What is the state of the UK Public Finances?

This afternoon the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer will stand up and give what is now called the Spring Statement about the UK public finances. It looks set to be an example of what a difference a few short months can make. But before we get to that let me take us back to yesterday when we were looking at the issue of falling house prices in London. That would have an impact on the revenue side should it be prolonged and the reason for that is the house price boom in the UK which was engineered back the Bank of England back in the summer of 2012 led to this. From HM Parliament last month.

In 2016/17 stamp duty land tax (SDLT) receipts were roughly £11.8 billion, £8.6 billion from residential property and £3.2 billion from nonresidential property. Such receipts are forecast to rise to close to £16 billion in 2022/23, or around £14.5 billion after adjusting for inflation.

That is a far cry from the £4.8 billion of 2008/09 when the credit crunch hit and the £6.9 billion of 2012/13 when the Bank of England lit the blue touch-paper for house prices. Although of course some care is needed at the rates of the tax have been in a state of almost constant change. A bit like pensions policy Chancellors cannot stop meddling with Stamp Duty.

Indeed much of this is associated with London.

Around 2% of properties potentially liable for stamp
duty were sold for over £1 million – these properties
accounted for 30% of the SDLT yield on residential

In fact most of the tax comes from higher priced properties.

In 2016/17 the stamp duty yields on residential property
were split nearly 45:55 between those paying the tax for
purchases between £125,000 and £500,000, and those
paying for properties purchased at over £500,000.

So there you have it the London property boom has brought some riches to the UK Treasury as has the policy of the Bank of England.

The Bank of England part two

Yesterday brought something of a reminder of an often forgotten role on this front.

Operations to make these gilt purchases will commence in the week beginning 12 March 2018……..The Bank intends to purchase evenly across the three gilt maturity sectors.  The size of auctions will initially be £1,220mn for each maturity sector.

This is an Operation Twist style reinvestment of a part of the QE holdings that has matured.

As set out in the Minutes of the MPC’s meeting ending 7 February 2018, the MPC has agreed to make £18.3bn of gilt purchases, financed by central bank reserves, to reinvest the cash flows associated with the maturity on 7 March 2018 of a gilt owned by the Asset Purchase Facility (APF)

So the Bank of England’s holdings which dropped to a bit over £416 billion will be returned to the target of £435 billion. So the new flow will help reduce the yields that the UK pays on its borrowings which has saved the government a lot of money. The combination of it and the existing holdings means that the UK can currently borrow for 50 years at an interest-rate of a mere 1.71%. Extraordinary when you think about it isn’t it?

The Office for Budget Responsibility ( OBR)

If we continue with the gain from the QE of the Bank of England then the OBR forecast that the average yield would be 5.1% and rising in 2015/16 back when it reviewed its first Budget. This gives us a measuring rod for the impact of QE on the public finances which is a steady drip,drip, drip gain which builds up over time.

If we bring in another major forecast from back then we get a reminder of my First Rule of OBR Club.

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

For newer readers that rule is that the OBR is always wrong! I return regularly to the wages one as it has turned out of course to be the feature of modern economic life as the US labour market reminded us last Friday. If you take the conventional view as official forecasts find compulsory then at this stage of the cycle non-farm job creation of 313,000 cannot co-exist with annual hourly earnings growth fading from 2.9% to 2.6%. At this point HAL-9000 from the film 2001 A Space Odyssey would feel that he has been lied to again. Yet today and tomorrow will see a swathe of Phillips Curve style analysis from the OBR and others regardless of the continuing evidence of its failures.

The Bank of England has kindly pointed this out yesterday.

The accuracy of such forecasts has come under much scrutiny.

Here for a start! But ahem and the emphasis is mine…..

Gertjan Vlieghe explains how forecasting is an important tool that helps policymakers diagnose the state and outlook for the economy, and in turn assess – and communicate – the implications for current and future policy. So achieving accuracy is not always the sole aim of the forecast.

For best really in the circumstances I think. Oh and as Forward Guidance turned out to be at best something of a dog’s dinner as promised interest-rate rises suddenly became a cut I think Gertjan’s intervention makes things worse not better.


Embarrassingly for the Forward Guidance so beloved by Gertjan Vlieghe this has been an area of woe for the credibility of the Bank of England but good news for the UK economy and public finances. This is of course how the 6.5% unemployment rate target which was supposed to be “far,far away” to coin a phrase turned up almost immediately followed by further declines leading us to this.

There were 32.15 million people in work, 88,000 more than for July to September 2017 and 321,000 more than for a year earlier…….The employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 who were in work) was 75.2%, higher than for a year earlier (74.6%).

As we look at that we can almost count the surge into the coffers directly via taxes on income and also indirectly via excise duties and VAT ( Value Added Tax). According to The Times more may be on its way.

Hiring confidence among British companies has reached its highest level in more than a year and recruitment is set to pick up as businesses shrug off downbeat economic projections, according to a closely watched study.

Manpower’s quarterly survey recorded that net optimism had climbed to +6 per cent in the latest quarter.


If we look for the situation I pointed out on the 2nd of this month that we are being led into a land of politics rather than economics. From the IEA ( Institute of Economic Affairs ).

New data shows that the Conservative government has finally hit its original target to eliminate the £100bn day-to-day budget deficit they inherited in 2010.

We get all sorts of definitions to make the numbers lower but whether they are cyclical or day-to day they are open to “interpretation” which of course is always one-way. But we have made progress.

the UK’s achievement of sustained deficit reduction over eight years should not be taken for granted.

