Fiscal policy was on the march at Jackson Hole

Over the weekend many of the world’s central bankers were guests of the Kansas Federal Reserve in Jackson Hole Wyoming. In terms of location I believe it was chosen because a previous chair of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker was a keen fisherman. However this late August symposium has become one which influences the economic winds of change as central bankers discussed easing policy in response to the credit crunch and in more recent times a speech was given on what were perceived to be the wonders of Forward Guidance. Michael Woodford was very clever in suggesting to a group who wanted to believe that they could influence events via mere speaking or what has become called Open Mouth Operations.

I shall argue that the most effective form of forward guidance involves advance commitment to definite criteria for future policy decisions.

They are still at that today to some extent although the definite criteria theme has mostly been ignored especially in the UK where it went wrong for the Bank of England almost immediately.

What about now?

The problem for the central bankers is that to coin a phrase that monetary policy may be “maxxed out” or as it is put more formally below.

despite attempts to set economies on normalization paths after the Great Recession and the Global Financial Crisis, the scope for countercyclical monetary policy remains limited: benchmark interest rates have continued to hover near or even below zero.

This is from a paper presented on Saturday by Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko of the University of California Berkeley. In their conclusion they go further.

Although economists do not believe that expansions die from old age, the prolonged U.S. expansion will end sooner or later and there is serious concern about the ability of policymakers in the United States and other developed countries to fight the next economic downturn. Indeed the ammunition of central banks is much more limited now than before the Great Recession and it is unlikely that expansionary monetary policy can be as aggressive and effective as it was during the crisis.

Actually if monetary policy had been effective the paper would not be necessary as the various economies would have responded and we would be on a road where interest-rates were say 2/3% and central bank balance sheets were shrinking, In reality such interest-rates to quote Star Wars are “far, far away”.

Fiscal policy

If monetary policy has less scope for action then our central planners face being irrelevant so they will be grasping for an alternative and fortunately according to our two valiant professors it is at hand.

With tight constraints on central banks, one may expect—or maybe hope for—a more active response of fiscal policy when the next recession arrives.

The problem with this the familiar theme of the “bond vigilantes” turning up.

It is certainly conceivable (see e.g. Aguiar et al. 2017) that a significant fiscal stimulus can raise doubts about the ability of a government to repay its debts and, as a result, increase borrowing costs so much that the government may find its debt unsustainable and default.

This of course was last seen on a major scale in the Euro area crisis particularly in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. Of course the European Central Bank intervened by buying bonds and later followed another part of Michael Woodford’s advice by introducing a larger and more widespread QE or bond buying program. So we have seen central banks intervening in fiscal policy via a reduction in bond yields something which government’s try to keep quiet. We have individual instances of bond yield soaring such as Venezuela but the last few years have seen central banking victories and defeats for the vigilantes. In another form that continued this morning as I note that a North Korean ballistic missile passed over Japan but the Nikkei 225 equity index only fell 87 points presumably influenced by the way that the Bank of Japan buys on down days.

What about more overt fiscal policy?

Apparently this can work.

We find that in our sample expansionary government spending shocks have not been followed by persistent increases in debt-to-GDP ratios or borrowing costs (interest rates, CDS spreads). This result obtains especially when the economy is weak. In fact, a fiscal stimulus in a weak economy may help improve fiscal sustainability along the metrics we study.

Indeed this for them is essentially a continuation of past work.

This constraint on monetary policy coincides with a resurgence in activist fiscal policy (Auerbach and Gale, 2009), which has moved from a focus on automatic stabilizers to a stronger reliance on discretionary measures, reflecting not only necessity but also growing evidence of the effectiveness of such policy to fight recessions (e.g., Auerbach and Gorodnichenko, 2012, 2013).

Also I am reminded that we should never believe something until it is officially denied.

Given the nature of the sample analyzed, our results should not be interpreted as an unconditional call for an aggressive government spending in response to a deteriorating economy.

The UK

Jonathan Portes who is an advocate for fiscal policy has written this in Prospect Magazine.

The answer is very technical—£100 billion or so of the extra debt relates to the Bank of England’s Asset Purchase Facility. Briefly, the BoE makes loans to banks and buys corporate bonds, in return for cash (“central bank reserves”).

He suggests that as this has been mostly ignored( not on here) we could borrow for other purposes.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here as I note that North Korea has done its bit as bond markets have risen today and yields fallen. For example the UK ten-year Gilt yield has dropped to 1% giving us food for thought with inflation at either 2.6% ( CPI) or 3.6% ( RPI). A clear factor in the expected push for fiscal policy is that bond yields are so low as conventional UK Gilt yields do not go above 1.7% and other countries such as Germany Switzerland and Japan can borrow for much less. Against such bond yields theoretical analysis is always likely to look good so the first issue is whether they would be maintained in a fiscal expansion. Or to put it another way are central banks being asked here for a type of QE to infinity?

