Has there been a more unreliable boyfriend than Mark Carney?

After looking this week at the trend toward negative interest-rates and the establishment lust for higher inflation today we can take a look at some of the case for their defence. It comes from Bank of England Governor Mark Carney and he will be relaxed as he has been able to do so in its house journal the Financial Times. Although I note that even it does not label him as a “rock star” central banker anymore and there does not seem to be any mention of film star good looks. Mind you film stars I guess are not what they were after this from Stella McCartney after the Golden Globes.

This man is a winner… wearing custom Stella because he chooses to make choices for the future of the planet. He has also chosen to wear this same Tux for the entire award season to reduce waste. I am proud to join forces with you… x Stella #JoaquinPhoenix
#GoldenGlobes

Saving the planet one tux at a time.

Monetary Policy

Governor Carney opens with this.

The global economy is heading towards a “liquidity trap” that would undermine central banks’ efforts to avoid a future recession, according to Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England.

As ever he is trying to lay a smoke screen over reality so let us break this down. Actually we have been in a type of “liquidity trap” for quite some time now. A major driver of it has in fact been central banking terror of a future recession which means that zombie companies and especially banks have been propped up. There has been little or none of the “creative destruction” of Josef Schumpeter where capitalism clears up many of its failures. Bad at the time but it also provides some of the fertile ground for new companies and growth. The deflection element is that by claiming a liquidity trip is in the future it deflects from his role in where we are now.

Er, who fired the ammunition?

In a wide-ranging interview with the Financial Times, the outgoing governor warned that central banks were running out of the ammunition needed to combat a downturn.

If we look at it we see that if we just look at interest-rates there is 0.65% left according to Governor Carney. That is the current 0.75% Bank Rate to his view of the lower bound which was 0.5% but is now 0.1%. Sadly he is not challenged on this allowing him to imply this is a worldwide problem.

“It’s generally true that there’s much less ammunition for all the major central banks than they previously had and I’m of the opinion that this situation will persist for some time,” he said.

An opportunity was missed here to expose the Governor’s rather odd thinking. The blanket view that there is less ammunition has sub-plots. For example the European Central Bank or ECB has an interest-rate of -0.5% and considered -0.6% and yesterday we looked at the Swiss National Bank with its -0.75% official interest-rate. So suddenly we have up to an extra 0.85% compared to his “lower bound”. Also the ECB and SNB could cut further.

I am not sure the explanation about a liquidity trap helps much as it describes a situation we have been in for some time.

A liquidity trap occurs on the rare occasions when monetary policy loses all effectiveness to manage economic swings and looser policy does not encourage any additional spending.

Somehow the editor of the FT Lionel Barber and its economics editor Chris Giles seem to have missed that the credit crunch era has seem many examples of a liquidity trap as highlighted by the use of “rare occasions”

Alternatives

Is there any other sphere where people who have asked for tools used them far more than expected but with little success would be given even more powers?

That meant there was a need to look for supplements to monetary tools, including interest rate cuts, quantitative easing and guidance on future interest rates, he said. “If there were to be a deeper downturn, [that requires] more stimulus than a conventional recession, then it’s not clear that monetary policy would have sufficient space.”

It is nice that the FT below confirms the central banking group think or if you prefer they borrow the same brain cell.

Mr Carney echoed other central bankers, such as the European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi and his successor, Christine Lagarde, in recommending that governments consider fiscal policy tools, such as tax cuts or public spending increases when tackling a downturn. However, he accepted “it’s not [central bankers’] job to do fiscal policy”.

Also this is something that Paloma Faith sang about.

I’ll tell you what (I’ll tell you what)
What I have found (what I have found)
That I’m no fool (that I’m no fool)
I’m just upside down (just upside down)

Central banks were supposed to be independent and run monetary policy yet a confession of failure seems to make them think they can tell elected politicians what to do. I would call it mission creep but it is more of a leap than a creep.

But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong here ( Radiohead )

Mind you the unreliable boyfriend seems to be having doubts about his commitment to his own statement.

The governor said monetary policy was not yet a spent force internationally, with US and eurozone interest rate cuts last year encouraging borrowing and spending. “We’re starting to see that stimulus flow to the global economy.”

Indeed suddenly we find that his successor has loads of room.

He insisted that he was not leaving his successor, Andrew Bailey, without any tools in the armoury. The BoE could still cut interest rates from 0.75 per cent to close to zero and “supplement monetary policy with macroprudential tools” by relaxing banks’ capital requirements to enable them to lend more.

“The Precious! The Precious!”

Oh and weren’t we raising the banks capital requirements to make the system safer? The unreliable boyfriend does seem to enjoy a U-Turn.

He insisted that he was not leaving his successor, Andrew Bailey, without any tools in the armoury. The BoE could still cut interest rates from 0.75 per cent to close to zero and “supplement monetary policy with macroprudential tools” by relaxing banks’ capital requirements to enable them to lend more.

Being the FT the failures of his initial period of tenure get skated by.

Demand returned in 2013, just as he took up his position.

The 7% unemployment rate debacle gets a new spin.

how many people could be employed without inflation

I am sure that readers think it is really unfair that the Bank of England had to deal with a changing situation.

