What is it about GDP in the first quarter these days?

The behaviour of the UK economy so far in 2017 has been something of a hot potato in debate as the numbers swing one way and then the other. Let me give you an example of a ying and yang situation . The downbeat ying was provided last week by the official data on UK retail sales.

The 3 months to March shows a decrease of 1.4%; the third consecutive decrease for the underlying 3 month on 3 month pattern……Looking at the quarterly movement, the 3 months to March 2017 (Quarter 1) is the first quarterly decline since 2013 (Quarter 4).

That was ominous for today’s GDP release as the consumer sector had been part of the growth in the UK economy. Our official statisticians crunched the numbers as to the likely effect.

The 3-month period ending March 2017 coincides with Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2017 of the quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) output estimate. It marks the first negative contribution of retail sales to quarterly GDP growth since Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2013, contributing negative 0.08 percentage points (to 2 decimal places).

However only yesterday there was a yang to the ying from the Confederation of British Industry or CBI.

Retail sales growth accelerated in the year to April, with volumes rising faster than expected, according to the latest monthly CBI Distributive Trades Survey.

Here is some more detail.

59% of retailers said that sales volumes were up in April on a year ago, whilst 21% said they were down, giving a balance of +38%. This outperformed expectations (+16%), and was the highest balance since September 2015 (+49%)…….Sales volumes grew strongly in clothing (+97% – the highest since September 2010), and grocers (+40%). Meanwhile sales volumes decreased in specialist food & drink (-43%) and furniture & carpets (-30%).

If we stay with the specifics of the CBI report its is fascinating to see clothing leading the charge again. Regular readers will recall that this was the state of play last autumn and at that time it was female clothing in particular. So ladies if you have rescued us yet again we owe you another round of thanks. In such a situation you would be the consumer of last resort as well as often the first!

But the issue here is how does this fit with the official data? There is one way it might work and it comes down to the timing of Easter which was later this year than last. Whilst the official data does make seasonal adjustments I have seen this miss fire before. Perhaps the clearest generic example of this is first quarter GDP in the United States which year after year has been lower than the trend for the other quarters hinting at a systematic issue.

House prices

If these have been leading the charge for UK economic growth then this morning’s news will disappoint.

House prices recorded their second consecutive monthly fall in April, while the annual rate of growth slowed to 2.6%, the weakest since June 2013.

The date is significant as it was the summer of 2013 when the Bank of England lit the blue touch-paper for UK house prices with a new bank subsidy programme. The latest version of this called the Term Funding Scheme has risen in size to £57.5 billion.since its inception last August. Looking forwards if we allow for the obvious moral hazard this is hardly especially optimistic.

As a result, we continue to believe that a small increase in house prices of around 2% is likely over the course of 2017 as a whole.

The GDP data

UK gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated to have increased by 0.3% in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2017, the slowest rate of growth since Quarter 1 2016.

This was driven by the retail sales slow down and this.

Slower growth in Quarter 1 2017 was mainly due to services, which grew by 0.3% compared with growth of 0.8% in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2016……The services aggregate was the main driver to the slower growth in GDP, contributing 0.23 percentage points…….The main contributor to the slowdown in services was the distribution, hotels and restaurants sector, which decreased by 0.5%, contributing negative 0.07 percentage points to quarter-on-quarter GDP growth.

The services slow down will have had a big effect because it must be pretty much 80% of our economy by now. Officially it is 78.8%.

Actually much of the economy grew at this sort of rate.

Production, construction and agriculture grew by 0.3%, 0.2% and 0.3% respectively in Quarter 1 2017.

So a slowing on the end of 2016 but here is something to think about. UK GDP growth was 0.2% in the first quarter of 2016 so ironically it is better this year but also was 0.3% in 2015. Are we developing a similar problem to the US where it seems to be something of a hardy perennial situation and if so why?

Looking Forwards

As well as the more optimistic CBI retail sales report there was this from Monday.

The survey of 397 manufacturers found that domestic orders had improved at the fastest pace since July 2014 in the three months to April. Meanwhile export orders recorded the strongest growth in six years, supported by strong rises in competitiveness, particularly in non-EU markets which improved at a record pace.

It is not the only body which is looking forwards with some optimism.

The UK economy slowed sharply in Q1, as signalled by PMI. March rise in PMI suggests Q1 GDP could be revised up from 0.3% to 0.4%………Note that Q1 GDP was based on a forecast of no service sector growth in March. PMI showed strengthening ( Chris Williamson of Markit ).

What about the individual experience?

We have settled on GDP per capita as a better guide and this was frankly poor this time around.

GDP per head was estimated to have increased by 0.1% during Quarter 1 2017.

This adds to an issue which the chart below highlights, guess which of the lines is our more recent experience?

For the people who think that their individual experience has not backed up the claims of improvement there is food for thought in that chart.

Is GDP underecorded?

Tim Worstall wrote a piece for CapX this week telling us this.

For it’s obvious to our own eyes, and when properly adjusted GDP shows it once again, that we’ve all got much richer these recent decades.

Okay why?

The CPI overstates inflation – and thus understates how quickly real incomes are rising……Of course the ONS and others do the best they can but the current estimate is that inflation is overstated by 1 per cent a year. Or real income rises understated by it of course.

There are some interesting points on goods which are free ( WhatsApp for example) and ignored by GDP.  However it completely misses out the cost of housing which in recent times has been a major inflationary force in my mind. Would you rather have housing or the latest I-Pad?

