It is party time at The Tokyo Whale as the Japanese stock market surges

Sometimes you have to wait for things and be patient and this morning has seen an example of that. If we look east to the and of the rising sun we see that it has been a while since it was at the level below.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 stock index closed on Friday at its highest level since November 1991 as individual investors bought up the shares of blue-chip companies at the expense of smaller, more speculative groups. The benchmark, which has been described by some analysts as a “barbarous relic” but remains the favourite yardstick of Japanese retail investors, was propelled to its 29-year high by resurgent stocks like Sony, SoftBank and Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing.

That is from the Financial Times over the weekend and its Japanese owners will no doubt be pointing out that it should be covering this morning’s further rally.

Investing.com – Japan stocks were higher after the close on Monday, as gains in the Paper & PulpRailway & Bus and Real Estate sectors led shares higher.

At the close in Tokyo, the Nikkei 225 rose 2.12% to hit a new 5-year high.

Curiously Investing.com does not seem to have spotted that we have not been here for much longer than 5 years. The market even challenged 25,000 but did not quite make it.

There was something familiar about this but also something new as the FT explained.

Mizuho Securities chief equity strategist Masatoshi Kikuchi said that the Nikkei’s move was driven by individual investors using leverage to magnify their potential returns and losses — a much larger and more active group since the Covid-19 pandemic restricted millions to their homes and prompted many to open online trading accounts.

The Japanese are savers and investors hence the Mrs. Watanabe stereotype but the gearing here reminds us of the Robinhood style investors in the US as well.

The Tokyo Whale

As ever if we look below the surface there has been much more going on and we can start at the Bank of Japan which regular readers will be aware has been buying equities for a while now.Also it increased its purchases in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in two ways. It did not just buy on down days and it also increased its clip size.

For the time being, it would actively purchase ETFs and J-REITs so that their amounts outstanding would increase
at annual paces with the upper limit of about 12 trillion yen and about 180 billion yen, respectively. ( Bank of Japan Minutes)

In October it bought 70 billion Yen’s worth on six occasions and on three days in a row from the 28th. If we recall that world stock markets were falling back then we find ourselves noting the most extreme version of a central bank put option for equity markets we have seen so far. Indeed this is confirmed in the Minutes.

With a view to lowering risk premia of asset prices in an appropriate manner, the Bank might increase or
decrease the amount of purchases, depending on market conditions.

What is appropriate and how do they decide? This morning’s summary of opinions release suggests that some at the Bank of Japan are troubled by all of this. The emphasis is mine.

It is necessary to continue with active purchases of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and Japan real estate investment trusts (J-REITs) for the time being. However, given that monetary easing is expected to be prolonged, the Bank should further look for ways to enhance sustainability of the policy measure so that it will not face difficulty in conducting such purchases when a lowering of risk premia of asset prices is absolutely necessary.

As “monetary easing” has been going on for around 3 decades now it has already been very prolonged. I wonder on what grounds they would regard it as “absolutely necessary” to reduce the value of its large equity holdings. As of the end of October it had bought some 34,771,759,339,000 Yen of it.

Rather curiously the Bank of Japan share price has not responded to the rise in value of its equity holdings. Yes it was up 1.9% today to 26,780 but that is a long way short of the 220,000 or so of November 1991.

The Bank is a juridical person established based on the Bank of Japan Act. Its stated capital is 100 million yen. The issued share capital is owned by the government (55 percent) and the private sector (45 percent).

Abenomics

There is something of an irony in this landmark being reached after Prime Minister Abe has left office. Because as well as the explicit equity buying effort above there were a lot of implicit boosts for the equity market from what became called Abenomics. Back in November 2012 I put it like this.

Also the Japanese stock market has had a good couple of days in response to this and has got back above the 9000 level on the Nikkei 225 at a time when other stock markets have fallen.

As you can see the market has been singing along to Chic in the Abenomics era.

Good times, these are the good times
Leave your cares behind, these are the good times
Good times, these are the good times
Our new state of mind, these are the good times
Happy days are here again
The time is right for makin’ friends.

We have seen interest-rates reduced into negative territory and the Bank of Japan gorge itself on Japanese Government Bonds both of which make any equity dividends more attractive. Also there was the Abenomics “arrow” designed to reduce the value of the Japanese Yen and make Japan’s exporters more competitive. Often the Japanese stock market is the reverse of that day’s move in the Yen but in reverse so Yen down means stick market up.

The latter gave things quite a push at first as the exchange-rate to the US Dollar went from 78 into the mid 120s for a while. However in more recent times the Yen has been mimicking The Terminator by saying “I’ll be back” and is at 103.60 as I type this. There is a lot of food for thought here on the impact of QE on a currency but for our purposes today we see that the currency is weaker but by much less than one might have thought.

Comment

The Japanese stock market has recently received boost from other influences. For example what is becoming called the “Biden Bounce” has seen the Nikkei 225 rally by around 8% in a week. Also this morning’s data with the leading indicator for September rising to 92.9 will have helped. But also we have seen an extraordinary effort by the Japanese state to get the market up over the past 8 years. In itself it has been a success but it does raise problems.

The first is that Japan’s economic problems have not gone away as a result of this. Even if we out the Covid pandemic to one side the economy was struggling in response to the Consumption Tax rise of last autumn. The official objective of raising the inflation rate has got no nearer and the “lost decade” rumbles on. The 0.1% have got a lot wealthier though.

Then there is the issue of an exit strategy, because if The Tokyo Whale stops buying and the market drops there are two problems. First for the value of the Bank of Japan’s holdings and next for the economy itself. So as so often we find ourselves singing along with Elvis Presley.

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

Meanwhile on a personal level I recall these days as I worked for Barings pre collapse.

Baring Nikkei options in the money now! ( @WildboyMarkets)

Indeed I had an indirect role as there were 4 of us on the futures and options desk and we feared trouble and left. So they promoted Nick Leeson from the back office and what happened next became famous even leading to a film.

Podcast

 

Central bank Digital Coins are to enforce negative interest-rates

The weekend just gone produced quite a lot of news. Another lockdown in the UK is in the offing and there is of course the not so small matter of tomorrow’s US election. But something that does not make such headlines was also very significant and it came from ECB President Christine Lagarde.

We’ve started exploring the possibility of launching a digital euro. As Europeans are increasingly turning to digital in the ways they spend, save and invest, we should be prepared to issue a digital euro, if needed. I’m also keen to hear your views on it.

Actually it looks as though they have already decided and are launching a public consultation as cover for the exercise. After all most will not understand what are the real consequences of this especially as it will be presented as being modern and something which is happening anyway. The Covid-19 pandemic has provided a push for electronic forms of payment which is really rather convenient for this purpose. So they have a good chance of getting support and if they do not well they will simply ignore it. I must say it is hard not to laugh at the “if needed” because it is the central bankers as I shall explain who need it and not the Euro areas consumers and savers.

The real problem is highlighted here.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic came as a deep shock to all of us and warranted fast policy responses. I’m proud to say that we’ve delivered: our measures have been providing crucial support to the eurozone economy and to European citizens.

It is the first sentence which applies here although I have to say the tone deaf nature of “we’ve delivered” in the second is pretty shocking. The ECB already had problems with the Euro area economy as the “Euroboom” faded and growth was not only poor but the largest economy and indeed bell weather Germany was struggling. Then the pandemic hit and made everything worse.

The ECB’s Problem

This arises from the fact that in response to the issues above it has used so many monetary policy options. It was as long ago as June 2014 that it introduced negative interest-rates and there have been further reductions since. Its Deposit Rate is now -0.5% and via the TLTROs it has reduced its interest-rates for the banks to -1%. This is a crucial point in today’s narrative because they feel they cannot keep interest-rates at these negative levels without throwing some free fish to the banks. There is a lot of irony here because interest-rates were cut to help the banks but the supposed cure has turned out to be poison at the dosages required. You do not need to take my word for it just tale a look at bank’s share prices. For example my old employer Deutsche Bank has a share price which has nudged over 8 Euros this morning which is around half of what it was in early 2017 and well you do the maths in the fall from this.

