What can we expect from the Bank of England in 2018?

Today we find out the results of the latest Bank of England policy meeting which seems set to be along the lines of Merry Christmas and see you in the new year. One area of possible change is to its status as the Old Lady  of Threadneedle Street a 200 year plus tradition. From City AM.

The Bank will use further consultations to remove “all gendered language” from rulebooks and forms used throughout the finance sector, a spokesperson said.

Perhaps it will divert attention from the problems keeping women in senior positions at the Bank as we have seen several cases of “woman overboard” in recent times some for incompetence ( a criteria that could be spread to my sex) but not so in the case of Kristin Forbes. There does seem to be an aversion to appointing British female economists as opposed to what might be called “internationalists” in the style of Governor Carney.

Moving onto interest-rates there is an area where the heat is indeed on at least in relative terms. From the US Federal Reserve last night.

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

The crucial part is the last bit with its clear hint of more to come which was reinforced by Janet Yellen at the press conference. From the Wall Street Journal.

Even with today’s rate increase, she said the federal-funds rate remains somewhat below its neutral level. That neutral level is low but expected to rise and so more gradual rate hikes are likely going forward, she said.

The WSJ put the expectation like this.

At the same time, they expect inflation to hold steady, and they maintained their expectation of three interest-rate increases in 2018.

Actually if financial markets are any guide that may be it as the US Treasury Bond market looks as though it is looking for US short-term interest-rates rising to around 2%. For example the yield on the five-year Treasury Note is 2.14% and the ten-year is 2.38%.

But the underlying theme here is that the US is leaving the UK behind and if we look back in time we see that such a situation is unusual as we generally move if not in unison along the same path. What was particularly unusual was the August 2016 UK Bank Rate cut.

Inflation Targeting

What is especially unusual is that the Fed and the Bank of England are taking completely different views on inflation trends and indeed targeting. From the Fed.

 Inflation on a 12‑month basis is expected to remain somewhat below 2 percent in the near term but to stabilize around the Committee’s 2 percent objective over the medium term. Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced, but the Committee is monitoring inflation developments closely.

In spite of the fact that consumer inflation is below target they are raising interest-rates based on an expectation ( incorrect so far) that it will rise to their target and in truth because of the improved employment and economic growth situation. A bit of old fashioned taking away the punch bowl monetary policy if you like.

The Bank of England faces a different inflation scenario as we learnt on Tuesday. From Bloomberg.

The latest data mean Carney has to write to Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond explaining why inflation is more than 1 percentage point away from the official 2 percent target. The letter will be published alongside the BOE’s policy decision in February, rather than this week, as the Monetary Policy Committee has already started its meetings for its Dec. 14 announcement.

If you were a Martian who found a text book on monetary policy floating around you might reasonably expect the Bank of England to be in the middle of a series of interest-rates. Our gender neutral Martian would therefore be confused to note that as inflation expectations rose in the summer of 2016 it cut rather than raised Bank Rate. This was based on a different strategy highlighted by a Twitter exchange I had with former Bank of England policymaker David ( Danny) Blanchflower who assured me there was a “collapse in confidence”. To my point that in reality the economy carried on as before ( in fact the second part of 2016 was better than the first) he seemed to be claiming that the Bank Rate cut was both the fastest acting and most effective 0.25% interest-rate reduction in history. If only the previous 4% +  of Bank Rate cuts had been like that…….

 

Even Norway gets in on the act

For Norges bank earlier today.

On the whole, the changes in the outlook and the balance of risks imply a somewhat earlier increase in the key policy rate than projected in the September Report.

China is on the move as well as this from its central bank indicates.

On December 14, the People’s Bank of China launched the reverse repo and MLF operation rates slightly up 5 basis points.

I am slightly bemused that anyone thinks that a 0.05% change in official interest-rates will have any effect apart from imposing costs and signalling. Supposedly it is a response to the move from the US but it is some 0.2% short.

The UK economic situation

This continues to what we might call bumble along. In fact if the NIESR is any guide ( and it has been in good form) then we may see a nudge forwards.

Our monthly estimates of GDP suggest that output expanded by 0.5 per cent in the three months to November, similar to our estimate from last month.

The international outlook looks solid which should help too. This morning’s retail sales data suggested that the many reports of the demise of the UK consumer continue to be premature,

When compared with October 2017, the quantity bought in November 2017 increased by 1.1%, with household goods stores showing strong growth at 2.9%……..The year-on-year growth rate shows the quantity bought increased by 1.6%.

As ever care is needed especially as Black Friday was included in the November series but Cyber Monday was not. Although I note that there was yet another signal of the Bank of England’s inflation problem.

Total average store prices increased by 3.1% in November 2017 when compared with the same period last year, with price increases across all store types, in particular food stores had the largest price increase of 3.6% since September 2013.

Comment

The Bank of England finds itself in a similar position to the US Federal Reserve in one respect which is that it had two dissenters to its last interest-rate increase. The clear difference is that the Fed is in the middle of a series of rises whereas the Bank of England has so far not convinced on this front in spite of saying things like this. From the Daily Telegraph.