Care is needed as of course there were substantial gains in the past but on this logic we are all much better off than we realise. Really?

Comment

The issue with first quarter growth was also true across the channel as the expectation and then the reality show below.

with 0.6% growth signalled for both Germany and France ( Markit )…….In Q1 2017, GDP in volume terms* slowed down: +0.3%, after +0.5% in Q4 2016 ( France Insee ).

So as we note the Bank of France was correct we await the US figures wondering what it is about first quarter GDP? For France this is not yet a sequence as last year was better but the UK and US seem trapped in a mire that appears to have a seasonal reappearance.

Looking ahead we were expecting higher inflation to bite on real incomes as 2017 progressed. As we stand a little of the edge of that has been taken off that impact. What I mean by that is the rise of the UK Pound £ to above US $1.29 helps with inflation prospects as does the fall in the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil to below US $52 per barrel. Of course they would need to remain there for this to play out.

Some posted some Blood Sweat & Tears lyrics a while back and they seem appropriate again.

What goes up, must come down
Spinning wheel got to go round
Talkin’ ’bout your troubles, it’s a cryin’ sin
Ride a painted pony, let the spinning wheel spin

What is the state of play regarding the UK state pension?

The last 24 hours have seen the issue of pensions come to the fore in the UK General Election debate. Much of this was triggered at Prime Ministers Questions yesterday.

Theresa May has refused to commit a Conservative government to retaining the “triple lock” on pensions during a boisterous final session of prime minister’s questions before the election. ( Financial Times).

For those unaware of what it actually means the FT helps out.

which increases the basic state pension by the highest of three indicators: consumer price inflation, average earnings growth or 2.5 per cent.

This policy has had consequences which I will look at in a moment and the Prime Minister did refer to one of them although care is needed with any number provided during an election campaign by a politician.

The prime minister also referred to the triple lock in the past tense, saying it “had” boosted incomes by £1,250.

She presumably means per year.

The cost of the Triple Lock

Back in September 2015 the Government’s Actuaries released a report stating this.

A hastily buried official report has estimated that the government is spending an extra £6bn a year protecting pensioners’ incomes and warns that the cost of doing so in future years could spiral further.

What this has done at a time of claimed austerity is to put pressure on the UK public finances.

The GAD report said the triple lock was already costing around £6bn a year, with £70bn in total spent on the state pension in 2015/16 — more than the combined education and Home Office budgets.

Also it had been in play at a time when real earnings growth has been weak which led to this.

The government report said that since 2010, the guarantee had meant that pensioners’ income was £10 a week higher than it would have been had their income been uprated by earnings alone.

So there had been a transfer from workers to pensioners. If we move to last November the Parliamentary Work and Pensions Committee updated us on the state of play. From the BBC.

As a result of triple-lock policy, the state pension has risen by a relatively generous £1,100 since 2010, with an increase of 2.9% in April this year.

The Committee concluded this.

However, MPs said that while pensioners had done well out of the triple-lock, young people and working-age families had suffered unfairly.

So-called Millennials, born between 1981 and 2000, face being the first generation in modern times to be financially worse off than their predecessors, they added.

MPs said the rising cost of the state pension – £98bn in the last tax year – was now unsustainable.

The Triple Lock has achieved its target

The rationale for the Triple Lock was explained by the BBC.

Historically, pensions were linked to inflation rather than earnings, which reduced pensioner incomes relative to those of the working population.

The economic objective was to bring them more into line and of course there was a political aim as part of this as pensioners are the group most likely to vote. But if we look at what happened next we saw a combination of circumstances and indeed a Black Swan event. Step forwards the Office for Budget Responsibility!

Wages and salaries growth rises gradually throughout the forecast, reaching 5½ percent in 2014.

In this world pensioners would see incomes rise with average earnings and there would be no transfer from workers. We are of course reminded of my first rule of OBR club ( which is that the OBR is always wrong…) as the Work and Pensions Committee moves us from Ivory Tower fantasies to reality.

Low rates of earnings growth following the 2008–09 recession

This means that in reality the increases have been driven by consumer inflation and the 2.5% back stop more than earnings.

The BSP ( Basic State Pension ) was uprated in line with CPI in 2012–13 and 2014– 15, earnings growth in 2016–17 and the 2.5 per cent minimum in 2013–14 and 2015–16.

The Black Swan event was the drop in official consumer inflation to in essence 0% which impacted on the 2015/16 numbers which again brings us to the first rule of OBR club as of course it assumes 2% inflation until the end of time.

The irony of all this is that the original objective is in sight.

Provided the new state pension is maintained at this proportion of earnings the work of the triple lock, to secure a decent minimum income for people in retirement to underpin private saving, will have been achieved.

However there has been a cost to this.

Reform, a think tank, estimated that the triple lock will in 2016 result in annual state pension expenditure £4.5 billion higher than it would have been had a simple earnings link been in place. This gap can only grow.

The rising state pension age

One area that is awkward is the way that current pensioners benefit from the Triple Lock but future pensioners find that the system looks increasingly unaffordable and of course they have to wait longer to get theirs. Last Month Retirement Genius reported this.

John Cridland, the independent reviewer of the state pension age, made three key recommendations.

First, that the state pension age should rise from 67 to 68 by 2039, seven years earlier than currently timetabled…..The second report by the GAD presented a scenario of faster rises which could see those aged under 30 only having access to the state pension by the age of 70.

