What is the state of play in the UK car loan market?

One of the features of the last few years has been the boom in car finance in the UK. This has led to a subsequent rise in car sales leading to something of a boom for the UK automotive sector.  the rate of annual UK car registrations dipped to below 2 million in 2011 and much of 2012 but then accelerated such that the SMMT ( Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) reported this in January last year.

UK new car registrations for 2015 beat 2.6 million units for the first time, sealing four years of consecutive growth. The market has posted increases in all bar one of the past 46 months ………Overall, the market rose 6.3% in 2015 to 2,633,503 units – exceeding forecast and outperforming the last record year in 2003 when 2,579,050 new cars left the UK’s showrooms.

So volumes surged as we note the official explanation of why.

Buyers took advantage of attractive finance deals and low inflation to secure some of the most innovative, high tech and fuel efficient vehicles ever produced.

The “attractive finance deals” attracts my attention as it feeds into one of my themes. This is that the Bank of England loosened up credit availability with its Funding for Lending Scheme in the summer of 2013. This flowed into the mortgage market but increasingly looks as if it flowed into the car finance market as well leading to what are described as “attractive finance deals”. This was added to by the Term Funding Scheme ( £80.4 billion and rising) of last August when the Bank of England wanted a “Sledgehammer” of support for lending. We know from past experience that such actions lead to the funds going to all sorts of places that no doubt will be officially denied, or disintermediation. But the car finance industry has exploded to now be 86% of the new car market. Of course the Bank will also describe itself as being “vigilant” about credit risks.

Bank Underground

This is the blog of the staff of the Bank of England rather than the London Underground station to which I commuted for quite a few years. They point out that the car market is now slowing.

Private demand for new cars slowed in 2016 (Chart 2). New car registrations spiked higher in 2017 Q1 — mostly due to changes in vehicle excise duty — but fell back sharply thereafter. The Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) forecasts registrations declining by 2½% in 2017 and by a further 4% in 2018.

I know that this is being described as a consequence of the EU leave vote but whilst the fall in real wages may have added to it a fall was on its way for a saturated market. How many cars can we all drive on what are often very congested roads? Also the bit about “high-tech” I quoted from the SMMT last January has not worn the passage of time well. Although to be fair the emissions cheating software on many diesels was indeed high-tech. The consequence of that episode has also affected the market as I am sure some are waiting to see if the diesel scrappage scheme that was promised actually appears.

So we had a monetary effort to create a Keynesian effect which is that what was badged as “credit easing” did what it says on the tin. Car manufacturers and others used it to offer loans and contracts which shifted car demand forwards. But the catch is what happened next? The future is supposed to be ready for us to pick up that poor battered can which was kicked forwards but increasingly it does not turn out like that.

What about the finance market?

According to the Bank of England it has responded and below is one of the changes.

Providers are increasingly retailing contracts where consumers have no option to purchase the car at the end.  This avoids some risks associated with voluntary terminations, but it creates new risks around resale value.

Are they avoiding a problem now being creating one at the end of the contract? Anyway that issue is added to by the familiar response of a credit market to signs of trouble which can be described as “extend and pretend”

finance providers have responded by lengthening loan terms and increasing balloon payments rather than upping monthly repayments.

Actually there are a variety of efforts going on in addition to lengthening the loan term.

Manufacturers typically set the GMFV ( Guaranteed Minimum Future Value) at around 90% of the projected second-hand value at the end of the contract, in order to build a safety margin into their calculations. Tweaking the proportion can have a material impact on the cost of car finance. Switching the GMFV from 90% to 95% would likely reduce the consumer’s monthly payment.

Reducing the safety margin at the first sign of trouble is of course covered by one of the Nutty Boys biggest hits.

Madness, they call it Madness

Also there is a switch to PCH or Personal Contract Hire finance where the consumer does not have the option to buy the car. This is presumably to avoid what for them will be a worrying development.

So-called voluntary terminations are increasing, and usually result in losses to the finance houses.

However this comes with quite a price.

Greater use of PCH has certain risks attached for car finance houses. The primary risk inherent in PCP finance (ie the car’s uncertain market value when returned at the end of the contract) is at least as great under PCH. And a business model of increasingly relying on volatile and lower-margin wholesale markets to sell cars adds to the risk.

Oh and when all else fails there is of course ouvert price cuts.

Manufacturers often vary the amount of cash support to car dealers in order to meet sales targets — sometimes referred to as variable marketing programmes….. Our intelligence suggests that dealership incentives have increased over the past year.

So my financial lexicon for these times needs to add “cash support” and “dealership incentives” to its definition of price cuts. As it happens an advert for SEAT came on the radio as I was typing this I looked up the details. This is for an Ibiza SE.