This has been a fair bit slower than promised which leaves us with this.

The problem is the financial crisis and its aftermath saw public debt balloon from 35.4 per cent of GDP in 2008 to 86.5 per cent today – far higher than the 35 per cent average since 1975.

The consequences of that have been ameliorated by Bank of England QE and to some extent by QE elsewhere. Also it is time for the First Rule of OBR Club again.

The Office for Budget Responsibility projects that public debt will shoot up to 178 per cent of GDP in the next 40 years on unchanged policies, as demands on the state pension, social care, and healthcare rise.

The state of play is that public borrowing has finally benefited from economic growth and particularly employment growth. We are still borrowing but we can see a horizon where that might end as opposed to the mirages promised so often. There are two main catches. The first is that we need the view of The Times on employment to be more accurate that the official data. The second is that for debt costs not to be a problem then QE will need to be a permanent part of the economic landscape.

The certainty today is that the OBR forecasts will be wrong again. The question is why we have been pointed towards better numbers by the mainstream media? The choice is between more spending and looking fiscally hard-line ( which also usually means more spending only later….).





Are London house prices set for more falls?

This morning has brought news on the state of play concerning UK house prices although I think the Guardian has tripped over its own feet a little in an attempt to slay several dragons at once.

House prices in parts of London that were once at the epicentre of the UK property boom have fallen as much as 15% over the past year in fresh evidence of the impact of the EU referendum.

Actually if you then read the article no evidence of it being caused by the EU referendum is given but in the article linked to by it from December we are pointed towards one rather likely cause as Russell Galley of the Halifax tells us this.

“As a result of the rapid price growth in the capital, house prices in relation to average earnings are still very high in London; at 8.8 times annual average earnings they are close to the historical high of 9.”

I do like the “additionally” in the sentence below, what could it be about the house price to earnings ratio that causes this?

Additionally, mortgage affordability in London is worse than its long-run average, the only region in the UK where this is so.

As we progress on we discover that the peak or nadir of the falls depending on your perspective is rather close to home for me.

Figures from Your Move, one of the UK’s biggest estate agency chains, reveal that the average home in Wandsworth – which includes much of Clapham, Balham and Putney – fell by more than £100,000 in value over the last 12 months………..Homes in the London borough of Wandsworth were fetching an average of £805,000 in January 2017 but this has now fallen to £685,000.

There have been falls elsewhere too.

Other London boroughs are also showing steep price falls. In Southwark, south London, the average price has dropped from £666,000 to £585,000 in 12 months, while prices have pegged back in Islington, north London, from £750,000 to £684,000.

At this point with Wandsworth and Southwark on the list I am starting to feel a little surrounded although a common denominator is beginning to appear.

Wandsworth and Southwark are home to huge speculative property developments facing on to the River Thames – including the Battersea Power Station development – but the market for £1m-plus one-bed properties has shrivelled in recent years.

The scale of this was explained in the Times just under a fortnight ago.

The new neighbourhood — Europe’s biggest regeneration zone, with 39 development sites across 561 acres — will contain 20,000 homes as well as cultural, retail and business facilities. It is set to be completed by 2022. A £1.2 billion Northern Line Tube extension will create two new stations, Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station, to open in 2020.

Or if you prefer in in picture form, here is a part of it which is yet to come.

If you cycle through it as you now can you get an idea of the scale that somehow cycling past does not quite give, If we return to the economic consequences of this we see that the existing lack of affordability in central London combined with the surge in supply is something that can explain the recent price falls. It was always going to require quite an influx of wealthy people to populate the area and of course that would be in addition to the many who have arrived in recent times. A sort of “overshooting” I think in assuming that a trend would not end. If we wish to help the Guardian out we could suggest that the EU Referendum has probably deterred some although it does not actually make that case and curiously I have seen one or two bits of evidence that more in fact have arrived ahead of possible changes. So something along the lines of what happened with Hong Kong a couple of decades ago.

Looking wider

If we do we get something much more sober. Here is LSL Acadata which produced the report.

Prices in London fell again in January, down £4,662 or 0.8%, leaving average prices in the capital at £593,396. That’s down 2.6% annually, the biggest decline since August 2009.

So we have gone from the 15% click bait to a reality more like 2.6%, However as we have often discussed this is significant as the UK establishment pretty much lifted heaven and earth to stop a significant house price fall post credit crunch. I remember prices falling in my locale and wondering of those selling were making a wise decision and that buyers would regret it? Instead of course we got the UK establishment house price put option as interest-rates were cut to 0.5% where they remain, QE and when they were not enough more QE the Funding for Lending Scheme and then more QE as well as the Term Funding Scheme. The latter has now finished albeit a stock of £127 billion remains as we await the next move.

Before we move on there was another hint in the data that affordability is the main player here.

The cheaper boroughs have fared better. More than half have seen price rises over the year, led by 4.5% growth in Bexley, which, with an average price of £363,082, still has the cheapest property in the capital outside Barking and Dagenham (£300,627).

Up up and away

We get reminded that the UK is in fact a collection of different house markets which are connected but sometimes weakly.

That’s now led by 4.6% annual growth in the North West, one of four regions to see new peak prices in January (along with the East Midlands, the South West and Wales).
Just eight months ago, the region was trailing every other region bar one. Now, it’s seeing strong growth in every part of the market: at the bottom, Blackburn with Darwen has seen the biggest increase in prices in the country, up 16.4% annually. At the top, Warrington is also seeing double digit growth, with prices up 10.3%.


