The Bank of Japan reminds us it is all about the banks

It is time for another part of our discovering Japan theme as we travel to Nagoya, where Governor Kuroda of the Bank of Japan was talking earlier today. Let us open with some good news.

The real GDP has been on an increasing trend, albeit with fluctuations, and the output gap — which shows the utilization of capital and labor — widened within positive territory from late 2016, for seven consecutive quarters through the April-June quarter of 2018 . Under such circumstances, the duration of the current
economic recovery phase, which began in December 2012, is likely to have reached 69 consecutive months this August. If this recovery continues, its duration in January next year will exceed the longest post-war recovery phase of 73 months.

So reasons to be cheerful part one, and below we get part two, but as you can see part three is a disappointment.

In the Outlook Report released last week, the real GDP growth rate for fiscal 2018 is projected to be 1.4 percent, and this is clearly above Japan’s potential growth rate, which is estimated to be in the range of 0.5-1.0 percent. As for fiscal 2019 and 2020, the real GDP growth rates are both projected to be 0.8 percent.

Economics gets called the dismal science but at the moment central bankers are trying to under perform that with the UK having a growth “speed limit” of 1.5% and the ECB saying something similar. The Bank of Japan is even more downbeat which is partly related to the demographics of both an ageing and declining population. This is partly because the previous foundation of their Ivory Towers called the output gap has failed so badly in the credit crunch era but the more eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted a reference to it above. How is that going?

The Output Gap

It is “boom,boom,boom” according to the Black-Eyed Peas and the emphasis is mine.

In the labor market, the active job openings-to-applicants ratio has been at a high level that exceeds the peak of the bubble period, and the unemployment rate has declined to around 2.5 percent. The number of employees has registered a year-on-year rate of increase of around 2 percent, and total cash earnings per employee have risen moderately but steadily.

As you can see the Japanese output gap is already struggling as we are apparently beyond bubbilicious in terms of demand but wage growth is only moderate. What about inflation?

The year-on-year rate of change in the consumer price index (CPI) has continued to show relatively weak developments compared to the economic expansion and the labor market tightening, and that excluding fresh food
and energy prices has been at around 0.5 percent.

In fact after deploying so much effort Governor Kuroda abandons his favourite measure for a higher one.

The year-on-year rate of increase in the CPI (all items less fresh food) has continued to accelerate, albeit with fluctuations. Although there is still a long way to go to achieve the price stability target of 2 percent, the year-on-year rate of change recently has risen to around 1 percent, which is about half the target .

Actually the state of play here is as  strong of a critique of the original claims about QE as we have as according to the central bankers it would raise inflation. Whilst it has created asset price inflation there has been a lack of consumer inflation except in places where currencies have fallen, and in Japan not even much of that. Indeed whilst I would welcome the development below Governor Kuroda will be crying into his glass of sake.

What lies behind this likely is that people’s tolerance of price rises has decreased.

 

Monetary Policy

We have found something which has given the Bank of Japan food for thought. Output gap failure? Rigging so many markets? Impact on individual Japanese? Of course not! It is worries about the banks.

The Bank fully recognizes that, by continuing such monetary easing, financial institutions’
strength will be cumulatively affected by low profitability, mainly through a decrease in
their lending margins, and that it could have an impact on financial system stability as well
as the functioning of financial intermediation.

This is a little mind-boggling as we note that policies which were instituted to help the banks are now being described as hurting them. This is because the banks did not have to change and pretty much carried on as before knowing that they are too big to be allowed to fail. Also I though central banks and regulators were on the case these days but apparently not.

That is, if financial institutions become more active in risk taking to secure profits amid the low interest rate environment and severe competition continuing, the financial system could destabilize should large negative shocks actually occur in the future.

This if we think about it is quite a confession of failure. We have already looked at how economic policy has been directed to suit the banks and in Japan’ case that has continued for nearly thirty years now. Next we seem to have a loss of faith in the new regulations which were supposed to fix this. Finally we have something of a confession that it could all happen again!

If we looked wider we do see some context for example in the way that the European bank stress tests were widely ignored over the weekend. I think that those interested have already voted via bank share prices in 2018, but we do see something rather familiar via @jeuasommenulle.

While everybody is having fun bashing EU banks and pointing out that market volatility on Italian govies will hurt bank capital… the US quietly removes rules that make market volatility impact capital in the 1st place 🤪

Yep back to mark to model rather than mark to market. Just like last time in fact, what could go wrong?

You and I get told what to do but the banks get a different message.

encourage them to take concrete actions as necessary.

The Tokyo Whale

The Bank of Japan has been living up to its reputation and moniker.

The Bank of Japan bought a monthly record of 870 billion yen ($7.68 billion) in exchange-traded funds in October, apparently aiming to support equities as investors turned bearish amid sell-offs in U.S. shares. ( Nikkei Asian Review)

Back on the 23rd of October I pointed about I was bemused by the Japanese owned Financial Times report on a “stealth taper”.

The central bank has become more flexible on its annual ETF purchase quota of around 6 trillion yen — a mark it will likely exceed by year-end at the current pace. ( NAR)

Another Japanese style development comes from this.

 But its large-scale purchases under Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda’s massive monetary easing program were criticized for propping up share prices for a limited range of companies and distorting the market.

To which the classically Japanese response is of course to rig even more of them.

This prompted the BOJ to decide this July to spread out buying more widely.