One year’s Free Insurance (from 18 yrs)^

  • £1,500 deposit contribution**
  • 5.9% APR Representative**
  • Plus an extra £500 off when you take a test drive*

Comment

It is hard not to look across the Atlantic and see increasingly worrying signs about the car loans market. There are differences as for example the falling car prices seen in the consumer inflation data are not really being repeated in the UK so far. I checked the July data earlier this week and whilst used car prices fell by 1.1% new car prices rose by 1.3% although of course we wonder if the new offers are reflected in that? However the move towards “extend and pretend” and the use of the word “innovative” is troubling as we know where that mostly ends up. Or if you prefer here is it via the Bank of England private coded language.

That is partly because car manufacturers and their finance houses are increasingly stimulating private demand by offering cheaper (and new) forms of car finance. As amounts of consumer credit increase, so do the risks to the finance providers. Most car finance is provided by non-banks, which are not subject to prudential regulation in the way that banks are. These developments make the industry increasingly vulnerable  to shocks.

Barca

My deepest sympathies go out to those caught up in the terrorist attacks in and around Barcelona yesterday.

 

 

 

Whatever happened to savers and the savings ratio?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House prices

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

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

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

Share Prices

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

Number Crunching

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

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

This compares to what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The United States

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

 

 

 

The problems of the boy who keeps crying wolf

Yesterday saw the policy announcement of the Bank of England with quite a few familiar traits on display. However we did see something rather familiar in the press conference from its Governor Mark Carney.

The Committee judges that, given the assumptions underlying its projections, including the closure of drawdown period of the TFS and the recent prudential decisions of the FPC and PRA, some tightening of monetary policy would be required in order to achieve a sustainable
return of inflation to target.

Yes he is giving us Forward Guidance about an interest-rate rise again. In fact there was more of this later.

Specifically, if the economy follows a path broadly consistent with the August central projection, then monetary policy could need to be tightened by a somewhat greater extent over the forecast period than the path implied by the yield curve underlying those projections.

Yep not only is he promising an interest-rate rise but he is suggesting that there will be several of them. Actually that is more hype than substance because you see even if you look out to the ten-year Gilt yield you only get to 1.16% and the five-year is only 0.54% so exceeding that is really rather easy. Also as I have pointed out before Governor Carney covers all the bases by contradicting himself in the same speech.

Any increases in Bank Rate would be expected to be at a gradual pace and to a limited extent

So more suddenly becomes less or something like that.

Just like deja vu all over again

If we follow the advice of Kylie and step back in time to the Mansion House speech of 2014 we heard this from Governor Carney.

This has implications for the timing, pace and degree of Bank Rate increases.

There’s already great speculation about the exact timing of the first rate hike and this decision is becoming more balanced.

It could happen sooner than markets currently expect.

The print on the screen does not convey how this was received as such statements are taken as being from a coded language especially if you add in this bit.

Growth has been much stronger and unemployment has fallen much faster than either we or anyone else expected at last year’s Mansion House dinner.

Markets heard that growth had been better and that the Bank of England was planning a Bank Rate rise in the near future followed by a series of them. Tucked away was something which has become ever more familiar.

 we expect that eventual increases in Bank Rate will be gradual and limited

Although to be fair this bit was kind of right.

The MPC has rightly stressed that the timing of the first Bank Rate increase is less important than the path thereafter

Indeed the first Bank Rate increase was so unimportant it never took place.

Ben Broadbent

he has reinforced the new Forward Guidance this morning. Here is the Financial Times view of what he said on BBC Radio 5 live.

“There may be some possibility for interest rates to go up a little,” said Mr Broadbent.

It sounds as though Deputy Governor Broadbent is hardly convinced. This is in spite of the fact he repeated a line from the Governor that is so extraordinary the press corps should be ashamed they did not challenge it.

adding the economy was now better placed to withstand its first interest rate rise since the financial crisis…….Speaking to BBC radio, Mr Broadbent said the UK was able to handle a rate rise “a little bit” better as the economy is still growing, unemployment is at a more than 40-year low, and wages are forecast to rise.

Sadly for Ben he is acting like the absent-minded professor he so resembles. After all on that score he should have raised interest-rates last summer when growth was a fair bit higher than now.Sadly for Ben he voted to cut them! In addition to this there is a much more fundamental point which is if we are in better shape for rate rises why do we have one which is below the 0.5% that was supposed to be an emergency rate and of course was called the “lower bound” by Governor Carney?

Forecasting failures

These are in addition to the Forward Guidance debacle but if we look at the labour market we see a major cause. Although he tried to cover it in a form of Brexit wrap there was something very familiar yesterday from Governor Carney. From the Guardian.

