Is Japan the future for all of us?

A regular feature of these times is to compare our economic performance with that of Japan. That has propped up pretty regularly in this crisis mostly about the Euro area but with sub-plots for the US and UK. One group that will be happy about this with be The Vapors and I wonder how much they have made out of it?

I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so
Turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so.

The two basic concepts here are interrelated and are of Deflation and what was called The Lost Decade but now are The Lost Decades. These matters are more nuanced that usually presented so let me start with Deflation which is a fall in aggregate demand in an economy. According to the latest Bank of Japan Minutes this is happening again.

This is because aggregate demand is
highly likely to be pushed down by deterioration in the labor market and the utilization rate of conventional types of services could decline given a new lifestyle that takes into
consideration the risk of COVID-19.

The latter point echoes a discussion from the comments section yesterday about an extension to the railway to the Scottish Borders. Before COVID-19 anything like that would come with a round of applause but now there are genuine questions about public transport for the future. There is an irony close to me as I have lived in Battersea for nearly 3 decades and a tube line there has been promised for most of that. Now it is on its way will it get much use?

This is a difficult conceptual issue because if we build “White Elephants” they will be counted in GDP ( it is both output and income), but if they are not used the money is to some extent wasted. I differ to that extent from the view of John Maynard Keynes that you can dig and hole and fill it in. If that worked we would not be where we are now. In the credit crunch we saw facets of this with the empty hotels in Ireland, the unused airport in Spain and roads to nowhere in Portugal. That was before China built empty cities.

Inflation Deflation

There is something of a double swerve applied here which I will illustrate from the Bank of Japan Minutes again.

Next, the three arrows of Abenomics should continue to be carried out to the fullest extent until the economy returns to a growth path in which the annual inflation
rate is maintained sustainably at around 2 percent.

A 2% inflation target has nothing at all to do with deflation and this should be challenged more, especially when it has this Orwellian element.

It is assumed that achievement of the price stability target will be delayed due to COVID-19
and that monetary easing will be prolonged further

It is not a price stability target it is an inflation rate target. This is of particular relevance in Japan as it has had stable prices pretty much throughout the lost decade period. It is up by 0.1% in the past year and at 101.8 if we take 2015 as 100, so marginal at most. The undercut to this is that you need inflation for relative price changes. But this is also untrue as the essentially inflation-free Japan has a food price index at 105.8 and an education one of 92.7.

Policy Failure

The issue here is that as you can see above there has been a complete failure but that has not stopped other central banks from speeding down the failure road. It is what is missing from the statement below that is revealing.

: the Special Program to Support Financing in Response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19); an ample provision of
yen and foreign currency funds without setting upper limits; and active purchases of assets such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

No mention of negative interest-rates? Also the large-scale purchases of Japanese Government Bonds only get an implicit mention. Whereas by contrast the purchase of equities as in this coded language that is what “active purchases of assets such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs)” means gets highlighted. The 0.1% will be happy but as any asset price rise is omitted from the inflation indices it is entirely pointless according to their stated objective. No wonder they keep failing…

This matters because pretty much every central bank has put on their running shoes and set off in pursuit of the Bank of Japan. Ever more interest-rate cuts and ever more QE bond buying. Perhaps the most extreme case is the ECB (European Central Bank) with its -0.5% Deposit Rate and large-scale QE. On the latter subject it seems to be actively mirroring Japan.

The ECB may not need to use the full size of its recently expanded pandemic purchase program, Executive Board member Isabel Schnabel says ( Bloomberg)

This is a regular tactic of hinting at reductions whereas the reality invariably ends up on the Andrea True Connection road.

More! More! More!

Staying with the Euro area the ECB has unveiled all sorts of policies and has a balance sheet of 6.2 trillion Euros but keeps missing its stated target. We noted recently that over the past decade or so they have been around 0.7% per year below it and that is not getting any better.

In June 2020, a month in which many COVID-19 containment measures have been gradually lifted, Euro area annual inflation is expected to be 0.3%, up from 0.1% in May ( Eurostat )

Real Wage Deflation

This to my mind is the bigger issue. It used to be the case ( in what was called the NICE era by former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King) that wages grew faster than wages by 1-2% per annum. That was fading out before the credit crunch and since there have been real problems. The state of play for the leader of the pack here has been highlighted by Nippon.com.

Wage growth in Japan is also slow compared with other major economies. According to statistics published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average Japanese annual wage in 2018 was the equivalent of $46,000—a mere 0.2% increase on the figure for 2000 ($45,000).

They mean 2% and everyone else seems to be heading that way.

This increase is significantly smaller than those recorded in the same period in the United States ($53,900 to 63,100), Germany ($43,300 to 49,800), and France ($37,100 to 44,500).

The UK has gone from around $39,000 to the same as France at $44.500.

There is an obvious issue in using another currency but we have the general picture and right now it is getting worse everywhere.

Comment

The answers to the question in my title unfold as follows. In terms of central bank action we have an unequivocal yes. They have copied Japan as much as they can showing they have learnt nothing. We could replace them with an AI version ( with the hope that the I of Intelligence might apply). Related to this is the inflation issue where all the evidence is that they will continue to fail. We have here an example of failure squared where they pursue policies that do not work in pursuit of an objective which would make people worse rather than better off.

That last point feeds into the wages issue which in my opinion is the key one of our times. The Ivory Towers of the central banks still pursue policies where wages growth exceeds inflation and their models assume it. Perhaps because for them it is true. But for the rest of us it is not as real wages have struggled at best and fallen at worst. This is in spite of the increasingly desperate manipulation of inflation numbers that has been going on.

So we see different elements in different places. The Euro area is heading down the same road as Japan in terms of inflation and apart from Germany wages too. The UK is an inflation nation so that part we are if not immune a step or two away from, but that means our real wage performance is looking rather Japanese.

There is also another sub-plot.

30y gilt yield < 30y JGB yield ( Divyang Shah )

The Investing Channel

 

Negative Interest-Rates cannot stop negative household credit growth in the UK

This morning has opened with something which feels like it is becoming a regular feature. This is the advent of negative bond yields in the UK as we become one of those countries where many said it could not happen here and well I am sure you have guessed it! The two-year bond or Gilt yield is -0.07% and the five-year is -0.03%. As well as the general significance there are particular ones. For example I use the five-year bond yield as a signal for the direction of travel for mortgage rates especially fixed-rate ones. If we look at Moneyfacts we see this.

Lloyds Bank had the lowest rate in the five year remortgage chart for those looking for a 60% LTV. Its deal offers 1.35% (2.8% APRC) fixed until 31 August 2025, which then reverts to 3.59% variable. It charges £999 in product fees and comes with the incentives of free valuation, no legal fees and £200 cashback.

A 1.35% mortgage rate for five-years is extraordinarily low for the UK and reminds me I was assured they would not go below 2%. I am sure some of you are more expert than me in deciding whether what is effectively a £799 fee is good value for free legal fees and valuation?
If we switch to the two-year yield it is particularly significant as it is an implicit effect of all the Bank of England bond or Gilt buying because it does not buy bonds which have less than three years to go. So it is a knock-on effect rather than a direct result.

