Where next for the Japanese Yen and the Bank of Japan?

As the third most traded currency the Japanese Yen is one of the bedrocks of the world economy. In spite of the size and strength of the Japanese economy the currency tail can wag the economy dog as we saw on the period of the “Carry Trade” and its consequences. For newer readers I looked at the initial impact back on the 19th of September 2016.

 Ironically if done on a large-scale as happened back in the day with the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen it lowers the currency and so not only is the interest cheaper but you have a capital gain. What could go wrong? Well we will come to that. But this same effect turned out to make things uncomfortable for both Japan and Switzerland as their currencies were pushed lower and lower.

At that point borrowers were having a party as the got a cheaper borrowing rate and a currency gain but the Japanese ( and Swiss) saw their currency being depressed. However the credit crunch ended that party as currency traders saw the risk and that people might buy Yen to cover the risk. Thus there was a combination of speculative and actual buying which saw the Yen strengthen from over 120 Yen to the US Dollar to below 80.

There were various impacts from this and starting in Japan life became difficult for its exporters and some sent production abroad as the mulled an exchange rate of around 78 to the US Dollar. For example some shifted production to Thailand. Looking wider the investors who remained in the carry trade shifted from profit to loss. On this road in generic terms the typical Japanese investor often described as Mrs. Watanabe was having a rough patch as in Yen terms their investments went being hit. Actually that is something of a generic over my career for Mrs Watanabe as timing of investments in say UK Gilts or Australian property has often been poor. Of course as it turns out property in Oz did work but you would have needed plenty of patience.

Enter the Bank of Japan

The next phase was a type of enter the dragon as the Bank of Japan in 2013 embarked on an extraordinary monetary stimulus programme. Under the banner of Abenomics that was designed to weaken the Yen although it was not officially one of the 3 arrows it was supposed to fire. For a while this worked as the Yen fell towards 125 to the US Dollar. But just as economics 101 felt it could celebrate a rare triumph the Yen then strengthened again and actually rallied to 101 in spite of negative interest-rates being deployed  leading to yet another new effort called QQE and Yield Curve Control in September 2016.

So we see that Japan had some success in weakening the Yen but that then ended and even with negative interest-rates and the purchases by the Bank of Japan below there was a fizzling out of any impact.

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

But you see these things have unintended consequences as Brad Setser points out below.

Japanese investors have been big buyers of foreign bonds—and U.S. bonds in particular. The lifers, the Japanese government through the government pension fund (GPIF), the Japanese government through Post Bank (which takes in deposits and cannot make loans so it buys foreign bonds since it cannot make money buying JGBs), and Norinchukin*

So a policy to weaken the Yen has a side-effect of strengthening it and even worse makes the global financial system more risky. Back to Brad.

In broad terms, a number of Japanese financial institutions have become, in part, dollar based intermediaries. They borrow dollars from U.S. money market funds, U.S. banks, and increasingly the world’s large reserve managers (all of whom want to hold short-term dollar claims for liquidity reasons) and invest in longer dated U.S. bonds.

What about now?

Things are rather different to this time last year when we were trying to figure out what had caused this?

The Japanese yen soared in early Asian trading on Thursday as the break of key technical levels triggered massive stop-loss sales of the U.S. and Australian dollars in very thin markets. The dollar collapsed to as low as 105.25 yen on Reuters dealing JPY=D3, a drop of 3.2 percent from the opening 108.76 and the lowest reading since March 2018. It was last trading around 107.50 yen………. ( Reuters )

That was from January 3rd whereas overnight we see this.

The major was trading 0.1 percent up at 110.09, having hit a high of 110.21 earlier, its highest since May 23.  ( EconoTimes )

On its own this may seen the Governor of the Bank of Japan have a quiet smile and a celebratory glass of sake. But falls in the Yen are associated with something else which will please the head of The Tokyo Whale.

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Tokyo stocks rose Tuesday, with the benchmark Nikkei index ending above 24,000 for the first time since mid-December, as investor sentiment improved on expectations for further easing of U.S.-China trade tensions. ( The Mainichi)

The Mainichi seems to have missed the currency connection with this but no doubt Governor Kuroda   will be pointing out both thresholds to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Has something changed?

On Monday JP Morgan thought so. Via Forex Flow.

But because in recent years the yen is no longer being sold off in the first place, it is not acting as much like a safe-haven currency as in the past.

Okay so why?

if interest rates increase in other countries (opening a wider gap with rates in Japan)

Well good luck with that one! Maybe some day but the credit crunch era has seen 733 interest-rate cuts. However the Financial Times has joined in.

First, Japan is running trade deficits, which would imply a weaker currency. Second, domestic asset managers are busy buying higher-yielding foreign assets. Third, Japanese companies, confronting a chronic shortage of decent ways to deploy their capital at home, are increasingly spending it on deals overseas.

The last point is a really rather devastating critique of the six years of Abenomics as one of the stated Arrows was for exactly the opposite. Also there us more trouble for economics 101 as a lower Yen has seen a trade surplus switch to a deficit. Actually I think that responses to exchange rate moves can be very slow and measured in years so with all the ch-ch-changes it is hard to know what move is in play.

Comment

There is much to reflect on here. For example today may be one to raise a smile at the Bank of Japan as it calculates the value of its large equity holdings and sees the Yen weaken across a threshold. But it is also true that exactly the same policies saw the “flash rally” of over a year ago. In addition we see that the enormous effort in play to weaken the Yen has seen compensating side-effects which raise the risk level in the international finance system. Really rather like the Carry Trade did.

