What is the purpose of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England?

This week has been one where we have found ourselves observing and analysing the both the reality and the consequences of the global economic slow down. Yesterday gave us an opportunity to peer into the mind of a Bank of England policymaker and first Gertjan Vlieghe was keen to establish why he is paid the big bucks.

When the global economy is doing well, the UK usually tends to do well too. When the global economy is
sluggish, the UK economy tends to be sluggish too.

Thanks for that Gertjan! Next comes something that has been an issue since the credit crunch hit which has been the issue of what David Bowie called ch-ch-changes.

We are in a period of unusual uncertainty around the economic outlook.
There is a tendency to say every quarter that things are more uncertain than before, and of course that
cannot always be true. It must be that sometimes uncertainty is less than it was before.

Now put yourself in Gertjan’s shoes as someone who has been consistently wrong and has turned it into something of an art form. The future must be terrifying to someone like that and indeed it is.

Setting monetary policy requires making decisions even when the outlook is uncertain.

Actually the outlook is always uncertain especially if we look back for Gertjan and his colleagues.

The Forward Guidance Lie

Here is Gertjan making his case.

Rather, we need to respond to news about the economy as
we receive it, in a systematic and predictable way that agents in the economy can factor into their decisions.

There are several problems with this. Firstly how many people even take notice of the Bank of England. Secondly that situation will have only have been made worse by the way that the Forward Guidance has not only been wrong it has been deeply misleading, For example in August 2016 after more than two years of hints and promises about a Bank Rate rise Gerthan voted instead for a Bank Rate cut and £60 billion of Sledgehammer QE. So those who had taken the Forward Guidance advice and for example remortgaged into a fixed-rate were materially disadvantaged.

Not content with that Gertjan seems on the road to doing it again. So let us remind ourselves of the official view.

The Committee judges that, were the economy to develop broadly in line with its Inflation Report projections, an ongoing tightening of monetary policy over the forecast period, at a gradual pace and to a limited extent, would be appropriate to return inflation sustainably to the 2% target at a conventional horizon.

Yet Gertjan has got cold feet again.

I will discuss what news we have had about the economy in recent quarters, and how that has changed my
thinking about the appropriate path of monetary policy.

Why do I have a feeling of deja vu? Here is the old Vlieghe.

When I first spoke about the future path of Bank Rate a year ago, I thought one to two quarter point hikes per
year in Bank Rate was the most likely central case

Here is the new Vlieghe.

On the assumption that global growth does not slow materially further than it has so far, that the path to Brexit
involves a lengthy transition period in line with the government’s stated objectives, that pay growth continues
around its recent pace, and that we start to see some evidence of pay growth leading to upward consumer
price pressure, a path of Bank Rate that involves around one quarter point hike per year seems a reasonable
central case.

As you can see Gertjan is trying to present himself in the manner of an engineer perhaps fine tuning an aircraft wing design. The first problem is that last time he tried this his aircraft crashed on take-off as a promised Bank Rate rise turned into a cut. Next comes the issue of why you would raise Bank Rate once a year? After all it would feel like forever before anything materially changed. Five years of it would get Bank Rate to only 2%!

The reality is that if we look at his view of a slowing world economy it is hard to believe that he wants to raise interest-rates at all. Also as his speech is very downbeat about Brexit as the Bank of England consistently is then it is hard not to mull what he told the Evening Standard back in April 2016.

“Theoretically, I think interest rates could go a little bit negative.”

Even that was an odd phrase as of course quite a few countries had them including the country where he was born. Anyway here is my immediate response on twitter to his speech.

Shorter Gertjan Vlieghe : Can I vote for a Bank Rate cut yet please Governor?

If we step back and look at the overall Bank of England picture we see that the Monetary Policy Committee is becoming an increasing waste of time. We are paying eight people to say “I agree with Mark” and flatter the Governor’s ego.

Retail Sales

Here Gertjan Vlieghe had almost impeccable timing.

Domestic growth has slowed somewhat more than expected, especially around the turn of the year.

Just in time for this official release today about UK Retail Sales.

Year-on-year growth in the quantity bought in January 2019 was 4.2%, the highest since December 2016; while year-on-year average store prices slowed to 0.4%, the lowest price increase since November 2016.

Those figures confirm my theme that lower inflation leads to better consumption data via higher real wages. This is a very awkward issue for the Bank of England as it wants to push the 0.4% inflation above up to 2% in what would be a clear policy error.

In the three months to January 2019, the quantity bought increased by 0.7% when compared with the previous three months.The monthly growth rate in the quantity bought increased by 1.0% in January 2019, following a decline of 0.7% in December 2018.

A good January has pulled the quarterly numbers higher and the driving force is show below.

The quantity bought in textile, clothing and footwear stores showed strong year-on-year growth at 5.5% as stores took advantage of the January sales, with a year-on-year price fall of 0.9%.

Comment

This speech just highlights what a mess the situation has become at the Bank of England. A policymaker gives a speech talking about interest-rate rises whilst the meat of the speech outlines a situation more suited to interest-rate cuts. The economy is smaller due to Brexit morphs into world economic slow down and yet Gertjan apparently thinks we are silly enough to believe he intends to raise interest-rates. Even in a Brexit deal scenario he doesn’t seem to have even convinced himself.