 

Comment

The comments about an interest-rate hike from Japan are mostly driven by this from today’s speech.

Japan’s economic activity and prices are no longer in a situation where decisively implementing a large-scale policy to overcome deflation was judged as the most appropriate policy conduct, as was the case before.

The problem with such rhetoric comes from the section about as we note that Bank of Japan bought a record amount of equities via ETFs in October. Also this summer it give a specific pronouncement on this subject which was repeated today.

Specifically, the Bank publicly made clear to “maintain the current extremely low levels of short- and long-term interest rates for an extended period of time, taking into account uncertainties regarding economic activity and prices including the effects of the consumption tax hike scheduled to take place in October 2019.”

Indeed he even hints at my “To Infinity! And Beyond!” theme.

it has become necessary to persistently continue with powerful monetary easing while considering both the positive effects and side effects if monetary policy in a balanced manner.

So they will continue the side effects but carry on regardless unless of course the side effects become an even bigger problem for the banks. The status quo continues to play out.

Whatever you want
Whatever you like
Whatever you say
You pay your money
You take your choice
Whatever you need
Whatever you use
Whatever you win
Whatever you lose.

Podcasts

I plan to begin a new series of weekly podcasts this Friday.If anyone has any thoughts or suggestions please let me know.

 

 

 

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How much difference has the central planning of the Bank of Japan really made?

Sometimes it is hard not to have a wry smile at market developments and how they play out. For example the way that equity markets have returned to falling again has been blamed on the Italian bond market which has rallied since Friday. But this morning has brought a reminder that even central banks have bad days as we note that the Nikkei 225 equity index in Japan has fallen 2.7% or 609 points today. This means that the Bank of Japan will have been busy as it concentrates its buying of equity Exchange Traded Funds or ETFs on down days and if you don’t buy on a day like this when will you? This means it is all very different from the end of September when the Wall Street Journal reported this.

The Nikkei 225 hit 24286.10, the highest intraday level since November 1991—as Japan’s epic 1980s boom was unraveling and giving way to decades of economic stagnation and flat or falling prices. It closed up 1.4% at 24120.04, a fresh eight-month high. The index has more than doubled since Shinzo Abe became prime minister in late 2012, pushing a program of corporate overhaul, economic revitalization, and super-easy monetary policy.

If you are questioning the “corporate overhaul” and “economic revitalization” well so am I. However missing from the WSJ was the role of the Bank of Japan in this as it has reminded us this morning as its balance sheet shows some 21,795,753,836,000 Yen worth of equity ETF holdings. Actually that is not its full holding as there are others tucked away elsewhere. But even the Japanese owned Financial Times thinks this is a problem for corporate overhaul rather than pursuing it.

According to one brokerage calculation, the BoJ has become a top-10 shareholder in about 70 per cent of shares in the Tokyo Stock Exchange first section. Because it does not vote on those shares, nor insists that ETF fund managers do so on its behalf, proponents of better corporate governance see the scheme as diluting shareholder pressure on companies.

Intriguingly the Financial Times article was about the Bank of Japan doing a stealth taper of these purchases but rather oddly pointed out it had in fact over purchased them.Oh Well!

In early July, for example, analysts noted that over the first 124 trading days of the 245-day trading year, the BoJ had bought ETFs that annualised at a pace of ¥7tn — or ¥1tn ahead of target.

That seems to explain a reduction in purchases quite easily. Anyway, moving back to the Bank of Japan’s obsession with manipulating markets goes on as you can see from this earlier.

BoJ Gov Kuroda: Told Japan Gvt Panel He Will Continue TO Monitor Market Moves – RTRS Citing Gvt Official   ( @LiveSquawk )

It was especially revealing that he was discussing the currency which is not far off where it was a year ago. Mind you I guess that is the problem! It is also true that the Yen tends to strengthen in what are called “risk-off” phases as markets adjust in case Japan repatriates any of its large amount of investments placed abroad.

Putting it another way to could say that the Japanese state has built up a large national debt which could be financed by the large foreign currency investments of its private-sector.

Monetary Base

This has been what the Bank of Japan has been expanding in the Abenomics era and it is best expressed I think with the latest number.

504.580.000.000.000 Yen

Inflation

All the buying above was supposed to create consumer inflation which was supposed to reflate the economy and bring the Abenomics miracle. Except it got rather stuck at the create consumer inflation bit. Just for clarity I do not mean asset price inflation of which both Japanese bonds and equities have seen plenty of and has boosted the same corporate Japan that we keep being told this is not for. But in a broad sweep Japan has in fact seen no consumer inflation. If we look at the annual changes beginning in 2011 we see -0.3%,0%,0.4%,2.7%,0.8%,-0.1% and 0.5% in 2017. For those of you thinking I have got you Shaun about 2014 that was the raising of the Consumption Tax which is an issue for consumers in Japan but was not driven by the monetary policy.

In terms of the international comparisons presented by Japan Statistics it is noticeable how much lower inflation has been over this period than in Korea and China or its peers. In fact the country it looks nearest too is Italy which reminds us that there are more similarities between the two countries economies than you might think with the big difference being Italy’s population growth meaning that the performance per capita or per head is therefore very different to Japan.

Bringing it up to date whilst we observe most countries for better or worse ( mostly worse in my opinion) achieving their inflation target Japan is at 1.2% so still below. Considering how much energy it imports and adding the rise in the oil price we have seen that is quite remarkable, but also an Abenomics failure.

