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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

The Jackson Hole symposium should embace lower inflation

Later this week the world’s central banks will gather at the economics symposium of the US Kansas Federal Reserve at Jackson Hole in Wyoming. The description can be found below.

The 2017 Economic Symposium, “Fostering a Dynamic Global Economy,” will take place Aug. 24-26, 2017.  (The program will be available at 6 p.m., MT, Aug. 24, 2017).

It is appropriate that they do not yet know the program as the world’s central bankers find themselves at a variety of crossroads which they are approaching from different directions. It is also true that after all their expansionary monetary policy and “masters ( and mistresses) of the universe” activities over the last decade or so they now approach one of the most difficult decisions which is how to exit these programs. For some this will simply mean a slowing of the expansion. This all looks very different to when a speech on Forward Guidance was eagerly lapped up by a receptive audience and quickly became policy in many countries. After all Open Mouth Operations make a central banker feel both loved and important as we all hang on every word. Oh and there is a clear irony in the title of “Fostering a Dynamic Global Economy” for a group of people whose propping up of many zombie banks has led to anything but. That is of course assuming anyone knows what the phrase means in practice!

The inflation issue

The issue here is highlighted by this from Bloomberg today.

The world’s top central bankers head to Jackson Hole amid growing unease about low inflation.

Of course central bankers and those in the media subject to their brainwashing program may think this but the ordinary worker and consumer will be relieved. Should any of the central bankers suffer from stomach problems no doubt they will be delighted to discover this from CNBC.

Hikma Pharmaceuticals Plc’s U.S. subsidiary has raised the price of a common diarrhea drug by more than 400 percent and is charging more for five other medicines as well, the Financial Times reported on Sunday……The average wholesale price of a 60 ml bottle of liquid Atropine-Diphenoxylate, a common diarrhea drug also known as Lomotil, went from about $16 a bottle to $84, the FT reported.

Central banker heaven apparently and what needs looking into in my opinion is the clear examples of price gouging we see from time to time. Also more mundane products are seeing price rises. From Mining.com last week.

The iron ore price is now trading up a whopping 43% from its 2017 lows struck just two months ago.

According to Yuan Talks the Dalian futures contract rose 6.6% today before price limits kicked in. It is not alone as the Nikkei Asian Review points out.

Three-month zinc futures were at their highest level in 10 years, at about $3,100 per ton, rising 26% over the same period.
Aluminum also rose 10% over the same period.

So as well as raising a smile on the face of the heads of the central banks of Canada and Australia there are hints of some commodity inflation about. This provides a counterpoint to the concerns about low inflation which in the Euro area and the US is not that far below especially when we allow for the margin of error.

Does QE lead to inflation?

Some care is needed here as of course we have seen waves of asset price inflation across a wide range of countries. But of course the statistical policy across most of the world is to avoid measuring that in consumer inflation. Then it can be presented as growth which for some it is but not for example for first time buyers. However one of the building blocks of economics 101 is that QE ( Quantitative Easing) leads to inflation. Yet the enormous programs in the US and the ongoing one in the Euro area have not got consumer inflation back to target and the leader of the pack in this regard Japan has 0% inflation. After all the money involved has it simply led to price shifts? That is especially awkward for Ivory Tower theorists as they are not supposed to be able to happen with ~0% inflation so I guess they sent their spouse out to fill up the car as the petrol/diesel price fell.

More deeply whilst the initial effect of QE should have some inflationary implications is there something in it such as the support of a zombie business culture that means inflation the fades. It could of course be something outside of the monetary environment such as changing demographics involving ageing populations. Perhaps it was those two factors which broke the Phillips Curve.

As to future prospects there are two issues at play. The US Federal Reserve will start next month on an exit road which I remember suggesting for the Bank of England in City-AM some 4 years ago. If you do not want QE to become a permanent feature of the economic landscape you have to start somewhere. The issue for the ECB is getting more complex mostly driven by the fiscal conservatism of Germany which means that a supply crunch is looming as it faces the prospect of running out of German bonds to buy.