“We’ve said, given all the things we assume in our forecast, many of which will be misses – there are always unknown things and unpredictable things happening – but given our outlook currently, we anticipate we will need maybe a couple more rate rises, to get inflation back on track, while at the same time supporting the economy,” Ben Broadbent told the BBC’s Today programme.

I wonder if he even convinced himself. Also it is disappointing that we will not get the formal letter explaining the rise in inflation until February as it is not as if Governor Carney has been short of time.

So it seems we will only see action from the Bank of England next year if its hand is forced and on that basis I am pleased to see that Governor Carney plans to get about.

Me on Core Finance

http://www.corelondon.tv/inflation-employment-uk/

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What and indeed where next for bond markets?

The credit crunch era has brought bond markets towards the centre stage of economics and finance. Before then there were rare expressions of interest in either a crisis or if the media wanted to film a response to an economic data release. You see equities trade rarely but bonds a lot so they filmed us instead and claimed we were equities trades so sorry for my part in any deception! Where things changed was when central banks released that lowering short-term interest-rates ( Bank Rate in the UK) was not the only game in town and that it was not having the effect that they hoped and planned. Also the Ivory Towers style assumption that short-term interest-rates move long-term ones went the way of so many of their assumptions straight to the recycling bin.

QE

It is easy to forget now what a big deal this was as the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England joined the Bank of Japan in buying government bonds or Quantitative Easing ( QE). There is a familiar factor in that what was supposed to be a temporary measure has now become a permanent feature of the economic landscape. As for example the holdings of the Bank of England stretch to 2068 with no current plan to reverse any of it and instead keeping the total at £435 billion by reinvesting maturities. Indeed on Friday it released this on social media.

Should quantitative easing become part of the conventional monetary policy toolkit?

The Author Richard Harrison may be in line for promotion after this.

Though the model does not support the idea that central banks should maintain permanently large balance sheets, it does suggest that we may see more quantitative easing in the future.

So here is a change for bond markets which is that QE will be permanent as so far there has been little or no interest in unwinding it. Even the US Federal Reserve which to be fair is doing some unwinding is doing so with baby steps or the complete opposite of the way it charged in to increase QE.

Along the way other central banks joined in most noticeably the European Central Bank. It had previously indulged in some QE via its purchases of Southern European bonds and covered ( bank mortgage) bonds but of course it then went into the major game. In spite of the fact that the Euro area economy is having a rather good 2017 it is still at it to the order of 60 billion Euros a month albeit that halves next year. So we are a long way away from it stopping let alone reversing. If we look at one of the countries dragged along by the Euro into the QE adventure we see that even annual economic growth of 3.1% does not seem to be enough for a change of course. From Reuters.

Riksbank’s Ohlsson: Too Early To Make MonPol Less Expansionary

If 3.1% economic growth is “too early” then the clear and present danger is that Sweden goes into the next downturn with QE ongoing ( and maybe negative interest-rates too). One consequence that seems likely is that they will run out of bonds to buy as not everyone wants to sell to the central bank.

Whilst we may think that QE is in modern parlance “like so over” in fact on a net basis it is still growing and only last month a new player came with its glass to the punch bowl.

In addition, the Magyar Nemzeti Bank will launch a targeted programme aimed at purchasing mortgage bonds with maturities of three years or more. Both programmes will also contribute to an increase in the share of loans with long periods of interest rate fixation.

Okay so Hungary is in the club albeit via mortgage bond purchases which can be a sort of win double for central banks as it boosts “the precious” ( banks) and via yield substitution implicitly boosts the government bond market too. But we learn something by looking at the economic situation according to the MNB.

The Hungarian economy grew by 3.6 percent in the third quarter of 2017…….The Monetary Council expects annual economic growth of 3.6 percent in 2017 and stable growth of between 3-4 percent over the coming years. The Bank’s and the Government’s stimulating measures contribute substantially to economic growth.

We are now seeing procyclical policy where economies are stimulated by monetary policy in a boom. In particular central banks continue with very large balance sheets full of government and other bonds and in net terms they are still buyers.

The bond vigilantes

They have been beaten back and as we observe the situation above we see why. Many of the scenarios where they are in play and bond yields rise substantially have been taken away for now at least by the central banks. There can be rises in bond yields in individual countries as we see for example in the Turkish crisis or Venezuela but the scale of the crisis needs to be larger and these days countries are picked off individually rather than collectively.

At the moment there are grounds for the bond yield rises to be in play in the Euro area with growth solid but of course the ECB is in play and in fact yesterday brought news of exactly the reverse.

 

A flat yield curve?

The consequence of central banks continuing with what the Bank of Japan calls “yield curve control” has led to comments like this. From the Financial Times yesterday.

Selling of shorter-dated Treasuries pushed the US yield curve to its flattest level since 2007 on Tuesday. The difference between the yields on two-year Treasury notes and 10-year Treasury bonds dropped below 55 basis points in afternoon trading in New York. While the 10-year Treasury was little changed, prices of two-year notes fell for the second consecutive day. The two-year Treasury yield, which moves inversely to the note’s price, has climbed 64 basis points this year to 1.83 per cent.

If we look long the yield curve the numbers are getting more and more similar ironically taking us back to the “one interest-rate” idea the central banks and Ivory Towers came into the credit crunch with. With the US 2 year yield at 1.8% and the 30 year at 2.71% there is not much of a gap.

