What is happening in the Central London property market?

The barrage of inflation news yesterday did give us some insight into the UK property market. Consumer inflation rose to 2.3% ( CPI and amusingly CPIH ) or 3.2% (RPI) although no such doubts were available on BBC News 24 which confidently asserted several times that prices were rising at 2.3% per annum. This was considerably lower than the official house price growth data.

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 6.2% in the year to January 2017 (up from 5.7% in the year to December 2016), continuing the strong growth seen since the end of 2013.

Regular readers will be aware that I expect consumer inflation to pass house price inflation as 2017 progresses as the impact of the higher inflation impacts and that the bellweather is often London. So far little has changed in the official data although the house prices are for January and not February with London prices rising at 7.3% per annum.

What about Central London?

Property Wire reports this.

Newly released data from Land Registry, average prices reached a new high of £1,818,262 in Central London, largely due to a rally in Q4 which saw prices increase 14% over the previous quarter.

This was apparently led ( yet again) by the borough below.

The uptick has been led, in particular, by Kensington and Chelsea which saw a 24% quarterly increase in prices

However all this is based on a rather low-level of sales.

The picture for PCL sales volumes, however, was far less positive. Compared with the previous year, sales were down 28% with only 3,330 taking place, equivalent to just 64 a week – the lowest number on record. This is half the volume registered just two years ago. ( PCL = Prime Central London).

The last quarter of 2016 did see a 19% rise on the preceding one but of course from a very low base.

However there are issues with London as a whole.

In Greater London, the fall in transactions was even more marked, down 29% in Q4 over the same period in 2015. Whilst annual price growth was more positive, up 5.7%, average prices took a hit across the year, finishing 3% lower than in January.

Bloomberg has more on the trends.

Greater London home prices will probably show their first annual decline since June 2011 when February’s data is published next month, according to Peter Williams, chairman of researcher Acadata. Prices in the city have fallen in six of the past 12 months,

The Financial Times steps in

Perhaps shaken by the possibility that London house prices might fall the FT is already on the case.

London has been cushioned from the prospects of a house price crash by the high levels of equity required to buy property in the capital and the difficulty of mortgage financing at high loan-to-value ratios for all but the biggest earners. Research by Hometrack, a housing market research group, found the average loan-to-value ratio (LTV) in the most expensive tenth of properties was 23 per cent and 40 per cent in mid-priced zones, compared with a UK average of 53 per cent.

Now if we switch that to saying that quite a bit of London property has been bought by cash rich foreign buyers the pack of cards above starts to fall. I have no idea how the fact that even very high earners cannot get a mortgage for London property supports the prices there, surely the reverse!

However, since the Bank of England limited to 15 per cent by value of a lender’s mortgage book the number of new loans it could issue at more than 4.5 times a borrower’s income, the opportunity for large LTV mortgages in the capital has dwindled.

There is another section which appears to make my case much more than theirs.

Mark Pattanshetti, mortgage manager at broker Largemortgageloans.com, said the top end of the market had “paused” after the Brexit vote but was likely to recover. “There isn’t enough supply in London, demand is still there and the top end is not so sensitive to interest rate changes.”

 

Nonetheless he said banks had reined in their lending on luxury new-build apartments in the capital — a favourite vehicle for Asian investors — after fears that this part of the market had become overheated. Average loan-to-value ratios on such flats had fallen from 70 per cent to 50-60 per cent in the past three years, he said.

Surely prices should be surging if there is not enough supply so how does “paused” work? Furthermore the fact that some Asian buyers might not be able to get mortgages does not seem especially bullish for prices. In some areas they have bought quite a bit of new property including a fair chunk at Battersea Power Station. Also if there is all this demand why did this happen? From the 7th of March.

The housebuilder ( Barratt Homes) said it had sold the units to Henderson Park for £140.5m. The portfolio includes 29 units at Aldgate Place, a joint venture with British Land, 25 in Fulham Riverside and all 118 at its Nine Elms Point tower in Vauxhall, a joint venture with L&Q.

We find as the FT article develops some more fuel for my views.

The pressure on prices in the top tenth of the market has been growing over the shorter term, with falls of 5.1 per cent in the past year. Hometrack expects further “single-digit price falls” over the course of this year at the top end. However in the middle and lower value markets, where prices are less volatile, it predicts “broadly flat” prices over the year.

As the year develops we may get the opportunity to improve the definition of “broadly flat” in my financial lexicon for these times.

I note that there is a mention of a house price crash in the headline and after yesterday’s fall in stock markets I thought this offered some perspective on hyperbole.

 

Speaking of Hyperbole

Here is Andy Haldane of the Bank of England from Monday.

This would translate into an immediate loss of around 1½ million jobs – a very significant macro-economic cost.

This is Andy slapping himself on the back for interest-rate cuts voted for by er Andy and his mates, so no danger of moral hazard there! Also Andy has issues with his number-crunching elsewhere as he seems to have a blind spot with regard to banking, he starts well but then loses his way.

It is certainly true that financial sector productivity was probably over-stated in the run-up to the crisis. Nonetheless, the subsequent sharp fall in financial services productivity is plainly not the whole story. Of the 1.7 percentage point fall in the UK’s productivity growth since 2008, less than a third can be accounted for by financial services.

Move along please, nothing to see here.

