Take your pick as UK Inflation rises via CPI and falls via RPI whilst staying the same via CPIH

The issue of UK inflation being above target is obviously troubling the UK establishment so much so that this morning HM Treasury has decided to tell us this.

Latest data from comes out today. Find out more about how the UK brought inflation under control:

There is a problem here as you see when we introduced inflation targeting in late 1992 the targeted measure called RPIX was below 4% and around 3.7% if the chart they use is any guide. It is currently 4% after 4.2% last month which is of course higher and not lower! So this is not the best time to herald the triumph of inflation targeting to say the least! Even worse if you look at the longer-term inflation charts in the release it is clear that the main fall in inflation happened before inflation targeting began. I will leave readers to mull whether the better phase was in fact the end of an economic mistake which was exchange-rate targeting.

The Forties problem

There will be a burst of inflationary pressure when we get the December inflation data from this issue. From the Financial Times.

The North Sea’s key Forties Pipeline System, which delivers the main crude oil underpinning the Brent benchmark, is likely to be shut for “weeks” to carry out repairs to an onshore section of the line, a spokesman for operator Ineos said on Monday. The move follows the worsening of a hairline crack in the 450,000 barrel-a-day pipe near Red Moss in Aberdeenshire over the weekend……..The FPS transports almost 40 per cent of the UK North Sea’s oil and gas production by connecting 85 fields to the British mainland.

If I was Ineos I would be crawling over the contract to buy the pipeline as they only did so in October and may have been sold something of a pup by BP. But in terms of the impact we have seen Brent Crude Oil move above US $65 per barrel in response to this. Also a cold snap in the UK is not the best time for gas supplies to be reduced as we wait to see how prices will respond. No doubt some of the production will get ashore in other ways but far from all. Also other news is not currently helping as this from @mhewson_CMC points out.

U.K. GAS FUTURES SURGE ON BAUMGARTEN EXPLOSION, NORWAY OUTAGE………front month futures jump about 20%.

Today’s data

This will have received a particularly frosty reception at the Bank of England this morning.

CPI inflation edged above 3% for the first time in nearly six years, with the price of computer games rising and airfares falling more slowly than this time last year. These upward pressures were partly offset by falling costs of computer equipment.

The annual reading of 3.1% means that Governor Mark Carney will have to write a letter to the Chancellor of Exchequer Phillip Hammond to explain why it is more than 1% over its target. I have sent via social media a suggested template.

Of course the official version could have been written by Shaggy.

I had tried to keep her from what
She was about to see
Why should she believe me
When I told her it wasn’t me?

We will not find out precisely until February as one of the improvements to the UK inflation targeting regime was to delay the publication of such a letter until it was likely to be no longer relevant.

How can we keep the recorded rate of inflation down?

This will have troubled the UK establishment and they came up with the idea of making a number up based on rents which are never paid. They rushed a proposal in last year as they noted that it was likely to be a downwards influence on inflation in 2017. How is that going? I have highlighted the relevant number.

The CPI rate is higher than the CPIH equivalent principally because the CPI excludes owner occupiers’ housing costs. These rose by 1.5% in the year to November 2017, less than the CPI rate of 3.1% and, as a result, they pulled the CPI rate down slightly, to CPIH.

That number which is a fiction as the Imputed Rents are never actually paid has a strong influence on CPIH.

Given that OOH accounts for around 17% of CPIH, it is the main driver for differences between the CPIH and CPI inflation rates.

This is like something straight out of Yes Prime Minister where a number which is never paid is used to reduce the answer. Just for clarity rents should be in the data for those who pay them but not for those who own their home and do not. Those who own their homes will be wondering why actual real numbers like the ones below are not used.

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 4.5% in the year to October 2017 (down from 4.8% in September 2017). The annual growth rate has slowed since mid-2016 but has remained broadly around 5% during 2017.

What do you think it is about a real number that would INCREASE the recorded inflation rate that led it to be rejected for a fake news one which DECREASES the recorded inflation rate?

House Prices

Tucked away in the release was this which may be a sign of a turn.

The average UK house price was £224,000 in October 2017. This is £10,000 higher than in October 2016 and £1,000 lower than last month.

A 0.5% monthly fall. As the series is erratic we will have to wait for further updates.

What is coming over the hill?

We are being affected by the higher oil price.

The one-month rate for materials and fuels rose 1.8% in November 2017 (Table 3), which is a 0.8 percentage points increase from 1.0% in October 2017, driven by inputs of crude oil, which was up 7.6% on the month.

This meant that producer price inflation rose on the month.

The headline rate of inflation for goods leaving the factory gate (output prices) rose 3.0% on the year to November 2017, up from 2.8% in October 2017. Prices for materials and fuels (input prices) rose 7.3% on the year to November 2017, up from 4.8% in October 2017.

This is more than a UK issue as this from Sweden Statistics earlier indicates.