If a transition period is successfully negotiated, and a near term “no deal” scenario is therefore avoided, I
would expect the exchange rate to appreciate somewhat. The degree of future monetary tightening will in
part depend on how large this appreciation is.

Also 2018 taught us how useful the money supply data can be in predicting economic events and yet they have been ignored by Gertjan as we see a reason why he is groping in the dark all the time. That brings me to my point for today which is that the Bank of England has become one big echo chamber with a lack of diversity in any respect but most importantly in views. External members are supposed to bring a fresh outlook but this has failed for some time now. So it would be simpler if we saved the other eight salaries and let Governor Carney set interest-rates as really all they are doing is saying “I agree with Mark”. After all even the Bank of Japan with its culture of face manages to produce some dissent these days.

 

 

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We are now facing a reality of QE to infinity

Today has according to CNBC brought us to a birthday anniversary.

Happy birthday to the BOJ it’s the twentieth anniversary of them starting QE ( @purpleline)

As ever the picture is complicated as the Bank of Japan started buying commercial paper ( which we consider part of QE now) in 1997 and started purchases of Japanese Government Bonds in March 2001. But the underlying principle is that it has been around for much of the “lost decade” period and those claiming success have an obvious problem with the “lost decade” theme. Also they have a problem with then explaining why the name was changed in Japan from QE to QQE as name changes are a sure sign of something that has gone wrong. After all if you have a great brand you don’t change the name. In case you were wondering it is now Qualitative and Quantitative Easing.

It was not consider a triumph as even early on (2006) the San Francisco Fed was worried about this.

While these outcomes appear to be consistent with the intentions of the program, the magnitudes of these impacts are still very uncertain. Moreover, in strengthening the performance of the weakest Japanese banks, quantitative easing may have had the undesired impact of delaying structural reform.

That second sentence has echoed around all subsequent attempts at QE leading to the zombie banks theme of which at the moment Deutsche Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland come to mind but there are plenty of others. The gain was a small drop in JGB yields which is why government’s love the policy as it makes it cheaper for them to borrow.

In 2012 the IMF conducted its own review but with similar results.

Using different measures for economic activity, ranging from growth to unemployment, the VAR
regressions pick up some impact on economic activity. While the evidence is still weak, these results are still an improvement over earlier findings looking at previous QE periods

Looked at like that it makes you wonder why some many countries copied this course of action? The band Sweet gave us a clue I think.

Does anyone know the way, did we hear someone say
We just haven’t got a clue what to do
Does anyone know the way, there’s got to be a way
To Block Buster

Central banks cut interest-rates to what they considered the lower bound saw it was not working and were desperate to find something else. On that subject a theme of mine was confirmed yesterday when David Blanchflower who was a Bank of England policymaker tweeting this.

at mpc in 2008 we were told zlb was .5% for tech reasons relating to building societies. ( ZLB = Zero Lower Bound)

In response to my enquiry that I had heard it was the banks he replied he thought it was due to a regulation but cannot remember exactly. It certainly was a line repeated by Governor Carney although he of course then contradicted it by cutting to 0.25%!

To Infinity! And Beyond!

Regular readers who have followed by argument that interest-rate increases in the United States could be accompanied by more QE in what would no doubt be called QE4 will not be surprised that I spotted this.

U.S. central bankers are currently debating whether it should confine its controversial tool of bond buying to purely emergency situations or if it should turn to that tool more regularly, San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Mary Daly said on Friday.

This is intriguing not least because the actual policy right now is an unwinding of QE that we call Qualitative Tightening or QT. We actually have not had much QT and already there seems to be an element of cold feet about it. Let us look at her exact words.

In the financial crisis, in the aftermath of that when we were trying to help the economy, we engaged in these quantitative easing policies, and an important question is, should those always be in the tool kit — should you always have those at your ready — or should you think about those are only tools you use when you really hit the zero lower bound and you have no other things you can do,” Daly told reporters after a talk at the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.

“You could imagine executing policy with your interest rate as your primary tool and the balance sheet as a secondary tool, but one that you would use more readily,” she added. “That’s not decided yet, but it’s part of what we are discussing now.”

These sort of “open mouth operations” are often a way of preparing us for decisions which if not already been taken are serious proposals. So there is an element of kite flying about this to see the response. The bit that sticks out for me is that Mary Daly is willing to use more readily something she is not even sure worked as this below is far from a claim of success for QE.

when we were trying to help the economy,

That is rather different to it did help.

If we move on to looking at the economic outlook then if the US Federal Reserve is debating this the European Central Bank must be desperate to restart QE. Maybe there was a hint this morning from Jens Weidmann of the German Bundesbank when he spoke in South Africa.

Central banks all over the world were forced to climb great hills over the last decade. And there are more hills on the horizon.

Comment

Let us step back for a moment and consider what QE is and what it has achieved. Is it money printing? Well in electronic terms yes as the money supply grows but it is also a liquidity swap in that the money is exchanged usually for government bonds which then leads to other liquidity swaps via purchases of other assets. Then the trail gets colder….

