France decides to Spend! Spend! Spend!

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

The Details

Here is a translation of President Macron’s words.

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

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

There are three components to this.

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

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

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

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

With an approach that smacks of industrial Colbertism

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

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

Is it necessary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed the total PMI picture was disappointing.

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

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

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

Where are the Public Finances?

According to the Trading Economics this is this mornings update.

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

drag down prices

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

The Draghi Rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Carry Trade

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

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

The Euro as a reserve currency

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economic Output

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

The Detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Net exports contributed 1.0 percentage point to GDP

There was another curiosity in the shop.

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

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

Savings and Wages

There are two separate trends here as some did well.

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

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

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

Reserve Bank of Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number Crunching

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

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

Can the Bank of England pull UK house prices out of the bag again?

Whilst the UK was winding up for a long weekend the Governor of the Bank of England was speaking about his plans for QE ( Quantitative Easing) at the Jackson Hole conference. He said some pretty extraordinary stuff in a somewhat stuttering performance via videolink. Apparently it has been a triumph.

So what is our latest thinking on the effects of QE and how it works? Viewed from the depth of the Covid
crisis, QE worked effectively.

Although as he cannot measure it so we will have to take his word for it.

Measuring this effect precisely is of course hard, since we cannot easily identify what the counterfactual would have been in the absence of QE.

He seems to have forgotten the impact of the central bank foreign exchange liquidity swaps of the US Federal Reserve. By contrast we were on the pace back on the 16th of March.

But QE clearly acted to break a dangerous risk of transmission from severe market stress to the macro-economy, by avoiding a sharp tightening in financial conditions and thus an increase in effective interest rates.

The next bit was even odder and I have highlighted the especially significant part.

QE is normally thought to work through a number of channels: including signalling of future central bank
intentions and thus interest rates; so called ‘portfolio balance’ effects (i.e. by changing the composition of
assets held by the private sector); and improving impaired market liquidity.

As he has cut to what he argues is the “lower bound” for UK interest-rates how can he be signalling lower ones? After all that would take us to the negative interest-rates he denies any plans for.

Fantasy Time

Things then took something of an Alice In Wonderland turn. Before you read this next bit let me remind you that the Bank of England started QE back in 2009 and not one single £ has ever been repaid.

First, a balance sheet intervention aimed solely at market
functioning is likely to be more temporary, in terms of the duration of its need to be in place.

Also the previous plan if I credit it with being a plan was waiting for this.

and once the Bank Rate
had risen to around 1.5%, thus creating more headroom for the future use of Bank Rate both up and down.

Whilst it was none too bright ( as you force the price of the Gilts held down before selling them) it was never going to be used. This was clear from the way Nemat Shafik was put in charge of this as you would never give her that important a job. Even the Bank of England eventually had to face up to her competence and she left her role early to run the LSE. This meant that she was part of the “woman overboard” problem that so dogged the previous Governor Mark Carney.

The new plan for any QE unwind is below.

We need to work through what lessons this may have for the appropriate future path of central bank balance sheets, including the pace and timing of any future unwind of asset
purchases.

How very Cheshire Cat.

“Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”

The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know,” Alice answered.

“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”

The only real interest the Governor has here is in doing more QE and he faces a potential limit ( if we did not know that we learn it from his denial). So he thinks that one day he may unwind some QE so he can do even more later. For the moment the limit keeps moving higher as highlighted by the fact that the UK issued another £7.4 billion of new bonds or Gilts last week alone.

Today’s Monetary Data

Let me highlight this referring to the Governor’s speech. He tells us that QE has been successful.

The Covid crisis to date has demonstrated that QE and forward guidance around it have been effective in a
particular situation.

Meanwhile borrowers faced HIGHER and not LOWER interest-rates in July

The interest rate on new consumer credit borrowing increased 22 basis points to 4.64% in July, while rates on interest-charging overdrafts increased 1.6 percentage points to 14.84%.

This issue is one which is a nagging headache for Governor Bailey this is because he had the same effect in his previous role as head of the Financial Conduct Authority. It investigated unauthorised overdraft rates in such a way they have risen from a bit below 20% to 31.63% in July. Some have reported these have doubled so perhaps the data is being tortured here.There is a confession to this if you look hard enough.

Rates on interest-charging overdraft rose by 1.6 percentage points to 14.84% in July. Between April and June, overdraft rates have been revised up by around 5 percentage points due to changes in underlying data.

Oh and just as a reminder the FCA was supposed to be representing the borrowers and not the lenders.

QE

As the Governor trumpets his “to “go big” and “go fast” decisively” action we see a clear consequence below.

Private sector companies and households continued increasing deposits with banks at a fast pace in July. Sterling money (known as M4ex) rose by £26.3 billion in July, more than in June (£16.8 billion), but less than average monthly increase of £53.4 billion between March and May. The increase in July is strong relative to the £9.4 billion average of the six months to February 2020.

This means that annual broad money growth ( M4) is at a record of 12.4%. Care is needed as I can recall a previous measure ( £M3) so the history is shorter than you might think. But there has been a concerted effort by the Bank of England to sing along with Andrea True Connection.

(More, more, more) How do you like it? How do you like it?
(More, more, more) How do you like it? How do you like it?
(More, more, more) How do you like it? How do you like it?

Or perhaps Britney Spears.

Gimme, gimme more
Gimme more
Gimme, gimme more
Gimme, gimme more
Gimme more

Consumer Credit

The sighs of relief out of the Bank of England were audible when this was released.

Net consumer credit borrowing was positive in July, following four months of net repayments (Chart 2). An additional £1.2 billion of consumer credit was borrowed in July, around the average of £1.1 billion per month in the 18 months to February 2020.

Although there is still this to send a chill down its spine.

 Net repayments totaled £15.9 billion between March and June. That recent weakness meant the annual growth rate remained negative at -3.6%, similar to June and it remains the weakest since the series began in 1994.