The Bank of Japan loves to torture the data and today has published its latest research on inflation without food, without food and energy, Trimmed mean, weighted median, mode and a diffusion index. These essentially tell us that food prices ebb and flow and that the inflation rate of ~0% is er ~0% however you try to spin it.

Trade

Here Japan looks as though it is doing well. According to research released earlier Japan saw real exports rise by 2.5% in 2016 and by 6.4% in 2017 although more recently there has been a dip. A big driver has been exports to China which rose by 14.1% last year and intriguingly there was a warning about the emerging economies as exports to there had struggled overall and have now turned lower quite sharply.

Comment

As you can see from the numbers above the Bank of Japan has taken central planning to new heights. Even it has to admit that such a policy has side-effects.

Risk-taking in Japan’s financial sector hit a near three-decade high in the April-September, a central bank gauge showed, in a sign years of ultra-easy monetary policy may be overheating some parts of the industry…………The index measuring excess risk-taking showed such financial activity was at its highest level since 1990, when Japan experienced the burst of an asset-inflated bubble.

One of the extraordinary consequences of all this is that in many ways Japanese economic life has continued pretty much as before. The population ages and shrinks and the per head performance is better than the aggregate one. If things go wrong the Japanese via their concept of face simply ignore the issue and carry on as the World Economic Forum has inadvertently shown us today.

What a flooded Japanese airport tells us about rising sea levels

You see Kansai airport in Osaka was supposed to be a triumph of Japan’s ability to build an airport in the sea. To some extent this defied the reality that it is both a typhoon and an earthquake zone. But even worse due to a problem with the surveys the airport began to sink of its own accord, and by much more than expected/hoped. I recall worries that it might be insoluble as giving it a bigger base would add to the weight meaning it would then sink faster! Also some were calculating how much each Jumbo Jet landing would make it sink further. So in some respects it is good news that they have fudged their way such that it still exists at all.

Here is another feature of Japanese life from a foreign or gaijin journalist writing in The Japan Times.

If you’re a conspicuous non-Japanese living here who rides the trains or buses, or goes to cafes or anywhere in public where Japanese people have the choice of sitting beside you or sitting elsewhere, then you’ve likely experienced the empty-seat phenomenon with varying frequency and intensity.

Just as a reminder Japanese public travel is very crowded and commutes of more than 2 hours are more frequent than you might think. How often has someone sat next to him?

It’s such a rare occurrence (as in this is the second, maybe third time in 15 years) that my mind started trying to solve the puzzle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will real wage growth ever go back to “normal”?

A constant theme of the credit crunch era is the unwillingness of the establishment to accept that past economic theories need to be put as a minimum on the back burner. Two examples of that are the concepts of full employment and the related one of the output gap. If we start with the former that does not mean that everyone is employed as the “man from Mars” from Blondie’s song rapture might think. It involves allowing for what is not entirely pleasantly called frictional unemployment, for example of individuals temporarily between jobs. There is an obvious problem with measuring that but as we discover so often the Ivory Towers are seldom troubled by issues like that.

The output gap was something of a simple concept around comparing actual output with potential. However supporters were invariably in the group who argued there was a large amount of lost output from the credit crunch and this end gamed themselves as we are still well below that and may always be. The Bank of England Ivory Tower dropped that and instead kept telling us we had an output gap of circa 1.25% of GDP. In the end they decided to drop as it was always 1.25% or so and switched to employment as a measure. Why? Well in the UK like more than a few other places it boomed so they could shoehorn their theory into a different version of reality. Sadly for them they have made fools of themselves as their estimates began at 7% unemployment went very quickly to 6,5% and are now at 4.25%. Or if you prefer silly,sillier and so far at least silliest.

Reality

The problem for all of the above has been shown in Nihon or the land of the rising sun. There the unemployment rate has fallen as low as 2.2% this year and in August was 2.4% How can it be half the natural/full rate? Please address that question to Threadneedle Street. Whilst there are suspicions about the accuracy of unemployment rates there are also other signals of what in the past would have been called an overheating jobs market. From the Japan Times last week.

The percentage of working-age women with jobs in Japan reached a record high of 70 percent in August, government data showed Friday………The figure for women in work between ages 15 and 64 is at the highest level since comparable data became available in 1968 and compares with 83.9 percent for working-age men,

Other measures such as the job offers to applicant ratio going comfortably above 2 signal a very strong labour market and yet this morning we have seen this. From Reuters.

 Japanese workers’ inflation-adjusted real wages fell in August for the first time in four months……..The 0.6 percent decline in real wages in August from a year earlier followed a revised 0.5 percent annual increase in July, labor ministry data showed on Friday.

This is a rather awkward reality for those who have trumpeted a change in Japan in line with the two economic theories described above, and I note a lack of mentions on social media. If we look into the detail we see this.

Nominal cash earnings rose 0.9 percent year-on-year in August, slower than a revised 1.6 percent annual increase in July.

The average level of monthly earnings is 276,266 Yen or a bit under £1900. The highest paid industry was the utility sector at 438,025 Yen and the worst-paid was the hotel and restaurant sector at 123,405 Yen. The fall can be looked at  from two perspectives of which the first is a fall in bonuses of 7.4% and the next is that the numbers were pulled down by falls in the care sector (3.8%) and education (3.6%).

As to the surge ( real wages rose at an annual rate of 2.5% in June) it was as we believed.