The all-time high Deutsche Bank Aktiengesellschaft stock closing price was 159.59 on May 11, 2007. ( macrotrends.net )

So the banks are struggling with negative interest-rates as they are which poses a problem for a central bank wanted to go lower or in the new buzzword be “recalibrated”.

The Plan

Actually the ECB was part of a group of central banks which asked the Bank for International Settlements to look into this issue in January.

In jurisdictions where cash use is declining and digitalisation is increasing, CBDC could also play an important role in maintaining access to, and expanding the utility of, central bank money. ( CBDC = Central Bank Digital Coin)

As that is not a problem they are up to something else here. Also they are worried that it might make the problem they are supposed to stop worse.

There are two main concerns: first that, in times of financial crisis, the existence of a CBDC could enable larger
and faster bank runs; and second, and more generally, that a shift from retail deposits into CBDC
(“disintermediation”) could lead banks to rely on more expensive and less stable sources of funding.

In the end it is always about the banks in their role as The Precious. I think we get more of the truth here.

CBDC may offer opportunities that are not possible with cash. A convenient and accessible
CBDC could serve as an alternative to potentially unsafe forms of private money, offer users privacy, reduce
illegal activity, facilitate fiscal transfers and/or enable “programmable money”. Yet these opportunities may
involve trade-offs and unless these have a bearing on a central bank’s mandate (eg through threatening
confidence in the currency), they will be secondary motivations for central banks.

To my mind the opportunities are for central bankers and not for us.

The IMF lets the cat out of the bag

Back in February 2019 it told us this.

In a cashless world, there would be no lower bound on interest rates. A central bank could reduce the policy rate from, say, 2 percent to minus 4 percent to counter a severe recession.

I am sure you have already spotted why the ECB is now on the case. As to cash it turns out it has a feature which makes central bankers hate it. This is simply that it offers 0% which as the IMF explains below is a barrier to central bank “innovation”,

When cash is available, however, cutting rates significantly into negative territory becomes impossible. Cash has the same purchasing power as bank deposits, but at zero nominal interest. Moreover, it can be obtained in unlimited quantities in exchange for bank money. Therefore, instead of paying negative interest, one can simply hold cash at zero interest. Cash is a free option on zero interest, and acts as an interest rate floor.

There is an irony in this as by doing nothing it has turned out to be a powerful tool. The central bankers will be furious at the advice given by the rather prescient Steve Miller Band.

Hoo-hoo-hoo, go on, take the money and run
Go on, take the money and run
Hoo-hoo-hoo, go on, take the money and run
Go on, take the money and run.

Banning a song usually only makes it more popular. That would also be true of cash I suspect.

Comment

As so often what we are told is very different to what is the plan. A central bank digital coin is a way of imposing even deeper negative interest-rates. The IMF gave a template for this below.

To illustrate, suppose your bank announced a negative 3 percent interest rate on your bank deposit of 100 dollars today. Suppose also that the central bank announced that cash-dollars would now become a separate currency that would depreciate against e-dollars by 3 percent per year. The conversion rate of cash-dollars into e-dollars would hence change from 1 to 0.97 over the year. After a year, there would be 97 e-dollars left in your bank account. If you instead took out 100 cash-dollars today and kept it safe at home for a year, exchanging it into e-money after that year would also yield 97 e-dollars.

This brings us back to the ECB which last week told us this.

this recalibration exercise will touch on all our instruments. It is not going to be one or the other. It is not going to be looking at one single instrument. It will be looking at all our instruments, how they interact together, what will be the optimal outcome, and what will be the mix that will best address the situation.

It fears that further interest-rate cuts could cause a bank run. I agree with that and have written before that somewhere around -1.5% to -2% seems likely to be the threshold. Thus any more cuts will bring them near that especially as the LTRO rate is already -1%. So in their view a new plan is required and some of you may already be mulling their existing plan to phase out the 500 Euro note which is their highest denomination.

Putting this another way they are worried by two developments. One is Bitcoin which potentially challenges the monopoly power of central banks and also the demand for cash is rising not falling. In the Euro area it was 1.33 trillion Euros in September as opposed to 1.2 trillion a year before.

Podcast

Do we face austerity and tax rises after the Covid-19 pandemic?

We have been in uncertain times for a while now and this has only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. One particular area of concern are the public finances of nations who are copying the “Spend! Spend! Spend!” prescription of football pools winner Viv Nicholson. For younger readers the football pools were what people did before lotteries. Indeed if we note the latest IMF Fiscal Monitor there was an issue even before the new era.

Prior to the pandemic, public and private debt were
already high and rising in most countries, reaching
225 percent of GDP in 2019, 30 percentage points
above the level prevailing before the global financial
crisis. Global public debt rose faster over the period,
standing at 83 percent of GDP in 2019.

We get a pretty conventional response for the IMF which has this as a mantra.

And despite access to financing varying sharply across countries, medium- to long-term fiscal strategies were needed virtually everywhere.

There is a counterpoint here which is that the fiscal strategies approved by the IMF have been a disaster. There is of course Greece but in a way Japan is worse. Following IMF advice it began a policy of raising its Consumption Tax to reduce its fiscal deficit. It took five years for it to take the second step as the first in 2014 caused quite a dive in the economy. Then the second step last year saw Japan’s economy contract again, just in time to be on the back foot as the Covid-19 pandemic arrived.

The IMF is expecting to see quite a change this year.

In 2020, global general government debt is estimated to make an unprecedented jump up to almost 100 percent of GDP. The major increase in the primary deficit and the sharp contraction in economic activity of 4.7 percent projected in the latest World Economic Outlook, are the main drivers of this development.

Oh and where have we heard this before? The old this is “temporary” line.

But 2020 is an exceptional year in terms of
debt dynamics, and public debt is expected to stabilize
to about 100 percent of GDP until 2025, benefiting
from negative interest-growth differentials.

I make the point not because I have a crystal ball but because I know I do not. Right now the path to the end of this year looks extremely uncertain with for example France imposing a curfew on Paris and other major cities and Germany hinting at another lockdown. So we have little idea about 2021 let alone 2025.

The IMF is in favour of more spending this time around.

These high levels of public debt are hence not the
most immediate risk. The near-term priority is to
avoid premature withdrawal of fiscal support. Support
should persist, at least into 2021, to sustain the recovery and to limit long-term scarring. Health and education should be given prime consideration everywhere.

I would have more time for its view on wasteful spending and protection of the vulnerable if the places where it has intervened had actually seen much reform and protection.

Fiscally constrained economies should prioritize the
protection of the most vulnerable and eliminate
wasteful spending.

Economic Theory

The IMF view this time around is based on this view of public spending.

The Fiscal Monitor estimates that a 1 percent of
GDP increase in public investment, in advanced
economies and emerging markets, has the potential to push GDP up by 2.7 percent, private investment by
10 percent and, most importantly, to create between
20 and 33 million jobs, directly and indirectly. Investment in health and education and in digital and green
infrastructure can connect people, improve economy wide productivity, and improve resilience to climate
change and future pandemics.

If true we are saved! After all each £ or Euro or $ will become 2.7 of them and them 2.7 times that. But then we spot “has the potential” and it finishes with a sentence that reminds me of the  company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage from the South Sea Bubble. For those unaware of the story it disappeared without trace but with investors money.

For newer readers this whole area has become a minefield for the IMF because it thought the fiscal multiplier for Greece would be 0.5 and got involved in imposing austerity on Greece. It then was forced into a U-Turn putting the multiplier above 1 as it was forced to do by the economic collapse which was by then visible to all.

Institute for Fiscal Studies

It has provided a British spin on these events although the theme is true pretty much everywhere we look.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the public health measures implemented to contain it will lead to a huge spike in government borrowing this year. We forecast the deficit to climb to £350 billion (17% of GDP) in 2020–21, more than six times the level forecast just seven months ago at the March Budget. Around two-thirds of this increase comes from the large packages of tax cuts and spending increases that the government has introduced in response to the pandemic. But underlying economic weakness will add close to £100 billion to the deficit this year – 1.7 times the total forecast for the deficit as of March.