Comment

Quite a few of my themes have been in play today. For example QE looks ever more like a “To Infinity! And Beyond!” play. Governor Bailey confirms this by repeating the plan for interest-rates. They were only ever raised ( and by a mere 0.25% net in reality) so they could cut them later. So QE will only ever be reduced ( so far net progress is £0) so that they can do more later. He does not mention it but any official interest-rate increase looks way in the distance although as we have noticed the real world does see them. That was my first ever theme on here.

Next let me address the money supply growth. The theory is that it will in around 2 years time boost nominal GDP by the same amount. We therefore will see both inflation and growth. That works in broad terms but we have learnt in the past that the growth/inflation split is unknown as are the lags. Also of course which GDP level do we start from? I can see PhD’s at the Bank of England sniffing the chance to produce career enhancing research but for the rest of us we can merely say we expect inflation but much of it may end up here.

House prices at the end of the year are expected to be 2% to 3% higher than at the start.

The annual rate of UK house price growth slowed to 2.5% in July, from 2.7% in June. ( Zoopla )

I find that a little mind boggling but unlike central banking research we look at reality on here.

Finally let me cover something omitted by the Governor and many other places. This is the strength of the UK Pound £ which has risen above US $1.34. Whilst US Dollar weakness is a factor it is also now above 142 Yen ( and the Yen has been strong itself). I would place a quote from the media if I could find any. In trade-weighted terms from the nadir just below 73 as the crisis hit it will be around 79 at these levels. Or if you prefer the equivalent according to the old Bank of England rule of thumb is a 1.5% rise in Bank Rate. Perhaps nobody has told the Governor about this…..

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Meet the new Inflation era same as the old inflation era….

Yesterday brought news about inflation targeting but before we get to what you might think is the headline act, it has been trumped by Prime Minister Abe of Japan. Before I get to that let me wish him well with his health issues. But he also said this in his resignation speech.

JAPAN PM ABE ON ECONOMIC POLICY: WE HAVE SUCCEEDED IN BOOSTING JOBS, ENDING 20 YEARS OF DEFLATION WITH THREE ARROWS OF ABENOMICS. ( @FinancialJuice)

You might think that this is almost at a comical Ali level of denial at this point. For those unaware this was the Iraqi information minister who denied Amercan soldiers were in Baghdad when well I think you have figured the rest. Even the BBC is providing an opposite view to that of Abe san.

The Japanese economy has shrunk at its fastest rate on record as it battles the coronavirus pandemic.

The world’s third largest economy saw gross domestic product fall 7.8% in April-June from the previous quarter, or 27.8% on an annualised basis.

Japan was already struggling with low economic growth before the crisis.

The current situation is bad enough but even if we give him a pass on that there is that rather damning last sentence. Let me give you some context on that. You could argue the 0.6% contraction in the Japanese economy was also Covid related but you cannot argue that the 1.8% contraction at the end of last year was. Indeed the quarter before that was 0%.

So Japan had not escaped deflation and in fact the problems at the end of last year were created by an Abenomics arrow missing the target. People forget now but the economic growth that Abenomics was supposedly going to create was badged as a cure for the chronic fiscal problem faced by Japan. In fact the lack of growth and hence revenue was a factor in the Consumption Tax being raised to 10%. Which of course gave growth another knock.

Inflation

Another arrow was supposed to lead to inflation magically rising to 2% per annum. How is that going? From the Statistics Bureau this morning.

 The consumer price index for Ku-area of Tokyo in August 2020 (preliminary) was 102.1 (2015=100), up 0.3% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and down 0.4% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

So it has taken five years and not one to hit 2%. For newer readers that was also the pre pandemic picture in Japan and it has mostly been possible to argue that there is effectively no inflation because the low levels are within any margin for error.

Also as a point of detail there is even more bad news for inflationistas which is that something which they clain cannot happen with zero inflation has. If you look in the detail food prices have risen by 7% and the cost of education has fallen by 7%, so you can have relative price changes. Looking at the national numbers it has been a rough run for fans of Salmon and carrots as prices have risen by more than 50% over the past 5 years.

The US Federal Reserve

The speech by Chair Powell opened with what may turn out to be an unfortunate historical reference.

Forty years ago, the biggest problem our economy faced was high and rising inflation. The Great Inflation demanded a clear focus on restoring the credibility of the FOMC’s commitment to price stability.

It is hard to know where to start with this bit.

Many find it counterintuitive that the Fed would want to push up inflation. After all, low and stable inflation is essential for a well-functioning economy. And we are certainly mindful that higher prices for essential items, such as food, gasoline, and shelter, add to the burdens faced by many families, especially those struggling with lost jobs and incomes.

I will simply point out that I am pleased to see a recognition that what are usually described by central bankers as “non-core” such as food and energy are suddenly essential. Perhaps the threats ( from The Donald) about him losing his job have focused his mind, although he would remain an extremely wealthy man.

He then got himself into quite a mess.

 Our statement emphasizes that our actions to achieve both sides of our dual mandate will be most effective if longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored at 2 percent. However, if inflation runs below 2 percent following economic downturns but never moves above 2 percent even when the economy is strong, then, over time, inflation will average less than 2 percent. Households and businesses will come to expect this result, meaning that inflation expectations would tend to move below our inflation goal and pull realized inflation down.

This really does come from the highest of Ivory Towers where the air is thinnest. Many households and businesses will not even know who he and his colleagues are! Let alone plan ahead on the basis of what they might do especially after the flip-flopping of the last couple of years. Even worse the 2% per annum target which was pretty much pulled out of thin air has become a Holy Grail.

This next bit was frankly not a little embarrassing.

In seeking to achieve inflation that averages 2 percent over time, we are not tying ourselves to a particular mathematical formula that defines the average. Thus, our approach could be viewed as a flexible form of average inflation targeting.