QE

The total of conventional QE undertaken by the Bank of England is £616.3 billion as of the end of last week. The rate of purchases was £13.5 billion which is relevant for the May money supply numbers we will be looking at today. Looking ahead to June there has been a reduction in weekly purchases to £6.9 billion so a near halving. So as you can see there has been quite a push provided to the money supply figures. It is now slower but would previously have been considered strong itself.

Also the buying of corporate bonds which now is just below £16 billion has added to the money supply and I have something to add to this element.

NEW: The Fed has posted the 794 companies whose bonds it began purchasing earlier this month as part of its “broad market index” Six companies were 10% of the index: Toyota, Volkswagen, Daimler, AT&T, Apple and Verizon  ( @NickTimiraos )

You may recall that the Bank of England is also buying Apple corporate bonds and I pointed out it will be competing with the US Federal Reserve to support what is on some counts the richest company in the world. Make of that what you will……

Engage Reverse Gear

This morning we have been updated on how much the UK plans to borrow.

To facilitate the government’s financing needs in the period until the end of August 2020, the UK Debt Management Office (DMO) is announcing that it is planning to raise a
minimum of £275 billion overall in the period April to August 2020.

Each sale reduces the money supply and I can recall a time when this was explicit policy and it was called Overfunding. Right now it would be a sub category of QT or Quantitative Tightening, should that ever happen.

Money Supply

We see that in a similar pattern to what we noted in the Euro area on Friday there is plenty being produced.

The amount of additional money deposited in banks and building societies by private sector companies and households rose strongly again in May (Chart 1). These additional sterling deposit ‘flows’ by households, private non-financial businesses (PNFCs) and financial businesses (NIOFCs), known as M4ex, rose by £52.0 billion in May. This followed large increases in March and April, of £67.3 billion and £37.8 billion respectively. The increase was driven by households and PNFCs, and continued to be strong relative to recent history: in the six months to February 2020, the average monthly increase was £9.3 billion.

The use of PNFCs is to try to take out the impact of money flows within the financial sector. Returning to the numbers we are seeing the consequences of the interest-rate cuts and the flip side ( the bonds are bought with newly produced money/liquidity) of the Bank of England QE I looked at earlier.

Last time around I pointed out we had seen 5% growth in short order and the pedal has continued to be pressed to the metal with a growth rate of 6.7% over the past three months. Or monthly growth rates which are higher than the annual one in May last year. All this has produced an annual growth rate of 11.3%.

Household Credit

This cratered again or to be more specific consumer credit.

Households repaid more loans from banks than they took out. A £4.6 billion net repayment of consumer credit more than offset a small increase in mortgage borrowing. Approvals for mortgages for house purchase fell further in May to 9,300.

I would not want to be the official at the Bank of England morning meeting who presented those numbers to the Governor. A period in a cake trolley free basement awaits. Indeed they may be grateful it does not have any salt mines when they got to this bit.

The extremely weak net flows of consumer credit meant that the annual growth rate was -3.0%, the weakest since the series began in 1994. Within this, the annual growth rate of credit card lending was negative for the third month running, falling to -10.7%, compared with 3.5% in February. Growth in other loans and advances remained positive, at 0.7%. But this was also weak relative to the recent past: in February, the growth rate was 6.8%.

Regular readers will recall when the Bank of England called an annual growth rate of 8.2% “weak” so I guess they will be echoing Ariane Grande.

I have no words

It seems like the air of desperation has impacted the banks too.

Effective rates on new personal loans to individuals fell 34 basis points to 5.10% in May. This was the lowest since the series began in 2016, and compares to a rate of around 7% at the start of 2020.

Mortgages

A small flicker.

On net, households borrowed an additional £1.2 billion secured on their homes. This was slightly higher than the £0.0 billion in April but weak compared to an average of £4.1 billion in the six months to February 2020. The increase on the month reflected more new borrowing by households, rather than lower repayments.

Looking ahead the picture was even worse.

The number of mortgage approvals for house purchase fell to a new series low in May, of 9,300 (Chart 5). This was, almost 90% below the February level (Chart 5) and around a third of their trough during the financial crisis in 2008.

We wait to see if the advent of lower mortgage rates and the re-opening of the economy will help here.

Comment

I am sure that many reading about the UK money supply surge will be singing along with The Beatles.

You never give me your money
You only give me your funny paper
And in the middle of negotiations
You break down

Some will go further.

Out of college, money spent
See no future, pay no rent
All the money’s gone, nowhere to go
Any jobber got the sack
Monday morning, turning back
Yellow lorry slow, nowhere to go

Do I spot a QE reference?

But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Oh, that magic feeling
Nowhere to go, nowhere to go

There will have been some sunshine at the Bank of England morning meeting.

Small and medium sized businesses drew down an extra £18.2 billion in loans from banks, on net, as their new borrowing increased sharply. Before May, the largest amount of net borrowing by SMEs was £589 million, in September 2016. The strong flow in May led to a sharp increase in the annual growth rate, to 11.8%.

Of course it was nothing to do with them but that seldom bothers a central bankers these days. This next bit might need hiding in the smallest print they can find though.

Podcast

 

How much do the rising national debts matter?

Quote

A symptom of the economic response to the Covid-19 virus pandemic is more government borrowing. This flows naturally into higher government debt levels and as we are also seeing shrinking economies that means the ratio between the two will be moved significantly. I see that yesterday this triggered the IMF (International Monetary Fund) Klaxon.

This crisis will also generate medium-term challenges. Public debt is projected to reach this year the highest level in recorded history in relation to GDP, in both advanced and emerging market and developing economies.

Firstly we need to take this as a broad-brush situation as we note yet another IMF forecast that was wrong, confirming another of our themes.

Compared to our April World Economic Outlook forecast, we are now projecting a deeper recession in 2020 and a slower recovery in 2021. Global output is projected to decline by 4.9 percent in 2020, 1.9 percentage points below our April forecast, followed by a partial recovery, with growth at 5.4 percent in 2021.

It is hard not to laugh. At the moment things are so uncertain that we should expect errors but the issue here is that the media treat IMF forecasts as something of note when they are regularly wrong. Be that as it may they do give us two interesting comparisons.

These projections imply a cumulative loss to the global economy over two years (2020–21) of over $12 trillion from this crisis………Global fiscal support now stands at over $10 trillion and monetary policy has eased dramatically through interest rate cuts, liquidity injections, and asset purchases.

Being the IMF we do not get any analysis on why we always seem to need economic support.

What do they suggest?

Here come’s the IMF playbook.

Policy support should also gradually shift from being targeted to being more broad-based. Where fiscal space permits, countries should undertake green public investment to accelerate the recovery and support longer-term climate goals. To protect the most vulnerable, expanded social safety net spending will be needed for some time.

Readers will have differing views on the green washing but that is simply an attempt at populism which once can understand. After all if you has made such a hash of the situation in Argentina and Greece you would want some PR too. That leads me to the last sentence, were the poor protected in Greece and Argentina under the IMF? No.

The IMF has another go.

Countries will need sound fiscal frameworks for medium-term consolidation, through cutting back on wasteful spending, widening the tax base, minimizing tax avoidance, and greater progressivity in taxation in some countries.