A warning is required because in the short-term crossing a threshold like 110 Yen sees a reversal but we could see the Yen weaken for a while. This is problematic with so many others wanting to devalue their currency as well with the Bank of England currently in the van. From a Japanese perspective this will be see as a gain against a nation they have all sorts of issues with.

“China has made enforceable commitments to refrain from competitive devaluation, while promoting transparency and accountability,” US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused China of allowing the value of the yuan to fall, making Chinese goods cheaper.

But, on Monday, the US said that the value of the yuan had appreciated since August, at the height of the trade war. ( BBC )

How will that play out?

 

 

 

The inflation problem is only in the minds of central bankers

Yesterday we looked at the trend towards negative interest-rates and today we can link this into the issue of inflation. So let me open with this morning’s release from Swiss Statistics.

The consumer price index (CPI) remained stable in December 2019 compared with the previous month, remaining at 101.7 points (December 2015 = 100). Inflation was +0.2% compared with the same month of the previous year. The average annual inflation reached +0.4% in 2019.These are the results of the Federal Statistical Office (FSO).

The basic situation is not only that there is little or no inflation but that there has been very little since 2015. Actually if we switch to the Euro area measure called CPI in the UK we see that it picks up even less.

In December 2019, the Swiss Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) stood at 101.17 points
(base 2015=100). This corresponds to a rate of change of +0.2% compared with the previous month
and of –0.1% compared with the same month of the previous year.

Negative Interest-Rates

There is a nice bit of timing here in that the situation changed back in 2015 on the 15th to be precise and I am sure many of you still recall it.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is discontinuing the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro. At the same time, it is lowering the interest rate on sight deposit account balances that exceed a given exemption threshold by 0.5 percentage points, to −0.75%.

If we look at this in inflation terms then the implied mantra suggested by Ben Bernanke yesterday would be that Switzerland would have seen some whereas it has not. In fact the (nearly) 5 years since then have been remarkable for their lack of inflation.

There is a secondary issue here related to the exchange rate which is that the negative interest-rate was supposed to weaken it. That is a main route as to how it is supposed to raise inflation but we find that we are nearly back where we began. What I mean by that is the exchange-rate referred to above is 1.084 compared to the Euro. So the Swiss tried to import inflation but have not succeeded and awkwardly for fans of negative interest-rates part of the issue is that the ECB ( European Central Bank) joined the party reminding me of a point I made just under 2 years ago on the 9th of January 2018.

For all the fire and fury ( sorry) there remains a simple underlying point which is that if one currency declines falls or devalues then others have to rise. That is especially awkward for central banks as they attempt to explain how trying to manipulate a zero-sum game brings overall benefits.

The Low Inflation Issue

Let me now switch to another Swiss based organisation the Bank for International Settlements  or BIS. This is often known as the central bankers central bank and I think we learn a lot from just the first sentence.

Inflation in advanced economies (AEs) continues to be subdued, remaining below central banks’ target
in spite of aggressive and persistent monetary policy accommodation over a prolonged period.

As we find so often this begs more than a few questions. For a start why is nobody wondering why all this effort is not wprking as intended? The related issue is then why they are persisting with something that is not working? The Eagles had a view on this.

They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast

We then get quite a swerve.

To escape the low inflation trap, we argue that, as suggested by Jean-Claude Trichet, governments
and social partners put in place “consensus packages” that include a fiscal policy that supports demand
and a series of ad hoc nominal wage increases over several years.

Actually there are two large swerves here. The first is the switch away from the monetary policies which have been applied on an ever larger scale each time with the promise that this time they will work. Next is a pretty breathtaking switch to advocacy of fiscal policy by the very same Jean-Claude Trichet who was involved in the application of exactly the reverse in places like Greece during his tenure at the ECB.

Their plan is to simply add to the control freakery.

As political economy conditions evolve, this role should be progressively substituted by rebalancing the macro
policy mix with a more expansionary fiscal policy. More importantly, social partners and governments
control an extremely powerful lever, ie the setting of wages at least in the public sector and potentially
in the private sector, to re-anchor inflation expectations near 2%.

The theory was that technocratic central bankers would aim for inflation targets set by elected politicians. Now they want to tell the politicians what to so all just to hit an inflation target that was chosen merely because it seemed right at the time. Next they want wages to rise at this arbitrary rate too! The ordinary worker will get a wage rise of 2% in this environment so that prices can rise by 2% as well. It is the economics equivalent of the Orwellian statements of the novel 1984

Indeed they even think that they can tell employers what to do.

Finally, in a full employment context,
employers have an incentive to implement wage increases to keep their best performing employees
and, given that nominal labour costs of all employers would increase in parallel, they would able to raise
prices in line with the increase of their wage bills with limited risk of losing clients

Ah “full employment” the concept which is in practical terms meaningless as we discussed only yesterday.

Also as someone who studied the “social contracts” or what revealingly were called “wage and price spirals” in the UK the BIS presents in its paper a rose tinted version of the past. Some might say misleading. In the meantime as the economy has changed I would say that they would be even less likely to work.

Putting this another way the Euro area inflation numbers from earlier showed something the ordinary person will dislike but central bankers will cheer.