Comment

There are various factors at play here. The domestic influences come from real wages in the main as I note that the regional agents of the Bank of England have just reported this.

Settlements were clustered around 2% to 2½%.

So real wages are at best flat and in fact are now negative if we use the RPI. Other domestic influences on the housing market must be fading as even the Bank of England has not introduced anything new since last August.

If we look internationally at house prices and this is a powerful influence in Central London there are two streams which are crossing ( worrying for fans of the film Ghostbusters ). Past owners have seen prices fall in some areas and have lost money in their own currencies due to the lower level of the UK Pound £, although those who have been here for a while have profits still. Newer buyers may be tempted in by the lower Pound and some lower prices. Central London is especially open to foreign buyers with few checks made, surprising really when you look at the situation regarding bank accounts. So foreign money will at times arrive and buy properties and much of this has little to do with the UK as some will be looking to escape troubles elsewhere. But unless there is a surge of them I think the low volume levels tell an eloquent story as in markets they are often a sign of a dip in prices.

 

 

Norway is apparently very happy but what about house prices?

Today we are taking a trip across the North Sea to what we are told is the happiest country on Earth. From the World Happiness Report.

Norway has jumped from 4th place in 2016 to 1st place this year, followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland in a tightly packed bunch. All of the top four countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance. Their averages are so close that small changes can re-order the rankings from year to year.

As I note that Finland is 5th this seems to be a Nordic thing although of course it does make one wonder about the criteria as well as how many copies of this were sold there by Pharrell.

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

There are clear economic influences here as we note that Africa is apparently “waiting for happiness” and intriguingly China is like this.

People in China are no happier than 25 years ago

But returning to Norway there are clear economic influences at play.

Norway moves to the top of the ranking despite weaker oil prices. It is sometimes said that Norway achieves and maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but in spite of it. By choosing to produce its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future rather than spending them in the present, Norway has insulated itself from the boom and bust cycle of many other resource-rich economies.

There is a mixture of fact and PR release there so let us look further at the Norwegian economy. Oh and being the top of any list these days poses a question.

Economic growth

This from the Norges Bank last week is not especially inspiring.

In 2016, mainland GDP in Norway grew at the slowest rate recorded since the financial crisis. Growth picked up a little between Q3 and Q4 as projected earlier.

Norway Statistics tells us this.

Continued weak growth Mainland Norway: Growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) for mainland Norway was 0.3 per cent in the 4th quarter of 2016, slightly up from the 3rd quarter.

The annual rate of growth was 1.1% and if we look into the detail there was something familiar for these times.

Consumption of goods increased by 0.6 per cent, after having mostly fallen since the 3rd quarter of 2015. Increased car purchases contributed to more than half of the rise in household consumption of goods.

A hint of easy monetary policy which these days often appears in the car sector. Also something else seems rather familiar.

The declining wage growth that we have seen in recent years will continue, and estimates for 2016 show that the average annual wage growth was 1.7 per cent.

If we return to the Norges Bank report we see that real wages have fallen.

The consumer price index (CPI) rose by 3.6% between 2015 and 2016, while consumer prices adjusted for tax changes and excluding energy products (CPI-ATE) rose by 3.0% in the same period.

A lot of the impact here has been from the oil and gas sector.

What about monetary policy then?

Here we go.

Norges Bank’s Executive Board has decided to keep the key policy rate unchanged at 0.5%. The Executive Board’s current assessment of the outlook suggests that the key policy rate will most likely remain at today’s level in the period ahead.

So like so many other central banks they ignore inflation being above its target ( which is 2.5%) and concentrate on economic growth.

In the wake of the decline in oil prices since summer 2014, the key policy rate in Norway has been reduced in several steps. Monetary policy is expansionary and supportive of structural adjustments in the Norwegian economy,

So far the oil price and industry has been a silent elephant in the room but if we defer that to later let us look at the dangers from low interest-rates which are domestic debt and house prices.

House Prices

Today’s data release tells us this.

On average, prices for new dwellings have increased by 10.4 per cent in the 4th quarter of 2016 compared to the same quarter in 2015…….Prices for existing flats, small houses and detached houses have increased by 15.9, 9.9 and 7.6 per cent respectively from the 4th quarter of 2015 to the 4th quarter of 2016.

If we look into the detail we see that the prices for flats ( multi dwelling apartments) are driving this move. Let us remind ourselves that this compares with wage growth of 1.7% and real wages which are falling and it comes on the back of previous rises. The flats index was at 80 in the first quarter of 2011 and has risen to approximately 117. If we look back for what has happened in the credit crunch are we see that house prices have doubled since 2005 ( to be precise the index is 199.3).

What about debt?

The Norges Bank puts it like this.

Persistently low interest rates may lead to financial system vulnerabilities. The rapid rise in house prices and growing debt burdens indicate that households are becoming more vulnerable. By taking into account the risk associated with very low interest rates, monetary policy can promote long-term economic stability.

That lest sentence is a contradiction in terms designed to fool the unwary I think. We see that borrowing was on the march.

Net incurrence of loans increased from NOK 167 billion to NOK 186 billion, while net investments in deposits decreased from NOK 65 billion to NOK 55 billion.

Debt growth was 5.6% in 2016 and that left the debt to income ratio at 2.35.  Back to the Norges Bank.