Next is the issue of how a fiscal stimulus is defined as for example countries which have stopped borrowing and run a surplus like Germany and Sweden are relatively rare. Most have continued to borrow and run annual fiscal deficits albeit usually declining ones. Thus the ballpark seems to have shifted to increasing deficits rather than having one at all which is the sort of “junkie culture” road that monetary policy went down. If we look back to a past advocate of fiscal stimulus John Maynard Keynes he was also someone who suggested that when the growth came there would be a period of payback.

What we also find ourselves mulling is the difference between the specific and the general. I am sure that everyone can think of a project that would provide plenty of benefits and gains but as we move to a more generalist position we find ourselves facing a reality of Hinkley Point and HS2. To be fair our two professors do acknowledge this.

Bridges to nowhere, “pet” projects and other wasteful spending can outweigh any benefits of countercyclical fiscal policy.

As a conclusion the Ivory Tower theory is that fiscal policy will work. There are two catches the first is that if they were even regularly right we would not be where we are. The next is that on some measures we have been trying it for quite some time.

In reality the establishment seems likely to latch onto this as we have discussed before.

 

 

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What are the consequences of a parallel currency for Italy?

This week has seen the revival of talk about a subject which has done the rounds before. It would also appear that you cannot keep Silvio Berlusconi down as he was the person bringing it back into the news! Here is what was put forwards according to the Financial Times.

Berlusconi said the right-wing Lega Nord’s proposal of introducing the so-called ‘mini-BoT’ (short-term, interest-free, small-sized government securities, a sort of ‘IOUs’ to be used as internal currency to pay government suppliers, taxes, social security contributions, etc) would not be too far from his idea of a parallel currency.

There are quite a few issues here but let us stick to the obvious question which is could it happen? The FT again.

Berlusconi’s point then is that a parallel currency could be launched entirely legally within the constructs of European treaties, with the ECB potentially powerless to intervene once the decision has been taken.

Either way, regardless of whether Italy goes down the path of an explicit parallel currency or the introduction of small-sized Italian government securities, it’s clear the will to break up the euro’s monopoly in Italy is growing.

According to Citi’s analysts more than two thirds of Italian voters currently support parties with an anti-euro stance.

An interesting view although of course likely to cause something of an Italian turf war as the current President of the ECB Mario Draghi told us this in July 2012.

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.

Of course the speech went further with the by now famous phrase below.

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

So there would be an especial irony should it be that Mario’s home country ends up torpedoing the whole project. Perhaps that is why his speech this morning refers back to 2012.

Investors had begun pricing redenomination risk into sovereign debt and interbank markets, as they worried about the possible break-up of the euro area.

And reminds us of his “Jedi Mind Trick” from back then.

This is why we announced Outright Monetary Transactions (OMTs) as an instrument that can support our monetary policy. The idea was for the ECB to purchase the sovereign bonds of countries affected by panic-based redenomination risk.

This brings us back to this week where Italian bond yields rose in response to such risk but only to 2.1% for the ten-year as I type this. So some 5% lower than the time of the Euro crisis and those selling Italian bonds would most likely be selling them to the bond buyers of the ECB. So in that sense Mario has played something of a blinder here especially if we allow for the fact that going forwards the ECB may purchase such bonds disproportionately ( partly because it is running out of German bonds to buy).

Some care is needed as on the face of it there is only one winner which is the “whatever it takes” ECB. But take care because if we dive a little deeper there is the issue of the ECB being backed by 19 different treasuries including the Italian one. What if people started to believe it would no longer be one of them? What would the other treasuries think about owning lots of Italian government bonds ( 283.7 billion Euros)? It would make the discussions with the UK look like a tea party.

How did this begin?

In essence the parallel currency thoughts came out of this summarised by Roubini’s Economonitor in July 2014.

Since 2008, Italy’s industrial production has shrunk 25 per cent. In the last quarter of 2013, while exports reached back to almost the same level as in 2007, household consumption was down by about 8 per cent and investment by 26 per cent, with a capacity loss in manufacturing hovering around 15 per cent. Between 2007-2013 employment fell by more than a million, and the unemployment rate more than doubled (Banca d’Italia 2014a).

So we have the issue of Italian economic underperformance which regular readers will be well aware of. Not only was economic output below that below the credit crunch peak it went below the level of the year 2000. On an individual level the position was in fact even worse as the population has grown in the Euro area and I recall calculating that economic output ( GDP) per head was in fact 7% lower than in 2000.

What about now?

Whilst the specific numbers this morning were for France and Germany the Markit PMI business survey hinted at more growth for Italy.

The rest of the eurozone saw a slightly weaker increase in output during the month, albeit one that was still marked. A slower rise in services activity outweighed stronger growth of manufacturing output.

This adds to last weeks official release.

In the second quarter of 2017 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 0.4 per cent with respect to the first quarter of 2017 and by 1.5 per cent in comparison with the second quarter of 2016.

So we find an irony in that the parallel currency has been revived when Italy is doing better economically. The catch is that if we move to the individual experience and look at GDP per inhabitant we see the underling issue. In 2007 GDP per individual was 28.699 Euros and in 2016 it was 25876 Euros in 2010 prices.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here and the first is that parallel currencies are usually not approved by the government and may even be restricted or made illegal. Usually it is the US Dollar being used due to a loss of faith in the national currency although in an irony some places could use the Euro. We saw an example of the US Dollar being used in Ukraine for example. So the crux of the matter in many ways would be what would be legal tender in Italy going forwards and as someone observed when we looked at Bitcoin can it be used to pay taxes? Presumably this time the answer to the latter would be yes.