So it is an average but without the average bit?

Canada

This week the Bank of Canada inadvertently highlighted a major problem. It starts with this.

Deputy Governor Lawrence Schembri discusses the difference between how Canadians perceive inflation and the actual measured rate.

You see we are back to you ( and I mean us by this) do not know what you are paying and we ( central bankers know better). Except it all went wrong in a predictable area.

Over the last two decades, the price of houses has risen on average more than twice as fast as the price of housing, at a rate of 6 percent versus 2.5 percent.

There is the issue in a nutshell. Your average Canadian has to shell out an extra 6% each year for a house but according to Lawrence and his calculations it is only 2.5%. Someone should give him a pot of money based on his calculations and tell him to go and buy one.

The Euro area

We looked at variations in the price of Nutella recently well according to The Economist there are other issues.

 Three enormous boxes of Pampers come to €168 ($198) on Amazon’s Spanish website. By contrast, the same order from Amazon’s British website costs only €74. (Even after an exorbitant delivery fee is added, the saving is still €42.)

This happens even inside the Euro area.

The swankiest Nespresso model will set them back €460 on Amazon’s French website, but can be snapped up for €301 on the German version. They could then boast about their canny shopping on Samsung’s newest phone, which varies in price by up to €300 depending on which domain is used.

I point this out because official inflation measurement relies on “substitution” where if the price rises you switch to something similar which is cheaper. But if people do not do this for the same thing inn the real world we are back in our Ivory Towers again.

Comment

Firstly we can award ourselves a small slap on the back as we were expecting this. From the movements in the Gold price ( down) and bond yields (up) far from everybody was. If we note the latter there are two serious problems for Chair Powell. The first is that if there is a body of people on this earth who follow his every word it is bond traders and they were to some extent off the pace. Thus all exposition about expectations above is exposed as this.

Every man has a place, in his heart there’s a space,
And the world can’t erase his fantasies
Take a ride in the sky, on our ship fantasii
All your dreams will come true, right away ( Earth,Wind & Fire )

Next is that if you take the policy at face value bond yields should have risen by far more than the 0.1% the long bond did. They did not rise by the 0.5% to 1% you might expect for two possible reasons.

  1. Nobody expected the Fed to raise interest-rates for years anyway so what is the difference?
  2. If there is a policy change it is mostly likely to be more QE treasury bond purchases which will depress bond yields.

So back to the expectations we see that the Fed is responding to expectations it has created. What could go wrong? Putting it another way it is living a combination of Goodhart’s Law and the Lucas Critique.

I brought in the Japanese experience because it has made an extraordinary effort in monetary policy terms but the economy was shrinking before Covid-19 and there was essentially no inflation.

However the stock market ( Nikkei 225) has nearly trebled since Abenomics was seen as likely. Oh and the Bank of Japan has essentially financed the government borrowing.

Podcast

 

How do the negative interest-rates of the ECB fit with a surging money supply?

Today brings an opportunity for us to combine the latest analysis from the European Central Bank with this morning’s money supply and credit data. The speech is from Executive Board member Isabel Schnabel who is apparently not much of a fan of Denmark or Sweden.

In June 2014, the ECB was the first major central bank to lower one of its key interest rates into negative territory.

Of course the effect of the Euro was a major factor in those countries feeling the need for negativity but our Isabel is not someone who would admit something like that. We do however get a confession that the ECB did not know what the consequences would be.

As experience with negative interest rates was scant, the ECB proceeded cautiously over time, lowering the deposit facility rate (DFR) in small increments of 10 basis points, until it reached -0.5% in September 2019. While negative interest rates have, over time, become a standard instrument in the ECB’s toolkit, they remain controversial, both in central banking circles and academia.

Unfortuately for Isabel she has been much more revealing here than she intended. In addition to admitting it was new territory there is a confession the Euro area economy has been weak as otherwise why did they feel the need to keep cutting the official interest-rate? Then the “standard instrument” bit is a confession that they are here to stay.

In spite of the problems she has just confessed to Isabel thinks she can get away with this.

In my remarks today, I will review the ECB’s experience with its negative interest rate policy (NIRP). I will argue that the transmission of negative rates has worked smoothly and that, in combination with other policy measures, they have been effective in stimulating the economy and raising inflation.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic that was simply untrue. You do not have to take me word for it because below is the policy announcement from the ECB on the 12th of September last year. They did not so that because things were going well did they?

The interest rate on the deposit facility will be decreased by 10 basis points to -0.50%…….Net purchases will be restarted under the Governing Council’s asset purchase programme (APP) at a monthly pace of €20 billion as from 1 November.

The accompanying statement included a complete contradiction of what Isabel is trying to claim now.

Today’s decisions were taken in response to the continued shortfall of inflation with respect to our aim. In fact, incoming information since the last Governing Council meeting indicates a more protracted weakness of the euro area economy, the persistence of prominent downside risks and muted inflationary pressures.

I wonder if anyone challenged Isabel on this?

Fantasy Time

Some would argue that this represents a policy failure but not our Isabel.

In other words, the ECB had succeeded in shifting the perceived lower bound on interest rates firmly into negative territory, supported by forward guidance that left the door open for the possibility of further rate cuts.

It is no great surprise that for Isabel it is all about “The Precious! The Precious!”

The ECB, for its part, tailored its non-standard measures to the structure of the euro area economy, where banks play a significant role in credit intermediation. In essence, this meant providing ample liquidity for a much longer period than under the ECB’s standard operations.

Yet even this has turned out to be something of a fantasy.

In spite of these positive effects on the effectiveness of monetary policy, the NIRP has often been criticised for its potential side effects, particularly on the banking sector……..In the extreme, the effect could be such that banks charge higher interest rates on their lending activities, thereby reversing the intended accommodative effect of monetary policy.