 

We are picking up across the country that there is an element of Brexit uncertainty that is affecting wage bargaining.
Some firms, potentially a material number of firms, are less willing to give bigger pay rises given it’s not as clear what their market access will be over the next few years.

Actually the Bank of England has been over optimistic on wages time and time again including before more than a few really believed there would be a Brexit vote. This is linked to its forecasting failures on the quantity labour market numbers. Remember phase one of Forward Guidance where an unemployment rate of 7% was considered significant? That lasted about six months as the rate in a welcome move quickly dropped below it. This meant that the Ivory Tower theorists at the Bank of England immediately plugged this into their creaking antiquated models and decided that wages would rise in response. They didn’t and history since has involved the equivalent of any of us pressing repeat on our MP3 players or I-pods. As we get according to the Four Tops.

It’s the same old song
But with a different meaning

Number Crunching

This was reported across the media with what would have been described in the Yes Minister stories and TV series as the “utmost seriousness”. From the BBC.

It edged this year’s growth forecast down to 1.7% from its previous forecast of 1.9% made in May. It also cut its forecast for 2018 from 1.7% to 1.6%.

Now does anybody actually believe that the Bank of England can forecast GDP growth to 0.1%? For a start GDP in truth cannot be measured to that form of accuracy but an organisation which as I explained earlier has continuously got both wages and unemployment wrong should be near the bottom of the list as something we should rely on.

Comment

There is something else to consider about Governor Carney. I have suggested in the past that in the end Bank of England Governors have a sort of fall back position which involves a lower level for the UK Pound £. What happened after his announcements yesterday?

Sterling is now trading at just €1.106, down from €1.20 this morning, as traders respond to the Bank of England’s downgraded forecasts for growth and wages…..The pound has also dropped further against the US dollar to $1.3127, more than a cent below this morning’s eight-month high.

They got a bit excited with the Euro rate which of course had been just below 1.12 and not 1.20 but the principle of a Bank of England talking down the Pound has yet another tick in any measurement column. Somewhere Baron King of Lothbury would no doubt have been heard to chuckle. There is a particular irony in this with Deputy Governor Broadbent telling Radio 5 listeners this earlier.

BoE Broadbent: Faster Inflation Fuelled By Pound Weakness ( h/t @LiveSquawk )

Oh and I did say this was on permanent repeat.

BoE Broadbent: Expects UK Wage Growth To Pick Up In Coming Years ( h/t @LiveSquawk )

 

Oh and as someone pointed out in yesterdays comments there has been yet another Forward Guidance failure. If you look back to the first quote there is a mention of the TFS which regular readers will recognise as the Term Funding Scheme. Here are the relevant excerpts from the letter from Governor Carney to Chancellor Hammond.

I noted when the TFS was announced that total drawings would be determined by actual usage of the scheme, and could reach £100bn………. Consistent with this, I am requesting that you authorise an increase in the total size of the APF of £15bn to £560bn, in order to accommodate expected usage of the TFS by the end of the drawdown period.

Who could have possibly expected that the banks would want more of a subsidy?! Oh and the disinformation goes on as apparently they need more of it because of a “stronger economy”.

Also this seems to be something of a boys club again as my title suggests. We have had something of what Yes Minister might call a “woman overboard” problem at the Bank of England.

 

 

 

UK unsecured credit continues to surge

This week will see the anniversary of the Bank of England decision to open the credit and monetary taps to the UK economy. It did so in a panicky response to the EU leave vote and the consequent rather panicky business surveys. It was afraid of an immediate lurch downwards in the UK economy along the lines of the recession and 1% contraction expected by its former Deputy Governor Sir Charlie Bean. Of course that did not happen which if you look at Charlie’s past forecasting record was no surprise but the UK economy was left with a lower interest-rate, an extra £70 billion of QE ( Quantitative Easing) plus a bank subsidy called the Term Funding Scheme which currently amounts to £78.3 billion. As I pointed out at the time this was in addition to the boost provided by the lower value of the UK Pound £ which in spite of a rally to US $1.31 is still equivalent to a Bank Rate cut of 2.75%.

The problem with boosting credit in that manner is that it invariably turns up in all the wrong places. Last week I pointed out the extraordinary way that Alex Brazier of the Bank of England blamed the banks for this whilst forgetting the way the Bank of England lit the blue touch-paper with what it called at the time its “Sledgehammer” of monetary easing. What did they expect the banks to do? Now it is looking into the consequences of its own actions according to The Times.

The Bank of England is demanding detailed information from high street lenders on how they approve loans after sounding the alarm over the consumer borrowing binge.
Within five weeks, banks must provide evidence of how they assess the financial position of their riskiest customers.

The FCA and car loans

The Financial Conduct Authority ( FCA ) has apparently heard a rumour that there may be trouble in the car finance market. Here are the details from this morning’s release.

