Governor Carney that monetary policy may not be “maxxed out” but there are clear signs of fatigue and side-effects. Mario may well have had a sleepless night or two as he thinks of his own recent words about the Euro area economy.

When we look at the indicators that showed significant, sharp declines, we see that, first of all, the fact that all countries reported means that this loss of momentum is pretty broad across countries. It’s also broad across sectors because when we look at the indicators, it’s both hard and soft survey-based indicators.

Where this fits in with my theme is that this is happening with an official deposit rate of -0.4% and not only an enormously expanded balance sheet but ongoing QE. Thus the sleepless nights will be when Mario wonders what  to do if this also turns out to be ongoing? The two obvious monetary responses have problems as whilst what economists call the “lower bound” has proved to be yet another mirage that is so far and plunging further into the icy cold world of negative interest-rates increases the risk of a dash to cash. The second response which ties in with the issue of policy in Germany is that the ECB is running out of German bunds to buy so firing up the QE operation again is also problematic.

Fiscal Policy

The problem puts Mario on an Odyssey.

And if you’re looking for a way out
I won’t stand here in your way.

In terms of economic theory there is a glittering prize in view here but sadly it only shows an example of what might be called simple minds. This is because at the “lower bound” for interest-rates in a liquidity trap  fiscal policy will be at its most effective according to that theory. So far go good until we note that the “lower bound” has got er lower and lower. There was of course the Governor Carney faux pas of saying it was at 0.5% and then not only cutting to 0.25% but planning to cut to 0.1% before the latter was abandoned but also some argued it was at 0% and of course quite a bit of the world is currently below that.

So Mario is calling for some fiscal policy and as so often all eyes turn to Germany which as I have pointed out before is operating fiscal policy but one heading in the opposite direction as I pointed out on the 20th of November.

Germany’s federal budget  surplus hit a record 18.3 billion euros ($21.6 billion) for the first half of 2017.

This poses various problems as I then pointed out.

With its role in the Euro area should a country with its trade surpluses be aiming at a fiscal surplus too or should it be more expansionary to help reduce both and thus help others?

As you can see Mario is leaving the conceptual issue behind and simply concentrating on his worries for 2018. This of course is standard Euro area policy where changes come in for an emergency and then find themselves becoming permanent. Although to be fair they are far from alone from this as I note that Income Tax in the UK was supposed to be a temporary way of helping to finance the Napoleonic wars.

Comment

This speech may well turn out to be as famous as the “Whatever it takes ( to save the Euro) one. In terms of his own operations Mario has proved to be a steadfast supporter of it but the monetary policy ammunition locker has been emptied. It is also true that it means he has been something of a one-club golfer because the Euro area political class has in essence embraced austerity and left Mario rather lonely. Now his time is running out he is in effect pointing that out and asking for help. Perhaps he is envious of what President Trump has just enacted in the United States.

There are clear problems though. We have been on this road before and it has turned out to be a road to nowhere in spite of many talking heads supporting it. In essence it relies in the backing of Germany and it has been unwilling to allow supranational Eurobonds where for example Italy and Greece could borrow with the German taxpayer potentially on the hook. If anything Germany seems to be heading in the direction of being even more fiscally conservative.

If we look wider we see that at the heart of this is something which has dogged the credit crunch era. If you believe one of the causes of it was imbalances well the German trade surplus has if anything swelled and now it is adding fiscal surpluses to that. Next if we look more narrowly there are the ongoing ch-ch-changes in Mario’s home country Italy. From the Wall Street Journal.

Both parties vowed to scrap or dilute an unpopular pension overhaul from 2011 that steadily raises the retirement age. Economists say the parties’ fiscal promises, if enacted in full, would greatly add to Italy’s budget shortfall, likely breaking EU rules that cap deficits at 3% of gross domestic product. Italy’s public debt, at 132% of GDP, is the EU’s highest after Greece.

So is it to save the Euro or to keep Italy in it?

The economy of Italy continues to struggle

It is past time for us to revisit the economy of Italy which will no doubt be grimly mulling the warnings of a Euro area slow down from ECB ( European Central Bank) President Draghi and Italians will be hoping that their countryman was not referring to them.