Major Japanese firms typically pay bonuses twice a year, once during the summer and once near year’s end…….Summer bonuses boosted real wages in June.

This morning has also brought a confirmation of why this is good.

Japanese households increased their spending at the fastest rate in three years in August as consumers made more costly purchases, government data showed Friday.

Spending by households with two or more people rose 2.8 percent from a year earlier, after adjusting for inflation, to ¥292,481, the largest increase since August 2015, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said. ( Japan Times)

But that will now rend to fade away after the welcome bonuses are spent. Sadly the output gap style theories are unlikely to fade away as reality is always “Tis but a scratch” along the lines of the Black Knight in Monty Python.

The UK

In the UK we keep being told that wage growth is just around the corner. From the REC this morning.

Starting salaries for people placed into permanent
jobs increased at the quickest pace since April 2015
during September. Hourly rates of pay for temp staff
also rose at a faster pace than in the preceding
month.

The strongest area was this.

IT & Computing remained the most in-demand
category for permanent staff in September.

Perhaps it is the banks finally waking up to the all the online outages and problems. But the problem is that a sustained rise keeps being just around the corner. In its desperation to justify its theories the Bank of England switched to private-sector regular pay in its attempt to find any reality fitting the work of its Ivory Tower. But if you pick a sub-section it has to eventually fire up the overall numbers to be significant and the picture there is that total wage growth has surged from 2.8% in January to 2.6% in July. Oh hang on…..

Or real wage growth is somewhere around 0% on the official inflation measures or negative on the “discredited” RPI which gives a higher reading.

The US

Today brings the labour market data for September but until then we are left with this.

In August, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 10 cents to $27.16. Over the year, average hourly earnings have increased by 77
cents, or 2.9 percent.

August was a good month but if we switch to the annual rate but we see that even in an economy that according to the GDP nowcasts is keeping up its 4% per annum growth rate wages are struggling to break 3%. The US economy has recovered better than most and is doing well now and yet wage growth has not followed much. Real wage growth is as you can see minimal.

Over the last 12 months, the all items
index rose 2.7 percent before seasonal adjustment.

According to the Financial Post it is a case of O Canada as well.

Over the three years he’s been in power, real wages have averaged annual gains of just 0.3 per cent, versus 1 per cent the previous decade.

Comment

A feature of the credit crunch era continues to be the attempt to ignore the more uncomfortable aspects of reality. There is welcome news in the way that employment levels recovered but the price of that seems to have been weak wage growth and especially real wage growth. This afternoon that number from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics will be poured over again for that reason. The big picture though comes from David Bowie.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes
Where’s your shame?
You’ve left us up to our necks in it

 

The Dollar shortage of 2018 and maybe 19

Today we return to a topic which has been regularly in the headlines in 2018. We started the year with the US administration that looking like it was talking the US Dollar lower in line with its America First policy. Back on the 23rd of January we were mulling this.

“Obviously a weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities,” Mnuchin told reporters in Davos. The currency’s short term value is “not a concern of ours at all,” he said.

However as the year has gone by we have found ourselves mulling what the US Treasury Secretary said next.

“Longer term, the strength of the dollar is a reflection of the strength of the U.S. economy and the fact that it is and will continue to be the primary currency in terms of the reserve currency,” he said.

If we look at matters from the perspective of the Euro then the 1.20 of the opening of 2018 was fairly quickly replaced by 1.25. But since then the US Dollar has rallied and has moved to 1.15. Some of that has been in the past few days as it has moved from 1.18 to 1.15. That recent pattern has been repeated across most currencies and at 114 the US Dollar us now up on the year against the Yen as well. The UK Pound has suffered this year from a combination of the Brexit process and the machinations of the unreliable boyfriend but it too has been falling recently against the US Dollar to below US $1.30 whilst holding station with other currencies.

Year end problems

The currency moves above are being at least partly driven by this from Reuters.

As the Fed raises interest rates and reduces its balance sheet, and the dollar and U.S. bond yields move up, overseas investors are finding it increasingly difficult and costly to access dollars. That much is obvious. What’s perhaps more surprising – and potentially worrying – is just how expensive and scarce those dollars are becoming.

So with US Dollar scarce it seems that some have been dipping their toes into the spot currency markets as a hedge. This is because other avenues have become more expensive.

Until this week the cross-currency basis market, one of the most closely-watched measures of broad dollar demand, liquidity and funding, had showed no sign of stress. Demand for offshore dollars was being met easily and at comfortable prices.But the basis widened sharply on Thursday, the day after the Fed raised rates for the eighth time this cycle and signalled it fully intends to carry on hiking. In euros, it was the biggest one-day widening since the Great Financial Crisis.

So last week there was a type of double whammy of which the first part came from the US Federal Reserve.

In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 2 to 2-1/4 percent.

So US official interest-rates have risen but something else has been happening.

Three-month dollar funding costs are currently running around 2.50 pct. Not high by historical standards and, on the face of it, surely manageable for most borrowers. But it is heading higher, and the availability of dollars is shrinking.

So as you can see a premium is being paid on official interest-rates. So we have higher interest-rates and a more expensive currency. We know that in spite of the official rhetoric that various countries are moving away from dollar use the trend has been the other way. From Reuters again.

All this at a time when the world’s reliance on the dollar has never been greater. Its dominance as the international funding currency has grown rapidly since the 2008 crisis, especially for emerging market borrowers.