Why does something which may seem arcane matter? Well the FT explains and the emphasis is mine.

It marks a pronounced “flattening” of the yield curve, with investors receiving decreasing returns for holding longer-dated bonds compared to shorter-dated notes — typically a harbinger of economic recession.

Comment

We have seen phases of falls in bond prices and rises in yield. For example the election of President Trump was one. But once they pass we are left wondering if the around thirty year trend for lower bond yields is still in play and we are heading for 0% ( ZIRP) or the icy cold waters of negativity ( NIRP)? On that road the idea that the current yield curve shape points to a recession gets kicked into touch as Goodhart’s Law or if you prefer the Lucas Critique comes into play. But things are now so mixed up that a recession might actually be on its way after all we are due one.

For yields to rise again on any meaningful scale there will have to be some form of calamity for the central banks. This is because QE is like a drug for so many areas. One clear one is the automotive sector I looked at yesterday but governments are addicted to paying low yields as are those with mortgages. On that road they cannot let go until they are forced to. Thus the low bond yields we see right now are a short-term success which central banks can claim but set us on the road to a type of junkie culture long-term failure. Or in my country this being proclaimed as success.

“Since 1995 the value of land has increased more than fivefold, making it our most valuable asset. At £5 trillion, it accounts for just over half of the total net worth of the UK at end-2016. At over £800 billion, the rise in the nation’s total net worth is the largest annual increase on record.”

Of course this is merely triumphalism for higher house prices in another form. As ever those without are excluded from the party.

 

 

Why are we told some inflation is good for us?

A major topic in the world of economics is the subject of inflation which has been brought into focus by the events of the past 2/3 years or so. First we had the phase where a fall in the price of crude oil filtered through the system such that official consumer inflation across many countries fell to zero per cent on an annual basis and in some cases below that. If you recall that led to the deflation scare or it you will excuse the capitals what much of the media presented as a DEFLATION scare. We were presented with a four horsemen of the apocalypse style scenario where lower and especially negative inflation would take us to a downwards spiral where wages and economic activity fell as well along the line of this from R.E.M.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.

I coined the phrase “deflation nutter” to cover this because as I pointed out, Greece the subject of yesterday suffered from quite a few policy errors pushing it into depression and that on the other side of the coin for all its problems Japan had survived years and indeed decades of 0% inflation. Indeed on the 29th of January 2015 I wrote an article on here explaining how lower consumer inflation was boosting consumption across a range of countries via the positive effect it was having on real wages.

 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. This could not contradict conventional economic theory much more clearly. If the history of the credit crunch is any guide many will try to ignore reality and instead cling to their prized and pet theories but I prefer reality ever time.

 

Relative prices

The comfortable cosy world of central bankers and theoretical economists told us and indeed continues to tell us that we need positive inflation so that relative prices can change. That leads us to the era of inflation targets which are mostly set at 2% per annum although of course there is a regular cry for inflation targets to be raised. However 2015/16 torpedoed their ship as if we just look at the basic change we saw a large relative price adjustment for crude oil leading to adjustments directly to other energy costs and a lot of other changes. Ooops! Even worse for the theory we saw two large sectors of the economy respond in opposite fashion. A clear example of this was provided by my own country the UK where services inflation barely changed and ironically for a period of deflation paranoia was quite often above the inflation target. But the goods sector saw substantial disinflation as it was it that pulled the overall measure down to around 0%.

We can bring this up to date by looking at the latest data from the Statistics Bureau in Japan.

  The consumer price index for Ku-area of Tokyo in October 2017 (preliminary) was 100.1 (2015=100), down 0.2% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and down 0.1% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

So not only is there no inflation here there has not been any for some time. Yet the latest monthly update tells us that food prices fell by 2.4% on an annual basis and the sector including energy fuel and lighting rose by 7.1%. Please remember that the next time the Ivory Towers start to chant their “we need inflation so relative prices can adjust” mantra.

Reality

This is that central banks are in the main failing to reach their inflation targets. For example if we look at the US economy the Federal Reserve targets the PCE ( Personal Consumption Expenditure) inflation measure which was running at an annual rate of 1.6% in September and even that level required an 11.1% increase in energy prices.

So we see central banks and establishments responding to this of which the extreme is often to be found in Japan. From @lemasabachthani yesterday.

JAPAN PM AIDE HONDA: INAPPROPRIATE TO REAPPOINT BOJ GOV KURODA, BOJ NEEDS NEW LEADERSHIP TO ACHIEVE 2 PCT INFLATION TARGET

Poor old Governor Kuroda whose turning of the Bank of Japan into the Tokyo Whale was proving in his terms at least to be quite a success. From the Financial Times.

Trading was at its most eye-catching in Japan. Tokyo’s Topix index touched its highest level since November 1991, only to end down on the day after a volatile session. At its peak, the index reached the fresh high of 1,844.05 with gains across almost all major segments, taking it more than 20 per cent higher for the year to date. But it faded back in late trade to close at 1,817.75.

It makes me wonder what any proposed new Governor would be expected to do?! QE for what else?

Whereas in this morning’s monthly bulletin the ECB ( European Central Bank) has told us this.