The text books which Professor Schabel has read and written contained nothing like this. We all know that if something is not in an Ivory Tower text book it cannot happen right?

Money Supply

This morning’s data showed a consequence of the Philosophy described above.

Annual growth rate of narrower monetary aggregate M1, comprising currency in circulation and overnight deposits, increased to 13.5% in July from 12.6% in June.

This is the fastest rate of monetary expansion the Euro area has seen in absolute terms. There was a faster rate of expansion in percentage terms in its first month ( January 1999) of 14.7% but the numbers are so much larger now. Also contrary to so much official and media rhetoric cash is in demand as in July it totalled some 1.31 trillion Euros as opposed to 1.19 trillion a year before. This is out of the 9.78 trillion Euros.

As we try to analyse this there is the issue that it is simple with cash as 0% is attractive compared to -0.5% but then deposits should be fading due to the charge on them. Except we know that the major part of deposits do not have negative interest-rates because the banks are terrified of the potential consequences.

We can now switch to broad money and we are already expecting a rise due to the narrow money data.

The annual growth rate of the broad monetary aggregate M3 increased to 10.2% in July 2020 from 9.2% in June, averaging 9.5% in the three months up to July.

Below is the break down.

 

The components of M3 showed the following developments. The annual growth rate of the narrower aggregate M1, which comprises currency in circulation and overnight deposits, increased to 13.5% in July from 12.6% in June. The annual growth rate of short-term deposits other than overnight deposits (M2-M1) increased to 1.4% in July from 0.8% in June. The annual growth rate of marketable instruments (M3-M2) increased to 12.8% in July from 9.2% in June.

Putting it that way is somewhat misleading because the M1 change of 158 billion dwarfs the 33 billion of marketable instruments although the growth rates are not far apart.

 

Comment

Let me now put this into context in ordinary times we would expect the narrow money or M1 surge to start impacting about six months ahead. So it should begin towards the end of this year. Although it will be especially hard to interpret as some of the slow down was voluntary as in we chose to shut parts of the economy down. Has monetary policy ever responded to a voluntary slow down in this way before?

Also if we switch to broad money we see that the push has seen M3 pass the 14 trillion Euros barrier. Again in ordinary times we should see nominal GDP surge in response to that in around 2 years with the debate being the split between inflation and real growth. Except of course we do not know where either are right now! We have some clues via the surges in bond and equity markets seen but of course the Ivory Tpwers that Professor Schabel represents come equipped with blacked out windows for those areas.

Actually the good Professor and I can at least partly agree on something as I spotted this in her speech.

With the start of negative rates, we have observed a steady increase in the growth rate of loans extended by euro area monetary financial institutions.

They did although that does not mean the policies she supported caused this and in fact the growth rate of loans to the private-sector is now falling.

She somehow seems to have missed the numbers which further support my theme that her role is to make sure government borrowing is cheap ( in fact sometimes free or even for a profit) is in play.

The annual growth rate of credit to general government increased to 15.5% in July from 13.6% in June,

We now wait to see if the famous quote from Milton Friedman which is doing the rounds will be right one more time.

Inflation is just like alcoholism, in both cases when you start drinking or when you start printing to much money, the good effects come first the bad effects come later.

Or Neil Diamond.

Money talks
But it can’t sing and dance and it can’t walk

 

 

Is the US economy slowing again?

Yesterday brought news that upset something of a sacred cow of these times. And no I do not mean the fact that Lionel Messi not only still has in his possession but actually uses a fax machine. That perhaps trumps even his transfer request. Across the Atlantic came news which challenged the growing consensus about economies soaring up, up and away after the Covid-19 pandemic. So let me hand you over to the Conference Board.

The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index® decreased in August, after declining in July. The Index now stands at 84.8 (1985=100), down from 91.7 in July. The Present Situation Index – based on consumers’ assessment of current business and labor market conditions – decreased sharply from 95.9 to 84.2. The Expectations Index – based on consumers’ short-term outlook for income, business, and labor market conditions – declined from 88.9 in July to 85.2 this month.

As the consumer is a large part of the US economy a further decline in August poses a question for the recovery we are being promised. Indeed those promising such a recovery forecast it would be 93 so they seem to be inhabiting a different universe. They managed to miss consumers reporting that things had got substantially worse in August. The expectations index decline was more minor but it is on the back of a much lower current reading.

The accompanying explanation put some more meat on the bones.

“Consumer Confidence declined in August for the second consecutive month,” said Lynn Franco, Senior Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “The Present Situation Index decreased sharply, with consumers stating that both business and employment conditions had deteriorated over the past month. Consumers’ optimism about the short-term outlook, and their financial prospects, also declined and continues on a downward path. Consumer spending has rebounded in recent months but increasing concerns amongst consumers about the economic outlook and their financial well-being will likely cause spending to cool in the months ahead.”

That made me look into the detail for the jobs market which confirmed why consumers think that things have got worse.

Consumers’ appraisal of the job market was also less favorable. The percentage of consumers saying jobs are “plentiful” declined from 22.3 percent to 21.5 percent, while those claiming jobs are “hard to get” increased from 20.1 percent to 25.2 percent.

The change in the “plentiful” number is within the margin of error but the “hard to get” shift is noticeable. There was a similar shift in business conditions where there was what seems a significant increase in the “bad” category.

The percentage of consumers claiming business conditions are “good” declined from 17.5 percent to 16.4 percent, while those claiming business conditions are “bad” increased from 38.9 percent to 43.6 percent.

As you can see below this is a long-running series and so it comes with some credibility.

In 1967, The Conference Board began the Consumer Confidence Survey (CCS) as a mail survey
conducted every two months; in June 1977, the CCS began monthly collection and publication. The CCS
has maintained consistent concepts, definitions, questions, and mail survey operations since its
inception.