Dollar credit to the non-bank sector outside the United States stood at 14 percent of global GDP at the end of March this year, up from 9.5 pct at the end of 2007, according to the Bank for International Settlements.

Dollar lending to non-bank emerging markets has more than doubled to around $3.7 trillion since the crisis and a similar amount has been borrowed through currency swaps.

Regular readers will recall that back on the 25th of September I took a look at the potential for a US Dollar shortage as we face a new era.

The question to my mind going forwards is will we see a reversal in the QT or Quantitative Tightening era? The supply of US Dollars is now being reduced by it and we wait to see what the consequences are.

Indian problems

The largest country in the sub-continent has been feeling the squeeze in several ways recently. One has been the move away from emerging market economies and currencies. Another has been the impact of the fact that India is a large oil importer and the price of crude oil has been rising making the problem worse. This morning’s move through US $86 for a barrel of Brent Crude Oil may fade away but over the past year we have seen a rise of around 53%. For the Indian Rupee this has been something of what might be called a perfect storm as it has found itself under pressure from different avenues at the same time. Back on the 16th of August I looked at the Indian crude oil dependency and since then the metric have got worse. The price of oil has risen further and partly in response to that the Rupee has weakened from 70 to the US Dollar which was a record low at the time to 74 today.

Accordingly I noted this earlier from Business Standard.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on Wednesday allowed oil-marketing companies (OMCs) to raise dollars directly from overseas markets without a need for hedging.

In a post-market notification, the RBI said the minimum maturity profile of the borrowings should be three years and five years, and the overall cap under the scheme would be $10 billion. The central bank relaxed criteria for this.

It gives us a guide to the scale of the Indian problem.

The oil-swap facility was much anticipated in the market, as that would have taken the pressure away from the market substantially. Annually, the dollar demand on oil count is $120 billion, or about $500 million, on a daily basis for every working day.

And the driving factor was a lack of US Dollar liquidity

The RBI announcements on liquidity are more focused towards providing relief to the NBFCs (non-banking financial companies) and banks, rather than cooling of the rupee in the FX markets,

Let us move on after noting that the Reserve Bank of India may have had a busy day.

Currency dealers say the RBI intervened lightly in the market.

Comment

Overnight we have seen news regarding a possible impact on the US treasury bond market which is for holders a source of US Dollars. From Janus Henderson US.

Euroland, Japanese previous buyers of 10yr Treasuries have been priced out of market due to changes in hedge costs.  For Insurance companies in Germany / Japan for instance, U.S. Treasuries yield only -.10% / -.01%. Lack of foreign buying at these levels likely leading to lower Treasury prices.

This has impacted the US treasury bond market overnight and prices have fallen and yields risen. The ten-year Treasury Note now yields 3.21% instead of 3.15%. That does not make Bill Gross right ( he was famously wrong about UK Gilts being on a bed of nitroglycerine ) as the line of least resistance for markets would be to mark them lower in price terms and see what happens. Try and panic some into selling.

As to the yield issue which may seem odd the problem is that the cost of currency hedging your position is such that you lose the yield. Thus relatively high yielding US Treasuries end up being similar to Japanese Government Bonds and German Bunds.

As ever when there are squeezes on it is not so much the overall position which is a danger but the flows. For example India’s pol problem is good news for oil exporters but if they are not recycling their dollars then there is an imbalance. I guess of the sort which is why this temporary feature became permanent.

In November 2011, the Federal Reserve announced that it had authorized temporary foreign-currency liquidity swap lines with the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, and the Swiss National Bank.

Me on Core Finance TV

 

What next from the war on cash?

This morning the BBC has posted an article on a subject I was mulling last Wednesday.  As I walked into an appointment for some treatment for my knee the person before me was paying for his appointment by using his phone and transferring the money directly. I by contrast had put some cash in my pocket so I could pay in that fashion. If we move on from me suddenly feeling rather stone age and he being much more cutting edge there was one work related issue on my mind. What does paying by phone do to the money supply? It reminds us that the money supply also includes the ability to borrow and whilst everyone obsesses about banks also reminds us that it can now come from other sources. Or perhaps I should correct that to their being more potential routes these days.

Paying by phone

Here is an example quoted by the BBC.

Nikki Hesford, 32, is a convert to person-to-person payment (P2P) apps, using PayPal to pay for services and Venmo to pay back friends.

“The only time in the last year I’ve drawn out cash is for the school fete cake stall and to pay my manicurist,” says Ms Hesford, who runs her own marketing support company for small businesses.

“If I go for a meal with friends I can’t be bothered messing about with two, three or four cards,” she says.

“One person will pay on a card and the others will transfer through an app. It takes seconds rather than minutes fussing around with who owes what.”

PayPal has been around for some time but the likes of Venmo seems a real change and I can see the attraction. Who has not been out to eat with a group and been in a situation where the money collected in is short but everyone claims to have paid? For all our thoughts that millennials and Generation Z have it tough they may have stolen a bit of a march on the rest of us here. Venmo will by its very nature record each transfer and provide a type of audit trail.

In terms of scale then the position is building.

Zelle, one of the most popular payment apps in the US backed by 150 banks, launched in June 2017, but has already processed more than 320 million transactions valued at $94bn (£72bn).

A recent report by Zion market research suggested that the global mobile-wallet market in general is expected to top $3bn by 2022, up from nearly $600m in 2016.