Following the decision made on 26 October 2017 the monthly pace will be further reduced to €30 billion from January 2018 and net purchases will be carried out until September 2018. The recalibration of the APP reflects growing confidence in the gradual convergence of inflation rates towards the ECB’s inflation aim, on account of
the increasingly robust and broad-based economic expansion, an uptick in measures of underlying inflation and the continued effective pass-through of the Governing
Council’s policy measures to the financing conditions of the real economy.

So we see proposals for central banking policy lost in  a land of confusion as the US tightens, the Euro area eases a little less and yet again the establishment in Japan cries for more, more, more.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here as we mull a world of easy and in some cases extraordinarily easy monetary policy with what is in general below target inflation. Of course there are exceptions like Venezuela which as far as you can measure it seems to have an inflation rate of the order of 2000% + . But in general such places are importing inflation via a lower currency exchange rate which means that someone else’s is reduced. Also we need to note that 2017 is looking like a good year for economic growth as this morning’s forecasts from the European Commission indicate.

The euro area economy is on track to grow at its fastest pace in a decade this year, with real GDP growth forecast at 2.2%. This is substantially higher than expected in spring (1.7%)……..at 2.1% in 2018 and at 1.9% in 2019.

So then of course you need an excuse for easy monetary policy which is below target inflation! Of course this ignores two technical problems. The first is that at the moment if we get inflation it is mostly from a higher oil price as we mull the likely effects of Brent Crude Oil which has moved into the US $60s. The second is that there is inflation to be found if you look at asset prices as whilst some of the equity market highs we keep seeing is genuine some of it is simply where all the QE has gone. Also there is the issue of house prices where even in the Euro area they are growing at an annual rate of 3.8% so if they were in an inflation index even more questions would be asked about monetary policy.

In a world where wages growth is not only subdued but has clearly shifted onto a lower plane the obsession with raising inflation will simply make the ordinary person worse off via its effect on real wages. Sadly this impact is usually hardest on the poorest.

Me on Core Finance TV

http://www.corelondon.tv/uk-housing-market-house-party-keeps-going/

 

 

 

What is happening in the US economy?

It is time and in some ways past time for another delve into the state of play in the US economy which some would have you believe has been doing extraordinarily well. I spotted this from @Trickyjabs on Twitter earlier this week.

George Osborne, January 2015:
“Britain could be richer than US by 2030”

2.5 years later:
US GDP +21.5%
UK GDP +4.5%

If we skip the attempt to make a political point this is the sort of thing to cheer Donald Trump especially if he could find a way to argue it had all happened this year! Sadly of course the lesson here is not to use figures you do not understand as the US figures are realised in an annualised version. So still better than the UK but not by much.

Perspective

If we look back we see that the US Bureau of Economic Analysis or BEA tells us that economic output as measured by GDP peaked at 14.99 Trillion US Dollars in the last quarter of 2007 ( 2009 prices). If we jump forwards to the second quarter of this year we see that it had risen to 17.03 Trillion US Dollars. So if we allow for the likely growth in the third quarter an increase of the order of 14%. This tells us that the US has done relatively well on this measure but that growth is lower than what used to be considered normal. Putting it another way we have a type of confirmation that as output did not reach its previous peak until halfway through 2011 the new normal for economic growth may be of the order of 2% per annum.

Also the BEA gives us an insight into the structure of the US economy which goes as follows. 69% is consumption, just under 17% is investment and just over 17% is the government. You may have spotted a mathematical flaw which is solved when we put in net trade which is -3%.So investment has fallen as has the relative size of the government and the gap has partly been filled by services consumption rising from 44% to 47%.

Perhaps the most interesting change is the decline in the trade deficit which peaked at just under 6% of GDP before the credit crunch but is now around 3%. I wonder how much of a role the shale oil industry has played in this.

Looking ahead

One view was expressed by the Donald back in August. From CNBC.

“If we achieve sustained 3 percent growth that means 12 million new jobs and $10 trillion of new economic activity. That’s some number,” Trump said during a speech last month in Missouri promoting tax reform. “I happen to be one that thinks we can go much higher than 3 percent. There’s no reason we shouldn’t.”

If the US Federal Reserve was on board with that then we would have seen more interest-rate increases but its latest forecasts suggest annual economic growth of around 2%. So belatedly they have caught up with us on here!

Interest-Rates

This is an intriguing one as markets expect another rise to circa 1.25% in December and it became more intriguing as we learnt this from the European Central Bank and its President Mario Draghi yesterday.

Real GDP increased by 0.7%, quarter on quarter, in the second quarter of 2017, after 0.6% in the first quarter. The latest data and survey results point to unabated growth momentum in the second half of this year

So better than the US so far in 2017 and the Euro area has seen growth for a while.

Growth is growing and momentum is also growing and labour market and everything is doing – well, I think it’s, I can’t remember how many quarters of consecutive growth, 17 I believe.

But the picture for interest-rates is completely different.

The sequence stays what it is, namely this – the interest rates will stay and they remain at their present – are expected to remain at their present levels for an extended period of time and well past the horizon of our net asset purchases.

So President Draghi is giving us Forward Guidance that the ECB deposit rate will remain at -0.4% for at least the next couple of years and maybe beyond. This is because the cut to the monthly amount of QE to 30 billion Euros a month was accompanied by not only an extension of its term but more hints that it might go “on and on and on ” to coin a phrase.