Growth in household debt accelerated through the latter half of 2016, and debt is still growing faster than household income. The rapid rise in house prices and growing debt burdens indicate that households are becoming more vulnerable.

The mortgage rate series at Norges Bank was at 3.98% as 2013 ended and 2.49% as 2016 ended so we can see the pattern although the low was 2.35% last August. It is not a surprise to see money supply growth be firm.

The twelve-month growth in the monetary aggregate M3 was 6.5 per cent to end-January, up from 5.4 per cent the previous month.

The debt situation for the government is rather unique. It does have some but if you put in the sovereign wealth fund then net financial assets must be around treble annual GDP.

Comment

If we look at the elephant in the room then the oil and gas sector accounts for around 22% of Norway’s economic output. If we add in the fishing industry then Norway is especially gifted in terms of natural resources. The catch in recent times has been the fall in the price of crude oil which sees the Brent benchmark just above US $51 per barrel as I type this. In terms of an annual comparison the price is higher and Norway is one of the countries which most welcomes that but it is a far cry from the US $100+ of a couple of years ro so ago. This has been picked up in the unemployment data where the unemployment rate headed towards 5%. It has now fallen to 4.4% but there are other worries here.

the seasonally-adjusted unemployment decreased by 0.4 percentage points, or 12 000 persons………the seasonally adjusted number of employed persons decreased by 22 000 persons from September to December.

Meanwhile the central banks eases and pumps up the housing market. Maybe us Brits have set a bad example but what must first-time buyers and the younger generation think of this as a strategy?

Let me leave you with something very Norwegian.

A total of 30 800 moose were shot during the hunting year 2016/2017; a decrease of 300 animals from the previous hunting year and a decrease of 22 per cent from the record hunting year 1999/2000.

 

Can we make any sense of the GDP data for Ireland?

Firstly let me wish everyone a Happy St.Patrick’s day as we also wait for England versus Ireland in the Six Nations rugby tomorrow. In that spirit let us immediately open with some good news. From the Irish Central Statistics Office or CSO.

Preliminary estimates indicate that GDP in volume terms increased by 5.2 per cent for the year 2016. GNP showed an increase of 9.0 per cent in 2016 over 2015.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, constant price GDP for the fourth quarter of 2016 increased by 2.5 per cent compared with the previous quarter while GNP increased by 3.2 per cent over the same period.

What grew? Well pretty much everything.

Building and construction recorded an 11.4 per cent increase in real terms and manufacturing recorded a 1.8 per cent increase . The distribution, transport, software and communications sector increased by 7.8 per cent while the agriculture sector increased by 6.2 per cent, and other services by 6.0 per cent. Public administration and defence recorded an annual increase of 4.4 per cent.

Looking ahead

The good news theme continues as we peruse the business surveys.

The latest Investec Services PMI Ireland report shows that business activity continued to increase sharply during February, with the rate of expansion only slightly weaker than January’s seven-month high. The headline PMI came in at 60.6, versus 61.0 in the previous month.

As we look around we do not get many readings in the 60s so let us look at manufacturing.

The latest Investec Manufacturing PMI Ireland report shows a further solid improvement in business conditions, albeit the pace of growth has slowed for a second successive month. The headline PMI was 53.8 in February, down from 55.5 in the preceding month.

So good numbers especially in the services sector although with the nature of these surveys they are less reliable than in larger countries as we have seen before on occasion in Ireland with the example of a cut in pharmaceutical production ( Lipitor going off-patent) which was missed.

Also in the circumstances this raised a wry smile.

On the latter, we note that panellists again highlighted the UK as a particular source of demand.

Unemployment

A consequence of the better economic data has been this.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for February 2017 was 6.6%, down from 6.7% in January 2017 and down from 8.4% in February 2016.

This represents quite an improvement on the 10.1% of February 2015 and a vast improvement of the 15.2% of January 2012. It is not yet back to the pre credit crunch lows, however, which were around 2% lower.

Inflation

Here is an interesting combination with the good news above as you see central bankers will have a mind block because Ireland has not had inflation for some time.

Prices on average, as measured by the EU Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP), increased by 0.3% compared with February 2016.

Actually I am slightly exaggerating but if we use the Irish CPI and base it at 100 in 2011 then it was 101.5 in 2016. Even worse for the inflationoholics who run central banks and of course the media who copy and paste such views it was possible for relative prices to change.

The sub index for Services rose by 2.0% in the year to February, while Goods decreased by 1.5%.

So if low/no inflation has been good for Ireland how does it feel about the European Central Bank determination to push it higher? I forecast good news from this back on the 29th of January 2015.

However if we look at the retail-sectors in the UK,Spain and Ireland we see that price falls are so far being accompanied by volume gains and as it happens by strong volume gains.

Trouble

In spite of the official news being good there are signs of what Taylor Swift would call “Trouble, trouble,trouble” if you look below the headlines. The Irish Times pointed out this last December.

The fact that more than 6,000 people, including children, are now officially “homeless” and living in emergency accommodation in hotels, guesthouses and charity shelters is offensive……….It flows from policy decisions and political collusion that created a deeply unequal society.

Focus Ireland counted 7148 and pointed out that the number was up 40% over the past year and was likely to be under recorded. There are other issues in this sector as we look at the sale of property by the bad bank NAMA. Firstly the excellent NAMA Wine Lake is critical of the accountancy at play here.