When we look at the indicators that showed significant, sharp declines, we see that, first of all, the fact that all countries reported means that this loss of momentum is pretty broad across countries. It’s also broad across sectors because when we look at the indicators, it’s both hard and soft survey-based indicators.

We know that Bank of Italy Governor Visco will have given his views but at this stage we have no detail on this.

 All Governing Council members reported on the situation of their own countries.

This particularly matters for Italy because its economic record in the Euro era has been poor. One different way of describing those has been released this morning by the Italian statistical office.

In March 2018, 23.134 million persons were employed, +0.3% over February. Unemployed were 2.865 million, +0.7% over the previous month.

Employment rate was 58.3%, +0.2 percentage points over the previous month, unemployment rate was 11.0%, steady over February 2018 and inactivity rate was 34.3%, -0.3 percentage points in a month.

Youth unemployment rate (aged 15-24) was 31.7%, -0.9 percentage points over the previous month and youth unemployment ratio in the same age group was 8.3%, -0.3 percentage points over February 2018.

The long-term picture implied by an unemployment rate that is still 11% is not a good one as we note that even in the more recent better phase for Italy it has not broken below that level. Actually Italy has regularly reported that it has ( to 10.8% or 10.9%) but the number keeps being revised upwards. Now whether anyone really believed the promises of economic convergence given by the Euro founders I do not know but if we look at the unemployment rate released by Germany last week there have to be fears of divergence instead,

The adjusted unemployment rate was 3.4% in March 2018.

The database does not allow me to look back to the beginning of the Euro area but we can go back to January 2005. Since then employment in Italy has risen by 722,000 but unemployment has risen by 977,000 which speaks for itself.

If we look at the shorter-term it is hardly auspicious that unemployment rose in March although better news more in tune with GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) data in 2017 is the employment rise.

Manufacturing

The warning from ECB President Draghi contained this.

 Sharp declines were experienced by PMI, almost all sectors, in retail, sales, manufacturing, services, in construction.

We can say that this continued in the manufacturing sector according to the Markit PMI.

The recent growth slowdown of the Italian
manufacturing sector continued during April as
weaker domestic market conditions limited order
book and production gains. Business sentiment
softened to an eight-month low.

The actual number is below.

declined for a third successive month
in April to reach a level of 53.5 (from 55.1 in
March). The latest PMI reading was the lowest
recorded by the survey since January 2017.

So a fall to below the UK and one of Mario’s sharp declines which seems to be concentrated here.

The slowdown was centred on the intermediate
goods sector, which suffered a stagnation of output
and concurrent declines in both total new orders
and sales from abroad.

If we try to peer at the Italian economy on its own this is hardly reassuring.

There were widespread reports of a
softening of domestic market conditions which
weighed on total order book gains.

Also it seems a bit early for supply side constraints to bite especially if we look at Italy’s track record.

“On the contrary, anecdotal evidence in recent
months has pointed to global supply-side
constraints as a factor limiting growth, and these
issues in April were exacerbated by increased
weakness in domestic market conditions

GDP

This morning’s official release is a bit of a curate’s egg so let us go straight to it.

In the first quarter of 2018 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume measure of Gross
Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 0.3 per cent with respect to the fourth quarter of 2017 and by 1.4 per
cent in comparison with the first quarter of 2017.

So the good news is that the last actual quarterly contraction was in the spring of 2014 and since then there has been growth. But the problem is something we have seen play out many times. From February 12th 2016.

The ‘good’ news is that this is above ‘s trend growth rate of zero

It is also better than this from the same article.

The number below was one of the reasons why the former editor of the Economist magazine Bill Emmott described it as like a “girlfriend in a coma”.

between 2001 and 2013 GDP shrank by 0.2%. (The Economist)

So better than that but the recent experience in what has been called the Euroboom brings us back to my point that Italy has struggled to maintain an annual economic growth rate above 1%. The latest numbers bring that to mind as the annual rate of GDP growth has gone 1.8%, 1.6% and now 1.4%. The quarterly numbers have followed something of a Noah’s Ark pattern as two quarters of 0.5% has been followed by two of 0.4% and now two of 0.3%. Neither of those patterns holds any reassurance in fact quite the reverse.

