Inflation is back!

Regular readers will be aware that as 2016 progressed and the price of crude oil did not fall like it did in the latter part of 2015 that a rise in consumer inflation was on the cards pretty much across the world. This would of course be exacerbated in countries with a weak currency against the US Dollar and ameliorated by those with a strong currency. This morning has brought an example of this from a country which I gave some praise to only on Monday so let us investigate.

An inflationary surge in Spain

This mornings data release from the statistics institute INE was eye-catching indeed. Via Google Translate

The estimated annual inflation of the CPI in January 2017 is 3.0%, according to the An advance indicator prepared by INE.This indicator provides an advance of the CPI which, if confirmed, would increase of 1.4 points in its annual rate, since in December this variation was of 1.6%.

Okay and the reason why was no great surprise to us on here.

This increase is mainly explained by the rise in the prices of electricity and The fuels (gasoil and gasoline) in front of the drop that they experienced last year.

So as David Bowie put it they have been putting out fire with gasoline. As we investigate further I note that El Pais labels it as an Ultimate Hora and gives us some more detail.

The agency blames the acceleration of inflation to the rise in electricity prices, which this month has exploded, affecting mainly consumers in the regulated market of light, 46.5% of households, Which pay according to the hourly evolution of electricity prices in the wholesale market.

Actually that sounds ominous in the UK as the National Grid was effectively promising no blackouts yesterday but at the cost of more volatile ( which of course means higher) domestic energy prices. The actual numbers for Spanish consumers are eye-watering.

The average price of the megawatt hour (MWh) in the wholesale electricity market was on January 1, 51.9 euros. This Tuesday, the last day of January, the average price stands at 73.27 euros, 43.4% more. On Wednesday 25, the average stood at 91.88 euros (78.9% more than January 1), with maximums of more than 100 euros for the time stretches with more demand. Consumers receiving the regulated tariff (Voluntary Price for the Small Consumer, PVPC) will see those increases already reflected in their next receipt of light and have already been noted in the CPI, which has registered the highest level for more than four Years,

I guess they must be grateful that this has not been a long cold winter as such prices would have appeared earlier and maybe gone higher. The push higher in the inflation measure was exacerbated by the fact that fuel prices fell this time last year.

Thus, in January 2016, electricity fell by 13% compared to the same month in 2015. The gas price fell at a rate of 15%, while other fuels (diesel for heating, butane …) went down To 19.9%. Finally, the fuel and lubricants registered a year-on-year decrease of 7.1%.

It would seem that El Pais has cottoned onto one of my themes.

 The evolution of oil prices largely explained the behavior of the CPI in Spain. In January of 2016, the oil marked minimums in less than 30 dollars. Now, with the price of a barrel of brent upwards (around 55 dollars), fuels are rising and expenses related to housing are rising: gas, of course, a byproduct, and electricity, which is generated Partly by burning gas.

So far we have looked at Spain’s own CPI but the situation was the same for the official Euro area measure called HICP ( which confusingly is called CPI in the UK) as it rose to an annual rate of 3% as well. This poses an issue for the ECB as El Pais points out.

In any case, inflation is already at levels above the ECB’s target of 2%

Also it points out that Spain will see a reduction in real purchasing power as wage growth is now much lower than inflation.

already at levels that imply a loss of purchasing power for pensioners – the government will only update pensions by 0.25 %, The minimum that marks the law, for officials, whose salaries will not rise above 1%, and the vast majority of wage earners, since the average wage increase agreed in the agreements remained at 1, 06%.

There are also other concerns as to how it may affect Spain’s economic recovery.

As Spanish inflation is above European, the Spanish economy may lose competitiveness, not only because it may affect exports, but also because it may lead to a rise in wages.

Germany

A little more prosaic and also for December and not January but we saw this from Germany yesterday.

The inflation rate in Germany as measured by the consumer price index is expected to be +1.9% in January 2017. A similarly high rate of inflation was last measured in July 2013 (+1.9%).

German consumers will be particularly disappointed to note that the inflation was in essential items such as energy (5.8%) and food (3.2%). Of course central bankers and their media acolytes will rush to call these non-core as we wonder if they sit in the cold and dark without food themselves?!

This poses another problem for the ECB as Germany is now pretty much on its inflation target ( just below 2%) and this morning has also posted good news on unemployment where the rate has fallen to 5.9%.

Euro area

This morning’s headline is this.

Euro area annual inflation is expected to be 1.8% in January 2017, up from 1.1% in December 2016, according to a flash estimate from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.

So a by now familiar surge as we note that it is now in the zone where the ECB can say it is achieving its inflation target. Of course it will look for excuses.

energy is expected to have the highest annual rate in January (8.1%, compared with 2.6% in December), followed by food, alcohol & tobacco (1.7%, compared with 1.2% in December),

Accordingly if you take out the things people really need ( energy and food) the “core” inflation rate falls to 0.9%. But the heat is on now as Glenn Frey would say.

Weetabix

The Financial Times reported this yesterday.

Giles Turrell, chief executive of Weetabix, said on Monday that the company was absorbing the higher cost of dollar denominated wheat but that Weetabix prices were likely to go up later this year by “mid-single digits”.

Sadly the decline of the FT continues as the “may” is reported in the headline as “Weetabix prices hiked” . The Guardian was much fairer although this bit raised a smile.

Although the company harvests wheat in Northamptonshire, it is sold in US dollars on global markets, meaning the cost in pounds to buy wheat in the UK has gone up.

Comment

It is hard not to have a wry smile as it was not that long ago in 2016 that the consensus was that inflation is dead and of course before that the “deflation nutters” were in full cry. Any news from them today? Of course the official mantra will be on the lines of this as reported by DailyFX.