NAMA acquired €74bn of loans for €32bn. The NAMA “profit” is on the €32bn acquisition price. We bailed out the banks for the €74bn-€32bn.

How is that going?

NAMA lost £190m on £4.5bn par value Project Eagle sale. How much will NAMA lose on (average of) €50m loans it will sell in next 24 hours?

Also there is the issue of all this apparently surplus property being traded around whilst people are homeless on an increasing scale.

House Prices

These are of course ignored by the consumer inflation numbers although of course not by anyone wanting to buy a house. Signs of problems are clear.

In the year to January, residential property prices at national level increased by 7.9%. This compares with an increase of 7.9% in the year to December and an increase of 5.6% in the twelve months to January 2016.

If we look for some perspective we see this.

From the trough in early 2013, prices nationally have increased by 49.6%. In the same period, Dublin residential property prices have increased 65.2%………..Overall, the national index is 31.8% lower than its highest level in 2007. Dublin residential property prices are 32.4% lower than their February 2007 peak,

What might be wrong with the official data?

There is an obvious concern with GDP (Gross Domestic Product) rising by 21% in one quarter as it did at the opening of 2015. I have covered this before so this time let us examine the view of the Central Bank of Ireland from its Quarterly Bulletin.

However, this masked offsetting trends in the components of GDP, in particular investment and trade, which were not closely aligned with indicators of activity in the domestic economy, but were mainly accounted for by the off-shore activities of multinational firms.

If we return to the official data what did happen to recorded investment in Ireland in 2016?

On the expenditure side of the accounts (Table 3), capital formation rose strongly by 45.5 per cent during 2016.

There is more.

The potential for volatility in the measurement of Irish GDP reflects the fact that parts of the output recorded in Irish GDP now reflects activity which takes place in other countries.

When you consider that the numbers are supposed to represent Ireland and its economy this confession is really rather extraordinary.

In the trade data, for example, changes in the level of contract manufacturing abroad by multinational firms can have a significant impact on exports and imports.

If we look at the data for the last quarter of 2016 there is this.

On the expenditure side there was a decline in net exports of €17,396m (93.7 per cent) during the quarter, largely driven by higher imports (37.2 per cent).

Actually the higher investment and import numbers often represent the same things.

The central bank also looked at the economic impact of Aircraft Leasing where the sums are enormous even for these times.

Assuming that the industry in Ireland is to continue to account for some 50 per cent of the leased output (as per current estimates), this would imply approximately €1.4 trillion ($1.5 trillion17)in new assets – either acquired or via finance leases inward – held by the sector in Ireland

Yet in terms of actual action this generates ” a certain degree of employment and tax revenues ” in reality so how much then? Over 1200 and 300 million Euros a year which are no doubt very welcome but poses a question for measurement.

Comment

The Irish situation opens more than one can of worms. Has the economy grown in recent years? I think so but the data poses lots of questions and let me highlight this with something from the CSO. In response to the issues above it thinks that Net National Product or NNP may help because it allows for depreciation and thus takes out much of the cross-border flows. So is Ireland’s annual economic output 255.8 billion Euros ( GDP) or 202.6 billion Euros (GNP) or 141.1 billion Euros (NNP)? The numbers are for 2015 but also was economic growth 32.4% (GDP) or 24% or 6.4%?

Also how do we relate the national debt to economic output? Perhaps as we have discussed before the best measure is to compare it to tax revenue.

 

The Bank of England may consider yet more easing going forwards

Today the Bank of England announces its policy decision although care is needed because it actually voted yesterday. This was one of the “improvements” announced a while ago by Governor Mark Carney and it is something I have criticised. My views have only been strengthened by this development. From the Financial Times today.

Andrew Tyrie wrote to the Financial Conduct Authority on Wednesday to ask the regulator to scrutinise unusual patterns of trading behaviour ahead of market-moving data releases. “It would be appalling, were people found to be exploiting privileged pre-release access to ONS data for financial benefit,” said Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the select committee, referring to the Office for National Statistics. “The FCA is responsible for market integrity. So I have written to them today to ask them to get to the bottom of this.”

Whilst this is not directly related to the Bank of England the UK ship of state looks increasingly to be a leaky vessel. As ever Yes Prime Minister was on the case 30 years ago.

James Hacker: I occasionally have confidential press briefings, but I have never leaked.
Bernard Woolley: Oh, that’s another of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I give confidential press briefings; you leak; he’s been charged under Section 2a of the Official Secrets Act.

These are important matters where things should be above reproach. Speaking of that it is another clear error of judgement by Governor Carney to allow Charlotte Hogg to vote on UK monetary policy this week. The official releases about her resignation have skirted over the fact that she demonstrated a disturbing lack of knowledge about monetary policy when quizzed by the Treasury Select Committee leading to the thought that her actual qualification was to say ” I agree with Mark”.

Other central banks

The Swiss National Bank has joined the groupthink parade ( if you recall something Charlotte Hogg denied existed) this morning. Whilst busy threatening even more foreign exchange intervention and keeping its main interest-rate at 0.75% it confessed to this.

economic growth in the UK was once again surprisingly strong.

US Federal Reserve and GDP

There was something to shake the Ivory Towers to their foundations in the comments of US Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen yesterday evening. From the Wall Street Journal.