Why might this be?

There are many arguments over the causes of the problems with productivity post credit crunch but in Italy it has been a case of Taylor Swift style “trouble,trouble,trouble” for some time now. From the Bank of Italy in January and the emphasis is mine.

Over the period 1995-2016 the performance of the Italian
economy was poor not only in historical terms but also and more importantly as compared with its
main euro-area partners. Italy’s GDP growth – equal to 0.5 per cent on an average yearly basis against
1.3 in Germany, 1.5 in France and 2.1 in Spain – was supported by population dynamics, entirely due to
immigration, and the increase in the employment rate, while labor productivity and in particular TFP
gave a zero (even slightly negative) contribution,

Comment

The main issue is that the economy of Italy has barely grown in the credit crunch era. If we use 2010 as our benchmark for prices then the 1.5 trillion Euros of 1999 was replaced by only 1.594 trillion in 2017. So it is a little higher now but the next issue is the decline in GDP per capita or person from its peak. One way of looking at it was that it was the same in 2017 as it was in 1999 another is that the 28700 Euros per person of 2007 has been replaced by 26,338 in 2017 or what is clearly an economic depression at the individual level.

It is this lack of growth that has led to the rise and rise of the national debt which is now 131.8% of annual GDP. It is not that Italy is fiscally irresponsible as its annual deficits are small it is that it has lacked economic growth as a denominator to the ratio. Thus it is now rather dependent on the QE bond purchases of the ECB to keep the issue subdued. Of course the best cure would be a burst of economic growth but that seems to be a perennial hope.

Looking ahead deomgraphics are a developing issue for Italy. From The Local in March.

Thanks to the low number of births, the ‘natural increase’ (the difference between total numbers of births and deaths) was calculated at -134,000. This was the second greatest year-on-year drop ever recorded.

On this road a good thing which is rising life expectancy also poses future problems.

As to the banking system well we have a familiar expert to guide us. So far he has had an accuracy rate of the order of -100%!

 

 

 

Where next for the Euro exchange-rate?

As we start a new week the focus will be shifting to the Euro area and its economy and exchange-rate. The reason for this comes from my article of last Wednesday which concluded with this.

The ECB finds itself in something of a dilemma. This is because it has continued with a highly stimulatory policy in a boom and now faces the issue of deciding if the current slow down is temporary or not? Even worse for presentational purposes it has suggested it will end QE in September just in time for the economic winds to reverse course.

Such thoughts were strongly reinforced in the Thursday press conference when we started with an Introductory Statement mentioning moderation.

Following several quarters of higher than expected growth, incoming information since our meeting in early March points towards some moderation, while remaining consistent with a solid and broad-based expansion of the euro area economy

At this point we merely have the ECB Governing Council covering itself either way as if they economy picks-up they will emphasis the latter bit and if it slows down they will tell us they warned about moderation. But then in his replies to questions President Draghi took things a step or two further.

 It’s quite clear that since our last meeting, broadly all countries experienced, to different extents of course, some moderation in growth or some loss of momentum. When we look at the indicators that showed significant, sharp declines, we see that, first of all, the fact that all countries reported means that this loss of momentum is pretty broad across countries. It’s also broad across sectors because when we look at the indicators, it’s both hard and soft survey-based indicators.

As I pointed out on Friday if we translate from the language of central bankers the use of “significant sharp declines” is of importance as these days they consider it their job to stop that! If you had negative interest-rates and a balance sheet of over 4.5 trillion Euros it would give you food for thought. If we look at the next bit we can see that it did as it occupied so much time they did not discuss monetary policy at all.

 First of all, the interesting thing is that we didn’t discuss monetary policy per se. All Governing Council members reported on the situation of their own countries.

So they decided that as there is nothing they can do in the short-term and policy is already expansionary there was nothing to do. Also they were again caught on the hop.

And these declines were sharp and in some cases, the extent of these declines was unexpected.

Today’s monetary data

This will have attracted the attention of Mario Draghi and the Governing Council so let us start with the headline.

The annual growth rate of the broad monetary aggregate M3 decreased to 3.7% in March 2018,
from 4.2% in February.