ECB’s Villeroy says concerns about rising inflation are exaggerated.

What was that about never believing anything until it is officially denied? It was only yesterday that another ECB board member was informing us that there would be no change in monetary policy for 6 months when today’s inflation and GDP data suggests it is already behind the curve, as I pointed out on the 19th of this month. Although as ever Italy ( unemployment rising to 12%) is lagging behind. As Livesquawk points out not everyone has got the memo.

Spanish EconMin deGuindos: Inflationary Trend In Europe Could Lead To Tightening Of MonPol, Higher Interest Rates

So we see a problem and whilst some of the move in Spain is particular to one month it is also true that the pattern has changed now and so should the response of the ECB as it looks forwards.

UK National Statistician

Thank you to John Pullinger for meeting a group of inflation specialists including me at the Royal Statistical Society last Wednesday. I was pleased to point out that his letter to the Guardian of a week ago made in my opinion a case for using real numbers for owner-occupied housing such as house prices and mortgage-rates as opposed to the intended use of an imputed number such as Rental Equivalence. This will be more important when the UK makes the changes planned for March. Here is the section of his letter which I quoted.

And there is a real yearning for trustworthy analysis that deals with both the inherent biases in many data sources and also the vested interests of many who try to cloak their own opinions and prejudices as “killer facts”.

 

 

 

 

 

Greece is drowning under all the debt its “rescue” brought

After looking at the recent economic success of Spain on Friday, which was confirmed this morning by the official data showing 3.2% GDP growth in 2016 it is time to look at the other side of the Euro area coin. This is a situation that continues to be described by one of the songs of Elton John.

It’s sad, so sad
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd
It’s sad, so sad
Why can’t we talk it over
Oh it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word

This is the situation facing Greece which is on its way back into the news headlines after of course another sequence of headlines proclaiming a combination of triumph and improvement. What is triggering this is some new analysis from the IMF or International Monetary fund and it is all about the debt burden. It is hard not to have a wry smile at this as the IMF has been telling us the burden is sustainable for quite some time in spite of it obviously not being so as I have regularly pointed out in here.

The IMF analysis

The Financial Times has summarised it like this.

Greece faces what is likely to be an “explosive” surge in its public debt levels that within decades will mean it will owe almost three times the country’s annual economic output unless given significant debt relief, the International Monetary Fund has warned in a confidential report.

Not that confidential then! Or perhaps conforming to the definition of it in Yes Prime Minister. Worrying after some better news in relative terms from the World Economic Forum suggesting that Greece was a lot further down the list of national debt per person (capita) than you might think. Japan of course was at the head at US $85.7k per person and intriguingly Ireland second at US $67.1k per person but Greece was a fair way down the list at US $32.1k each. Of course it’s problem is relative to the size of its economic output or GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

If we look at the detail of the IMF report it speaks for itself.

The fund calculated that Greece’s debt load would reach 170 per cent of gross domestic product by 2020 and 164 per cent by 2022, “but become explosive thereafter” and grow to 275 per cent of GDP by 2060.

If we switch to Kathimerini we find out the driving force of the deterioration in the debt sustainability analysis.

Greece’s gross financing needs are estimated at less than 20 percent of GDP until 2031 but after that they skyrocket to 33 percent in 2040 and then to 62 percent by 2060.

If we step back for some perspective here we see confirmation of one of my main themes on Greece. This has been that the debt relief measures have made the interest burden lighter but have done nothing about the capital debt burden which has in fact increased in spite of the PSI private-sector debt reprofiling. We can bring in that poor battered can now because the Euro area and the IMF thought they had kicked it far enough into the future not to matter whereas the IMF is now having second thoughts. In short it has looked at the future and decided that it looks none too bright.

The crux of the matter is the amount of the austerity burden that Greece can bear going forwards. Back in May 2016 the IMF expressed its concerns of future economic growth.

Against this background, staff has lowered its long-term growth assumption to 1¼ percent, even as over the medium-term growth is expected to rebound more strongly as the output gap closes.

That will do nothing for the debt burden and will have been entwined with the extraordinary amount of austerity required under the current plans.

This suggests that it is unrealistic to assume that Greece can undertake the additional adjustment of 4½ percent of GDP needed to base the DSA on a primary surplus of 3½ percent of GDP.

As an alternative the IMF suggested something of a relaxation presumably in the hope that Greece could then sustain a higher economic growth rate.

The Euro area view

This was represented last week by Klaus Regling of the European Stability Mechanism or ESM.

I think it’s really important for Greece because it will reduce interest rate risk and improve Greek debt sustainability.

What was that Klaus?

we are dealing here with a bond exchange, where floating rate notes disbursed by the ESM and EFSF to Greece for bank recapitalisation will be exchanged for fixed coupon notes. There are measures related to swap arrangements that will reduce the risk that Greece will have to pay a higher interest rate on its loans when market rates go up………In addition, the EFSF waived the step-up interest rate margin for the year 2017 on a particular loan tranche. A margin of 2% had originally been foreseen, to be paid from 2017 on.

As you can see each time Greece is supposed to pay more they discover it cannot and we need more “short-term” measures which according to Klaus will achieve this.

All this will go a long way in easing the debt burden for Greece over time, according to our debt sustainability analysis. It could lead to a cumulative reduction of the Greek debt to GDP ratio of around 20 percentage points over the time horizon until 2060.

It does not seem a lot when you look at the IMF numbers does it. Also Euro area ministers repeated something which they have said pretty much every year of the crisis, from the FT.

Mr Dijsselbloem, who is also the Dutch finance minister, said that Greece was recovering faster than anyone expected.

Really? What was that about fake news again?

Retail Sales

We can learn a lot from these numbers and let us start with some badly needed good news.