The majority of new car finance is now in the form of Personal Contract Purchase (PCPs), a form of Hire Purchase. The key feature of a PCP is that the value of the car at the end of the contract is asssessed at the start of the agreement and deferred, resulting in lower monthly repayments.

If we move onto the dangers it tells us this.

The Prudential Regulation Authority notes that a PCP agreement creates an explicit risk exposure to a vehicle’s GFV for lenders. We consider that direct consumer risk exposure may be more limited, but may be heightened where there has been an inadequate assessment of affordability and/or a lack of clarity for the consumer in their understanding of the contract.

All lending scandals involve “an inadequate assessment of affordability” and a “lack of clarity for the consumer” don’t they? This is of course one of the ways the credit crunch began. Anyway there seems to be no apparently hurry as regulation continue to move at the speed of the slow train running of the Doobie Brothers.

We will publish an update on this work in Q1 2018.

It is also concerned about high cost credit too.

The FCA also identified particular concerns in the rent-to-own, home-collected credit and catalogue credit sectors.

I am no expert in this area but did notice Louise Cooper posting a link to this.

This represents a typical cost of using a Very Account.

Representative 39.9% APR variable

So only 39.65% over the Bank of England Bank Rate. But the FCA train runs with all the speed of Southern Railway.

Today’s data

We see that overall unsecured or consumer credit continues to grow strongly.

The flow of consumer credit fell slightly to £1.5 billion in June, and the annual growth rate ticked down to 10.0%

I will leave the Bank of England to decide whether this is a triumph and therefore due to its actions as it claimed for a while or a problem and the fault of the banks as it has said more recently. Its rhetoric may be having some effect as the main banks did cut their monthly lending from £921 million to £324 million. As this is an erratic series that may be a quirk of the data so I will be watching in subsequent months. But the fundamental point is the gap between the annual growth rate of 10% and economic growth (0.5%) or indeed real wage growth which is currently negative. Also the total amount of consumer credit had a big figure change as it rose to £200.9 billion in June.

If we move to the wider money supply there are issues too as aggregate broad money and lending annual growth was 5.3% in June. Whilst that is seemingly slowing it is a long way above the 1.7% annual GDP growth of the UK economy. The rough rule of thumb is that the gap is a measure of inflation or monetary stimulus and if allowed to persist invariably ends up with the sort of consumer credit problems we are facing now.

Meanwhile the stimulus was of course supposed to be for the purpose of boosting business lending to small and medium-sized businesses. If we look at that we see little sign of any great impact.

Loans to small and medium-sized enterprises increased by £0.4 billion, a little higher than the recent average.

The annual growth rate at 1.2% is even below our rate of annual economic growth. Do businesses no longer want to borrow from banks ( and if so why?) or are banks still unwilling to lend to them?

Comment

When it votes on Wednesday on UK monetary policy ( it votes then and announces on what is called Super Thursday) the Bank of England has much to consider. Firstly the way it flooded the UK economy with more QE and monetary easing and the consequences which are becoming ever more apparent. It pushed both unsecured credit and inflation higher just when the UK economy needed neither. The previous PR campaign that this was a recession averted was weak and has now been replaced by blaming the banks which of course were following the central bank’s lead.

Meanwhile the inflation it created has in one sense come home to roost. From the Guardian and the emphasis is mine.

The Bank of England will hold last-ditch talks with the UK’s largest trade union on Monday as the central bank attempts to avert its first strike in 50 years.

The stoppage has been called over a below-inflation pay offer to the Bank’s maintenance, security and hospitality staff, and was originally due to begin on Monday.

Meanwhile this was announced last week.

to appoint Sir David Ramsden as Deputy Governor for Markets and Banking at the Bank of England.

There are two main issues here. The first is that the “Governor for Markets and Banking” role invariably goes to someone who has no experience or much apparent knowledge of them.  The next is related to the first as Sir David ( the existing knighthood is also worrying) comes from HM Treasury which means that all 4 Deputy Governors comes from there now. What was that about inclusive recruitment again? Perhaps his replacement at the organisation below could look into this.

In January 2013 he became Chair of the Treasury’s Diversity Board.

Anyway he will be a busy chap.

Dave will also be a member of the Monetary Policy Committee, the Financial Policy Committee, the Prudential Regulation Committee and the Court of the Bank of England.

 

 

 

The Bank of England is warning about the consumer credit boom it created

Yesterday saw a speech from a Bank of England policymaker that travelled the road we have been on for a year now concerning the issue of unsecured or consumer debt. However before we got to that Alex Brazier of the Financial Policy Committee found time to chant some central banking mantras.

Since then there has been a programme of repair and reform.

Britain’s households have paid down debt.