The monetary policy committee also had to grapple with structural difficulties

I like the use of “grapple” to describe confusion and inertia as it would be hard to be more misleading. The reality is that the chance to raise interest-rates around 2014 was missed and the boat sailed with the Governor still on the shore dithering over whether to buy a ticket.

Comment

It is perhaps most revealing that the Governor sets out the challenges for the Bank of England without mentioning monetary policy at all.

Amid these economic uncertainties, the main task of the BoE, according to the governor, was to finish core reforms to the global financial system and react appropriately to the political upheavals of the Scottish and Brexit referendums and the challenges of climate change. Mr Carney insists that rather than be too political, as his predecessor Mervyn King has suggested, the BoE had to get involved because it now had a duty to preserve financial stability.

Also there seems to be some form of amnesia about the fact that Governor Carney got into trouble for playing politics when he was at the Bank of Canada.

But frustrations of UK life in the crosshairs of polarised political debate will also haunt him in the search of a new job. “This role is just much more public than the same role in Canada,” said Mr Carney.

Oh and did I mention mission creep?

But he was clear that the financial sector could not mitigate global warming alone and without wider agreements to limit global warming and action to enforce targets.

The Investing Channel

The inflation problem is only in the minds of central bankers

Yesterday we looked at the trend towards negative interest-rates and today we can link this into the issue of inflation. So let me open with this morning’s release from Swiss Statistics.

The consumer price index (CPI) remained stable in December 2019 compared with the previous month, remaining at 101.7 points (December 2015 = 100). Inflation was +0.2% compared with the same month of the previous year. The average annual inflation reached +0.4% in 2019.These are the results of the Federal Statistical Office (FSO).

The basic situation is not only that there is little or no inflation but that there has been very little since 2015. Actually if we switch to the Euro area measure called CPI in the UK we see that it picks up even less.

In December 2019, the Swiss Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) stood at 101.17 points
(base 2015=100). This corresponds to a rate of change of +0.2% compared with the previous month
and of –0.1% compared with the same month of the previous year.

Negative Interest-Rates

There is a nice bit of timing here in that the situation changed back in 2015 on the 15th to be precise and I am sure many of you still recall it.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is discontinuing the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro. At the same time, it is lowering the interest rate on sight deposit account balances that exceed a given exemption threshold by 0.5 percentage points, to −0.75%.

If we look at this in inflation terms then the implied mantra suggested by Ben Bernanke yesterday would be that Switzerland would have seen some whereas it has not. In fact the (nearly) 5 years since then have been remarkable for their lack of inflation.

There is a secondary issue here related to the exchange rate which is that the negative interest-rate was supposed to weaken it. That is a main route as to how it is supposed to raise inflation but we find that we are nearly back where we began. What I mean by that is the exchange-rate referred to above is 1.084 compared to the Euro. So the Swiss tried to import inflation but have not succeeded and awkwardly for fans of negative interest-rates part of the issue is that the ECB ( European Central Bank) joined the party reminding me of a point I made just under 2 years ago on the 9th of January 2018.

For all the fire and fury ( sorry) there remains a simple underlying point which is that if one currency declines falls or devalues then others have to rise. That is especially awkward for central banks as they attempt to explain how trying to manipulate a zero-sum game brings overall benefits.

The Low Inflation Issue

Let me now switch to another Swiss based organisation the Bank for International Settlements  or BIS. This is often known as the central bankers central bank and I think we learn a lot from just the first sentence.

Inflation in advanced economies (AEs) continues to be subdued, remaining below central banks’ target
in spite of aggressive and persistent monetary policy accommodation over a prolonged period.

As we find so often this begs more than a few questions. For a start why is nobody wondering why all this effort is not wprking as intended? The related issue is then why they are persisting with something that is not working? The Eagles had a view on this.

They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast

We then get quite a swerve.

To escape the low inflation trap, we argue that, as suggested by Jean-Claude Trichet, governments
and social partners put in place “consensus packages” that include a fiscal policy that supports demand
and a series of ad hoc nominal wage increases over several years.

Actually there are two large swerves here. The first is the switch away from the monetary policies which have been applied on an ever larger scale each time with the promise that this time they will work. Next is a pretty breathtaking switch to advocacy of fiscal policy by the very same Jean-Claude Trichet who was involved in the application of exactly the reverse in places like Greece during his tenure at the ECB.

Their plan is to simply add to the control freakery.

As political economy conditions evolve, this role should be progressively substituted by rebalancing the macro
policy mix with a more expansionary fiscal policy. More importantly, social partners and governments
control an extremely powerful lever, ie the setting of wages at least in the public sector and potentially
in the private sector, to re-anchor inflation expectations near 2%.

The theory was that technocratic central bankers would aim for inflation targets set by elected politicians. Now they want to tell the politicians what to so all just to hit an inflation target that was chosen merely because it seemed right at the time. Next they want wages to rise at this arbitrary rate too! The ordinary worker will get a wage rise of 2% in this environment so that prices can rise by 2% as well. It is the economics equivalent of the Orwellian statements of the novel 1984

Indeed they even think that they can tell employers what to do.

Finally, in a full employment context,
employers have an incentive to implement wage increases to keep their best performing employees
and, given that nominal labour costs of all employers would increase in parallel, they would able to raise
prices in line with the increase of their wage bills with limited risk of losing clients

Ah “full employment” the concept which is in practical terms meaningless as we discussed only yesterday.