We find on today’s journey that the trends for UK house prices remain in place as we see substantial falls in the new developments in central London and helping make the average price fall there too. This means that the UK picture is according to LSL Acadata as shown below.

Including this February, we are now in the ninth month where the annual rate of house price growth has continued to slow. It now stands at 0.6% when including London and the South East, or at 2.5% when excluding these two regions.

This represents quite a change from the 9% of February 2016 and the change has mostly been seen in London. This particular series makes a lot of effort to be comprehensive but like all efforts has its challenges and estimations.

We have subsequently recalculated all our various house price series on the basis of the new weightings, which has had the effect of decreasing the average house price in December 2017 by £6,340.

So did the average house price from this series go above £300,000 or not? I will let you decide.

One consequence of the new weightings is that the average price of a home in England & Wales has fallen below the £300,000 threshold, which we reported as having been breached during 2017.

As we mull what is or is not Fake News there was this in the Evening Standard?

Millennials, criticised by baby boomers for buying avocado on toast instead of houses….

Meanwhile eyes turn to the Bank of England as we wonder how it will respond as house prices in London fall? Perhaps its Governor Mark Carney is already thinking that June 2019 cannot come fast enough.






The UK has a construction problem

Today brings us a whole raft of new data on the UK economy but before we get to that there has been some new analysis and indeed something of a confession. Let us start with @NobleFrancis who has crunched some numbers on the impact of the recent cold snap and snow in the UK.

In terms of construction work lost due to the bad weather between Wednesday and Friday last week, we estimate UK construction output has lost £1.6 billion (annual construction output in 2017 was £156.3 billion)……with the majority of new construction work postponed. External repair & maintenance (r&m) construction work was also postponed. r&m on internals of building could still be done but getting to site meant this was also hindered..

He is unconvinced that there will be a catch-up.

…theoretically it’s possible to ‘catch-up’ on work once the weather improves but in construction this rarely happens in practice.

This of course affects a sector which has been in recession since early summer last year and of course with the factor below might be an example of it never rains but it pours.

will also be adversely affected in 2018 Q1 by the liquidation of the UK’s second largest construction firm, Carillion, in January 2018.

The Markit PMI was showing something of a flat lining but it will have predated the worst of the cold weather. Also it seems to have missed this which is from this morning’s official release.

Construction output also decreased in the month-on-month series following growth in the final two months of 2017, contracting by 3.4% in January 2018.

As you can see Carillion had a big impact and added to what seems to have been weak construction output across much of Europe in January. This is the position compared to a year ago.

Compared with January 2017, construction output decreased by 3.9%, representing the biggest month-on-year decline since March 2013.

If this sector was a bank the UK establishment would be piling in like it was the US cavalry wouldn’t it?

On the other side of the coin we will have had a boost to GDP from the energy supply industry as the heating was turned up and it will be a quarter with the main Forties pipeline at full flow assuming there are no problems this month.

A confession of sorts

This came from the Bank of England in a working paper towards the end of last month. Remember the case I have made plenty of times on here that its QE bond buying inflated pension deficits which weakened the UK corporate sector and therefore was not the triumph it was claimed to be? Anyway after more than a few official denials we now have this.

Nor is this just a problem in the UK as low-interest rates have raised the value of pension liabilities around the world.

A sort of confession and attempted deflection all at once! We do however get some interesting detail on the scale of the issue which in spite of the way the sector has contracted is still substantial.

The 6000 DB pension schemes in the UK private sector are a significant source of retirement income, with around 11 million members and assets of around £1.5 trillion. The aggregate funding deficit that these schemes faced (on a Technical Provisions basis ) is estimated to have reached around £300 billion by 2015 , equivalent to more than 15% of annual GDP.

So how did things play out?

while firms with larger pension deficits had an incentive but not an obligation to act in
response to these deficits they paid lower dividends on average, but they did not invest less.

Okay so the first subtraction from the UK economy was lower dividend payments. Of course one of today’s themes Carillion and its economic impact was the opposite of this as it paid dividends rather than fixing its pension scheme. Moving on we get something which is even more damaging for QE supporters.

We show that obligations under recovery plans agreed with TPR prompted firms to adopt a different pattern of behaviour compared to their more voluntary
responses to deficits. Firms making contributions to close those deficits did reduce investment and
dividend payments on average. These effects were greater for firms that were financially constrained, reflecting the more limited options available to them to use external or other internal  funds to smooth out their expenditures. ( TPR = The Pensions Regulator ).

This had quite a big impact.

The scale of these effects was large for many FTSE 350
companies with DB deficits, and responses to them can explain some of the weakness in aggregate
dividends and investment observed since 2007.

This reinforces work first done by Toby Nangle and it is to his credit he was several years at least ahead in time. Oh and as the writers of the working paper have families to feed and one day might hope that the Bank of England tea and cake trolley might arrive again in the rather damp dungeon they have been posted to for further research there is this.

while the effects for some firms were large, by contrast the effects at the aggregate level
have been small in macroeconomic terms, and are dwarfed by the estimated positive impact of QE.
QE is estimated to have boosted the level of GDP by in the region of 1½-3% (Kapetanios et al,
2012; and Weale and Wieladek, 2016), while the negative effects of deficits are only estimated to
have reduced GDP by around 0.1% GDP since 2007.