Whilst 2017 looks like being somewhere between a good year for both the US and Euro area economies sooner or later a recession will come along. Oh except of course in the forecasts of central bankers which seem to actually believe they have ended them! But my point is should it come then we will see a US central bank which has raised interest-rate but an ECB with them starting it in negative territory. The rationale as we look at comparisons is given here.

As such, the US recovery is way more advanced than ours

Quite a compliment for the United States I think.

Inflation

This remains by historical standards relatively mild with this being the latest release from August.

The PCE price index increased
0.2 percent. Excluding food and energy, the PCE price index increased 0.1 percent.

This means that the annual rate for Personal Consumption Expenditure has fallen from 2.2% in February to 1.4% in August. So good news overall and in case you are wondering why CPI is not used the gap between the two measures is variable but tends to see CPI around 0.4% higher.

Wages

From the Bureau of Labour Statistics or BLS.

Real average hourly earnings increased 0.7 percent, seasonally adjusted, from September 2016 to
September 2017. The increase in real average hourly earnings combined with no change in the average
workweek resulted in a 0.6-percent increase in real average weekly earnings over this period.

So there is some growth but hardly stellar.

Comment

In many ways the US economy has done pretty well in the credit crunch era but this does not mean that there are not begged questions. This start in an apparent area of strength because the unemployment has fallen to 4.2% and the underemployment rate to 8.3%. But the catch as was discussed in the comments section yesterday comes from the participation rate which in spite of an improvement in September is some 3% lower than pre credit crunch. So what has happened to nearly 8 million people or ten million if we look further back?

The next issue is one of debt. I am not particularly thinking of the level of it but the way that it seems to have permulated and percolated back down to the sub-prime level again. From Bloomberg in August.

There’s a section of the auto-loan market — known in industry parlance as deep subprime — where delinquency rates have ticked up to levels last seen in 2007, according to data compiled by credit reporting bureau Equifax.

“Performance of recent deep subprime vintages is awful,” Equifax said in a slide show on second-quarter credit trends.

I dread to think what “deep subprime” means don’t you? As to the car market itself this from Automotive News does not seem entirely reassuring.

October is on track to be the second-best month of 2017 for U.S. new-vehicle sales, analysts said, partly due to surging demand in states recovering from hurricane damage, though volume is projected to fall slightly from the same month last year.

When will the next big hurricane come along to boost sales and I note what is happening with prices.

Fleming said incentives have risen to 11 percent of average transaction prices — “an indicator that new-vehicle demand is still contracting, and production cuts could be on the horizon to prevent oversupplies.”
Discounts are all but certain to rise further in the coming months, as automakers roll out year-end promotions that typically start in the next few weeks and stretch into early January.

My financial lexicon for these times of course defines an “incentive” as a price cut.

Can QE reductions co-exist with the “To Infinity! And Beyond! Critique?

Today looks set to take us a step nearer a change from the world’s major central bank. Later we will here from the US Federal Reserve on its plans for a reduction in its balance sheet. If we look back to September 2014 there was a basis for a plan announced.

The Committee intends to reduce the Federal Reserve’s securities holdings in a gradual and predictable manner primarily by ceasing to reinvest repayments of principal on securities held in the SOMA.  ( System Open Market Account).

Okay so what will this mean?

The Committee expects to cease or commence phasing out reinvestments after it begins increasing the target range for the federal funds rate; the timing will depend on how economic and financial conditions and the economic outlook evolve.

So we learnt that it planned to reduce its balance sheet by not reinvesting bonds as they mature. A sensible plan and indeed one I had suggested for the UK a year before in City AM. Of course back then they were talking about doing it rather than actually doing it. Also there was a warning of what it would not entail.

.The Committee currently does not anticipate selling agency mortgage-backed securities as part of the normalization process, although limited sales might be warranted in the longer run to reduce or eliminate residual holdings. The timing and pace of any sales would be communicated to the public in advance

Thus we were already getting the idea that any such process was likely to take a very long time. This was added to by the fact that there is no clear end destination.

The Committee intends that the Federal Reserve will, in the longer run, hold no more securities than necessary to implement monetary policy efficiently and effectively, and that it will hold primarily Treasury securities.

This was brought more up to date this June when we were told that any moves would be in what are baby steps compared to the US $4.5 trillion size of the balance sheet.

For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from maturing Treasury securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $6 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $6 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $30 billion per month.

They will do the same for mortgage-backed securities except US $ 4 billion and US $20 billion are the relevant amounts. But as you can see it will take a year to reach an annual amount of US $0.6 trillion. Thus we reach a situation where balance sheet reduction can in fact be combined with another chorus of “To Infinity! And Beyond!” Why? Well unless they have ended recessions then the reduction seems extremely unlikely to be complete until it is presumably being expanded again. Indeed for some members of the Federal Reserve this seems to be the plan. From the Financial Times.

 

Mr Dudley has said he expects the balance sheet to shrink by roughly $1tn to $2tn over the period, from its current $4.5tn. This compares with an increase of about $3.7tn during the era of quantitative easing.