The alternative view was provided by MarketWatch.

What they are saying? “I have to admit that I do not take this latest reading at face value,” said chief economist Stephen Stanley of Amherst Pierpont Securities. “If you believe the number, then consumers are feeling worse in August than they were in the depths of the lockdown. I can’t imagine that anyone believes that.”

Perhaps he was one of those who thought it would be 93.

The Housing Market

We can now shift to a look at the market which will have every telescope at the US Federal Reserve pointing at it.

Sales of new single-family houses in July 2020 were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 901,000, according to
estimates released jointly today by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
This is 13.9 percent (±20.0 percent)* above the revised June rate of 791,000 and is 36.3 percent (±27.4 percent)
above the July 2019 estimate of 661,000.

There may well have been a cheer at the Fed as the news was released. In absolute terms the main rise was in the south but in percentage terms it was the Mid-West that led with a more than 50% rise on the previous average for this year.

However there is a catch.

For Sale Inventory and Months’ Supply
The seasonally-adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of July was 299,000. This represents a supply of
4.0 months at the current sales rate.

That does not add up until we remind ourselves that like the GDP data the numbers are annualised. If you check the actual data sales rose from 75,000 in June to 78,000 in July compared to a nadir of 52,000 in April.

So we see that for all the hype actual new homes sales rose by around 40,000 in response to this reported by Yahoo Finance.

The weekly average rates for new mortgages as of 20th August were quoted by Freddie Mac to be:

  • 30-year fixed rates increased by 3 basis points to 2.99% in the week. Rates were down from 3.56% from a year ago. The average fee remained unchanged at 0.8 points.
  • 15-year fixed rates rose by 8 basis points to 2.54% in the week. Year-on-year, rates were down from 3.03%. The average fee fell from 0.8 points to 0.7 points.
  • 5-year fixed rates increased from 2.90% to 2.91% in the week. Rates were down by 41 points from last year’s 3.32%. The average fee fell from 0.4 points to 0.3 points.

House Prices

Our central bankers would also be scanning for house price data.

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, reported a 4.3% annual gain in June, no change from the previous month.

Actually it is a 3 month average so if you prefer it is a second quarter number so apparently as the economy plunged house prices rose. Some detail as to what happened where is below.

“June’s gains were quite broad-based. Prices increased in all 19 cities for which we have data, accelerating in five of them. Phoenix retains the top spot for the 13th consecutive month, with a gain of 9.0% for June. Home prices in Seattle rose by 6.5%, followed by Tampa at 5.9% and Charlotte at 5.7%. As has been the case for the last several months, prices were particularly strong in the Southeast and West, and comparatively weak in the Midwest and (especially) Northeast.

Comment

The consensus view is along the lines of this from the end of last week.

  • The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 14.6% for 2020:Q3.
  • News from this week’s data releases decreased the nowcast for 2020:Q3 by 0.2 percentage point.
  • Negative surprises from the Empire State Manufacturing survey and housing starts data drove most of the decrease.

A strong rebound in the economy is the expectation but the consumer confidence report poses a question about some of that. Then we note that the housing data looks less positive once we allow for the annualisation and indeed seasonal adjustment in a year which is anything but normal.

That provides some food for thought for the US Federal Reserve as it gets ready to host its annual “Jackson Hole” symposium. I have put it in quote because this year the trip is virtual rather than real. Should they announce as they have been hinting that the new policy will be to target average inflation – which will be a loosening as the measure of official inflation is below target – we are left wondering one more time if Newt from the film Aliens will be right again?

It wont make any difference

The Investing Channel

Even if this quarter sees economic growth of 7% Germany has gone back in time to 2015

Today has brought the economic engine of the Euro ares into focus as we digest a barrage of data from and about Germany. We find that the second effort at producing economic output figures for the second quarter has produced a small improvement.

WIESBADEN – The gross domestic product (GDP) fell sharply by 9.7% in the 2nd quarter of 2020 on the 1st quarter of 2020 after adjustment for price, seasonal and calendar variations. According to the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), the GDP drop in the 2nd quarter of 2020 was not quite as steep as reported in the first release of 30 July 2020 (-10.1%).

This means that the comparison with last year improved as well.

11.3% on the same quarter a year earlier (price-adjusted)

The last figure is revealing in that it reminds us that the German economy had been in something of a go-slow even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Also we note that the hit was in broad terms double that of the credit crunch.

The slump in the German economy was thus much larger than during the financial and economic crisis of 2008/2009 (-4.7% in the 1st quarter of 2009) and the sharpest decline since quarterly GDP calculations for Germany started in 1970.

The Details

With a lockdown in place for a fair bit of the quarter this was hardly a surprise.

As a consequence of the ongoing corona pandemic and the restrictions related with it, household final consumption expenditure fell sharply by 10.9% in the 2nd quarter of 2020.

What is normally considered to be a German strength fell off the edge of a cliff as investment plunged.

Gross fixed capital formation in machinery and equipment even dropped by as much as 19.6%.

Which made the annual picture this.

 Gross fixed capital formation in machinery and equipment fell sharply by 27.9% after already dropped considerably by 9.5% in the 1st quarter.

Also a platoon of PhD’s from the ECB will be on their way to work out what has gone on here?

Gross fixed capital formation in construction also declined markedly (-4.2%) in the 2nd quarter, which was due in particular to the exceptionally strong 1st quarter (+5.1%).

The ECB PhD’s may be able to write a working paper describing what their bosses would consider a triumph. Or at least, something described as a triumph on the crib sheet provided to ECB President Christine Lagarde.

Gross fixed capital formation in construction, which was 1.4% higher than in the 2nd quarter of 2019, also had a supporting effect year on year.

Looking at the annual comparison it has not been a good year for net exporters.