So the economic effects are

  1. Money flowing into other assets leading to equity and house prices being at least higher than otherwise and usually higher.
  2. It supports companies that would otherwise have folded leading to the zombie banks and businesses theme.
  3. Lower interest-rates and bond yields meaning that it has indirectly helped both politicians and fiscal policy. This does not get much of an airing in the media because it is not well understood.
  4. Higher narrow money supply which has not led to the surge in inflation expected by economics 101 although that is at least partly due to consumer inflation measures being directed to ignore asset prices.

These may improve economic growth at the margin but there are no grand effects here although Mario Draghi only recently claimed that it was responsible for the Euro improvement in 2016/17. But this ignores the problems created as for example many central bankers are now telling us economic growth has a “speed limit” of 1.5% and the place with QE longest ( Japan) guides us to below 1%. Also there are the problems with productivity which have popped up. Finally there is the issue of helping the already wealthy and boosting inequality that is so bad they have to keep making official denials.

Quantitative easing has also helped to reduce net wealth inequality slightly through its positive impact on house prices. ( ECB January 2019)

Help with UK energy prices turns into higher inflation just like with house prices

This morning has brought news which will have had Bank of England Governor Mark Carney spluttering as he enjoys his morning espresso. The Halifax Building Society does its best to hide it but their house price for January 2019 at £223,691 is lower than the £224,025 of a year ago. Or if you prefer the index at 724 is below the 725.1 of a year ago. Perhaps his staff will console him by reminding him that the index means that house prices are according to the Halifax over seven times higher than they were in 1983.

In case you were wondering how the Halifax spins it we are told this.

Prices in the three months to January were 0.8% higher than in the same three months a year
earlier – down from the 1.3% annual growth rate recorded in December.

Although they cannot avoid having to point out these two rather inconvenient facts..

House prices in the latest quarter (November-January) were 0.6% lower than in the preceding
three months (August – October)
On a monthly basis, house prices decreased by 2.9% in January, following a 2.5% rise in
December.

The Halifax has another go at presenting the numbers and note the swerve from monthly to quarterly numbers which they omit to mention.

Attention will no doubt be drawn towards the monthly fall of -2.9% from December to January, the second time in
three years that we have seen a drop as a new year starts. However, the bigger picture is actually that house prices
have seen next to no movement over the last year, with annual growth of just 0.8%.
“This could either be viewed as a story of resilience, as prices have held up well in the face of significant economic
uncertainty, or as a continuation of the slow growth we’ve witnessed over recent years.”

So they have shown “resilience” by falling 2.9% in a month? That sort of language is of course central banker style as it covers banks which quite often then collapse. If we look for a pattern we see that the monthly moves are erratic but that the quarterly comparison has been negative for the last three months now. Also if prices remain here then 2019 will show some more solid annual falls because there were some blips higher last year especially in the summer.

Looking ahead

The underlying situation does not tell us a lot either way.

Monthly UK home sales latest quarter. December saw 102,330 home sales, which is very close to
the 5 year average of 101,515…….In December mortgage approvals showed little difference to the previous month. Bank of England industry-wide figures show that the number of mortgages approved to finance house
purchases – a leading indicator of completed house sales saw a flat 0.2% rise to 63,793. The December rate is still not far below the 2018 average of 64,913 but is 2,694 below the average of the past 5 years.

So maybe a little weaker which they try to offset with this.

On the demand side we see very high employment levels, improving real wage growth, low inflation and low mortgage rates.

The catch of course is that we saw plenty of house price growth with falling real wages and compared to them house prices took quite a shift upwards. Let us move on as we note that none of the house price measures we look at are perfect but that overall we have seen a welcome fall in house price growth which hopefully will begin the long road to making them more affordable again. Otherwise the only way for them to be more affordable is for more interest-rate cuts and credit easing, or a trip to negative interest-rates as we looked at yesterday.

Energy Inflation

Okay let me open with a reminder that we are looking at something that was badged as reducing energy costs with the implication that it would reduce inflation. Or to link with the topic above “help” with energy costs.

The price cap for customers on default (including standard variable) tariffs, introduced on 1 January 2019, will increase by £117 to £1,254 per year, from 1 April for the six-month “summer” price cap period. The price cap for pre-payment meter customers will increase by £106 to £1,242 per year for the same period. ( UK Ofgem)

As you can see those are pretty solid increases to say the least. Here is the explanation.

Capped prices only increase when the underlying cost of energy increases. Equally when costs fall consumers’ bills are cut as suppliers are prevented from keeping prices higher for longer than necessary.

The caps will continue to ensure that the 15 million households protected pay a fair price for their energy because the rises announced today reflect a genuine increase in underlying energy costs rather than supplier profiteering.

We do get something of a breakdown.

Around £74 of the £117 increase in the default tariff cap is due to higher wholesale energy costs, which makes up over a third (£521) of the overall cap.

That is really rather odd as I note that the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil is at US $62.63 some 7% lower than a year ago. Of course there is the lower value of the UK Pound £ to take into account but that leaves us roughly unchanged. Or to put it another way UK weekly fuel prices at the pump have fallen by approximately ten pence per litre since the peaks in the autumn of last year.

Accordingly I hope that this is investigated as there is more to it than meets the eye in my opinion.

While the prices of wholesale energy contracts used for calculating the cap have fallen in recent months, overall these costs remain 17% higher than the last cap period (see wholesale energy charts below).