Also as someone who studied the “social contracts” or what revealingly were called “wage and price spirals” in the UK the BIS presents in its paper a rose tinted version of the past. Some might say misleading. In the meantime as the economy has changed I would say that they would be even less likely to work.

Putting this another way the Euro area inflation numbers from earlier showed something the ordinary person will dislike but central bankers will cheer.

Looking at the main components of euro area inflation, food, alcohol & tobacco is expected to have the highest
annual rate in December (2.0%, compared with 1.9% in November),

I would send the central bankers out to explain to food shoppers how this is in fact the nirvana of “price stability” as for new readers that is what they call inflation of 2% per annum. We would likely get another ” I cannot eat an I-Pad” moment.

Comment

Let me now bring in some issues which change things substantially and let me open with something that has got FT Alphaville spinning itself into quicksand.

As far as most people are concerned, there is more than enough inflation. Cœuré noted in his speech that most households think the average rate in the eurozone between 2004 and last year has been 9 per cent (in fact it was 1.6 per cent). That’s partly down to higher housing costs (which are not wholly included in central banks’ measurement of inflation).

That last sentence is really rather desperate as it nods to the official FT view of inflation which is in quite a mess on the issue of housing inflation. Actually the things which tend to go up ( house prices) are excluded from the Euro area measure of inflation. There was a plan to include them but that turned out to be an attempt simply to waste time ( about 3 years as it happened). Why? Well they would rather tell you that this is a wealth effect.

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 4.2% in both the euro area and the EU in the
second quarter of 2019 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

Looking at the situation we see that a sort of Holy Grail has developed – the 2% per annum inflation target – with little or no backing. After all its use was then followed by the credit crunch which non central bankers will consider to be a rather devastating critique. One road out of this is to raise the inflation target even higher to 3%, 4% or more, or so we are told.

There are two main issues with this of which the first is that if you cannot hit the 2% target then 3% or 4% seems pointless. But to my mind the bigger one is that in an era of lower numbers why be King Canute when instead one can learn and adapt. I would either lower the inflation target and/or put house prices in it so that they better reflect the ordinary experience. The reason they do not go down this road is explained by a four letter word, debt. Or as the Eagles put it.

Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice
And she said: “We are all just prisoners here
Of our own device”

Will the US deploy negative interest-rates?

On Saturday economists  gathered to listen to the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke speak on monetary policy in San Diego. This is because those who used to run the Federal Reserve can say things the present incumbent cannot. So let me get straight to the crux of the matter.

The Fed should also consider maintaining constructive ambiguity about the future use of negative short-term rates, both because situations could arise in which negative short-term rates would provide useful policy space; and because entirely ruling out negative short rates, by creating an effective floor for long-term rates as well, could limit the Fed’s future ability to reduce longer-term rates by QE or other means.

It is no great surprise to see a central banker suggesting that the truth will be withheld. But let us note that he is talking about “policy space” in a situation described by the New York Times like this.

While the economy has recovered and unemployment has fallen to a 50-year low, interest rates have not returned to precrisis levels. Currently, the policy interest rate is set at 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent, leaving far less room to cut in the next crisis.

The apparent need for ever lower interest-rates looks ever more like an addiction of some sort for these central planners. Although as ever they are try to claim that it has in fact been forced upon them.

Since the 1980s, interest rates around the world have trended downward, reflecting lower inflation, demographic and technological forces that have increased desired global saving relative to desired investment, and other factors.

As we so often find the truth is merged with more dubious implications. Yes interest-rates and bond yields did trend lower and let me add something Ben did not say. There were economic gains from this period as for example I remember  mortgage rates in the UK being in double-digits. Also higher rates of inflation caused economic problems and it is easy to forget it caused a lot of problems back then. Younger readers probably find the concept of wage-price spirals as something almost unreal but they were very real back then. Yet Ben seems to want to put a smokescreen over this.

Another way to gain policy space is to increase the Fed’s inflation target, which would eventually raise the nominal neutral interest rate as well.

Curious as they used to tell us interest-rates drove inflation, now they are trying to claim it is the other way around! Are people allowed to get away with this sort of thing in other spheres?

Is there a neutral interest-rate?

Ben seems to think so.

The neutral interest rate is the interest rate consistent with full employment and inflation at target in the long run.  On average, at the neutral interest rate monetary policy is neither expansionary nor contractionary. Most current estimates of the nominal neutral rate for the United States are in the range of 2-3 percent.

The first sentence is ridden with more holes than a Swiss cheese which is quite an achievement considering its brevity. If we ever thought that we were sure what full employment is/was the credit crunch era has hit that for six ( for those who do not follow cricket to get 6 the ball is hit out of the playing area). For example the unemployment rate in Japan is a mere 2.2% so well below “full” but there is essentially no real wage growth rather than it surging as economics 101 text books would suggest. Putting it another way in spite of what is apparently more than full employment real wages may well have ended 2019 exactly where they were in 2015.

This is an important point as it was a foundation of economic theory as the “output gap” concept shifted from output (GDP) to the labour market when they did not get the answers they wanted. Only for the labour market to torpedo the concept and as you can see above it was not just one torpedo as it fired a full spread. Yet so many Ivory Towers persist with things accurately described by Ivan van Dahl.

Please tell me why
Do we build castles in the sky?
Oh tell me why
Are the castles way up high?