Currency Wars

There are two specific dangers here which relate to timing ( during thin summer markets) and the fact that markets hang on every central banking word. Eyes will be on the Euro because it has been strong in 2017 and in particular since mid April when it did not quite touch 93 on its effective ( trade-weighted) index as opposed to the 98.7 the ECB calculated it at on Friday. It has put another squeeze on the poor battered UK Pound £ but of more international seriousness is yet another example of a problem for economics 101 as interest-rate rises should have the US Dollar rising. Of course there is a timing issue as the US Dollar previously rose anticipating this and maybe more, but from the point of Mario Draghi and the ECB there is the fear that cutting the rate of QE further might make the Euro rally even more. Although one might note that in spite of the swings and roundabouts along the way the Euro at 98.7 is not far away from where it all began.

The Bank of Japan is also facing a yen rallying against the US Dollar and this morning it briefly rose into the 108s versus the US Dollar. Whilst it is lower than this time last year the trend seemed to change a few months back and the Yen has been stronger again.

Comment

It is hard not to have a wry smile at a group of people who via Forward Guidance and Open Mouth Operations have encouraged markets to hang on their every word now trying to downplay this. If you create junkies then you face the choice between cold turkey or a gradual wind down. Even worse you face the prospect of still feeding addiction number one when a need for number two arises as sooner or later an economic slow down will be along. Or creating fears about low inflation when the “lost decades” of Japan has shown that the world does not in fact end.

If we move onto the concept of a total eclipse then I am jealous of those in the United States today. From Scientific American.

Someone said that it is like suddenly being in some sort of CGI of another world or maybe like a drug-induced hallucination that feels (and is) totally real.

No they have not switched to central banking analysis but if the excellent BBC 4 documentary ”  do we really need the moon?” is any guide we should enjoy solar eclipses whilst we still have them. Meanwhile of course there is Bonnie Tyler.

I don’t know what to do and I’m always in the dark
We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks.

 

 

 

 

Is housing a better investment than equities?

As you can imagine articles on long-term real interest-rates attract me perhaps like a moth to a flame. Thank you to FT Alphaville for drawing my attention to an NBER paper called The Rate of Return on Everything,but not for the reason they wrote about as you see on the day we get UK Retail Sales data we get a long-term analysis of one of its drivers. This is of course house prices and let us take a look at what their research from 16 countries tells us.

Notably, housing wealth is on average roughly one half of national wealth in a typical economy, and can fluctuate significantly over time (Piketty, 2014). But there is no previous rate of return database which contains any information on housing returns. Here we build on prior work on housing prices (Knoll, Schularick, and Steger, 2016) and new data on rents (Knoll, 2016) to offer an augmented database which can track returns on this important component of national wealth.

They look at a wide range of countries and end up telling us this.

Over the long run of nearly 150 years, we find that advanced economy risky assets have performed strongly. The average total real rate of return is approximately 7% per year for equities and 8% for housing. The average total real rate of return for safe assets has been much lower, 2.5% for bonds and 1% for bills.

If you look at the bit below there may well be food for thought as to why what we might call the bible of equity investment seems to have overlooked this and the emphasis is mine.

These average rates of return are strikingly consistent over different subsamples, and they hold true whether or not one calculates these averages using GDP-weighted portfolios. Housing returns exceed or match equity returns, but with considerably lower volatility—a challenge to the conventional wisdom of investing in equities for the long-run.

Higher returns and safer? That seems to be something of a win-win double to me. Here is more detail from the research paper.

Although returns on housing and equities are similar, the volatility of housing returns is substantially lower, as Table 3 shows. Returns on the two asset classes are in the same ballpark (7.9% for housing and 7.0% for equities), but the standard deviation of housing returns is substantially smaller than that of equities (10% for housing versus 22% for equities). Predictably, with thinner tails, the compounded return (using the geometric average) is vastly better for housing than for equities—7.5% for housing versus 4.7% for equities. This finding appears to contradict one of the basic assumptions of modern valuation models: higher risks should come with higher rewards.