The rise in the CPI from October to November 2017 was mainly due to a price increase of vehicle fuels and lubricants (4.5 percent),

Comment

There is a lot to consider here as headlines will be generated by the fact that Bank of England Governor Mark Carney will have to write an explanatory letter about the way CPI inflation has risen to more than 1% above its annual target. He might briefly wish that the old target of RPIX was still in use.

The annual rate for RPIX, the all items RPI excluding mortgage interest payments (MIPs), is 4.0%, down from 4.2% last month.

Although actually he would soon realise that he would have had to have written a formal letter a while ago for it. For the thoughtful there is interest in one measure rising as another falls and here are the main reasons.

Other differences including weights, which decreased the RPI 12-month rate relative to the CPI 12-month rate by 0.15 percentage points between October and November 2017.

Ironically putting house prices into the inflation measure would have reduced it last month.

Other housing components excluded from the CPI, which decreased the RPI 12-month rate relative to the CPI 12-month rate by 0.06 percentage points between October and
November 2017. The effect came mainly from house depreciation.

Will the UK establishment do another u-turn and suddenly decide that house prices are fit for use ( now they may be falling) in the same way they abandoned aligning us with Europe by not using them or the way they dropped RPIJ?

The trend now sees two forces at play. The trend towards higher inflation from the lower UK Pound £ is not far off over. However we are seeing a higher oil price offset that for the time being and I am including the likely data for December in this. So we will have to wait for 2018 for clearer signs of a turn although the Retail Price Index may already be signalling it.

Meanwhile the “most comprehensive measure of inflation” and the Office for National Statistics favourite CPIH continues to be pretty much ignored. The punch may need fortifying for this years Christmas party.

Meanwhile I guess it could be (much) worse.

The Financial Times said Avondale Pharmaceuticals bought the rights to Niacor from Upsher Smith, a division of Japan’s Sawai Pharmaceutical, earlier this year. The company also bought the rights to a drug used to treat respiratory ailments, known as SSKI, and increased the price by 2,469 per cent, raising the cost of a 30ml bottle from $11.48 to $295.

 

 

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The murky world of central banks and private-sector QE

The last 24 hours has seen something of a development in the world of central bank monetary easing which has highlighted an issue I have often warned about. Along the way it has provoked a few jokes along the lines of Poundland should now be 50 pence land or in old money ten shillings. Actually the new issue is related to one that the Bank of England experienced back in 2009 when it was operating what was called the SLS or Special Liquidity Scheme. If you have forgotten what it was I am sure the words “Special” and “Liquidity” have pointed you towards the banking sector and you would be right. The banks got liquidity/cash and in return had to provide collateral which is where the link as because on that road the Bank of England suddenly had to value lots of private-sector assets. Indeed it faced a choice between not giving the banks what they wanted or changing ( loosening) its collateral rules which of course was an easy decision for it. But valuing the new pieces of paper it got proved awkward. From FT Alphaville back then.

Accepting raw loans would also ensure that securities taken in the Bank’s operations have a genuine private sector demand rather than comprising ‘phantom’ securities created only for use in central bank operations.

In other words the Bank of England was concerned it was being done up like a kipper which is rather different from the way it tried to portray things.

Under the terms of the SLS, banks and building societies (hereafter ‘banks’) could, for a fee, swap high-quality mortgage-backed and other securities that had temporarily become illiquid for UK Treasury bills, for a period of up to three years.

Some how “high-quality” securities which to the logically minded was always problematic if you thought about the mortgage situation back then had morphed into a much more worrying “phantom” security.  Indeed as the June 2010 Quarterly Bulletin indicated there was rather a lot of them.

But a large proportion of the securities taken have been created specifically for use as collateral with the Bank by the originator of the underlying assets, and have therefore not been traded in the market. Such ‘own-name’ securities accounted for around 76% of the Bank’s extended collateral (around the peak of usage in January 2009), and form the overwhelming majority of collateral taken in the SLS.

Although you would not believe it from its pronouncements now the Bank of England was very worried about the consequences of this and in my opinion this is why it ended the SLS early. Which was a shame as the scheme had strengths and it ended up with other schemes ( FLS, TFS) as we mull the words “one-off” and “temporarily”. But the fundamental theme here is a central bank having trouble with private-sector assets which in the instance above was always likely to happen with instruments that have “not been traded in the market.”

The ECB and Steinhoff

Central banks can also get into trouble with assets that have been traded in the market. After all if market prices were always correct they would move much less than they do. In particular minds have been focused in the last 24 hours on this development.

The news that Steinhoff’s long-serving CEO Markus Jooste had quit sent the company’s share price into freefall on Wednesday morning. Steinhoff opened more than 60% lower, falling from its overnight close of R45.65 to as low as R17.57.

Overall, Steinhoff’s share price has dropped more than 80% over the past 18 months. The stock peaked at over R90 in June last year.  ( Moneyweb).

According to Reuters today has seen the same drum beat.

