Good UK Retail Sales trip up the Bank of England

The morning has bought some better news for the UK economy which is welcome in these pandemic driven hard times. However it has been something of a problem for the Bank of England which tripped up yesterday. It decided to send a signal to markets via this section from its Monetary Policy Committee meeting Minutes.

The Committee had discussed its policy toolkit, and the effectiveness of negative policy rates in particular,
in the August Monetary Policy Report, in light of the decline in global equilibrium interest rates over a number of
years. Subsequently, the MPC had been briefed on the Bank of England’s plans to explore how a negative
Bank Rate could be implemented effectively, should the outlook for inflation and output warrant it at some point
during this period of low equilibrium rates. The Bank of England and the Prudential Regulation Authority will
begin structured engagement on the operational considerations in 2020 Q4.

We learn something from the language as the group of people who have cut interest-rates describe it as “the decline in global equilibrium interest rates over a number of
years.” So we immediately learn that they do not think it has gone well as otherwise they would be taking the credit themselves. After all if it is really like that then they are redundant and we could use a formula to set interest-rates.

Next comes something which is perhaps even more embarrassing which is that only now  around 6 months after the pandemic peak ( which in economics terms was March 19th) have they been briefed on implementing negative interest-rates. What have they been doing? I would have expected it in the first week if not on day one. For the reasons I have explained over time on here I would vote no given such a chance, but at least I know that and I also know why I think that.

Finally they will wait until the next quarter to discuss it with the Prudential Regulation Authority?

The Economic Outlook

There was a conceptual problem with all of this because the view as expressed in the Minutes was that the economy was doing better than they have previously thought.

For 2020 Q3 as a whole, Bank staff expected GDP to be around 7% below its 2019 Q4 level, less weak
than had been expected in the August Report.

This brings us back to the issues I have raised above. Why did they not prepare for negative interest-rates where the outlook was worse than now?

UK Retail Sales

Things got better for us but worse for the Bank of England this morning as the retail sales numbers were released.

In August 2020, retail sales volumes increased by 0.8% when compared with July; this is the fourth consecutive month of growth, resulting in an increase of 4.0% when compared with February’s pre-pandemic level.

The UK shopper has returned to his/her pattern of growth and ironically we are now doing better than the previous period because if you recall annual growth was dropping then whereas now we have solid growth.

Indeed there was even more woe for the inflationistas at the Bank of England in the detail.

In August, retail sales values increased by 0.7% when compared with July and 2.5% when compared with February.

The amount spent is lower than the volume increase meaning that prices have fallen. This is another piece of evidence for the argument I first made on here on the 29th of January 2015 that lower prices led to higher sales volumes. Meanwhile the Bank of England is trying to raise prices.

The MPC’s remit is clear that the inflation target applies at all times, reflecting the primacy of price stability in the
UK monetary policy framework.

Actually they are also not telling the truth as raising prices by 2% per annum would not only reduce any retail sales growth it is not price stability. It is very sad that the present policy is to pick policymakers who all toe the party line rather than some who think for themselves. The whole point of having external members has been wasted as the Bank of England has in effected reverted to being an operating arm of HM Treasury.

Retail Sales Detail

The obvious question is to ask why is the retail sector exemplified by the high street in such trouble?The report does give insight into that.

In August, there was a mixed picture within the different store types as non-store retailing volumes were 38.9% above February, while clothing stores were still 15.9% below February’s pre-pandemic levels.

As you can see there has been quite a shift there and it is not the only one. Fuel volumes are still only at 91.3% of the February level. That is somewhat surprising from the perspective of Battersea but there is context from the issue with Hammersmith Bridge and now Vauxhall Bridge.

Also one area and I am sure you have guessed it has seen quite a boom.

Looking at the year-on-year growth in Table 2, total retail sales increased by 51.6%, with strong increases across all sectors. This shows that while we see declines on the month, online sales were at significantly higher levels than the previous year.

We have fallen back from the peak but the trend was up anyway as pre pandemic volumes were around 50% higher than in 2016. In August they were 125.9% higher than in 2016.

Eat Out To Help Out

In case you were wondering this was not part of the growth today and may well have subtracted from it according to The Guardian.

Britons spent £155m less in supermarkets in August than in the previous month as many returned to workplaces and the government’s eat out to help out scheme encouraged visiting restaurants and cafes.

Alcohol sales in supermarkets dipped month on month, with wine down 5% and beer down 10%, as the scheme encouraged people to swap Zoom catch-ups for trips to bars and restaurants, according to market research firm Kantar.

Comment

It has been a curious 24 hours when our central banking overlords have displayed their leaden footedness. The issue of negative interest-rates is something we have been prepared for and with both the UK 2 and 5 year bond yields already negative markets have adjusted to. For a while the UK Pound £ fell and the bond market rallied but the Pound has rallied again. So what was the point?

Also as Joumanna Bercetche of CNBC reminded me Governor Andrew Bailey told her this on the 16th of March.

On negative interest rates – Evaluated the impact on banks/ bldg societies carefully “there is a reason we cut 15bps”. Bailey: “I am not a fan of negative interest rates and they are not a tool I would want to use readily”. Banks are in position to support the economy.

Never believe anything until it is officially denied……

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In fact he has been in full flow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The US Federal Reserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brazil

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

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

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

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

But telling people that is a triumph?

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

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

ECB

They too are indulging in some open mouth operations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bank of England

There is this doing the rounds.