Would the “wasteful spending” include the part of this below that props up Zombie companies?

and impacted firms should be supported via tax deferrals, loans, credit guarantees, and grants.

Now I know it is an extreme case but this piece of news makes me think.

BERLIN (Reuters) – German payments company Wirecard said on Thursday it was filing to open insolvency proceedings after disclosing a $2.1 billion financial hole in its accounts.

You see the regulator was on the case but….

German financial watchdog #Bafin last year banned short selling in its shares, and filed a criminal complaint against FT journalists who had written critical pieces. .. ( @BoersenDE)

Whereas now it says this.

The head of Germany’s financial watchdog says the Wirecard situations is “a disaster” and “a shame”. He accepts there have been failings at his own institution. “I salute” those journalists and short-sellers who were digging out inconsistencies on it , he says. ( MAmdorsky )

As you can see the establishment has a shocking record in this area and I have personal experience of it blaming those reporting financial crime rather than the criminals. I raise the issue on two counts. Firstly I am expecting a raft of fraud in the aid schemes and secondly I would point out that short-selling has a role in revealing financial crime. Whereas the media often lazily depict it as being a plaything of rich financiers and hedge funds. Returning directly to today’s theme the fraud will be a wastage in terms of debt being acquired but with no positive economic impulse afterwards.

Still I am sure the Bank of England is not trying to have its cake and eat it.

Join us on 30 June for an interactive webinar with restaurateur, chef and The Great British Bake Off judge, @PrueLeith . Find out more and register for your place here: b-o-e.uk/2CsGokX

Debt is cheap

The IMF does touch on this although not directly.

monetary policy has eased dramatically through interest rate cuts, liquidity injections, and asset purchases.

It does not have time for the next step, although it does have time for some rhetoric.

In many countries, these measures have succeeded in supporting livelihoods and prevented large-scale bankruptcies, thus helping to reduce lasting scars and aiding a recovery.

Then it tip-toes around the subject in a “look at the wealth effects” sort of way.

This exceptional support, particularly by major central banks, has also driven a strong recovery in financial conditions despite grim real outcomes. Equity prices have rebounded, credit spreads have narrowed, portfolio flows to emerging market and developing economies have stabilized, and currencies that sharply depreciated have strengthened.

Let me now give you some actual figures and I am deliberately choosing longer-dated bonds as the extra debt will need to be dealt with over quite a period of time. In the US the long bond ( 30 years) yields 1.42%, in the UK the fifty-year Gilt yields 0.43%, in Japan the thirty-year yield is 0.56% and in Germany it is -0.01%. Even Italy which is doing its best to look rather insolvent only has a fifty-year yield of 2.45%

I know that it is an extreme case due to its negative bond yields but Germany is paying less and less in debt interest per year. According to Eurostat it was 23.1 billion in 2017 but was only 18.5 billion in May of this year. Care is needed because most countries pay a yield on their debt but presently the central banks have made sure that the cost is very low. Something that the IMF analysis ( deliberately ) omits.

Comment

So we are going to see lots more national debt. However the old style analysis presented by the IMF has a few holes in it. For a start they are comparing a stock (debt) with an annual flow (GDP). For the next few years the real issue is whether it can be afforded and it seems that central banks are determined to make it so. Here is yet another example.

Brazil may experiment with negative interest rates to combat a historic recession, says a former central bank chief who presided over some of the highest borrowing costs in the country’s recent history ( @economics)

That is really rather mindboggling! Brazil with negative interest-rates? Anyway even the present 2.25% is I think a record low.

If we go back to debt costs then we can look at the Euro area where they were 2.1% of GDP in 2017 but are expected to be 1.7% over the next year. Now that does not allow for the raft of debt that will be issued but of course a few countries will be paid to issue ( thank you ECB!). The outlier will be Italy.

Looking further ahead there is the capital issue as this builds up. I do not mean in terms of repayment as not even the Germans are thinking of that presently. I mean that as it builds up it does have a psychological effect which is depressing on economic activity as we learnt from Greece. Which leads onto the final point which is that in the end we need economic growth, yes the same economic growth which even before the pandemic crisis was in short supply.

 

The ECB bails out the banks yet again, the Euro area economy not so much

One of the battles in economics is between getting data which is timely and it being accurate and reliable. Actually we struggle with the latter points full stop but especially if we try to produce numbers quickly. As regular readers will be aware we have been observing this problem in relation to the Markit Purchasing Manager Indices for several years now. They produce numbers which if this was a London gangster movie would be called “sharpish” but have missed the target on more than a few occasions and in he case of the Irish pharmaceutical cliff their arrow not only missed the target but the whole field as well.

Things start well as we note this.

The eurozone economic downturn eased markedly
for a second successive month in June as
lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus
disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak were further
relaxed, according to provisional PMI® survey data.
The month also saw a continued strong
improvement in business expectations for the year
ahead.

As it is from the 12th to the 22nd of this month it is timely as well but then things go rather wrong.

The flash IHS Markit Eurozone Composite PMI rose
further from an all-time low of 13.6 seen back in
April, surging to 47.5 in June from 31.9 in May. The
15.6-point rise was by far the largest in the survey
history with the exception of May’s record increase.
The latest gain took the PMI to its highest since
February, though still indicated an overall decline in
business output.

Actually these numbers if we note the Financial Times wrong-footed more than a few it would appear.

The rise in the eurozone flash Composite PMI in June confirms that economic output in the region is recovering rapidly from April’s nadir as restrictions are progressively eased. ( Capital Economics )

Today’s PMI numbers provide further evidence of what initially looks like a textbook V-shaped recovery. As much as more than a month of (full) lockdowns had sent economies into a standstill, the gradual reopenings of the last two months have led to a sharp rebound in activity. ( ING Di-Ba)

The latter is an extraordinary effort as a number below 50 indicates a further contraction albeit with a number of 47.5 a minor one. So we have gone enormous contraction , what would have been called an enormous contraction if they one before had not taken place and now a minor one. But the number now has to be over 50 as the economy picks up and this below is not true.

Output fell again in both manufacturing and
services, the latter showing the slightly steeper rate
of decline

On a monthly basis output rose as it probably did at the end of last month, it is just that it is doing so after a large fall. The one number which was positive was still way too low.

Flash France Composite Output Index) at 51.3
in June (32.1 in May), four-month high.

For what it is worth the overall view is as follows.

We therefore continue to expect GDP to slump by over 8% in 2020 and, while the recovery may start in the third quarter, momentum could soon fade meaning it will likely
take up to three years before the eurozone regains
its pre-pandemic level of GDP.

Actual Data

From Statistics Netherlands.

In May 2020, prices of owner-occupied dwellings (excluding new constructions) were on average 7.7 percent up on the same month last year. This price increase is higher than in the previous months.

Well that will cheer the European Central Bank or ECB. Indeed ECB President Lagarde may have a glass of champagne in response to this.

 In May 2020, house prices reached the highest level ever. Compared to the low in June 2013, house prices were up by 47.8 percent on average in that month.

Staying with the Netherlands and switching to the real economy we see this.