The ECB

There was a reduction in monthly QE purchases from the European Central Bank from 80 billion Euros to 60 billion which started earlier this year. But so far there has been no announcement of more reductions and of course these are so far only reductions in the rate of increase of its balance sheet. Then yesterday there was a flurry of what are called “sauces”.

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – European Central Bank policymakers disagree on whether to set a definitive end-date for their money-printing programme when they meet in October, raising the chance that they will keep open at least the option of prolonging it again, six sources told Reuters.

Of course talk and leaks are cheap but from time to time they are genuine kite flying. Also there is some potential logic behind this as the higher level of the Euro has reduced the likely path of inflation and the ECB is an institution which takes its target seriously. Now the subject gets complicated so let me show you the “Draghi Rule” from March 2014,

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

So the Euro rally will have trimmed say 0.3% off future inflation. However some are claiming much more with HSBC saying it is 0.75% and if so no wonder the ECB is considering a change of tack. Mind you if I was HSBC I would be quiet right now after the embarrassment of how they changed their forecasts for the UK Pound £ ( when it was low they said US $1.20 and after it rallied to US $1.35 they forecast US $1.35!).

This is something of a moveable feast as on the 9th of this month Reuters sources were telling us a monthly reduction was a done deal. But there is some backing from markets with for example the Euro rising above 1.20 versus the US Dollar today and it hitting a post cap removal high ( remember January 2015?) against the Swiss Franc yesterday.

As we stand the ECB QE programme amounts to 2.2 trillion Euros and of course rising.

The Bank of England

We see something of a different tack from the Bank of England as it increased its QE programme last August and that is over. But it is working to maintain its holdings of UK Gilts at £435 billion as highlighted below.

As set out in the MPC’s statement of 3 August 2017, the MPC has agreed to make £10.1bn of gilt purchases, financed by central bank reserves, to reinvest the cash flows associated with the maturities on 25 August and 7 September 2017 of gilts owned by the Asset Purchase Facility (APF).

Today it will purchase some £1.125 billion of medium-dated Gilts as part of that which may not be that easy as only 3 Gilts are now eligible in that maturity range.

However tucked away in the recent purchases are an intriguing detail. You see over the past 2 weeks the Bank of England has purchased some £1.36 billion of our longest dated conventional Gilt which runs to July 2068. So if Gilts only ever “run off” then QE will be with us in the UK for a very long time.

The current Bank of England plan such as it is involves only looking to reduce its stock of bond holdings after it has raised Bank Rate an unspecified number of times. I fear that such a policy will involve losses as whilst the rises in the US have not particularly affected its position there have been more than a few special factors ( inflation, North Korea, Trumpenomics…), also we would be late comers to the party.

The MPC intends to maintain the stock of purchased assets at least until the first rise in Bank Rate.

Will that be like the 7% unemployment rate? Because also rise from what level?

at least until Bank Rate has been raised from its current level of 0.5%.

Comment

As you can see there is a fair bit to consider and that is without looking at the Bank of Japan or the Swiss National Bank which of course has if its share price is any guide has suddenly become very valuable. We find that any reduction moves are usually small and much smaller than the increases we saw! Some of that is related to the so-called Taper Tantrum but it is also true that central banks ploughed ahead with expansions of their balance sheets without thinking through how they would ever exit from them and some no doubt do not intend to exit.

The future is uncertain but not quite as uncertain as central banks efforts at Forward Guidance might indicate. So if we address my initial question there must be real fears that the next recession will strike before the tapering in the case of the ECB or the reductions of the US Federal Reserve have got that far. As to my own country the Bank of England just simply seems lost in its own land of confusion.

 

 

 

 

 

Why have the bond markets lost their bark and their vigilantes?

The credit crunch era took us on quite a journey in terms of interest-rates. At first central banks reduced official short-term interest-rates in the hope that they would fix the problem. Then they embarked on Quantitative Easing policies which were designed to reduce long-term interest-rates or bond yields. This was because quite a few important interest-rates are not especially dependent on official interest-rates and may from time to time even move in the opposite direction. An example is fixed-rate mortgages. However if they are a “cure” then one day all the downwards manipulation of interest-rates and yields needs to stop. Of course the fact that it is still going on all these years later poses its own issues.

The United States looked as though it was heading on that road last year on two counts. Firstly the Federal Reserve was in a program to raise interest-rates and secondly both Presidential candidates indicated plans for a fiscal stimulus. When Donald Trump was elected as President he reinforced this by telling us this as I reported back on November 9th.

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none, and we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.

This was somewhat reminiscent of the “New Deal” of President F.D. Roosevelt although I counselled caution at the time and of course any fiscal expansion would be added to by the plan for tax cuts. The two impacted on bond markets as shown below.

There has been a clear market adjustment to this which is that the 30 year ( long bond) yield has risen by 0.12% to 2.75%.

In the US this tends to have a direct impact on fixed mortgage-rates as many places quote a 30 year one.

What happened next?

US bond yields did rise and in mid March the 10 year Treasury Note yield rose to 2.63% meaning that it was approaching the long bond yield quoted above. Meanwhile the long bond yield rose to 3.21%. However as we look back now those were twin peaks and have been replaced by 2.07% and 2.69% respectively.

Why might this be?