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

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

Still not everybody is seeing hard times.

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

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

As Dobie Gray put it.

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

Comment

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

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

It wont make any difference.

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

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

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

The Precious! The Precious!

 

 

 

The rise and rise of negative interest-rates

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

Germany

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

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

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

Became this.

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

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

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

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

Switzerland

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

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

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

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

Safe Haven

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

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

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

Anyway it continues.

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

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

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

Quantitative Easing

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

Also the same Market Ear piece notes this.

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

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

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

Meanwhile from Friday.

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

Podcast

 

 

 

 

UK GDP is a case of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Today is an example of be careful what you wish for. No doubt the UK Office for National Statistics thought it would be clever to produce monthly GDP data. But now in addition to the usual problems they find them not only being scanned beyond their capabilities but for the unwary comparing them to the quarterly and annual ones creates quite a of confusion. Indeed we can go through them in Spaghetti Western style.

The Good

This comes from this part of the release where we how have had three months of economic growth in a row.

Monthly gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 6.6% in July 2020 as lockdown measures continued to ease, following growth of 8.7% in June and 2.4% in May.

In terms of detail we are told this.

“Education grew strongly as some children returned to school, while pubs, campsites and hairdressers all saw notable improvements. Car sales exceeded pre-crisis levels for the first time with showrooms having a particularly busy time.

“All areas of manufacturing, particularly distillers and car makers, saw improvements, while housebuilding also continued to recover.”

The latter component will, of course,please the Bank of England. I have to confess a wry smile at the mention of distillers, have we been driven to drink? As to car sales this was reinforced elsewhere.

wholesale, retail and repair of motor vehicles subsector (in particular, the motor vehicles industry), which recovered to above its February 2020 level after seeing record low levels of output in April and May.

This is an area which was affected by the lockdown as when I took my car in for its MOT in August I was told that in April last year they had done 110 and this year 18. Another area which was similarly affected also boomed in July.

Monthly construction output increased by 17.6% in July 2020 compared with June 2020, rising to £11,922 million, because of growth in all construction sectors.

Then and slightly confusingly not directly linked to the GDP numbers ( which are output not expenditure ones) these will not be included.

The total trade surplus, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, widened by £5.9 billion to £6.4 billion in the three months to July 2020, as imports fell by £8.5 billion and exports fell by a lesser £2.7 billion.

I point it out as it is rare for the UK to record a trade surplus which continues as we look for more perspective.

The total trade balance, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, increased by £35.8 billion to a surplus of £3.7 billion in the 12 months to July 2020.

The Bad

Our perspective shifts as we switch to something approaching the more normal quarterly measure for GDP.

Gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 7.6% in the three months to July 2020 following two consecutive quarterly falls, as government restrictions on movement dramatically reduced economic activity.

In case you are wondering how we can grow for 3 individual months but shrink over the total it is because we are comparing the latter with the previous 3 months which include some pre pandemic data.

The Ugly

This comes if we directly compare with where we were or more strictly where we thought we were before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Monthly gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 6.6% in July 2020, following growth of 8.7% in June 2020. Despite this, the level of output did not fully recover from the record falls seen across March and April 2020 and was still 11.7% below the levels seen in February 2020,

So we have picked up but the peak is still a fair way ahead. Or if you prefer.

July 2020 GDP is now 18.6% higher than its April 2020 low. However, it remains 11.7% below the levels seen in February 2020,

There is a sub-plot to this which is unusual for the UK.

In July 2020, the Index of Services is 12.6% below February 2020, the last month of “normal” trading conditions prior to measures introduced as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic…..There was a rise of 6.1% in the Index of Services between June 2020 and July 2020.

The area which is normally a strength and pulls the numbers higher has in fact under performed. One feature of this is hardly a surprise although we can expect a pick-up from the “eat out to help out” policy when we get the August numbers.

Total services output decreased by 8.1% for the three months to July 2020, compared with the months to April 2020; this was led by accommodation and food service activities, which fell by 62.7%.

On the other side of the coin production has been helping in relative terms.

In July 2020, the Index of Production (IoP) was 7.0% below February 2020, the previous month of “normal” trading conditions, prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic…..Production output rose by 5.2% between June and July 2020, with manufacturing providing the largest upward contribution, rising by 6.3%; there were also rises from electricity and gas (2.7%), water and waste (2.4%) and mining and quarrying (0.7%).

It was led by this.

The monthly increase of 6.3% in manufacturing output was led by transport equipment, which rose by 18.5%; all of the 13 subsectors displayed upward contributions.

However it had been in a weak spell anyway and then was hit hard so care is needed.

Comment

There are a lot of contexts and warnings required here many of which are driven by the unreliability of monthly GDP data. The unreliability will be worse right now due to the pandemic as we note something I was pretty much alone in reporting on August 12th.

This primarily reflects movements in the implied price change of government consumption, which increased by 32.7% in Quarter 2 2020. This notable increase occurred because the volume of government activity fell while at the same time government expenditure increased in nominal terms.

More was recorded as less which is a UK peculiarity and made our GDP numbers look worse by maybe 5% on the fall. But now we are seeing the other side of some of that as we note this from the July data.

The largest contribution to monthly growth is education, rising by 21.1%.

Now let me look at the mess which is health.