The financial system has been made safer, simpler and fairer.

Banks, in particular, are much stronger. British banks have a capital base – their own shareholders’ money – that is more than 3 times stronger than it was ten years ago.

They can absorb losses now that would have completely wiped them out ten years ago.

Only a banker would have the chutzpah to claim that the financial system is now simpler and fairer. Perhaps he has forgotten that speech from Sir Charles Bean saying that savers had to take some temporary pain that in the subsequent 6/7 years has looked in fact ever more permanent. There was however an interesting insight into what happened back in the day to Royal Bank of Scotland.

At Royal Bank of Scotland – the most egregious case – that illusion meant the bank could be toppled by losses of less than one per cent of its assets.

Best for Alex to move on from that one as after all it is an example of failed regulation as he tries to assure us that this time will be different. Before we move on however he seems to be confused as to who is the servant of whom.

Only once the puncture in the banking system was repaired was it able to get back to serving the economy.

The truth is that we have become the servants of the “precious”.

The problem of consumer credit

First we are assured that there is no problem at all really.

So Britain doesn’t have a high level of consumer debt. It doesn’t have a debt-driven housing market. And as we’ve seen, it doesn’t have rapid growth of credit overall.

It makes you wonder why he feels the need to discuss it at all doesn’t it? Of course we know what to think about official denials but I would like to draw attention to what the statement below does not say.

Since the financial crisis, helped by low interest rates, Britain’s households have reduced their debt.

It does not say that they paid it down for a while but that from 2013 with the Funding for Lending Scheme and last August with the Bank Rate cut to 0.25% and an extra £70 billion of QE ( Quantitative Easing) if we include the Corporate Bonds it has been quite clear that Bank of England policy was for them to borrow again. So net mortgage lending went from negative to positive and more recently consumer credit growth has surged.

The catch is that as we have regularly discussed on here if encouraged the British consumer soon revs up the engine.

In the past year, outstanding car loans, credit card balances and personal loans have increased by 10%. Household incomes have risen by only 1.5%.

With real wages and incomes under pressure from higher inflation that relationship seems set to get worse. We now get something which is breath taking if we remind ourselves again that the Bank of England has driven this with its circa £70 billion Term Funding Scheme.

On credit cards and personal loans, terms and conditions have become easier. The average advertised length of 0% credit card balance transfers has doubled to close to 30 months………..Advertised interest rates on £10,000 personal loans have fallen from 8% to around 3.8% today, even though official interest rates have hardly changed (Chart 10).

Only just over a month ago at Mansion House Governor Mark Carney declared this to be quite a triumph.

This stimulus is working. Credit is widely available, the cost of borrowing is near record lows, the economy has outperformed expectations, and unemployment has reached a 40 year low.

This is rather awkward for Mr.Brazier  so he blames the banks.

These are all classic signs of lenders thinking the risks are lower. ………Lenders’ own assessments of how risky these loans are, which they use to calculate how much capital they need to withstand losses, have fallen. Over the past two years, these ‘risk weights’ on credit card loans have fallen by 7% and those on other consumer loans by 15%

Shouldn’t we have something like a regulator to stop this?

In expanding the supply of credit, they may be placing undue weight on the recent performance of credit cards and loans in benign conditions.

Actually of course the regulator is the same organisation which has encouraged and bribed the banks to do this.

Car Loans

This is an interesting way of describing the issue.

Car finance has drawn particular attention, with growth of 15% in the past year and more than 100% in the past 4 years.

A clear triumph for the Funding for Lending Scheme! Oh hang on probably best not to tell everyone that so lets look at this.

The Financial Conduct Authority, which regulates car finance, has expressed its concerns about a lack of transparency, potential conflicts of interest and irresponsible lending in parts of the car finance industry. It will explore and address those practices.

You may note that after 4 years of evidence our intrepid regulators are still only at the “explore” stage so what have they been doing? Well they can tell us move along please there is nothing to see here.

If those optional balloon payments are excluded, this car finance debt accounts for only 1.2% of aggregate household income,

Also as the risk is with the finance arms of the car manufacturers then as they are not banks frankly who cares? Certainly not those in Threadneedle Street.

The main risks are with the finance companies offering these contracts – typically arms of car manufacturers.

Unlike credit cards or personal loans, the lenders here are predominantly the finance arms of car companies. Their losses – however painful to them – pale in significance for the wider economy next to situations in which it’s the banking system making the losses.

After all they only make real things as opposed to the important job of sending pieces of imaginary paper around the financial system.

Mortgages

There is trouble here too.

Lenders have been reporting that their objectives to grow market share are pressing them to make credit more available

Ah excellent so they have been passing on the cheap money handed to them by the Bank of England in a “the cost of borrowing is near record lows” sort of way. But something which was completely predictable has “surprised” the Bank of England.