The argument in favour is that it is quick and convenient,

Rachna Ahlawat, co-founder of Ondot Systems, a payment services platform, perceives a marked change in consumer behaviour.

“We want transactions to happen in an instant and at the click of a button,” she says. “Consumers not only want to operate in real-time, but they are looking for technology that allows them to play a more active role in how they control their payments, and are finding new ways of managing their financial lives.”

Financial Crime

The official and establishment view is that cash is a curse and the high priest of such thoughts Kenneth Rogoff wants this.

Why not just get rid of paper currency?

His opening argument is that cash is a source of crime.

First, making it more difficult to engage in recurrent, large, and anonymous payments would likely have a significant
impact on discouraging tax evasion and crime; even a relatively modest impact could potentially justify getting rid of most paper currency.

Yet we discover that even the new white heat world of person to person payments has you guessed it found that the criminal fraternity are very inventive.

“Malware injections and reverse engineering attacks can be used by hackers to understand the app’s code and silently trick you, going undetected by the typical security measures.”  ( Pedro Fortuna from JScrambler )

The truth is that whatever financial area we move into we take the criminals with us and sometimes there are already there waiting for us to make a mistake.

“With the increasing number of apps all requiring some form of authentication, it’s all too tempting to reuse passwords across multiple services. This increases the risk of your data being hacked.”  ( Sam Devaney from CGI UK ).

The banks

There is a very inconvenient reality for the likes of Kenneth Rogoff which is that so much financial crime is to be found at the heart of the system “the precious”.

Banks in Denmark, the Netherlands, Latvia and Malta have all been linked to criminal inflows from countries including Russia and North Korea. The EU has moved to centralize banking supervision, but money laundering has remained a national responsibility.

At the moment the European Union seems to be the weakest link in this area although of course it is far from unique. As an example the situation at Danske bank was so bad it even found itself being trolled by Deutsche Bank which claimed it was only accepting one in ten of past Danske bank clients. According to the Wall Street Journal around US $150 billion of transactions are being investigated according to Reuters the bank itself is discovering large problems.

the Financial Times cited the bank’s own investigation as saying the Danish bank handled up to $30 billion of Russian and ex-Soviet money through non-resident accounts via its Estonian branch in 2013 alone.

The European Union seems to be particularly in the firing zone in this area right now and much of it seems centred in the Baltic nations. That reminds me that back on the 19th of February I looked at the issues facing ABLV in Latvia which developed into a situation where the central bank Governor Ilmārs Rimšēvičs has been charged with taking a bribe.

Whilst the European Union is presently in the firing line we know that banking scandals of this sort occur regularly in most places. Yet the establishment ignore the way that the banks are the major source of financial crime in their rush to implicate cash.

Some new notes

A sign that there is indeed counterfeiting happen was provided yesterday by the European Central Bank or ECB although it chose to present it another way.

New €100 and €200 banknotes unveiled!

Sadly the excitement captured only a couple of journalists attention but the press release did hint at “trouble,trouble,trouble.”

The new €100 and €200 banknotes make use of new and innovative security features.

I think we know why! But there was another sign.

In addition to the security features that can be seen with the naked eye, euro banknotes also contain machine-readable security features. On the new €100 and €200 banknotes these features have been enhanced, and new ones have been added to enable the notes to be processed and authenticated swiftly.

It makes me wonder how many counterfeit ones are in existence. This seems likely to get Kenneth Rogoff to add those note to the 500 Euro ones he wants banned.

Comment

This is a situation which has a paradox within it. We see that technology is providing plenty of ways which provide alternatives to cash and in spite of presenting myself as something of a cash luddite earlier I find them convenient too. Yet we want more cash in the UK the £40 billion mark was passed in 2008 and now we have according to the Bank of England.

There are over 3.6 billion Bank of England notes in circulation worth about 70 billion pounds.

We are far from alone as for example in 2017 the growth rate was 7% for the US and Canada and 4% for the Euro area and Japan. Yet the Bank of England confirms that the medium of exchange case has indeed weakened over time.

Cash accounted for 40% of all payments in 2016, compared to 62% in 2006

The Bank will have something of an itchy collar as it notes that the increased demand for cash will be as a store of value and the rise accompanies its era of QE and low interest-rates. Kenneth Rogoff is much more transparent though.

Although in principle, phasing out cash and invoking negative interest rates are topics that can be studied separately, in reality the two issues are deeply linked. To be precise, it is virtually impossible to think about drastically phasing out currency without recognizing that it opens a door to unrestricted negative rates that central
banks may someday be tempted to walk through.

As Turkish points out in the film Snatch “Who da thunk it?”

 

 

Has Abenomics in Japan found what it is looking for?

This morning has brought news from Nihon the land of the rising sun and no I do not mean that the summer has been especially hot this year peaking at above 40 degrees centigrade around Tokyo. I mean this from The Japan Times.

Separate data showed workers’ real wages rose 2.8 percent in June from a year earlier, accelerating from a 1.3 percent increase in May and marking the fastest pace of growth since January 1997.

We have been noting a change in the pattern and waiting for developments and the June numbers are good but come with a kicker. What I mean by this is that it is the month where around two thirds of the summer bonuses are paid so it is good for workers as the 2.8% is of a larger than normal amount as pay is 41% above average in the month. But the kicker is that the boost is mostly bonuses and therefore will fade.