According to figures released by Statistics Netherlands (CBS), in April 2020 consumers spent 17.4 percent less than in April 2019. This is by far the largest contraction in domestic household consumption which has ever been recorded by CBS. Consumers mainly spent less on services, durable goods and motor fuels; on the other hand, they spent more on food, beverages and tobacco.

If we try to bring that up to date we see that if sentiment is any guide things have improved but are still weak.

At -27, the consumer confidence indicator in June stands far below its long-term average over the past two decades (-5). The indicator reached an all-time high (36) in January 2000 and an all-time low (-41) in March 2013.

Moving south to France we were told this earlier today.

In June 2020, the business climate has recovered very clearly, in connection with the acceleration of the lockdown exit. The indicator that synthesizes it, calculated from the responses of business managers from the main market sectors, has gained 18 points, its largest monthly increase since the start of the series (1980).

The jump is good news for the French economy although the rhetoric above does not match the detail.

At 78, the business climate has exceeded the low point reached in March 2009 (70), but remains far below its long-term average (100).

The situation is even worse for employment.

At 66, the employment climate still remains far below its May 2009 low (73), and, a fortiori, its long-term average (100).

Oh and staying with France I know some of you like to note these numbers.

At the end of Q1 2020, Maastricht’s debt reached €2,438.5 billion, a €58.4 billion increase in comparison to Q4 2019. It accounted for 101.2% of gross domestic product (GDP), 3.1 points higher than last quarter, the highest increase since Q2 2019.

Just as a reminder the UK measuring rod is different and tends to be around 4% of GDP lower. But of course both measures will be rising quickly in both France and the UK.

Comment

Let me now switch to a speech given earlier today by Philip Lane of the ECB.

 Euro area output contracted by a record 3.6 percent in the first quarter of the year and is projected to decline by a further 13 percent in the second quarter. While growth will partially rebound in the second half of this year, output is projected to return to the level prevailing at the end of 2019 only at the end of 2022.

In fact all of that is open to doubt as the first quarter numbers will be revised over time and as discussed above we do not know where we are right now. The forecasts are not realistic but manufactured to make other criteria such as the debt metrics look better than otherwise.

Also there is a real problem with the rhetoric below which is the cause of the policy change which was the Euro area economy slowing.

Thanks to the recalibration of our monetary policy measures announced in September 2019 – namely the cut in our deposit facility rate, enhanced forward guidance, the resumption of net asset purchases under the asset purchase programme (APP) and the easing of TLTRO III pricing – sizeable monetary accommodation was already in place when Europe was confronted with the COVID-19 shock.

As that was before this phase he is trying to hide the problem of having a gun from which nearly all the bullets have been fired. If we cut through the waffle what we are seeing are yet more banking subsidies.

The TLTRO programme complements our asset purchases and negative interest rate policy by ensuring the smooth transmission of the monetary policy stance through banks.

How much well here was @fwred last week.

ECB’s TLTRO-III.4 : €1308bn The Largest Longer Term Refinancing Operation ever………Banks look set to benefit, big time. All TLTRO-III will have an interest rate as low as -1% between Jun-20 and Jun-21, resulting in a gross transfer to banks of around €15bn. Most banks should qualify. Add tiering and here you are: from NIRP to a net transfer to banks!

So the banks get what they want which is interest-rate cuts to boost amongst other things their mortgage books which is going rather well in the Netherlands. Then when they overdose on negative interest-rates they are bailed out, unlike consumers and businesses. Another sign we live in a bankocracy.

Apparently the economy will win though says the judge,jury and er the defence and witness rather like in Blackadder.

An illustrative counterfactual exercise by ECB staff suggests that the TLTRO support in removing tail risk would be in the order of three percentage points of euro area real GDP growth in cumulative terms over 2020-22.

Austria

I nearly forgot to add that Austria is issuing another century bond today and yes I do mean 100 years. Even more extraordinary is that the yield looks set to be around 0.9%.

The Investing Channel

 

 

Is the Bank of England financing the UK government?

Today’s subject does have historical echoes as who can consider this sort of topic without thinking at least once of Weimar Germany with its wheelbarrows full of bank notes and Zimbabwe with its trillion dollar note? These days we need to include Venezuela which cannot even provide a water supply now. There are three good reasons therefore why central bank Governors should tread very carefully around this particular subject. So it was curious to see the Governor of the Bank of England long jump into this particular pit yesterday in a Sky News podcast.

The government would have struggled to fund itself if the Bank of England had not intervened during the market “meltdown” of COVID-19, the Bank’s governor has told Sky News.

In an exclusive interview, Andrew Bailey said that in the early stages of the virus, Britain came within a whisker of not being able to sell its debt – something many would characterise as effective insolvency.

There are elements of the first paragraph which are true but “came within a whisker of not being able to sell its debt” is a curious thing to say and if we are being less kind is in fact outright stupid. We are also guided by Sky News to this.

While there was an uncovered gilt auction in 2009 – in other words, the government was unable to find buyers for all of the debt it was selling to investors – it was widely seen as a one-off.

They are trying to make this sound a big deal but it isn’t really. For example over the past few years I can recall Germany having several uncovered bond or what they call bund auctions. Nobody considered them to be within a whisker of being unable to sell their debt, in fact Germany had a very strong fiscal position. Here as an example id CNBC from the 21st of August last year.

The bund, set to mature in 2050, has a zero coupon, meaning it pays no interest. Germany offered 2 billion euros worth of 30-year bunds, and investors were willing to buy less than half of it, with a yield of minus 0.11%.

What was it about having to pay to own the bond and do so for around 30 years that put investors off? That of course provides the clue here which both Sky and Governor Bailey either have not figured out or are deliberately ignoring. The debt did not sell because of the price at which it was offered was considered too expensive. Germany could have sold its debt if it was willing to pay more,

How did the Bank of England respond?

Mr Bailey warned that the dislocation in markets in March was even more serious, prompting the Bank to intervene with £200bn of quantitative easing – the biggest single cash injection in its history.

Actually it also cut Bank Rate to 0.1% and there is significance in the date which was the 19th of March. That is because the price of our debt was rising which has been summarised by the Governor like this.

The governor said: “We basically had a pretty near meltdown of some of the core financial markets.

“We had a lot of volatility in core markets: the core exchange rate, core government bond markets.

“We were seeing things that were pretty unprecedented, certainly in recent times. And we were facing serious disorder.”

If we look at the UK we were seeing a rise in Gilt yields as the benchmark ten-year yield rose quickly from an all-time low of 0.12% on the 9th of March to 0.87% on the 19th. We have seen much worse in the past and I have worked through some of them! In historical terms we still had very low Gilt yields and so it looks as if we are seeing another case of this from a central bank.

Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself
Could life ever be sane again? ( The Smiths)

The job of calming down world financial markets was a dollar issue and was dealt with the next day by the US Federal Reserve.

The Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, the Federal Reserve, and the Swiss National Bank are today announcing a coordinated action to further enhance the provision of liquidity via the standing U.S. dollar liquidity swap line arrangements.

We will never know now how much things would have improved in response to this as a panic stricken Bank of England fired as many weapons as it could. As a technical factor overseas QE bond buying helps other markets via spread and international bond buyers. Whether that would have been enough is a moot point or as central bankers regularly try to point out, the counterfactual! We do know from experience that it is a powerful force exhibited in say Italy which only saw bond yields rise to 3% and that only briefly recently as opposed to 7% last time around.