I suggest you take these numbers as a broad brush as it will be a long economic journey to April exemplified by that fact that whilst I am typing this it has been announced that London will rise a tier in the UK Covid-19 restrictions from this weekend. I note they think that £250 billion of this is an active response and £100 billion is passive or a form of automatic stabiliser.

They follow the IMF line but with a kicker that it is understandably nervous about these days.

But, in the medium term, getting the public finances back on track will require decisive action from policymakers. The Chancellor should champion a general recognition that, once the economy has been restored to health, a fiscal tightening will follow.

They are much less optimistic than the IMF about the middle of this decade/

Under our central scenario, and assuming none of the temporary giveaways in 2020–21 are continued, borrowing in 2024–25 is forecast to be over £150 billion as a result of lower tax revenues and higher spending through the welfare system.

They do suggest future austerity.

Once the economy has recovered, policy action will be needed to prevent debt from continuing to rise as a share of national income. Even if the government were comfortable with stabilising debt at 100% of national income – its highest level since 1960 – it would still need a fiscal tightening worth 2.1% of national income, or £43 billion in today’s terms.

Comment

As you can see the mood music from the establishment and think tanks has changed somewhat since the early days of the credit crunch.Austerity was en vogue then but now we see that if at all it is a few years ahead. Let me now switch to the elephant in the room which has oiled this and it was my subject of yesterday, where the fall in bond yields means governments can borrow very cheaply and sometimes be paid to do it. That subject is hitting the newswires this morning.

The German 10-year bond yield declined to the lowest level in five months on Wednesday as coronavirus’s resurgence across the Eurozone strengthened the haven demand for the government debt. ( FXStreet)

It is -0.61% as I type this and even the thirty-year yield is now -0.22%. So all new German borrowing is better than free as it provides a return for taxpayers rather than investors. According to Aman Portugal is beginning to enjoy more of this as well.

According to the IGCP, which manages public debt, at the Bloomberg agency, €654 million were auctioned in bonds with a maturity of 17 October 2028 (about eight years) at an interest rate of -0.085%.

Although for our purposes we need to look at longer-term borrowing so the thirty-year issue at 0.47% is more relevant. But in the circumstances that is amazingly cheap.

In essence this is what is different this time around and it is one arm of government helping another as the enormous pile of bonds purchased by central banks continue to grow. The Bank of England bought another £4.4 billion this week. So we have a window where this matters much less than before. It does not mean we can borrow whatever we like it does mean that old levels of debt to GDP such as 90% ( remember it?) and 100% and even 120% are different now.

In the end the game changer is economic growth which in itself posts something of a warning as pre pandemic we had issues with it. Rather awkward that coincides with the QE era doesn’t it as we mull the way it gives with one hand but takes away with another?

UK National Grid

It was only last week I warned about this.

National Grid warns of short supply of electricity over next few days ( The Guardian)

Good job it has not got especially cold yet.

The perversion of Inflation Targeting is accelerating

Today my topic is a subject which may seem like shuffling deck chairs on The Titanic but in fact turns out to be very important. This is because it affects workers, consumers and savers ever more because of the way that both wage growth and interest-rates head ever lower. For the latter we often see negative interest-rates and for the former the old text book concept of “sticky wages” has been in play but pretty much one way as rises are out of fashion but falls do happen. Indeed we have seen more than a few cases of wage cuts recently with the airline industry leading the way for obvious reasons. So we can afford inflation if I may put it like that much less than previously as it more quickly affects living-standards.

The Fantasy World

Central bankers have become wedded to the idea of inflation targeting but have not spotted that there is a world of difference between applying it when you are trying to reduce inflation and trying to raise it. In the former you are looking to raise living-standards via real wages and in the latter you end up trying to reduce them. Hoe does this happen? In spite of over a decade of evidence to the contrary they hang onto theories like this.

If the anchor for inflation is the inflation aim, the Phillips curve – the link between the real economy and inflation – plays a central role in allowing central banks to steer inflation towards that aim. But in the low inflation environment, prices appear to have become less responsive to the real economy. ECB research suggests that the empirical Phillips curve remains intact, but it may be rather flat. ( ECB President Christine Lagarde yesterday )

It can be any shape you like according to them which means it is useless. Accordingly it follows that they have been unable to steer inflation towards its target and for reasons I shall explain later they may well have been heading in the wrong direction. But let us move on with the Phillips curve being described by Lewis Carroll.

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

The next issue is that they have got away with defining price stability as something else entirely. Back to Christine Lagarde of the ECB.

Since 2003, the ECB has used a double-key formulation to set our objective, defining price stability as a year-on-year increase in inflation of “below 2%”, while aiming for inflation of “below, but close to, 2%”.

This misrepresentation was exposed back around 2016 when measured inflation fell to approximately 0% but there were price shifts because the inflation fall was driven by a large fall in the price of crude oil. We saw it in another form as goods inflation fell to zero and sometimes negative where services inflation continued and in the case of my country was little affected. So the bedrock of the 2% inflation target crumbled away.

But they cannot stop clinging to the Phillips Curve.

The intuition behind the first factor is that the Phillips curve is alive and well, but the euro area faced a series of large shocks that made it harder to measure economic activity relative to potential. ( Lagarde)

Let me give you an example where this failed utterly in my home country the UK. Back in 2013 the then new Bank of England Governor Mark Carney established his Forward Guidance based on a 7% Unemployment Rate. Within six months that was crumbling and we went in terms of a “full employment” estimate 6%,5.5%,5%, 4.5% and lastly 4.25%. I would argue it was worse than useless as it was both actively misleading and an attempt to claim he was on the verge of raising interest-rates without having any real intention of doing so.

How much difference does it make?

Central bankers live in a world like this.

Broadly speaking, three factors might explain why inflation responded so weakly to improvements in the economy in the run-up to the pandemic.

One of the reasons is that the economy did not improve that much. The previous peak for Euro area GDP was 2.47 trillion Euros at the start of 2008 which rose to 2.68 trillion at the end of 2019 on 2010 prices. The increase of around 8.5% is not a lot and compares badly with the previous period.

Next comes the fact that central bankers inflate their own efforts and policies according to Chicago University. From Bloomberg.

However, they also find that, on average, papers written entirely by central bankers found an impact on growth at the peak of QE that was more than 0.7 percentage points higher than the effect estimated in papers written entirely by academics. (This is a sizable difference considering the effect found on average across all studies was 1.57% at the peak.) In the case of inflation, the difference in the effect of QE at its peak between the two sets of papers was more than 1.2 percentage points. Central bankers also tended to use more positive language in summarizing their results in abstracts.

They have discovered a point I have been making for some years now.

They suggest that career concerns may have played a role and provide some evidence that central bank researchers who found the largest impact of QE had a better chance of receiving a promotion.

Measuring Inflation

An issue here is the way that official inflation indices have been designed to avoid measuring inflation. I noted this yesterday with reference to the Christine Lagarde speech.

We need to keep track of broad concepts of inflation that capture the costs people face in their everyday lives and reflect their perceptions, including measures of owner-occupied housing.

This continues a theme highlighted by Phillip Lane back in February.

I think we at the ECB would agree that there should be more weight on housing – but there is a difficulty and this has been looked at several times before.

Just for clarity they completely ignore owner-occupied housing which Mr,Lane admitted was up to 33% of people’s spending in a different speech. In other matters ignoring such a large and significant area would get you laughed out of town but as most are unaware it just means they do not believe the inflation numbers.

a lot of households think it is higher. ( Phillip Lane)

I wonder why they might think that? From UBS.

Use our interactive Global Real Estate Bubble Index to track and compare the risk of bubbles in 25 cities around the world over the last three years. Munich and Frankfurt top our list in 2020. Risk is also elevated in Toronto, Hong Kong, Paris, and Amsterdam. Zurich is a new addition to the bubble risk zone.

So the ECB has topped the charts and has four of the top seven. Makes them sound like The Beatles doesn’t it?

Comment

The situation here is an example of institutional failure. Central banks had a brief period of relative independence because politicians failed to get a grip on high inflation and so they sub-contracted the job. Whether they thought it would work or whether they wanted simply to shift the blame off themselves is a moot point? Either way it had its successes as inflation did fall as highlighted by the description of that phase as the NICE decade by the former Bank of England Governor Baron King of Lothbury.