Now let us compare it with the press conference Introductory Statement.

Turning to the monetary analysis, broad money (M3) continues to expand at a robust pace, with an annual growth rate of 4.2% in February 2018, slightly below the narrow range observed since mid-2015.

If we look through the rhetoric we see that it was already below the range that had led to the recent stronger economic growth. If we use the rule of thumb that broad money growth can be divided between economic growth and inflation we see that one of them will be squeezed. With the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil remaining around US $74 per barrel it seems that there will be upwards pressure on inflation from this source which may further squeeze output.

In terms of the immediate future then it is narrow money which gives us the best guide and it too was a disappointment.

The annual growth rate of the narrower aggregate M1, which includes currency in circulation and overnight deposits, decreased to 7.5% in March, from 8.4% in February.

This series peaked at just under 10% last autumn so we can see that from it we will be expecting something of a slow down over the next 6 months or so.

Is this the impact of QE?

The impact on March may well be the consequence of the reduction in monthly QE purchases from 60 billion Euros a month to 30 billion which began in January. The monthly numbers for M1 growth have gone 51 billion, 31 billion and now 20 billion so whilst it is not that simple as the numbers are erratic I think it added to an existing trend.

This leaves the ECB mulling the irony that it chose to do less as the economy weakened. Or that the expansion needs a continuous dose of the economic pick me up and cannot thrive otherwise.

What about credit?

When you consider that the taps are supposed to be fully open it was not that special.

The annual growth rate of total credit to euro area residents decreased to 2.9% in March 2018, compared
with 3.4% in the previous month.

Whilst it may not look like it from the number above but March was better than February if you look into the detail such as this one.

In particular, the annual growth rate of adjusted loans to households increased to 3.0% in March, from 2.9% in February, and the annual growth rate of adjusted loans to non-financial corporations increased to 3.3% in March, from 3.2% in February.

But such numbers are more of a lagging indicator than a leading one so we are left with a downbeat view.

Comment

In terms of first quarter data the score is 2-1. On the downside we have seen GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) growth in Belgium dip to 0.4% and more of a fall in France to 0.3%. On the other side Spain shrugged it off and grew by 0.7%. As even the German Bundesbank is expecting a slow down there it seems set to be a weaker quarter for Euro area growth and that will not have been helped by the weakness in the UK.

This means that two of the supports for the level of the Euro are weakening. The first is the fading and perhaps end of the Euroboom as the better economic growth data supported the currency. The second is a potential consequence which is the planned reduction in QE in September where eyes will soon turn to this bit from the ECB.

are intended to run until the end of September 2018, or beyond, if necessary, and in any case until the Governing Council sees a sustained adjustment in the path of inflation consistent with its inflation aim.

Actually the inflation issue is also on the cards today after this from Italy.

In April 2018, according to preliminary estimates, the Italian consumer price index for the whole nation (NIC) increased by 0.1% on monthly basis and by 0.5% compared with April 2017.

So a long way from the just below 2% objective and Portugal at 0.3% was similar. Whilst I expect the new higher oil price to change things we could see a shake-up in the plans for QE in 2018. Whilst we know it is nor as simple as more QE or more negative interest-rates equals a weaker currency a shift like that seems likely to have an effect.

Meanwhile as ever life is complex as according to the oil trader @chigrl a higher oil price boosts the value of the Euro.

Thus the foreign currency reserve balances of these oil exporting countries, in a sense, is broadly reflected by the price of oil. ……However, data also shows that they invest part of their reserves in EUR, as they sell a large share of their production to the Eurozone.

Which leads to this.

Thus, when the price of oil falls, this means that a smaller portion of USD is transferred to EUR, thus contributing to a depreciation of the currency. Inversely, when the price of oil increases, a larger portion is transferred to EUR, contributing to the appreciation of the currency.

This gets exacerbated when some try to game this.

For this reason, many funds lock their positions in EUR/USD with those in crude oil.

 

When will Deutsche Bank, Barclays and TSB get off the zombie bank path?

It is time to take a look at an old friend except it is more along the lines of hello darkness my old friend from Paul Simon. This is because my old employer Deutsche Bank has had a very troubled credit crunch era. In spite of better economic times in Germany and indeed much of the Euro area it never seems to quite shake off its past problems or the rumours of something of a supermassive black hole in its derivatives book. This has not been helped by this morning’s figures. From CNBC.