For example, the suspension of dental and ophthalmic activities (almost 6% of healthcare output), the cancellation and postponement of outpatient activities (13% of healthcare output), and elective procedures (19% of healthcare output) will likely weigh heavily on our activity figures.

If course for a spell Covid-19 treatment was booming well if we counted it.

 Further, our estimates may be affected by the suspension of some data collections by the NHS in England, which include patient volumes in critical care in England.

Oh and if you are struggling with quarterly numbers please run me by how you can get monthly GDP numbers?

For example, the quarterly activity estimates are only made available with a lag, necessitating a form of activity nowcasts.

That is a bit like the services monthly trade data which come mainly from a quarterly survey.

So we did not contract by as much as we thought and have not rebounded by quite as much either.

Looking ahead there are some further strengths for August as we have noted the potential rise in eating out and the Markit PMI reporting this.

A further surge in service sector business activity in August
adds to signs that the economy is enjoying a mini boom as
business re-opens after the lockdowns,

But the PMIs have been downgraded in importance quite a bit as time has passed. Looking further ahead there is this.

The UK has secured a free trade agreement with Japan, which is the UK’s first major trade deal as an independent trading nation, and will increase trade with Japan by an estimated £15.2 billion ( Sky News)

Oh and these things always promise more trade…..

Back to now whilst it was nice to have a bit of variety and be able to report a UK trade surplus it is also true it came from a bad route which is lower imports due to a weaker economy.

 

 

Trouble mounts for the ECB and Christine Lagarde

Today is ECB ( European Central Bank ) day where we get the results of their latest deliberations. We may get a minor move but essentially it is one for what we have come to call open mouth operations. This is more than a little awkward when the President has already established a reputation for putting her Hermes shod foot in her mouth. Who can forget this from March 12th?

Lagarde: We are not here to close spreads, there are other tools and other actors to deal with these issues.

If you are ever not sure of the date just take a look at a chart of the Italian government bond market as it is the time when the benchmark ten-year yield doubled. As many put it the ECB had gone from “Whatever it takes” to “Whatever.”

This issue has continued and these days President Lagarde reads from a script written for her which begs the issue of whether the questions from the press corps are known in advance? It also begs the issue of who is actually in charge? This is all very different from when prompted by an admiring Financial Time representative she was able to describe herself as a “wise owl” like her brooch. Whoever was in charge got her to change her tune substantially on CNBC later and got a correcting footnote in the minutes.

I am fully committed to avoid any fragmentation in a difficult moment for the euro area. High spreads due to the coronavirus impair the transmission of monetary policy. We will use the flexibility embedded in the asset purchase programme, including within the public sector purchase programme. The package approved today can be used flexibly to avoid dislocations in bond markets, and we are ready to use the necessary determination and strength.

Next comes her promise to unify the ECB Governing Council and have it singing from the same hymn sheet, unlike the term of her predecessor Mario Draghi. This has been crumbling over the past day or two as we have received reports of better economic expectations from some ECB members. This has been solidified by this in Eurofi magazine today.

Now that we have moved past the impact phase of the shock, we can shift our attention toward the recovery phase. Recently, forward looking confidence indicators look robust, while high frequency data suggest that mobility is recovering. These developments solidify the confidence in our baseline projection with a more favorable balance-of-risks. However, even if no further setbacks materialize
economic activity will only approach pre-corona levels at the end of 2022.

That is from Klass Knot the head of the DNB or Netherlands central bank and any doubts about his view are further expunged below.

Relying too heavily on monetary policy to get the job done might have contributed to perceptions of a “central bank put” in the recovery from the euro area debt crisis, where the ECB bore all of the downside risk to the economy.

Might?!

Also it was only a week ago we were getting reports ( more “sauces” ) that the ECB wanted to get the Euro exchange-rate lower. Whereas so far on announcement day it has talked it up.

The Economy

There are several issues here of which the first was exemplified by Eurostat on Tuesday.

The COVID-19 pandemic also had a strong impact on GDP levels. Based on seasonally adjusted figures, GDP
volumes were significantly lower than the highest levels of the fourth quarter of 2019 (-15.1% in the euro area and
-14.3% in the EU). This corresponds to the lowest levels since the the first quarter of 2005 for the euro area.

Such a lurch downwards has these days a duo fold response. What I mean by that os that central banks have got themselves into the trap of responding to individual events which they can do nothing about. The real issue is where the economy will be by the time the policy response ( more QE and a -1% interest-rate for banks) can actually take effect. I still recall an ECB paper which suggested response times had got longer and not shorter as some try to claim.

Accordingly I can only completely disagree with those who say this should be an influence.

In August 2020, a month in which COVID-19 containment measures continued to be lifted, Euro area annual
inflation is expected to be -0.2%, down from 0.4% in July according to a flash estimate from Eurostat,

For a start there are ongoing measurement issues and anyway the boat has sailed. The more thoughtful might wonder how this can happen with all the effort to raise recorded inflation? But they are usually ignored.

Next the new optimism rather collides with this from a week ago.

In July 2020, a month marked by some relaxation of COVID-19 containment measures in many Member States, the seasonally adjusted volume of retail trade decreased by 1.3% in the euro area and by 0.8% in the EU, compared
with June 2020, according to estimates from Eurostat.

That is for July so in these times a while ago but we also face the prospect of more restrictions and maybe more lock downs. If we look at the news from France earlier production was better in July but still well below February.