Next comes the interrelated issues of capital flight and currency depreciation or devaluation. I think that it is clear that large sums would leave Italy which poses the issue of whether a 1:1 exchange-rate could be maintained and for how long? I see no mention for example of what the official interest-rate would be? Moving onto debts such as bank debt and Italian government bonds or BTPs in theory the ECB could insist on repayment in Euros but in practice we come to the famous quote from Joseph Stalin.

“How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?”

In the end it comes down to the words fiat and and faith. The first is easy as the government can make a law but will people not only have faith but really believe? Also in a way it is something of a side show ( Bob) because both pre and during the Euro what Italy has needed is reform and of course neither has delivered it. Mario Draghi reminds us of this at every ECB press conference.

 

 

 

 

The Jackson Hole symposium should embace lower inflation

Later this week the world’s central banks will gather at the economics symposium of the US Kansas Federal Reserve at Jackson Hole in Wyoming. The description can be found below.

The 2017 Economic Symposium, “Fostering a Dynamic Global Economy,” will take place Aug. 24-26, 2017.  (The program will be available at 6 p.m., MT, Aug. 24, 2017).

It is appropriate that they do not yet know the program as the world’s central bankers find themselves at a variety of crossroads which they are approaching from different directions. It is also true that after all their expansionary monetary policy and “masters ( and mistresses) of the universe” activities over the last decade or so they now approach one of the most difficult decisions which is how to exit these programs. For some this will simply mean a slowing of the expansion. This all looks very different to when a speech on Forward Guidance was eagerly lapped up by a receptive audience and quickly became policy in many countries. After all Open Mouth Operations make a central banker feel both loved and important as we all hang on every word. Oh and there is a clear irony in the title of “Fostering a Dynamic Global Economy” for a group of people whose propping up of many zombie banks has led to anything but. That is of course assuming anyone knows what the phrase means in practice!

The inflation issue

The issue here is highlighted by this from Bloomberg today.

The world’s top central bankers head to Jackson Hole amid growing unease about low inflation.

Of course central bankers and those in the media subject to their brainwashing program may think this but the ordinary worker and consumer will be relieved. Should any of the central bankers suffer from stomach problems no doubt they will be delighted to discover this from CNBC.

Hikma Pharmaceuticals Plc’s U.S. subsidiary has raised the price of a common diarrhea drug by more than 400 percent and is charging more for five other medicines as well, the Financial Times reported on Sunday……The average wholesale price of a 60 ml bottle of liquid Atropine-Diphenoxylate, a common diarrhea drug also known as Lomotil, went from about $16 a bottle to $84, the FT reported.

Central banker heaven apparently and what needs looking into in my opinion is the clear examples of price gouging we see from time to time. Also more mundane products are seeing price rises. From Mining.com last week.

The iron ore price is now trading up a whopping 43% from its 2017 lows struck just two months ago.

According to Yuan Talks the Dalian futures contract rose 6.6% today before price limits kicked in. It is not alone as the Nikkei Asian Review points out.

Three-month zinc futures were at their highest level in 10 years, at about $3,100 per ton, rising 26% over the same period.
Aluminum also rose 10% over the same period.

So as well as raising a smile on the face of the heads of the central banks of Canada and Australia there are hints of some commodity inflation about. This provides a counterpoint to the concerns about low inflation which in the Euro area and the US is not that far below especially when we allow for the margin of error.

Does QE lead to inflation?

Some care is needed here as of course we have seen waves of asset price inflation across a wide range of countries. But of course the statistical policy across most of the world is to avoid measuring that in consumer inflation. Then it can be presented as growth which for some it is but not for example for first time buyers. However one of the building blocks of economics 101 is that QE ( Quantitative Easing) leads to inflation. Yet the enormous programs in the US and the ongoing one in the Euro area have not got consumer inflation back to target and the leader of the pack in this regard Japan has 0% inflation. After all the money involved has it simply led to price shifts? That is especially awkward for Ivory Tower theorists as they are not supposed to be able to happen with ~0% inflation so I guess they sent their spouse out to fill up the car as the petrol/diesel price fell.

More deeply whilst the initial effect of QE should have some inflationary implications is there something in it such as the support of a zombie business culture that means inflation the fades. It could of course be something outside of the monetary environment such as changing demographics involving ageing populations. Perhaps it was those two factors which broke the Phillips Curve.

As to future prospects there are two issues at play. The US Federal Reserve will start next month on an exit road which I remember suggesting for the Bank of England in City-AM some 4 years ago. If you do not want QE to become a permanent feature of the economic landscape you have to start somewhere. The issue for the ECB is getting more complex mostly driven by the fiscal conservatism of Germany which means that a supply crunch is looming as it faces the prospect of running out of German bonds to buy.