Deutsche Bank posted first-quarter net profits of 120 million euros($146 million) Thursday, a 79 percent fall from last year’s figure.

The first impression is that this is not much for Germany’s biggest bank especially as 2017 and the early part of 2018 was supposed to be the Euroboom. Also there is this to be taken into account.

he net profit number was significantly lower than a Reuters poll prediction of 376 million euros. The Frankfurt-based lender has been under scrutiny from shareholders for posting three consecutive years of losses, including a 497 million euro loss for 2017.

Thus we see that Deutsche Bank has been a serial offender on this front and if we look back no doubt it was knocked back by the Euro area crisis but times improved and of course there have been so many bank friendly policies pursued by the European Central Bank. For example most bond holdings either sovereign or corporate will have been boosted by all the QE bond buying that has and indeed still is taking place. Then there have been all the liquidity support programmes ( LTROs) which may have fallen off the media radar but there are still 741 billion Euros of them expiring in 2020 and 21. Of course this leads to a situation I pointed out yesterday which is a very bank (asset) friendly consequence.

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 4.2% in the euro area and by 4.5% in the EU in the
fourth quarter of 2017 compared with the same quarter of the previous year……….Compared with the third quarter of 2017, house prices rose by 0.9% in the euro area and by 0.7% in the EU in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Germany saw a 3.7% year on year rise.

Also according to ECB research bank profitability is not impacted by negative interest-rates.

It finds that both profitability and cost efficiency have continued to improve on the back of rising bank
operating incomes in Sweden and falling operating expenses in Denmark, even when faced with negative monetary policy rates and the banks’ reluctance to
introduce negative deposit rates.

In fact it even confessed to the QE subsidy albeit by referring to somewhere else.

In particular, “realised and unrealised gains” on
securities have helped improve the profitability of Swedish banks. Other contributory
factors probably include the economic recovery and the government bond purchase
programmes pursued by the Riksbank.

What next?

The traditional remedy is to lay-off a few people, often much more than a few people,

Deutsche Bank (XETRA: DBKGn.DE / NYSE: DB) has announced strategic adjustments to shift the bank to more stable revenue sources and strengthen its core business lines.

Or to put it another way.

The bank will scale back activities in US Rates sales and trading……..Commitment to sectors in the US and Asia, in which cross-border activity is limited, will be reduced. ….. The bank will be undertaking a review of its Global Equities business with the expectation of reducing its platform.

This is something of a merry-go-round these days where a new boss comes in and announces changes and of course get at least a couple of years for him/herself, more if we add in the usually large pay-off. Those who think that DB requires a complete change of atmosphere direction and philosophy will not be reassured by this bit though.

A Deutsche Bank veteran who started as an apprentice, Sewing

Barclays Bank

In a way the problems at Barclays have been provided with something of a smokescreen by all the troubles at Royal Bank of Scotland. Let’s face it almost anything looks good when compared to it. But there has certainly been a lost decade for shareholders as the just under £7 has been replaced by £2.16 as I type this. Of course many banks saw dives but it the lack of any recovery that is the real problem to my mind. There was the bounce back above £3 in the early days but that now is mired in problems and indeed the courts as the involvement of middle-eastern shareholders gets investigated.

Bringing this up to date as in this morning we see this. From the BBC.

Barclays reported a pre-tax loss of £236m, compared with a profit of £1.68bn for the same time last year.

Okay and why?

“This quarter we… reached an agreement with the US Department of Justice to resolve issues related to the sale of Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities between 2005 and 2007,” said chief executive Jes Staley.

“While the penalty was substantial, this settlement represents a major milestone for Barclays, putting behind us a significant decade-old legacy matter.”

That was for £1.4 billion and I guess it was seen as a good time to throw some more fuel on an ongoing sore.

The bank also put aside an additional £400m to cover an increase in payment protection insurance (PPI) mis-selling claims.

I have lost count of the number of times we have been told that in modern vernacular the PPI scandal is like, so over. The number below relies on you thinking that losses are a legacy issue and profits are for life.