I do like the way that one of the authors of the work about the GDP boost is the same Martin Weale who voted for it. We can imagine a paper from say Alan Pardew to the West Bromwich board stating that whilst they might be in a relegation crisis he has boosted their points haul by using counterfactual analysis. How do you think Baggies fans would treat the obvious moral hazard?

Production and Manufacturing

There was some expected good news here.

In January 2018, total production was estimated to have increased by 1.3% compared with December 2017; mining and quarrying provided the largest upward contribution, increasing by 23.5% due mainly to the re-opening of the Forties oil pipeline,

In it there was continued good news for manufacturing.

Since records began in February 1968, this sector has never recorded nine consecutive monthly growths……… ( Quarterly output was) manufacturing provided the largest upward contribution with an increase of 2.6% ( on a year ago).

Yet it was also true the monthly increase was only 0.1% and in something of a contradiction was driven by ( sorry).

Growth this month within manufacturing was due mainly to a rise of 1.9% in transport equipment. Within this sub-sector motor vehicles, trailers and semi-trailers rose by 3.2%

That is not as mad as it may seem as UK engine production has been very healthy. Also the erratic pharmaceuticals sector had a bad quarter (-7.8%) so on its past record it should rebound.


Tucked away in the numbers there was a hint of some better news. This of course has to be taken in the context of years and sadly decades of deficits but there was this.

Comparing the three months to January 2018 with the same period in 2017, the UK total trade (goods and services) deficit widened by £0.4 billion.

Which if we allow for the £2.2 billion increase in oil imports and fall in oil exports should show an improvement. Exports have also had a good year.

Although total (goods and services) exports increased by 5.6% (£8.4 billion)

We of course need a lot more of that.


If we step back and look at the overall position the UK economy continues to bumble its way forwards.We have seen a good run of manufacturing production which means that output is now only 0.3% below its pre credit crunch peak. However the fact it is still below after so much time shows the scale of the damage inflicted. Industrial production is also in a better phase.

On the trade issue there are flickers of improvement but we have a long journey to travel to end the stream of deficits. As to construction it seems to have hit something of a nuclear winter and as government policy has been involved in the creation of this via the impact of Carillion you might think it would be paying more attention, especially as other companies have not dissimilar weaknesses. If this was the banking sector the money would be pouring in. Also are we not supposed to be in the middle of a house building surge?





What are the prospects for those who rent their homes?

We often look at what the state of play is regarding UK house prices but I think that it is past time for us to look at those finding themselves singing along with Gwen Guthrie.

Cause ain’t nothin’ goin’ on but the rent
You got to have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me
Ain’t nothin’ goin’ on but the rent
You got to have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me

Rather oddly if you take Gwen literally you may well live in Kensington and Chelsea.

 Kensington and Chelsea was the least affordable English local authority in 2016 with a median monthly rent making up almost 100% of median monthly salary.

Of course data from there begs all sorts of questions as it is heavily influenced by foreign purchases hence the nickname Chelski. Although it does show that if you work there you are extremely unlikely to be able to afford to  rent from a private source there. For a wider perspective here are the numbers which were produced by the Office for National Statistics last November.

 In 2016, median monthly private rent for England was 27% of median gross monthly salary. This means that someone working in England could expect to spend 27% of their monthly salary on private rent. London, the South East, East of England and the South West, all had percentages above this level. Overall, median monthly private rent as a percentage of median monthly salary ranged from 23% in the North East, to 49% in London.

Some local authorities are particularly cheap in relative terms.

The most affordable local authority was Copeland in the North West (12%) followed by Derby in the East Midlands (18%).

Although in the former case you may have to glow in the dark to get it ( and perhaps save on lighting and heating too).

 Higher median monthly salaries in Copeland are likely to be the result of a large number of relatively high-paid, skilled jobs at the Sellafield nuclear power station in this local authority.

What about social housing?

People also rent via this route and to the question how much? We are told this.

Average weekly cost of social renting for England in 2016 was £97.84, an increase of 2% since 2015. This is a smaller increase than in previous years, although the cost of social renting has risen by 40% since 2008. The average cost of social renting in Wales has increased at a similar rate, by 39% since 2008.

Which in affordability terms translates to this.

Average weekly social rent cost as a percentage of 10th percentile weekly salary in England for 2016 was 31.5%, a decrease of 0.7 percentage points since 2015. This means that someone earning at the lowest 10% of earnings could expect to spend 31.5% of their weekly earnings on social rent. In Wales for the year ending March 2017, weekly social rent cost as a percentage of 10th percentile weekly salary was 28.1%, a decrease of 0.4 percentage points since the year ending March 2016.

It is a shame that we do not get figures which are directly comparable. I take the point that those in social housing tend to have lower incomes as that is of course one of the main reasons they are likely to be there, but not always. On the measuring stick we are presented with it has got more expensive.

Social rent has become less affordable for both England and Wales since 2003. The differences between average weekly social rent costs as a percentage of 10th percentile weekly salary for England and for Wales have been within 2.3 and 3.9 percentage points since 2003.

What is happening now?

The latest official data on private rents is shown below.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in Great Britain rose by 1.1% in the 12 months to January 2018; this is down from 1.2% in December 2017.

That reduction in the rate of growth has been in place for a while now since the peak at 2.7% in the autumn and winter of 2015. This should not be a surprise as rents tend to move with wages and in particular real wages although sometimes there can be quite a lag.I will come to London which is both something of a special case and a leading indicator in a bit but if we exclude it then lagged rents and real wages fit reasonably well in recent times.