Also if you think that inflation is on the horizon you should switch from equities to housing.

The top-right panel of Figure 6 shows that equity co-moved negatively with inflation in the 1970s, while housing provided a more robust hedge against rising consumer prices. In fact, apart from the interwar period when the world was gripped by a general deflationary bias, equity returns have co-moved negatively with inflation in almost all eras.

A (Space) Oddity

Let me start with something you might confidently expect. We only get figures for five countries where an analysis of investable assets was done at the end of 2015 but guess who led the list? Yes the UK at 27.5% followed by France ( 23.2%), Germany ( 22.2%) the US ( 13.3%) and then Japan ( 10.9%).

I have written before that the French and UK economies are nearer to each other than the conventional view. Also it would be interesting to see Japan at the end of the 1980s as its surge ended and the lost decades began wouldn’t it? Indeed if we are to coin a phrase “Turning Japanese” then this paper saying housing is a great investment could be at something of a peak as we remind ourselves that it is the future we are interested as looking at the past can hinder as well as help.

The oddity is that in pure returns the UK is one of the countries where equities have out performed housing returns. If we look at since 1950 the returns are 9.02% per year and 7.21% respectively. Whereas Norway and France see housing returns some 4% per annum higher than equities. So the cunning plan was to invest in French housing? Maybe but care is needed as one of the factors here is low equity returns in France.

Adjusted Returns

There is better news for UK housing bulls as our researchers try to adjust returns for the risks involved.

However, although aggregate returns on equities exceed aggregate returns on housing for certain countries and time periods, equities do not outperform housing in simple risk-adjusted terms……… Housing provides a higher return per unit of risk in each of the 16 countries in our sample, and almost double that of equities.

Fixed Exchange Rates

We get a sign of the danger of any correlation style analysis from this below as you see this.

Interestingly, the period of high risk premiums coincided with a remarkably low-frequency of systemic banking crises. In fact, not a single such crisis occurred in our advanced-economy sample between 1946 and 1973.

You see those dates leapt of the page at me as being pretty much the period of fixed(ish) exchange-rates of the Bretton Woods period.

Comment

There is a whole litany of issues here. Whilst we can look back at real interest-rates it is not far off impossible to say what they are going forwards. After all forecasts of inflation as so often wrong especially the official ones. Even worse the advent of low yields has driven investors into index-linked Gilts in the UK as they do offer more income than their conventional peers and thus they now do not really represent what they say on the tin. Added to this we now know that there is no such thing as a safe asset more a range of risks for all assets. We do however know that the risk is invariably higher around the time there are public proclamations of safety.

Moving onto the conclusion that housing is a better investment than equities then there are plenty of caveats around the data and the assumptions used. What may surprise some is the fact that equities did not win clearly as after all we are told this so often. If your grandmother told you to buy property then it seems she was onto something! As to my home country the UK it seems that the Chinese think the prospects for property are bright. From Simon Ting.

From 2017-5-11 90 days, Chinese buyers (incl HK) spent 3.6 bln GBP in London real estate.
Anyway, Chinese is the #1 London property buyer.

Perhaps the Bitcoin ( US $4456 as I type this) London property spread looks good. Oh and as one of the few people who is on the Imputed Rent trail I noted this in the NBER paper.

Measured as a ratio to GDP, rental income has been growing, as Rognlie (2015) argues.

Meanwhile as in a way appropriately INXS remind us here is the view of equity investors on this.

Mystify
Mystify me
Mystify
Mystify me

UK Retail Sales

There is a link between UK house prices and retail sales as we note that both have slowed this year.

The quantity bought increased by 1.3% compared with July 2016; the 51st consecutive year-on-year increase in retail sales since April 2013.

 

 

 

 

Whatever happened to savers and the savings ratio?