Looking at the main components of euro area inflation, food, alcohol & tobacco is expected to have the highest
annual rate in December (2.0%, compared with 1.9% in November),

I would send the central bankers out to explain to food shoppers how this is in fact the nirvana of “price stability” as for new readers that is what they call inflation of 2% per annum. We would likely get another ” I cannot eat an I-Pad” moment.

Comment

Let me now bring in some issues which change things substantially and let me open with something that has got FT Alphaville spinning itself into quicksand.

As far as most people are concerned, there is more than enough inflation. Cœuré noted in his speech that most households think the average rate in the eurozone between 2004 and last year has been 9 per cent (in fact it was 1.6 per cent). That’s partly down to higher housing costs (which are not wholly included in central banks’ measurement of inflation).

That last sentence is really rather desperate as it nods to the official FT view of inflation which is in quite a mess on the issue of housing inflation. Actually the things which tend to go up ( house prices) are excluded from the Euro area measure of inflation. There was a plan to include them but that turned out to be an attempt simply to waste time ( about 3 years as it happened). Why? Well they would rather tell you that this is a wealth effect.

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 4.2% in both the euro area and the EU in the
second quarter of 2019 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

Looking at the situation we see that a sort of Holy Grail has developed – the 2% per annum inflation target – with little or no backing. After all its use was then followed by the credit crunch which non central bankers will consider to be a rather devastating critique. One road out of this is to raise the inflation target even higher to 3%, 4% or more, or so we are told.

There are two main issues with this of which the first is that if you cannot hit the 2% target then 3% or 4% seems pointless. But to my mind the bigger one is that in an era of lower numbers why be King Canute when instead one can learn and adapt. I would either lower the inflation target and/or put house prices in it so that they better reflect the ordinary experience. The reason they do not go down this road is explained by a four letter word, debt. Or as the Eagles put it.

Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice
And she said: “We are all just prisoners here
Of our own device”

2019 and all that….

As we arrive at Christmas and reach the end of the blogging year there is a lot to consider and review. Markets have thinned out to such an extent I noted a news service mentioning a rally in Japan earlier. Well I suppose 9 points up to 23,830 is indeed a rally but you get the idea. It also gives us a opening perspective as that level means it has been a successful year for The Tokyo Whale. As it progresses on its journey to buy all the ETFs listed in Japan the buying on down days strategy has been a winner on two counts. Firstly it provides a type of put option for an equity market already bolstered by a negative interest-rate and other forms of QE or rather QQE as the former name got rather debased in Japan by all the failures. Secondly it can declare a marked to market profit although of course there is the issue of how you would ever take it?

Below from this morning’s Bank of Japan balance sheet update are its holding so far.

28,199,294,050,000 Yen

The Plunge Protection Team indeed.

As Governor Kuroda enjoys his glass of celebratory sake there is the issue of the economy though which this was supposed to boost. This morning’s release of the minutes of the October meeting suggest little real progress has been made here.

A different member pointed out that, taking into account the current situation in which downside risks to economic activity and prices were significant, the Bank should continue to examine whether additional monetary easing would be necessary.

Then there was this,

In response to this, some members pointed out that, while it was appropriate for the Bank to maintain the current monetary easing policy at this meeting, it was necessary for the Bank not to hesitate to take additional easing measures if there was a greater possibility that the momentum toward achieving the price stability target would be lost.

This really is fantasy stuff as the inflation rate below indicates.

  The consumer price index for Japan in Novbember 2019 was 102.3 (2015=100), up 0.5% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and up 0.2% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

More significant is the index level showing a total of 2.3% inflation since 2015 or in spite of the Abenomics effort there pretty much isn’t any. The Consumption Tax rise will bump it up for a bit and then it will presumably go back down just like last time.

Tesla

As you can see there was quite an event yesterday,

New York (CNN Business)Tesla CEO Elon Musk once said he had a buyer that would take Tesla private at $420 a share. That never happened — but the stock just got there on its own.

Musk tweeted in August last year that he is “considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” At the time, the share price was $379.57 — nowhere near $420. Speculation about the identity of the mystery buyer was rife, and many investors thought Musk might be making a joke: 420 has become synonymous with cannabis culture.

This provokes all sorts of thoughts starting with Elon Musk should in my opinion have been punished much harder for that tweet. Next comes the fact that the share price fell to US $180 in June when there were lots of doubts about the company. One of the amazing parts of the rally has been that they have not gone away. In fact in some ways they are reinforced by this sort of thing,

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – U.S. electric vehicle maker Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) and a group of China banks have agreed a new 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion), five-year loan facility for the automaker’s Shanghai car plant, three sources familiar with the matter said, part of which will be used to roll over an existing loan.

Also I guess it has benefited to some extent by the stock market ramping of President Trump. A development which we noted late last year carried on where he is essence got at least some of the policy moves from the US Federal Reserve he wanted and the equity market has flown.

The S&P 500 climbed 0.09, hitting another all-time high of 3,224.01. The Nasdaq Composite advanced 0.23% to 8,945.65. The S&P 500 is up more than 28% for 2019 through Friday, about 1 percentage point away from 2013′s gain of 29.6%. ( CNBC)

Merry Christmas Mr.President….