So there was potentially grim news for Millennials who seem only to get bad news don’t they?

Should we take it away from the well-off?

This suggestion has been floated in the Financial Times today.

The UK should not give a state pension to the rich and instead use the money to boost payments to the poor, the OECD has said. The Paris-based club of mostly rich nations said cutting payments to the wealthiest 5-10 per cent of retirees would “free up resources” to raise British pensions, which are low compared with other wealthy nations, for others.

An interesting idea and considering its readership group it is brave of the FT to print this! Whilst in itself it seems to have things in its favour (redistribution) there are catches. For example higher income groups will be paying income tax on this and sometimes at higher rates of it. Also there is the belief that this is a system that is paid into and we are excluding the group who in general will have paid the most. Of course reality is not like that as they paid in fact for their predecessors pensions but even so it is a little awkward.

Comment

There are various issues here. The first is the irony that the Triple Lock is under fire for in essence doing what it was aimed at which was pensioner poverty. It is not a cure but it has helped by raising the Basic State Pension. The catch has been the economic environment where low rises in real wages have combined with the choice of a 2.5% back stop to the increases have made it not only increasingly expensive but also the equivalent of throwing the Ring of Fire into Mount Doom to the forecasts of the OBR Ivory Tower.

So we have an issue of possible failure by success and if it has been that then it was the 2.5% back stop which has caused it combined with other choices such as limiting other benefit increases to 1% per annum. It is a complex mixture which looks unfair basically because it is.

We also live in a world where there are so many ch-ch-changes to state pension entitlement and whilst going forwards the state pension was raised a year ago there was a catch which resonates with me.

One of biggest changes to state pension in 2016 was scrapping of right for spouses to inherit partner’s pension when they died. ( Josephine Cumbo )

This is because when I sorted out my mother’s financial affairs after my father’s death she benefited from inheriting some of his state pension.

The establishment

They seem to be doing okay as this tweet about the retirement party for the Director of the Tate Gallery Sir Nicholas Serota suggests. The asterisks are mine.

Lots of Tate staff are outsourced, low-waged and/or on zero hours contracts. Tate are asking them to help buy Nick Serota a f**king yacht. ( @charlottor )

Me on Official Tip TV

http://tiptv.co.uk/housing-bubble-burst-boe-cut-rates-not-yes-man-economics/

A better year for the UK Public Finances ends with a disappointing March

Today we move onto the UK Public Finances but before we do so it is time for some perspective and as so often these days it is Greece that provides it. Let me explain with this from the Financial Times.

Greece’s primary budget surplus – which measures the country’s public finances when excluding debt repayments – hit 4.2 per cent last year, swinging dramatically from a deficit and far outperforming a creditor target of 0.5 per cent for 2016.

This provides two issues of which the first is the way that such data is manipulated, all our finances would be in great shape if we could exclude major repayments and outgoings! If we move to the total numbers we see how misleading this is and on the way learn how much Greece pays on its debt.

Separate figures from Eurostat today showed Greece’s overall public finances were also in healthy shape, boasting a surplus of 0.7 per cent.

My point is that the number above poses a challenge to the view that surpluses on public finances are unreservedly a good thing. On their own they are often a good sign but we need to look at other signals such as the cost.

an economy which has shrunk more than 25 per cent since 2008.

The latest improvement in the public finances that the Institutions are so keen on has come at this price as the Greek statistics agency tells us.

The available seasonally adjusted data1 indicate that in the 4th quarter of 2016 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 1.2% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2016,

The basic lesson of Euro area austerity and the drive for a series of budget surpluses is that it led to a collapse of the economy that is ongoing. A sign of that is the way that the national debt to GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) ratio had risen to 179% at the end of 2016. Indeed if we return to the FT nothing appears to have been learnt.

As it stands, Greece is committed to hit a 3 per cent surplus target for a decade after the end of its rescue in 2018.

A perspective on the UK

A major difference in the UK experience has been that we have seen economic growth. Yes quarterly economic output was initially hit hard as quarterly GDP fell from a pre credit crunch peak of £433.7 billion to £406.3 billion but it has risen since to £470.5 billion. Whilst we saw out budget finances plunge into a substantial deficit the growth has helped us reduce that and in a type of timing irony we reduced it to the Maastricht Treaty maximum of 3% of GDP in 2016. This led to us finally having a smaller deficit than France which was driven by our better economic growth performance. Moving onto our national debt it was at 89.2% of GDP using the European measuring rod.

So the overall experience has been of an improvement except of course it has been much slower than that promised as we were supposed to have a budget surplus by now. Much of that was caused by the fact that the 2 UK governments back then ( Labour and then the Coalition) lived in a fantasy world where the UK economy would grow at 3% per annum whereas 2011 and 12 for example were well below that. Remember the phase when there were concerns about a “triple dip”? Added to that whilst there have been cuts and people affected overall UK austerity has meant more of a reduction in the rate of growth of government spending as opposed to outright cuts.

The fiscal year to 2017

This morning’s update confirms much of the above and let me jump to a signal which we look at as a measure of economic growth.

In the latest full financial year, central government received £674.1 billion in income; including £507.0 billion in taxes. This was around 6% more than in the previous financial year.

So we see that the situation here indicates economic growth although we need to subtract a bit over 1% for the pension related changes to some National Insurance contributions rates. So far so good.