The overall volume index in retail trade (i.e. turnover in retail trade at constant prices) in November 2016, recorded an increase of 3.6%.

Although sadly some of the gloss fades when we note this.

The seasonally adjusted overall volume index in November 2016 compared with the corresponding index  of October 2016 recorded a decrease of 0.2%.

So overall a welcome year on year rise and the strongest category was books and stationery. However perspective is provided if we look at the index which is at 69.7 where 2010 was 100. As that sinks in you get a true idea of the economic depression that has raged in Greece over the period of the “rescue” and the “bailout”. Most chilling of all is that the food beverages and tobacco index is at 55.6 on the same basis leaving us with the thin hope that the Greeks have given up smoking and fizzy drinks.

Also it is far from reassuring to see the European Commission release consumer confidence data for Greece indicating a fall of 3.4 to 67.8.

Comment

There is much to consider here but we find ourselves looking back to the Private-Sector Initiative or debt relief of 2012. I stated back then that the official bodies such as the ECB and IMF needed to be involved as well because they owned so much of the debt. It did not happen because the ECB said “over my dead body” and as shown below what were then called the Troika but are now called the Institutions pursued a course of fake news.

Thanks to Michael Kosmides of CNN Greece who sent me that chart. As we note the fake news let me give you another warning which is that Greece these days depends on its official creditors so news like this from Bloomberg last week is much less relevant than it once was.

The yield on Greece’s two-year bonds surged 58 basis points to 7.47 percent, while those on benchmark 10-year bonds rose 22 basis points to 7.13 percent as of 2:41 p.m in London.

The real issue is that Greece desperately needs economic growth and lots of it. As I pointed out on December 16th.

Compared to when she ( Christine Lagarde of the IMF) and her colleagues were already boasting about future success, the Greek economy has shrunk by 19%, which means that the total credit crunch contraction became 26%

 

 

 

The recent economic success of Spain makes a refreshing change

Back in the days of the Euro area crisis Spain found itself being sucked into the whirlpool. The main driver here was its housing market and the way that it had seen an enormous boom which turned to dust. Pick your theme as to whether you prefer empty towns or an airport that was never used. If we look back to my post yesterday on GDP I immediately find myself thinking that developments which are never used should be counted in a separate category. Of course the housing problems also caused trouble for the Spanish banks.

GDP

We do not yet have the data for the latest quarter but in recent times short-term forecasts by the Bank of Spain have been pretty accurate.

In Spain, economic activity has continued to post a high rate of increase in recent months. Specifically, in Q4, GDP is expected to have grown by 0.7%, unchanged on the rate observed in Q3 (see Chart 1) and underpinned by the strength of domestic spending.

We do have a link in that Spain seems to follow the pattern of the UK economy more than many of its Euro area neighbours and hence there might be for once some logic in using the same currency. But the main point is that such growth would continue what has been a much better phase for Spain. This meant that the official data for the third quarter told us this.

 Growth in relation to the same quarter of the previous year stood at 3.2%,

If we look back we see that the Spanish economy was hit hard by the initial impact of the credit crunch with the peak quarterly contraction being of the order of 1.5% of GDP. Then the economy bounced back but was then sent into decline as the Euro area crisis raged and quarterly economic growth did not turn positive again until 2013 moved in to 2014. However since then economic growth has been strong. If the fourth quarter does turn out to be 0.7% then it will follow 0.7%, 0.8%,0.8%,0.8%,0.9%,0.8% and 1%. Maybe a minor fading but I think that would be harsh on a country which has put in a strong performance.

If we look back for some perspective then let us compare with what sadly is often the laggard which is Italy. From Spain’s Royal Institute.

the contrast between cumulative growths is significant: 50% since 1997 in Spain versus 10% in Italy. Moreover, according to EU forecasts, in 2018 Spain will surpass Italy in per capita GDP (in PPP terms) for the first time ever.

Employment

The Euro area crisis has been characterised by high levels of unemployment so it was nice to see this in the GDP report of Spain.

In annual terms, employment increases at a rate of 2.9%, one tenth more than in The second quarter, which represents an increase of 499 thousand jobs
Equivalent to full-time in one year.

Yesterday we got a further update on this front from Spain’s statistics agency.

Employment has grown in 413,900 people in the last 12 months. The annual rate is 2.29%……….In the last year employment has risen in all sectors: in the Services there are 240,400 more occupied, in Industry 115,700, in Agriculture 37,000 and in Construction 20,800.

Not everything was perfect as the numbers dipped by 19,400 on a quarterly basis but overall the performance has been such that we can report this.

The number of unemployed falls this quarter in 83,000 people (-1.92%) and is in 4,237,800. In seasonally adjusted terms, the quarterly variation is -3.78%. In The last 12 months unemployment has decreased by 541,700 people (-11.33%).

Or if you prefer.

The unemployment rate stands at 18.63%, which is 28 cents lower than in The previous quarter. In the last year this rate has fallen by 2.26 points.

So we have a ying of lower unemployment combined with a yang of the fact that it is still high. If we return to the comparison with Italy then according to the Royal Institute the situation is better than it first appears to be.

From 1990 to 2014 female participation has risen from 34% to 53% in Spain and from 35% to only 40% in Italy (seeWorld Bank data). Hence, although there is a much lower unemployment rate in Italy, the latter’s inactivity rate is much higher than Spain’s.

The other point I would make is that whilst it is pleasing that Spain is creating more jobs the fact that the growth rate in them is similar to the economic growth means that it too will have its productivity worries.

Looking ahead

The Bank of Spain is reasonably optimistic in its latest Bulletin.