Bond Markets

This is a slightly different story from the one above. Yes we saw some extraordinary highs for bond markets this year and out of them the most extraordinary was seen In Germany.  A ten-year yield that went below -0.7% for a while in late summer which begged all sorts of questions. In compound terms you would be expecting to lose more than 7% if you bought and held to maturity which poses the question why would you buy at all? Beyond that there is the issue of the impact on pensions and other forms of long-term saving as who would invest 100 Euros to get around 92 back?

That to my mind is one of the reasons why QE has not worked. The impact on what Keynes called “animal spirits” of the fact that we always seemed to need more monetary “help” and easing unsettled things as well as, ironically in the circumstances, torpedoing the banking business model.

But back to bond markets we saw the futures contract in Germany head near to 180 which to any does not mean much but these things were designed to be between say 80 and 120. The QE era put a light under that.

Now though things have quietened down with some longer-date German bonds in positive yield territory and the ten-year now -0.25%. Still negative in the latter case but less so. It has turned out to be a case of buy the rumour and sell the fact as bond prices have fallen and yields risen since the ECB restarted its QE bond purchases in November. Some were obviously punting on the amount being higher than 20 billion a month which is curious as for some countries ( Germany and the Netherlands for example) there are not so many left to buy.

Meanwhile back home in the UK the ten-year Gilt yield has for now anchored itself around the Bank Rate of 0.75%. There is a tug of war going on between chances of an interest-rate cut and more fiscal expansionism. But there are two themes as the fiscal policy chance to have really low borrowing yields has to some extant passed and as a final point real yields are still strongly negative.

Comment

I intend to take a break until the New Year. So let me wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I will return in the next decade.

The problems faced by the QE era make me wonder if QT is a mirage

If we were to step back in time to when the new QE era began around a decade ago we would not find any central bankers expecting us to be where we are now. In a way that is summarised by the fact that the original QE pamphlet of the Bank of England from the Charlie Bean tour of the summer of 2009 has a not found at this address description on the website these days. Or if we look back this speech from policymaker David Miles finishes like this.

Concluding, David Miles says that quantitative easing will assist spending but also notes it is hard to decide
what the “.appropriate scale of purchases is when the power of the mechanisms at work are difficult to
gauge.” He also notes that the timing and means of reversing this monetary easing will “.depend on the
economic outlook, which in turn depends on conditions in financial markets in general and with banks in
particular.

As to the reversing we are still waiting as all we have had is “More! More! More!” as we note that despite record highs for equity and bond markets financial market conditions are apparently still not good enough.

Switching to the real economy we see that in fact we are back in something of a trough right now. We discovered yesterday that the UK is flat lining and we know the Euro area is similar and the United States has been slowing down as well.

The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 0.6% for 2019:Q4 and 0.7% for 2020:Q1. ( the numbers are annualised )

To that we can add Japan which faces the impact of the rise in the Consumption Tax to 10% this quarter.

Next and in some ways most revealingly is the way that QE has acquired a new name. In Japan it has morphed into QQE or Quantitative and Qualitative Easing at the time purchases of equities and commercial property began. Since then it has become QQE with Yield Curve Control. We await to see if the review being conducted by President Lagarde leads to changes at the ECB but we do know this about the US Federal Reserve. From CNBC on the 8th of October.

Powell stressed the approach shouldn’t be confused with the quantitative easing done during and after the financial crisis.

“This is not QE. In no sense is this QE,” he said in a question and answer session after the speech.

The reality is that it fulfils the description of David Miles above in the case of the Treasury Bill purchases with the difference that they have a shorter maturity, although of course back then QE was not meant to be long-term.

The Bank of England looks ahead

Last night Andrew Hauser who is the Executive Director looked at the state of play.

Before the financial crisis, our balance sheet was modest, at 4% of GDP. Since then, and in direct response to the
crisis, that figure has risen to around 30%: a more than seven-fold increase.

He then looks ahead and point one covers a lot of ground to say the least.

The first is that, judged by historical standards, big
balance sheets are here to stay. That’s not a prediction that QE will never unwind: it will. But we have a
bigger responsibility than we did to provide liquidity to the system, in good times and bad, and to a wider set
of organisations, to maintain financial stability. And that’s not going away.

It was nice of him to give us a good laugh about it being permanent! At least I hope he was joking. The liquidity mention doffs it cap to some extent to the mess that the US Federal Reserve has got itself into as well as the fact that changes to the structure of the system such as banks being required to have more capital have put increased pressure on this area.

The next point meanders a bit but we eventually get to an estimate of circa £200 billion for a QT target or objective,

Point two is that big doesn’t mean outsized – so the balance sheet will eventually shrink from where it is today. That’s something the Bank has been stressing for some time. But the Discussion Paper has allowed us to put a tighter range on that forecast, and suggests our liabilities probably only need to be half the size they are today to carry out our
mission once QT is underway/

Ah “eventually!” Also some would think the sort of sum he is thinking of is indeed outsized.

Point three contains some welcome honesty.

Neither we nor the firms who use our liquidity really know what their demand will be when conditions normalise.

Finally we have this

The final message, therefore, is that we must have as our ultimate goal an end-state framework that can cope with
that ambiguity without shaking itself, and us, to bits.

How Much?

The Bank of England balance sheet is more than just QE

Three quarters of the Bank’s assets is in the form of a loan to the Asset Purchase Facility backing £435bn of
gilt holdings and £10bn of corporate bonds, while another £127bn has been lent to banks under the
Term Funding Scheme. A further £13bn of liquidity has been extended under the so-called
‘Index Linked Term Repo’ facility, part of the Sterling Monetary Framework (SMF).
Nearly all of that activity has been financed by an increase in central bank reserves.