Whilst there does seem to be some sort of concrete plan for tax cuts there is little sign of much concrete around any infrastructure spending. So that has drifted away and there has been an element of this with official interest-rate rises. The US Federal Reserve has raised them to a range between 1% and 1.25% but seems to be in no hurry to raise them further. It does plan to reduce its balance sheet but the plan is very small compared to its size.

The Recovery

The US economy has continued to grow in 2017 as shown below.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 3.0 percent in the second quarter of 2017 (table 1), according to the “second” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the first quarter, real GDP increased 1.2 percent. ( These are annualised figures )

This has not been enough to unsettle bond markets especially if we add in that so far in 2017 inflation has if anything faded. Here are the latest numbers from NASDAQ.

Excluding food prices and fuel, core PCE measure – the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation – increased 1.4% in July year over year compared with 1.5% in June. However, it edged up 0.1% in July on a monthly basis. Therefore, it is still far from the Fed’s target of 2%.

For once it does not matter if you use a core inflation measure as it comes to the same answer as the headline! Although the annual rate has only fallen by 0.2% for the core measure since March as opposed to 0.4% for the headline. But we are left with okay growth and fading inflation which gives us a reason why bond markets have rallied and yields fallen.

What about wages?

The various output gap style theories that falling and indeed low unemployment rates would push wage and in particular real wage growth higher have not come to fruition. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From July 2016 to July 2017, real average hourly earnings increased 0.8 percent, seasonally adjusted. The increase in real average hourly earnings combined with no change in the average workweek resulted in a 0.7-percent increase in real average weekly earnings over this period.

Japan

If we stay with the subject of wages here is today’s data from Japan. From the Financial Times.

 

Unadjusted labour cash earnings fell 0.3 per cent year on year in July, down from a 0.4 per cent increase a month earlier, according to a preliminary estimate by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare…….Special cash earnings, which includes bonuses, were down 2.2 per cent on the same month a year ago.

If we widen our discussion geographically and look at the US where there is some wage growth we see that in other places there is not as real wages in Japan fell by 0.8%. If we stay with Japan for a moment then we see that in spite of the media proclamations over the past 4 years that wages are about to turn upwards we are still waiting. Bonuses were supposed to surge this summer. So the “output gap” continues to fail and there is little pressure on bond yields from wage growth in Japan.

QE

This of course continues in quite a few places. In terms of the headline players we have the 60 billion Euros a month of the European Central Bank and the yield curve control of the Bank of Japan which it expects to be around 80 trillion Yen a year. I raise these points as a bond yield rally in these areas would require these to be substantially reduced or stopped. We expect little substantive change from the ECB until the election season is over but some were expecting a reduction from it as the Euro area economy improved. As time passes it will have to make some changes as its rules suggest it will run out of German bonds to buy next spring and the more it shuffles to avoid that the more likely it will run out of bonds to buy in France, Spain and even Italy.

Added to this are the sovereign wealth funds as for example Norway which seems to be rebalancing in favour of US Euro and UK bonds. There are also the investment plans of the Swiss National Bank.

Comment

So we see a dog that has little bark and has not bitten. Some of this is really good news as unlike the central banker cartel I am pleased that so far inflation has for them disappointed. Although as we look ahead there may be issues from some commodity prices. From Mining.com

December copper futures trading on the Comex market in New York made fresh highs on Tuesday after the world’s number one producer of the metal reported a sharp drop in production.
Copper touched $3.1785 a pound ($7,007 per tonne) in morning trade, the highest since September 2014. Copper is now up by more than 50% compared to this time last year.

So Dr,Copper may be giving us a hint although I also note that hedge funds are getting involved so this may be a “financialisation” move as opposed to a real one.

Another factor which would change things would be some real wage growth. Perhaps along the lines of this released by the German statistics office last week.

The collectively agreed earnings, as measured by the index of agreed monthly earnings including extra payments, increased by an average 3.8% in the second quarter of 2017 compared with the same quarter of the previous year. This is the highest rise since the beginning of the time series in 2011. The Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that, excluding extra payments, the year-on-year increase in the second quarter of 2017 was 3.4%.

If we move to my home country then it remains hard to believe with our penchant for inflation we have a ten-year Gilt yield of 1.01% as I type this. Even worse a five-year Gilt yield of 0.43% as you will lose the total yield in inflation this year alone. I can see how a “punter” might buy at times front-running events or the Bank of England but how can it be an investment unless you expect quite an economic depression?

 

 

 

Fiscal policy was on the march at Jackson Hole

Over the weekend many of the world’s central bankers were guests of the Kansas Federal Reserve in Jackson Hole Wyoming. In terms of location I believe it was chosen because a previous chair of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker was a keen fisherman. However this late August symposium has become one which influences the economic winds of change as central bankers discussed easing policy in response to the credit crunch and in more recent times a speech was given on what were perceived to be the wonders of Forward Guidance. Michael Woodford was very clever in suggesting to a group who wanted to believe that they could influence events via mere speaking or what has become called Open Mouth Operations.

I shall argue that the most effective form of forward guidance involves advance commitment to definite criteria for future policy decisions.

They are still at that today to some extent although the definite criteria theme has mostly been ignored especially in the UK where it went wrong for the Bank of England almost immediately.