Quantitative Easing

Ben is rather keen on this but then as he did so much of it he has little choice in the matter.

Quantitative easing works through two principal channels: by reducing the net supply of longer-term assets, which increases their prices and lower their yields; and by signaling policymakers’ intention to keep short rates low for an extended period. Both channels helped ease financial conditions in the post-crisis era.

Could there be a more biased observer? I also note that there seems to be a titbit thrown in for politicians.

The risk of capital losses on the Fed’s portfolio was never high, but in the event, over the past decade the Fed has remitted more than $800 billion in profits to the Treasury, triple the pre-crisis rate.

A nice gift except and feel free to correct me if I am wrong there is still around US $4 trillion of QE out there. So how can the risk of losses be in the past tense with “was”? It is one of the confidence tricks of out era that establishments have been able to borrow off themselves and then declare a profit on it hasn’t it?

Ben seems to have an issue here though. So by buying trillions of something you increase the supply?

and increases the supply of safe, liquid assets.

Forward Guidance

I do sometimes wonder if this is some form of deep satire Monty Python style.

 Forward guidance helps the public understand how policymakers will respond to changes in the economic outlook and allows policymakers to commit to “lower-for-longer” rate policies. Such policies, by convincing market participants that policymakers will delay rate increases even as the economy strengthens, can help to ease financial conditions and provide economic stimulus today.

Another way of looking at it is that it has been and indeed is an ego trip. The  majority of the population will not know what it is and in the case of my country that is for the best as the Bank of England misled by promising interest-rate rises and then cutting them. Sadly some did seem to listen as more fixed-rate mortgages were incepted just before they got cheaper. So we see that if we return to the real world the track record of Forward Guidance makes people less and not more likely to listen to it. After all who expects and sustained rises in interest-rates anyway?

Comment

These speeches are useful as they give us a guide to what central bankers are really thinking. It does not matter if you consider them to be pack animals or like the large Amoeba that tries to eat the Starship Enterprise in an early episode of Star Trek as the result is the same. This will be what they in general think.

When the nominal neutral rate is in the range of 2-3 percent, then the simulations suggest that this combination of new policy tools can provide the equivalent of 3 percentage points of additional policy space; that is, with the help of QE and forward guidance, policy performs about as well as traditional policies would when the nominal neutral rate is 5-6 percent. In the simulations, the 3 percentage point increase in policy space largely offsets the effects of the zero lower bound on short-term rates.

Actually if we look at the middle-section “traditional policies” did not work but I guess he is hoping no-one will point that out. If they did we would not be where we are! Also you may not that as I have often found myself pointing out why do we always need more of the same!

Still if you believe the research of the Bank of England interest-rates have been falling for centuries. Does this mean that to coin a phrase they have been doing “God’s work” in the credit crunch era?

global real rates have shown a
persistent downward trend over the past five centuries, declining within a corridor of between -0.9 (safe
asset provider basis) and -1.59 basis points (global basis) per annum, with the former displaying a
continuous decline since the deep monetary crises of the late medieval “Bullion Famine”. This downward
trend has persisted throughout the historical gold, silver, mixed bullion, and fiat monetary regimes, is
visible across various asset classes, and long preceded the emergence of modern central banks.

The catch is that if you are saying events have driven things people might start to wonder what your purpose it at all?

Podcast

 

Slow house price growth and a fall in credit card borrowing will worry the Bank of England

2020 has only just begun to borrow a phrase from The Carpenters but already the pace has picked up. Should the oil price remain above US $68 for a barrel of Brent Crude there will be consequences and impacts. But also we can look back on the Bank of England’s priority indicator in 2019 and on the subject here is the Nationwide.

Annual UK house price growth edged up as 2019 drew to a
close, with prices 1.4% higher than December 2018, the first
time it been above 1% for 12 months.

I have put in the format that would be most sensible for whoever is presenting the Bank of England Governor’s morning meeting. That is because pointing out the rise was only 0.1% in December does not seem as good and noting that unadjusted average prices fell by £452 may rewarded with an office that neither the wifi nor the cake trolley reach.

Continuing with that theme perhaps looking north of the border will help.

Scotland was the strongest performing home nation in
2019, with prices up 2.8% over the year.

Might be best to avoid this though.

London ended the year as the weakest performing region,
with an annual price decline of 1.8%.

If you are forced into looking at London then the Nationwide has done some PR spinning of the numbers.

While this marks the tenth quarter in row that prices have fallen in the capital, they are still only around 5% below the all-time highs recorded in Q1 2017 and c50% above their 2007 levels (UK prices are only around 17% higher than their 2007 peak).

Best to avoid the fact that London is usually a leader of the pack for the rest of the country.

Affordability

Should our poor graduate find themselves in this area then perhaps a new career might be advisable as even the Nationwide cannot avoid this.

“Even in the North and Scotland, where property appears
most affordable, it would still take someone earning the
average wage and saving 15% of their take home pay each
month more than five years to save a 20% deposit. In Wales
and Northern Ireland, it would take prospective buyers nearly seven years, and almost eight years for people living in the West Midlands.
“Reflecting the trend in overall house prices, the deposit
challenge is most daunting in the South of England, where it would take an average earner almost a decade to amass a 20% deposit. Again, the pressures are most acute in the
capital, where someone earning an average income would
need around 15 years to save a 20% deposit on the typical
London property (this is even longer than was the case
before the financial crisis, when it would have taken around
ten and a half years).”