The problems in the meantime are as follows

  1. Inflation is now below target partly due to the miss measurement of it. We are also in “I cannot eat an I-Pad” territory.
  2. They believe that 2% inflation is causal rather than something which was picked at random.
  3. They believe that they can influence it much more than the evidence suggests.
  4. Most breathtakingly of all they believe that raising the inflation target will make people better off via the wages fairy ( where wages growth will rise even faster).

Or you can take the view that this is all about keeping debt costs low for government’s and all of the above is simply a front.

Let me now address further the issue of how things have been made worse. Firstly there is the psychological impact of so-called emergency measures persisting and all the policy moves. Next has come the Zombification of many times of business as models which should have failed get bailed out. Also the use of negative interest-rates cripples much of the pensions and longer-term savings and insurance industry.

On the this road the 2% inflation which they cannot achieve and anyway would make you poorer seems likely to become 3% which is even worse….

 

Another hint of negative interest-rates from the Bank of England

The weekend just gone has provided another step or two in the dance being played out by the Bank of England on negative interest-rates. It was provided by external member Silvana Tenreyro in an interview published by The Telegraph on Saturday night. Perhaps she was unaware she was giving an interview to a media organisation with a paywall but this continued a poor recent trend of Bank of England policymakers making some more equal than others. As a recipient of a public salary interviews like this should be available to all and not some but it is not on the Bank of England website.

As to her views they were really rather extraordinary so let us investigate.

LONDON (Reuters) – The Bank of England’s investigation into whether negative rates might help the British economy through its current downturn has found “encouraging” evidence, policymaker Silvana Tenreyro said in an interview published late on Saturday.

It is not the fact that she may well vote for negative interest-rates that is a surprise as after all she told us this back on the 15th of July.

In June I therefore voted with the majority of the MPC to increase our stock of asset purchases. Lower gilt
yields and higher asset prices induced by QE will lead to some aggregate demand stimulus, although the low
prevailing level of the yield curve may reduce the impact somewhat, relative to some of the MPC’s previous
asset purchase announcements. As with the rest of the committee, I remain ready to vote for further action
as necessary to support the economy and ensure inflation returns to target.

So she voted for more QE ( Quantitative Easing ) bond purchases in spite of the fact that she felt the extra £100 billion would have a weaker impact than previous tranches. This means that with UK bond or Gilt yields continuing to be low and in some cases negative ( out to around 6/7 years in terms of maturity) then in any downturn that only really leaves lower interest-rates. As they are already a mere 0.1% that means a standard move of 0.25% would leave us at -0.15%

Something Extraordinary

I am pocking this out as even from a central bank Ivory Tower it is quite something.

Tenreyro said evidence from the euro zone and Japan showed that cutting interest rates below zero had succeeded in reducing companies’ borrowing costs and did not make it unprofitable for banks to lend.

Let me start with the latter point which is about it being profitable for banks to lend in a time of negative interest-rates. This is news to ECB Vice-President De Guindos who told us this last November.

Let me start with euro area banks, which have been reporting persistently low profitability in recent years. The aggregate return on equity of the sector slightly declined to less than 6% in the 12 months to June 2019. This weak performance is broad-based, with around 75% of significant banks generating returns below the 8% benchmark return demanded by investors for holding bank equity.

He went further that day and the emphasis is mine

The recent softening of the macroeconomic growth outlook and the associated low-for-longer interest rate environment are likely to weigh further on their profitability prospects. Many market analysts are concerned about the drag on bank profitability that could result from the negative impact of monetary policy accommodation on net interest margins. And net interest margins are indeed under pressure.

If we fast forward to last week there is this from Peter Bookvar on Twitter.

A chart of the Euro STOXX bank stock index. Record low. Please stop calling central bank policy ‘stimulus.’ It is ‘restrictive’ if it kills off profitability of banks.

Or there was this.

PARIS (Reuters) – Societe Generale (PA:SOGN) is considering merging its two French retail networks in an attempt to boost profitability, after two consecutive quarterly losses due to poor trading results.

We do not often look at the French banks who have mostly moved under the radar but there is “trouble,trouble,trouble” ( h/t Taylor Swift) here too.

Shares in SocGen were up 1.2% to 11.9 euros at 0843 GMT, just above their lowest level in 27 years of 11.3 euros, after it said the review would be completed by the end of November.

So profitability is fine but share prices have collapsed? I guess Silvana must have an equity portfolio full of banks waiting for her triumph. Remember the ECB is presently throwing money at the banks by offering them money at -1% in an attempt to offset the problems created by negative interest-rates.

Another way of looking at bank stress was the surge in access to the US Federal Reserve Dollar liquidity swaps post March 19th. We saw the ECB and Bank of Japan leading the charge on behalf of banks in their jurisdictions. Intermediaries were unwilling to lend US Dollars to them as they feared they were in trouble which again contradicts our Silvana.

As to companies borrowing costs they have fallen although there have been other factors at play. For example the bond purchases of the ECB will have implictly helped bu lowering yields and making corporate bonds more attractive. Also it has bought 233 billion Euros of corporate bonds which in itself suggests more was felt to be needed. Actually some 289 billion Euros of bank covered bonds have been bought which returns us to The Precious! The Precious!

Tractor Production is rising

Apparently all of that means this.

“The evidence has been encouraging,” she said, adding that cuts in interest rates below zero had been almost fully reflected in reductions in interest rates charged to borrowers.

“Banks adapted well – their profitability increased with negative rates largely because impairments and loss provisions have decreased with the boost to activity and the increase in asset prices,” she said.

This really is the banking equivalent of Comical Ali or in football terms like saying Chelsea have a secure defence.

Comment

The picture here is getting ever more fuzzy. I have no issue with policymakers having different views and in fact welcome it. But I do have an issue with claims that are simply rubbish like the Silvana Tenreyro one that bank profitability has not been affected by negative interest-rates. Even one of her colleagues is correcting what is simply a matter of fact.

BOE’S RAMSDEN: ENGAGEMENT WITH BANKS ON NEGATIVE RATES WILL TAKE TIME……….BOE’S RAMSDEN: RATES ON RETAIL DEPOSITS TEND NOT TO FALL BELOW ZERO WHICH IS RELEVANT IN UK CONTEXT AFTER RING-FENCING…….BOE’S RAMSDEN: I SEE THE EFFECTIVE LOWER BOUND STILL AT 0.1%. ( @FinancialJuice)

However as is often the way with central banks he seems to be clinging to a theory that died over a decade ago.

BOE’S RAMSDEN: I STILL THINK THERE IS LIFE IN THE PHILLIPS CURVE, THE SLOPE MAY HAVE FLATTENED.

Later we will hear from Governor Bailey who only last week was trying to end the negative interest-rate rumours that he had begun. Oh Well!

Still there is one thing we can all agree on.

BOE’S RAMSDEN: THE BURDEN OF PROOF FOR ANY FUTURE RISE IN INTEREST RATES WILL BE HIGH.

Too high…..

Continuing a theme of agreement let me support one part of the Tenreyro interview.

“Flare-ups like we’re seeing may potentially lead to more localised lockdowns and will keep interrupting that V(-shaped recovery).”

Meanwhile these  days the main player are  bond yields making the official rate ever less important. Why? The vast majority of new mortgages are at fixed interest-rates and with fiscal policy being deployed on such a scale they matter directly.

Podcast

The Central Banks can enrich themselves and large equity investors but who else?

We are in a period of heavy central bank action with the US Federal Reserve announcement last night as well as the BCB of Brazil and the Bank of England today. We are also in the speeches season for the European Central Bank or ECB. But they have a problem as shown below.

(Reuters) – London-listed shares tracked declines in Asian stock markets on Thursday as the lack of new stimulus measures by the U.S. Federal Reserve left investors disappointed ahead of a Bank of England policy meeting.

Is their main role to have equity markets singing along with Foster The People?

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You’d better run, better run, faster than my bullet
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You’d better run, better run, outrun my gun

We can continue the theme of central planning for equity markets with this from Governor Kuroda of the Bank of Japan earlier.