But excluding litigation costs, pre-tax profit rose by 1% to £1.7bn.

Seeing as the facts are pretty much known this seems a case of one rule for you and one rule for me.

Last week, it was revealed that Mr Staley is facing a fine by UK regulators for breaching rules when he tried to identify a whistleblower at the bank.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Prudential Regulatory Authority (PRA) began their probe into Mr Staley’s conduct a year ago.

Lower ranked employees would be sacked for that.

TSB

For those unaware the TSB was the Trustee Savings Bank which has been revived as a way of spinning out some customers from Lloyds Banking Group. The latter ended up being too large via the way the UK government back then persuaded it to take on Halifax Bank of Scotland which effectively torpedoed Lloyds. Anyway there has been a litany of IT issues which began last weekend leading to #tsbdown and #tsbfail proliferating. I can though find one happy customer.

The official view from CEO Paul Pester is this.

Our mobile banking app and online banking are now up and running. Thank you for your patience and for bearing with us.

Yet lot’s of people are still claiming that they do not work. We get told so often that bankers need to be highly paid to get the best people and yet realities like this suggest that the individuals involved are far from the best.

Comment

As we look back we see a banking world that in some areas has recovered but in others has not. The issue of IT ( Information Technology) has been an ongoing sore as I recall replies on here suggesting 1970s style systems still exist because they are afraid what might happen if there are changes. But there is also the issue of share prices where RBS which no doubt is relieved that for once it is not in the news today is nowhere near what the UK taxpayer paid. Barclays I have mentioned. Then there is Deutsche Bank where 12 Euros has replaced the 17 of mid-December and the mid 90s pre credit crunch. Who would have predicted that a decade ago?

Time for the sadly recently departed Delores from the Cranberries to echo out again.

Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie
What’s in your head, in your head?
Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie, oh

Me on Core Finance

What happens if the Euroboom fades or dies?

Amidst the excitement ( okay the financial media had little else to do…) of the US ten-year Treasury Note reaching a yield of 3% yesterday there was little reaction from Europe. What I mean by this was that there was a time when European bond yields would have been dragged up in a type of pursuit. But as we look around whilst there may have been a small nudge higher the environment is completely different. Of course Germany is ploughing its own furrow with a 0.63% ten-year yield but even Italy only has one of 1.77%. In fact in a broad sweep Portugal has travelled in completely the opposite direction to the United States as I recall it issuing a ten-year bond at over 4% last January whereas now it has a market yield of 1.68%.

Of course much of this has been driven by all the Quantitative Easing purchases of the European Central Bank or ECB. This gives us a curious style of monetary policy where the foot has been on the accelerator during a boom. Putting it another way there are now over 4.5 trillion Euros of assets on the ECB balance sheet. However in another fail for economics 101 the amount of inflation generated has not been that much.

Euro area annual inflation rate was 1.3% in March 2018, up from 1.1% in February. A year earlier, the rate was
1.5%. European Union annual inflation was 1.5% in March 2018, up from 1.4% in February ( Eurostat)

As you can see the rate is below a year ago in spite of the extra QE.  However some ECB members are still banging the drum.

‘S MERSCH SAYS CONFIDENCE ON INFLATION HAS RECENTLY RISEN – BBG ( @C_Barraud )

That is an odd way of putting something which is likely to weaken the economy via lower real wages is it not? Thus confidence goes into my financial lexicon for these times especially as to most people such confidence can be expressed like this.

Global benchmark June Brent LCOM8, -0.18% settled at $73.86 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe, down 85 cents, or 1.1%. It had touched a high of $75.47, the highest level since November 2014. ( Marketwatch)

So in essence the confidence is really expectations of a higher oil price which as well as being inflationary is a contractionary influence on the Euro area economy. Here is Eurostat on the subject.

 Indeed, more than half (54.0 %) of the EU-28’s gross inland energy consumption in 2015 came from imported sources

Sadly it avoids giving us figures on just the Euro area but let us move on adding a higher oil price to the contractionary influences on the Euro area.

Oh and there is an area where one can see some flickers of an impact on inflation of all the QE. From Eurostat.