He does not point it out but this structure led to another consequence which is that the Term Funding Scheme (and some smaller factors) adds to the official definition of the national debt raising it by around 8% of GDP.

Hard Astern Captain

I have long considered the Bank of England course reversal plan to be unwise and perhaps stupid.

First, the MPC does not intend to begin QT until Bank Rate has risen to a level from which it could
be cut materially if required. The MPC currently judges that to be around 1.5%.

– Second, QT will be conducted over a number of years at a gradual and predictable pace, chosen by
the MPC in light of economic and financial market conditions at the time.

– Third, the QT path will take account of the need to maintain the orderly functioning of the gilt and
corporate bond markets including through liaison with the Debt Management Office.

– And, fourth, the QT path can be amended or reversed as required to achieve the inflation target.

 

Comment

Frankly the very concept of the Bank of England raising interest-rates as high as 1.5% is laughable under the present stewardship. I have long thought that the plan as described above demonstrates that there is no real intention to reverse QE. There are former policymakers who explicitly endorse this such as David Blanchflower. But there are also implicit issues such as waiting for yields to rise and prices to fall as well as thinking there can be an “orderly market” when the biggest holder sells. When you intervene in a market on such a large scale there is always going to be trouble exiting. One answer to that is to not get too exposed in the first place and to me selling when others might be selling because of losses as well is classic Ivory Tower thinking.

None of that is Andrew Hausers fault as he is in this regard merely a humble functionary. So we shuld thank him for his thoughts that even if QE somehow was teleported away things would still be different.

Bringing all this together, our conversations with firms suggest the current sterling PMRR is of the
order of £150-250bn.

Meanwhile if Livesquawk are correct Switzerland might be adding more not less extraordinary monetary action. Also the original reason was external ( Swiss Franc) whereas now it seems to have spread.

Oxley said, “There is good reason to take the SNB’s forecasts seriously: it has not tended to change its policy stance in the past unless its inflation forecast foresees deflation at some point over its three-year horizon. If the bank crosses the deflationary Rubicon again, this would lend support to our below-consensus view that the bank will end up cutting the policy rate to -1.00pct in the first half of 2020.”

 

 

 

The mad world of negative interest-rates is on the march

Yesterday as is his want the President of the United States Donald Trump focused attention on one of our credit crunch themes.

Just finished a very good & cordial meeting at the White House with Jay Powell of the Federal Reserve. Everything was discussed including interest rates, negative interest, low inflation, easing, Dollar strength & its effect on manufacturing, trade with China, E.U. & others, etc.

I guess he was at the 280 character limit so replaced negative interest-rates with just negative interest. In a way this is quite extraordinary as I recall debates in the earlier part of the credit crunch where people argued that it would be illegal for the US Federal Reserve to impose negative interest-rates. But the Donald does not seem bothered as we see him increasingly warm to a theme he established at the Economic Club of New York late last week.

“Remember we are actively competing with nations that openly cut interest rates so that many are now actually getting paid when they pay off their loan, known as negative interest. Who ever heard of such a thing?” He said. “Give me some of that. Give me some of that money. I want some of that money. Our Federal Reserve doesn’t let us do it.” ( Reuters )

That day the Chair of the US Federal Reserve Jerome Powell rejected the concept according to CNBC.

He also rejected the idea that the Fed might one day consider negative interest rates like those in place across Europe.

The problem is that over the past year the 3 interest-rate cuts look much more driven by Trump than Powell.

Of course, there are contradictions.Why does the “best economy ever” need negative interest-rates for example? Or why a stock market which keeps hitting all-time highs needs them? But the subject keeps returning as we note yesterday’s words from the President of the Cleveland Fed.

Asked her view on negative interest rates, Mester told the audience that Europe’s use of them “is perhaps working better than I might have anticipated” but added she is not supportive of such an approach in the United States should there be a downturn.

Why say “working better” then reject the idea?  We have seen that path before.

The Euro area

As to working better then a deposit-rate of -0.5% and of course many bond yields in negative territory has seen the annual rate of economic growth fall to 1.1%. Also with the last two quarterly growth readings being only 0.2% it looks set to fall further.

So the idea of an economic boost being provided by them is struggling and relying on the counterfactual. But the catch is that such arguments are mostly made by those who think that the last interest-rate cut of 0.1% made any material difference. After all the previous interest-rate cuts that is simply amazing. Actually the moves will have different impacts across the Euro area as this from an ECB working paper points out.

A striking feature of the credit market in the euro area is the very large heterogeneity across countries in the granting of fixed versus adjustable rate mortgages.
FRMs are dominant in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, while ARMs are prevailing in Austria, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain (ECB, 2009; Campbell,
2012)

Actually I would be looking for data from 2019 rather than 2009 but we do get some sort of idea.

Businesses and Savers in Germany are being affected

We have got another signal of the spread of the impact of negative interest-rates .From the Irish Times.

The Bundesbank surveyed 220 lenders at the end of September – two weeks after the ECB’s cut its deposit rate from minus 0.4 to a record low of minus 0.5 per cent. In response 58 per cent of the banks said they were levying negative rates on some corporate deposits, and 23 per cent said they were doing the same for retail depositors.

There was also a strong hint that legality is an issue in this area.