 Compared to February (the last month before the start of the general lockdown), output declined in the manufacturing industry (−7.9%), as well as in the whole industry (−7.1%).

Italy has different numbers but a similar pattern.

In July 2020 the seasonally adjusted industrial production index increased by 7.4% compared with the previous month. The change of the average of the last three months with respect to the previous three months was 15.0%.

The calendar adjusted industrial production index decreased by 8.0% compared with July 2019 (calendar working days in July 2020 being the same as in July 2019).

The unadjusted industrial production index decreased by 8.0% compared with July 2019.

Comment

We start with two issues which are that some of the ECB are singing along with D:Ream.

Things can only get better
Can only get better if we see it through
That means me and I mean you too.

That is a little awkward if you want to talk the currency down as we note the FT has a claimed scoop which catches up with us from a week ago.

Scoop: For the first time in more than two years, the
@ECB  is expected to include a reference to the exchange rate in today’s “introductory statement” – here’s four things to watch for as the euro’s strength raises alarms at the central bank.

Then there is the background issue that Mario Draghi who knows Christine Lagarde well thought he was setting monetary policy for her last autumn when the Deposit Rate was cut to -0.5% and a reintroduction of QE was announced. So she would have a year or more to bed in and read up on monetary policy. What could go wrong?

This is a contentious area so let me be clear.Appointing a woman to the role was in fact overdue. The problem is that diversity is supposed to bring new talent of which there are many whereas the establishment only picks ones from their club. In this instance there were two steps backwards. The first is simply Christine Lagarde’s track record which includes a conviction for negligence. Next is the fact that the ECB is now headed by two politicians as the reverse takeover completes and it can set about helping current politicians by keeping debt costs low and sometimes negative. The irony is that if you go back to the beginning of this post Christine Lagarde seems to have failed to grasp even that.

The Investing Channel

How many central banks will end up buying equities?

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

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

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

Deeper and deeper, and deeper, and deeper

Bloomberg thinks it is driven by this.

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

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

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

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

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

Only a few paragraphs later they contradict themselves.

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

And again.

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

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

Oh and there is the issue of pensions.

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

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

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

Policy Shifts

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

Purchases of foreign assets also remain an option.

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

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

He then went further.

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

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

Swiss National Bank

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

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

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

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

The Tokyo Whale

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

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

Comment

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

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

Why I still expect UK house prices to fall

This morning has brought another example that to quote Todd Terry “there’s something going on” in the UK housing market. Of course there is an enormous amount of government and Bank of England support but even so we are seeing a curious development.

House prices rebound further to reach record
high, challenging affordability.

That is from the Halifax earlier who are the latest to report on this trend where the initial effect of the Covid-19 pandemic has been not only to raise recorded house prices, but to give the rate of growth quite a shove. Indeed prices rose by nearly as much this August on its own as in the year to last August.

“House prices continued to beat expectations in August, with prices again rising sharply, up by 1.6% on a
monthly basis. Annual growth now stands at 5.2%, its strongest level since late 2016, with the average
price of a property tipping over £245,000 for the first time on record.”

I would not spend to much time on the average price per see as each house price index has its own way of calculating that. But the push higher in prices is unmistakable as we look for the causes.

“A surge in market activity has driven up house prices through the post-lockdown summer period, fuelled
by the release of pent-up demand, a strong desire amongst some buyers to move to bigger properties, and
of course the temporary cut to stamp duty.”

I think maybe the stamp duty cut should come first, but the desire for larger properties is intriguing. That may well b a euphemism for wanting a garden which after the lock down is no surprise, but at these prices how is it being afforded? Wanting if one thing, be able to afford it is another.

Bank of England

It’s combination of interest-rate cuts. QE bond buying, and credit easing has led to this.

The mortgage market showed more signs of recovery in July, but remained weak in comparison to pre-Covid. On net, households borrowed an additional £2.7 billion secured on their homes. This was higher than the £2.4 billion in June but below the average of £4.2 billion in the six months to February 2020. The increase on the month reflected a slight increase in gross borrowing to £17.4 billion in July, below the pre-Covid February level of £23.7 billion and consistent with the recent weakness in mortgage approvals.

As you can see it has got things on the move but both gross and net levels of activity are lower and especially the gross one. That may well be a lock down feature as there are lags in the process.  But if the approvals numbers are any guide they are on their way

The number of mortgages approvals for house purchase continued recovering in July, reaching 66,300, up from 39,900 in June. Approvals are now 10% below the February level of 73,700 (Chart 3), but more than seven times higher than the trough of 9,300 in May.

Michael Saunders

It seems that the Monetary Policy Committee may have further plans for the housing market.

Looking forward, I suspect that risks lie on the side of a slower recovery over the next year or two
and a longer period of excess supply than the forecast in the August MPR. If these risks develop,
then some further monetary loosening may be needed in order to support the economy and prevent
a persistent undershoot of the 2% inflation target. ( MPR = Monetary Policy Report )

Seeing as interest-rates are already at their Lower Bound and we are seeing QE bond buying as for example there will be another £1.473 billion today. it does make you wonder what more he intends? Although in a more off the cuff moment he did say this.

Review of negative rates is not finished: Not theologically oppsed to neg rates. ( ForexFlow)

He seems genuinely confused and frankly if he and his colleagues were wrong in August they are likely to be wrong in September as well! Oh and is this an official denial?

But I wouldn’t get too carried away by this prospect of money-fuelled inflation pressures.