What about now?

The problem for the central bankers is that to coin a phrase that monetary policy may be “maxxed out” or as it is put more formally below.

despite attempts to set economies on normalization paths after the Great Recession and the Global Financial Crisis, the scope for countercyclical monetary policy remains limited: benchmark interest rates have continued to hover near or even below zero.

This is from a paper presented on Saturday by Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko of the University of California Berkeley. In their conclusion they go further.

Although economists do not believe that expansions die from old age, the prolonged U.S. expansion will end sooner or later and there is serious concern about the ability of policymakers in the United States and other developed countries to fight the next economic downturn. Indeed the ammunition of central banks is much more limited now than before the Great Recession and it is unlikely that expansionary monetary policy can be as aggressive and effective as it was during the crisis.

Actually if monetary policy had been effective the paper would not be necessary as the various economies would have responded and we would be on a road where interest-rates were say 2/3% and central bank balance sheets were shrinking, In reality such interest-rates to quote Star Wars are “far, far away”.

Fiscal policy

If monetary policy has less scope for action then our central planners face being irrelevant so they will be grasping for an alternative and fortunately according to our two valiant professors it is at hand.

With tight constraints on central banks, one may expect—or maybe hope for—a more active response of fiscal policy when the next recession arrives.

The problem with this the familiar theme of the “bond vigilantes” turning up.

It is certainly conceivable (see e.g. Aguiar et al. 2017) that a significant fiscal stimulus can raise doubts about the ability of a government to repay its debts and, as a result, increase borrowing costs so much that the government may find its debt unsustainable and default.

This of course was last seen on a major scale in the Euro area crisis particularly in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. Of course the European Central Bank intervened by buying bonds and later followed another part of Michael Woodford’s advice by introducing a larger and more widespread QE or bond buying program. So we have seen central banks intervening in fiscal policy via a reduction in bond yields something which government’s try to keep quiet. We have individual instances of bond yield soaring such as Venezuela but the last few years have seen central banking victories and defeats for the vigilantes. In another form that continued this morning as I note that a North Korean ballistic missile passed over Japan but the Nikkei 225 equity index only fell 87 points presumably influenced by the way that the Bank of Japan buys on down days.

What about more overt fiscal policy?

Apparently this can work.

We find that in our sample expansionary government spending shocks have not been followed by persistent increases in debt-to-GDP ratios or borrowing costs (interest rates, CDS spreads). This result obtains especially when the economy is weak. In fact, a fiscal stimulus in a weak economy may help improve fiscal sustainability along the metrics we study.

Indeed this for them is essentially a continuation of past work.

This constraint on monetary policy coincides with a resurgence in activist fiscal policy (Auerbach and Gale, 2009), which has moved from a focus on automatic stabilizers to a stronger reliance on discretionary measures, reflecting not only necessity but also growing evidence of the effectiveness of such policy to fight recessions (e.g., Auerbach and Gorodnichenko, 2012, 2013).

Also I am reminded that we should never believe something until it is officially denied.

Given the nature of the sample analyzed, our results should not be interpreted as an unconditional call for an aggressive government spending in response to a deteriorating economy.

The UK

Jonathan Portes who is an advocate for fiscal policy has written this in Prospect Magazine.

The answer is very technical—£100 billion or so of the extra debt relates to the Bank of England’s Asset Purchase Facility. Briefly, the BoE makes loans to banks and buys corporate bonds, in return for cash (“central bank reserves”).

He suggests that as this has been mostly ignored( not on here) we could borrow for other purposes.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here as I note that North Korea has done its bit as bond markets have risen today and yields fallen. For example the UK ten-year Gilt yield has dropped to 1% giving us food for thought with inflation at either 2.6% ( CPI) or 3.6% ( RPI). A clear factor in the expected push for fiscal policy is that bond yields are so low as conventional UK Gilt yields do not go above 1.7% and other countries such as Germany Switzerland and Japan can borrow for much less. Against such bond yields theoretical analysis is always likely to look good so the first issue is whether they would be maintained in a fiscal expansion. Or to put it another way are central banks being asked here for a type of QE to infinity?

Next is the issue of how a fiscal stimulus is defined as for example countries which have stopped borrowing and run a surplus like Germany and Sweden are relatively rare. Most have continued to borrow and run annual fiscal deficits albeit usually declining ones. Thus the ballpark seems to have shifted to increasing deficits rather than having one at all which is the sort of “junkie culture” road that monetary policy went down. If we look back to a past advocate of fiscal stimulus John Maynard Keynes he was also someone who suggested that when the growth came there would be a period of payback.

What we also find ourselves mulling is the difference between the specific and the general. I am sure that everyone can think of a project that would provide plenty of benefits and gains but as we move to a more generalist position we find ourselves facing a reality of Hinkley Point and HS2. To be fair our two professors do acknowledge this.

Bridges to nowhere, “pet” projects and other wasteful spending can outweigh any benefits of countercyclical fiscal policy.

As a conclusion the Ivory Tower theory is that fiscal policy will work. There are two catches the first is that if they were even regularly right we would not be where we are. The next is that on some measures we have been trying it for quite some time.

In reality the establishment seems likely to latch onto this as we have discussed before.