So houses are very expensive and in many cases effectively unaffordable which contradicts the official measures of inflation which somehow ( somehow of course means deliberately) miss this out. So officially you are richer it is just unfortunate that you cannot afford housing….

Consumer Credit

Our unfortunate trainee cannot catch a break today as we note this.

The net flow of consumer credit was £0.6 billion in November, the smallest flow since November 2013.

Within it was something to send a chill down the spine of a modern central banker. The emphasis is mine and it will also have stood out in capitals to the Bank of England.

The extra amount borrowed by consumers in order to buy goods and services fell to £0.6 billion in November. This is the weakest since November 2013, and below the £1.1 billion average seen since July 2018. Within this, there was a net repayment of credit cards for the first time since July 2013, of £0.1 billion. Net borrowing for other loans and advances also weakened, to £0.7 billion.

Actually the stock of credit card borrowing fell by a larger amount from £72.4 billion to £72.1 billion. However whilst the drop stands out a little care is needed as the October flow was more than has become usual ( +£400 million) so the drop may be a bit of an aberration.

We learn more from the next bit.

These weak flows mean the annual growth rate of consumer credit fell to 5.7% in November, compared to 6.1% in October. It has now fallen 3.7 percentage points since July 2018, when it was 9.4%.

Whilst that may be true ( we recently had some large upwards revisions which reduced confidence in the accuracy of the data series) it dodges some important points. For example 5.7% is still much faster than anything else in the economy and because of the previous high rate of growth had to slow to some extent due to the size of the amount of consumer credit now ( £225.3 billion in case you were wondering). Also the other loans and advances section continues to grow at an annual rate of 6.6% which has not only been stable but seems to be resisting the impact of a weaker car market as car loans are a component of it.

Mortgage Lending

This morning’s release was a case of steady as she goes.

Lending in the mortgage market continued to be steady in November, and in line with levels seen over the past three years. Net mortgage borrowing fell marginally to £4.1 billion, and mortgage approvals for house purchase remained unchanged at 65,000.

The catch is that the push which began with the interest-rate cuts and QE bond buying after the credit crunch and was turbo-charged by the Funding for Lending Scheme in the summer of 2012 is losing its impact on house prices.

For those of you wondering what the typical mortgage rate now is another release today gave us a pointer.

Effective rates on new secured loans to individuals decreased 9bps to 1.87%.

For more general lending they seem a little reticent below so let me help out by saying it is 6.88%.

Effective rates on outstanding other unsecured loans to individuals decreased 4bps

That is another world from a Bank Rate of 0.75%. Meanwhile on that theme I would like to point out that the quoted interest-rate for credit cards is 20.3%. I have followed it throughout the credit crunch era and it is up by 2.5%. Yes I do mean up so relatively it has risen more as official interest-rates declined. This is something that has received a bit of an airing in the United States and some attention but not so here.

Comment

Let me open with two developments in the credit crunch era. The first is that even high interest-rates ( 20%) above do not seem to discourage credit card borrowing these days. I will also throw in that numbers from Sweden and Germany suggest that a combination of zero interest-rates for many and negative ones for some seem to encourage saving. That is a poke in not one but both eyes for the Ivory Towers.

Moving to our trainee at the Bank of England then I suggest as a short-term measure as the Governor is only around until March suggesting a man of international distinction is required to deal with issues like this.

Meteorologists say a climate system in the Indian Ocean, known as the dipole, is the main driver behind the extreme heat in Australia.

However, many parts of Australia have been in drought conditions, some for years, which has made it easier for the fires to spread and grow.

Returning to the economy then there was some better news from the broad money figures as November was a stronger month raising the annual rate of M4 growth to 4%. The catch is that it takes a while to impact and so is something for around the middle of 2021.

Me on The Investing Channel

 

 

The Chinese way of economic stimulus has started already in 2020

Firstly welcome to the new year and for some the new decade ( as you could argue it starts in 2021). The break has in some ways felt long and in other ways short but we have begun a new year with something familiar. After the 733 interest-rate cuts of the credit crunch era the People’s Bank of China ( PBOC ) has started 2020 with this.

In order to support the development of the real economy and reduce the actual cost of social financing, the People’s Bank of China decided to reduce the deposit reserve ratio of financial institutions by 0.5 percentage points on January 6, 2020 (excluding finance companies, financial leasing companies, and auto finance companies).

This is a different type of monetary easing as it operates on the quantity of money ( broad money) rather than the price or interest-rate of it. By increasing the supply ( with lower reserves banks can lend more) there may be cheaper loans but that is implicit rather than explicit. As to the size of the impact Reuters has crunched the numbers.

China’s central bank said on Wednesday it was cutting the amount of cash that all banks must hold as reserves, releasing around 800 billion yuan ($114.91 billion) in funds to shore up the slowing economy.

Care is needed here as we see some copy and pasting of the official release. This is because that is the maximum not the definite impact and also because the timing is uncertain. No doubt some lending will happen now but we do not know when the Chinese banks will use up the full amount. That is one of the reason’s we in the West stopped using this as a policy option ( the UK switched in the 1970s) as it is unreliable in its timing or more specifically more unreliable than interest-rate changes, or so we thought.