“This is more difficult in the private bank business than in corporate or institutional deposits, and we don’t see an ability to adjust legal terms and conditions of our accounts on a broad-based basis,” said Mr von Moltke, adding that Deutsche was instead approaching retail clients with large deposits on an individual basis.

So perhaps more than a few accounts have legal barriers to the imposition of negative interest-rates. That idea gets some more support here.

Stephan Engels, Commerzbank’s chief financial officer, said this month that Germany’s second largest listed lender had started to approach wealthy retail customers holding deposits of more than €1 million.

Japan

The Bank of Japan has dipped its toe in the water but has always seemed nervous about doing anymore. This has been illustrated overnight.

“There is plenty of scope to deepen negative rates from the current -0.1%,” Kuroda told a semi-annual parliament testimony on monetary policy. “But I’ve never said there are no limits to how much we can deepen negative rates, or that we have unlimited means to ease policy,” he said. ( Reuters )

This is really odd because Japan took its time imposing negative interest-rates as we had seen 2 lost decades by January 2016 but it has then remained at -0.1% or the minimum amount. Mind you there is much that is crazy about Bank of Japan policy as this next bit highlights.

Kuroda also said there was still enough Japanese government bonds (JGB) left in the market for the BOJ to buy, playing down concerns its huge purchases have drained market liquidity.

After years of heavy purchases to flood markets with cash, the BOJ now owns nearly half of the JGB market.

In some ways that fact that a monetary policy activist like Governor Kuroda has not cut below -0.1% is the most revealing thing of all about negative interest-rates.

Switzerland

The Swiss found themselves players in this game when the Swiss Franc soared and they tried to control it. Now they find themselves with a central bank that combines the role of being a hedge fund due to its large overseas equity investments and has a negative interest-rate of -0.75%.

Nearly five years after the fateful day when the SNB stopped capping the Swiss Franc we get ever more deja vu from its assessments.

The situation on the foreign exchange market is still fragile, and the Swiss franc has appreciated in trade-weighted terms. It remains highly valued.

Comment

I have consistently argued that the situation regarding negative interest-rates has two factors. The first is how deep they go? The second is how long they last? I have pointed out that the latter seems to be getting ever longer and may be heading along the lines of “Too Infinity! And Beyond!”. It seems that the Swiss National Bank now agrees with me. The emphasis is mine.

This adjustment to the calculation basis takes account of the fact that the low interest rate environment around the world has recently become more entrenched and could persist for some time yet.

We have seen another signal of that recently because the main priority of the central banks is of course the precious and we see move after move to exempt the banks as far as possible from negative interest-rates. The ECB for example has introduced tiering to bring it into line with the Swiss and the Japanese although the Swiss moved again in September.

The SNB is adjusting the basis for calculating negative interest as follows. Negative interest will continue to be charged on the portion of banks’ sight deposits which exceeds a certain exemption threshold. However, this exemption threshold will now be updated monthly and
thereby reflect developments in banks’ balance sheets over time.

If only the real economy got the same consideration and courtesy. That is the crux of the matter here because so far no-one has actually exited the black hole which is negative interest-rates. The Riksbank of Sweden says that it will next month but this would be a really odd time to raise interest-rates. Also I note that the Danish central bank has its worries about pension funds if interest-rates rise.

A scenario in which interest rates go up
by 1 percentage point over a couple of days is not
implausible. Therefore, pension companies should
be prepared to manage margin requirements at
all times. If the sector is unable to obtain adequate
access to liquidity, it may be necessary to reduce the
use of derivatives.

Personally I am more bothered about the pension funds which have invested in bonds with negative yields.After all, what could go wrong?

 

 

Japan and Korea have chosen a bad time to fire up their own trade war

This is a story influenced by a brewing trade war but not the one that you might think. It is between Japan and Korea and the latest phase started in July when Japan imposed restrictions on trade with Korea for 3 chemicals. This gets more significant when you realise that they are crucial for smartphones ( displays on particular) and that according to CNBC Japan is responsible for 90% of the world’s supply of them. This affects quite of bit of Korean industry with Samsung being the headliner. Them Japan dropped Korea from its whitelist of trusted trading partners making trade more difficult before Korea did the same.

According to Bloomberg Citigroup have tried to downplay this today but I note these bits of it.

Meanwhile, boycotts in South Korea have led to a plunge in sales of Japanese consumer goods and a decrease in tourists to Japan, who may have decided to travel domestically instead, according to Citi………Last month, South Korean exports to Japan fell 14 percent, while imports from Japan slid 23 percent. South Korea’s trade ministry attributed the declines to industrial factors rather than trade actions.

Ah an official denial! We know what that means.

The issue has deep roots in the past and the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula a century ago as well as its later use of Korean “comfort women.” That explains the Korean issue with Japan and on the other side the Japanese consider themselves superior to Koreans and in my time there were quite open about it. Whilst he initially made moves to calm the situation there was always going to be an issue with a nationalistic politician like  Shinzo Abe running Japan.But let us move on noting that both countries will be experiencing an economic brake.

Japan Economic Growth

Let me hand you over to The Japan Times which gives us the position and some perspective.

In the third quarter the world’s third-largest economy grew an annualized 0.2 percent, slowing sharply from a revised 1.8 percent expansion in April to June, according to preliminary gross domestic product data released by the government Thursday.