If we move to expenditure then as we note that year started with very little inflation there were increases in real terms.

Over the same period, central government spent £698.6 billion; around 2% more than in the previous financial year.

The combination of the two led to better news for the UK as shown below.

This meant it had to borrow £52.0 billion; £20.0 billion less than in the previous financial year (April 2015 to March 2016).

Meaning that we are now comfortably within the Maastricht criteria for this.

Initial estimates indicate that in the financial year ending March 2017 (April 2016 to March 2017), the public sector borrowed £52.0 billion or 2.6% of gross domestic product (GDP).

Let me present the improvement in a way that is against one of the media themes of these times. The theme that we do not tax companies faces a reality that half of the annual improvement came from higher Corporation Tax revenue. Of course there are tax dodging companies around…….

What about March itself?

The latest monthly data was more of a disappointment.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) increased by £0.8 billion to £5.1 billion in March 2017, compared with March 2016;

There were several factors at play here and let me start with one which will be in the back ground as we see inflation rise. That is that debt costs in March rose by £700 million due presumably to higher RPI ( Retail Price Index) based repayments. In addition to this Income Tax revenues fell and VAT receipts only nudged higher.

Care is needed on the monthly data but we may be seeing another sign of UK economic growth fading a bit here. This is of course consistent with other data such as the way that annual retail sales growth fell to 1.7% in March.

National Debt

The UK uses its own measure of this which in an episode of the television series, Surprise! Surprise! gives an answer lower than the international standard.

Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) was £1,729.5 billion at the end of March 2017, equivalent to 86.6% of gross domestic product (GDP); an increase of £123.5 billion (or 3.0 percentage points as a ratio of GDP) on March 2016.

On its measure the Bank of England with its bank friendly policies is responsible for a debt burden of some 5.9% of GDP.

Comment

This has been a long journey for the UK economy and we have already travelled beyond the promised end point which was a budget surplus. On this road we have seen economic growth but also rises in our national debt. Whilst the establishment talk has been of headwinds there is very little talk of the role played but the very low-level of government bond yields which have been reinforced by £435 billion of purchases by the Bank of England. This was reinforced in 2015/16 by the lower rate of inflation which kept our index/inflation linked debt costs low. The inflation gains are currently being reversed.

As to the position now we face the probability of growth fading a bit in 2017 as real incomes are hit by higher inflation. This will slow any further improvement in the public finances which is a shame after a relatively good year. Let me finish by putting our national debt in perspective because is we use the official number it is some 2.6 years of tax revenue.

 

 

The UK housing market looks ever more dysfunctional

Today has opened with some more news on the UK housing market so let us take a look at one perspective on it from The Express newspaper.

Britain’s property market booming as house prices hit record highs
BRITAIN’S property market is booming with house prices hitting a record high – and sales at their highest level for a decade, figures show today…..
Rightmove’s director and housing market analyst Miles Shipside said: “High buyer demand in most parts of the country has helped to propel the price of newly marketed property to record highs. There are signs of a strong spring market with the number of sales agreed achieved at this time of year being the highest since 2007.”

It is hard to know what to say about this bit.

Experts last night hailed the bricks-and-mortar bonanza as a key marker of the nation’s prosperity as we head towards the General Election.

What were the numbers?

Let us first remind ourselves that the Rightmove survey is based on asking rather than actual sale prices and then take a look via Estate Agent Today.

The price of property coming to the market has hit anoher record high, up 1.1 per cent over the past month according to Rightmove.

The increase is equivalent to £3,547 and takes the average asking price for homes new to the market to £313,655, exceeding the previous high of £310,471 set in June 2016.

The £3,547 in a month is of course much more than the average person earns although if we look back we see that it is lower than last year as Rightmove points out.

This month’s 1.1 per cent rise is also weaker than the average 1.6 per cent spring-boosted surge of the last seven years.

Why might that be?

“Strong buyer activity this month has led to 10 per cent higher numbers of sales agreed than in the same period in 2016. This large year-on-year disparity should be viewed cautiously as the comparable timespan in 2016 saw a drop in buy to let activity with the additional second home stamp duty” says Shipside ( of Rightmove)

Actually the year on year rate of increase has fallen to 2.2% although as pointed out earlier first-time buyers are facing a 6.5% rise. The idea that house price growth is fading is one of my 2017 themes and adds to this from the listings website Home earlier this month.

Overall, the website claims price rises are much more subdued this year than last. In April 2016 the annualised rate of increase of home prices was 7.5 per cent; today the same measure is just 3.0 per cent.

London

Here asking prices are falling according to Rightmove.

The price of property coming to market in Greater London is now an average of 1.5% cheaper than this time a year ago, a rate of fall not seen since May 2009. The fall is mainly driven by Inner London, down by 4.2% (-£35,504), while Outer London is up 1.7% (+£9,017). Since last month, asking prices in both Inner and Outer London have fallen, though again it is Inner London with a monthly fall of 3.6% that is dragging the overall average down. Outer London remains broadly flat, down 0.2% (-£1,177) on the month.

The prices of larger houses are seeing a drop.

The fall of 11.9% this month reflects volatility in one month’s figures in a smaller section of the market, but the annual rate of fall of 7.3% is a more reliable longer-term indicator of the challenges that this sector is facing.

but first-time buyers seem to be in the opposite situation.