Foreign trade fell dramatically also compared with a year earlier. Exports of goods and services fell by 22.2% (price-adjusted) in the 2nd quarter of 2020 year on year. Imports did not drop as strongly (-17.3%) over that period.

Something else which you might reasonably consider to be not very Germanic has been in play.

Only final consumption expenditure of general government had a stabilising effect; it was 1.5% higher than in the previous quarter and prevented an even larger GDP decrease………( and the annual data)  In contrast, an additional 3.8% in government final consumption expenditure prevented the economy from crashing even more.

We know that the unemployment numbers have been actively misleading in the pandemic but I note that the hours worked data gives a similar picture to GDP.

The labour volume of the overall economy, which is the total number of hours worked by all persons in employment, declined even more sharply by 10.0% over the same period.

This had an inevitable consequence for productivity.

Labour productivity per person in employment slumped by as much as 10.2% compared with the 2nd quarter of 2019.

Savings

I thought I would pick this out as it is a clear development in the Covid era.

The relatively stable incomes, on the one hand, and consumer reticence, on the other, resulted in a substantial rise in household saving. According to provisional calculations, the savings ratio nearly doubled to 20.1% in the 2nd quarter of 2020 year on year (2nd quarter 2019: 10.2%).

Looking Ahead

This morning’s IFO release tells us this.

Sentiment among German business leaders is continuing to improve. The ifo Business Climate Index rose from 90.4 points (seasonally adjusted)  in July  to 92.6 points in August. Companies assessed their current business situation markedly more positively than last month. Their expectations were also slightly more optimistic. The German economy is on the road to recovery.

Although a somewhat different context was provided by this.

In manufacturing, the business climate improved considerably. Companies’ assessments of their current situation jumped higher. Nevertheless, many industrial companies still consider their current business to be poor. The outlook for the coming months was again more optimistic. Order books are filling once more.

That showed a welcome improvement but only to a level considered to be poor so it is hardly surprising they are optimistic relative to that. Indeed trade seems to have engaged reverse gear.

In trade, the upward trend in the business climate flattened noticeably. Companies were somewhat more satisfied with their current situation. However, their pessimism regarding the coming months was almost unchanged. In wholesale, the business climate in fact fell back.

Perhaps they are getting a little more like us in the UK as the services sector seems to be on the road to recovery.

In the service sector, the Business Climate Index rose strongly. Service providers were decidedly happier with their current business situation. Their outlook for the coming six months also improved further.

Considering the GDP numbers you might think that construction would be more upbeat.

In construction, the business climate continues to improve. Construction companies were again happier with their current situation. However, their expectations are still pessimistic, albeit less so than last month.

Comment

If we take the example below where would that leave Germany?

Germany IFO expects GDP growth of around 7% in Q3 ( DailyFX.com )

If we take the unadjusted figure of 93.46 for the second quarter then we will rise to 100 or if you prefer we will have stepped back in time to 2015. So the “Euro boom” and all the ECB backslapping will have been wiped out. The 7% economic growth recorded over the period will be ground that will have to be re-taken. That will be not so easy as we see renewed but hopefully more minor Covid-19 outbreaks in other parts of the Euro area.

I am a little unclear how @Economist_Kat gets to this.

#Germany: #ifo survey results for August are consistent with the economy moving into Boom territory.

Perhaps too much kool-aid. According to a @LiveSquawk the official view is that things can only get better.

German FinMin Scholz: Economy Developing Better Than Expected

Meanwhile official policy has the pedal to the metal with an official interest-rate for banks at -1% and two QE bond buying schemes running at once. We also have fiscal policy being deployed on a grand scale, especially for Germany. There is little scope for it to do more.

 

 

 

 

 

My Response to the plan to neuter the UK Retail Price Index inflation measure

A feature of the last 8 years or so has been the increasingly desperate attempts by the UK establishment to scrap and now neuter the Retail Price Index measure of inflation. Why? That is easy as HM Treasury would save a lot of money via paying out less money for inflation linking on benefits and pensions and be able to present higher economic growth (GDP)  figures They have had some success with the latter as replacing the RPI with the CPI in the GDP calculations has raised annual growth estimates by up to 0.5% according to the statistician Dr. Mark Courtney.

Having failed to scrap the RPI some bright spark came up with the idea of keeping the name by changing it so much it would in fact become a cypher or copy of the CPIH inflation measure including the much derided fantasy imputed rents. This “cunning plan” ( Blackadder style) has been backed by the Office of National Statistics and the UK Statistics Authoriity who have danced like puppets on the end of a string held by HM Treasury. In my financial lexicon for these times you will find “independence” defined as independently deciding to agree with those who decide your career path

Let me explain further via my reply.

Response

The saddest part of this enquiry is that we keep going down the same road and now I note that it is apparently only to choose when change should happen rather than if. The reason for that is because since 2012 we keep having enquiries and the official view has kept losing them and/or found itself ignored. The former happened in 2012 when the vote was 10-1 against and the latter happened in 2015 when Paul Johnson recommended the CPIH inflation measure which has been so widely ignored, in spite of the increasingly desperate efforts by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to promote it.

If I kept losing on this scale maybe I too would want to take away the possibility of yet another defeat, but it is no way to run a proper public consultation.

2012

Back in 2012 I wrote to that inflation consultation as follows.

Accordingly making changes on a rushed and ill considered basis as is being proposed in this document will affect many people adversely and lead to a loss of confidence in and credibility of long-term contracts in the UK financial system.

That remains true for many pensioners both present and future and index-linked Gilts, as does this suggestion of mine.

For an investigation to be launched into both RPI and CPI as inflation measures and for there to be no change until BOTH have been thoroughly investigated and debated.

No such investigation has ever taken place and we have ended up in a situation where confidence in work produced by the ONS has been shaken and the UK Statistics Authority has been asleep at the wheel.