The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model today lowered its forecast for first-quarter GDP growth to a 0.9% pace. But Ms. Yellen shrugged off signs of weakness in the gauge of overall U.S. economic activity.

 

“GDP is a pretty noisy indicator,” she said, and officials haven’t changed their view of the outlook. The Fed expects continued improvement in the labor market and broader economy, though she also cautioned that policy isn’t set in stone.

Central banks have adjusted policy time and time again in response to GDP data and for quite some time Bank of England moves looked like they were predicated on it. Now it is apparently “noisy” which provides quite a critique of past policy. Also what must she think of durable goods and retail sales numbers?! Also this is like putting the one ring in the fires of Mordor to the Ivory Towers who support nominal GDP targeting. Oh and as we have observed more than a few times in the past the first quarter number for US GDP has been consistently weak for a while now leading to the issue of “seasonal adjustment squared”.

Things to make Mark Carney smile

Central bankers love high asset prices so let us take a look. From the BBC.

The UK’s FTSE 100 share index has broken through 7,400 points to hit a record intra-day high. The blue chip index is currently trading at 7,421 points.

The official data on house prices is a little behind but will raise a particular smile as of course it helps the mortgage books of the banks.

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 7.2% in the year to December 2016 (up from 6.1% in the year to November 2016), continuing the strong growth seen since the end of 2013.

Maybe even a buyer or two in central London.

Just faced a sealed bid stuation for a client buying a house in Knightsbridge. Life in the London property market is back. ( @joeccles )

Also with the ten-year Gilt yield at 1.22% then UK bonds are at an extremely high level in price terms albeit not as high as when Mark surged into the market last summer.

Maybe even the Bank of England’s investments in the corporate bonds of the Danish shipping company Maersk can be claimed to be having a beneficial effect.

Maersk Oil has managed to cut operating expenditure by about 40% in the last two years, and analysts at Wood Mackenzie predict the company will be the third biggest investor in the UK continental shelf (UKCS) by 2020. (h/t @chigrl )

Although Maersk put it down to a change in taxation policy and there is little benefit now for the UK from this bit.

He was speaking to Energy Voice at the yard in Singapore where the floating storage and offloading (FSO) unit for the £3.3billion North Sea Culzean project is being built.

In terms of good economic news there was this announcement today. From the BBC.

Toyota is to invest £240m in upgrading its UK factory that makes the Auris and Avensis models.

The Japanese carmaker’s investment in the Burnaston plant near Derby will allow production of vehicles using its new global manufacturing system.

Things to make the Bank of England frown

Ordinarily one might expect to be discussing the way that UK inflation will go above target this year and maybe even next week. But we know that the majority of the Monetary Policy Committee plan to “look through” this and thus will only pay lip service to it. However yesterday’s news will give them pause.

If we look into the single month detail it is worrying as you see December was 1.9% and January 1.7% giving a clear downwards trend. If we look further we see that those months saw much lower bonus payments than a year before and in fact falls as for example -3.9% and -2.7% was reported respectively. Putting it another way UK average earnings reached £509 in November but were £507 in both December and January.

They will now be worried about wages growth and should this continue much of the MPC will concentrate on this.

Comment

Today seems to be set to be an “I agree with Mark” fest unless Kristin Forbes feels like a bit of rebellion before she departs the Bank of England in the summer. However should there be any other signs of weakness in the UK economy then we will see some of the MPC shift towards more easing I think in spite of the inflation trajectory. That means that it will be out of sync with the US Federal Reserve and the People’s Bank of China ( which raised some interest-rates by either 0.1% or 0.2% this morning).

It may cheer this as an example of strength for the UK property market and indeed banks. From the Financial Times.

BNP Paribas is in talks to acquire Strutt & Parker, the UK estate agents, in what would be a Brexit-defying vote of confidence in the British property market by France’s biggest bank.

Can anybody recall what happened last time banks piled into UK estate-agents?

Correction

On Monday I suggested that we would see more Operation Twist style QE from the Bank of England today. Apologies but I misread the list and that will not be so. Off to the opticians for me.

UK real wages fell in January ending over 2 years of growth

Today sees us receive the latest UK labour market data with the main emphasis being on wages as we mull how they will compare with inflation as 2017 progresses. The phase where low inflation boosted real wages is over for now at least as we cross our fingers and hope it will not rise too far. On that front we have had some better news from the recent dip in the price of crude oil but as a ying to that particular yang there has also been this.

In case you missed it, iron ore in China is up 10% since Monday. Cheers ( @DavidInglesTV )

On the usual pattern we would know the latest inflation data but that is not due until next week whilst our statisticians perhaps drink gin, play jigsaws whilst wearing a base layer and a cycle helmet.

Public-Sector Pay

This is something which has perhaps been too much in the background. For many who work in the public-sector wages have been under an austerity style squeeze for some time now. The area has also got more complex as many such jobs have been outsourced to private companies as for example many of the staff in Battersea Park work for a company called Enable now rather than Wandsworth Council. In terms of scale here are the numbers involved.

There were 5.44 million people employed in the public sector for December 2016. This was little changed compared with September 2016 and with a year earlier. Public sector employment has been generally falling since December 2009.

Although the picture gets ever more complex.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has looked into the wages trend and point out that it is more complex than it may initially appear.