He did however get one thing right about the money supply.

In other words, the crisis has lifted the demand for money
– the amount of deposits that households and businesses would like to hold – as well as the rise in the
supply of money described above.

That is a mention of money demand which is more of an influence on broad money than supply a lot of the time. Sadly though he fumbled the ball here.

All this has been backed up by the BoE’s asset purchase programme, which (to the extent that bonds have
been bought from the non-bank private sector) acts directly to boost broad money growth.

It acts directly on narrow money growth and affects broad money growth via that.

Another credit crunch

Poor old Michael Saunders needs to get out a bit more as this shows.

And, thanks to the marked rise in their capital ratios during the last decade, banks have been much better
placed than previously to meet that demand for credit.

Meanwhile back in the real world there is this.

Barclays has lowered its loan to income multiples to a maximum of 4.49 times income.

This applies to all LTVs, loan sizes and income scenarios except for where an LTV is greater than 90 per cent and joint income of the household is equal to or below £50,000, and where the debt to income ratio is equal to or above 20 per cent.

In these two cases the income multiple has been lowered to 4 times salary. ( Mortgage Strategy)

There has been a reduction in supply of higher risk mortgages and such is it that one bank is making an offer for only 2 days to avoid being swamped with demand.

Accord Mortgages is relaunching it’s 90 per cent deals for first-time buyers for two days only next week. ( Mortgage Strategy)

Also according to Mortgage Strategy some mortgage rates saw a large weekly rise.

At 90 per cent LTV the rate flew upward by 32 basis points, taking the average rate from 3.22 per cent to 3.54 per cent…….Despite the overall average rate dropping for three-year fixes there was one large movement upwards within – at 90 per cent LTV the average rate grew from 3.26 per cent to 3.55 per cent.

Comment

If we start with the last section which is something of a credit crunch for low equity or if you prefer high risk mortgages then that is something which can turn the house price trend. I would imagine there will be some strongly worded letters being sent from the Governor of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey to the heads of the banks over this. But on present trends this and its likely accompaniment which is surveyors reducing estimated values will turn the market. Indeed even the Halifax is btacing itself for falls.

“Rising house prices contrast with the adverse impact of the pandemic on household earnings and with
most economic commentators believing that unemployment will continue to rise, we do expect greater
downward pressure on house prices in the medium-term.”

What can the Bank of England do? Short of actually buying houses for people there is really only one more thing. Cut interest-rates into negative territory and offer even more than the current £113 billion from the Term Funding Scheme ( to save the banks the inconvenience of needing those pesky depositors and savers). Then look on in “shock” as the money misses smaller businesses as it floods the mortgage market. But these days the extra push gets smaller because it keeps pulling the same lever.

Also can HM Treasury now put stamp duty back up without torpedoing the market?

Podcast

 

France decides to Spend! Spend! Spend!

Yesterday brought something that was both new and familiar from France. The new part is a substantial extra fiscal stimulus. The familiar is that France as regular readers will be aware had been pushing the boundaries of the Euro area fiscal rules anyway, This is something which has led to friction with Italy which has come under fire for its fiscal position. Whereas France pretty much escaped it in spite of having its nose pressed against the Growth and Stability Pact limit of 3% of Gross Domestic Product for the fiscal deficit. Actually that Pact already feels as if it is from a lifetime ago although those who have argued that it gets abandoned when it suits France and Germany are no doubt having a wry smile.

The Details

Here is a translation of President Macron’s words.

We are now entering a new phase: that of recovery and reconstruction. To overcome the most important in our modern history, to prevent the cancer of mass unemployment from setting in, which unfortunately our country has suffered too long, today we decide to invest massively. 100 billion, of which 40 billion comes from financing obtained hard from the European Union, will thus be injected into the economy in the coming months. It is an unprecedented amount which, in relation to our national wealth, makes the French plan one of the most ambitious.

So the headline is 100 billion Euros which is a tidy sum even in these inflated times for such matters. Also you will no doubt have spotted that he is trying to present something of a windfall from the European Union which is nothing of the sort. The money will simply be borrowed collectively rather than individually. So it is something of a sleight of hand. One thing we can agree on is the French enthusiasm for fiscal policy, although of course they have been rather less enthusiatic in the past about such policies from some of their Euro area partners.

There are three components to this.

Out of 100 billion euros, 30 billion are intended to finance the ecological transition.

As well as a green agenda there is a plan to boost business which involves 35 billion Euros of which the main component is below.

As part of the recovery plan, production taxes will be reduced by € 10bn from January 1, 2021, and by sustainable way. It is therefore € 20bn in tax cuts of production over 2021–2022.

That is an interesting strategy at a time of a soaring fiscal deficit to day the least. So far we have ecology and competitiveness which seems to favour big business. Those who have followed French history may enjoy this reference from Le Monde.

With an approach that smacks of industrial Colbertism

The remaining 35 billion Euros is to go into what is described as public cohesion which is supporting jobs and health. In fact the jobs target is ambitious.

According to the French government, the plan will help the economy make up for the coronavirus-related loss of GDP by the end of 2022, and help create 160,000 new jobs next year.  ( MarketWatch)

Is it necessary?

PARIS (Reuters) – French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire believes that the French economy could perform better than currently forecast this year, he said on Friday.

“I think we will do better in 2020 than the 11% recession forecast at the moment,” Le Maire told BFM TV.