Anyway even the relatively minor rise in UK Gilt yields has the Governor claiming this.

Asked what would have happened had the Bank not intervened, Mr Bailey said: “I think the prospects would have been very bad. It would have been very serious.

“I think we would have a situation where in the worst element, the government would have struggled to fund itself in the short run.”

Okay so he is in effect claiming to have funded the government although not long afterwards he claims that he is not.

The Bank’s decision to create so much money and use it to buy government bonds, including an extra £100bn only last week, has prompted some to ask whether it is in effect financing the government’s borrowing. Mr Bailey rejected the accusations of “monetary financing”.

“At no point have we thought that our job was just to finance whatever debts the government issue,” he said, pointing out that the objective was to ensure economic stability.

Ah so not inflation targeting then?

Comment

The situation here was explained back in the day in an episode of Yes Prime Minister and the emphasis is mine.

We believe that it is about time that the Bank ( of England) had a Governor who is known to be both intelligent and competent. Although an innovation it should certainly be tried.  ( Treasury Permanent Secretary Sir Frank)

As you can see this was a topic in the 1980s and it still is. The present Governor was in such a rush to indulge in “open mouth operations” to boast about his role in the crisis that he not only overstepped the mark he made some factual errors. The UK government could have funded itself but it would have to have paid more for the debt. It could have activated the Ways and Means account earlier than it did as well if needed ( we looked at this on the 9th of April). So we see several of my themes at play. The Bank of England is implicitly but not explicitly funding the UK government right now just like the Bank of Japan, ECB and US Federal Reserve,something I pointed out on the 6th of April.

Let me finish off on the subject of monetary financing. The simple truth is that we have an implicit form of it right now.

This means that it is about as independent as a poodle (another theme). It tends to panic in a crisis and new Governor’s tend to reward their appointment with an interest-rate cut. I cannot take full credit for the latter as that was in Yes Prime Minister as well.

Also in the podcast was a reference to this.

The governor signalled that the government may need to consider finding a vehicle to resolve the many bad debts left by companies that fail over the COVID-19 period.

“If (a bad bank) were to be contemplated, it would be as a sort of an an asset management vehicle: how do we manage small firms through a problem that they would get as a result of the loans that they’ve taken on to deal with the crisis?”

Somebody needs to tell him the UK taxpayer has one of those and it is called Royal Bank of Scotland with a share price of £1.24 as opposed to the Fiver we “invested” at.

Let me finish by giving Governor Bailey some credit for a burst of much needed honesty.

“We’ve been mis-forecasting the labour market for some time because the traditional models just didn’t seem to hold.

We can add that to his apparent enthusiasm for changing policy on the subject of any QT in a direction I have been recommending since September 2013.

Podcast

 

 

Will the UK be raising or reducing taxes?

The UK Public Finances data we looked at on Friday has triggered something of a policy response. Or at least some proposals, although if we look at the Financial Times the messaging has got itself in a mess.

Rishi Sunak is planning to defer tax rises and cut public spending in his Autumn Budget after delivering a further stimulus for the UK economy.

That looks a little confused on its own with its message of a stimulus followed by what looks like a lagged version of what has become known as austerity. That leads us to something of a collision between economics 101 and likely human behaviour. Let me explain with reference to the suggested plans.

The Treasury is first considering a temporary cut to value added tax and specific reductions in the rate for some sectors, according to those close to the chancellor, following significant pressure from industry and Tory MPs. A lower VAT rate for the tourism sector — including pubs, restaurants and hotels — is one option being discussed.

Okay and when would it happen?

This could come as early as July as the government prepares to scrap the two-metre social distancing rule and replace it with “one metre plus” guidelines that are likely to include further use of masks and physical screens.

Okay so there is an Undertone(s) here.

Its going to happen – happen – till your change your mind
Its going to happen – happen – happens all the time
Its going to happen – happen – till your change your mind.

Economic Impact

We do have some recent evidence for the impact of what is a change in a consumption tax and it comes from Japan last autumn. So let us remind ourselves via the Japan Times.

Japan saw a 6.3 percent economic contraction in the last three months of 2019, fueling criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to carry out the tax increase at a vulnerable time for the economy. After factoring in the early signs of impact from the coronavirus, analysts now believe the economy is falling into recession.

That is in the American annualised style and as we note the further downward revision and convert we now see the economy shrank by 1.9% in that quarter, driven by factors like this.

Like many people in Japan, she isn’t planning to splash out again anytime soon, leaving the economy teetering on the edge of recession. And that was before the spreading coronavirus gave yet more cause for caution.

“These days, I really scrutinize the price tags,” Mitsui said.

The economic consequence of this change in behaviour is shown below.

Household spending fell for the third straight month in December on the continued impact of October’s consumption tax hike together with sluggish demand for winter items due to warm temperatures, government data showed Friday.

Spending by households with two or more people dropped 4.8 percent in real terms from a year earlier to ¥321,380 ($2,900), the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications said.

The collective impact on the quarter was for a 3% fall in private consumption on the quarter.

So we see that a consumption tax rise led to quite a drop in the economy thus we have some hope for the impact of the reverse. Indeed the impact looks really rather powerful. This reinforces the impact we saw of the VAT rise back in 2010. One area where we have less evidence is the impact of inflation which is harder to read. I would expect there to be a welcome disinflationary effect in the UK that is stronger that we would see in Japan. Why? Well price rises in Japan tend to not have secondary impacts on inflation and of course there were two other factors. The Japanese economy was slowing anyway as the consumption tax brake was applied and now we have the further impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Bank of Japan calculates various inflation indices to try to suggest its policies are working but the latest release excluding the effects of the consumption tax rises suggests inflation is er 0% ( actually slightly below), so if you like what is normal for Japan.

What next?

There is a possible worm in the apple of the UK plans, so let us return to the FT.

But any move to lower VAT — at considerable cost to the exchequer — would come with a sting in the tail, as Mr Sunak works up proposals for deferred tax rises and lower public spending as part of the autumn Budget.

The message switches from “Spend! Spend! Spend!” to tighten your belts which adds a layer of confusion. For younger and overseas readers the spend quote is from Viv Nicholson who won the (football) pools which was analagous to winning the lottery now and I think you have already figured her plan.

The response seems to have been influenced at least to some extent by mis-reporting like this, which I noted on social media over the weekend.

There has been some really rather poor reporting from the BBC today with analysis by @DharshiniDavid

“UK debt now larger than size of whole economy”

There were several factors at play such as the policies of the Bank of England inflating the recorded numbers by £195.6 billion whereas even in pessimistic scenario it might not be a tenth of that. Also the numbers were not only based on a forecast they were based on a forecast by the Office of Budget Responsibility which has lived down to its reputation by being wrong yet again. How much of an influence that was in this is hard to say.

Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough and a former Treasury adviser, said: “We simultaneously need a stimulus now to fight recession, but also need to roll the pitch so that we can deal with very high levels of debt.”