Public sector pay has been squeezed since public spending cuts began to take effect from 2011, and it looks set to be squeezed even further up to 2020. However, this comes on the back of an increase in public sector wages relative to those in the private sector during the Great Recession.

They think that this is set to continue for the rest of this decade.

On the basis of current forecasts and policy, we expect public sector pay to fall by 5 percentage points relative to private sector pay between 2015 and 2020. This would take the raw wage gap to its lowest level for at least 20 years.

However the starting point may not be what you would have expected.

In 2015–16, average hourly wages were about 14% higher in the public sector than in the private sector, according to the Labour Force Survey. After accounting for differences in education, age and experience, this gap falls to about 4%.

This is a complex area as we mull the usefulness of some type of education. For example by interest (athletics) I know people who specialise in the physiotherapy area where attainment is higher in that graduates are recruited but some for example have never manipulated someone’s back. Of course there is also the issue of pensions.

Reforms to public sector pensions have reduced the value of the pension public sector workers can expect to enjoy in retirement, though this is still probably more than private sector workers can expect

I do not know what the IFS has been smoking here as public sector pensions look ever more valuable in relative if not absolute terms to me.

Good News

This as so often these days comes from the quantity numbers in the labour market report.

There were 31.85 million people in work, 92,000 more than for August to October 2016 and 315,000 more than for a year earlier……..There were 23.34 million people working full-time, 305,000 more than for a year earlier. There were 8.52 million people working part-time, 10,000 more than for a year earlier.

The extra number of people in work helped reduce unemployment as well, oh and in case you assumed it was an obvious link it is not always that simple due to a category for inactivity.

There were 1.58 million unemployed people (people not in work but seeking and available to work), 31,000 fewer than for August to October 2016 and 106,000 fewer than for a year earlier………….The unemployment rate was 4.7%, down from 5.1% for a year earlier. It has not been lower since June to August 1975.

 Bad News

This was demonstrated by this on the wages front.

Latest estimates show that average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain in nominal terms (that is, not adjusted for price inflation) increased by 2.2% including bonuses, and by 2.3% excluding bonuses, compared with a year earlier.

So we see a slowing from the 2.6% reported last time. If we look into the single month detail it is worrying as you see December was 1.9% and January 1.7% giving a clear downwards trend. If we look further we see that those months saw much lower bonus payments than a year before and in fact falls as for example -3.9% and -2.7% was reported respectively. Putting it another way UK average earnings reached £509 in November but were £507 in both December and January.

Ugly News

This comes from the position regarding real wages.

Comparing the 3 months to January 2017 with the same period in 2016, real AWE (total pay) grew by 0.7%, which was 0.7 percentage points smaller than the growth seen in the 3 months to December 2016.

There has been something of a double whammy effect at play here as inflation has risen as we expected but sadly wage growth has dipped as well. So the period since October 2014 when real wages on the official measure began to rise is certainly under pressure and frankly seems set to end soon.

If we look at January alone then real wages were 0.1% lower than a year before as inflation was 1.8% and using the new headline measure ( from next month) they fell by 0.3% on a year before. Using the Retail Price Index or RPI has real wages falling at an annual rate of 0.9% in January.

Comment

There are quite a few things to laud about the better performance of the UK economy over the past few years as employment has risen and unemployment fallen. Although of course we would like to know more ( indeed much more…) about the position relating to underemployment which is one of the factors at play in the situation below.

The number of people employed on “zero-hours contracts” in their main job, according to the LFS, during October to December 2016 was 905,000, representing 2.8% of all people in employment. This latest estimate is 101,000 higher than that for October to December 2015 (804,000 or 2.5% of people in employment).

For a while this was also true of real wages although to be fair the situation here mostly improved due to lower levels of recorded consumer inflation. Sadly if the data for January is any guide that happier period is now over even using the official inflation data.Of course this also omits the ever growing self-employed sector.

City-AM

Here are my views on US interest-rates from today’s City-AM newspaper

 

 

Is this the end of the beginning for Quantitative Easing?

Today sees the Bank of England reach a threshold and but not yet a rubicon. This is because of this which it announced on last month.

As set out in the MPC’s statement of 2 February, the MPC has agreed to make £11.6bn of gilt purchases, financed by central bank reserves, to reinvest the cash flows associated with the maturity on 22 January 2017 of a gilt owned by the Asset Purchase Facility (APF).

This is an Operation Twist style manoeuvre where a Gilt matures and the Bank of England chooses to roll it forwards. Sometimes it does this a long way forwards as you see once a week a share of the funds have been put in what are called ultra-long Gilts which go out as far as 2068 ( of which it holds £1.54 billion). Creating an issue for our grandchildren and maybe great-grandchildren.  The details are shown below.

The Bank will continue, normally, to conduct three auctions a week: gilts with a residual maturity of 3-7 years will be purchased on Mondays; of over 15 years on Tuesdays; and of 7-15 years on Wednesdays. The Bank intends to purchase evenly across the three gilt maturity sectors. The size of auctions will initially be £775mn for each maturity sector.

There was a time when £775 million seemed a lot of money but in central banking terms these days that is plainly no longer so. This should have finished last Wednesday but the Bank of England chose not to act on that day, maybe it did not want to let go! But more seriously it avoids days of known political importance as a rule.