Boundaries are being pushed in less benign ways too. Lending at higher loan to income multiples has edged up. Over the past 2 years the share of lending at loan to income multiples above 4 has increased from 19% to 26% .

But this was fixed by a macroprudential policy announcement back on the 26th of June 2014 wasn’t it?

The PRA and the FCA should ensure that mortgage lenders do not extend more than 15% of their total number of new residential mortgages at loan to income ratios at or greater than 4.5.

So 4 is the new 4.5 which is troubling in itself if you think about it in only 3 years. Along the way we see one of the problems with macropru in that it ends up chasing its own tail which of course is nobodies fault. Meanwhile the problem gets worse….

Comment

Alex Brazier is between something of a rock and a hard place here. This is because his boss the Governor of the Bank of England has declared the rising amount of credit as a triumph so warning of potential disaster has the danger of being career limiting. Perhaps being posted to a dingy basement office where the Bank of England tea and cake trolley never goes. However he deserves some credit ( sorry..) for raising the issue and in particular let me welcome this bit.

As mortgage debt expands, house prices rise. Lenders think borrowers have more valuable houses against which to secure mortgages.

And as terms and conditions ease up, it becomes easier to service debts. More borrowers get access to consumer debt and make their repayments. Credit scores improve,

The sorry fact is that as lenders think the risks they face are falling, the risks they – and the wider economy – face are actually growing.

 

Yep so called triumph can head towards disaster. Also there is this.

Mortgage debt is high, in large part, because housing costs are high. Across the nation, the average house costs 4.5 times income

Yes, the problem is that house prices are too high. Also this has consequences for those who rent.

Those who rent in the private sector typically spend a third of their income on rent.

Except there are two problems here. Firstly it is the Bank of England which via its policies has driven house prices higher. Secondly there is a potential misrepresentation in “4.5 times income”, it gives the impression of individual income whereas in fact it is household income and you can bet that will be 2 full-time workers. It is of course much worse in London which is why people are leaving……

 

How can the UK adjust to a world of lower interest-rates and yields?

One of the features of the credit crunch era has been the fall and if you like plunge in both interest-rates and bond yields. This first started as central banks cut official interest-rates sharply as the crisis hit. When that did not seem to be working ( the modern word covering that is counterfactual) they then moved to policies such as Quantitative Easing to reduce longer-term interest-rates and yields. Next came more interest-rate cuts and the advent of Qualitative Easing which for a while was called credit easing in the UK. This now comes under the banner of the Term Funding Scheme in the UK, or actual support for loans at the Bank of Japan or the TLTROs and securities purchases by the ECB ( European Central Bank).

So we saw official rates fall and then central banks realised the consequence of controlling rates which run from overnight to one month money. This is that there are plenty of other interest-rates such as bond yields and mortgage rates so our control freaks moved to lower them as well. After all their Ivory Tower economic models predicted economic triumph if they did. To ram all this home some places also went into negative territory for interest-rates from which no-one has yet returned with Denmark briefly giving it a go before preferring another ice bath. For the UK we were reassured that we were at the bottom of the cycle as Bank of England Carney told us that a Bank Rate of 0.5% was the lower bound. Of course he later cut to 0.25% and then told us that the lower bound was near to but just above 0%. This of course was silly on two fronts. Most obviously it ignored the fact that much of Europe and of course Japan already have negative interest-rates and it also led to the really silly expectation of a cut to 0.1%.

The rise of the zombies

It was only a few days ago that I pointed out that in my opinion the rise of zombie companies and businesses was strangling productivity growth. That reminded me of my description of Unicredit in Italy as a zombie bank around 5 years ago and of course it still is. But in the meantime thank you to @LadyFOHF for pointing out this from FT Alphaville.

It quotes the Bank for International Settlements or BIS on this subject.

One potential factor behind this decline is a persistent misallocation of capital and labour, as reflected by the growing share of unprofitable firms. Indeed, the share of zombie firms – whose interest expenses exceed earnings before interest and taxes – has increased significantly despite unusually low levels of interest rates (right-hand panel).

That bit could not have been written by me clearly as if it had “despite” would have been replaced by “because of”. This bit might have though.

Weaker investment in recent years has coincided with a slowdown in productivity growth. Since 2007, productivity growth has slowed in both advanced economies and EMEs

There are dangers in assuming that correlation does prove causation but look at the right zombie company chart. Just as growth was fading the central banks gave it another push and rather than the reforms we keep being promised we in fact got “more, more, more”. More worryingly the line continues to head upwards.

In case you are wondering here is their definition of a zombie company.

The BIS dubs a zombie company any firm which is more than 10 years old, listed and has a ratio of EBIT to interest expenses below one.