Currency Wars

There are two specific dangers here which relate to timing ( during thin summer markets) and the fact that markets hang on every central banking word. Eyes will be on the Euro because it has been strong in 2017 and in particular since mid April when it did not quite touch 93 on its effective ( trade-weighted) index as opposed to the 98.7 the ECB calculated it at on Friday. It has put another squeeze on the poor battered UK Pound £ but of more international seriousness is yet another example of a problem for economics 101 as interest-rate rises should have the US Dollar rising. Of course there is a timing issue as the US Dollar previously rose anticipating this and maybe more, but from the point of Mario Draghi and the ECB there is the fear that cutting the rate of QE further might make the Euro rally even more. Although one might note that in spite of the swings and roundabouts along the way the Euro at 98.7 is not far away from where it all began.

The Bank of Japan is also facing a yen rallying against the US Dollar and this morning it briefly rose into the 108s versus the US Dollar. Whilst it is lower than this time last year the trend seemed to change a few months back and the Yen has been stronger again.

Comment

It is hard not to have a wry smile at a group of people who via Forward Guidance and Open Mouth Operations have encouraged markets to hang on their every word now trying to downplay this. If you create junkies then you face the choice between cold turkey or a gradual wind down. Even worse you face the prospect of still feeding addiction number one when a need for number two arises as sooner or later an economic slow down will be along. Or creating fears about low inflation when the “lost decades” of Japan has shown that the world does not in fact end.

If we move onto the concept of a total eclipse then I am jealous of those in the United States today. From Scientific American.

Someone said that it is like suddenly being in some sort of CGI of another world or maybe like a drug-induced hallucination that feels (and is) totally real.

No they have not switched to central banking analysis but if the excellent BBC 4 documentary ”  do we really need the moon?” is any guide we should enjoy solar eclipses whilst we still have them. Meanwhile of course there is Bonnie Tyler.

I don’t know what to do and I’m always in the dark
We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks.

 

 

 

 

Is housing a better investment than equities?

As you can imagine articles on long-term real interest-rates attract me perhaps like a moth to a flame. Thank you to FT Alphaville for drawing my attention to an NBER paper called The Rate of Return on Everything,but not for the reason they wrote about as you see on the day we get UK Retail Sales data we get a long-term analysis of one of its drivers. This is of course house prices and let us take a look at what their research from 16 countries tells us.

Notably, housing wealth is on average roughly one half of national wealth in a typical economy, and can fluctuate significantly over time (Piketty, 2014). But there is no previous rate of return database which contains any information on housing returns. Here we build on prior work on housing prices (Knoll, Schularick, and Steger, 2016) and new data on rents (Knoll, 2016) to offer an augmented database which can track returns on this important component of national wealth.

They look at a wide range of countries and end up telling us this.

Over the long run of nearly 150 years, we find that advanced economy risky assets have performed strongly. The average total real rate of return is approximately 7% per year for equities and 8% for housing. The average total real rate of return for safe assets has been much lower, 2.5% for bonds and 1% for bills.

If you look at the bit below there may well be food for thought as to why what we might call the bible of equity investment seems to have overlooked this and the emphasis is mine.

These average rates of return are strikingly consistent over different subsamples, and they hold true whether or not one calculates these averages using GDP-weighted portfolios. Housing returns exceed or match equity returns, but with considerably lower volatility—a challenge to the conventional wisdom of investing in equities for the long-run.

Higher returns and safer? That seems to be something of a win-win double to me. Here is more detail from the research paper.

Although returns on housing and equities are similar, the volatility of housing returns is substantially lower, as Table 3 shows. Returns on the two asset classes are in the same ballpark (7.9% for housing and 7.0% for equities), but the standard deviation of housing returns is substantially smaller than that of equities (10% for housing versus 22% for equities). Predictably, with thinner tails, the compounded return (using the geometric average) is vastly better for housing than for equities—7.5% for housing versus 4.7% for equities. This finding appears to contradict one of the basic assumptions of modern valuation models: higher risks should come with higher rewards.

Also if you think that inflation is on the horizon you should switch from equities to housing.

The top-right panel of Figure 6 shows that equity co-moved negatively with inflation in the 1970s, while housing provided a more robust hedge against rising consumer prices. In fact, apart from the interwar period when the world was gripped by a general deflationary bias, equity returns have co-moved negatively with inflation in almost all eras.

A (Space) Oddity

Let me start with something you might confidently expect. We only get figures for five countries where an analysis of investable assets was done at the end of 2015 but guess who led the list? Yes the UK at 27.5% followed by France ( 23.2%), Germany ( 22.2%) the US ( 13.3%) and then Japan ( 10.9%).

I have written before that the French and UK economies are nearer to each other than the conventional view. Also it would be interesting to see Japan at the end of the 1980s as its surge ended and the lost decades began wouldn’t it? Indeed if we are to coin a phrase “Turning Japanese” then this paper saying housing is a great investment could be at something of a peak as we remind ourselves that it is the future we are interested as looking at the past can hinder as well as help.