A feature of the credit crunch era has been the fall and some would say plummet in quite a range of interest-rates and bond yields. This opened with central banks cutting official short-term interest-rates heavily in response to the initial impact with the Bank of England for example trimming around 4% off its Bank Rate to reduce it to 0.5%. If we go to market rates the drop was even larger because it is often forgotten now that one-year interest-rates in the UK rose to 7% for around a year or so as the credit crunch built up in what was a last hurrah of sorts for savers. Next central banks moved to reduce bond yields via purchases of sovereign bonds via QE ( Quantitative Easing) programmes. In the UK this was followed by some Bank of England rhetoric heading towards the First World War pictures of Lord Kitchener saying your country needs you.

Here is Bank of England Deputy Governor Charlie Bean from September 2010.

“What we’re trying to do by our policy is encourage more spending. Ideally we’d like to see that in the form of more business spending, but part of the mechanism … is having more household spending, so in the short-term we want to see households not saving more but spending more’.

Our Charlie was keen to point out that this was a temporary situation.

“It’s very much swings and roundabouts. At the current juncture, savers might be suffering as a result of bank rate being at low levels, but there will be times in the future — as there have been times in the past — when they will be doing very well.

Mr.Bean was displaying his usual forecasting accuracy here as of course savers have seen only swings and no roundabouts as the Bank Rate got cut even further to 0.25% and the £79.6 billion of the Term Funding Scheme means that banks rarely have to compete for their deposits. This next bit may put savers teeth on edge.

“Savers shouldn’t see themselves as being uniquely hit by this. A lot of people are suffering during this downturn … Savers shouldn’t necessarily expect to be able to live just off their income in times when interest rates are low. It may make sense for them to eat into their capital a bit.”

In May 2014 Charlie was at the same game according to the Financial Times.

BoE’s Charlie Bean expects 3% interest rate within 5 years

There is little sign of that so far although of course Sir Charlie is unlikely to be bothered much with his index-linked pension worth around £4 million if I recall correctly plus his role at the Office for Budget Responsibility.

House prices

I add this in because the UK saw an establishment move to get them back into buying houses. This involved subsidies such as the Bank of England starting the Funding for Lending Scheme in the summer of 2013 to reduce mortgage rates ( by around 1% initially then up to 2%) which continues with the Term Funding Scheme. Also there was the Help to Buy Scheme of the government. I raise these because why would you save when all you have to do is buy a house and the price accelerates into the stratosphere?

The picture on saving gets complex here. Some may save for a deposit but of course the official pressure for larger deposits soon faded. Also the net worth gains are the equivalent of saving in theoretical terms at least but only apply to some and make first time buyers poorer. Also care is needed with net worth gains as people can hardly withdraw them en masse and what goes up can come down. Furthermore there are regional differences here as for example the gains are by far the largest in London which leads to a clear irony as official regional policy is supposed to be spreading wealth, funds and money out of London.

There is also the issue of rents as those affected here have no house price gains to give them theoretical wealth. However the impact of the fact that real wages are still below the credit crunch peak has meant that rents have increasingly become reported as a burden. So the chance to save may be treated with a wry smile by those in Generation rent especially if they are repaying Student Loans.

Share Prices

This is a by now familiar situation. If we skip for a moment the issue of whether it involves an investment or saving as it is mostly both we find yet another side effect of central bank action. In spite of the recent impact of the North Korea situation stock markets are mostly at or near all time highs. The UK FTSE 100 is still around 7300 which is good for existing shareholders but perhaps not so good for those planning to save.

Number Crunching

There are various ways of looking at the state of play or rather as to what the state of play was as we are at best usually a few months behind events. From the Financial Times at the end of June.

UK households have responded to a tight squeeze on incomes from rising inflation, taxes and falling wages by saving less than at any time in at least 50 years. According to new figures from the Office for National Statistics, 1.7 per cent of income was left unspent in the first quarter of 2017, the lowest savings ratio since comparable records began in 1963.

This compares to what?

The savings ratio has averaged 9.2 per cent of disposable income over the past 54 years,

Some of the move was supposed to be temporary which poses its own question but if we move onto July was added to by this.

In Quarter 1 2017, the households and NPISH saving ratio on a cash basis fell to negative 4.8%, which implies that households and NPISH spent more than they earned in income during the quarter.