By 0748 GMT, the stock had slid 37 percent to 11.05 rand in Johannesburg, adding to a more than 60 percent plunge in the previous session. It was down about 34 percent in Frankfurt where it had had its primary listing since 2015.

You may be wondering how a story which might ( in fact is…) a big deal and scandal arrives at the twin towers of the ECB or European Central Bank. The first is a geographical move as Steinhoff has operations in Europe and two years ago today listed on the Frankfurt stock exchange. I am not sure that Happy Birthday is quite appropriate for investors who have seen the 5 Euros of then fall to 0.77 Euros now.

Next enter a central bank looking to buy private-sector assets and in this instance corporate bonds.

Corporate bonds cumulatively purchased and settled as at 01/12/2017 €129,087 (24/11/2017: €127,690) million.

One of the ( over 1000) holdings is as you have probably already guessed a Steinhoff corporate bond and in particular one which theoretically matures in 2025. I say theoretically because the news flow is so grim that it may in practice be sooner. From FT Alphaville.

German prosecutors say they are investigating whether Steinhoff International inflated its revenue and book value, one day after the global home retailer announced that its longtime chief executive had quit…The investigators are probing whether Steinhoff flattered its numbers by selling intangible assets and partnership shares without disclosing that it had close connections to the buyers. The suspicious sales were in “three-digit million” euros territory each, according to the prosecutors.

In terms of scale then the losses will not be relatively large as the bond size is 800 million Euros which would mean that the ECB would not buy more than 560 million under its 70% limit but it does pose questions.

they have a minimum first-best credit assessment of at least credit quality step 3 (rating of BBB- or equivalent) obtained from an external credit assessment institution

This leaves us mulling what investment grade actually means these days with egg on the face of the ratings agencies yet again. As time has passed I notice that the “high-quality” of the Bank of England has become the investment grade of the ECB.

The next question is simply to wonder what the ECB is doing here? Its claim that buying these bonds helps it achieve its inflation target of 2% per annum is hard to substantiate. What it has created is a bull market in corporate bonds which may help economic activity as for example we have seen negative yields even in some cases at issue. But there are side-effects such as moral hazard where the ECB has driven the price higher helping what appears to be fraudulent activity.

How much?

For those of you wondering about the size of the losses there are some factors we do not know such as the size of the holding. We do know that the ECB bought at a price over 90 which compares to the 58.2 as I type this. Some amelioration comes from the yield but not much as the coupon is 1.875% and of course that assumes it gets paid.

My understanding of how this is split is that 20% is collective and the other 80% is at the risk of the national central bank. So there may well be some fun and games when the Bank of Finland ( h/t Robert Pearson) finally reports on this.

Comment

There is much to consider here. Whilst this is only one corporate bond it does highlight the moral hazard issue of a central bank buying private-sector assets. There is another one to my mind which is that overall the ECB will have a (paper) profit but that is pretty much driven by its own ongoing purchases. This begs the question of what happens when it stops? Should it then fear a sharp reversal of prices it is in the situation described by Coldplay.

Oh no what’s this
A spider web and I’m caught in the middle
So I turn to run
And thought of all the stupid things I’d done.

The same is true of the corporate bond buying of the Bank of England which was on a smaller scale but even so ended up buying bonds from companies with ever weaker links ( Maersk) to the UK economy. Even worse in some ways is the issue of how the Bank of Japan is ploughing into the private-sector via its ever-growing purchases of Japanese shares vis equity ETFs. At the same time we are seeing a rising tide of scandals in Japan mostly around data faking.

Me on Core Finance

http://www.corelondon.tv/will-bond-yields-ever-go-higher/

 

 

What and indeed where next for bond markets?

The credit crunch era has brought bond markets towards the centre stage of economics and finance. Before then there were rare expressions of interest in either a crisis or if the media wanted to film a response to an economic data release. You see equities trade rarely but bonds a lot so they filmed us instead and claimed we were equities trades so sorry for my part in any deception! Where things changed was when central banks released that lowering short-term interest-rates ( Bank Rate in the UK) was not the only game in town and that it was not having the effect that they hoped and planned. Also the Ivory Towers style assumption that short-term interest-rates move long-term ones went the way of so many of their assumptions straight to the recycling bin.

QE

It is easy to forget now what a big deal this was as the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England joined the Bank of Japan in buying government bonds or Quantitative Easing ( QE). There is a familiar factor in that what was supposed to be a temporary measure has now become a permanent feature of the economic landscape. As for example the holdings of the Bank of England stretch to 2068 with no current plan to reverse any of it and instead keeping the total at £435 billion by reinvesting maturities. Indeed on Friday it released this on social media.

Should quantitative easing become part of the conventional monetary policy toolkit?

The Author Richard Harrison may be in line for promotion after this.

Though the model does not support the idea that central banks should maintain permanently large balance sheets, it does suggest that we may see more quantitative easing in the future.

So here is a change for bond markets which is that QE will be permanent as so far there has been little or no interest in unwinding it. Even the US Federal Reserve which to be fair is doing some unwinding is doing so with baby steps or the complete opposite of the way it charged in to increase QE.