BOJ GOV KURODA: ETF PURCHASES ARE NOT TARGETING SPECIFIC STOCK MARKET LEVELS. ( @FinancialJuice )

In fact he has been in full flow.

BOJ’S GOV. KURODA: I DON’T SEE JAPAN’S STOCK MARKET GAINS AS ABNORMAL.  ( @FinancialJuice)

I suppose so would I if I owned some 34 Trillion Yen of it. We also have an official denial that he is aiming at specific levels. He might like to want to stop buying when it falls then. Some will have gained but in general the economic impact has been small and there are a whole litany of issues as highlighted by ETFStream.

Koll says the sheer weight of BoJ involvement is off-putting for others who might wish to get involved in the market. “When I go around the world, (the size of the BoJ’s holdings is) the single biggest push back about Japan from asset allocators,” he says. “This is the flow in the market.”

As the Bank of Japan approaches 80% of the ETF market I am sure that readers can see the problem here. In essence is there a market at all now? Or as ETFStream put it.

So how can the BoJ extricate itself from the ETF market without crashing the stock market?

Also it is kind of theme to back the long-running junkie culture theme of mine.

As it stands, the market has become as hooked as any addict.

You also have to laugh at this although there is an element of gallows humour about it.

The recent slackening off in ETF buying might be an attempt to end this cycle of dependency,

That was from February and let me remind you that so much of the media plugged the reduction line. Right into the biggest expansion of the scheme! As an example another 80 billion Yen was bought this morning to prevent a larger fall in the market. It was the fourth such purchase this month.

The US Federal Reserve

It has boxed itself in with its switched to average ( 2% per annum) inflation targeting and Chair Powell got himself in quite a mess last night.

Projections from individual members also indicated that rates could stay anchored near zero through 2023. All but four members indicated they see zero rates through then. This was the first time the committee forecast its outlook for 2023. ( CNBC )

This bit was inevitable as having set such a target he cannot raise interest-rates for quite some time. Of course, we did not expect any increases anyway and this was hardly a surprise.

With inflation running persistently below this longer-run goal, the Committee will aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 percent for some time so that inflation averages 2 percent over time and longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored at 2 percent. The Committee expects to maintain an accommodative stance of monetary policy until these outcomes are achieved. ( Federal Reserve)

So there is no real change but apparently it is this.

Powell, asked if we will get more forward guidance, says today’s update was ‘powerful’, ‘very strong’, ‘durable’ forward guidance. ( @Newsquawk).

He has boxed himself in. He has set interest-rates as his main measure and he cannot raise them for some time and the evidence is that negative interest-rates do not work. So all he can do is the “masterly inaction” of the apocryphal civil servant Sir Humphrey Applebym or nothing. Quite how that is powerful is anyone’s guess.

Brazil

The same illogic was on display at the Banco Central do Brasil last night.

Taking into account the baseline scenario, the balance of risks, and the broad array of available information, the Copom unanimously decided to maintain the Selic rate at 2.00% p.a.

They have slashed interest-rates to an extraordinary low level for Brazil and seem to think they are at or near the “lower bound” for them.

The Copom believes that the current economic conditions continue to recommend an unusually strong monetary stimulus but it recognizes that, due to prudential and financial stability reasons, the remaining space for monetary policy stimulus, if it exists, should be small.

But telling people that is a triumph?

To provide the monetary stimulus deemed adequate to meet the inflation target, but maintaining the necessary caution for prudential reasons, the Copom considered adequate to use forward guidance as an additional monetary policy tool.

Seeing as nobody is expecting interest-rate increases telling them there will not be any will achieve precisely nothing. Let’s face it how many will even know about it?

ECB

They too are indulging in some open mouth operations.

ECB’s Rehn: Fed’s New Strategy Will Inevitably Have An Impact On The ECB, “We Are Not Operating In A Vacuum”

Regular readers will recall him from back in the day when he was often telling the Greeks to tighten their belts and that things could only get better. Nobody seems to have told poor Ollie about the last decade.

ECB’s Rehn: There Is A Risk That Inflation Will Continue To Remain Too Low Sees Risk That Euro Zone Will Fall In A Trap Of Slow Growth And Low Inflation For A “Long Time”

So we see more ECB policymakers correcting ECB President Christine Lagarde on the issue of the exchange rate. Also as the news filters around there is this.

Three month Euribor fixes at -0.501% … below the ECB’s deposit rate for the first time! ( StephenSpratt)

He is a little confused as of course this has happened before but whilst it is a very minor move we could see another ECB interest-rate cut. It will not do any good but that has not stopped the before has it?

Bank of England

There is this doing the rounds.

LONDON (Reuters) – The Bank of England is expected to signal on Thursday that it is getting ready to pump yet more stimulus into Britain’s economy as it heads for a jump in unemployment and a possible Brexit shock.

Actually nothing has changed and the Bank of England is at what it has called the lower bound for interest-rates ( 0.1%) and is already doing £4.4 billion of bond buying a week.

Still not everybody is seeing hard times.

Former Bank of England (BoE) governor Mark Carney has joined PIMCO’s global advisory board, which is chaired by former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.

Carney, who was appointed UN Special Envoy on climate action and finance in December 2019, is one of seven members of the global advisory board, alongside former UK Prime Minister and Chancellor Gordon Brown, and ex-president of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet. ( investmentweek.co.uk )

As Dobie Gray put it.

I’m in with the in crowd
I go where the in crowd goes
I’m in with the in crowd
And I know what the in crowd knows

Comment

We have arrived at a situation I have long feared and warned about. The central bankers have grandly pulled their policy levers and now are confused it has not worked. Indeed they have pulled them beyond what they previously thought was the maximum as for example the Bank of England which established a 0.5% interest-rate as a “lower bound” now has one of 0.1%. Now they are trying to claim that keeping interest-rates here will work when the evidence is that they are doing damage in more than a few areas. In terms of economics it was described as a “liquidity trap” and they have jumped into it.

Now they think they can escape by promising action on the inflation rates that as a generic they have been unable to raise since the credit crunch. Here there is an element of “be careful which you wish for” as they have put enormous effort into keeping the prices they can raise ( assets such as bonds,equities and houses) out of the inflation measures. So whilst they can cut interest-rates further and frankly the Bank of England and US Federal Reserve are likely to do so in any further downtown they have the problem highlighted by Newt in the film Aliens.

It wont make any difference.

That is why I opened with a discussion of equity purchases as it is more QE that is the only game in town now. Sooner or later we will see more bond purchases from the US Federal Reserve above the present US $80 billion a month. Then the only move left will be to buy equities. At which point we will have a policy which President Trump would set although of course he may or may not be President by them.

Oh and I have missed out one constant which is this sort of thing.

ECB Banking Supervision allows significant banks to temporarily exclude their holdings of banknotes, coins and central bank deposits from leverage ratio calculations until 27 June 2021. This will increase banks’ leverage ratios.

The Precious! The Precious!

 

 

 

The rise and rise of negative interest-rates

The modern era has brought something that has been in motion all my career, although there have been spells which did not feel like that. I am discussing bond yields which have been in a secular decline since the 1980s. Regular readers will be aware that back when I was new to this arena I asked Legal and General why they were buying a UK Gilt that yielded 15%? Younger readers please feel free to delete such a number from your memories if it is all too much. But there is another shift as back then the benchmark was 20 years and not 10. However you look at it from that perspective a world in which both the 2 and 5 year UK bond or Gilt yields were around -0.13% would have been considered impossible it not unpossible.

Germany

These have been the leaders of the pack in terms of negative bond yields. Last week Germany sold a benchmark 10 year bond with no coupon at all. We should take a moment to consider this as a bond is in theory something with a yield or coupon so as it does not have one we are merely left with money being borrowed and then repaid. Except there was a catch there too as not all of it will be repaid. The price paid was 105.13 on average and you will only get 100 back. Or if you prefer a negative yield of the order of 0.5% per year.

This year has brought something that in the past would have ended the situation as this.

The German Federal Government intends to issue fixed income Government securities with an aggregate volume of € 210 billion in 2020 to finance
the Federal Government budget and its special funds.