Hence, after standing in 2016 at 3.2% (the same rate as that observed a year earlier), average GDP growth is expected to ease to 2.5% in 2017 (see Table 1). In 2018 and 2019, the estimated increase in output would stand at 2.1% and 2%, respectively.

As to the private-sector business surveys Markit tells us this about services.

Rate of expansion in activity remains marked in December

And this about manufacturing.

The Spanish manufacturing PMI signalled that the sector ended 2016 on a high, with growth back at the levels seen at the start of the year.

Fiscal Position

The situation here has been summed up by El Pais this morning like this.

After missing its deficit targets for five straight years, Spain on Thursday made a commitment in Brussels to make additional adjustments “if necessary.”

If you look at its economic performance you might be wondering if Spain got it right although of course that is far from the only issue at hand. The current state of play is shown below.

Spain believes that the tax hikes slapped on companies, alcohol, tobacco and sugary drinks, as well as rises in a range of green taxes – together with strong economic growth – will be enough to keep the deficit at 3.1% of GDP. But Brussels is forecasting 3.3% instead.

If we move to the national debt it is in the awkward situation it has breached the 100% of GDP barrier. The reason this is awkward is that as described Spain has seen good levels of economic growth and the ECB has bought a lot of Spanish government debt keeping debt costs relatively low. It has bought some 150.3 billion Euros worth so far as of the end of last week and the ten-year yield is at 1.6% meaning that in spite of recent rises debt costs are very low. Thus the ratio has risen at a time when two favourable winds have been blowing in Spain.

House Prices

As this was a signal last time I can report that as of the end of the third quarter they were rising at an annual rate of 4% so relatively moderate by past standards. However as the last quarter of 2015 saw a quarterly 0% this seems set to rise. Price rises may also be capped by the fact that the bad bank Sareb is selling off some of the stock that it inherited ( believed to be around 105,000 homes). Mind you there does appear to be considerable rental inflation if this from The Spanish Brick is any guide.

The price of rental dwellings has increased in Spain by 5.8% during the second quarter of 2016, being the price of the square meter 7.8 euros per month. On an inter-annual rate, it is an 8.5% increase, according to the main property portal in Spain. ( BankInter)

Comment

There has been plenty of good economic news for Spain in recent times and we should welcome that. After all it makes a nice change from the many down beat stories that are around. But if we use the phrase “escape velocity” so beloved of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney we see that work remains to be done. If we look back and set 2010 at 100 then GDP peaked at 104.4 in the second quarter of 2008 but only reached 102.4 in the third quarter of 2016 so another just under 2% is required to scale the previous peak. Spain will need to do that relatively quickly to prevent a type of “lost decade” but even as it does so, which I expect it to do it then looks back on a decade which overall has been a road to nowhere overall.

Should Spain continue to follow the British economic pattern then worries for the UK of rising inflation affecting the economy may have a knock-on effect. As to literal links the UK Office for National Statistics has helped out a little today.

Spain is host to the largest number of British citizens living in the EU (308,805); just over a third (101,045) of British citizens living in Spain are aged 65 years and over.

Rising bond yields are feeding into the real economy

Once upon a time most people saw central banks as organisations which raised interest-rates to slow inflation and/or an economy and cut them to have the reverse effect. Such simple times! Well for those who were not actually working in bond markets anyway. The credit crunch changed things in various ways firstly because we saw so many interest-rate cuts ( approximately 700 I believe now) but also because central bankers ran out of road. What I mean by that is the advent of ZIRP or near 0% interest-rates was not enough for some who plunged into the icy cold waters of negative interest-rates. This has posed all sorts of problems of which one is credibility as for example Bank of England Governor Mark Carney told us the “lower bound” for UK Bank Rate was 0.5% then later cut to 0.25%!

If all that had worked we would not be where we are and we would not have seen central banks singing along with Huey Lewis and the News.

I want a new drug
One that won’t make me sick
One that won’t make me crash my car
Or make me feel three feet thick

This of course was QE (Quantitative Easing) style policies which became increasingly the policy option of choice for central banks because of a change. This is because the official interest-rate is a short-term one usually for overnight interest-rates so 24 hours if you like. As central banks mostly now meet 8 times a year you can consider it lasts for a month and a bit but in the interest-rate environment that changes little as you see there are a whole world of interest-rates unaffected by that. Pre credit crunch they mostly but not always moved with the official rate afterwards the effect faded. So central banks moved to affect them more directly as lowering longer-term interest-rates reduces the price of fixed-rate mortgages and business loans or at least it should. Also much less badged by central bankers buying sovereign bonds to do so makes government borrowing cheaper and therefore makes the “independent” central bank rather popular with politicians.

That was then and this is now

Whilst there is still a lot of QE going on we are seeing ch-ch-changes even in official policy as for example from the US Federal Reserve which has raised interest-rates twice and this morning this from China.

Chinese press reports that the PBoC have raised interest rate on one-year MLF loans by 10bps to 3.1% ( @SigmaSqwauk)

The Chinese bond market future fell a point to below 96 on the news which raised a wry smile at a bond market future below 100 ( which used to be very common) but indicated higher bond yields. These are becoming more common albeit with ebbs and flows and are on that road because of the return of inflation. So many countries got a reminder of this in December as we have noted as there were pick-ups in the level of annual inflation and projecting that forwards leaves current yields looking a bit less than thin. Or to put it another way all the central bank bond-buying has created a false market for sovereign and in other cases corporate bonds.

The UK

Back on the 14th of June last year I expressed my fears for the UK Gilt market.

There is much to consider as we note that inflation expectations and bond yields are two trains running in opposite directions on the same track.