I suspect Monsieur Le Maire is a Beatles fan and of this in particular.

It’s getting better
Since you’ve been mine
Getting so much better all the time!

Of course things have got worse as he has told us they have got better. Something he may have repeated this morning.

August PMI® data pointed to the sharpest contraction in French construction activity for three months……….At the sub-sector level, the decrease in activity was broad based. Work undertaken on commercial projects fell at the
quickest pace since May, and there was a fresh decline in civil engineering activity after signs of recovery in June and July. Home building activity contracted for the sixth month running, although the rate of decrease was softer than in July. ( Markit)

We have lost a lot of faith in PMi numbers but even so there is an issue as I do not know if there is a French equivalent of “shovel ready”? But construction is a tap that fiscal policy can influence relatively quickly and there seems to be no sign of that at all.

Indeed the total PMI picture was disappointing.

“The latest PMI data came as a disappointment
following the sharp rise in private sector activity seen
during July, which had spurred hopes that the French
economy could undergo a swift recovery towards precoronavirus levels of output. However, with activity
growth easing considerably in the latest survey period,
those hopes have been dashed…”

So the data seems to be more in line with the view expressed below.

It is designed to try to “avoid an economic collapse,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday. ( MarketWatch)

Where are the Public Finances?

According to the Trading Economics this is this mornings update.

France’s government budget deficit widened to EUR 151 billion in the first seven months of 2020 from EUR 109.7 billion a year earlier, amid efforts to support the economy hit by the coronavirus crisis. Government spending jumped 10.4 percent from a year earlier to EUR 269.3 billion, while revenues went down 6.3 percent to EUR 142.25 billion

I think their definition of spending has missed out debt costs.

As of the end of June the public debt was 1.992 trillion Euros.

Comment

I have avoided being to specific about the size of the contraction of the economy and hence numbers like debt to GDP. There are several reasons for this. One is simply that we do not know them and also we do not know how much of the contraction will be temporary and how much permanent? We return to part of yesterday’s post and France will be saying Merci Madame Lagarde with passion. The various QE bond purchase programmes mean that France has a benchmark ten-year yield of -0.18% and even long-term borrowing is cheap as it estimates it will pay 0.57% for some 40 year debt on Monday. That’s what you get when you buy 473 billion Euros of something and that is just the original emergency programme or PSPP and not the new emergency programme or PEPP. On that road the European Union fund is pure PR as it ends up at the ECB anyway.

The Bank of France has looked at the chances of a rebound and if we look at unemployment and it looks rather ominous.

However, the speed of the recovery in the coming months and years is more uncertain, as is the peak in the unemployment rate, which the Banque de France forecasts at 11.8% in mid-2021 for France……….Chart 1 shows that in France, Germany, Italy, and the United States, once the unemployment rate peaked, it fell at a rate that was fairly similar from one crisis to the next: on average 0.55 percentage point (pp) per year in France and Italy, 0.7 pp in Germany, and 0.63 pp in the United States.

There is not much cheer there and they seem to have overlooked that unemployment rates have been much higher in the Euro area than the US. But we can see how this might have triggered the French fiscal response especially at these bond yields.

But Giulia Sestieri is likely to find that her conclusion about fiscal policy is likely to see the Bank of France croissant and espresso trolley also contain the finest brandy as it arrives at her desk.

Ceteris paribus, the lessons of economic literature suggest potentially large fiscal multipliers during the post-Covid19 recovery phase

Mind you that is a lot of caveats for one solitary sentence.

The ECB would do well to leave the Euro exchange-rate alone.

Over the past 24 hours we have seen something of a currency wars vibe return. This has other links as we mull whether for example negative interest-rates can boost currencies via the impact of the Carry Trade? In which case economics 101 is like poor old HAL 9000 in the film 2001. As so often is the case the Euro is at the heart of much of it and the Financial Times has taken a break from being the house paper of the Bank of England to take up the role for the ECB.

The euro’s rise is worrying top policymakers at the European Central Bank, who warn that if the currency keeps appreciating it will weigh on exports, drag down prices and intensify pressure for more monetary stimulus. Several members of the ECB’s governing council told the Financial Times that the euro’s rise against the US dollar and many other currencies risks holding back the eurozone’s economic recovery. The council meets next week to discuss monetary policy.

There are a range of issues here. The first is that we are seeing an example of what have become called ECB “sauces” rather then sources leak suggestions to the press to see the impact. Next we are left mulling if the ECB actually has any “top policymakers” as the FT indulges in some flattery. Especially as we then head to a perversion of monetary policy as shown below where lower prices are presented as a bad thing.

drag down prices

So they wish to make workers and consumers worse off ( denying them lower prices) whilst that the economy will be boosted bu some version of a wish fairy. Actually the sentence covers a fair bit of economic theory and modern reality so let us examine it.

The Draghi Rule

Back in 2014 ECB President Draghi gave us his view of the impact of the Euro on inflation.

Now, as a rule of thumb, each 10% permanent effective exchange rate appreciation lowers inflation by around 40 to 50 basis points.

There is a problem with the use of the word “permanent” as exchange-rate moves are usually anything but, However since the nadir in February when the Euro fell to 95.6 it has risen to 101.9 or 6.3 points. Thus we have a disinflationary impact of a bit under 0.3%. That is really fine-tuning things and feels that the ECB has been spooked by this.