It fell well short of a median market forecast for a 0.8 percent gain, and marked the weakest growth since a 2.0 percent contraction in the July-September period last year.

So over the past six months Japan has grown by 0.5% and we also get an idea of the erratic nature of economic growth there.This is partly due to the way that Japan does not conform to stereotype as it has struggled more than elsewhere to measure GDP. Partly due to last year’s third quarter drop. annual growth has picked up to 1.3% but that looks like being the peak.

Why? Well the 0.2% growth was driven by a 0.9% rise in domestic demand ( both numbers are annualised) just in time for the consumption tax to be raised. Actually private consumption was up 1.4% in the quarter suggesting that purchases were being made ahead of the rise.

At the end of last month this was reinforced by this.

The Consumer Confidence Index (seasonally adjusted series) in October 2019 was 36.2, up 0.6 points from the previous month.

Yes it was up but you see the number had fallen from around 44 at the opening of 2018 and these are the lowest readings since 2011.

Korea Economic Growth

Real gross domestic product (chained volume measure of GDP) grew by 0.4 percent in the third quarter of 2019 compared to the previous quarter……Real GDP (chained volume measure of GDP) increased by 2.0 percent year on
year in the third quarter of 2019.

In a broad sweep this means that economic growth has been slowing as it was 3.2% in 2017 and 2.7% in 2018. Rather unusually Korea saw strong export growth especially of we look at what was exported.

Exports increased by 4.1 percent, as exports of goods such as motor vehicles and semiconductors expanded. Imports were up by 0.9 percent, owing to increased imports of transportation equipment.

Also manufacturing grew.

Manufacturing rose by 2.1 percent, mainly due to an increase in computer, electronic and optical products.

However the economy has been slowing and if either of those reverse will slow even more quickly. Back on the 18th of October we noted this response.

The Monetary Policy Board of the Bank of Korea decided today to lower the Base Rate by 25 basis points, from 1.50% to 1.25%.

This was more of an external rather than an internal move as last week we learnt this.

During September 2019 Narrow Money (M1, seasonally adjusted, period-average) increased by 0.6% compared to the previous month.

So whilst it had been weak as annual growth was 3.3% in June it has risen since to 5% which is slightly above the average for 2018.

However they could cut on inflation grounds as this from Korea Statistics shows.

The Consumer Price Index was 105.46(2015=100) in October 2019. The index increased 0.2 percent from the preceding  month and was unchanged from the same month of the previous year.

According to the Bank of Korea the outlook is for more of the same.

 The Producer Price Index increased by 0.1% month-on-month in September 2019 – in year-on-year terms it decreased by 0.7%.

Exchange Rate

This is at 10.68 Won to the Yen as I type this and is up over 7% over the past year. So an additional factor in the situation will be that the Korean’s have been winning the currency war. This of course, will be annoying for Shinzo Abe who’s Abenomics programme set out to weaker the Japanese Yen. As we stand Korea has an official interest-rate some 1.35% higher so there is not a lot the Bank of Japan can do about this.

Comment

As we stand it initially looks as if Korea will be the relative winner here.

“Domestic demand had made up for some of the weakness in external demand, but we can’t count on this to continue,” said Taro Saito, executive research fellow at NLI Research Institute.

“A contraction in October-December GDP is a done deal. The economy may rebound early next year, but will lack momentum.” ( Japan Times)

But the argument it is in a stronger position weakens somewhat if we switch to its Gross National Income.

Real gross domestic income (GDI) increased by 0.1 percent compared to the previous quarter.

Over the past year it has gone on a quarterly basis -0.3%,0.2%,-0.7% and now 0.1%.

Korea is looking to use fiscal policy to stimulate its economy which sets it in the opposite direction to the consumption tax rise in Japan. But as they use a time of trouble to posture and scrap let us look at something that they share.

Korea’s potential output growth is expected to fall further in the long term, as the productive population declines in line with population aging and the low fertility rate……In addition, it is necessary to slow down the decline in labor supply resulting from population aging and the low birth rate, through policy efforts including encouraging women and young people to participate in economic activities and coping actively with the low birth rate. ( Bank of Korea Working Paper )

I wonder what the latter bit really means?

Meanwhile this is the last thing Japan needs right now.

(Reuters) – Japan’s Nissan Motor Co Ltd (7201.T) has said it is recalling 394,025 cars in the United States over a braking system defect, causing concerns that a brake fluid leak could potentially lead to a fire.

Podcast

 

 

There are major problems brewing in the Pacific for the world economy

It has been something of an economic tenet for a while now that the most dynamic part of the world economy is to be found in the Pacific region. However the credit crunch era has thrown up all sorts of challenges to what were established ideas and it is doing so again right now. The particular issue is what was supposed to be a strength which is trade and we saw another worrying sign on Wednesday.

The Monetary Policy Board of the Bank of Korea decided today to lower the Base Rate by 25 basis points, from 1.50% to 1.25%.

That is South Korea as we continue our journey past 750 interest-rate cuts in the credit crunch era. Here is their answer to Carly Simon’s famous question, why?

Economic growth in Korea has continued to slow. Private consumption has slowed somewhat, while investment has remained weak. Exports have sustained their sluggish trend as the export prices of semiconductors, petroleum products and chemicals have continued to fall amid the weakening of global trade.