The oddity is that in pure returns the UK is one of the countries where equities have out performed housing returns. If we look at since 1950 the returns are 9.02% per year and 7.21% respectively. Whereas Norway and France see housing returns some 4% per annum higher than equities. So the cunning plan was to invest in French housing? Maybe but care is needed as one of the factors here is low equity returns in France.

Adjusted Returns

There is better news for UK housing bulls as our researchers try to adjust returns for the risks involved.

However, although aggregate returns on equities exceed aggregate returns on housing for certain countries and time periods, equities do not outperform housing in simple risk-adjusted terms……… Housing provides a higher return per unit of risk in each of the 16 countries in our sample, and almost double that of equities.

Fixed Exchange Rates

We get a sign of the danger of any correlation style analysis from this below as you see this.

Interestingly, the period of high risk premiums coincided with a remarkably low-frequency of systemic banking crises. In fact, not a single such crisis occurred in our advanced-economy sample between 1946 and 1973.

You see those dates leapt of the page at me as being pretty much the period of fixed(ish) exchange-rates of the Bretton Woods period.

Comment

There is a whole litany of issues here. Whilst we can look back at real interest-rates it is not far off impossible to say what they are going forwards. After all forecasts of inflation as so often wrong especially the official ones. Even worse the advent of low yields has driven investors into index-linked Gilts in the UK as they do offer more income than their conventional peers and thus they now do not really represent what they say on the tin. Added to this we now know that there is no such thing as a safe asset more a range of risks for all assets. We do however know that the risk is invariably higher around the time there are public proclamations of safety.

Moving onto the conclusion that housing is a better investment than equities then there are plenty of caveats around the data and the assumptions used. What may surprise some is the fact that equities did not win clearly as after all we are told this so often. If your grandmother told you to buy property then it seems she was onto something! As to my home country the UK it seems that the Chinese think the prospects for property are bright. From Simon Ting.

From 2017-5-11 90 days, Chinese buyers (incl HK) spent 3.6 bln GBP in London real estate.
Anyway, Chinese is the #1 London property buyer.

Perhaps the Bitcoin ( US $4456 as I type this) London property spread looks good. Oh and as one of the few people who is on the Imputed Rent trail I noted this in the NBER paper.

Measured as a ratio to GDP, rental income has been growing, as Rognlie (2015) argues.

Meanwhile as in a way appropriately INXS remind us here is the view of equity investors on this.

Mystify
Mystify me
Mystify
Mystify me

UK Retail Sales

There is a link between UK house prices and retail sales as we note that both have slowed this year.

The quantity bought increased by 1.3% compared with July 2016; the 51st consecutive year-on-year increase in retail sales since April 2013.

 

 

 

 

The ECB faces the problem of what to do next?

Later this month ECB President Mario Draghi will talk at the Jackson Hole monetary conference with speculation suggesting he will hint at the next moves of the ECB ( European Central Bank). For the moment it is in something of a summer lull in policy making terms although of course past decisions carry on and markets move. Whilst there is increasing talk about the US equity market being becalmed others take the opportunity of the holiday period to make their move.

The Euro

This is a market which has been on the move in recent weeks and months as we have seen a strengthening of the Euro. It has pushed the UK Pound £ back to below 1.11 after the downbeat Inflation Report of the Bank of England last week saw a weakening of the £.  More important has been the move against the US Dollar where the Euro has rallied to above 1.18 accompanied on its way by a wave of reversals of view from banks who were previously predicting parity such as my old employer Deutsche Bank. If we switch to the effective or trade weighted index we see that since mid April it has risen from the low 93s at which it spent much of the early part of 2017 to 99.16 yesterday.

So there has been a tightening of monetary policy via this route as we see in particular an anti inflationary impact from the rise against the US Dollar because of the way that commodities are usually priced in it. I note that I have not been the only person mulling this.

Such thoughts are based on the “Draghi Rule” from March 2014.

Now, as a rule of thumb, each 10% permanent effective exchange rate appreciation lowers inflation by around 40 to 50 basis points

Some think the effect is stronger but let us move on noting that whilst the Euro area consumer and worker will welcome this the ECB is more split. Yes there is a tightening of policy without it making an explicit move but on the other side of the coin it is already below its inflation target.

Monetary policy

Rather oddly the ECB choose to tweet a reminder of this yesterday.

In the euro area, the European Central Bank’s most important decision in this respect normally relates to the key interest rates…….In times of prolonged low inflation and low interest rates, central banks may also adopt non-standard monetary policy measures, such as asset purchase programmes.

Perhaps the summer habit of handing over social media feeds to interns has spread to the ECB as the main conversation is about this.

Public sector assets cumulatively purchased and settled as at 04/08/2017 €1,670,986 (31/07/2017: €1,658,988) mln

It continues to chomp away on Euro area government debt for which governments should be grateful as of course it lowers debt costs. Intriguingly there has been a shift towards French and Italian debt. Some of this is no doubt due to the fact that for example in the case of German sovereign debt it is running short of debt to buy. But I have wondered in the past as to whether Mario Draghi might find a way of helping out the problems of the Italian banks and his own association with them.

is the main story this month the overweighting of purchases of rising again to +2.3% in July (+1.8% in June) ( h/t @liukzilla ).