Became this.

The auction volume in the first two quarters of the current year amounted to € 97 billion for nominal capital market instruments (planned at the beginning of the year: € 78 billion) and € 87.5 billion for money market instruments (planned at the beginning of the year: € 31 billion)…….Due to the adjustments, the third quarter auction volume for nominal capital market instruments will total € 74 billion (planned at the beginning of the year: € 41 billion).

As you can see there were considerably more bonds on offer but it has made little or no difference to investors willingness to accept a maturity loss or negative yield. Oh and maybe even more bonds are on the way.

In non-regular reopenings on 1 and 16 April, a total amount of € 142 billion of already existing Federal securities was issued directly into the Federal government’s own holdings. These transactions created the possibility to react flexibly to short-term liquidity requirements.

So we learn that the previous reality that Germany was benefiting from its austere approach to public finances was not much of an influence. Previously it has been running a fiscal surplus and repaying debt.

Switzerland

The benchmark yield is very similar here as the 10 year yield is -0.49%. There are many similarities in the situation between Germany and Switzerland but one crucial difference which is that Switzerland has its own currency. The Swiss Franc remains very strong in spite of an interest-rate of -0.75% that has begun to look ever more permanent which is an irony as the 1.20 exchange-rate barrier with the Euro was supposed to be that. The reality is that the exchange-rate over five years after the abandonment of that is stronger at just below 1.08.

So a factor in what we might call early mover status is a strong currency. This also includes the Euro to some extent as we note ECB President Lagarde was on the wires over the weekend.

ECB Lagarde Says Euro Gains Have Blunted Stimulus Boost to Inflation … BBG

This allows us to bring in Japan as well as the Yen has remained strong in spite of all the bond buying of the Bank of Japan.

Safe Haven

The ECB issued a working paper on this subject in January.

There is growing academic and policy interest in so called “safe assets”, that is assets that have stable nominal payoffs, are highly liquid and carry minimal credit risk.

Notice the two swerves which are the use of “stable nominal payoffs” and “minimal credit risk”. The latter is especially noticeable for a place like the ECB which insisted there was no credit risk for Greece, which was true for the ECB but not everyone else.

Anyway it continues.

After the global financial crisis, the demand for safe assets has increased well beyond its supply, leading to an increase in the convenience yield and therefore to the interest that these assets pay. High demand for safe assets has important macroeconomic consequences. The equilibrium safe real interest rate may in fact decline well below zero.

They also note a feature we have been looking at for the best part of a decade now.

In this situation, one of the adjustment mechanisms is the appreciation of the currency of issuance of the safe asset, the so called paradox of the reserve currency.

Quantitative Easing

The problem for the theory above is that the central banks who love to push such theories ( as it absolves them of blame) are of course chomping on safe assets like they are their favourite sweets. Indeed there is a new entrant only this morning, or more accurately an expansion from an existing player.

The Executive Board of the Riksbank has decided to initiate purchases of corporate bonds in the week beginning 14 September 2020. The purchases will keep
companies’ funding costs down and reinforce the Riksbank’s capacity to act if the credit supply to companies were to deteriorate further as a result of the corona pandemic. On 30 June 2020, the Executive Board decided that, within its programme for bond purchases, the Riksbank would offer to purchase corporate bonds to a
nominal amount of SEK 10 billion between 1 September 2020 and 30 June 2021.

There are all sorts of issues with that but for today’s purpose it is simply that the push towards negative interest-rates will be added to. Or more specifically it will increasingly spread to higher risk assets. We can be sure however that should some of these implode it will be nobody’s fault as it could not possibly have been predicted.

Meanwhile ordinary purchases around the world continue including in my home country as the Bank of England buys another £1.45 billion of UK bonds or Gilts.

Comment

There are other factors in play. The first is that we need to try to look beyond the present situation as we note this from The Market Ear.

the feedback loop…”the more governments borrow, the less it seems to cost – giving rise to calls for still more borrowing and spending”. ( Citibank)

That misses out the scale of all the central bank buying which has been enormous and gets even larger if we factor in expected purchases. The US Federal Reserve is buying US $80 billion per month of US Treasuries but with its announcement of average inflation targeting seems likely to buy many more

Also the same Market Ear piece notes this.

The scalability of modern technology means that stimulus is going into asset price inflation, not CPI

Just no. What it means is that consumer inflation measures have been manipulated to avoid showing inflation in certain areas. Thus via Goodhart’s Law and/or the Lucas Critique we get economic policy based on boosting prices in these areas and claiming they are Wealth Effects when for many they are inflation.

We get another shift because if we introduce the issue of capital we see that up to know bond holders will not care much about negative yields as they have been having quite a party. Prices have soared beyond many’s wildest dreams. The rub as Shakespeare would put it is that going forwards we face existing high prices and low or negative yields. It used to be the job of central banks to take the punch bowl away when the party gets going but these days they pour more alcohol in the bowl.

Meanwhile from Friday.

UK SELLS 6-MONTH TREASURY BILL WITH NEGATIVE YIELD AT TENDER, FIRST TIME 6-MONTH BILL SOLD AT NEGATIVE YIELD ( @fiquant )

Podcast

 

 

 

 

How many central banks will end up buying equities?

Sometimes we can combine one of our themes with the news flow and today is an example of that. We can start with the role of central banks where what was considered extraordinary policy is now ordinary and frankly sometimes mundane. We have seen interest-rate cuts, then QE bond buying, then credit easing and of course negative interest-rates. Overnight even the home of the All Blacks has joined the latter party.

Some New Zealand wholesale rates fell below zero for the first time on Wednesday as investors increased bets on a negative policy rate. Two and three-year swap rates sank to minus 0.005%, as did the yield on the benchmark three-year bond. ( Bloomberg)

So we have negative bond yields somewhere else as the contagion spreads. Whilst it is only marginal the track record so far is that it will sing along with Madonna.

Deeper and deeper, and deeper, and deeper

Bloomberg thinks it is driven by this.

Most economists expect the RBNZ to cut its cash rate from 0.25% to minus 0.25% or minus 0.5% in April next year, and some see the chance of an earlier move.

However they seem to have missed the elephant in the room.

The Monetary Policy Committee agreed to expand the Large Scale Asset Purchase (LSAP) programme up to $100 billion so as to further lower retail interest rates in order to achieve its remit. The eligible assets remain the same and the Official Cash Rate (OCR) is being held at 0.25 percent in accordance with the guidance issued on 16 March. ( Reserve Bank of New Zealand 12 August)

So we are on the road to nowhere except according to Bloomberg it was a triumph in Sweden.

Negative rates were successful in Sweden because they achieved the aim of returning inflation to target without causing any significant distortions in the economy, said Lars Svensson, an economics professor in Stockholm and a former deputy governor at the Riksbank.

Only a few paragraphs later they contradict themselves.

Swedish mortgage rates dropped below 2%, causing house prices to surge to double-digit annual gains, but unemployment fell and the economy grew. Crucially, headline inflation rose steadily from minus 0.4% in mid-2015 to meet the central bank’s 2% target two years later. Inflation expectations also rose.

And again.

The Riksbank sent its policy rate into negative territory in early 2015, reaching a low of minus 0.5% before raising it back to zero late last year.

It worked so well they raised interest-rates in last year’s trade war and they have not deployed them in this pandemic in spite of GDP falling by 8%!

Oh and there is the issue of pensions.

In Sweden, the subzero-regime was advantageous for borrowers but brutal for the country’s pension industry, which struggled to generate the returns needed when bond yields turned negative.

So in summary we arrive at a situation where in fact even the Riksbank of Sweden has gone rogue on the subject of negative interest-rates. Going rogue as a central bank is very serious because they are by nature pack animals and the very idea of independent thought is simply terrifying to them.

Also the Riksbank of Sweden is well within the orbit of the supermassive black hole for negativity which is the European Central Bank or ECB. We learn much I think by the fact that in spite of economic activity being in a depression no-one is expecting an interest-rate cut from the present -0.5%. When we did have some expectations for that it was only to -0.6% so even the believers have lost the faith. This is an important point as whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has hit economies many were slowing anyway.