Speaking of timing there is of course this.

Freeing up more liquidity now would also reduce the risks of a credit crunch ahead of the long Lunar New Year holidays later this month, when demand for cash surges. Record debt defaults and problems at some smaller banks have already added to strains on China’s financial system.

The PBOC said it expects total liquidity in the banking system to remain stable ahead of the Lunar New Year. ( Reuters).

Although for context this is the latest in what has become a long-running campaign.

The PBOC has now cut RRR eight times since early 2018 to free up more funds for banks to lend as economic growth slows to the weakest pace in nearly 30 years.

You could argue the number of RRR cuts argues against its usefulness as a policy but these days interest-rate changes have faced the same issue.

The translation of the official view is below.

The People’s Bank of China will continue to implement a prudent monetary policy, remain flexible and appropriate, not flood flooding, take into account internal and external balance, maintain reasonable and adequate liquidity, and increase the scale of currency credit and social financing in line with economic development and stimulate the vitality of market players. High-quality development and supply-side structural reforms create a suitable monetary and financial environment.

I would draw your attention to “flood flooding” but let’s face it that makes a similar amount of sense to what other central banks say and write!

I note that it is supposed to help smaller companies but central banks have plugged that line for some time now. The Bank of Japan gave it a go and in my country the Bank of England introduced the Funding for Lending Scheme to increase bank lending to smaller and medium-sized businesses in 2012. The reality was that mortgage lending and consumer credit picked up instead.

Of the latest funds released, small and medium banks would receive roughly 120 billion yuan, the central bank said, stressing that it should be used to fund small, local businesses.

The banks

Having said that this was different to policy in the West there is something which is awfully familiar.

The PBOC said lower reserve requirements will reduce banks’ annual funding costs by 15 billion yuan, which could reduce pressure on their profit margins from recent interest rate reforms. Last week, it said existing floating-rate loans will be switched to the new benchmark rate starting from Jan. 1 as part of a broader effort to lower financing costs. ( Reuters ).

I guess central banks are Simon and Garfunkel fans.

And I’m one step ahead of the shoe shine
Two steps away from the county line
Just trying to keep my customers satisfied,
Satisfied.

The Chinese Economy

There is something of an economic conundrum though if we note the latest economic news.

BEIJING, Dec. 31 (Xinhua) — The purchasing managers’ index (PMI) for China’s manufacturing sector stood at 50.2 in December, unchanged from November, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said Tuesday.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion, while a reading below reflects contraction.

This marks the second straight month of expansion, partly buoyed by booming supply and demand as well as increasing export orders, said NBS senior statistician Zhao Qinghe.

“booming supply and demand”. Really? Well there is growth but hardly a boom/

On a month-on-month basis, the sub-index for production gained 0.6 points to 53.2 in December,

Even it is not backed up by demand.

while that for new orders fell slightly to 51.2, still in the expansion zone.

The wider economy is recorded as doing relatively well.

Tuesday’s data also showed China’s composite PMI slid slightly to 53.4, but was 0.3 points higher than this year’s average, indicating steady expansion in the production of China’s companies.

Stock Market

According to Yuan Talks it as ever liked the idea although it is only one day.

#Shanghai Composite index extends gains to 1.5% to approach 3100 mark. #Shenzhen Component Index and #Chinext index are surging near 2%.

Still President Trump would be a fan.

Yuan or Renminbi

Here we see that we have been on a bit of a road to nowhere over the past year. After weakening in late summer towards 7.2 versus the US Dollar the Yuan at 6.96 is up 1.2% on a year ago. So there have been a lot of column inches on the subject but in fact very little of them have been sustained.

Comment

It would appear that the PBOC does not have much faith in the reports of a pick up in the Chinese economy as it has already stepped up its easing programme. There are other issues in play such as the trade war and these next two so let us start with US Dollar demand.

China’s big bang opening of its $45 trillion financial industry begins in earnest next year — a step-by-step affair that’s unfolding just as economic strains threaten the promised windfall luring in global firms.

Starting with its insurance and futures markets, the Communist Party ruled nation will enact the most sweeping changes in decades to allow the likes of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and BlackRock Inc. to expand their footprint in China and compete for a slice of its growing wealth. ( Insurancejournal.com )

Will it need a dollar,dollar? We will have to see. Also this issue continues to build.

WARSAW (Reuters) – Bird flu has been detected in turkeys in eastern Poland, authorities said on Wednesday, and local media reported that the outbreak could require up to 40,000 birds to be slaughtered.

China has a big issue with this sort of thing and like in banking and economics the real danger was always possible contagion. So far it has had limited effect on UK pork prices for example as the annual rate of inflation is 0.7% but it is I think a case of watch this space.

Meanwhile according to Yuan Talks the credit may not flow everywhere.

Regulators in the city of Beijing warned financial institutions about risks in the lending to property developers with “extremely high leverage”, indicating the authority is not relaxing financing rules for the cash-starved sector as many anticipated.

Looking at it in terms of money supply growth an annual rate of 8.2% for broad money ( M2) may seem fast in the west but it has not changed much recently in spite of the easing and is slow for China.

 

 

2019 and all that….