Also there are ongoing higher prices from the cost of green energy.

Other costs, including network costs for transporting electricity and gas to homes and costs associated with environmental and social schemes (policy costs), have also risen and contributed to the increase in the level of the caps.

These get tucked away in the explanation but over time have been substantial. If the establishment have the faith in them they claim why do they keep trying to hide it? there have been successes in the world of green power such as the substantial improvement seen from solar efficiency but we have made little progress in the obvious need to be able to store it. Also according to Wired the polar vortex which hit the US caused trouble for electric vehicles.

That’s because the lithium-ion batteries that power EVs (as well as cellphones and laptops) are very temperature sensitive.

 

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here but let me start with my theme that the UK suffers from institutionalised inflation. For once let me give the BBC some credit as Victoria Fritz has figured out that something does not seem right.

11 million households protected by the Government’s energy price cap have been told that their bills are set to go up by around £100 a year. What good is a cap if it moves just months after it was set?

Governor Carney will be particularly keen on this form of inflation as he regularly flies around the world to lecture us on climate change, But on what is a Super Thursday as we get the quarterly inflation report ( Narrator, for newer readers it is usually anything but,,,) his mind will be on house prices and perhaps in the press conference he will have another go at this.

Mark Carney met senior ministers on Thursday to discuss the risks of a disorderly exit from the EU.

His worst-case scenario was that house prices could fall as much as 35% over three years, a source told the BBC. ( September 2018)

Or he 33% fall scenario suggested in November although of course that required a Bank Rate rise to 5.5% which stretched credulity to way beyond breaking point.

Can we stop interest-rates falling and going negative?

This week has seen a development I have long-expected and forecast. That is that the establishment will respond to the next economic slow down with negative interest-rates. The rationale for that is in one sense simple as in most places interest-rates never went back up again and if they did by not much, Only yesterday I looked at my own country the UK where in the decade or so since the credit crunch the Bank of England has raised interest-rates by a net 0.25%. Not much is it? Last time around the only reason it did not cut interest-rates even lower it was because it feared that the creaking IT systems of the UK banks could not take it. As it was some mortgages ( mostly with Cheltenham & Gloucester if I recall correctly) went below 0% and were dealt with via capital repayments to stop a HAL 9000 style moment.

Of course more than a few central banks continue to have negative interest-rates as we look at Denmark, the Euro area, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland. The ECB may pause this morning to mull whether it will get its deposit rate ( -0.4%) back even to zero as it note German factory orders some 7% lower than the previous year in December. This brings us to the driver of the current situation which is the economic slow down we have been following and indeed predicting via the decline in money supply growth. That remains as a slow down and has not yet signalled an overall recession but none the less it has produced quite a change.

The San Francisco Fed

It is far from a coincidence that the San Francisco Fed has produced a paper on negative interest-rates this week. After all the overall Federal Reserve has put up the white flag on interest-rate increases as we wait to hear what was discussed when Chair Powell had dinner with President Trump on Monday night.  Anyway the paper seems to open with a statement of regret.

Traditionally, it has been assumed that nominal interest rates cannot fall below zero, known as the “lower bound.” Ever since 2008, researchers have debated how much monetary policy was constrained by this lower bound and how much it affected economic outcomes. To work around this constraint, the Federal Reserve turned to unconventional monetary policy tools such as forward guidance and large-scale asset purchases.

Also an admission that QE was driven by the belief that interest-rates could not go below zero. I cannot be too churlish about that because there was a time when I did not think so either at least on a sustained basis although it was around 20 years ago and before the full impact of the Japanese lost decade! I do not know if one of the drivers of this thought was fear of what negative interest-rates would do to the US banks but history has seen a potential revision.

In this Economic Letter, I consider whether pushing rates below zero would have improved economic outcomes in the United States in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

For a central banker the answer is clearly yes.

Model estimates suggest that reducing the effective lower bound for the federal funds rate to –0.75% would have reduced economic slack by as much as one-half at the trough of the recession and sped up the ensuing recovery. While the boost to the economy would have been negligible after 2014, inflation would have been higher throughout the recovery by about half a percentage point on average.

There are various points here. First the central banker assumption that higher inflation is a good thing whereas in reality the ordinary person is likely to be worse off via lower real wages. Next the interesting observation that it is a temporary gain. Finally there is a later reference to Switzerland which took interest-rates to -0.75% so we are left with the view that this paper might recommend even more negative rates if only someone else had been brave/silly enough to try them. It omits to point out that Switzerland has not escaped from this as it is still at -0.75%.

How does this work?

An old friend appears.

In the model, the output gap falls with the interest rate.

Ah so it works because we assume it will. What could go wrong? Whilst we are at the Outer Limits of fantasy why not throw in the kitchen sink.

However, expectations about the future path of the fed funds rate matter, including any Federal Reserve announcements about its path—known as forward guidance—as well as expectations about being at the zero lower bound.

I am not sure if that is chutzpah, ignorance or just simple Ivory Tower non-thinking. After all we have just had a Forward Guidance U-Turn so are we following the old or new versions and if so what was the cost of the change? Those who have fixed their mortgage expecting higher interest-rates for example. Whereas now Men at Work are being played.