Thus in the current scenario with real wages having been falling we would expect lower rental values. This of course is a possible explanation for the rush to include rents ( which of course do not exist) as a measure of owner occupied housing inflation  in the CPIH. If you were wondering why it gives a lower answer that is it.

What about London?

The official data tells us that it has a different picture to the rest of the UK.

London private rental prices grew by 0.2% in the 12 months to January 2018, that is, 0.9 percentage points below the Great Britain 12-month growth rate.

So it has been pulling the rate of growth lower and there should be “no surprises” as Radiohead would put it about that if we look at the numbers earlier in this article.

Actually others think that the situation is even more different in London.

Average rental values in prime central London fell 2.1 per cent in the year to February according to Knight Frank – and the letting agency says rents in that area have been dropping now for two full years. ( Letting Agent Today).

Fascinatingly we are told this by Knight Frank.

“As new supply moderates and demand strengthens, we expect to see continued upwards pressure on rental values” claims the agency.”

Continued? Anyway we have of course seen if we are polite what might be called over optimism before. This is me quoting the Financial Times on the 4th of November 2016.

Rents in Britain will rise steeply during the next five years as a government campaign against buy-to-let investing constrains supply, estate agencies have forecast.

Actually it got worse.

London tenants face a 25 per cent increase to their rents during the next five years, said Savills, the listed estate agency group. Renters elsewhere in the country will not fare much better, it said, with a predicted 19 per cent rise.

I was far from convinced.

 We know that lower real incomes are correlated and usually strongly correlated with rents which means that a reduction in the rises and maybe some falls are on the horizon (2019 or so if my logic holds).


As we survey the situation we see a complex picture but a theme is that things have been getting tougher for many. I wonder how much worse things look for younger renters as for example even if the numbers above are the same some of them have student loans to repay? Another cautionary note can be provided by the official data which is far from complete and some statisticians think may be too low by around 1% per annum due to its flawed nature.

If we look ahead then the general trend is as I pointed out in November 2016 but as this year progresses there will be winds of change. There are ever more surveys suggesting a pick-up in wage growth but even if understandable caution is applied here due to element of deja vu inflation should fall back meaning real wages will stop falling and then should rise. After a lag that should affect rents.

Meanwhile I would like to remind you that the UK statistics establishment uses the rental data it knows is far from complete to measure owner-occupied housing inflation. This morning they have decided that a fantasy number based on troubled data is better than this.

this means that the RPI is heavily influenced by house prices and interest rates,

Not everyone is convinced this is a bad idea.


Me on Core Finance




What is it about RBS and the banks?

A major feature of the credit crunch was the collapse of more than a few banks as a combination of miss pricing, bullish expansionism and arrogance all collided. This led to the economic world-changing as for example the way we now have extremely low ( ZIRP) and in more than a few places negative interest-rates and of course all the QE bond purchases which are ongoing in both the Euro area and Japan. So lower short and long-term interest-rates and that is before we get to the cost of the bailouts themselves. The US and UK acted early but others took longer as my updates on Italy for example explain and describe. It’s Finance Minister ( Padoan ) even had the cheek to boast about not helping its banks which then created ever larger bad loans.

The essential problem is that this is still ongoing as the news from Royal Bank of Scotland overnight tells us.

Royal Bank of Scotland on Tuesday agreed a $500m settlement with New York State over mis-selling residential mortgage-backed securities in the run-up to the financial crisis………..The agreement requires the bank to pay $100m in cash and to provide $400m of consumer relief in New York. It is the latest in a series of settlements with US authorities that has resulted in banks handing over $150bn in payments and fines since the crisis.

This is yet another in a series that feels like rinse and repeat but we are now a decade on from things heading south for RBS as on the 22nd of 2008 what was the largest rights issue ever in the UK took place. The £12 billion cash from that did not even last 6 months as on the 13th of October the UK government stepped in. In other words the documents from that rights issue look to have been about a misleading as they could be along the lines of Sir Desmond Glazebrook in Yes Prime Minister who when asked about the rules replied “They didn’t seem quite appropriate”.

So we have ended up with something that looks like a bottomless pit although as ever it is put PR style.

Ross McEwan, chief executive, said: “We have been very clear that putting our remaining legacy issues behind us is a key part of our strategy.”

Legacy issues indeed and of course a much larger one is on its way.

RBS, part-owned by the UK government, has set aside $4.4bn to deal with residential mortgage-backed security claims in the US and recently revealed its first annual profit in nine years.

This poses its own question as we mull the latest development which is for only one state.

Ian Gordon, an analyst at Investec, said the deal with New York was “a disturbingly large single-state settlement ahead of the main event”.

Any new settlement would add to this.


RBS has been trying to close the door on misconduct issues from the crisis and in 2017 agreed to pay £4.2bn to the US Federal Housing Finance Agency in relation to mortgage-backed securities.

What about the law?

This seems to have been missing from the banking sector and especially in the case of the 2008 rights issue of RBS. However this morning has brought news that you can be jailed for financial crimes. From the BBC.

A group of fraudsters who conned UK consumers out of £37m by selling passports and driving licences through copycat websites have been sentenced to more than 35 years in jail.

The six people, led by Peter Hall and including his wife Claire, operated websites that impersonated official government services.

Perhaps the establishment was upset by the way they were impersonated but we are left with the thought that as the crime was compared to the banks small-scale it could be punished. Along the way something seemed rather familiar though.

 “This was a crime motivated by greed. This group defrauded people so they could enjoy a luxury lifestyle.”