If you are wondering ( like me) that others could be on the list then so was Izzy at the FT.

This means Uber, which is now eight years old, only has two years and a public listing ahead of it, before it too can be classified a zombie.

That I find fascinating as Uber and similar companies are a modern era triumph supposedly.In my part of London I regularly pass people holding up their mobile phone as they track down their Uber taxi. To be fair it has usually arrived in the time it takes me to walk past and in fact if it takes longer than that some seem to get upset. So here we really have a quandary which is a zombie which is apparently extremely efficient!

The FT poses an issue here.

why does profitability not matter anymore? And where does the extended patience with unprofitable companies lead us in the long run? Surely, nowhere good?

I will go further as on this road we see strong hints as to why productivity growth has been so low ( in fact more or less zero in the UK) which will hold back wage and real wage growth. All of them together mean that economic growth will be restricted as we are reminded of 2% being the new normal on any sustained basis. If we throw in the official under measurement of inflation we then find we have little if any economic growth at all. Is that enough as a consequence of low interest-rates where the “cure” has in fact become part of the disease? Perhaps Tina Arena was right.

I pretend I can always leave
Free to go whenever I please
But then the sound of my desperate calls
Echo off these dungeon walls
I’ve crossed the line from mad to sane
A thousand times and back again
I love you baby, I’m in chains
I’m in chains
I’m in chains
I’m in chains

The banks

The official story is that low interest-rates are bad for the banks. But if this from @grodeau about Swedish banks is true in the UK which I believe to be so we may have been sold a pup.

In terms of margin they are doing better than before the credit crunch as we find we are feeding a whole field of zombies like this is some form of new Hammer House of Horror series. Or to answer the question posed by Obruni in the FT. Yes.

The ROEs of most major banks have been below their costs of capital since 2008. Are these zombies too?

The UK should not issue more index-linked Gilts

There are suggestions that we should do this and as ever I will avoid the politics and just look at the economics and finance. I spotted this yesterday from Jonathan Portes.

Failing to borrow long-term at negative real rates to fix roofs (& other things) over last 7 years an act of deliberate economic self-harm

This reminds me of the online debate he and I had a few years back. The issue he  is apparently glossing over can be summed up in the use of the word “real”. In a theoretical Ivory Tower world it is clear but beneath the clouds where the rest of us live it has changed a lot in modern times. Let me summarise some issues.

  1. Imagine inflation were to stay at around 4% ( these are based on RPI inflation) for a while. Our negative real rate would in fact be very expensive as we paid it.
  2. We do not know what we will pay as our commitment is in fact open-ended depending on inflation. As it is so I am dubious about negative real rate calculations.
  3. If we switch to wages growth we see that something has changed. If that persists then the real rate versus wages may turn out to be very different.

If I was borrowing I would borrow in terms of conventional Gilts where the 30 year cost at 1.9% is extraordinarily cheap and a known cost as in we know what we will be paying from the beginning. Putting it another way index-linked Gilts are tactically cheap but I fear they will be strategically expensive.

Comment

As we look at the new economic world we see that some are trying to escape but that progress for them has been slow. After all the US has merely nudged its rates to a bit above 1% and Canada has only moved to 0.75% this week. So it seems that we will have to get used to low interest-rates for a while yet as we note that they have come with lower productivity, wage growth and economic growth. Not quite what we were promised is it?

The UK productivity crisis meets real wage growth

As we advance on the UK labour market data let us first note some good news. This is that the procedure for an “early wire” to be given to the UK establishment has been stopped. To be specific a list of people were in the past given the data some 24 hours before the rest of us, and as the ship of state is a somewhat leaky vessel there were obvious concerns that some traders would be more equal than others.

Moving back to today’s data the background to it was set by this official release from last week.

Productivity – as measured by our main measure, output per hour – fell by 0.5% in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2017.

As this is a factor in wage growth we have a potential driver of the dip in wage growth we have seen in 2017 but the problematic news did not stop there.

A fall of 0.5% takes productivity Quarter 1 2017 back below the peak achieved in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2007, which was broadly matched in Quarter 4 2016. Productivity is now 0.4% below the pre-downturn peak and 0.4% below the post-downturn peak.

The productivity problem

This is an example of what Winston Churchill meant when he said that Russia was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The same type of thinking applies to productivity especially when it is described like this.

Productivity in Quarter 1 2017, as measured by output per hour, stood 16.8% below its pre-downturn trend – or, equivalently, productivity would have been 20.2% higher had it followed this pre-downturn trend

In my opinion looking at it like that merely tells us that the world has changed and that the productivity boat we were previously on sailed elsewhere. There is little point regarding it as a gap we can regain and I find it fascinating that those who seem to think we can get it back are supporters of policies like QE which have supported the zombie banks and companies which are a factor in this.