Neil seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it. An excellent idea in theory but one which crumbles in practice. However his lack of realism is typical of someone who has been involved at the Treasury. Next is an anonymous effort at sticking the boot in.

Another former Tory minister said the public finances were so stretched that a fiscal tightening would be necessary before long: “The public aren’t going to like it but it feels like either spending cuts or tax rises are going to be necessary soon.”

Comment

The situation is on one level quite simple. Will a VAT cut boost the economy? Yes it will both directly as people spend more and then via a secondary effect of lower inflation via some lower prices. The second bit is awkward for the inflationistas so we may not seem them for a day or two. The undercut is the impact on the public finances which will be added to the £8.6 billion fall in VAT receipts in the year so far. There will be some amelioration as for example people dash for a haircut or a pint of beer at their local pub, but overall receipts will be lower. The overall impact depends on the economic boost and how long it lasts and the evidence we have is positive.

Switching to the public finances the numbers are not as bad as some have claimed, partly because of a factor which should get more publicity. In the fiscal year so far (April and May) the cost of our debt fell by £1.1 billion to £8.4 billion due to lower inflation and the fact our ordinary debt is so cheap to finance. I would be switching as much debt as I could to the fifty-year maturity at a yield of around 0.5% and in fact would issue some 100 year Gilts. In the long run we will have to deal with the capital issue of the debt we are issuing at an express rate but as it is cheap the interest implications are relatively minor. What we need to squarer the circle is some economic growth. That will reduce the tax increases required.

Let me end by looking at the other side of the coin from the slice of humble pie i put in front of myself on Friday. So a slap on the back for this.

Regular readers will be aware that I wrote a piece in City-AM in September 2013 suggesting the Bank of England should let maturing Gilts do just that. So by now we would have trimmed the total down a fair bit which would be logical over a period where we have seen economic growth which back then was solid, hence my suggestion.

Because it seems to be on the radar of the present Governor.

#Monetary policy – significant change of approach suggested by #BOE governor #Bailey – says may be best for the bank to start reversing its asset purchases before raising interest rates on a sustained basis. Opposite view to that which has been held at BoE ( @HowardArcherUK )

 

 

 

 

UK Retail Sales and Public-Sector Borrowing Surge

We were supposed to be receiving some grand news from the Bank of England this morning. But in fact we find ourselves simply noting a rather botched public relations spinning effort.

You spin me right round, baby
Right round like a record, baby
Right round round round ( Dead or Alive)

The main movement was in the value of the UK Pound £ which fell by around 1% so we saw using the old rule of thumb monetary easing equivalent to a 0.25% Bank Rate cut. How much of that was due to the PR shambles?

Anyway there was some good news in an implied better trajectory for the UK economy and that has been backed by the data this morning.

The monthly growth rate in May 2020 is strong because of a combination of recent increasingly rapid growth in non-store retailing and a pick-up for non-food stores from the lowest levels ever experienced.

Also let me give the Office for National Statistics credit for this.

Weights to total retail are calculated from the amount of money typically spent in each retail sector and used as a proportion to calculate growth contributions. For example, around 38.1 pence of every pound is typically spent in food stores, providing us with a weight of 38.1 to total retail. In May 2020, these proportions were recalculated to reflect the changes in spending during the pandemic. The amount of money spent in food stores increased to 51.4%,

In what are volatile and uncertain times one needs to keep on our toes and this example should be spread to the inflation numbers. The data should reflect as best we can what is happening not a world “far,far,away”. As you can see,doing so makes quite a difference. The number below gives a hint of how the inflation data would be affected and in my opinion it is a great shame that the Bank of England Minutes ignored this factor yesterday.

Fuel sales usually has a weight of just over 10.4% to total retail, but was at around 5.5% in May 2020, resulting in a positive contribution of 2.3 and 2.7 percentage points for value and volume sales respectively.

Actually the release even hints at this.

Fuel prices also continued to fall in May 2020………When compared with the same month a year earlier, fuel prices fell by 14.9%

However whilst the monthly improvement was very welcome and you might like to note was another example of the “expert” forecasters missing the dartboard as they were expecting more like 6% growth as opposed to 12% or so, we need a deeper perspective.

While we see some partial bounce back on the monthly growth rate in May 2020 at 12.0%, levels of sales do not recover from the strong falls seen in March and April 2020 and are still down by 13.1% on February 2020 before the impact of the corona virus pandemic.

Putting this another way the volume index was 93.7 in May if we set 2016 as the base level of 100. Previously the numbers were bouncing around 108.

I doubt any of you will be surprised by the shift to online retailing.

Online sales as a proportion of all retailing reached a record high of 33.4% in May 2020, exceeding the original record reported last month of 30.7%.

There was a larger uptake of online spending for food, which reached record proportions, from 9.3% in April to 11.3% in May.

Should consumers continue with this trend this is more bad news for the high street. Although as a counterpoint the mobs that descended on the shops which opened recently suggests there is some hope, although the health message sent from that was rather different.

Public Finances

Let me start with an apology as I was asked about this and thought it would probably take place in June.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks, PSND ex) at the end of May 2020 was 100.9% of gross domestic product (GDP), the first time that debt as a percentage of GDP has exceeded 100% since the financial year ending March 1963.

There are a couple of factors in my defence however and one of them we have just been noting. That is a further hint that the economy is doing better than the consensus expectations. Oh and my first rule of OBR Club is likely to help me out.

 the current estimate of GDP used to calculate this ratio uses forecasts based on expectations published in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR’s) Coronavirus Reference Scenario.

They look well on their way to being wrong again. Also there is the large £13.9 billion revision to borrowing for April and we learn quite a bit from it. Take a look at this for example.

Central government tax receipts and National Insurance contributions for April 2020 have been increased by £5.4 billion and £2.4 billion respectively compared with those published in our previous bulletin (published 22 May 2020). Within tax receipts, Pay As You Earn income tax has been increased by £3.0 billion and Value Added Tax has been increased by £2.8 billion, both because of updated data.

As you can see there is another hint from the numbers that the economy was doing better than so far reported in April as we see upwards revisions to both income and expenditure taxes.Indeed the numbers have quite a conceptual problem as we mull whether imputation is like a pandemic?

In other words, we attempt to record receipts at the point where the liability arose, rather than when the tax is actually paid.

Oh and you can’t say I have not regularly warned you about the OBR!

On 4 June 2020, the OBR published an update to its Corona Virus analysis in which it reduced previous estimates of CJRS expenditure.

Perspective

We can start with May.

Over this period, the public sector borrowed £55.2 billion, £49.6 billion more than it borrowed in May 2019.

But via the revisions noted above we have already seen how unreliable a single month is so we do a little better looking at this.

In the current financial year-to-date (April to May 2020), the public sector borrowed £103.7 billion, £87.0 billion more than in the same period last year.

Although we need to note that we will be lucky if it is accurate to the nearest £10 billion. Within the receipts numbers there are some points of note. The Retail Sales numbers with monthly rises of 30%,61% and now 3,6% for the category with includes alcohol sales meets alcohol duty receipts which have fallen from £2.1 billion to £1.6 billion. Perhaps a health kick has been going on as tobacco receipts fall by £400 million to £1 billion. Also a slowing in the housing market is kicking in as Stamp Duty receipts fall from £2 billion to £1.1 billion.