In August 2020, a month in which COVID-19 containment measures continued to be lifted, Euro area annual
inflation is expected to be -0.2%, down from 0.4% in July……..

Perhaps nobody has told them they are supposed to be looking a couple of year ahead! This is reinforced by the detail as the inflation fall has been mostly driven by the same energy prices which Mario Draghi argued should be ignored as they are outside the ECB’s control.

Looking at the main components of euro area inflation, food, alcohol & tobacco is expected to have the highest
annual rate in August (1.7%, compared with 2.0% in July), followed by services (0.7%, compared with 0.9% in
July), non-energy industrial goods (-0.1%, compared with 1.6% in July) and energy (-7.8%, compared with -8.4% in
July).

The Carry Trade

This is the next problem for the “top policymakers” who appear to have missed it. Perhaps economics 101 is the only analysis allowed in the Frankfurt Ivory Tower, which misses the reality that interest-rate cuts can strengthen a currency. Newer readers may like to look up my articles on why the Swiss Franc surged as well as the Japanese Yen. But in simple terms investors borrow a currency because it terms of interest-rate (carry) it is cheaper. With an official deposit rate of -0.5% and many negative bond yields Euro borrowing is cheap. So some will borrow in it and cutting interest-rates just makes it cheaper and thereby even more attractive.

As an aside you may have spotted that a potential fix is for others to cut their interest-rates which has happened in many places. But with margins thin these days I suspect investors are playing with smaller numbers. You may note that this is both dangerous and a consequence of the QE era so you can expect some official denials to be floating around.

The Euro as a reserve currency

This is a case of be careful what you wish for! I doubt the current ECB President Christine Lagarde know what she was really saying when she put her name to this back in June.

On the one hand, the euro’s share in outstanding international loans increased significantly.

Carry Trade anyone? In fact you did not need to look a lot deeper to see a confession.

Low interest rates in the euro area continued to support the use of the euro as a funding currency – even after adjusting for the cost of swapping euro proceeds into other currencies, such as the US dollar.

The ECB has wanted the Euro to be more of a reserve currency so it is hard for it then to complain about the consequences of that which will be more demand and a higher price. Perhaps they did not think it through and they are now singing along with John Lennon.

Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed — strange days indeed

Economic Output

Mario Draghi was more reticent about the impact of a higher Euro on economic output which is revealing about the ECB inflation obsession. But back in 2014 when there were concerns about the Euro CaixaBank noted some 2008 research.

Since January 2013, the euro’s nominal effective exchange rate has appreciated by approximately 5.0%. Based on a study by the ECB,an increase of this size reduces exports by 0.6 p.p. in the first year and by close to 1.0 p.p. cumulative in the long term.

With trade being weaker I would expect the impact right now to be weaker as well. Indeed the Reserve Bank of Australia has pretty much implied that recently with the way it has looked at a higher Aussie Dollar which can’t impact tourism as much as usual for example, because there is less of it right now.

Comment

One context of this is that a decade after the “currency wars” speech from the Brazilian Finance Minister we see that we are still there. This is a particular issue for the Euro area because as a net exporter with its trade and balance of payments surplus you could argue it should have a higher currency as a type of correction mechanism. After all it was such sustained imbalances that contributed to the credit crunch and if you apply purchasing power parity to the situation then according to the OECD the exchange rate to the US Dollar should be 1.42 so a fair bit higher. There are always issues with the precision of such calculations but much higher is the answer. Thus reducing the value of the Euro from here would be seeking a competitive advantage and punishing others.

Next comes the way that this illustrates the control freakery of central bankers these days who in spite of intervening on an extraordinary scale want to intervene more. It never seems to occur to them that the problems are increasingly caused by their past actions.

The irony of course is that the elephant in the room which is the US Dollar mat have seen a nadir with the US Federal Reserve averaging inflation announcement. If so we learn two things of which the first is that the ECB may work as an (inadvertent) market indicator. The second is that central banks may do well to leave this topic alone as it is a sea bed with plenty of minefields in it. After all with a trade-weighted value of 101.53 you can argue it is pretty much where it started.

 

 

 

 

Australia sees a GDP plunge whilst it prepares for a trade war

This morning has brought us much more up to date on the state of economic play in a land down under. Even what we have come to call the South China Territories could not keep up its record of economic expansion this year.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell a historic 7.0% this quarter, as the COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding movement restrictions continued to impact economic activity. The June quarter release records the first annual estimate of GDP for 2019/20, which fell 0.2%,ending Australia’s longest streak of continuous growth, 28 years. ( Australia Statistics)

We find ourselves in curious times as we note two things. Firstly that this is a depression which will only end when output regains the lost ground. Also that a quarterly fall of 7% is a relatively good performance which does question some of the things we keep being told as locked down Australia has done better than the more laissez faire Sweden. Curiously the media seem to be concentrating on this being a recession ( GDP fell by 0.3% in the first quarter) which seems to be quite an under playing of it.

The Detail

We see a familiar pattern of a sharp decline in private demand.

Private demand detracted 7.9 percentage points from GDP, with household final consumption expenditure driving the fall. Public demand partly offset the fall, contributing 0.6 percentage points, as government increased spending in response to COVID-19.

Indeed so much of what has happened was a consumption plunge.

Household final consumption expenditure fell a record 12.1%, detracting 6.7 percentage points from GDP. Household expenditure fell 2.6% for the 2019/20 financial year, the first annual fall in recorded history.