In the meantime we have had the EU leave vote and an extra £60 billion of Bank of England QE of which we will see some £1 billion this afternoon. This drove the ten-year Gilt yield to near 0.5%. Hooray for the “Sledgehammer” of Andy Haldane and Mark Carney? Er no because in chart terms they have left UK taxpayers on an island that now looks far away as markets have concentrated more on thoughts like this one from the 14th of October last year.

Now if we add to this the extra 1.5% of annual inflation I expect as the impact of the lower UK Pound £ then even the new higher yields look rather crackpot.

In spite of the “Sledgehammer” which was designed by Bank of England lifer Andy Haldane the UK ten-year Gilt yield is at 1.44% so higher than it was before the EU leave vote whilst his ammunition locker is nearly empty. So he has driven the UK Gilt market like the Duke of York used to drill his men. I do hope he will be pressed on the economic effects of this and in the real world please not on his Ivory Tower spreadsheet.

The Grand old Duke of York he had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.
When they were up, they were up
And when they were down, they were down
And when they were only halfway up
They were neither up nor down.

If you look at inflation trends the Gilt yield remains too low. Oh and do not forget the £20 billion added to the National Debt  by the Term Funding Scheme of the Bank of England.

Euro area

In spite of all the efforts of Mario Draghi and his bond-buyers we have seen rising yields here too and falling prices. Even the perceived safe-haven of German bonds is feeling the winds of change.

in danger of taking out Dec spike highs in yield of 0.456% (10yr cash) ( @MontyLaw)

We of course gain some perspective but noting that even after price falls the yield feared is only 0.456%! However it is higher and as we look elsewhere in the Euro area we do start to see yield levels which are becoming material. Maybe not yet in Italy where the ten-year yield has risen to 2.06% but the 4% of Portugal will be a continuous itch for a country with such a high national debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio. It has been around 4% for a while now which is an issue as these things take time to impact and I note this which is odd for a country that the IMF is supposed to have left.

WILL PARTICIPATE IN EUROGROUP DISCUSSION ON – BBG ( h/t @C_Barraud)

 

The US

The election of President Trump had an immediate effect on the US bond market as I pointed out at the time.

There has been a clear market adjustment to this which is that the 30 year ( long bond) yield has risen by 0.12% to 2.75%.

 

As I type this we get a clear idea of the trend this has been in play overall by noting that the long bond yield is now 3.06%.  We can now shift to an economic effect of this by noting that the US 30 year mortgage-rate is now 4.06% and has been rising since late September when in dipped into the low 3.3s%. So there will be a contractionary economic effect via higher mortgage and remortgage costs. There will be others too but this is the clearest cause and effect link and will be seen in other places around the world.

Japan

Here we have a slightly different situation as the Bank of Japan has promised to keep the ten-year yield around 0% so you can take today’s 0.07% as either success or failure. In general bond yields have nudged higher but the truth is that the Bank of Japan so dominates this market it is hard to say what it tells us apart from what The Tokyo Whale wants it too. Also the inflation situation is different as Japan remains at around 0%.

Comment

We find ourselves observing a changing landscape. Whilst not quite a return of the bond vigilantes the band does strike up an occasional tune. When it plays it is mostly humming along to the return of consumer inflation which of course has mostly be driven by the end of the fall in the crude oil price and indeed its rebound. What that has done is made inflation adjusted or real yields look very negative indeed. Whilst Ivory Tower spreadsheets may smile the problem is finding investors willing to buy this as we see markets at the wrong price and yield. Unless central banks are willing to buy bond markets in their entirety then yields will ebb and flow but the trend seems set to be higher and in some cases much higher. For example German bunds have “safe-haven” status but how does a yield of 0.44% for a ten-year bond go with a central bank expecting inflation to go above 2% as the Bundesbank informed us earlier this week?

The economic effects of this will be felt in mortgage,business and other borrowing rates. This will include governments many of whom have got used to cheap and indeed ultra-cheap credit.

 

 

 

The confusion around the Target2 system of the Euro

As the Euro crisis developed there were a wide range of discussions and disagreements. One of the longest lasting and most polarised was and indeed is the one over the Target2 settlement system. There has been a new outbreak of this which has been triggered by a letter published on Friday by ECB (European Central Bank) President Mario Draghi. Let us cut straight to the chase.

If a country were to leave the Eurosystem, its national central bank’s claims on or liabilities to the ECB would need to be settled in full.

Boom! This opens more than one can of worms and one rather large one is opened if we step bank in time to July 2012 and the emphasis is mine.

And so we view this, and I do not think we are unbiased observers, we think the euro is irreversible. And it’s not an empty word now, because I preceded saying exactly what actions have been made, are being made to make it irreversible.

That speech was also famous for something else which is relevant to the discussion.

Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.

So how can you leave something which is irreversible? Accordingly you will not be settling up partly because Mario will not let it happen. That July 2012 speech was a success for keeping the Euro going forwards although reading it again exposes a fair bit of hot air and boasting about relative economic success of which the clearest critic is the ECB’s 1.5 trillion Euros plus of QE (Quantitative Easing) and -0.4% deposit interest-rate.

But as I read the crucial sentence in the letter to Mr Marco Valli (MEP) and Mr Marco Zanni (MEP) my other thought was that Mario Draghi had just boosted the credibility of those who have argued that Target2 balances matter.

How has this come about?

Ironically this is another side-effect of the QE programme.

the recent increase in TARGET2 balances largely reflects liquidity flows stemming from the ECB’s asset purchase programme (APP).

Oops! Also the change is how can one put it? Geographically concentrated.

Almost 80% of bonds purchased by national central banks under the APP were sold by counterparties that are not resident in the same country as the purchasing national central bank, and roughly half of the purchases were from counterparties located outside the euro area, most of which mainly access the TARGET2 payments system via the Deutsche Bundesbank.