Looking into the detail we see that nominal wage growth was 3.6% and was pulled higher by the manufacturing sector where the summer bonuses saw wage growth rise to 4.2%. It must have been party time in the wholesale and distribution sector as total wage growth rose at an annual rate of 10.7%. So there was an excellent bonus season as 3.6% growth replaced the 0.4% of this time last year.

What about base or regular pay?

This was by no means as good as contracted earnings rose at an annual rate of 1.5% and scheduled earnings at 1.3%. However these are better numbers than seen in 2017 or indeed in the Abenomics era. Just to give you the picture starting in 2014 annual growth has gone -0.1%, 0.2%,0.2% and 0.4% last year. When you consider that one of the Abenomics “arrows” was supposed to be higher wages that was quite a failure when you consider all the monetary easing.

Now the picture looks a little better as real wage rises have replaced falls albeit that they are small such that pressure is put on the accuracy of the data. They probably cannot take it but they are what we have.

Full employment

I get regularly asked what this concept is and if it is seen anywhere in practice Japan seems to be it. For example whilst the unemployment rate nudged higher to 2.4% in June it is extraordinarily low. The job applicant to vacancy ratio has been setting new highs at 2.47 according to Japan Macro Advisers. Thus economic theory would predict that wages would have been rising and frankly surging, after all the Bank of Japan estimated that the structural rate of unemployment was 3.5% as another Ivory Tower foundation bites the dust.

The blame game

At the end of last month the Bank of Japan published some new research on this issue. First we get something of a criticism of what is called Japan Inc.

Basically, the reason for this is that, under Japan’s
labor market structure, which is characterized by
different wage-setting mechanisms for regular and
non-regular employees, the increase in wages of
regular employees has been remarkably
sluggish.

This is pretty standard analysis world-wide of course except the degree of tightness of the labour market is exceptional in Japan. But the theme of employers being willing to do almost anything other than raising basic pay we have seen pretty much all over the world. However the next bit of research has more than a few implications.

With labor shortage intensifying recently, the pace
of increase in the labor force participation rate,
especially among women and seniors, is
accelerating.

Encouraging women to work has been a government objective and you can see the rise in older people working in two ways. One as a sign of good health in that they can but the second is not so positive as I have noted before some are forced to work because times are hard. A while back I noted the issue of retired women in Japan sometimes being very poor which is against its culture. Well if you throw all of these factors into the pot look what the Bank of Japan thinks you get.

In other words, among these groups,
there will be greater labor supply for the same rate
of increase in wages . As a result, as
labor demand increases (represented by a shift of
the labor demand curve to the right in the chart),
women and seniors will supply more labor, which
in turn suppresses wage increases.

So this has been a boost for Japan Inc which has increased its labour supply cheaply but not good for existing workers.

If the labor supply of women and seniors were not elastic,
wage increases likely would have been larger.

So it was them that done it if we look at it in tabloid terms but where the Bank of Japan does not go I will. You see if we go back to the critiques of the likely behaviour of Prime Minister Abe before he was elected there was the case that he would favour Japanese businesses and Japan Inc. Just like he had in his first term. Well is there anything they would like more than a cheap labour supply? Especially in a country which due to a shrinking population has a clear issue with labour supply.

Next comes the impact of a supply of cheap labour. This makes me think of the UK where the Ivory Towers tell us again and again that the increase in labour supply from net immigration did not affect wage growth. Now there are various factors to put in this particular melting pot but this research from the Bank of Japan is clearly heading in the opposite direction.

Productivity

Here is something you may not expect but I mention it from time to time so let me hand over to the Bank of Japan and the emphasis is mine.

One reason is that the productivity of
Japanese firms is relatively low and there is large
room to raise productivity, mainly in the
nonmanufacturing sector. In fact, Japan’s labor productivity remains at only 60 to 70 percent of the U.S. level.

Japan has been doing well in terms of growth recently but there are two issues. Firstly even 1.2% per annum is not great and secondly it has been forced on it as it looks to a future of labour shortages.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here. The rise in wages in June is welcome and the Yen in the workers pocket does not know whether it is a result of regular or bonus pay. But for now it looks like some icing on a similar cake. Combining this with the news on inflation that I discussed last time means that one area of Abenomics failure will in fact  be a positive here.

Another factor is that households are reluctant to
accept rises in housing rent and administered
prices given the low actual inflation rate and
inflation expectations ( Bank of Japan)

If we throw in imputed rent as well that is half the inflation measure. The Japanese do not know have lucky they are to have this and for all the Turning Japanese themes the Bank of Japan wants them to turn British in this respect. But if we move on from the detail we see that low inflation means this looks like a better year for real wages. Accordingly if we look back to my last update on this issue from a fortnight or so ago this from Gavyn Davies in the Financial Times looks even worse than it did then.

Even with very careful communication and forward guidance, monetary policy may not be sufficient, on its own, to reach the inflation target. Eventually, unconventional fiscal easing may also be needed, though this is not remotely on the horizon at present.

As ever the picture remains complex as so far the wages growth has yet to filter through.

Household spending fell 1.2 percent in June from a year earlier, government data showed on Tuesday, marking the fifth straight month of declines.

 

 

 

How many more central banks will end up buying equities?