If we actually move to banking crime a somewhat different set of rules seem to apply. Yesterday the Financial Conduct Authority finally banned the man called the Crystal Methodist due to his drug taking proclivities but of course Chair of the Co-op Bank which nearly collapsed.

Mr Flowers was Chair of Co-op Bank between 15 April 2010 and 5 June 2013. The FCA found that Mr Flowers’ conduct demonstrated a lack of fitness and propriety required to work in financial services.

So our first thought is to sing along with the Doobie Brothers.

Gotta keep on pushin’ Mama
‘Cause you know they’re runnin’ late

After all most of us knew there was “trouble,trouble,trouble” as Taylor Swift would out it in June 2013. However when you see what he was banned for it is hard not to let off some steam.

The FCA found that while Chair Mr Flowers:


used his work mobile telephone to make a number of inappropriate telephone calls to a premium rate chat line in breach of Co-op Group and Co-op Bank policies;

and used his work email account to send and receive sexually explicit and otherwise inappropriate messages, and to discuss illegal drugs, in breach of Co-op Group and Co-op Bank policies despite having been previously warned about his earlier misconduct.

In addition, after stepping down as Chair, Mr Flowers was convicted for possession of illegal drugs.

As you can see destroying a bank and causing losses in some cases substantial to a large number of people does not appear on the charge sheet whilst calling a premium rate chat line does.

Helping the economy

We were told the economy would not be able to survive without the banks yet as time has gone on they are still deleveraging. From Which.

In December last year, RBS/Natwest announced that it was closing a staggering 259 bank branches in 2018 – a quarter of its branch network. That included 62 RBS and 197 NatWest branches, plus 11 Ulster Bank branches which were previously announced.

The UK taxpayer will also be grimly observing this as the share price falls another 5 pence at the time of typing this to £2.59 as opposed to the £5.02 paid for its holding.


There are various problems with the state of play. The first is the way that the law pretty much only applies one way regarding the banks. If we misbehave we can expect to be punished sometimes severely. I have no axe to grind with that until we note that it at best intermittently applies to the banks themselves and even less to those at the top of the food chain. For example whilst Santander is perfectly at liberty to pay bonuses which Nathan Bostock would have received at RBS this raises hackles to say the least when it was from the GRG section which wrecked havoc amongst so many small businesses. It seems that bank directors are even more an example of the “precious” than the banks themselves. If we do not make changes how can we expect matters to improve?

When a bank is bailed out we are never told the full truth as this emerges later and sometimes much later as the news today is around a decade after the event. When the truth requires drip feeding well that speaks for itself. Also I note that in the intervening decade this issue goes on and on. From the Financial Stability Board.

The activity-based, narrow measure of shadow banking grew by 7.6% in 2016, to $45.2 trillion for the 29 jurisdictions……..Monitoring Universe of Non-bank Financial Intermediation (MUNFI) – This measure of
all non-bank financial intermediation grew in 2016 at a slightly faster rate than in 2015 to an aggregate $160 trillion.

We need to take care as one day that will rise to a lot of money! Also wasn’t this supposed to have been a problem pre credit crunch?



Portugal hopes to end its lost decade later this year

It is time for us once again to head south and take a look at what is going on in the Portuguese economy? The opening salvo is that 2017 was the best year seen for some time. From Portugal Statistics.

In 2017, the Portuguese Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 2.7% in real terms, 1.1 percentage points higher than the rate of change registered in 2016, reaching, in nominal terms, around 193 billion euros. In nominal terms, GDP increased 4.1% (3.2 in 2016),

So both economic growth and an acceleration in it from 2016. In essence the performance was an internal thing.

The contribution of domestic demand to GDP growth increased to 2.9 percentage points (1.6 percentage points in 2016), mainly due to the acceleration of Investment. Net external demand registered a negative contribution of 0.2 percentage points (null in 2016),  with Imports of Goods and Services accelerating slightly more intensely than Exports of Goods and Services.

It is hard not to feel a slight chill down the spine at the latter section as it has led Portugal to go cap in hand to the IMF ( International Monetary Fund) somewhat regularly over the past decades. But to be fair the last quarter was better on this front.

The contribution of net external demand to GDP quarter-on-quarter growth rate shifted from negative to positive, due to the significantly higher acceleration of Exports of Goods and Services than of Imports of Goods and Services.

Indeed the last quarter was good all round.

Comparing with the previous quarter, GDP increased by
0.7% in real terms.

Also whilst it fell from the heady peaks of earlier in the year investment had a good year.

Investment, when compared with the same quarter of
2016, increased by 5.9% in volume in the last quarter of
2017, a 4.4 percentage points deceleration from the
previous quarter.

This was particularly welcome as it needed it as I pointed out on the 6th of July last year the economic depression Portugal has been through saw investment collapse.

 A fair proportion of this is the fall in investment because whilst it has grown by 5.5% over the past year the level in the latest quarter of 7.7 billion Euros was still a long way below the 10.9 billion Euros of the second quarter of 2008.


The national accounts brought a hopeful sign on this front too.

In the fourth quarter of 2017, seasonally adjusted
employment registered a year-on-year rate of change of
3.2%, (3.1% in the previous quarter)

Of course this does not have to mean unemployment fell but in this instance as we learnt at the end of last month the news is good.

The December 2017 unemployment rate was 8.0%, down by 0.1 percentage points (p.p.) from the previous month’s
level, by 0.5 p.p. from three months before and by 2.2% from the same month of 2016…………The provisional unemployment rate estimate for January 2018 was 7.9%.