It’s a mistake, it’s a mistake
It’s a mistake, it’s a mistake

Rather oddly the paper says that the output gap is pushed higher when the author must mean lower, But there is a bigger space oddity which is this.

According to these simulations, the negative lower bound would have reached its maximum effect in the first quarter of 2011. Setting the lower bound at –0.25% would have increased the output gap by 1.5 percentage points, while pushing the lower bound down further to –0.75% would have contributed an additional 0.4 percentage point to the output gap. This means that a rate of –0.25% would have done most of the job, and allowing it to drop further would have accomplished fewer additional benefits.

Let us subject that to a sense check because we know that the US Federal Reserve did cut its official interest-rate to 0% ( technically 0% to 0.25%) but that going a mere extra 0.25% would make much of a difference? From the previous peak the US had cut by 5% so would an extra 0.25% make any difference at all?

The IMF goes further

Here we go.

One option to break through the zero lower bound would be to phase out cash.

It wants to go as Madonna would put it, deeper and deeper.

To illustrate, suppose your bank announced a negative 3 percent interest rate on your bank deposit of 100 dollars today.

They need a tax or fine or cash to achieve this.

Suppose also that the central bank announced that cash-dollars would now become a separate currency that would depreciate against e-dollars by 3 percent per year. The conversion rate of cash-dollars into e-dollars would hence change from 1 to 0.97 over the year.

Comment

There is quite a bit to consider here but let me start with the concept of arrogance. This is because monetary policymakers have had the freedom over the past decade to do pretty much what they liked and if it had worked we would not be here would we? Yet like Jose Mourinho in the football transfer market they always want more, more, more. Actually I am being a little unfair on Jose as there was a time his policies brought plenty of success.

Combined with this is an obsessive clinging onto failed past concepts. The output gap has had a dreadful credit crunch yet here it is again. Next the idea that higher inflation is good has ( thank God) had a bad run too but central bankers confuse what is good for the banks with what is good for the rest of us. The reality that no country or economic area has gone into negative interest-rates and then recovered is simply ignored whereas so far they have all sung along with Muse.

Glaciers melting in the dead of night
And the superstars sucked into the super massive
Super massive black hole
Super massive black hole
Super massive black hole
Finally is the idea that those who do not worship at this particular monetary altar need to be punished. Just like in the novel 1984……

The Bank of England is not “paralysed” on interest-rates

From time to time we have the opportunity to observe the spinning efforts of the house journal of the Bank of England. So without further ado let me hand you over to the Financial Times.

Bank of England ‘paralysed’ on rates by Brexit uncertainty.

The first thought is which way?But then we get filled in.

Turmoil of EU departure constrains policymakers despite tight labour market.

So up it is then, but of course that brings us to territory which is rather well trodden. You see the Bank of England has raised Bank Rate a mere two times in the last eleven years! Thus the concept of it being paralysed by Brexit prospects is a little hard to take. Whereas on the other side of the coin it was able to cut interest-rates from the 5.75% of the summer of 2007 to the emergency rate of 0.5% very quickly including a reduction of 1.5%. That reduction was twice the current Bank Rate and six times the size of the 0.5% rises. Also we note that the panic rate cut of August 2016 not only happened quickly but means that the net interest-rate increase since the comment below has been a mere 0.25%.

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.

That was Governor Mark Carney at Mansion House in June 2014 and we now know that “sooner than markets expect” turned out to be more than four years before Bank Rate rose above the 0.5% it was then. But I do not recall the FT telling us about paralysis then about our “rock star” central banker.

The case for an interest-rate rise

There is one relief as we do not get a mention of the woefully wrong output gap concept. But we do get this.

Unless the UK’s sub-par productivity improves, the BoE has argued, unemployment cannot remain at current lows without wage growth feeding consumer prices. The latest data showed the labour market tightening again with employment at a record high and wage growth back to pre-crisis levels. “If they further home in on labour market trends, it will be a clear steer that they have a bias to tighten,” said David Owen, chief European economist at Jefferies, who thinks market pricing currently underestimates the likelihood of UK interest rates rising.

There are two main issues with the argument presented. The first is the productivity assumption where the Bank of England now assumes it has a cap based on a “speed limit” for the economy of an annual rate of growth of 1.5%. It’s assumptions are more likely to be wrong that right. Next is that wage growth is back to pre-crisis levels which is simply wrong. It is around 1% per annum short in nominal terms and simply nowhere near in real terms.

According to Kallum Pickering at Berenberg the Bank of England has really,really,really,really,really,really ( Carly Rae Jepsen)  wanted to raise interest-rates.

“The BoE would be close to the Fed on rate profile if it weren’t for Brexit . . . The Fed wants to pause, but the BoE has gone slower than otherwise,” he said, adding that barring a hard Brexit, the MPC would need to increase rates for a couple of years to catch up.

Sooner of later someone will turn up with the silliest example of all.

Although the BoE maintains it has plenty of firepower to fight any downturn, some outsiders believe one motive to raise interest rates is to gain space to inject stimulus if needed.

A type of Grand Old Duke of York strategy where you march interest-rates to the top of a hill just so that you can march them down again.