2020

A powerful indictment of what has happened in this period was provided by Jill Leyland at the recent Royal Statistical Society webinar on this issue. From the Webinar transcript.

In the 50 years of my working life, I’ve been a user of ONS statistics or, in the past, CSO statistics. And, for most of those years, ONS at its best is a world leader. At its best it is open-minded, has a sense of discovery, it is innovative, it listens, it has expertise. But the RPI saga since 2010 has been a very sorry one. Sometimes ONS has looked like a rabbit in the headlights.

I do hope that there will be a change Not just for all the reasons that Tony Cox and I have mentioned, but because I think the ONS is better than what it has proposed at the moment.

That was some message from a former vice president of the Royal Statistical Society,and fellow of the ONS. In her polite and considered way it is a devastating critique of the last decade which has become a lost decade for inflation measurement as the UK statistics establishment has continued to bash its head not only on the same wall but the same brick.

Are there problems with the RPI?

Jill Leyland also highlighted this.

I believe, and I’m fairly similar to Tony Cox here, that the RPI only has one real flaw. That is the combination of the Carli index with the way that clothing prices are collected. And that could be mended……. Turning back to the one flaw I do see. We are going to have scanner data which will give us a lot more opportunity to use weighted indices and that should come on-stream in the next few years.

So in fact there is only one problem which over the timescale we are looking at can certainly be improved and probably be fixed. Indeed if we look at the evidence provided by Tony Cox of the RPICPI User Group at the same webinar it puts the RPI in a better position than CPI and by implication CPIH.

It is also worth drawing attention to the greater use of weighted information in the RPI when compared to the CPI, which is generally regarded as providing the basis for a more accurate calculation.

In his presentation he showed that the RPI used direct weights for 43% of its composition whilst the CPI only uses it for 32% so it is in fact the RPI which is superior in this area. Indeed Carli is only 27% of the RPI whereas from the official rhetoric you might assume it is pretty much all of it, That, unfortunately has been a feature of ONS work which has been more like propaganda than disinterested and unbiased evidence

RPI Superiority

This comes in the area of owner occupied housing where the RPI wins hands down. It does so without a fight versus the Consumer Price Index or CPI which ignores the whole area, so if it was a boxing match it would be a walkover. In some ways the situation is worse for the CPIH inflation measure as its attempt to apply a fantasy has been exposed as exactly that.

There is a clear problem in assuming owner occupiers pay rent to themselves when they do not. I understand that the report of the 1986 advisory committee concluded that any inflation measure should be generally regarded as relevant to people’s concerns and a fair reflection of their experience. Rental Equivalence fails both tests and there is another problem with it. I’ve been asking about the actual rental figures that have been used and it turns out that they’re weighted back to some extent over the last 16 months,or if you prefer they are smoothed. So, they’re not even the actual rents from that month and are in some respect last year’s.That matters a lot when as happened this week the ONS tells people it has produced inflation figures for July 2020 when in fact a solid portion of the index was not even for 2020.

Those factors were no doubt involved in the way that the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords rejected Rental Equivalence and thereby the CPIH measure itself. After all it is 16.3% of it by weight at the time of writing. My critique above of the methodology also applies to the genuine rent numbers which are another 6.3% of the index. So nearly 23% of the index is in effect based on last year rather than the month declared which is not only misleading but something which brings the whole measure into question.This is reinforced by the fact that the weights themselves have been unstable and therefore uncertain.

Balance

There has not been any and the ONS has produced work which is one-eyed and partial.

Conclusion

The reality is that the RPI is a good measure of inflation which is in many respects SUPERIOR to the officially supported CPI and CPIH. I have described the reasons for this above. This means that the effort to reduce it to a cypher and copy of CPIH is even worse than a mistake as it embarrasses those who make such a case. Thus this consultation should be scrapped and quickly forgotten.

Then we can set about improving the RPI in the way intimated by Jill Leyland and Tony Cox above. In addition we could replace the hidden use of house prices via depreciation with house prices themselves which would be another step forwards.

In the background further work could be done on the Household Costs Index (HCI) and perhaps the ONS could find a way of putting capital costs (yes another official effort to avoid inflation relating to housing) in it. I am a supporter of the concept as for example the idea to include student loans is an advance to match the modern era and reality. But it is not yet ready and may not be for some time.

At the same time the CPIH measure needs to face up to the fact that those who developed this inflation concept in the Euro area have been too embarrassed to put Rental Equivalence in it. Also that the European Central Bank has realised that the underlying CPI measure cannot go on without allowing for owner-occupied housing costs.

Thus it is the CPIH inflation measure which should be put in the recycling bin and if you need someone to do that I volunteer.

Royal Statistical Society

It has been good to see its response be so powerful.

The RSS has today said that it “strongly disagrees” with the Treasury and UK Statistics Authority’s (UKSA) plans for the Retail Prices Index (RPI).

The full reply is on its website.

Weekly Podcast

 

 

Some welcome good economic news for the UK

Today is proving to be something of a rarity in the current Covid-19 pandemic as it has brought some better and indeed good economic news. It is for the UK but let us hope that such trends will be repeated elsewhere. It is also in an area that can operate as a leading indicator.

In July 2020, retail sales volumes increased by 3.6% when compared with June, and are 3.0% above pre-pandemic levels in February 2020.

As you can see not only did July improve on June but it took the UK above its pre pandemic levels. If we look at the breakdown we see that quite a lot was going on in the detail.

In July, the volume of food store sales and non-store retailing remained at high sales levels, despite monthly contractions in these sectors at negative 3.1% and 2.1% respectively.

In July, fuel sales continued to recover from low sales levels but were still 11.7% lower than February; recent analysis shows that car road traffic in July was around 17 percentage points lower compared with the first week in February, according to data from the Department for Transport.