Along the way other central banks joined in most noticeably the European Central Bank. It had previously indulged in some QE via its purchases of Southern European bonds and covered ( bank mortgage) bonds but of course it then went into the major game. In spite of the fact that the Euro area economy is having a rather good 2017 it is still at it to the order of 60 billion Euros a month albeit that halves next year. So we are a long way away from it stopping let alone reversing. If we look at one of the countries dragged along by the Euro into the QE adventure we see that even annual economic growth of 3.1% does not seem to be enough for a change of course. From Reuters.

Riksbank’s Ohlsson: Too Early To Make MonPol Less Expansionary

If 3.1% economic growth is “too early” then the clear and present danger is that Sweden goes into the next downturn with QE ongoing ( and maybe negative interest-rates too). One consequence that seems likely is that they will run out of bonds to buy as not everyone wants to sell to the central bank.

Whilst we may think that QE is in modern parlance “like so over” in fact on a net basis it is still growing and only last month a new player came with its glass to the punch bowl.

In addition, the Magyar Nemzeti Bank will launch a targeted programme aimed at purchasing mortgage bonds with maturities of three years or more. Both programmes will also contribute to an increase in the share of loans with long periods of interest rate fixation.

Okay so Hungary is in the club albeit via mortgage bond purchases which can be a sort of win double for central banks as it boosts “the precious” ( banks) and via yield substitution implicitly boosts the government bond market too. But we learn something by looking at the economic situation according to the MNB.

The Hungarian economy grew by 3.6 percent in the third quarter of 2017…….The Monetary Council expects annual economic growth of 3.6 percent in 2017 and stable growth of between 3-4 percent over the coming years. The Bank’s and the Government’s stimulating measures contribute substantially to economic growth.

We are now seeing procyclical policy where economies are stimulated by monetary policy in a boom. In particular central banks continue with very large balance sheets full of government and other bonds and in net terms they are still buyers.

The bond vigilantes

They have been beaten back and as we observe the situation above we see why. Many of the scenarios where they are in play and bond yields rise substantially have been taken away for now at least by the central banks. There can be rises in bond yields in individual countries as we see for example in the Turkish crisis or Venezuela but the scale of the crisis needs to be larger and these days countries are picked off individually rather than collectively.

At the moment there are grounds for the bond yield rises to be in play in the Euro area with growth solid but of course the ECB is in play and in fact yesterday brought news of exactly the reverse.

 

A flat yield curve?

The consequence of central banks continuing with what the Bank of Japan calls “yield curve control” has led to comments like this. From the Financial Times yesterday.

Selling of shorter-dated Treasuries pushed the US yield curve to its flattest level since 2007 on Tuesday. The difference between the yields on two-year Treasury notes and 10-year Treasury bonds dropped below 55 basis points in afternoon trading in New York. While the 10-year Treasury was little changed, prices of two-year notes fell for the second consecutive day. The two-year Treasury yield, which moves inversely to the note’s price, has climbed 64 basis points this year to 1.83 per cent.

If we look long the yield curve the numbers are getting more and more similar ironically taking us back to the “one interest-rate” idea the central banks and Ivory Towers came into the credit crunch with. With the US 2 year yield at 1.8% and the 30 year at 2.71% there is not much of a gap.

Why does something which may seem arcane matter? Well the FT explains and the emphasis is mine.

It marks a pronounced “flattening” of the yield curve, with investors receiving decreasing returns for holding longer-dated bonds compared to shorter-dated notes — typically a harbinger of economic recession.

Comment

We have seen phases of falls in bond prices and rises in yield. For example the election of President Trump was one. But once they pass we are left wondering if the around thirty year trend for lower bond yields is still in play and we are heading for 0% ( ZIRP) or the icy cold waters of negativity ( NIRP)? On that road the idea that the current yield curve shape points to a recession gets kicked into touch as Goodhart’s Law or if you prefer the Lucas Critique comes into play. But things are now so mixed up that a recession might actually be on its way after all we are due one.

For yields to rise again on any meaningful scale there will have to be some form of calamity for the central banks. This is because QE is like a drug for so many areas. One clear one is the automotive sector I looked at yesterday but governments are addicted to paying low yields as are those with mortgages. On that road they cannot let go until they are forced to. Thus the low bond yields we see right now are a short-term success which central banks can claim but set us on the road to a type of junkie culture long-term failure. Or in my country this being proclaimed as success.

“Since 1995 the value of land has increased more than fivefold, making it our most valuable asset. At £5 trillion, it accounts for just over half of the total net worth of the UK at end-2016. At over £800 billion, the rise in the nation’s total net worth is the largest annual increase on record.”

Of course this is merely triumphalism for higher house prices in another form. As ever those without are excluded from the party.

 

 

Is the UK construction sector in a recession?