Policy Shifts

We are seeing central banks start to hint at ch-ch-changes.

Purchases of foreign assets also remain an option.

The Governor of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey has also been on the case and the emphasis is mine.

But one conclusion is that it could be preferable, and consistent with setting monetary conditions
consistent with the inflation target, to seek to ensure there is sufficient headroom for more potent expansion
in central bank balance sheets when needed in the future – to “go big” and “go fast” decisively.

He then went further.

That begs questions about when does the need for headroom become an issue? What are the limits? One
way of looking at these questions is in terms of the stock of assets available for purchase.

He refers to UK Gilts ( bonds) but he is plainly hinting at wider purchases.

Swiss National Bank

This has become something of a hedge fund via its overseas equity purchases. For newer readers this all started with a surge in the Swiss Franc mostly driven by the impact of the unwinding of the “Carry Trade” where investors had borrowed Swiss Francs. The SNB promised “unlimited intervention” before retreating and now as of the end of June had 863.3 billion Swiss Francs of foreign currency assets. It did not want to hold foreign currency on its own so it bought bonds. But it ended up distorting bond markets especially some Euro area ones so it looked for something else to buy. It settled on putting some 20% of its assets in equities.

Much of that went to the US so we see this being reported.

Swiss National Bank is one of the leading tech investors in the world. 28% of SNB’s Equity portfolio is allocated to tech stocks. Swiss CenBank has 17.4mln Apple shares worth $6.3bn or 538k Tesla shares worth $630mln. ( @Schuldenshelder )

So this is a complex journey on which we now note an issue with so-called passive investing. The SNB buys relative to market position but that means if shares have surges you have more of them each time you rebalance. So far with Apple that has been a large success as it has surged above US $2 trillion in market capitalisation as the recent tech falls are minor in comparison.But the 20% fall in Tesla yesterday maybe a sign of problems with this sort of plan. It of course has surged previously but it seems to lack any real business model.

The Tokyo Whale

The Bank of Japan bought another 80.1 billion Yen of Japanese equities earlier today as it made its second such purchase so far this month. As of the end of last month the total was 33,993,587,890,000 Yen. Hence its nickname of The Tokyo Whale.

Quite what good this does ( apart from providing a profit for equity investors) is a moot point? After all the Japanese economy was shrinking again pre pandemic and there was no sign of an end to the lost decades.

Comment

We find ourselves in familiar territory as central bankers proclaim the success of their polices but are always expanding them. If they worked it would not be necessary would it? For example the US Federal Reserve moving to average inflation targeting would not be necessary if all the things they previously told us would work, had. I expect the power grab and central planning to continue as they move further into fiscal policy via the sort of subsidies for banks provided by having a separate interest-rate for banks ( The Precious! The Precious!) like the -1% provided by the ECB. Another version of this sort of thing is to buy equities as they can create money and use it to support the market.

The catch of this is that they support a particular group be it banks or holders of assets. So not only does the promised economic growth always seem to be just around the corner they favour one group ( the rich) over another ( the poor). They have got away with it partly by excluding asset prices from inflation measures, but also partly because people do not fully understand what is taking place. But the direction of travel is easy because as I explained earlier central bankers are pack animals and herd like sheep. They will be along…..

Wages growth looks an increasing problem

Today gives us an opportunity to take a look at an issue which has dogged the credit crunch era. It is the (lack of) growth in wages and in particular real wages which has meant that even before the Covid-19 pandemic they had not regained the previous peak. That is one of the definitions of an economic depression which may well be taking a further turn for the worse. It has been a feature also of the lost decade(s) in Japan so we have another Turning Japanese flavour to this.

Japan

The Ministry of Labor released the July data earlier and here is how NHK News reported it.

New figures from the Japanese government show that both wages and household spending fell in July from a year earlier amid a resurgence in the coronavirus pandemic.

Labor ministry data show that average total wages were down 1.3 percent in yen terms from a year ago, to 3,480 dollars. It was the fourth straight monthly drop.

Overtime and other non-regular pay dropped nearly 17 percent, as workers put in shorter hours.

A ministry official says that despite some improvements, the situation remains serious because of the pandemic.

I find it curious that NHK switches from Yen to US Dollars but I suppose it has not been that volatile in broad terns in recent times. That is awkward for the Abenomics policy of Prime Minister Abe which of course may be on the way out. It was supposed to produce a falling Yen. Also it was supposed to produce higher wages which as you can see are falling.

The issue here is summarised by Japan Macro Advisers.

Wages in Japan have been decreasing relatively steadily since 1998. Between 1997-2019, wages have declined by 10.9%, or by 0.5% per year on average (based on the data before the revision).

The Abenomics push was another disappointment as summarised by this from The Japan Times in May 2019.

Japan’s labor market has achieved full employment over the past two years. Unemployment has declined over the past two years to below 3 percent—close to the levels of the 1980s and early 1990s—after peaking at 5.4 percent in 2012…………..The puzzling thing is why wage growth has been so sluggish despite the apparent labor shortage. It is true that average wages turned positive in 2014 and increased 1.4 percent in 2018. Nonetheless, regular pay, or permanent income, rose a paltry 0.8 percent in 2018. In real terms, average wage growth has failed to take off and recorded just 0.2 percent in 2018.

That is in fact a rather optimistic view of it all because if we switch to real wages we see that the index set at 100 in 2015 was 99.9 last year. So rather than the triumph which many financial news services have regularly anticipated it has turned out to be something of a road to nowhere. Any believers in “output gap” theories have to ignore the real world one more time.

The Japanese owned Financial Times has put its own spin on it.

“Buy my Abenomics!” urged Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2013. And we did.

No we did not. Anyway their story of triumph which unsurprisingly has quite a list of failures also notes this about wages.

Nor was this the only way Abenomics undermined its own credibility. For example, the government never raised public sector wages in line with the 2 per cent inflation target. Why, then, should the private sector have heeded Mr Abe’s demand for wage increases?

If only places like the FT had reported that along the way. But the real issue here for our purposes is that even in what were supposed to be good times real wages went nowhere. So now we are in much rougher times we see a year where they fall and we note that this adds to a fall last year. Indeed partly by fluke the fall for July is very similar to last year, but we look ahead nervously because if wages had already turned down we seem set for falls again.

Detail

In terms of numbers average pay was 369.551 Yen in July and a fair bit or 106.608 Yen is bonuses ( special cash earnings). The highest paid is the professional and technical one at 542,571 and the lowest is hotels and restaurants at 124,707 Yen. Sadly for the latter not only do they get relatively little it is also falling ( 7.3%)

Somewhat chilling is that not only is the real estare sector well paid at 481.373 Yen it is up 12.3% driven by bonuses some 30% higher. So maybe they are turning British. Also any improvement in the numbers relies on real estate bonuses.

The UK

The latest real wage numbers pose a question.

For June 2020, average regular pay, before tax and other deductions, for employees in Great Britain was estimated at £504 per week in nominal terms. The figure in real terms (constant 2015 prices) fell to £465 per week in June, after reaching £473 per week in December 2019, with pay in real terms back at the same level as it was in December 2018.

The real pay number started this century at £403 per week but the pattern is revealing as we made £473 per week on occasion in 2007 and 2008. So we were doing well and that ended.

Actually if we switch from the Office for National Statistics presentation we have lost ground since 2008. This is because the have flattered the numbers in two respects. One if the choice of regular pay rather than total pay and the other is the choice of the imputed rent driven CPIH inflation measure that is so widely ignored.

The US

There was something of a curiosity here on Friday.

In August, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 11
cents to $29.47. Average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory
employees increased by 18 cents to $24.81, following a decrease of 10 cents in the prior month.

If you do not believe tat then you are in good company as neither does the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The large employment fluctuations over the past several months–especially in industries with
lower-paid workers–complicate the analysis of recent trends in average hourly earnings.

If we look back this from the World Economic Forum speaks for itself.

today’s wages in the United States are at a historically high level with average hourly earnings in March 2019 amounting to $23.24 in 2019 dollars. Coincidentally that matches the longtime peak of March 1974, when hourly wages adjusted to 2019 dollars amounted to exactly the same sum.