More significant to me is this from the June 2016 Economic Review.

Productivity is estimated to have grown at a compound average growth rate of 0.1% per quarter during the recovery between 2009 and 2014. This near-flat productivity growth is a phenomenon unprecedented in the UK since the Second World War.

We can update that because if we look at the expansion since the middle of 2013 we see that output per hour has risen from 98.1 then to 99.6 at the end of the first quarter. So a bit better than flat but not by much. This compares to past episodes.

This is in contrast with patterns following previous UK economic downturns where productivity initially fell, but subsequently bounced back to the previous trend rate of growth.

If we look back to the June 2016 Economic Review we can put a number on that.

However, at the same stages of both the 1990s and 1980s recoveries, productivity was more than 16% above the respective pre-downturn levels.

It is worse than that now as productivity three years or so later is where we thought it was then as whilst it has grown since the past was worse than we thought. What we can now clearly see is that yet another type of lost decade has been in play.

Moving to my explanation if we move on from the drop caused by the credit crunch and look at the more recent period I have written before that there are real problems in measuring productivity in the service industries. Not only are they pretty much 80% of our economy but they have been in essence our economic growth. Productivity in haircuts or operations for surgeons? Maybe in some cases but in others no.

The latest numbers seem to be picking this up.

Labour productivity fell in services but rose in the manufacturing industries; services productivity fell by 0.6% on the previous quarter, while manufacturing productivity grew by 0.2% on the previous quarter.

Employment

This is the good news side of the issue. What I mean by that is that the number of people who are employed continues to grow.

For March to May 2017, there were 32.01 million people in work, 175,000 more than for December 2016 to February 2017 and 324,000 more than for a year earlier.

Which brings more associated good news.

For the latest time period, March to May 2017, the employment rate for people was 74.9%, the highest since comparable records began in 1971.

My argument would be that the employment is mostly in the service sector where we struggle to measure productivity. If we note the rise and the recent struggles of UK output it may be that measured productivity fell again in the second quarter of this year. So there you have it would you prefer more people in employment or higher productivity? It is not of course completely that simple but it is a factor in play.

Oh and I noted another factor in rising employment.

The increase in the employment rate for women is partly due to ongoing changes to the State Pension age for women resulting in fewer women retiring between the ages of 60 and 65.

Unemployment

This does not necessarily get better as employment improves but generally does.

the unemployment rate for people was 4.5%; it has not been lower since April to June 1975………1.49 million unemployed people, 64,000 fewer than for December 2016 to February 2017 and 152,000 fewer than for a year earlier

Wages

Actually these were a little better although you might not think so from the official release.

Between March to May 2016 and March to May 2017, in nominal terms, total pay increased by 1.8%, lower than the growth rate between February to April 2016 and February to April 2017 (2.1%).

If you look into the detail you see that the annual rate of growth in May at 1.8% was better than the 1.3% in April ( where the annual bonus season was weak dragging it lower). This meant that if we switch to real wages the annual rate of fall rose to -0.9% from the -1.3% of April.

If we look deeper into the real wage situation we see that the index in May was at 100.8 which means that as it was set at 100 in 2015. So we have had economic growth with little if any real wage growth and that stretches back as the index was at that sort of level in the summer of 2011. There is a long way to go to the January 2008 peak of 105.8.

Actually as the “not a national statistic” CPIH is used as the inflation measure I am sorry to have to tell you that a more accurate inflation measure would show an even worse performance.

Comment

To my mind we should be more concerned about the slow rate of productivity growth than the drop in 2007/08. We are now in a world of QE and zombie banks which will take us some time to get out of especially as many places are still getting in it! I would be looking to take some of the service sector out of the numbers on two grounds. The first is that we simply cannot measure it and for others it is not appropriate. As to improving our performance there have been some interesting ideas from Diane Coyle but there are also dangers as I find myself thinking of all the money being spent on Smart Meters for a very small potential gain as I read this.

Ensuring adequate investment in infrastructure to meet our current and future needs and priorities

Also today is another grim day at the Bank of England especially for its Chief Economist Andy Haldane. Perhaps this is the true reason he is on something of a tour of the UK! Regular readers will be aware that I have listed the many failings of “Output Gap” theory in my time here. Andy has been a test case for these as he has got wage growth wrong again and again and again by using it. Well in February he thought he had struck a cunning plan by changing his framework so that the level at which wages would start to surge higher ( NAIRU) would be when unemployment fell to 4.5% or where we are now only a few months later as opposed to the couple of years he expected/hoped.

Dreamer, you know you are a dreamer
Well can you put your hands in your head, oh no!
I said dreamer, you’re nothing but a dreamer (Supertramp)