Typical first-time buyer properties (two bedroom or fewer) are both up for the month (+1.3%) and for the year (+0.5%).

Perhaps the house price forecasts of former Chancellor George Osborne were for the sort of houses he and his friends live in.

However before I move on we do learn something from these asking prices but as Henry Pryor shows they seem to be a long way from actual sale prices.

Record lows for UK mortgage rates

There was this from Sky News on Friday.

A building society is launching Britain’s cheapest ever mortgage deal with a rate of 0.89% as competition between lenders intensifies.

The two-year deal offered by Yorkshire Building Society requires a deposit worth at least 35% of the value of the property. There is also a product fee of £1,495……Moneyfacts said the 0.89% rate was the lowest on its records going back to 1988.

This is a variable rate and a little care is needed as whilst it is an ex ante record it is not an ex post one. What I mean by that is that there were rates fixed to the Bank of England Bank Rate which ended up below this as it slashed interest-rates in response to the credit crunch. One from Cheltenham and Gloucester actually went very slightly negative.

The Mail Online seems to be expecting even more.

Experts say lenders are so desperate for business that rates could fall to as low as 0.5 per cent……..Santander’s cuts are expected to trigger an all-out price war, and deals will be slashed over the next fortnight as the big names fight for business.

Santander has not actually cut yet and we will have to wait until tomorrow. If we look back the record low for a five-year fixed rate mortgage of 1.29% from Atom Bank lasted for about a week before the supply was all taken.

These mortgage rates have been driven by the policies of the Bank of England when it decided in the summer of 2013 that a Bank Rate of 0.5% and QE bond purchases were not enough. It began the Funding for ( Mortgage) Lending Scheme which has now morphed into the £55 billion Term Funding Scheme.  Thus banks do not need to compete for savers deposits leading to ever lower savings rates and they can offer ever cheaper mortgages. This is the reality regardless of the Forward Guidance given by Michael Saunders of the Bank of England on Friday. He gave vague hints of a possible Bank Rate rise, how did that work out last time? Oh yes they ended up cutting it!

Throughout this period we have been told that this is to benefit business lending so what happened to terms for it in February?

Effective rates on SMEs new loans increased by 11 basis points to 3.22% this month.

Also there was more financial repression for savers.

Effective rates on Individuals new fixed-rate bonds fixed 1-2 years fell by 19 basis points to 0.85%

Comment

The official view on the UK house price boom is that it has led to economic growth and greater prosperity. However that is for some as those who sell tale profits and of course there is some building related work. But for many it is simply inflation as they see unaffordable house prices and also rents. So there is a particular irony in some of the media cheerleading for higher prices for first time-buyers. With real wages now stagnating and likely to dip again how can they face rises in prices which are already at all-time highs.

The dysfunctional housing market seems to have some very unpleasant consequences foe those left out as the BBC reported earlier this month.

Young, vulnerable people are being targeted with online classified adverts offering accommodation in exchange for sex, a BBC investigation has found…….Adverts seen by BBC South East included one posted by a Maidstone man asking for a woman to move in and pretend to be his girlfriend, another publicising a double room available in Rochester in exchange for “services” and one in Brighton targeting younger men.

The rally of the UK Pound from the lows matches a 1.25% Bank Rate rise

Yesterday was a day where we discovered a few things. For example we learned that  Prime Minister Theresa may was not going to be the new Dr. Who nor the new manager of Arsenal football club as we discovered that she was in fact trying to launch a General Election. I say trying because she needs to hurdle the requirements of the Fixed Term Parliament Act later today although if she does I presume it will fade into the recycle bin of history. Let us take a look at the economic situation.

The outlook

Rather intriguingly the International Monetary Fund or IMF published its latest economic outlook. There was good news for the world economy as a whole.

With buoyant financial markets and a long-awaited cyclical recovery in manufacturing and trade, world growth is projected to rise from 3.1 percent in 2016 to 3.5 percent in 2017 and 3.6 percent in 2018.

There was particular good news for the UK economy.

Growth in the United Kingdom is projected to be 2.0 percent in 2017, before declining to 1.5 percent in 2018. The 0.9 percentage point upward revision to the 2017 forecast and the 0.2 percentage point downward revision to the 2018 forecast reflect the stronger-than-expected performance of the U.K. economy since the June Brexit vote,

However this was problematic to say the least for Christine Lagarde who after the advent of Donald Trump is now the female orange one.

. Asset prices in the UK (and, to a lesser degree, the rest of the EU) would likely fall in the aftermath of a vote for exit…..In the limited scenario, GDP growth dips to 1.4 percent in 2017, and GDP is almost fully at its new long-run level of 1.5 percent below the baseline by 2019. GDP growth falls to -0.8 percent in 2017 in the adverse scenario,

There was more.

On this basis, the effects of uncertainty seem to be universally negative, and potentially quite strong and persistent, even if ultimately temporary.

In fact asset prices rose and the uncertainty had no effect at all. Of course the long-term remains uncertain and ironically the IMF after being too pessimistic has no become more optimistic just as the factor which is likely to affect us is around, that is of course higher inflation. Oh and the UK consumer spent more and not less.

If we stick with the higher inflation theme there is this from Ann Pettifor today.

UK govt promotes usury: interest on student debt rises later this year from 4.6% to 6.1% = RPI + 3%.