As we note that foreign investors have been selling Euro area bonds to the ECB on a large-scale we see this as a consequence of who they have chosen to sell them too.

This, in turn, resulted in an increase in the Deutsche Bundesbank’s TARGET2 balance vis-à-vis the ECB.

With Germanic accuracy we are told that this amounted to 754,262,914,964.24 Euros as of the end of 2016. It may be hard to believe now but back in the early 2000s there were occasions when the German Bundesbank was a debtor in this system but the amounts back then were far far smaller. You will not be surprised to read it became a creditor as the credit crunch hit and at the end of 2008 that amounted to 115.3 billion Euros. At the time of Mario’s “whatever it takes” speech the balance was 727.2 billion Euros. This of course poses the problem that it we are in so much of a better place now why are we seeing a new record surplus? Here is the official reply.

However, the current increase in TARGET2 balances is not a symptom of increased stress and is therefore inherently different from the previous episodes of rising balances.

Ah, so this time is different!

What is Target2?

It is a settlement system which represents the monetary side of transactions described below by the Bundesbank.

These payment transactions can take a wide variety of forms, such as payment for a goods delivery, the purchase or sale of a security, the granting or repayment of a loan or the depositing of funds at a bank, among many others.

Now this reminds me of the case of the way changes in UK £M3 were represented some 30 years or so ago. This is because back then just because there was an accounting identity we were told there had to be a causal identity as well. Sadly that did not go so well. However the scale of Target2 leads to worries.

An average of around 350,000 payments with a value of just under €2½ trillion are processed using TARGET2 each working day, a figure which is broadly equivalent to the size of Germany’s GDP.

Other central banks have settlement systems but you see where the difference is comes from the fact that the Bank of Japan works in an environment of political and monetary union so nobody worries much about balances between Kobe and Osaka. The problem is created because the Euro is an economic concept which crosses national boundaries. Thus these cash-flows cross national boundaries. But the Target2 balances are not a causal force they are a consequence of financial actions elsewhere. For example back in 2011/12 they built up because of the banking crises seen and now they are building up ironically as part of the ECB’s response to that and the subsequent economic problems.

How could it go wrong?

There are two possibilities. The mildest would be something that cannot be settled under the current structure as described by Beate Resazt here.

in Target2 there is always a danger that one leg of a transaction is paid and the counterparty is not willing or able to fulfil its part of the business. For this eventuality banks have to provide collateral. If collateral turns out to be insufficient to realize the full amount the resulting loss is shared by the euro area NCBs in line with their capital shares.

So a risk but after so many stresses we have avoided that so far meaning it is there as a risk but the ECB has so far kept on top of it. The bigger issue is of course someone leaving the Euro as Mario Draghi stated. This poses all sorts of questions. The current fractious state of Brexit negotiations would presumably be considered to be something of a tea-party compared to this so there are genuine dangers. In such an environment the worst case scenario would be if the departing state refused to settle its deficit as after all it would likely be in deficit. Some argue that there is no deficit only claims and perhaps they have a point when everyone is still in the Euro as you can then argue that in essence this is simply a settlement system run by the ECB. But we return to what if you leave when you are now outside the system and refuse to settle up what would now be a deficit?

Comment

As I indicated earlier to my mind rather than being a problem in itself the Target2 issue indicates problems elsewhere. For example the German current account surplus or the way that ECB QE is settled mostly at the German Bundesbank. So when we see headlines like “debt” or “profit and loss” I am not convinced as it is an accounting system telling us about flows of cash. Of course cash flow leads many companies to come a cropper and indeed can do to governments as we are reminded again that this would not be a subject for debate beyond regional policy if there was fiscal and political union.

Somebody leaving seems likely to be an explosive event both politically and economically and in the turmoil lots would happen. For example a new currency for the country concerned and probably an element of default on debts too. This would bounce around the Target2 system but it would be an accounting identity rather than a cause.

Central banks face an inflation inspired policy exit dilemma

Later today the ECB ( European Central Bank) will announce it latest policy decisions on interest-rates and extraordinary monetary policy such as QE ( Quantitative Easing) asset purchases. I am not expecting any grand announcement of change as this came last time if you recall.

As regards non-standard monetary policy measures, we will continue to make purchases under the asset purchase programme (APP) at the current monthly pace of €80 billion until the end of March 2017. From April 2017, our net asset purchases are intended to continue at a monthly pace of €60 billion until the end of December 2017, 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.

Ever since then they have been keen to tell us this is not a taper and the formal minutes showed quite a bit of debate on the matter.

either to continue purchases at the current monthly pace of €80 billion for an additional six months, or to extend the programme by nine months to the end of December 2017 at a monthly pace of €60 billion. In both cases, purchases would be made alongside the forthcoming reinvestments starting in March 2017.

I think they made the right choice to reduce the size of the monthly purchases but do not see why they guaranteed it to the end of the year apart from them being afraid of markets getting withdrawal symptoms.

What are these policies supposed to do?

Back in 2015 the ECB issued a working paper on how it thought QE worked.

First, via the direct pass-through channel, the non-standard measures are expected to ease borrowing conditions in the private non-financial sector by easing banks’ refinancing conditions, thereby encouraging borrowing and expenditure for investment and consumption.

Actually this is a generic explanation of the claimed benefits of extraordinary policies and applies in some ways more directly to the TLTROs (Targeted longer-term refinancing operations) . As ever it is the “precious” which is considered to be the main beneficiary.

this encourages banks to increase their supply of loans that can be securitised, which tends to lower bank lending rates.