So far 2017 has been a year of steady but unspectacular growth for the UK economy. However one sector has stood out on the downside and that is construction. Of course this is the opposite of what the unwary might think as we are regularly assailed with official claims that house building in particular is a triumph. But the pattern of the official data series is certainly not a triumph.

Construction output contracted by 0.9% in the three-month on three-month series in September 2017…….This fall of 0.9% for Quarter 3 (July to September) follows a decline of 0.5% in Quarter 2 (April to June), representing the first consecutive quarter-on-quarter decline in current estimates of construction output since Quarter 3 2012.

Whilst our official statisticians avoid saying it this is the criteria for a recession with two quarterly falls in a row and in fact they had revised it a bit deeper.

The estimate for construction growth in Quarter 3 2017 has been revised down 0.2 percentage points from negative 0.7% in the preliminary estimate of gross domestic product (GDP), which has no impact on quarterly GDP growth to one decimal place.

The last month in that sequence which was September showed little or no sign of any improvement.

Construction output fell 1.6% month-on-month in September 2017, stemming from falls of 2.1% in repair and maintenance and 1.3% in all new work.

September detail

Here is an idea of the scale of output.

Total all work decreased to £12,628 million in September 2017. This fall stems from decreases in both all new work, which fell to £8,209 million, and total repair and maintenance, which fell to £4,419 million.

And here are the declines.

Construction output fell by £361 million in September 2017. This fall stems predominantly from a £236 million decrease in private commercial new work, as well as a fall of £165 million from total housing repair and maintenance.

There may be some logic in new commercial work being slow but the fall in repair and maintenance seems odd to say the least. The issues for the former might be that there has been so much building in parts of London combined with uncertainty looking ahead in terms of slower economic growth and what the Brexit deal may look like.

Maybe we are seeing some growth in new house building if we look at the longer trend.

Elsewhere, the strongest positive contributions to three-month on three-month output came from housing new work, with private housing growing £138 million and public housing expanding by £65 million.

Boom Boom

This weaker episode followed what had been a very strong phase for the UK construction industry. The nadir for it if we use 2015 as 100 was 85.3 in October 2012 as opposed to the 105.9 of September this year.  Over this period it has been even stronger than the services sector which has risen from 93.7 to 104.4 over the same period. Of course at 6.1% of the UK economy as opposed to 79.3% the total impact is far smaller but relatively it has been the fastest growing of the main UK economic categories in recent times.

If we look back to possible factors at play in the turnaround it is hard not to think yet again of the Funding for Lending Scheme of the Bank of England which was launched in the summer of 2012. There is a clear link in terms of private housing in terms of the way it lowered mortgage rates by more than 1% and the data here makes me wonder if some of the funding flowed into the commercial building sector as well. At this point we do see something of an irony as of course the FLS was supposed to boost lending to smaller businesses but sadly many of those in the construction sector were wiped out by the onset of the credit crunch.However this from the TSB suggests an impact.

As part of our participation in the Funding for Lending Scheme*, we have reduced the interest rate by 1% on all approved business loan and commercial mortgage applications.

Indeed some loans were made although as Co Star reported in January 2013 maybe not that many.

The Lloyds FLS-funded senior loan funded last Friday. Kier said the “competitively-priced” £30m loan will be used in connection with its infrastructure and related projects.

This is understood to be only the second commercial real estate loan drawn by Lloyds’ Commercial Banking division under the FLS scheme, after the bank drew down a further £2bn under the scheme before Christmas, taking its total capacity to £3bn.

The issue is complex as the Bank of England itself was worried about the state of play in 2014.

 The majority of the aggregate fall in net lending in 2014 Q1 was accounted for by a continued decline in lending to businesses in the real estate sector (Chart 2).

One area that I think clearly did see growth but is pretty much impossible to pick out of the data is lending to what are effectively buy-to let businesses.

Looking ahead

There has been a flicker of winter sunshine this morning from the Markit PMI business survey.

November data pointed to a moderate rebound in
UK construction output, with business activity rising
at the strongest rate since June. New orders and
employment numbers also increased to the greatest
extent in five months.

Indeed in an example of the phrase “there is a first time for everything” the government may this time be telling the truth about house building.

House building projects were again the primary
growth engine for construction activity. Survey
respondents suggested that resilient demand and a
supportive policy backdrop had driven the robust and
accelerated upturn in residential work.

Whilst the overall growth was not rapid at 53.1 ( where 50 in unchanged) at least we seem to have some and it was reassuring to have another confirmation of my theme that the 2016 fall in the UK Pound £ is wearing off.

However, cost inflation eased to its least marked for 14 months, with some firms reporting signs that exchange-rate driven price rises had started to lose intensity.

Comment

So the overall picture is of a boom which then saw a recession and hopefully of the latest surveys are correct a short shallow one. However not everyone is entirely on board with the recession story as this from Construction News last month points out.

Industry activity continued to grow between July and September, according to a new survey by the Construction Products Association.

The official data series in the UK for construction has been troubled to put it politely. The official version is this.