Switching to the national debt there is this.

Debt (PSND ex) at the end of May 2020 was £1,950.1 billion, an increase of £173.2 billion (or 20.5 percentage points) compared with May 2019, the largest year-on-year increase in debt as a percentage of GDP on record (monthly records began in March 1993).

Comment

We have some welcome news today on the economy but context is needed as we have still experienced quite a drop, simply one which is smaller than reported so far. There is an irony in the two numbers released as we see this being reported which gives a worse impression.

Just in: UK government debt exceeded the size of the country’s economy in May for the first time in more than 50 years, official data published on Friday showed, as borrowing surged to pay for coronavirus response measures ( Financial Times)

Having awarded myself a slice of humble pie let me move onto an issue that the more clickbaity reports have ignored.

If we were to remove the temporary debt impact of APF and TFS, public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) at the end of May 2020 would reduce by £195.5 billion (or 10.1% percentage points of GDP) to £1,754.6 billion (or 90.8% of GDP).

That is the role of the Bank of England in raising the reported level of the national debt and frankly this bit below is one of the silliest inclusions.

As a result of these gilt holdings, the impact of the APF on public sector net debt stands at £95.7 billion, the difference between the nominal value of its gilt holdings and the market value it paid at the time of purchase. Note that the final debt impact of the APF depends on the disposal of the gilts at the end of the scheme.

Oh well. Let me end by bringing yesterday’s extra QE bond purchases and the borrowing together with these two numbers.

At the end of May 2020, the gilt holdings of the APF have increased by £46.7 billion (at nominal value) compared with the end of April 2020, to £475.1 billion in total. This increase is of a similar order of magnitude to the new issuance by the DMO in May 2020, which means that gilt holdings by units other than the APF have changed very little since April 2020.

As I have pointed out before if we take a broad brush the Bank of England is implicitly financing the government spending. That is why we can borrow so cheaply with some gilt yields negative and the fifty-year a mere 0.55%.

 

 

“All bets are off” as the Bank of England holds a “secret” press conference

Today is the turn of the Bank of England to take centre stage. On a personal level it raises a wry smile as when I was a market maker in UK short sterling options (known as a local) on the LIFFE floor it was the most important day of the month and often make or break. At other times it has been a more implicit big deal. Actually there is no likely change to short-term interest-rates on the cards. Perusing my old stomping ground shows that in fact not much action is expected at all with a pretty flat curve out to March 2024 when maybe a rise to the giddy heights of 0.25% is expected. Personally I think there is a solid chance we will see negative interest-rates first but that is not how the market is set this morning. Also I note that volumes are not great suggesting they are not expecting much today either.

If course some may be “more equal than others” to use that famous phrase as the Monetary Policy Committee voted last night following one of the previous Governor’s ( Mark Carney) “improvements”. He was of the opinion that getting his Minutes and PR prepared was more important than the risk of the vote leaking. Whereas the reality is that central banks are in fact rather leaky vessels.

Nationwide

There will have been consternation at the Bank of England when this news arrived at its hallowed doors. From the BBC.

The UK’s biggest building society has tripled the minimum deposit it will ask for from first-time buyers. The Nationwide will lower its ceiling for mortgage lending to new customers in response to the coronavirus crisis.It said the change, from Thursday, was due to “these unprecedented times and an uncertain mortgage market”.

I do not know if the new Governor Andrew Bailey has the same sharp temper as his predecessor Mark Carney but if he does it would have been in display. After all policy is essentially to get the housing market going once we peer beneath the veneer. Nearly £118 billion of cheap funding ( at the Bank Rate of 0.1%) has been deployed via the Term Funding Scheme(s) to keep the housing market wheels oiled. Also the news looks timed to just precede the MPC meeting.

In terms of detail there it is aimed at first-time buyers which is only likely to anger the Governor more.

First-time buyers are likely to be the most significantly affected because they often have smaller amounts saved to get on the property ladder.

Nationwide has reduced the proportion of a home’s value that is willing to lend from 95% to 85%.

So for example, if a property costs £100,000, a new buyer would now need a £15,000 deposit rather than a £5,000 deposit.

If we look back in time this is a familiar feature of house price falls. As mortgage borrowing becomes more restrained that by its very nature tends to pull house prices lower. For larger falls then it usually requites surveyors to join the party by down valuing some properties which as they are pack animals can spread like wildfire. The quote below shows that the situation is complex.

Some lenders, such as HSBC, still have mortgages with a 90% loan-to-value ratio. However, there is more demand for that type of mortgage than many banks have the capacity to deal with at the moment, he said.

Policy

We have already seen an extraordinary set of moves here. We have a record low interest-rate of 0.1% which is quite something from a body which had previously assured us that the “lower-bound” was 0.5%. There is a link to today’s news from this because it was building societies like the Nationwide and their creaking IT systems which got the blame for this, although ironically I think they did us a favour.

Next comes a whole barrage of Quantitative Easing and Credit Easing policies. The headliner here is the purchases of UK bonds ( Gilts) which by my maths passed the £600 billion mark just before 2 pm yesterday as it progresses at a weekly rate of £13.5 billion. This means that they are implicitly financing the UK public-sector right now, something I pointed out when the Ways and Means issue arose. We see that as I note that the UK Debt Management Office has issued some £14.4 billion of new UK bonds or Gilts this week. Whilst the Bank of England did not buy any of these it did oil the wheels with its purchases which means that the net issuance figure is £900 million which is rather different to £14.4 billion. On that road we see how both the two-year yield ( -0.07%) and the five-year yield ( -0,02%) are negative as I type this. Even the fifty-year yield is a mere 0.38%.

There has also been some £15 billion of Corporate Bond buying so far. This policy has not gone well as so desperate are they to find bonds to buy that they have bought some of Apple’s bonds. Yes the company with the enormous cash pile. Also I sure the Danes are grateful we are supporting their shipping company Maersk as it appears to need it, but they are probably somewhat bemused.

As to credit easing I have already noted the Term Funding Scheme and there is also the Covid Financing Facility where it buys Commercial Paper. Some £16.3 billion has been bought so far. Those who like a hot sausage roll may be pleased Greggs have been supported to the tune of £30 million, although North London is likely to be split on tribal lines by the £175 million for Spurs.

Comment

These days central banks and governments are hand in glove. Operationally that is required because the QE and credit easing measures require the backing of the taxpayer via HM Treasury. More prosaically the Chancellor Rishi Sunak can borrow at ultra low levels due to Bank of England policies and will do doubt raise a glass of champagne to them. Amazingly some put on such powerful sunglasses that they call this independence. Perhaps they were the ones who disallowed Sheffield United’s goal last night.

However the ability to help the economy is more problematical and was once described as like “pushing on a string”. This is not helped by the issues with our official statistics as we not inflation has been under recorded as I explained yesterday as has unemployment ( it was 5% + not the 3.9% reported) and the monthly drop of 20.4% in GDP has a large error range too. Because of that I have some sympathy for the MPC but I have no sympathy for the “secret” press conference it is holding at 1 pm. Then its “friends” will be able to release the details at 2:30 pm with no official confirmation until tomorrow.