As we arrive at Christmas and reach the end of the blogging year there is a lot to consider and review. Markets have thinned out to such an extent I noted a news service mentioning a rally in Japan earlier. Well I suppose 9 points up to 23,830 is indeed a rally but you get the idea. It also gives us a opening perspective as that level means it has been a successful year for The Tokyo Whale. As it progresses on its journey to buy all the ETFs listed in Japan the buying on down days strategy has been a winner on two counts. Firstly it provides a type of put option for an equity market already bolstered by a negative interest-rate and other forms of QE or rather QQE as the former name got rather debased in Japan by all the failures. Secondly it can declare a marked to market profit although of course there is the issue of how you would ever take it?

Below from this morning’s Bank of Japan balance sheet update are its holding so far.

28,199,294,050,000 Yen

The Plunge Protection Team indeed.

As Governor Kuroda enjoys his glass of celebratory sake there is the issue of the economy though which this was supposed to boost. This morning’s release of the minutes of the October meeting suggest little real progress has been made here.

A different member pointed out that, taking into account the current situation in which downside risks to economic activity and prices were significant, the Bank should continue to examine whether additional monetary easing would be necessary.

Then there was this,

In response to this, some members pointed out that, while it was appropriate for the Bank to maintain the current monetary easing policy at this meeting, it was necessary for the Bank not to hesitate to take additional easing measures if there was a greater possibility that the momentum toward achieving the price stability target would be lost.

This really is fantasy stuff as the inflation rate below indicates.

  The consumer price index for Japan in Novbember 2019 was 102.3 (2015=100), up 0.5% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and up 0.2% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

More significant is the index level showing a total of 2.3% inflation since 2015 or in spite of the Abenomics effort there pretty much isn’t any. The Consumption Tax rise will bump it up for a bit and then it will presumably go back down just like last time.

Tesla

As you can see there was quite an event yesterday,

New York (CNN Business)Tesla CEO Elon Musk once said he had a buyer that would take Tesla private at $420 a share. That never happened — but the stock just got there on its own.

Musk tweeted in August last year that he is “considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” At the time, the share price was $379.57 — nowhere near $420. Speculation about the identity of the mystery buyer was rife, and many investors thought Musk might be making a joke: 420 has become synonymous with cannabis culture.

This provokes all sorts of thoughts starting with Elon Musk should in my opinion have been punished much harder for that tweet. Next comes the fact that the share price fell to US $180 in June when there were lots of doubts about the company. One of the amazing parts of the rally has been that they have not gone away. In fact in some ways they are reinforced by this sort of thing,

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – U.S. electric vehicle maker Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) and a group of China banks have agreed a new 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion), five-year loan facility for the automaker’s Shanghai car plant, three sources familiar with the matter said, part of which will be used to roll over an existing loan.

Also I guess it has benefited to some extent by the stock market ramping of President Trump. A development which we noted late last year carried on where he is essence got at least some of the policy moves from the US Federal Reserve he wanted and the equity market has flown.

The S&P 500 climbed 0.09, hitting another all-time high of 3,224.01. The Nasdaq Composite advanced 0.23% to 8,945.65. The S&P 500 is up more than 28% for 2019 through Friday, about 1 percentage point away from 2013′s gain of 29.6%. ( CNBC)

Merry Christmas Mr.President….

Bond Markets

This is a slightly different story from the one above. Yes we saw some extraordinary highs for bond markets this year and out of them the most extraordinary was seen In Germany.  A ten-year yield that went below -0.7% for a while in late summer which begged all sorts of questions. In compound terms you would be expecting to lose more than 7% if you bought and held to maturity which poses the question why would you buy at all? Beyond that there is the issue of the impact on pensions and other forms of long-term saving as who would invest 100 Euros to get around 92 back?

That to my mind is one of the reasons why QE has not worked. The impact on what Keynes called “animal spirits” of the fact that we always seemed to need more monetary “help” and easing unsettled things as well as, ironically in the circumstances, torpedoing the banking business model.

But back to bond markets we saw the futures contract in Germany head near to 180 which to any does not mean much but these things were designed to be between say 80 and 120. The QE era put a light under that.

Now though things have quietened down with some longer-date German bonds in positive yield territory and the ten-year now -0.25%. Still negative in the latter case but less so. It has turned out to be a case of buy the rumour and sell the fact as bond prices have fallen and yields risen since the ECB restarted its QE bond purchases in November. Some were obviously punting on the amount being higher than 20 billion a month which is curious as for some countries ( Germany and the Netherlands for example) there are not so many left to buy.

Meanwhile back home in the UK the ten-year Gilt yield has for now anchored itself around the Bank Rate of 0.75%. There is a tug of war going on between chances of an interest-rate cut and more fiscal expansionism. But there are two themes as the fiscal policy chance to have really low borrowing yields has to some extant passed and as a final point real yields are still strongly negative.

Comment

I intend to take a break until the New Year. So let me wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I will return in the next decade.

Meet the new boss same as the old boss as the CFA Franc becomes the Eco

As Christmas approaches things usually quieten down but if turn out eyes to Africa and in particular West Africa there have been some currency developments over the weekend. So without further ado let me hand you over to Reuters.

West Africa’s monetary union has agreed with France to rename its CFA franc the Eco and cut some of the financial links with Paris that have underpinned the region’s common currency since its creation soon World War Two.

So we have both an economic/financial element and a colonial one. We have looked at the CFA Franc briefly before but now courtesy of LSE Blogs let us have a refresher.