As you can see food sales dipped ( probably good for our waistlines) as did non store retailing but the recovery in fuel sales from the nadir when so few were driving was a stronger influence. I suspect the fuel sales issue is likely to continue this month based on the new establishment passion for people diving their cars to work. That of course clashes with their past enthusiasm for the now rather empty looking public transport ( the famous double-decker red buses of London are now limited to a mere 30 passengers and the ones passing me these days rarely seem anywhere near that). Actually it also collides with the recent public works for creating cycle lanes out of is not nowhere restricted space in London which has had me scratching my head and I am a regular Boris Bike user.

As we look further I thought that I was clearly not typical as what I bought was clothing but then I noted the stores bit.

Clothing store sales were the worst hit during the pandemic and volume sales in July remained 25.7% lower than February, even with a July 2020 monthly increase of 11.9% in this sector.

Online retail sales fell by 7.0% in July when compared with June, but the strong growth experienced over the pandemic has meant that sales are still 50.4% higher than February’s pre-pandemic levels.

In fact the only downbeat part of today;s report was the implication that the decline of the high street has been given another shove by the current pandemic. On the upside we are seeing innovation and change. Also if we look for some perspective we see quite a switch on terms of trend.

When compared with the previous three months, a stronger rate of growth is seen in the three months to July, at 5.1% and 6.1% for value and volume sales respectively. This was following eight consecutive months of decline in the three-month on three-month growth rate.

It is easy to forget in the melee of news but UK Retail Sales growth had been slip-sliding away and now we find ourselves recording what is a V-Shaped recovery in its purest form.

There is another undercut to this which feeds into a theme I first established on the 29th of January 2015 which is like Kryptonite for central bankers and their lust for inflation. If we look at the value and volume figures we see that prices have fallen and they have led to a higher volume of sales.I doubt that will feature in any Bank of England Working Paper.

Purchasing Manager’s Indices

These do not have the street credibility they once did. However the UK numbers covering August also provided some good news today.

August’s data illustrates that the recovery has gained speed
across both the manufacturing and service sectors since July. The combined expansion of UK private sector output was the fastest for almost seven years, following sharp improvements in business and consumer spending from the lows seen in April.

Public-Sector Finances

This is an example of a number which is both good and bad at the same time.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks, PSNB ex) in July 2020 is estimated to have been £26.7 billion, £28.3 billion more than in July 2019 and the fourth highest borrowing in any month on record (records began in 1993).

That is because we did need support for the economy ( how much is of course debateable) and even so the monthly numbers are falling especially if we note this as well.

Borrowing estimates are subject to greater than usual uncertainty; borrowing in June 2020 was revised down by £6.0 billion to £29.5 billion, largely because of stronger than previously estimated tax receipts and National Insurance contributions.

We can now switch to describing the position as the good the bad and the ugly.

Borrowing in the first four months of this financial year (April to July 2020) is estimated to have been £150.5 billion, £128.4 billion more than in the same period last year and the highest borrowing in any April to July period on record (records began in 1993), with each of the months from April to July being records.

The size of the debt is a combination of ugly and bad but we see that the numbers look like they are falling quite quickly now. Indeed if we allow for the effect of the economy picking up that impact should be reinforced especially if we allow for this.

Self-assessed Income Tax receipts were £4.8 billion in July 2020, £4.5 billion less than in July 2019, because of the government’s deferral policy;

National Debt

There has been some shocking reporting of this today which basically involves copy and pasting this.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks, PSND ex) has exceeded £2 trillion for the first time; at the end of July 2020, debt was £2,004.0 billion, £227.6 billion more than at the same point last year.

It is a nice click bait headline but if you read the full document you will spot this.

The Bank of England’s (BoE’s) contribution to debt is largely a result of its quantitative easing activities via the Bank of England Asset Purchase Facility Fund (APF), Term Funding Schemes (TFS) and Covid Corporate Financing Facility Fund (CCFF).

If we were to remove the temporary debt impact of these schemes along with the other transactions relating to the normal operations of BoE, PSND ex at the end of July 2020 would reduce by £194.8 billion (or 9.8 percentage points of GDP) to £1,809.3 billion (or 90.7% of GDP).

Regular readers may be having a wry smile at me finally being nice to the Term Funding Scheme! But its total should not be added to the national debt and nor should profits from the Bank of England QE holdings. Apparently profit is now debt or something like that.

As a result of these gilt holdings, the impact of the APF on public sector net debt stands at £115.8 billion, the difference between the nominal value of its gilt holdings and the market value it paid at the time of purchase.

Comment

It is nice to report some better news for the economy and let us hope it will continue until we arrive at the next information point which is how the economy responds to the end of the furlough scheme in October. As to the Public Finances I have avoided any references to the Office for Budget Responsibility until now as they have managed to limbo under their own usual low standards. Accordingly even my first rule of OBR Club that the OBR is always wrong may need an upwards revision.

Let me now take you away from the fantasy that the Bank of England has taken UK debt above £2 trillion and return to an Earth where it is implicitly financing the debt. Here is the Resolution Foundation.

These high fiscal costs of lockdown look to be manageable, though. 1) The @UK_DMO   has raised over £243bn since mid-March. 2) While debt is going up, the costs are still going down. Interest payments were £2.4bn in July 2020, a £2bn fall compared with July 2019.

That shows how much debt we have issued but how can it be cheaper? This is because the Bank of England has turned up as a buyer of first resort. At the peak it was buying some £13,5 billion of UK bonds a week and whilst the weekly pace has now dropped to £4.4 billion you can see that it has been like a powered up Pac-Man. Or if you prefer buying some £657 billion of something does tend to move the price and yield especially if we compare it to the total market.

Gilts make up the largest component of debt. At the end of July 2020 there were £1,681.2 billion of central government gilts in circulation.

Finally the UK Retail Prices Index consultation closes tonight and please feel free to contact HM Treasury to ask why they are trying to neuter out best inflation measure?