Of course this can have plenty of effects and let us remind ourselves that house prices in Portugal are rising at an annual rate of 7.6% which is the “highest price increase ever observed” as I analysed on Monday. Let us then move on by noting that officially this will be recorded as a “wealth effect” and will benefit the mortgage books of the troubled Portuguese banking sector whereas for first-time buyers and those looking to move up the property ladder it is inflation. Although the Euro area measure of inflation ignores this entirely.

In December 2016, the annual rate of change was 0.9% (0.5% in the previous month)

We note that even so it is rising and move on.

Next we have this effect.

Second, via the portfolio rebalancing channel, yields on a broad range of assets are lowered. Asset purchases by the central bank result in an increase in the liquidity holdings of the sellers of these assets. If the liquidity received is not considered a perfect substitute for the assets sold, the asset swap can lead to a rebalancing of portfolios towards other assets.

This is how the 0.1% and indeed the 0.01% benefit as they of course by definition have plenty of assets overall. It is also part of the road where 8 people have as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population.

There is supposed to be a third announcement effect but it is hard not to have a wry smile at the claims made for Forward Guidance when you read this.

It has been found to be muted in the United Kingdom, moderate in the euro area and highly uncertain in the United States,

Inflation Target

Here we have the definition of it.

The primary objective of the ECB’s monetary policy is to maintain price stability…….The ECB has defined price stability as a year-on-year increase in the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) for the euro area of below 2%.

There is clear abuse of language here as the Euro area his in fact had price stability with inflation ~0% in recent times but the ECB does not want this. Back in the day a past ECB President ( Trichet) gave us a rather precise definition of 1.97% in his valedictory speech.

Where are we now?

Yesterday there was something of a change.

Euro area annual inflation was 1.1% in December 2016, up from 0.6% in November. In December 2015 the rate was 0.2%.

So the broad sweep of higher inflation in December around Europe continued as we saw quite a jump. Some of that may unwind but 2017 is likely to see a higher and higher theme as we note transport for fuel rising at an annual rate of 6% and vegetables at 5.2% so exactly the wrong sort of inflation for consumers and workers. There is only one country now with disinflation which is Ireland but more than a few clustering around 2% including Germany at 1.7%. It makes you think if we move to today’s house price update how statisticians in Ireland can report disinflation with house prices rising at an annual rate of 7.1%. Also we seem set to see a phase of more general inflation worries from Germany which has house price inflation of 6.2%.

Exit strategies

Back in December 2009 my old tutor at the LSE Willem Buiter wrote this.

The large-scale ex-ante and ex-post quasi-fiscal subsidies handed out by the Fed and to a lesser extent by the other leading central banks, and the sheer magnitude of the redistribution of wealth and income among private agents that the central banks have engaged in could (and in my view should) cause a political storm.

He was not aware then of the scale of what he calls fiscal subsidies which have been handed out by the Bank of England, Bank of Japan and the ECB since amongst others. But here is his crucial conclusion.

Delay in the dropping of the veil is therefore likely.

The prediction that they will delay exiting from monetary policies such as QE is spot on in my view and is where we are now. We have seen a PR campaign for example by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney as he sings along to Shaggy on distributional issues concerning wealth and also income.

She saw the marks on my shoulder (It wasn’t me)
Heard the words that I told her (It wasn’t me)
Heard the scream get louder (It wasn’t me)

However I disagree with Willem completely here.

There are few if any technical problems involved in reversing the unconventional monetary policies – quantitative easing, credit easing and enhanced credit support – implemented by central banks around the world as short-term nominal interest rates became constrained by the zero lower bound.

I was never entirely convinced by this line of argument but of course to be fair to Willem the situation now concerning QE is completely different in terms of scale.  Many bond purchases look to be permanent and the UK for example has bought Gilts which mature in the 2060s.

Comment

If we look at the overall picture we see that 2017 poses quite a few issues for central banks as they approach the stage which the brightest always feared. If you come off it will the economy go “cold turkey” or merely have some withdrawal systems? What if the future they have borrowed from emerges and is worse than otherwise? We learn a little from what the US Federal Reserve has done but maybe not as much as we might think for two reasons. Firstly whilst it stopped new QE purchases it continues to reinvest maturing purchases from the past. Secondly in terms of the international picture it did so whilst so many others were on the “More.More,More” road as it got a type of first mover advantage.

The Bank of England is in a particularly bad place as it applied more when in fact there were arguments for less ( likely higher inflation) followed by the Bank of Japan which is buying assets so quickly. Accordingly I wait to see if we get any hints of future moves from the ECB today.

Oh and do you note that the official rationale for QE type policies never seems to involve confessing you would like a lower value for your currency?

Me on TipTV Finance

 

http://tiptv.co.uk/inflamed-inflation-not-yes-man-economics/

Portugal is struggling to escape from its economic woes

Late on Friday (at least for those of us mere mortals who do not get the 24 hour warning) came the news that the ratings agency DBRS had reduced Italy to a BBB rating. These things do not cause the panic they once did for two reasons the first is that the ECB is providing a back stop for Euro area bonds with its QE purchases and the second is that the agencies themselves have been discredited. However there is an immediate impact on the banks of Italy as the Bank of Italy has already pointed out.

Italy’s DBRS downgrade: a manageable increase in funding costs…..Haircuts on collateral posted by Italian banks: the value of the government bonds collateral pool alone would increase by ~8bn. ( h/t @fwred )

However this also makes me think of another country which is terms of economics is something of a twin of Italy and that is Portugal.

When we do so we see that Portugal has also struggled to sustain economic growth and even in the good years it has rarely pushed above 1% per annum. There have also been problems with the banking system which has been exposed as not only wobbly but prone to corruption. Also there is a high level of the national debt which is being subsidised by the QE purchases of the ECB as otherwise there is a danger that it would quickly begin to look rather insolvent. In spite of the ECB purchases the Portuguese ten-year yield is at 3.93% or some 2% higher than that of Italy which suggests it is perceived to be a larger risk. Also more cynically perhaps investors think that little Portugal can be treated more harshly than its much larger Euro colleague.