Firstly, a fixed rate of exchange with the euro (and previously the French franc) set at 1 euro = 655.957 CFA francs. Secondly, a French guarantee of the unlimited convertibility of CFA francs into euros. Thirdly, a centralisation of foreign exchange reserves. Since 2005, the two central banks – the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) and the Bank of Central African States (BEAC) – have been required to deposit 50 per cent of their foreign exchange reserves in a special French Treasury ‘operating account’. Immediately following independence, this figure stood at 100 per cent (and from 1973 to 2005, at 65 per cent)……The final pillar of the CFA franc, is the principle of free capital transfer within the franc zone.

As you can see via their relationship with France the countries here became implicit members of the Euro, and follow the broad sweep of its monetary policy. If we return to Reuters the scope of the issue and ch-ch-changes is explained.

The CFA is used in 14 African countries with a combined population of about 150 million and $235 billion of gross domestic product.

However, the changes will only affect the West African form of the currency used by Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo – all former French colonies except Guinea Bissau.

The Central Bank of West African States or BCEAO

If we look at monetary policy here we do see one advantage of this.

The minimum interest rate for bidding on open market transactions (calls for bidding) and the interest rate applicable on the marginal lending window (repo rate), whose levels are currently set by the Monetary Policy Committee at respectively 2.50% and 4.50%, are the principal leading interest rates of the BCEAO.

That is considerably lower than what is common in that part of Africa as Ghana is at 16% and Nigeria 13,5% so there is a gain here.

The Economy

According to Friday’s meeting of the council of ministers for the BCEAO things are in fact going really rather well.

The Council of Ministers has analyzed the recent economic and monetary situation in the Union. To this end, he noted the increased dynamism of economic activity in the third quarter of 2019 as well as the favorable economic outlook in the WAEMU countries. Indeed, growth in real gross domestic product (GDP) came out at 6.6% year-on-year, after 6.4% the previous quarter, under the effect of renewed dynamism in the tertiary and secondary sectors. Economic growth in the Union would be, in real terms, at 6.6% in 2019 as in 2020.

After a year of reporting slowing economic growth that is a cheerful and refreshing report. Indeed whilst more than a few would be screaming DEFLATION looking at the numbers below I welcome them.

The Council also noted the decline in the general level of consumer prices, with an inflation rate, year-on-year, of -1.0% in the third quarter of 2019, after -0.7% in the previous quarter, in combination with falling food prices, favored by abundant cereal production.

Firstly in spite of the fast rate if economic growth these are countries with plenty of poor people who will not only welcome lower food prices they may be a matter of life and death. Also low and indeed negative inflation can be combined with a good economic run and not need the economics establishment to rev up REM on their turntables.

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

Although there is a catch if the price falls are for products produced and exported.

Thus, price reductions were recorded for cashew nuts
(-23.5%), palm kernel oil (-17.2%), robusta coffee (-7.1%) and cotton (-4.2%). On the other hand,
increases were noted for petroleum (+ 8.8%), rubber (+ 6.5%) and cocoa
(+ 5.0%).  ( BCEAO 2nd Quarter)

There is however a de facto consequence of implicit Euro area membership.

To this end, they invited the member states to continue efforts aimed at bringing the budget deficit below the Community standard of 3.0% of GDP, in particular by widening the tax base and improving performance. as well as the efficiency of tax administrations.

In case you are wondering about the other component of the Stability and Growth Pact it doesn’t really apply at the moment.

Preliminary data point to an increase in total debt to
52.5 percent of GDP in 2018 from 50.1 percent in 2017. ( IMF)

However bond yields are much higher so there are debt servicing issues.

and in total debt service to 33 percent of
government revenue in 2018 from 26.4 percent in 2017. ( IMF)

 

Also the burden is rising.

It rose by 17½ percentage points of GDP over
the last 5 years to reach 52½ percent
at end-2018. ( IMF )

Trade Is A Problem

The IMF puts it like this.

The external current account deficit is estimated to have increased to 6.8 percent in 2018 from 6.6 percent of GDP in 2017. This increase was underpinned by strong public capital spending but also by worsening terms-of-trade
on the back of higher world oil prices.

This is an issue and points straight at the currency being too high which is a challenge for the CFA Franc because it is a fixed exchange rate.

Ch-Ch-Changes

Back to Reuters.

Under the deal, the Eco will remain pegged to the euro but the African countries in the bloc won’t have to keep 50% of their reserves in the French Treasury and there will no longer be a French representative on the currency union’s board.

Comment

In economic terms this is a case of meet the new boss same as the old boss. The switches above are more symbolic than real economic changes as the broad reality is that the Eco is pegged to the Euro. As we stand that is not going too badly with economic growth having been strong for some time.

Despite adverse terms-of-trade shocks and security concerns in some member-countries, real GDP growth is estimated to have exceeded 6 percent for the 7th consecutive year in 2018, fueled by strong domestic demand. ( IMF)

Inflation is also low,

But whilst it is an establishment fashion to look at the fiscal deficit and of course that is a Euro area obsession and some might argue fetish the real issue for me is elsewhere. It is the trade position where we see that whether you call the currency the CFA Franc or the Eco it is too high and as inflation is low maybe a devaluation is in order. Where have we heard that before concerning the Euro?

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