That is the same UK establishment which so regularly tells us that CPIH ( H= Housing Costs via Imputed Rents) is the most “comprehensive” measure of inflation so is it not used? Also if we look other UK interest-rates we see Bank Rate is 0.25% and the ten-year Gilt yield is 1.02% so why should student pay 5/6% more please? Even worse much of that debt will never be repaid so it is as Earth Wind & Fire put it.

Take a ride in the sky
On our ship, fantasize

So can anybody guess the first rule of IMF Fight Club?

UK Pound £

There was an immediate effect here and as so often it was completely the wrong one as the UK Pound £ dropped like a stone. Well done to anyone who bought down there as it then engaged some rocket engines and shot higher and at one point touched US $1.29. For those unfamiliar with financial market behaviour this was a classic case of stop losses being triggered as so many organisations had advised selling the UK Pound that the trade was very over crowded. My old employer Deutsche Bank was involved in this as it has been cheerleading for a lower Pound £ at US $1.21, Ooops.

So we only learn from yesterday’s move that the rumours a lot of organisations had sold the UK Pound £ were true. As they looked to cover their positions the momentum built and we saw a type of reverse flash crash.

If we take stock we see the following which is that the UK Pound £ is now some 10.1% lower than a year ago against the US Dollar at US $1.282. As it sits just below 1.20 versus the Euro it is now only down some 5% on where it was a year ago. If we move to the effective or trade-weighted exchange-rate we see that at 79.1 it is some 6.7% lower than the 84.8 it was at a year ago. What a difference a day makes? Of course what we never have is an idea of what the permanent exchange rate will be or frankly if there is any such thing outside the economic theories of the Ivory Towers but if we stay here the outlook will see some ch-ch-changes. For example a little of the prospective inflation and likely economic slow down will be offset.

If we stay with inflation then there are other influences which are chipping bits off the oncoming iceberg. I have previously discussed the lower price for cocoa which offers hope for chocoholics and maybe even a returning Toblerone triangle well there is also this from Mining.com.

The Northern China import price of 62% Fe content ore plunged 5% on Tuesday to a six-month low of $61.50 per dry metric tonne according to data supplied by The Steel Index. The price of the steelmaking raw material is now down by more than a third over just the last month.

Shares and bonds

The UK Gilt market is extraordinarily high as we mull the false market which the £435 billion of QE purchases by the Bank of England has helped create. As someone who has followed this market for 30 years it still makes an impact typing that the ten-year Gilt yield is as low as 1.04%. This benefits various groups such as the government and mortgage borrowers but hurts savers and as I noted earlier does nothing for student debt.

The UK FTSE 100 fell over 2% but that was from near record levels. I do not know if this is an attempt at humour but the Financial Times put it like this.

The surging pound has pushed Britain’s FTSE 100 negative for the year

So a lower Pound £ is bad as is a higher £? Anyway they used to be keen on the FTSE 250 because they told us it is a better guide to the UK domestic economy which has done this.

So more heat than light really here because if we take a broad sweep the changes yesterday were minor compared to the exchange-rate move

House prices

Perhaps the likeliest impact here is a continuation of low volumes in the market as people wait to see what happens next. It seems likely that foreign buyers may wait and see as after all it is not a lot more than a month, so we could see an impact on Central London in particular.

In a proper adult campaign issues such as money laundering and the related issue of unaffordable house prices would be discussed. But unless you want to go blue in the face I would not suggest holding your breath.

Comment

The real change yesterday was the movement in the UK Pound £ which will have been noted by the Bank of England. I wrote only recently that some of it members would not require much to vote for more monetary easing such as Bank Rate cuts and of course should the UK Pound £ move to a higher trajectory that gives them a potential excuse. I do not wish to put ideas in their heads but since the low the rise in the UK Pound £ is equivalent to five 0.25% Bank Rate rises according to the old rule of thumb.

By the time you read this most of you will know the British and Irish Lions touring squad and as a rugby fan I look forwards to today’s announcement of the squad and even more to the tour itself. However just like economic statistics there seems have been an early wire about the captain.

By contrast the General Election announcement came much more out of the blue.

The ongoing UK problem with pensions

Today has brought a piece of news that is another element in an ongoing saga. It also brings into play some economic developments that are interrelated to it. Oh and a past manipulation of the UK public finances. From Reuters.

Royal Mail said on Thursday it would close its defined benefit pension scheme at end-March 2018 after a review found it would need to more than double annual contributions to over 1 billion pounds to keep the plan running.

Royal Mail, the British postal service privatised in 2013, said it was one of only a few major companies that still had employees in a defined benefits scheme, a type of pension that pays out according to final salary and length of service.

The company, which pays around 400 million pounds a year into the scheme, said it was currently in surplus, but it expected the surplus to run out in 2018.

There are various initial consequences such as threats of strike action from the postal union and something to cheer central bankers everywhere. From the Financial Times.

Investors were more positive about the plan, however. Shares in Royal Mail rose 1.6 per cent after the announcement to their highest level since January. JPMorgan Cazenove analysts estimated last month that markets have already priced in a £100m a year step-up in pension charges, and investors have welcomed signs of an end to questions over the scheme’s future.

UK Public Finances

Those who recall my analysis from 2013 will remember that this is another version of the Royal Mail pension scheme that was originally booked in the UK National Accounts for a £28 billion profit! How can you have a profit on acquiring something which is unaffordable? Later the methodology was quietly changed.