So a threshold has been reached but the Bank of England will be able to announce something on Thursday as last week another Gilt matured and some £6.1 billion of that will be able to be rolled forwards. So no doubt it will be time for Operation Twist to wake itself after only a few days of being asleep to start again!

Charlotte Hogg

Charlotte should logically be voting against any further Operation Twist style move if this exchange with the Treasury Select Committee was any guide.

Andrew Tyrie ” On balance do you think we would be better off unwinding it or letting it run off?”

Charlotte Hogg ” I don’t see the distinction between the two to be honest”

So it does not do any good either? I pointed this out on the first of this month.

If Charlotte actually believes what she says then I look forwards to her voting against any more QE which must be pointless as apparently Gilt prices and yields would be unaffected if it stopped.

As to her own position people are more worried about her dissembling that her apparent lack of competence if this from Deborah Orr in the Guardian is any guide.

The trouble is that few people are likely to believe that not mentioning her brother’s job was an oversight. Even if they do, her judgment is still in question.

This bit does however mine a theme we have discussed on here many times.

Clearly, people run the risk of feeling over-entitled. They believe strongly in rules, but develop a belief that they are the people who make the rules, not the people who follow them……..Privileged people also run the risk of mistakenly believing that what’s good for them is good for everybody…….Finally, of course, privileged people assume, often rightly, that no one is going to hold them to account.

Sadly however the article seems completely unaware of the performance of Charlotte when questioned about monetary policy.

Hogg is clearly regarded as tremendously bright and capable.

More problems for the UK establishment

If you are intervening in so many areas then the need for honesty confidence and trust rises and yet we are also in an era where more issues are emerging. From the Wall Street Journal.

On average, between April 2011 and December 2016, U.K. government-bond futures correctly anticipated the rise or fall that ultimately happened when economic data were published, according to an analysis prepared for The Wall Street Journal by Alexander Kurov, associate professor of finance at West Virginia University.

Of course bond markets move on other days but there is a particular concern on these days because of this.

“The more prerelease access you have, the more likely it is that these things are going to be leaked,” said Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, the U.K.’s professional body for statisticians that has campaigned for several years to end such access.

At 9:30 am the day before release quite a large number of people ( 118 on the labour  market report)  get the numbers according to the WSJ.

Corporate Bond QE

This will continue but is of a much smaller size as there is only £2 billion left out of a total of £10 billion.. Regular readers will recall that I pointed out when it began that the Bank of England would struggle to mount any operation on a large scale because UK corporates issue a substantial proportion of their debt in Euros and US Dollars because they are often international businesses.  This has led the Bank of England on this road as I pointed out in early November.

The Bank of England is boosting the UK economy by buying the corporate bonds of Total and Maersk Oh hang on….

I was told they were back buying Maersk bonds last week. Also there is the issue of subsidising larger businesses who can issue corporate bonds versus ones which are too small to be able to afford the costs. That is awkward when you are claiming you are boosting the economy.

The ECB

It too is in a zone where ch-ch-changes are ahead. I have written several times already explaining that with inflation pretty much on target and economic growth having improved its rate of expansion of its balance sheet looks far to high even at the 60 billion Euros a month due in April. But the issue was highlighted by this which was on the newswires last week. From the Financial Times.

He warns investors not to rule out that the ECB could raise rates while it is still in the process of tapering its stimulus spending.

Well of course it could! Indeed the Bank of England has suggested it would raise interest-rates towards 2% before it started to reverse its own QE purchases. But the confusion around is highlighted by this seemingly being an issue.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider at this time when the central bankers face the issue of stopping their stimulus policies. The Federal Reserve of the United States has signalled it will raise interest-rates for a third time in this phase later this week. But the Bank of England and ECB have not even entered the foothills and are still easing. If we move on from policy plainly being inappropriate we face the issue of what will bond markets do when the largest buyers disappear? Well we are getting hints as this from the twitter feed of Bond Vigilantes suggests.

10 year Swiss Government bonds offer a positive yield again, having traded in negative territory for almost 18 months.

Something of a shift has already taken place in the US with its ten-year Treasury Note yield being at 2.56% but with the ten-year Gilt at a mere 1.21% there is quite gap these days. Real yields are getting ever more negative as inflation moves ahead. From the BBC.

SSE has become the latest “big six” energy supplier to raise its prices.

It said average electricity prices would rise by 14.9% from 28 April for 2.8 million customers. However, it will keep its gas prices unchanged.

 

 

 

The UK economy continues to motor ahead or if you prefer is on drugs

Today sees us advance on some key data for the UK economy as we receive production, manufacturing and trade data. But before we even get to it there has been a warning from France which has already opened the day with something of a conundrum.

In January 2017, output decreased sharply again in the manufacturing industry (−1.0% as in the previous month).

Whereas the Markit PMI ( Purchasing Managers Index ) told us this.

 The index was down from January’s reading of 53.6

We were told that the french economy was doing well in January. From Reuters.

“The expansion was broad-based with marked increases in output evident in both the manufacturing and service sectors, driven by firm underlying client demand. In turn, this filtered through into the labor market.”

Markit has had trouble before with France ironically for producing numbers which were lower than official estimates. But this is another issue for a series which has proved to be disappointing in its accuracy in more recent times.