The above number is a new one which excludes “imputed” numbers a trend I hope will spread further across our official statistics. It also came with a troubling reminder.

This is the lowest quarterly saving ratio on a cash basis since Quarter 1 2008, when it was negative 6.7%.

As they say on the BBC’s Question of Sport television programme, what happened next?

The United States

We in the UK are not entirely alone as this from the Financial Times Alphaville section a week ago points out.

Newly revised data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that American consumers have spent the past two years embracing option 2. The average American now saves about 35 per cent less than in 2015……….Not since the beginning of 2008 have Americans saved so little — and that’s before accounting for inflation.

Comment

One of the features of the credit crunch was that central banks changed balance between savers and debtors massively in the latter’s favour. Measure after measure has been applied and along this road the claims of “temporary” have looked ever more permanent. Therefore it is hardly a surprise that savings seem to be out of favour just as it is really no surprise that unsecured credit has been booming. It is after all official policy albeit one which is only confessed to in back corridors and in the shadows. After all look at the central bank panic when inflation fell to ~0% and gave savers some relief relative to inflation. If we consider inflation there has been another campaign going on as measures exclude the asset prices that central banks try to push higher. Fears of bank deposits being confiscated will only add to all of this.

Meanwhile as we find so often the numbers are unreliable. In addition to the revisions above from the US I note that yesterday Ireland revised its savings ratio lower and the UK reshuffled its definitions a couple of years or so ago. I do not know whether to laugh or cry at the view that the changed would boost the numbers?! I doubt the ch-ch-changes are entirely a statistical illusion but the scale may be, aren’t you glad that is clear? We are left mulling what is saving? What is investment?

But we travel a road where many cheerleaders for central bank actions now want us to panic over an entirely predictable consequence. Or to put it another way that poor battered can that was kicked into the future trips us up every now and then.

 

 

 

When will real wages finally rise?

One of the main features of the credit crunch era has been weak and at times negative real wage growth. This was hardly a surprise when the employment situation deteriorated but many countries have seen strong employment gains over the past few years and in some employment is now at a record high. Yet wage growth has been much lower than would have been expected in the past. As so often the leader of the pack in a race nobody wants to win has been Japan although there has been claim after claim that this is about to turn around as this from Bloomberg in May indicates.

It’s not making headlines yet, but wages in Japan are rising the fastest in decades, in a shift that’s poised to divide the nation’s companies — and their stocks — into winners and losers, according to Morgan Stanley.

No doubt this was based on the very strong quantity numbers for the Japanese economy which if we move forwards in time to now show an unemployment rate of 2.8% and a jobs per applicant ratio summarised below by Japan Macro Advisers.

Japan’s job offers to applicant ratio rose to 1.51 in June from 1.49 in May. The ratio is the highest in the last 43 years since 1974. While the number of job offers continue to rise along with the expansion in the economy, the number of job applicants are falling. With the shrinking population, Japan simply does not have a resource to meet the demand for labor.

I can almost feel the wind of the Ivory Towers rushing past to predict a rise in wages in such a situation. They will be encouraged by this from the Nikkei Asian Review on Friday.

The labor shortage created by stronger economic growth has prompted many companies to raise wages. Tokyo Electron, a semiconductor production equipment manufacturer, is a good example.

Tokyo Electron introduced a new personnel system on July 1 in which salaries reflect the roles and responsibilities of employees. Under the new system salaries will rise, primarily for junior and midlevel employees. The change will raise the total wages paid to the company’s 7,000 employees in Japan by about 2 billion yen ($18.1 million) annually.

This is something we see regularly where the media presents a company that is toeing the official line and raising wages. But I note that it is doing particularly well and expecting record profits so is unlikely to be typical. By contrast I note that there is another way of dealing with a labour shortage.

In April, Lumine, a shopping center operator, responded to an employee shortage among its tenants by closing 30 minutes earlier at 12 locations, or 80% of its stores. The risk was that shorter operating hours would cut revenue, but Lumine sales held steady in the April-June quarter.