Some Reality

The water gets rather choppy as we find a mention of the inflation target.

Similarly, the BoE is likely to cut its near-term forecast for inflation — already close to target, at 2.1 per cent in December, and set to fall further after a drop in energy prices.

If you were serious about raising interest-rates then the period since February 2017 when inflation went over target would be an opportunity to do so except we only got a reversal of the August 2016 mistake and one other. If you go at that pace when inflation is above target it would be really rather odd to do much more when it is trending lower.

The next issue is the economic outlook where we have been recording economic slow downs in both China and Europe. Some of this is related to the automotive sector which has always affected the UK via Jaguar Land Rover and more recently Nissan. On its own that would make this an odd time to raise interest-rates. If we move to the UK outlook then this mornings Markit Purchasing Manager’s Index or PMI tells us this.

January data indicated a renewed loss of momentum for
the UK service sector, with a decline in incoming new work
reported for the first time since July 2016. Subdued demand
conditions meant that business activity was broadly flat
at the start of 2019, while concerns about the economic
outlook weighed more heavily on staff recruitment. Latest
data pointed to an overall reduction in payroll numbers for
the first time in just over six years.

Some care is needed here as the Markit PMI misfired in July 2016 but we need to recall that the Bank of England relied on it. We know this because that October Deputy Governor Broadbent went out of his way to deny it.

All that said, there’s little doubt that the economy has performed better than surveys suggested immediately
after the referendum and, although we aimed off those significantly, somewhat more strongly than our near term forecasts as well.

So in spite of it being an unreliable indicator at times of uncertainty like now I expect the Bank of England to be watching it like a hawk. If so they will be looking at this bit.

Adjusted for seasonal influences, the All Sector Output Index posted 50.3 in January, down from 51.5 in December. The index has posted above the crucial 50.0 no-change mark in each month since August 2016, but the latest reading signalled the slowest pace of expansion over this period and the second-lowest since December 2012.

If accurate that is in Bank Rate cut territory rather than a raise.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here so let us start with the “paralysis” point and let me use the words of the absent-minded professor Ben Broadbent from October 2016.

Before August, the UK’s official interest rate had been held at ½% for over seven years, the longest period of
unchanged rates since 1950. No-one on the current MPC was on the Committee when rates were previously
changed, in early 2009; indeed there are children now at primary school who weren’t even alive at the time.

Oh well as Fleetwood Mac would put it. Next comes the issue of why the Bank of England is encouraging what is effectively false propaganda about raising interest-rates? Personally I believe it is a type of expectations management as they increasingly fear that they will have to cut them again. So we are being guided towards the view that events are out of their control. This is awkward as we note the scale of their interventions ( for example some £435 billion of QE) and the way that positive news is always presented as being the result of their actions. Yet they also claim when convenient that lower interest-rates are nothing to do with them at all.

As to my view I am still of the view that we need higher interest-rates but that now is not the time. The boat sailed in the period 2014-16 when the rhetoric of Forward Guidance was not matched by any action. It is hard not to have a wry smile at us being guided towards a 7% unemployment rate then 6.5% and so on to the current 4%.

Hard Times at the Bank of England on both Forward Guidance and inflation expertise

It is time for us to dip back into the data in the UK economy as we look at retail sales, But before we get there we have seen another development and it has come from UK Gilt yields which are the cost of borrowing for the UK government. I have been writing for some time that they have been very low due to the fear for some or expectation for others that the Bank of England will start a new phase of QE ( Quantitative Easing) bond purchases. At the nadir the UK ten-year yield dipped below 1.2% which still left plenty of margin as the Sledgehammer QE drove it down to 0.5%. I still consider that to be madness but it is something the media and other economists do not understand so any debate stalls. But the Gilt yield issue is that it has risen to 1.37% which if it goes a little further will have economic effects via fixed-rate mortgages and business borrowing.

In terms of context other bond yields have also risen but the UK has seen its rise faster. Even I cannot entirely avoid politics so let me add that there were roads this week when Brexit developments ,might have led to UK Gilt yields falling due to expectations of more Bank of England QE in spite of the international trend. Should fixed-rate mortgages rise in price then we can perhaps expect a little more of this.

The UK housing market ended 2018 on a weak note with uncertainty still biting, alongside continuing lack of stock and affordability issues, according to the December 2018 UK Residential Market Survey. ( Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors or RICS)

Also they expect things to get worse.

Moving forward, however, over the next three months sales expectations are now either flat or negative across the UK. The headline net balance of -28% represents the poorest reading since the series was formed in 1999. The twelve-month outlook is a little more upbeat, suggesting that some of the near-term pessimism is linked to the lack of clarity around what form of departure the UK might make from the EU in March.

Worse for them I mean as lower house prices would benefit first time buyers who have seen house prices accelerate away from them in nominal and real terms in the credit crunch era.

Also they seem to have their doubts about the promised future supply.

Meanwhile it is hard to see developers stepping up the supply pipeline in this environment. Getting to the government’s 300,000 building target was never going to be easy but pushing up to anywhere near this figure will require significantly greater input from other delivery channels including local authorities taking advantage of their new-found freedom.

That of course would be a case of history on repeat or as the Four Tops put it.