So there are two issues. That is a form of corruption and debases what is left of free markets even more. Next it is supposed to be a publicly accountable institution with transparent policy. Along the way it means that the chances of a more aggressive policy announcement have just risen or as the bookie says in the film Snatch.

All bets are off

UK inflation measurement is in crisis

It is Wednesday so it is inflation numbers day in the UK. If that feels a little out of key then you are right as they used to be on a Tuesday and the labour market data set followed the next day. But in a sad indictment of our rulers it was decided that releasing the labour market numbers at 9:30 today did not give then enough time to spin, excuse me, analyse the numbers in time for Prime Ministers Questions at lunchtime. The theme of being out of tune though continues today as we note the ongoing problems in simply collecting the prices.

As a result of the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we identified 74 CPIH items (or 14.2% of the CPIH basket by weight) that were unavailable to UK consumers in May, as detailed in table 58 of the Consumer price inflation dataset; this is down from 90 unavailable items in April; compared with the February 2020 index (the most recent “normal” collection), we have collected a weighted total of 81.6% (excluding unavailable items) of the number of price quotes for the May 2020 index, although the coverage varies across the range of items.

There is a clear issue with being unable to collect some of the data. Added to that is the fact that prices which are unavailable are likely to be the ones which have risen in price. For example the new HDP ( High Demand Products) measure had to drop out things like face masks and hand sanitiser for a while which introduces a downwards bias to the reading. What happens when they cannot record something? Well let me hand you over to the BBC explanation.

The ONS admitted that it had difficulty compiling inflation statistics for May, since many areas of the economy were completely shut down.

For instance, inflation figures for holidays had had to be “imputed”, it said.

Of course some will be pleased by this as there is a lot of official enthusiasm for imputing prices as they have demonstrated in the area of rents. For newer readers the official CPIH measure uses fantasy rents to impute owner-occupied housing costs. This is the reason in spite of all the official effort it remains widely ignored as I doubt anyone charges themselves rent to live in their own home. Even worse they have had real trouble measuring actual rents and you do not have to take my word for it,just read the release from earlier this week.

To achieve this, completely new innovative methodology will be needed. In October 2019, we started building a prototype using a new methodology with the capability to meet the aims specified in Section 3.

Perhaps we will get inflation numbers with this year’s rents rather than last years? It is rather conspicuous that they have failed to answer my question on this subject

Today’s Data

A further fall was recorded in terms of the annual rate

The all items CPI annual rate is 0.5%, down from 0.8% in April……The all items CPI is 108.5, unchanged from last month.

As you can see prices were unchanged on a monthly basis although there were shifts in the structure.

The CPI all goods index annual rate is -0.9%, down from -0.4% last month……The CPI all services index annual rate is 1.9%, down from 2.0% last month.

That is intriguing as we see disinflation in the good sector but not that much impact at all on services.That teaches us a little about pricing in that sector as it has seen a volume drop that for once justifies the word collapse and yet the pricing impact has been small. Looking at specific areas we see this.

Transport, where the price of motor fuels fell this year but rose a year ago, contributing 0.12 percentage points to the easing in the headline rate. Petrol prices fell by 2.8 pence per litre between April and May 2020, compared with a rise of 4.2 pence per litre between the same two months a year ago. Similarly, diesel prices fell by 2.6 pence per litre this year, compared with a rise of 2.8 pence per litre a year ago.

I doubt any of you are surprised by this and it was joined by Recreation and Culture which is of note as a problem area popped up again.

Within this broad
group, there was a downward contribution (of 0.06 percentage points) from games, toys
and hobbies, with the effect coming from a variety of traditional toys and games, plus
computer games consoles and computer games

For newer readers this is the effect of computer games being discounted when they go out of fashion which the numbers struggle to cope with.Fashion clothing has the same problem and actually in an odd link led to them trying to neuter the RPI. Next we get an attempt at humour, at least I hope it is humour.

Health, where prices overall fell by 1.4% this year compared with a rise of 0.2% a year ago.
The effect came from pharmaceutical products, particularly pain killers and antihistamine
tablets, and other medical and therapeutic products, particularly daily disposable soft
contact lenses.

Does anybody believe health costs are falling?

On the other side of the coin was this.

Food and non-alcoholic beverages, with prices rising by 0.5% this year compared with a smaller rise of 0.1% a year ago.

The details are for the CPIH measure because our statistical establishment is so desperate to get it a mention they only break the numbers down for it. From the point of view of the Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey can add the new CPI number to the letter he is presently composing to the Chancellor to explain why it is more than 1% below target. His quill pen is probably being dipped into the Bank of England official ink no doubt being held by a flunkey right now as he explains how he will expand QE by another £100 billion or so in response. That is something of a Space Oddity as of course QE will boost the asset prices it ignores. Oh well! As Fleetwood Mac would say.

Retail Prices Index

This too saw a fall in the annual rate.

The all items RPI annual rate is 1.0%, down from 1.5% last month……..The all items RPI is 292.2, down from 292.6 in April.

I note that on a monthly basis the RPI fell. If it did that more often it would quickly be back in official favour! Also even under the old system the Governor of the Bank of England would have to get his quill pen out.

The annual rate for RPIX, the all items RPI excluding mortgage interest payments (MIPs), is
1.3%, down from 1.6% last month

As to credibility of our inflation numbers I am afraid this is another downgrade.

The published RPI annual growth rate for April 2020 was 1.5%. If the index were to be recalculated
using the correct interest rate, it would reduce the RPI annual growth rate by 0.1 percentage points
to 1.4%.

To get mortgage rates wrong is really rather poor and it was not the only mistake.

In addition, an error has been identified in the adjustment made to reflect a change in product size
for a single price quote for “canned tuna” collected in April 2020.

Comment

As you can see there is a large amount of doubt about the inflation numbers right now. This has not stopped much of the media from already setting the scene for more monetary policy easing. The Bank of England votes later today and it has the problem that the Deputy Governor for this area Ben Broadbent has actively demonstrated a wide-ranging ignorance of the issues. Just as a reminder I expect them to vote for at least another £100 billion of QE bond buying. This is in spite of the fact that the asset prices it will boost are ignored by the CPI inflation measure they target.

Meanwhile some new research has suggested that prices are in fact rising more quickly, and the emphasis is mine.

In this paper, we use detailed scanner data to provide a portrait of inflation during the Great Lockdown, covering millions of transactions in the UK fast-moving
consumer goods sector. We find that there was an unprecedented spike in inflation at the beginning of lockdown, which coincided with a reduction in product variety.

Indeed there was more.

The price increases we found for many categories, including those not subject to demand spikes, indicate supply disruptions and changes in market power may be playing an important role.

This has a consequence.

Many households are subject to reduced
income and liquid wealth, and higher prices for foods, drinks and household goods
will feed into squeezed household budgets

Here are the numbers.

First, we find that in the first month of lockdown month-to-month inflation was
2.4%. This sharp upturn in inflation is unprecedented across the preceding eight
year

So thank you to Xavier Jaravel and Martin O’Connell for this paper which suggests that as well as Fake News we also have to contend with fake official statistics.

The Investing Channel