The Office for Statistics Regulation has put out a request for feedback and comments from users of these statistics, as part of the process for re-assessing the National Statistic status for Construction statistics: output, new orders and price indices.

In essence you cannot say what real output is until you have some sort of grip on the price level. Also  the excellent Brickonomics pointed out several years ago that some of the improvement in the data was via simply transferring a large business from services to construction. Solved at the stroke of a pen? Also this year there were large revisions to last year which is not entirely reassuring.

The annual growth rate for 2016 has been revised from 2.4% to 3.8%.

If that error was systemic then this years recession could easily be revised away. The truth is that there is way too much uncertainty about this which is surprising in the sense that the industry relies on physical products many of which are large. A few weeks back I counted the number of cranes along Nine Elms ( 24) for example in response to a question asked in the comments.

So we had a boom ( maybe) followed by a recession (maybe) and are now recovering (maybe). Hardly a triumph for the information era…..

Some Music

Here is a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear Donald Trump as a Talking Head.

 

 

The UK Student Loan problem is going from bad to worse

Sometimes developments flow naturally together and we see a clear example of this today. It was only yesterday that I pointed out that the Bank of England puts its telescope to its blind eye on the subject of student loans.

 In addition students will be wondering why what are likely to appear large debt burdens to them are ignored for these purposes?

Excluding student debt, the aggregate household debt to income ratio is 18 percentage points below its 2008
peak.

This is particularly material as we know that student debt has been growing quickly in the UK due to factors such as the rises in tuition fees.

Losses mount

I am often critical of the Financial Times but this time Thomas Hale deserves praise for this investigation.

The UK government is set to book a loss of almost £1bn from its largest privatisation of student loans, raising questions over the valuation of tens of billions of pounds of remaining graduate debt.

The most obvious question is why are we privatising these loans at a loss? It was of course the banking sector which saw privatisation of profits and socialisation of losses as fears will no doubt rise that this could be the other way around in terms of timing.

As we look at the detail the news gets even more troubling.

The controversial sale of a batch of student loans this week is expected to raise around £1.7bn, according to a Financial Times analysis of deal documentation. The loans, which had a face value of £3.7bn last year, are part of a total of £43bn in loans made to students up to 2012, which are currently on government books valued at just under £30bn, according to the Department of Education’s latest published accounts, as of the end of March this year.

As you can see not only are those loans not alone but they are being sold at a level below previous mark downs in value. The £3.7 billion face value had already been marked down to £2.5 billion and now we see this.

The deal will raise around £1.7bn in cash through the securitisation process, where assets are packaged together and sold off as bonds to investors. The process is a common feature of financing for student borrowing in the US but has rarely been used in the UK.

This seems odd as why would the UK taxpayer want to capitalise his/her losses?

The government’s loan book sale is dependent on passing a “value for money” test, which is designed to ensure that public assets are not sold too cheaply. The details of the test will not be made public but it is expected to provide a different, lower valuation for the loans compared to those on the DfE accounts.

The sale of the loans is part of a wider government effort to sell public assets “in a way that secures good value for money for taxpayers”, according to a statement on the student loans company website. The government aims to raise a total of £12bn through selling an unspecified amount of pre-2012 student loans over the next five years.

This brings us to a combination of Yes Prime Minister and George Orwell. Whilst it is possible that selling something at half its original value is sensible it needs to be checked carefully especially if it is public money . Also if it is a good deal for the new investors why not keep it?

What has happened to these loans?

Essentially these are loans from the previous decade which only have a rump left and guess which rump?

The transaction is made up of loans issued between 2002 and 2006, on which repayments are linked to income. Around half of students who borrowed during that period had already paid off their loans by the end of the 2015-16 financial year, meaning the pool of debt included in the deal is likely to be of a lower credit quality. Of those graduates with outstanding loans, only 60 per cent made a repayment in the same financial year.

So 40% of the remaining loans are seeing no repayments at present and the pricing here suggests that this will continue. One fear is that the buyers of the loans may try to pressurise students to repay even if they cannot afford to. Also there is the issue of what looks like around 20% of the students from over a decade ago still do not earn more than the £17,775 threshold ( confusingly more recent students seem to have a £21,000 threshold).

The rationale

Carly Simon poses the apposite question

Why?…. Don’t know why?

This is what it is all about. Yet again a wheeze for the national debt numbers.

Part of the motive for the sale is to reduce public debt. The cash generated from the transaction will go towards reducing public sector net debt, which was £1.79tn at the end of October. Unlike cash, student loan assets do not count towards the calculation of public sector net debt.

Comment

This is in my opinion a disaster on a national scale. Let me open with an issue which regular readers will be aware of but newer ones may not. This is the cost or interest on these loans and you may like to note that the most the UK would pay on issuing government debt is ~1.5%. From MoneySavingExpert (MSE ).

The rate used is the previous March’s RPI inflation rate. March 2017’s RPI inflation rate was 3.1% meaning interest charged on student loans for the 2017/18 academic year is between 3.1% and 6.1% depending on whether you’re studying or graduated, and how much you earn.