This means that the statistics office was able to point this out.

only going back to July 2004 it
is possible to find a rate lower than that.

The one area that continues to be an issue is this one.

The youth unemployment rate stood at 22.2% and
remained unchanged from the month before,

Is Portugal ending up with something of a core youth unemployment problem?

The latest Eurostat handbook raises another issue as it has a map of employment rate changes from 2006 to 2016. For Portugal this was a lost decade in this sense as in all areas apart from Lisbon (+1.1%) it fell from between 2.5% and 3,8%. Rather curiously if we divert across the border to a country now considered an economic success Spain it fell in all regions including by 7.2% in Andalucia. So whilst both countries will have improved in 2017 we get a hint of a size of the combined credit crunch and Euro area crises.

Is Portugal’s Lost Decade Over?

No it still has a little way to go and the emphasis below is mine. From the Bank of Portugal economic review.

economic activity will maintain
a growth profile over the projection horizon,
albeit at a gradually slower pace (2.3%, 1.9%
and 1.7% in 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively)
. At the end of the projection horizon,
GDP will stand approximately 4% above the level
seen prior to the international financial crisis.

So it will be back to the pre credit crunch peak around the autumn. We will have to see as the Bank of Portugal got 2016 wrong as I was already pointing out last July that the first half of 2016 had the economic growth it thought would arrive in the whole year. Maybe its troubles like so many establishment around the world is the way it is wedded to something which keeps failing.

Projected growth rates are above the average
estimates of potential growth of the Portuguese
economy and will translate into a positive output
gap in coming years.

Actually that sentence begs some other questions so let me add for newer readers that the economic history of Portugal is that it struggles to grow at more than 1% per annum on any sustained basis. In fact compared to its peers in the Euro area 2017 was a rare year as this below shows.

interrupting a long period of negative annual
average differentials observed from 2000
to 2016 (only excluding 2009).

This is unlikely to be helped by this where like in so many countries we see good news with a not so good kicker.

The employment growth in the most recent
years, which was fast when compared with activity
growth, has resulted in a decline in labour
productivity since 2014, a trend that will continue
into 2017. ( I presume they mean 2018).

House Prices

It would appear that there is indeed something going on here. From Portugal Statistics.

In the third quarter of 2017, the House Price Index (HPI) increased 10.4% in relation to the same period of 2016 (8.0% in the previous quarter). This rate of change, the highest ever recorded for the series starting in 2009, was essentially determined by the price behaviour of existing dwellings, which increased 11.5% in relation to the same quarter of 2016………….The HPI increased 3.5% between the second and third quarters of 2017

The peak of this was highlighted by The Portugal News last November.

Portugal’s most expensive neighbourhood is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the heart of Lisbon, where buying a house along the Avenida da Liberdade or Marquês de Pombal costs around €3,294 per square metre; up 46.1 percent in 12 months.

Time for the Outhere Brothers again.

I say boom boom boom let me hear u say wayo
I say boom boom boom now everybody say wayo

The banks

Finally some good news for the troubled Portuguese banking sector as their assets ( mortgages) will start to look much better as house prices rise. If we look at Novo Banco this may help with what Moodys calls a “very large stock of problematic assets” which the Portuguese taxpayer is helping with a recapitalisation of  3.9 billion Euros. Yet there are still problems as this from the Financial Times highlights.

Portuguese authorities last year launched a criminal investigation into the sale of €64m of Novo Banco bonds by a Portuguese insurance firm to Pimco that occurred at the end of 2015. A week later, the value of the bonds sold to Pimco were in effect wiped out by the country’s central bank.

This is an issue that brings no credit to Portugal as Novo Banco as the name implies was supposed to be a clean bank that was supposed to be sold off quickly.


So we have welcome economic news but as ever in line with economics being described as the “dismal science” we move to asking can it last? On that subject we need to note that an official interest-rate which is -0.4% and ongoing QE is worry some. Also Portugal receives quite a direct boost in its public finances from the QE as the flow of 489 million Euros  of purchases of its government bonds in February meaning the total is now over 32 billion means it has a ten-year yield of under 2%. Not bad when you have a national debt to GDP ratio of 126.2%.

To the question what happens when the stimulus stops? We find ourselves mulling the way that Portugal has under performed its Euro area peers or its demographics which were already poor before some of its educated youth departed in response to the lost decade as this from the Bank of Portugal makes clear.

The population’s ageing trend partly results from
the sharp decrease in fertility in the 1970s and

So whilst some may claim this as a triumph for the “internal competitiveness” or don’t leave the Euro model 2017 was in fact only a tactical victory albeit a welcome one in a long campaign. Should some of the recent relative monetary and consumer confidence weakness persist we could see a slowing of Euro area economic growth in the summer/autumn just as the ECB is supposed to be ending its QE program and considering ending negative interest-rates. How would that work?





The problems of UK house building and prices are a result of government policy

This morning has brought news from the UK government on an area which is regularly reported as being in crisis ( housing supply) which brings us to a related area which has been in recession since the early part of last year ( construction). From the BBC.

Construction firms that have been slow to build new homes could be refused planning permission in future under a shake-up to be unveiled by Theresa May.

The PM will tell developers to “step up and do their bit”, warning that sitting on land as its value rises is not on at a time of chronic housing need.

There are various issues here as a fair bit of this is vague such a “slow to build” and doing your bit may be far from sufficient incentive to house builders who in some cases have been doing rather well.