So we see that the economy has been hit by trade issues and that unsurprisingly this has hit investment but also that it has fed through into domestic consumption. Next we got further confirmation that they are blaming trade as we wonder what is Korean for Johnny Foreigner?

Affected mainly by worsening global economic conditions, the growth of the Korean economy is expected to fall back below the July projection…….. The downside risks include a spread of  global trade disputes, a heightening of geopolitical risks and a deepening global
economic slowdown.

We also see that the Korean government has already acted.

Among the upside risks to the growth outlook are an improvement in domestic demand thanks to a strengthening of government policies to shore up the economy and progress in US-China trade negotiations.

 

Quarterly economic growth has been erratic so far this year but Xinhuanet gives us an idea of the trend.

From a year earlier, the real GDP grew 2 percent in the second quarter. It was lower than an increase of 2.8 percent for the same quarter of 2017 and a growth of 2.9 percent for the same quarter of 2018.

Singapore

On the one hand the outlook is supposed to be bright.

Singapore has knocked the United States out of the top spot in the World Economic Forum’s annual competitiveness report. The index, published on Wednesday, takes stock of an economy’s competitive landscape, measuring factors such as macroeconomic stability, infrastructure, the labor market and innovation capability. ( CNN )

The good cheer was not repeated in this from the Monetary Authority of Singapore on Monday.

According to the Advance Estimates released by the Ministry of Trade and Industry today, the Singapore economy grew by 0.1% year-on-year in Q3 2019, similar to the preceding quarter. In the last six months, the drag on GDP growth exerted by the manufacturing sector has intensified, reflecting the ongoing downturn in the global electronics cycle as well as the pullback in investment spending, caused in part by the uncertainty in US-China relations.

They are very sharp with the GDP number perhaps helped by being a City state. The future does not look too bright either if we look through the rhetoric.

On the whole, Singapore’s GDP growth is projected to come in at around the mid-point of the 0–1% forecast range in 2019 and improve modestly in 2020.

The Straits Times has fone a heroic job trying to make the data below look positive.

Non-oil domestic exports (Nodx) fell by 8.1 per cent in September, a somewhat better showing than the 9 percent fall in August, according to data released by Enterprise Singapore on Thursday (Oct 17).

This was the third month in a row where shipments improved, and the August figure – revised downwards from the 8.9 per cent fall previously reported – also marked a return to single-digit territory after five consecutive months of double-digit declines.

But many eyes will have turned to this bit.

Electronics products weighed down Nodx, shrinking 24.8 per cent year-on-year in September, following a 25.9 per cent contraction in August.

China

This morning has brought the news we were pretty much expecting.

China’s economic growth slowed in the third quarter amid weak demand at home and as the trade war with the U.S. drags on exports.

Gross domestic product rose 6% in the July-September period from a year ago, the slowest pace since the early 1990s and weaker than the consensus forecast of 6.1%. Factory output rose 5.8% in September, retail sales expanded 7.8%, while investment gained 5.4% in the first nine months of the year. ( Bloomberg ).

Back on the 21st of January I pointed out this.

The M1 money supply statistics show us that growth was a mere 1.5% over 2018 which is a lot lower than the other economic numbers coming out of China and meaning that we can expect more slowing in the early part of 2019. No wonder we have seen some policy easing and I would not be surprised if there was more of it.

The numbers have been slipping away ever since although Bloomberg tries to put a brave face on it. After all you fo not want to upset the Chinese as you might find yourself like the NBA.

Even with the slowdown, year to date growth of 6.2% suggests the government can hit its 6% and 6.5% for 2019.

Actually M1 money supply growth picked up after January to as high as 4.4% but has now fallen back to 3.4%. So the easing has helped and we are not looking at an “end of the world as we know it” scenario in domestic terms but rather caution.

Before I move on let me point out the consequences of the African swine fever outbreak in the pig industry.

Of which, livestock meat price up by 46.9 percent, affecting nearly 2.03 percentage points increase in the CPI (price of pork was up by 69.3 percent, affecting nearly 1.65 percentage points increase in the CPI), poultry meat up by 14.7 percent, affecting nearly 0.18 percentage point increase in the CPI. ( China Bureau of Statistics )

Japan

Overnight the Cabinet Office has informed us that the Bank of Japan is getting ever further away from its inflation target.

  The consumer price index for Japan in September 2019 was 101.9 (2015=100), up 0.2% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and the same level as  the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

They will of course torture the numbers to find any flicker so if you here about furniture and household utensils ( up 2.7%) that will be why.

Next month the issue will be solved by the Consumption Tax rise but of course that takes money out of workers and consumers pockets at a time of economic trouble. What could go wrong?

Comment

As you can see there are plenty of signs of economic trouble in the Pacific region. Many of these countries are used to much higher rates of economic growth than us in the west. According to Bloomberg Indonesia is worried too.

Indonesia‘s central bank has room to cut interest rates further, perhaps as soon as next week, says its deputy governor

Then of course there is the Reserve Bank of Australia which is cutting interest-rates at a rapid rate. In fact Deputy Governor Debelle gave a speech in Sydney updating us on his priority.

The housing market has a pervasive impact on the Australian economy. It is the popular topic of any number of conversations around barbeques and dinner tables. It generates reams of newspaper stories and reality TV shows. You could be forgiven for thinking that the housing market is the Australian economy.[1] That clearly is not the case. But at the same time, developments in the housing market, both the established market and housing construction, have a broader impact than the simple numbers would suggest.