So at least double and maybe quadruple the alternative which speaks for itself. On this subject I both agree and disagree with MSE. He thinks for some it does not matter than much of this will never be repaid and is in that sense “free.” But you see along the way it matters as there is not only the psychological effect of say a £50k debt but it is also it affects mortgage calculations now. Recently reports have arisen of younger people not joining the NHS pension scheme and I wonder if that is linked to the fact that nurses now have student debts and feel burdened.

Back on the first of August 2016 I explained the problem like this.

We move onto the next problem which is that ever more of this debt will never be repaid which poses the question of what is the point of it? It feels ever more like a rentier society where someone collects all the interest and the takes the loan capital but we then forget that. Another type of borrowing from the future.

It would be much simpler I think to abandon the whole system and go back to providing tuition fees and grants. Also as this reply to the FT from safeside implies perhaps some of the weaker universities should be trimmed.

It would be interesting to see which universities produce graduates who are sub inv grade

It is tempting to suggest we should also write the whole lot off as let’s face it we are writing most of it off along the way anyway. The only major issue I think is how to treat fairly those who have already repaid their loans either in part or in full. It would also end the shambolic way the loans are collected. We seem to have replaced a system which worked with one based on more than few fantasies and if we continue to follow the American way then as I pointed out in August 2016 students can presumable expect this.

It’s 9 p.m. and your phone chimes. You’re among the one in eight Americans carrying a student loan—debts that collectively total nearly $1.4 trillion—and you’ve started to fall behind on your payments.

You know the drill: round-the-clock robocalls demanding immediate payment. You wince and pick up.

 

The Bank of England has a credit problem

There is a lot to consider already today as I note that my subject of Monday Bitcoin is in the news as it has passed US $10,000 overnight. The Bank of England must be relieved that something at least is rising faster than unsecured credit in the UK! Sir John Cunliffe has already been on the case.

. Sir JohnCunliffe says cryptocurrencies not a threat to financial stability – but says it is not an official currency and urges investors to be cautious  ( h/t Dominic O’Connell )

It is probably a bit late for caution for many Bitcoin investors to say the least. However if we return to home territory we see an area where the Bank of England itself was not cautious. This was when it opened the UK monetary taps in August 2016 with its Bank Rate cut to 0.25%, £60 billion of extra Quantitative Easing and the £91.4 billion and rising of the Term Funding Scheme. This has continued the house price boom and inflated consumer credit such that the annual rate of growth has run at about 10% per annum since then.

The credit problem

As well as the banking stress tests yesterday the Financial Stability Report was published and it spread a message of calm and not a little complacency.

The overall stock of outstanding private non-financial sector debt in the real economy has fallen since prior to the crisis,though it remains high by historical standards, at 150% of GDP.

There are two immediate problems here. The credit crunch was driven by debt problems so using it as a benchmark is plainly flawed. Secondly many of those making this assessment are responsible for pushing UK credit growth higher with their monetary policy decisions so there is a clear moral hazard. In addition students will be wondering why what are likely to appear large debt burdens to them are ignored for these purposes?

Excluding student debt, the aggregate household
debt to income ratio is 18 percentage points below its 2008
peak.

This is particularly material as we know that student debt has been growing quickly in the UK due to factors such as the rises in tuition fees. From HM Parliament in June.

Currently more than £13 billion is loaned to students each year. This is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years and the Government expects the value of outstanding loans to reach over £100 billion (2014 15 prices) in 2018 and continue to increase in real terms to around £330 billion (2014 15 prices) by the middle of this century.

Pretty much anything would be under control if you exclude things which are rising fast! On that logic thinks are okay especially if use inflation to help you out.

Credit growth is, in aggregate, only a little above nominal GDP growth. In the year to 2017 Q2, outstanding borrowing by households and non-financial businesses increased by 5.1%; in that same period, nominal GDP increased by 3.7%.

They have used inflation ( currently of course above target ) to make the numbers seem nearer than they are. This used to be the common way for looking at such matters but that was a world where wage growth was invariably positive not as it is now. If we switch to real GDP growth which was 1.7% back then or wages growth which this year has been mostly a bit over 2% in nominal terms things do not look so rosy.

If we apply the logic applied by the Bank of England above then this below is a sign of what Elvis Presley called “we’re caught in a trap”

The cost of servicing debt for households and businesses is
currently low. The aggregate household
debt-servicing ratio — defined as interest payments plus regular mortgage principal repayments as a share of household disposable income — is 7.7%, below its average since 1987 of 9%.

So not much below but something is a lot below. There are many ways of comparing interest-rates between 1987 and now but the ten-year Gilt yield was just under 10% as opposed to the 1.25% of now. So we cannot afford much higher yields or interest-rates can we?

Consumer credit

The position here is so bad that the Bank of England feels the need to cover itself.

consumer credit has been growing rapidly,
creating a pocket of risk

Still pockets are usually quite small aren’t they? Although the pocket is expanding quite quickly.