Now it’s the same old song
But with a different meaning
Since you been gone

Ben Broadbent

The issues above will not make the Bank of England very happy and this will add to the dark cloud around Deputy Governor Broadbent otherwise known as the absent-minded professor. Here is an excerpt from something I posted on the Royal Statistics Society website in October.

” there are fewer than 10 million owner occupier mortgages. Is the cost of a house to someone who happens
already to have paid off his or her mortgage really zero?”

So we see that we cannot use something which is used around 10 million times but we can use the Imputed Rents which are used precisely zero times! I do not recall anyone arguing for mortgage costs to be used for those who do not have one, in the way he is calling for rents to be used for those who do not pay them. For example the RPI has mortgage costs, but also as a considerably larger component house prices  via  the use of depreciation.

The absent-minded professor spoke up strongly for the Rental Equivalence model which the House of Lords rejected this week. Also they were disappointed with other aspects of his performance.

Let me end by congratulating the Lords and Baroness Bowles on pressing the Deputy Governor responsible for the RPI on the issue of what Yes Prime Minster satirised as “Masterly Inaction”. As they point out there are changes which could have been made as opposed to the state of play during his tenure.

“That process seems to have stalled.”

Retail Sales

These were something of a journey and had a kicker that seems to have been missed in the melee so let me explain.

When compared with the previous month, the quantity bought in December 2018 decreased by 0.9%, as all sectors except food stores and fuel stores declined on the month.

So down except we know the numbers are regularly erratic and are likely to be even more so with the advent of Black Friday in November. Let us therefore look for more perspective.

In the three months to December 2018, estimates in the quantity bought decreased by 0.2% with declines across all main sectors except fuel.

As to the wider impact Rupert Seggins has crunched some numbers.

UK retail sales fell -0.2%q/q in the final quarter of 2018, indicating that the retail sector took -0.01% off GDP growth in Q4.

If we move to the annual comparison though we get some relief as the volume figures were 3% higher if we return to the December numbers with fuel sales and 2.6% without or a 0.17% addition to GDP using Rupert’s calculator. But there has been a slowing even with such numbers.

Looking at annual growth rates, the whole of 2018 increased by 2.7% in the quantity bought; an annual slowdown in comparison with the peak of 4.7% experienced in 2016.

One of the things which bemuses me from time to time is that it is often those who support issues such as climate change who seem most unhappy about a decline in retail sales growth missing the logical link. But my main point here is that if we compare the volume and sales figures retail inflation is a mere 0.7% on an annual basis.

Comment

It was only last week that I suggested that the Bank of England was giving the wrong Forward Guidance about interest-rates as the economic outlook darkens. If the rough and ready calculator for retail inflation is in any way accurate then that is reinforced by today;s number and that adds to the lower consumer inflation numbers we saw earlier this week. Added to that the Bank of England has publicly backed the wrong horse in the inflation measurement stakes.

Even worse it has backed the establishment line driven by Her Majesty’s Treasury which is precisely the body it is supposed to be independent from. Perhaps that is something to do with the fact that the Deputy-Governors are HM Treasury alumni in a case of what in another form we call “regulatory capture”.

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The shift towards lower rather than higher interest-rates is beginning again

Yesterday was another poor day for the Forward Guidance provided by central bankers as we note developments in the US and UK. There was a flurry of media activity around the statement from Bank of England Governor that the Chinese Yuan could challenge the US Dollar as the world’s reserve currency, but really he was saying that it is a very long way away. So let us start with the US Federal Reserve and look back to September for its Forward Guidance. From Reuters.

Fed policymakers did not jack up their expectations for rate hikes in coming years, as some analysts had thought, instead sticking closely to rate hike path forecasts outlined in June that envision short-term rates, now at 2.0 percent to 2.25 percent, to be at 3.1 percent by the end of next year.

This suggested a couple of rate hikes in 2019 and at the beginning of December Bill Conerly stepped up the pace in Forbes Magazine.

My forecast for interest rates remains higher than the Fed’s September 2018 forecast. I expect the Fed Funds rate to end 2019 at 3.9%, and to end 2020 at 4.5%.

Bill seemingly had not got the memo about a slowing word and hence US economy as he reflected views which in my opinion were several months out of date as well as being extreme for even then. But what we were seeing was a reining back of forecasts of interest-rate rises. Putting that in theoretical terms the so-called neutral rate of interest showed all the flexibility of the natural rate of unemployment in that it means whatever the central bankers want it to mean.

Last Night events took another turn with the publication of the US Federal Reserve Minutes from December.

With regard to the post meeting statement, members agreed to modify the phrase “the Committee expects that further gradual increases” to read “the Committee judges that some further gradual increases.” The use of the word “judges” in the revised phrase was intended to better convey the data-dependency of the Committee’s decisions regarding the future stance of policy; the reference to “some” further gradual increases was viewed as helping indicate that, based on current information, the Committee judged that a relatively limited amount of additional tightening likely would be appropriate.

As you can see they have chosen the words “judges” and “some” carefully and the prospect of interest-rate increases this year has gone from a peak of 4 with maybe more in 2020 to perhaps none. Or for fans of Carly Rae Jepson it has gone from ” I really,really,really,really” will increase interest-rates to “Call Me Maybe”

Why? Well some may mull the idea of there being a form of Jerome Powell put option for the stock market.