The state of play

This has been highlighted by the December Economic Bulletin of the Bank of Portugal.

Over the projection horizon, the Portuguese economy is expected to maintain the moderate recovery trajectory that has characterised recent years . Thus, following 1.2 per cent growth in 2016, gross domestic product (GDP) is projected to accelerate to 1.4 per cent in 2017, stabilising its growth rate at 1.5 per cent for the following years.

So it is expecting growth but when you consider the -0.4% deposit rate of the ECB, its ongoing QE programme and the lower value of the Euro you might have hoped for better than this. Or to put it another way not far off normal service for Portugal. Also even such better news means that Portugal will have suffered from its own lost decade.

This implies that at the end of the projection horizon, GDP will reach a level identical to that recorded in 2008.

This is taken further as we are told this.

In the period 2017-19, GDP growth is expected to be close to, albeit lower than, that projected for the euro area, not reverting the negative differential accumulated between 2010 and 2013

You see after the recession and indeed depression that has hit Portugal you might reasonably have expected a strong growth spurt afterwards like its neighbour Spain. Instead of that sort of “V” shaped recovery we are seeing what is called an “L” shaped one and the official reasons for this are given below.

This lack of real convergence with the euro area reflects persisting structural constraints to the growth of the Portuguese economy, in which high levels of public and private sector indebtedness, unfavourable demographic developments and persisting inefficiencies in the employment and product markets play an important role, requiring the deepening of the structural reform process.

After an economic growth rate of 0.8% in the third quarter of 2016 you might have expected a little more official optimism as they in fact knew them but say their cut-off date was beforehand, but I guess they are also looking at numbers like this.

According to EUROSTAT, the Portuguese volume index of GDP per-capita (GDP-Pc), expressed in purchasing power parities represented 76.8% the EU average (EU28=100) in 2015, a value similar to the observed in 2014.

It is at the level of the Baltic Republics, oh and someone needs to take a look at the extraordinary numbers and variation in the measures of Luxembourg!

House Prices

Here we see some numbers to cheer any central banker’s heart.

In the third quarter of 2016, the House Price Index (HPI) increased by 7.6% when compared to the same period of 2015 (6.3% in the previous quarter). This was the highest price increase ever observed and the third consecutive quarter in which the HPI recorded an annual rate of change above the 6%. When compared to the second quarter, the HPI rose by 1.3% from July to September 2016, 1.8 percentage points (p.p.) lower than in the previous period.

What is interesting is the similarity to the position in the UK in some respects as we see that house price growth went positive in 2013 although until now it has been a fair bit lower than in the UK. Of course whilst central bankers may be happy the ordinary Portuguese buyer will not be so pleased as we see yet another country where house price rises are way above economic performance. Indeed a problem with “pump it up” economic theory in Portugal is the existing level of indebtedness.

the high level of indebtedness of the different economic sectors – households, non-financial corporations and public sector – ( Bank of Portugal )

The debt situation

In terms of numbers Portuguese households have been deleveraging but by the end of the third quarter of last year the total was 78.6% of GDP, whilst the corporate non banking sector owed some 110.8% of GDP. At the same time the situation for the public-sector using the Eurostat method was 133.2 % of GDP.

Going forwards Portugal needs new funding for businesses but seems more set to see property lending recover if what has happened elsewhere after house price rises is any guide. Also the state is supposed to be reducing its debt position but we keep being told that.

The banks

It always comes down to this sector doesn’t it? Portugal has had lots of banking woe summarised by The Portugal News here just before Christmas.

The Portuguese state provided €14.348 billion in support to the banking sector between 2008 and 2015, according to a written opinion submitted by the country’s audit commission, the Tribunal de Contas, last year and made public on Tuesday.

That’s a tidy sum in a relatively small country and we see that the banking sector shrunk in size by some 3.4% in asset terms in the year to the end of the third quarter of 2016. In terms of bad debts then we are told that “credit impairments” are some 8.2% of the total although the recent Italian experience has reminded us again that such numbers should be treated as a minimum.

Last week the Financial Times reminded us that the price of past troubles was still being paid.

Shares in Millennium BCP fell by more than 13 per cent in early trading on Tuesday after Portugal’s largest listed lender approved a capital increase of up to €1.33bn in which China’s Fosun will seek to lift its stake from 16.7 per cent to 30 per cent.

Oh and this bit is very revealing I think.

The rights issue, which is bigger than BCP’s market value,

Comment

Let us start with some better news which is from the labour market in Portugal.

The provisional unemployment rate estimate for November 2016 was 10.5%

This represents a solid improvement on the 12.3% of 2015 although as so often these days unemployment decreases comes with this.

These developments in productivity against a background of economic recovery fall well short of those seen in previous cycles……. Following a slight reduction in 2016, annual labour productivity growth is projected to be approximately 0.5 per cent over the projection horizon.

Also there is the issue of demographics and an ageing population which the Bank of Portugal puts like this.

the evolution of the resident population,
which has presented a downward trend,

I like Portugal and its people so let us hope that The Portugal News is right about this.

Portugal has been named as the cheapest holiday destination in the world for Britons this year. The country’s Algarve region came top in the Post Office’s annual Holiday Costs Barometer, which takes into account the average price of eight essential purchases, including an evening meal for two, a beer, a coffee and a bottle of suncream, in 44 popular holiday spot around the world.

That’s an interesting list of essential purchases isn’t it? But more tourism would help Portugal although the woes of the UK Pound seem set to limit it from the UK.