Awkward that in many ways as for example productivity has just been raised with total wages cut.

What about the official data?

I will let The Japan Times take up the story.

Japan’s June real wages decreased 0.8 percent from a year before in the first fall in three months, labor ministry data showed Friday.
Nominal wages including bonuses fell 0.4 percent to ¥429,686 ($3,880), the first drop in 13 months, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said in a preliminary report.

Up is the new down one more time. Also the official story that bonuses are leading growth due to a strong economy met this.

due mainly to a 1.5 percent decrease in bonuses and other special payments.

There is one quirk however which is that part-time wages are doing much better and rising at an annual rate of 3.1%. The catch is that you would not leave a regular job in Japan because those wages are lower and to some extent are catching up. How very credit crunch that to get wage growth you have to take a pay cut! Indeed to get work people had to take pay cuts. From the Nikkei Asian Review.

Japanese companies hired more relatively low paid nonregular employees during the prolonged period of deflation.

Now we find ourselves reviewing two apparently contradictory pieces of data.

 The number of workers in Japan increased by 1.85 million between 2012 and 2016……….Japan’s wage bill was 7% lower in May than at the end of 1997 — before deflation took hold.

Australia

You might not think that there would be issues here as of course the commodity price boom driven by Chinese demand has led to a boon for what we sometimes call the South China Territories. Indeed this from @YuanTalks will have looked good from Perth this morning.

The rally in industrial continues in . rebar limit up, surging over 6%

Yet according to the Sydney Morning Herald this is the state of play for wages.

But since 2012 and 2013, Australian workers have felt stuck in a holding pattern of slow wages growth. Wages for the whole economy increased by 1.9 per cent in the year to March just in line with inflation.

There are familiar issues on the over side of the balance sheet.

Families are also wrestling with rising electricity prices, skyrocketing property prices and high demand for accommodation has also forced up rents.

Even the professional sector has been hit.

When Sahar Khalili started work as a casual pharmacist eight years ago, she was paid $35 an hour. Over the years that has fallen to as low as $30 while her rent has more than doubled.

Actually there is something rather disturbing if we drill into the detail as productivity has done quite well in Australia ( presumably aided by the commodity boom) but wages have not followed it leading to this.

The typical Australian family takes home less today than it did in 2009, according to the latest Household Income and Labour Dynamics survey released this week.

These surveys are invariably a couple of years behind where we are but there are questions to say the least. Oh and the shrinkflation saga has not escaped what might be called a stereotypically Australian perspective.

“My beers are getting smaller,” he says.

The USA

Friday brought us the labour market or non farm payroll numbers. In it we saw that wage growth ( average hourly earnings) was at an annual rate of 2.5% which is getting to be a familiar number. There is a little real wage growth but not much which is provoking ever more food for thought as employment rises and unemployment falls. Indeed more and more are concentrating on developments like this reported by Forbes.

Starting pay at the Amazon warehouse, carved out of a large lot with a new road called Innovation Way designed for Amazon-bound trucks, is at $12.75, no degree required. For inventory managers with warehousing experience, the pay is $14.70 an hour and requires a bachelor’s degree.

The new warehouse offers 30 hour a week jobs because they slip under the state legislation on provision of benefits. In some parts of America they would qualify under the food stamp programme. No wonder that as of May some 41.5 million still qualified.

Yet the Wall Street Journal describes it thus.

a vastly improved labor market

Comment

This is a situation we have looked at many times and there is much that is familiar. Firstly the Ivory Towers have invented their own paradise where wages rise due to a falling output gap and when reality fails to match that they simply project it forwards in time. The media tends to repeat that. But if we consider the dangers of us turning Japanese we see that wages there are lower than 20 years ago in spite of very low unemployment levels. Over the past 4 years or so this has been always just about to turn around as Abenomics impacts.

My fear is that unless something changes fundamentally ( cold fusion, far superior battery technology etc..) real wages may flat line for some time yet. All the monetary easing in the world has had no impact here.