Against this backdrop, U.S. stock prices were down nearly 8 percent on the period.

Widening that out it also reflected an economic weakening which has mostly got worse since.

Forward Guidance

This is supposed to help the ordinary consumer and business(wo)man but letting them know what the central bank plans to do. But to my mind this is of no use at all if they keep getting it wrong as the US Federal Reserve just has. In fact in terms of fixed-rate mortgages and loans they have been given exactly the wrong advice. Whereas we had reflected the changing outlook as I quote from my opening post for this year.

The problem is their starting point and for that all eyes turn to the central banks who have driven them there. Get ready for the claims that “it could not possibly have been expected” and “Surprise!Surprise!”

I find myself debating this on social media with supporters of central bank policy who mostly but not always are central banking alumni. They manage to simultaneously claim that Forward Guidance is useful but it does not matter if it is wrong, which not even the best contortionist could match.

Bank of England

The memo saying “the times they are a-changing” had not reached Bank of England Governor Mark Carney as he posted on the Future Forum yesterday afternoon.

 That’s why the MPC expect that any future increases in Bank Rate are likely to be at a gradual pace and to a limited extent.

He is still hammering away with his hints at higher interest-rates although he was also trying to claim that movements in interest-rates are nothing to do with him at all.

So in other words, low policy interest rates are not the caprice of central bankers, but rather the consequence of powerful global forces.

Makes you wonder why he and his 8 interest-rate setting colleagues are paid  some much if the main events are nothing to do with them doesn’t it? I somehow doubt that when a Bank of England footman handed a copy of Mark Carney’s Gilt-Edged CV to the World Bank that it was claiming that.

Governor Carney was in typical form in other ways too as he answered this question.

In your opinion, how likely is a large spike in Inflation in the near future?

For example in a lengthy answer he used the word inflation once but the word unemployment five times and did not mention inflation prospects/trends ( the question) at all! Better still the things which were apparently “the consequence of powerful global forces.” suddenly became due to his ilk.

Simulations using the Bank’s main forecasting model suggest that the Bank’s monetary policy measures raised the level of GDP by around 8% relative to trend and lowered unemployment by 4 percentage points at their peak. Without this action, real wages would have been 8% lower, or around £2,000 per worker per year, and 1.5 million more people would have been out of work.

As we note his slapping of his own back whilst blowing his own trumpet I zeroed in on the wage growth claim which appeared in another form much later.

Although it’s true that QE helped support asset prices, it also boosted job creation and wage growth.

There is a lot in that sentence but let us start with the wage growth issue. The reality is that real wage growth has been negative in the UK and worse than our economic peers. By propping up zombie banks and companies for example there are reasons to argue that the QE era has made things worse. But apparently in a stroke of magic it has made everything better! Now whilst correlation does not prove causation it is hard to argue you have made things better in a period where you have had a major impact and things have got worse.  Indeed  the more recent trend as the QE flow has slowed has been for wages to pick up.

Also there was the “helped support asset prices” point. This is welcome in its honesty but there have been times that the Bank of England ( in spite of its own research on the subject) has tried to deny this.

What about debt?

Back in 2016 Governor Carney told us.

This is not a debt-fuelled recovery.

Yesterday he changed his tune slightly.

 Recent growth in aggregate credit in the UK has been modest, growing a little faster than nominal GDP.

Notice the shift from real GDP to the invariably higher nominal GDP. Missing in action was any mention of unsecured credit which surged into double-digit annual growth in response to the Sledgehammer QE action of the Bank of England in the autumn of 2016 and is still growing at over 7%. Nor did the surge in student loans merit a mention unlike in this from Geoff Tily of the TUC last week.

Total unsecured debt has risen to £428 billion. At 30.4 per cent of household income, this is higher than before the financial crisis:

Comment

There is a fair bit to sweep up here but the main point is that we have developed bodies called independent that do the establishments bidding on a scale politicians themselves would never have got away with. Can you imagine politicians being able to buy trillions of their own debt?! Next we are told that they can help us with the future via Forward Guidance but that when it goes wrong it does not matter. The elastic of credibility just snapped.

In my own country the UK this was added to on LBC Radio where we were grandly told yesterday that someone who used to set UK interest-rates would be on air. When Ian McCafferty came on he seemed confused by the statement that the UK economy grew by 0.6% in the third quarter and sounded out of touch with events. For example in the early part of 2018 it was true that Germany and France were growing more quickly than the UK but as this morning has reminded us to say they are doing so now makes you look out of touch at best.

In November 2018, output slipped back sharply in the manufacturing industry (−1.4% after +1.4% in October) as well as in the whole industry (−1.3% after +1.3%). ( France-Insee ).

Perhaps he will offer a retraction like he had to do when he was on LBC last August. Meanwhile you know I often tell you never to believe anything until it is officially denied don’t you? From Governor Carney yesterday.

We have also made clear that we wouldn’t set negative interest rates – the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee, which is responsible for setting Bank Rate, has said that the effective lower bound on Bank Rate is close to, but a little above, zero.

As a hint the lower bound was 0.5% until they cut to 0.25% ( and promised a cut to 0.1% in another Forward Guidance failure).