UK monetary policy

This remains extremely expansionary with the Bank of England adding to its holdings of UK Gilts ( government bonds ) and corporate bonds this week. Indeed at £434.2 billion the UK Gilts part of the QE (Quantitative Easing) program has only one day left but at £8 billion so far there is more corporate bond QE to come. If we add in the £43.9 billion of the Term Funding Scheme we get an idea of the total scale of Bank of England monetary policy in balance sheet terms and that is before we note a Bank Rate set at 0.25%.

The other factor at play is the lower level of the UK Pound £ which post the EU leave vote in the UK has provided an economic stimulus equivalent to a 2.75% cut in Bank Rate if we use the old Bank of England rule of thumb. It would have created quite a shock would it not if we had somehow had the same exchange rate as before but with a Bank Rate of -2.5%!

Today’s data

Production and Manufacturing

Unlike the numbers for the French I quoted above these start brightly for the UK.

In the 3 months to January 2017, total production was estimated to have increased by 1.9%, with manufacturing providing the largest contribution increasing by 2.1%, its strongest growth since May 2010.

However manufacturing output continues to see-saw each month along with the pharmaceutical industry.

In January 2017, total production decreased by 0.4% compared with December 2016 with manufacturing providing the largest downward contribution, decreasing by 0.9%…………The monthly decrease in manufacturing was largely due to a decrease in pharmaceuticals, falling by 13.5%,………. pharmaceuticals can be highly erratic, with significant monthly changes, often due to the delivery of large contracts.

I am glad to see that our official statisticians have caught up with the view that I have been expressing on here for the best part of a year now as this recent pattern began last spring. However if we look back over the past year there is some call for a smile for spring.

Total production output for January 2017 compared with January 2016, increased by 3.2%, supported by growth in all 4 main sectors, with manufacturing providing the largest contribution, increasing by 2.7%.

The pharmaceutical sector is up some 6.1% on a year ago which is good news. But of course that only regains some of the ground which we lost.

Since then, both production and manufacturing output have steadily risen but remain well below their level reached in the pre-downturn gross domestic product (GDP) peak in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2008 by 6.7% and 3.3% respectively in the 3 months to January 2017.

What about trade?

This is an ongoing worry for the UK economy that stretches back for around 30 years or so. Actually I recall days when these numbers were considered very important and as a young man working in the City it was “all hands on deck” when they were released. These days they do not get much of a mention especially if they are better because the financial twitter community if I may call it that do quite a bit of cherry picking. But the “same as it ever was” theme continued in January.

The trade deficit in goods and services in January 2017 was £2.0 billion, unchanged from December 2016.

It is odd that such an erratic number is the same for two months in a row but let us take a deeper perspective.

Between the 3 months to October 2016 and the 3 months to January 2017, the total trade deficit (goods and services) narrowed by £4.7 billion to £6.4 billion.

We find some cheer here in the improvement so let us probe further.

At the commodity level, the main contributors to the narrowing of the total trade deficit in the 3 months to January 2017, were increased exports of non-monetary gold, oil, machinery and transport equipment (mainly electrical machinery, aircraft and cars) and chemicals.

So the chemicals numbers are consistent with the reported growth of the pharmaceutical industry which is a relief as they do not always coincide. Also increased production and thence exports of vehicles has helped.

The latest data shows that passenger motor vehicles were the UK’s second highest exported commodity behind mechanical machinery in 2016. The value of cars exported by the UK increased by 14.8% in the year to January 2017 with export growth stronger to non-EU countries (17.9%) compared with the EU (10.0%).

Indeed if you want something hopeful take a look at this.

However one of the problems with these statistics is that they are unreliable and frequently heavily revised. For the UK this is a particular issue as the numbers for the service sector are collected quarterly at best. However this time the revisions were cheerful ones.

The trade in services balance (exports less imports) has been revised upwards by £2.7 billion in Quarter 4 2016, to a trade surplus of £26.6 billion. This reflects an upwards revision of £1.7 billion to exports, and a downwards revision of £1.0 billion to imports.

So a nudge higher for UK GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth in the last quarter of 2017 although not enough to be especially material.

Another way of looking at this is to note how few countries we do so much of our trading with.

In 2016, nearly 50% of all UK exports of goods went to just 6 countries: the United States, Germany, France, Netherlands, Republic of Ireland and China. The United States are our biggest export partner, receiving 15.7% of all UK exported goods.

The UK’s largest import partner was Germany in 2016, supplying 14.8% of all goods imported to the UK. Similar to exports, over 50% of the UK’s imports of goods come from 6 countries: Germany, China, United States, Netherlands, France and Belgium.

Comment

This morning has seen some more relatively good news for the UK economy. The pattern for production and manufacturing has been relatively solid if erratic on a monthly basis and if we add in the noted improvement to services trade there is good news here. The worry ahead is of course the impact of inflation on the economy mostly via its impact on real wages. I note that according to the Bank of England’s latest survey the ordinary person is noticing it.

Asked to give the current rate of inflation, respondents gave a median answer of 2.7%, compared to 2.3% in November………. Median expectations of the rate of inflation over the coming year were 2.9%, compared with 2.8% in November.

They seem much more in touch with reality than the 2.4% for 2017 forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility on Wednesday.

For those who follow the UK construction sector the numbers are below, but take them with not just a pinch of salt and maybe the whole salt-cellar.

Construction output fell by 0.4% in January 2017, following consecutive rises in November and December 2016 (0.8% and 1.8% respectively).