Bonuses in the construction sector have been under the spotlight since Persimmon announced last year that 140 staff would share a bonus pool of £500m and that its chief executive was in line for a pay-out of £110m, a figure that has since been reduced by £25m following an outcry among investors

As an aside if £110 million is so wrong I find it fascinating that £85 million is apparently okay! Still at least something was done. As to the concept of housing need the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has crunched some numbers.

Independent analysis shows that an average of 78,000 additional affordable homes (a mix of low-cost rent and shared ownership) are required in England each year between 2011 and 2031. This level of supply is required to meet newly-arising need and demand.


Delivery has been falling short. On average 47,520 additional affordable homes have been provided in England each year since 2011, leading to a cumulative shortfall of 182,880 homes over the last six years. A step change is needed to boost supply of affordable homes by at least 30,000 more a year.

That seems a lot lower than what we are usually told which reminds us that such numbers are open to more than a little doubt and speculation. This poses a problem for a government increasingly heading down the central planning road.

Let me add another issue which is that a factor often ignored is that it matters where you build the houses as well as how many. This often seems to be ignored as for example once you think like that an arrow points at London and the South East. But you cannot just build anything as the current travails only a mile or two away from me at Nine Elms are proving.

The economic depression

There are quite a few problems for economics 101 in the current situation. Firstly you might think that higher house prices would quite quickly generate more supply but it would not appear so. Also the housing industry was supposed to respond to monetary policy and as we find ourselves after a cut and a rise back at the emergency Bank Rate of 0.5% there is much to mull and that is before we factor in the £435 billion of Bank of England QE.

Yet house building responded little to this as if we set 2015 as 100 we get some interesting numbers. The pre credit crunch peak was 2006 and 2007 which were both in the 95s. The scale of the initial hit is shown by the fact that 2009 was 55.4 showing a big hit and then crucially very little recovery as the number oscillated around 70 for the next three years. Along the way many smaller building firms went to the wall as our supply capacity fell and I wonder if that was a much larger factor than often realised. It is hard not to wonder if some support for smaller house builders might have protected us from the need for much larger support measures later. This meant that this sector clearly had an economic depression.

The official response

This provides quite a lot of food for thought for the central planners in Downing Street and Threadneedle Street because in response to the numbers above we saw a two-pronged strategy. In the summer of 2012 the Bank of England deployed the Funding for Lending Scheme which reduced mortgage rates quite quickly by around 1% ( and later by up to 2% according to its research) and made sure the banks had plenty of cash to lend. Then in March 2013 the Guardian reported on this.

In his budget speech, George Osbornelaunched Help to Buy…………This £3.5bn scheme will run for three years from 1 April and help up to 74,000 buyers, as well as providing a boost to the construction sector, said the Treasury.

This saw the UK establishment put the pedal to the metal in this area but the most recommended reply was already on this case.

Another tax-payer funded scheme to prop up house prices. Has it never crossed Osborne’s mind that if people are not able to afford a house on the basis of prudent lending criteria, house prices might be too high and should come down? ( ReaderCmt ).

There was a clear side effect to this as the tweet below highlights.

As you can see the clear effect here was on profits for house builders which surged and financed the payment of extraordinary bonuses for those at the top. This leaves us wondering if the house builders were happy counting their cash and in no great rush to expand supply as they were doing nicely anyway. How much of the effort simply went straight to the bonuses we looked at above?

House Prices

We know that these measures boosted house prices as according to the official series the price of the average house rose from £167,682 in February of 2013 to £226,756 last December. This provided its own problem however because real wages have in fact failed to recover to pre credit crunch peaks so houses became much more expensive relative to them. Yes the wheels of affordability were oiled by ever lower mortgage rates but at these prices demand for house purchase was always likely to dip which puts a brake on supply.

It is however nice to see the Joseph Rowntree Foundation implictly agreeing with my argument that house prices should be in the main measure of inflation.

Real income growth among the bottom fifth of the population in recent years is mostly wiped out once housing costs are considered, with consequences for the living standards of those on low incomes.


If we look at recent years we see that economic policy in the UK was based on the housing market. It was a type of credit easing and the consequences were higher house prices with large and what can only be called excess profits for the main house builders. No doubt some economic activity was generated but those looking to get a foothold in the market have been hit by high inflation when real wages have fallen. On that basis this is pretty much breathtaking.  The quotes below are from the BBC.

Young people without family wealth are “right to be angry” at not being able to buy a home, Theresa May has said.

Announcing reforms to planning rules, the PM said home ownership was largely unaffordable to those without the support of “the bank of mum and dad”.

This disparity was entrenching social inequality and “exacerbating divisions between generations”, she said.

It is of course true but it is a clear consequence of the policies pursued by what is now her government but before one in which she was Home Secretary. It came on top of house price friendly policies from preceding governments also.  Anyway the speech shows a complete lack of grasp of how the private-sector operates.

Mrs May criticised bonuses which are “based not on the number of homes they build but on their profits or share price”.

Another way of writing the quotes below would say you can only afford the new higher prices if someone who has already benefited helps you.

“The result is a vicious circle from which most people can only escape with help from the bank of mum and dad.

“If you’re not lucky enough to have such support, the door to home ownership is all too often locked and barred.”

That in essence the problem in the central planning approach as the initial problem is the apparent failure to grasp not only reality but their own role in the problem. I fear more central planning is unlikely to help as so far what has been called help has in fact mostly hindered.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that house building had responded in 2017 as according to the official numbers it was 20% higher than in 2015.