One of the features of modern economic life is the way that central banks have expanded their operations. In a way that development is a confession of failure ( as why are new policies requited if they existing ones are working? ) Although of course that would be met with as many official denials as you can shake a stick at. We moved from sharply lower interest-rates to QE (Quantitative Easing) bond purchases to credit easing and in some places to negative interest-rates. The latter brings me to the countries I classified as the “Currency Twins” Japan and Switzerland who both have negative interest-rates and some negative bond yields. In fact this morning the Bank of Japan gave Forward Guidance on this subject.

The Bank intends to maintain the current extremely low levels of short- and long-term interest rates for an extended period of time, taking into account uncertainties regarding
economic activity and prices including the effects of the consumption tax hike scheduled to take place in October 2019.

So the first feature seems to be negative interest-rates and perhaps ones which persist as both Japan and Switzerland are on that road. Thus you start by funding yourself with money at a negative cost something which ordinary investors can only dream of. But we also have countries with negative interest-rates which have not ( so far) bought equities such as Sweden and the Euro area although the latter does have a sort of hybrid in its ongoing corporate bond programme.

However we find more of a distinguishing factor if we note that both Japan and Switzerland ended up with soaring exchange-rates due to the impact of the large carry-trades that took place before the credit crunch. This was what led me to label them the “Currency Twins”  and the period since then has seen them respond to this which has seen them via different routes end up as equity investors on a larger and larger scale albeit by a different route. An irony comes if we look at an alternative universe where Germany had its own currency too as in that timeline it too would have seen a soaring currency and presumably it too would be an equity investor.

Bank of Japan

Here is this morning’s announcement.

The Bank will purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and Japan real estate investment trusts (J-REITs) so that their amounts outstanding will increase at annual
paces of about 6 trillion yen and about 90 billion yen, respectively. With a view to lowering risk premia of asset prices in an appropriate manner, the Bank may increase
or decrease the amount of purchases depending on market conditions.

As you can see the Tokyo Whale will continue to gobble up the plankton from the Japanese equity world and at quite a pace. The latter sentence refers to the way it buys more when the market drops which of course looks rather like a type of put option for other equity investors. That is what it means by “lower risk premia” although more than a few would question if this is “appropriate”

Also there are ch-ch-changes ahead. From the Financial Times.

the BoJ also said it would alter the balance of its ¥6tn ($54bn) per year ETF buying programme so that a much greater proportion was focused on ETFs that track the broader, market cap-weighted Topix index. The scale of its Topix-linked ETF purchases would rise from ¥2.7tn to ¥4.2tn per year, the bank said in its statement.

The Japanese owned FT fails however to note the main two significant points of this. The first is that the Tokyo Whale was simply running out of Nikkei index based ETFs to buy as it was up to around 80% of them and of course rising. The next comes from a comparison of the two indices where the Nikkei is described as very underweight this sector and it is much larger in the Topix ( ~9%). Regular readers will no doubt have figured that this is the “precious” or banking sector.

As of this month it has made major purchases on 3 days buying 70.5 billion Yen on each occasion.

Let us move on by noting that Japan has bought equities but so far they have been Japanese ones boosting its own market and keeping the impact on the exchange-rate to an implied one.

Swiss National Bank

The SNB has been a buyer of equities as well but came to it via a different route which is that once it implemented its “unlimited” policy on foreign exchange intervention it then found it had “loadsamoney” and had to find something to do with all the foreign currency it had bought. The conventional route would be to buy short-dated foreign government bonds which it did but because of the scale of the operation it began to impact here and may have been a factor in some Euro area bond yields going negative. The Geneva Whale would have found itself competing with the ECB QE operation if it had carried on so switched to around 20% of its foreign exchange reserves going into equities.

That is a tidy sum when we note it had some 748.8 billion Swiss Francs of foreign exchange reserves at the end of June. How is that going?

. The profit on foreign currency positions amounted to CHF 5.2 billion.

So at that point rather well but of course it is rather strapped in for the ride with its holdings which will have led to some fun and games more recently as it notes its holding in Facebook as the tweet below illustrates.

 

If you ride the tiger on the way up you can end up getting bitten by it in the way down. Also a passive investment strategy means you raise your stake as prices rise whereas an active one means you are an explicit as opposed to an implicit hedge fund. Some like to express this in terms of humour.

SNB OFFERS TO BUY UNLIMITED AMOUNT OF TESLA AT 305 ( @RudyHavenstein )

We do not know if the recent weakness in the so-called FANG tech stocks is just ebb and flow or a sea change, but the latter would have the SNB entering choppy water.

Comment

We see that this particular development can be traced back to the carry trade and a rising currency. Both of the countries hit by this ended up with central banks buying equities although only the Swiss have bought foreign equities. Perhaps the Japanese think that as a nation they own plenty of foreign assets already or there is an inhibition against supporting a gaijin market. That would be both emotional and perhaps logical if we note how many lemons have been passed onto them.

Looking ahead newer entrants may not follow the same path as we note that once a central bank crosses a monetary policy Rubicon it has the effect of emboldening others. The temptation of what so far have been profits will be an incentive although of course any suggestion that such moves are for profit would be meant with the strictest official denial. Should there be losses however we know that they will be nobody’s fault unless they become large in which case it will be entirely the fault of financial terrorists.

Putting this into perspective is the price I am about to describe. Around 1000 until the middle of 2016 but rose to 8380 earlier this year and as of the last trade 6080. One of those volatile coins the central bankers dislike so much? Nope, it is the SNB share price in Swiss Francs.