This reflects the shortfall between the £28 billion of assets transferred from the RMPP and the £38 billion of future pension liabilities that were consequently assumed by Government…….. Furthermore, the transfer of the assets no longer reduces borrowing as it did under ESA95.

To be fair to our statisticians and indeed Eurostat they did catch up with this manipulation eventually but of course by then the public’s attention had moved elsewhere.

Why are these pension schemes now so unaffordable?

The latest report from HM Parliament describes the problems and issues.

poor investment returns, associated with low underlying interest rates and loose monetary policy following the 2008–09 financial crisis and associated recession;8

 

rises in longevity that have been faster than was widely anticipated;

 

sponsor behaviour, including many employers taking contribution holidays when schemes were in surplus.

Only actuaries and economists can make rising longevity seem a bad thing! But if we move to the effect of low interest-rates there is this evidence from Deputy Governor Ben Broadbent to HM Parliament on this and the emphasis is mine.

First, I don’t think it damages the value of their assets; it pushes up the price of their liabilities. That is what happens when bond yields fall. The price of that bond and the present value of the liabilities go up. But it also pushes up the assets.

Even with such analysis Dr.Ben was forced to admit that schemes in deficit were net losers. But I find the overall idea that they lose on the swings but gain on the roundabouts simply extraordinary! Another example of Ivory Tower thinking. You see they have present gains although of course they will be across many markets but the real issue is that they have to pay for future liabilities and the answer misses of the fact that pension funds have going forwards to buy assets such as bonds which are much more expensive. Indeed in an odd but true development pushing up the price of ordinary UK Gilts via QE has in some ways had more of an effect on index-linked Gilts which are not bought! This matters because most defined benefit schemes have inflation based liabilities to pensioners.

The odd case of index-linked Gilts

Because ordinary Gilts offer so little interest these days and index-linked Gilts offer annual coupons based on the Retail Price Index ( 3.1%) if you need income then linkers look more attractive. Of course the price adjusted to this but this means that the Index-Linked Gilt market is in quite a bubble right now. It also means that it is in a way not fit for purpose as it is being priced on annual cash returns rather than inflation prospects as we see yet another market which has been turned into a false one by the central planners.

I have written before about how you could lose money by being right about UK inflation and this is why. So how do pension funds now hedge inflation risk?

The UK Gilt market

This has been on something of a surge recently or perhaps I should say another surge. Let me put an apology in with that because that has wrong-footed my stated view on here as I expected it to fall as inflation prospects deteriorated.  But  the ten-year Gilt yield is quite near to 1% and the two-year yield is 0.1% which is insane in terms of real yield with inflation heading to 3/4% depending on the measure used. Pension funds look a long way ahead so if we look at the thirty-year yield we see it has fallen to 1.63%.

Thus if we switch to prices we see that any investment now is at an extraordinarily expensive level. What could go wrong?

Actually according to HM Parliament defined benefit schemes tend to value themselves versus the higher quality end of the Corporate Bond market.

scheme funding statistics show that discount rates used by DB pension schemes for calculating liabilities since 2005 have consistently been around 1 per cent above gilt yields.

Can anybody spot a flaw in the Bank of England buying £10 billion of these ( £9.1 billion so far) to raise the price and reduce the yield?

Pre pack problems

Another issue was raised by Josephine Cuombo in the Financial Times.

Companies in the UK have used a controversial insolvency procedure to offload £3.8bn of pension liabilities, often as part of a sale to existing directors or owners, a Financial Times investigation has found…….

The FT investigation found that two in three pre-pack schemes entering the PPF involved sales to existing owners or directors. A string of prominent cases that used pre-pack arrangements, but where companies are still trading, include the turkey producer Bernard Matthews, the bed company Silentnight and the textile group Bonas.

In essence the schemes have found their way into the Pension Protection Fund which is backed by the industry thus raising costs for other schemes and pensioners get reduced benefits.

Comment

When the Bank of England looks at pensions it is hard to avoid the thought that views are influenced by their own more than comfortable position. For example in its latest accounts Ben Broadbent had received pension benefits valued at £104,586 in the preceding year. It is also hard to forget that just as it was telling everyone inflation was going lower back in 2009 the Bank of England piled into index-linked Gilts in its own scheme! But for everyone else involved there are no shortage of sharks in the water.

As to the befuddled and bemused Ben Broadbent he has views which question why we pay him at all!

One thing I want to get across today is not to confuse the low level of interest rates with monetary policy…….

Even though we are that last link and even though it is the MPC that sets interest rates, it is not a realistic question—I do not think it is a realistic premise to say low interest rates are because of monetary policy.

Until of course he can claim gains from his policies….

Let me sign off for a few days by wishing you all a very Happy Easter.

 

 

 

UK employment improves and so does underemployment

As we look at the UK labour market today let us start with something which in one way is good news and in another poses questions. From Reuters last week.

Manchester United winger Jesse Lingard has signed a new contract that will keep him at Old Trafford until 2021, the Premier League club said in a statement on Thursday.

Lingard, who will earn up to 100,000 pounds a week according to British media reports, has an option to extend the deal by a further year.

Firstly congratulations to Jesse and for once it is nice to see an English player benefit from the largesse of the Premier League these days. There is invariably hype in the exact numbers but he seems to have approximately trebled his wages which will do there bit for the average wages series in the future. However those who watched an outstanding display by Juventus last night in the Champions League as they put Barcelona to the sword have been mulling the concept of relativity. From @Football_Tweet

– Paulo Dybala earns €3M a season at Juventus. – Jesse Lingard earns €6M a season at Man Utd.

we return to a familiar question which is how much of the wages growth is in effect a type of inflation?