The next bit is intriguing as we have seen elsewhere rises in purchases of food as a type of stockpiling.

Spending on services fell 17.6% reflecting temporary shutdown of businesses and movement restrictions. Spending on goods fell 2.8% driven by record falls in operation of vehicles and clothing and footwear, while spending on food recorded the biggest decline since June 1983.

There was something of a space oddity in the trade data however. One might reasonably think that as China was something of an epicentre for the pandemic then supplying it with resources was not going to be a winner. But net trade provided a boost.

The record fall in imports (-12.9%) was greater than the fall in exports (-6.7%). Imports of goods fell 2.4%, reflecting reduced imports of consumption and capital goods. Imports of services fell 50.5% with travel services falling 98.7% in response to travel bans. Exports of goods fell 3.5%, driven by falls in non-rural and rural goods due to a fall in global demand. Exports of services fell 18.4%, reflecting the travel bans.

Whilst no-one will be surprised at the travel data we know that national accounts struggle to measure services trade with any degree of accuracy. It seems more than a little curious that in a pandemic physical trade was barely affected whereas services and especially imports of services were hammered. If we put the number below back we get close to what Sweden did.

Net exports contributed 1.0 percentage point to GDP

There was another curiosity in the shop.

Health care and social assistance value added experienced its greatest fall since September 1997, down 7.9% in June quarter. The fall was driven by a decline in both private and public health services with reduced demand for medical aids, hospital services and allied health services as face to face visits to practitioners were limited.

The last bit is really rather Orwellian as a reduction in supply is reported as a reduction in demand! This issue of course goes way beyond Australia as whilst some health care areas were flat out others pretty much shut down. It looks quite a mess frankly.

Savings and Wages

There are two separate trends here as some did well.

The household saving to income ratio rose to 19.8%, the highest rate since June 1974. This was driven by the record fall in consumption. Gross disposable income rose 2.2%, driven by an historic 41.6% increase in social assistance benefits, due to both an increase in the number of recipients and additional COVID-19 support payments.

But the wages numbers suggest the well-off may have done okay but the poorest did not. The emphasis is mine.

Compensation of employees fell a record 2.5% this quarter. Average compensation per employee rose an 3.1% this quarter reflecting a compositional shift in the work force with reduced employment in part-time and lower paid jobs.

Reserve Bank of Australia

It seems that the RBA has its eyes on the housing market.

Investment in new and used dwellings fell 7.3% in the quarter due to weakened demand and COVID-19 restrictions, the largest fall since December 2000. ( Australia Statistics)

This is because yesterday it announced new moves to pump it up as it copies the Bank of England.

Under the expanded Term Funding Facility, authorised deposit-taking institutions (ADIs) will have access to additional funding, equivalent to 2 per cent of their outstanding credit, at a fixed rate of 25 basis points for three years. ADIs will be able to draw on this extra funding up until the end of June 2021………To date, ADIs have drawn $52 billion under the Term Funding Facility and further drawings are expected over coming weeks. Today’s change brings the total amount available under this facility to around $200 billion.

The first point is that “banks” are so unpopular now that they have apparently had their name changed to “authorised deposit-taking institutions ” or ADIs. That is curious when we are discussing lending rather than depositing. I see the RBA looking at its impact like this.

There is a very high level of liquidity in the Australian financial system and borrowing rates are at historical lows.

Let us go straight to the heat of the action as the RBA is repeating a policy designed to get mortgage interest-rates lower. We see why it has announced an expansion as we note mortgage rates. Variable rates for new borrowers were 3.5% in July last year and were 2.92% this. So we have two contexts of which the first is that they have not moved much when we consider the Cash Rate was also cut to 0.25% and we are seeing QE (of which more later). Also they are relatively high if we look internationally.

The picture looks better for the RBA if we look at fixed-rate mortgages. If we look at ones for up to three-years we see that it fell over the year to June from 3.43% to 2.3% making fixed-rates look attractive to say the least. Apologies for the way they have one set of numbers for the year to July and another to June but I think we get the picture.

There is a chart comparing these rates with swap rates so the cost of the banks intermediation is in fact 2% of the 2.3%.

Comment

There are some particularly Australian features here. Let me address the issue of a boost from trade via this I spotted from @chigrl

India, Australia and Japan on Tuesday agreed to launch an initiative to ensure the resilience of supply chains in the Indo-Pacific, with the move coming against the backdrop of tensions created by China’s aggressive actions across the region.

The creation of the “Supply Chain Resilience Initiative” was mooted by Japan amid the Covid-19 crisis, which has played havoc with supply and manufacturing chains,  ( Hindustan Times)

I doubt that will be welcomed by Australia’s largest customer and that has clear trade implications.

Next let me return to the RBA. As I am a polite man I will call this quite a cheek.

 Government bond markets are functioning normally, alongside a significant increase in issuance.

In fact they are so normal they had to buy a barrel load…….Oh hang on.

Over the past month, the Bank bought a further $10 billion of Australian Government Securities (AGS) in support of its 3-year yield target of 25 basis points. Since March, the Bank has bought a total of $61 billion of government securities. Further purchases will be undertaken as necessary.

Number Crunching

The Governor of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey will be interviewed by the Treasury Select Committee and I have put in a question request.

With Apple now worth more than the UK FTSE 100 will someone please ask the Governor why he is buying Apple Corporate Bonds?