With rumours of yet more heavy losses at Monte Paschi perhaps the Italian banks are taking profits on Italian bonds ( BTPs) and selling to the ECB. Although of course it is also true that it is rare for there to be a shortage of Italian bonds to buy!.

Also much less publicised are the other ongoing QE programmes. For example Mario Draghi made a big deal of this and yet in terms of scale it has been relatively minor.

Asset-backed securities cumulatively purchased and settled as at 04/08/2017 €24,719 (31/07/2017: €24,661)

Also where would a central bank be these days without a subsidy for the banks?

Covered bonds cumulatively purchased and settled as at 04/08/2017 €225,580 (31/07/2017: €225,040) mln

 

This gets very little publicity for two reasons. We start with it not being understood as two versions of it had been tried well before some claimed the ECB had started QE and secondly I wonder if the fact that the banks are of course large spenders on advertising influences the media.

Before we move on I should mention for completeness that 103.4 billion has been spent on corporate bonds. This leaves us with two thoughts. The opening one is that general industry seems to be about half as important as the banks followed by the fact that such schemes have anesthetized us to some extent to the very large numbers and scale of all of this.

QE and the exchange rate

The economics 101 view was that QE would lead to exchange rate falls. Yet as we have noted above the current stock of QE and the extra 60 billion Euros a month of purchases by the ECB have been accompanied for a while by a static-ish Euro and since the spring by a rising one. Thus the picture is more nuanced. You could for example that on a trade weighted basis the Euro is back where it began.

My opinion is that there is an expectations effect where ahead of the anticipated move the currency falls. This is awkward as it means you have an effect in period T-1 from something in period T .Usually the announcement itself leads to a sharp fall but in the case of the Euro it was only around 3 months later it bottomed and slowly edged higher until recently when the speed of the rise increased. So we see that the main player is human expectations and to some extent emotions rather than a formula where X of QE leads to Y currency fall. Thus we see falls from the anticipation and announcement but that’s mostly it. As opposed to the continuous falls suggested by the Ivory Towers.

As ever the picture is complex as we do not know what would have happened otherwise and it is not unreasonable to argue there is some upwards pressure on the Euro from news like this. From Destatis in Germany this morning.

In calendar and seasonally adjusted terms, the foreign trade balance recorded a surplus of 21.2 billion euros in June 2017.

Comment

There is plenty of good news around for the ECB.

Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 2.1% in the euro area ……The euro area (EA19) seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate was 9.1% in June 2017, down from 9.2% in May 2017 and down from 10.1% in June 2016.

So whilst we can debate its role in this the news is better and the summer espresso’s and glasses of Chianti for President Draghi will be taken with more of a smile. But there is something of a self-inflicted wound by aiming at an annual inflation target of 2% and in particular specifying 1.97% as the former ECB President Trichet did. Because with inflation at 1.3% there are expectations of continued easing into what by credit crunch era standards is most certainly a boom. Personally I would welcome it being low.

Let me sweep up a subject I have left until last which is the official deposit rate of -0.4% as I note that we have become rather used to the concept of negative interest-rates as well as yields. If I was on the ECB I would be more than keen to get that back to 0% for a start. Otherwise what does it do when the boom fades or the next recession turns up? In reality we all suspect that such moves will have to wait until the election season is over but the rub as Shakespeare would put it is that if we allow for a monetary policy lag of 18 months then we are looking at 2019/20. Does anybody have much of a clue as to what things will be like then?

 

What evidence is there for a bond market bubble?

There is a saying that even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut. I am left wondering about this as I note that the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan has posted a warning about bond markets. From Bloomberg.

Equity bears hunting for excess in the stock market might be better off worrying about bond prices, Alan Greenspan says. That’s where the actual bubble is, and when it pops, it’ll be bad for everyone.

Actually that is troubling on two counts. The simplest is the existence of extraordinarily high bond prices and low and in some cases negative yields. The next is that fact that his successors in charge of the various central banks may start pumping more monetary easing into this bubble to stop it deflating and it being “bad for everyone”. Indeed maybe this mornings ECB monthly bulletin is already on the case.

Looking ahead, the Governing Council confirmed that a very substantial degree of monetary accommodation is needed for euro area inflation pressures to gradually build up and support headline inflation developments in the medium term.

Let us look at what he actually said.

“By any measure, real long-term interest rates are much too low and therefore unsustainable,” the former Federal Reserve chairman, 91, said in an interview. “When they move higher they are likely to move reasonably fast. We are experiencing a bubble, not in stock prices but in bond prices. This is not discounted in the marketplace.”

I find it intriguing that he argues that there is no bubble in stock prices which are far higher than when he thought they were the result of “irrational exuberance” . After all low bond yields must be supporting the share prices of pretty much any stock with a solid dividend in a world where investors are so yield hungry that even index-linked Gilts have been used as such.

What is a bubble?

This is hard to define but involves extreme price rises which are then hard to justify with past metrics or measurement techniques. With convenient timing we have seen a clear demonstration of one only this week as something extraordinary develops. From Sky Sports News.