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 4.2% in the euro area and by 4.5% in the EU in the
fourth quarter of 2017 compared with the same quarter of the previous year……….Compared with the third quarter of 2017, house prices rose by 0.9% in the euro area and by 0.7% in the EU in the fourth quarter of 2017

Those who recall the past might be more than a little troubled by the 11.8% recorded in Ireland and the 7.2% recorded in Spain.

Money Supply

I looked at this issue on the 9th of this month.

If we look at the Euro area in general then there are signs of a reduced rate of growth.

The annual growth rate of the narrower aggregate M1, which includes currency in circulation
and overnight deposits, decreased to 8.4% in February, from 8.8% in January.

The accompanying chart shows that this series peaked at just under 10% per annum last autumn.

The broader measure had slowed too which is awkward if you expect higher inflation for example from the oil price rise. This is because the rule of thumb is that you split the broad money growth between output and inflation. So if broad money growth is lower and inflation higher there is pressure for output to be squeezed.

Other signals

The Bundesbank of Germany told us this yesterday.

The Bundesbank expects the German economy’s boom to continue, although the Bank’s economists predict that the growth rate of gross domestic product might be distinctly lower in the first quarter of 2018 than in the preceding quarters.

The industrial production weakness that we looked at back on the 9th of this month is a factor as well as a novel one in a world where the poor old weather usually takes a beating.

the particularly severe flu outbreak this year ……. The unusually severe flu season is also likely to have dampened economic activity in other sectors, the economists note.

Perhaps we will see headlines stating the German economy has the flu next month. Oh and in the end the weather always gets it.

In February, output in the construction sector declined by a seasonally adjusted 2¼% on the month. This, the Bank’s economists believe, was attributable to the colder than average weather conditions.

So the boom is continuing even though it is not. As this is around 28% of the Euro area economy it has a large impact.

This morning France has told us this. From Insee.

In April 2018, households’ confidence in the economic
situation was almost unchanged: the synthetic index
gained one point at 101, slightly above its long-term
average.

So a lot better than the 80 seen in the late spring/summer of 2013 but also a fade from the 108 of last June. Also yesterday we were told this.

The balances of industrialists’ opinion on overall and
foreign demand in the last three months have dropped
sharply compared to January – they had then reached their
highest level since April 2011.

That makes the quarter just gone look like a peak or rather the turn of the year especially if we add in this.

Business managers are also less optimistic about overall and foreign demand over the next three months;

bank lending

The survey released by the ECB yesterday was pretty strong although it tends to cover past trends. Also it seemed to show hints of what we might consider to be the British disease.

Credit standards for loans to households for house purchase eased further in the first quarter of 2018……..In the first quarter of 2018, banks continued to report a
net increase in demand for housing loans

And really?

Net demand for housing loans continued to be driven
mainly by the low general level of interest rates,
consumer confidence and favourable housing market
prospects

Comment

The ECB finds itself in something of a dilemma. This is because it has continued with a highly stimulatory policy in a boom and now faces the issue of deciding if the current slow down is temporary or not? Even worse for presentational purposes it has suggested it will end QE in September just in time for the economic winds to reverse course. Added to this has been the rise in the oil price which will boost inflation which the ECB will say it likes when in fact it must now that it will be a contractionary influence on the economy. This means it is as confused as its namesake ECB in the world of cricket.

Such developments no doubt are the reason why ECB members are on the media wires the day before a policy meeting ignoring the concept of purdah. Also I suspect the regular section on economic reform ( the equivalent of a hardy perennial) at tomorrow’s press conference might be spoken with emphasis rather than ennui. From Reuters.

The European Central Bank, after suffering a political backlash, is considering shelving planned rules that would have forced banks to set aside more money against their stock of unpaid loans. The guidelines, which were expected by March, had been presented as a main plank of the ECB’s plan to bring down a 759 billion euro ($930 billion) pile of soured credit weighing on euro zone banks, particularly in Greece, Portugal and Italy.

Also we return to one of the earliest themes of this website which was that central banks would delay any return to normal monetary policy. Back then I did not know how far they would go and now we wait to see if the ECB will ever fully reverse it’s Whatever it takes” policy or will end up adding to it?