Comment

There has been an issue with real wages for a while as the US, UK and Japanese data illustrate.The US data aims right at the end of the Gold Standard and Bretton Woods doesn’t it? That begs more than a few questions. But with economies lurching lower as we see Japanese GDP growth being confirmed at around 8% in the second quarter and the Euro area at around 12%. Also forecasts of pick-ups are colliding with new Covid-19 issues such as travel bans and quarantines. So real wages look set to decline again.

The next issue is how we measure this? The numbers have been shown to be flawed as they do not provide context. What I mean by this is that we need numbers for if you stay in the same job and ones for those switching. If we look at the US we see recorded wage growth because those already having the disadvantage of lower wages not have none at all as they have lost their job. That is worse and not better. This opens out a wider issue where switches to lower paid jobs and lower real wages are like a double-edged sword. People have a job giving us pre pandemic low unemployment rates and high employment rates. But I would want a breakdown as many have done well but new entrants have not.

There has been a contrary move which has not been well measured which are services in the modern era which get heavy use but do not get counted in this because they are free. Some money may get picked up by advertising spend but to add to the problem we have we are also guilty of measuring it badly

Meet the new Inflation era same as the old inflation era….

Yesterday brought news about inflation targeting but before we get to what you might think is the headline act, it has been trumped by Prime Minister Abe of Japan. Before I get to that let me wish him well with his health issues. But he also said this in his resignation speech.

JAPAN PM ABE ON ECONOMIC POLICY: WE HAVE SUCCEEDED IN BOOSTING JOBS, ENDING 20 YEARS OF DEFLATION WITH THREE ARROWS OF ABENOMICS. ( @FinancialJuice)

You might think that this is almost at a comical Ali level of denial at this point. For those unaware this was the Iraqi information minister who denied Amercan soldiers were in Baghdad when well I think you have figured the rest. Even the BBC is providing an opposite view to that of Abe san.

The Japanese economy has shrunk at its fastest rate on record as it battles the coronavirus pandemic.

The world’s third largest economy saw gross domestic product fall 7.8% in April-June from the previous quarter, or 27.8% on an annualised basis.

Japan was already struggling with low economic growth before the crisis.

The current situation is bad enough but even if we give him a pass on that there is that rather damning last sentence. Let me give you some context on that. You could argue the 0.6% contraction in the Japanese economy was also Covid related but you cannot argue that the 1.8% contraction at the end of last year was. Indeed the quarter before that was 0%.

So Japan had not escaped deflation and in fact the problems at the end of last year were created by an Abenomics arrow missing the target. People forget now but the economic growth that Abenomics was supposedly going to create was badged as a cure for the chronic fiscal problem faced by Japan. In fact the lack of growth and hence revenue was a factor in the Consumption Tax being raised to 10%. Which of course gave growth another knock.

Inflation

Another arrow was supposed to lead to inflation magically rising to 2% per annum. How is that going? From the Statistics Bureau this morning.

 The consumer price index for Ku-area of Tokyo in August 2020 (preliminary) was 102.1 (2015=100), up 0.3% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and down 0.4% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

So it has taken five years and not one to hit 2%. For newer readers that was also the pre pandemic picture in Japan and it has mostly been possible to argue that there is effectively no inflation because the low levels are within any margin for error.

Also as a point of detail there is even more bad news for inflationistas which is that something which they clain cannot happen with zero inflation has. If you look in the detail food prices have risen by 7% and the cost of education has fallen by 7%, so you can have relative price changes. Looking at the national numbers it has been a rough run for fans of Salmon and carrots as prices have risen by more than 50% over the past 5 years.

The US Federal Reserve

The speech by Chair Powell opened with what may turn out to be an unfortunate historical reference.

Forty years ago, the biggest problem our economy faced was high and rising inflation. The Great Inflation demanded a clear focus on restoring the credibility of the FOMC’s commitment to price stability.

It is hard to know where to start with this bit.

Many find it counterintuitive that the Fed would want to push up inflation. After all, low and stable inflation is essential for a well-functioning economy. And we are certainly mindful that higher prices for essential items, such as food, gasoline, and shelter, add to the burdens faced by many families, especially those struggling with lost jobs and incomes.

I will simply point out that I am pleased to see a recognition that what are usually described by central bankers as “non-core” such as food and energy are suddenly essential. Perhaps the threats ( from The Donald) about him losing his job have focused his mind, although he would remain an extremely wealthy man.

He then got himself into quite a mess.

 Our statement emphasizes that our actions to achieve both sides of our dual mandate will be most effective if longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored at 2 percent. However, if inflation runs below 2 percent following economic downturns but never moves above 2 percent even when the economy is strong, then, over time, inflation will average less than 2 percent. Households and businesses will come to expect this result, meaning that inflation expectations would tend to move below our inflation goal and pull realized inflation down.

This really does come from the highest of Ivory Towers where the air is thinnest. Many households and businesses will not even know who he and his colleagues are! Let alone plan ahead on the basis of what they might do especially after the flip-flopping of the last couple of years. Even worse the 2% per annum target which was pretty much pulled out of thin air has become a Holy Grail.

This next bit was frankly not a little embarrassing.

In seeking to achieve inflation that averages 2 percent over time, we are not tying ourselves to a particular mathematical formula that defines the average. Thus, our approach could be viewed as a flexible form of average inflation targeting.

So it is an average but without the average bit?

Canada

This week the Bank of Canada inadvertently highlighted a major problem. It starts with this.

Deputy Governor Lawrence Schembri discusses the difference between how Canadians perceive inflation and the actual measured rate.

You see we are back to you ( and I mean us by this) do not know what you are paying and we ( central bankers know better). Except it all went wrong in a predictable area.

Over the last two decades, the price of houses has risen on average more than twice as fast as the price of housing, at a rate of 6 percent versus 2.5 percent.

There is the issue in a nutshell. Your average Canadian has to shell out an extra 6% each year for a house but according to Lawrence and his calculations it is only 2.5%. Someone should give him a pot of money based on his calculations and tell him to go and buy one.

The Euro area

We looked at variations in the price of Nutella recently well according to The Economist there are other issues.

 Three enormous boxes of Pampers come to €168 ($198) on Amazon’s Spanish website. By contrast, the same order from Amazon’s British website costs only €74. (Even after an exorbitant delivery fee is added, the saving is still €42.)

This happens even inside the Euro area.

The swankiest Nespresso model will set them back €460 on Amazon’s French website, but can be snapped up for €301 on the German version. They could then boast about their canny shopping on Samsung’s newest phone, which varies in price by up to €300 depending on which domain is used.

I point this out because official inflation measurement relies on “substitution” where if the price rises you switch to something similar which is cheaper. But if people do not do this for the same thing inn the real world we are back in our Ivory Towers again.

Comment

Firstly we can award ourselves a small slap on the back as we were expecting this. From the movements in the Gold price ( down) and bond yields (up) far from everybody was. If we note the latter there are two serious problems for Chair Powell. The first is that if there is a body of people on this earth who follow his every word it is bond traders and they were to some extent off the pace. Thus all exposition about expectations above is exposed as this.

Every man has a place, in his heart there’s a space,
And the world can’t erase his fantasies
Take a ride in the sky, on our ship fantasii
All your dreams will come true, right away ( Earth,Wind & Fire )

Next is that if you take the policy at face value bond yields should have risen by far more than the 0.1% the long bond did. They did not rise by the 0.5% to 1% you might expect for two possible reasons.

  1. Nobody expected the Fed to raise interest-rates for years anyway so what is the difference?
  2. If there is a policy change it is mostly likely to be more QE treasury bond purchases which will depress bond yields.

So back to the expectations we see that the Fed is responding to expectations it has created. What could go wrong? Putting it another way it is living a combination of Goodhart’s Law and the Lucas Critique.

I brought in the Japanese experience because it has made an extraordinary effort in monetary policy terms but the economy was shrinking before Covid-19 and there was essentially no inflation.

However the stock market ( Nikkei 225) has nearly trebled since Abenomics was seen as likely. Oh and the Bank of Japan has essentially financed the government borrowing.

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