Sky sources: Neymar agrees 5-year-deal at PSG worth £450m, earning £515,000-a-week after tax. More on SSN.

One sign that we are in the “bubbilicious” zone is that no-one is sure of the exact price as I note others suggesting the deal is £576 million. You could drive the whole London bus fleet through the difference. The next sign is that people immediately assure you that everything is just fine as it is normal. From the BBC.

Mourinho said: “Expensive are the ones who get into a certain level without a certain quality. For £200m, I don’t think [Neymar] is expensive.

To be fair he pointed out that there would however be consequences.

“I think he’s expensive in the fact that now you are going to have more players at £100m, you are going have more players at £80m and more players at £60m. And I think that’s the problem.”

Of course Jose will be relieved that what was previously perceived as a large sum spent on Paul Pogba now looks relatively cheap. Oh and did I say that the numbers get confused?

PSG’s total outlay across the initial five-year deal will come to £400m.

If Sky are correct the high property prices we look at will be no problem as he will earn in a mere 8 months enough to buy the highest price flat they could find in Paris ( £18 million). The rub if there is one is that the price could easily rise if they know he is the buyer!

The comparison with the previous record does give us another clue because if we look at the Paul Pogba transfer it has taken only one year for the previous record to be doubled. That speed and indeed acceleration was seen in both the South Sea Bubble and the Tulip Mania.

Perhaps there was a prescient sign some years ago when the team who has fans who are especially keen on blowing bubbles was on the case. From SkyKaveh.

West Ham were close to signing Neymar from Santos in 2010. Offered £25m but move collapsed when Santos asked for more money

Back to bonds

If we look at market levels then the warning lights flash especially in places where investors are paying to get bonds. If we look at the Euro area then a brief check saw me note that for 2 years yields are negative in Germany, France, Belgium, Italy and Spain. For Germany especially investors can go further out in terms of maturity and get a negative yield. Does that define a bubble on its own as they are paying for something which is supposed to pay you?! There are two additional factors to throw in which is that the real yield situation is even worse as over the next two years inflation looks set to be positive at somewhere between 1% and 2%. Also if we look at Spain with economic growth having been ~3% or so a year for a bit why would you buy a bond at anything like these levels?

Another sign of a bubble that has worked pretty well over time is that you find the Japanese buying it. So I noted this earlier from @liukzilla.

“Japanese Almost Triple Foreign Bond Buying in July” exe: buy or + buy => like a double chocolate pie

Here we do get something of a catch as the issue of foreign investors buying involves the currency as well. Whether that is a sign of the Euro peaking I do not know but in a way it shows another form of looking for yield if you can call a profit a yield. Also there is an issue here of Japanese investors buying foreign bonds not only because there is little or no yield to be found at home but also because the Bank of Japan is soaking up the supply of what there is.

Comment

If we survey the situation we see that prices and yields especially in what we consider to be the first world do show “bubbilicious” signs. If we look at my home country of the UK it seemed extraordinary when the ten-year Gilt yield went below 2% and yet it is now around 1.2%. Of course the Bank of England with its “Sledgehammer” QE a year ago blew so much that it fell briefly to 0.5% in an effort which was a type of financial vandalism as we set yet again assets prioritised over the real economy. What we are not seeing is an acceleration unless perhaps we move to real yields which have dropped as inflation has picked up.

So far I have looked at sovereign bonds but this has also spilled over into corporate bonds especially with central banks buying them. We have seen them issued at negative yields as well which makes us wonder how that all works if one of the companies should ever go bust. Yet we also need to remind ourselves that there are geographical issues as we look around as Africa has double-digit yields in many places and according to Bloomberg buying short dated bonds in the Venezuelan state oil company yields 152% although the ride would not be good for your heart rate.

 

 

Greece reaches a Euro area target or standard

Yesterday saw an announcement by the European Commission back on social media by a video of the Greek flag flying proudly.

The Commission has decided to recommend to the Council to close the Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) for Greece. This follows the substantial efforts in recent years made by the country to consolidate its public finances coupled with the progress made in the implementation of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) support programme for Greece.

It sounds good although of course the detail quickly becomes more problematic.

Greece has been subject to the corrective arm of the Stability and Growth Pact since 2009. The deadline to correct its excessive deficit was extended several times. It was last set in August 2015 to be corrected, at the latest, by 2017.

That reminds us that even before the “Shock and Awe” of spring 2010 Greece had hit economic trouble. It also reminds us that the Euro area has seen this whole issue through the lens of fiscal deficits in spite of calamitous consequences elsewhere in both the economy and the country. I also note that “the corrective arm” is a rather chilling phrase. Here is the size of the change.

The general government balance has improved from a deficit of 15.1% in 2009 to a surplus of 0.7% in 2016

Greeks may have a wry smile at who is left behind in the procedure as one is at the heart of the project, one has been growing strongly and one is looking for the exit door.

If the Council follows the Commission’s recommendation, only three Member States would remain under the corrective arm of the Stability and Growth Pact (France, Spain and the United Kingdom), down from 24 countries during the financial crisis in 2011.