The impact of Robots

If we look ahead on a more general level then we can expect to see not only more robots in our economy but more advanced ones appear. Not quite as advanced as the ones in the Foundation saga of Isaac Asimov that I am currently reading again but considerable advances are being made. According to Bloomberg such improvements are likely to have an impact on labour markets and wages especially.

Robots have long been maligned for job-snatching. Now you can add depressing wages and promoting inequality to your list of automation-related grievances.

Industrial robots cut into employment and pay for workers, based on an new analysis of local data stretching from 1990 and 2007. The change had the biggest impact on the lower half of the wage distribution, so it probably worsened America’s wage gap.

The exact results are as follows.

One additional robot per thousand workers reduces the employment-to-population ratio by 0.18 percentage points to 0.34 percentage points and slashes wages by 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent, based on their analysis.

Food for thought as we look forwards in years and decades and of course ground which many of the best science fiction writing has warned about.

Today’s data

The quantity data remains pretty strong as you can see.

There were 31.84 million people in work, 39,000 more than for September to November 2016 and 312,000 more than for a year earlier.

There was an additional kicker to this as we got a glimpse into a potentially improving situation regarding underemployment as well.

with an increase in full-time employment (positive 146,000) partly offset by a fall in part-time employment (negative 107,000)………….strong demand for labour is translating into a shift from part-time to full-time employment, and an increase in the average hours worked per week by both full time and part-time employees.

Here is the analysis of hours worked.

Average hours worked per week increased from 32.0 to 32.4 in the 3 months to February 2017, the highest since July to September 2002, largely due to more hours being worked over the Christmas and New Year period compared with recent years.

Fewer part-time workers are looking for full-time work.

Data released today (12 April 2017) show that this measure continued to contract with the proportion falling to 12.6%, down from 14.2% a year ago (and down from a peak of 18.4% in 2013). This proportion is now at its lowest since March to May 2009, but still well above its pre-crisis average of 8.3%.

So it looks as though the situation regarding underemployment has improved as well although the data is only partial and let us finish this section with the unemployment numbers.

There were 1.56 million unemployed people (people not in work but seeking and available to work), 45,000 fewer than for September to November 2016 and 141,000 fewer than for a year earlier.

What about wages?

These were the same as last month in terms of growth.

Between the three months to February 2016 and the three months to February 2017, in nominal terms, total pay increased by 2.3%, the same as between the three months to January 2016 and the three months to January 2017.

Actually there was a rise in the month of February by 2.9% on the year before so maybe a hopeful hint of a pick-up! We will find out as we go through the bonus months of March and April. One thing we do know is that both Sky News and the Financial Times ( “UK wages have grown at their weakest pace in seven months,”) have not checked this.

The official numbers on real wages are below.

adjusted for inflation, average weekly earnings grew by 0.2% including bonuses and by 0.1% excluding bonuses, over the year, the slowest rate of growth since 2014.

So we have something of a discontinuity as we had some real wage growth in February it would appear. Let us cross our fingers that it continues but sadly it seems unlikely ( the comparison is flattered by bonuses falling last year). Of course even if we use the figures for February alone then real wage growth was negative if we compare it to the Retail Price Index.

Also the exclusion of the self-employed from the wages data gets ever more shameful.

self-employed people increased by 114,000 to 4.78 million (15.0% of all people in work).

Can we increase tax on income from wages?

After the debacle of the U-Turn on higher National Insurance contributions from the self-employed there have been arguments that the UK is unable to ever raise more taxes from income. It was interesting therefore to see some international comparisons from the OECD today.

The average single worker in Belgium faced a tax wedge of 54.0% in 2016 compared with the OECD average of 36.0%…..Belgium had the 4th highest tax wedge in the OECD for an average married worker with two children at 38.6% in 2016, which compares with the OECD average of 26.6%.

Not the best place to be single and childless it would appear! But now the UK.

The average single worker in the United Kingdom faced a tax wedge of 30.8% in 2016……..The United Kingdom had the 22nd lowest tax wedge in the OECD for an average married worker with two children at 25.8% in 2016,

So in theory we could if we wished to reach the peak that is Belgium. The Anglosphere ( US, Australia and Canada) if I can put it like that has similar numbers to the UK although the Kiwis stand out at only 17.9% for a single person. The lowest is Chile at 7%.

Interestingly with its debt and deficit problems income in Japan is slightly more taxed than here.

Comment

I would like to take a step back and consider the last couple of years. Remember the number of economists and media analysts who warned about what they called “deflation” and sometimes they shouted it so loud it was “DEFLATION”? Well it morphed into this.

By late-2014, an increase in nominal wage growth and low CPIH inflation, led to average real earnings increasing by 1.7% in the 18 months to mid-2016. ( Office for National Statistics).

This of course boosted the economy mostly via the retail sales boom but also in other ways as I pointed out on the 29th of January 2015.

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

If there was a musical theme to the deflation paranoia then it was “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right” from Stealers Wheel. Please do not misunderstand me I am talking about the so-called experts here not those influenced by them. Sadly we seem to be heading into a period where something they wanted ( higher inflation) will slow the economy down. I wonder how the inflationistas will spin that?