Let us wish Greece better luck than when it left this procedure in 2007. Also let us note some very curious rhetoric from Commissioner Dombrovskis.

Our recommendation to close the Excessive Deficit Procedure for Greece is another positive signal of financial stability and economic recovery in the country. I invite Greece to build on its achievements and continue to strengthen confidence in its economy, which is important for Greece to prepare its return to the financial markets.

Another positive signal?

That rather ignores this situation which I pointed out on the 22nd of May.

The scale of this collapse retains the power to shock as the peak pre credit crunch quarterly economic output of 63.3 billion Euros ( 2010 prices) fell to 59 billion in 2010 which led to the Euro area stepping in. However rather than the promised boom with economic growth returning in 2012 and then continuing at 2%+ as forecast the economy collapsed in that year at an annual rate of between 8% and 10% and as of the opening of 2017 quarterly GDP was 45.8 billion Euros.

Achievements? To achieve the holy grail of a target of a fiscal deficit on 3% of GDP they collapsed the economy. They also claimed that the economy would return to growth in 2012 and in the case of Commissioner Moscovici have claimed it every year since.

A return to financial markets?

Whilst politically this may sound rather grand this has more than a few economic issues with it. Firstly there is the issue of the current stock of debt as highlighted by this from the European Stability Mechanism on Monday.

Holding over 51% of the Greek public
debt, we are by far Greece’s biggest creditor a long-term partner

I note that the only reply points out that a creditor is not a partner.

The ESM already disbursed €39.4 bn to and combining EFSF it adds up to € 181.2 bn.

That is of course a stock measure so let us look at flow.

I am happy to announce the ESM
has today effectively disbursed €7.7 bn to Greece

I am sure he is happy as he has a job for life whether Greek and Euro area taxpayers are happy is an entirely different matter especially as we note this.

Of this disbursement, €6.9 bn will be used for debt servicing and €0.8 bn for arrears clearance

Hardly investment in Greece is it? Also we are reminded of the first rule of ECB ( European Central Bank ) club that it must always be repaid as much of the money will be heading to it. This gives us a return to markets round-tripping saga.

You see the ESM repays the ECB so that Greece can issue bonds which it hopes the ECB will buy as part of its QE programme. Elvis sang about this many years ago.

Return to sender
Return to sender

There is also something worse as we recall this from the ESM.

the EFSF and ESM loans lead to substantially lower financing costs for the country.

Okay why?

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

Indeed and according to a speech given by ESM President Regling on the 29th of June this saves Greece a lot of money.

We have disbursed €175 billion to Greece already. This saves the Greek budget €10 billion each year because of the low lending costs of the ESM. This amounts to 5.6 percent of GDP, and allows Greece the breathing space to return to fiscal responsibility, healthy economic developments and debt sustainability.

No wonder the most recent plans involved Greece aiming for a fairly permanent budget surplus of 3.5% of GDP. With the higher debt costs would that be enough. If we are generous and say Greece will be treated by the markets like Portugal and it gets admitted to the ECB QE programme then its ten-year yield will be say 3% much more than it pays now. Also debt will have a fixed maturity as opposed to the “extend and pretend” employed so far by the ESM.

What if Greece joining the ECB QE programme coincides with further “tapers” or an end to it?

If you wish to gloss over all that then there is this from the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

http://www.ekathimerini.com/219950/opinion/ekathimerini/comment/time-for-greece-to-rejoin-global-markets

Is austerity really over?

There are issues with imposing austerity again so you can say it is now over. I looked at this on the 22nd of May.

The legislation contains more austerity measures, including pension cuts and a higher tax burden that will go into effect in 2019-20 to ensure a primary budget surplus, excluding debt servicing outlays, of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product.

It was noticeable that one of the tax rises was in the amount allowed to be earned before tax which will hit the poorest hardest. But according to Kathimerini yesterday the process continues.

The government is slashing state expenditure by 500 million euros for next year……..The purge will mainly concern health spending, while credit for salaries and pensions will be increased.

Comment

The background economic environment for Greece is as good as it has been for some time. Its Euro area colleagues are in a good phase for growth which should help exports and trade. According to Markit this is beginning to help its manufacturing sector.

Having endured a miserable start to 2017, the latest survey data is welcome news for Greek manufacturers as the headline PMI pointed to growth for the first time since August last year.

If we look for another hopeful signal it is from this as employment has been a leading indicator elsewhere.

The number of employed persons increased by 79,833 persons compared with April 2016 (a 2.2% rate of increase) and by 23,943 persons compared with March 2017 (a 0.6% rate of increase).

The catch is that in spite of the barrage of official rhetoric about reform that Greek economy has gone -1.1% and +0.4% in the last two quarters with the latter number being revised up from negative territory. But the worrying part is that elsewhere in the Euro area things are much better when Greece should be a coiled spring for economic growth. Let me give you an example from the building industry where it is good that the numbers are finally rising. But you see annual building was 80 million cubic meters in 2007 and 10 million yes 10 million in 2016. That is an economic depression and a half….