The outstanding stock of consumer
credit increased by 9.9% in the year to September 2017

What are the numbers for economic growth and wages growth again? There is quite a gap here but apparently in modern language this is no biggie.

Rapid growth of consumer credit is not, in itself, a material risk to economic growth through its effect on household spending. The flow of new consumer borrowing is equivalent to only 1.4% of consumer spending, and has made almost no contribution to the growth in aggregate consumer spending in the past year.

This is odd on so many levels. For a start on the face of it there is quite a critique here of the “muscular” monetary policy easing of Andy Haldane. Also if the impact was so small the extra 250,000 jobs claimed by Governor Carney seems incredibly inflated. In this parallel world there seems almost no point to it.

Yet if we move into the real world and look at the boom in car finance which supported the car market there must have been quite a strong effect. Of course that has shown signs of waning. Also if you look at what has been going on in the car loans market and the apparent rise of the equivalent of what were called “liar loans” for the mortgage market pre credit crunch then the complacency meter goes almost off the scale with this.

Low arrears rates may
reflect underlying improvement in credit quality

Number crunching

I know many of you like the data set so here it is and please note the in and then out nature of student debt.

The total stock of UK household debt in 2017 Q2 was
£1.6 trillion, comprising mortgage debt (£1.3 trillion),
consumer credit (£0.2 trillion) and student loans (£0.1 trillion).
It is equal to 134% of household incomes (Chart A.9), high by historical standards but below its 2008 peak of 147%.(1)
Excluding student debt, the aggregate household debt to
income ratio is 18 percentage points below its 2008 peak

Most things look contained if you compare them to their peak! Also if we switch to mortgages we get quite a few pages on how macroprudential regulation has been applied then we get told this.

The proportion of households with high mortgage
DTI multiples has increased somewhat recently, although it
remains below peaks observed over the past decade ( DTI = Debt To Income)

Comment

The issue here can be summarised by looking at two things. This is the official view expressed only yesterday.

Lenders responding to the Credit Conditions Survey reported that the availability of unsecured credit fell in both 2017 Q2 and Q3, and they expect a further reduction in Q4.

Here is this morning’s data.

The annual growth rate of consumer credit was broadly unchanged at 9.6% in October

As you can see the availability of credit has been so restricted the annual rate of growth remains near to 10%. The three monthly growth rate accelerated to an annualised 9.6% and the total is now £205.3 billion.

The situation becomes even more like some form of Orwellian scenario when we recall the credit easing ( Funding for Lending Scheme) was supposed to boost lending to smaller businesses. So how is that going?

in October, whilst loans to small and
medium-sized enterprises were -£0.4 billion

There is of course always another perspective and Reuters offer it.

Growth in lending to British consumers cooled again in October to an 18-month low, according to data that may ease concerns among Bank of England officials concerned about the buildup of household debt………The growth rate in unsecured consumer lending slowed to 9.6 percent in the year to October from September’s 9.8 percent, the slowest increase since April 2016.

 

 

 

Stresses abound at the Bank of England

The last 24 hours have seen something of a flurry of activity from the Bank of England. Yesterday Nishkam High School was the latest stop in what was supposed to be a grand tour of the country by its Chief Economist Andy Haldane. The was designed to show that he is a man of the people and combined with the expected ( by him) triumph of his shock and awe Sledgehammer QE and “muscular” monetary easing of August 2016 was supposed to lead for a chorus of calls for him to be the next Governor of the Bank of England. Whereas in fact he ended up revealing that at another school he had been asked this.

“Two questions”, she said. “Who are you? And why are you here?”

According to Andy this is in fact a triumph.

Several hours of introspection (and therapy) later, I now have an answer. The key comes in how you keep score. If in a classroom of 50 kids you reach only 1, what is
your score? Have you lost 49-1? No. You have won 1-0.

Perhaps that is the dreaded counterfactual in action. Could you imagine going to Roman Abramovich and saying that losing 49 games and winning one is a success? Of course you would be long gone by then. Anyway there is one girl at the “Needs Improvement” school who has shown distinct signs of intelligence as we note for later how Andy’s somewhat scrambled view of success might influence the bank stress tests released this morning.

What about monetary policy?

Andy has a real crisis here as of course he pushed so hard for the easing in August 2016 then a year later ( too late for the inflation it encouraged) started to push for a reversal of the bank rate cut and then voted for that earlier this month. Here is how he reflects on that.

The MPC’s policy actions in November were described as “taking its foot off the accelerator” to hold the car
within its “speed limit”. This was intended to convey the sense of monetary policy slowing the economy
slightly, towards its lower potential growth rate, while still propelling it forward overall.

According to Andy such a metaphor is another triumph.

It was a visual narrative. Because most people (from Derry to Doncaster, Dunfermline to Dunvant, Delphi to Delhi) drive cars, it was a local and personal narrative too. The car metaphor was used extensively by UK media.

Some are much less sure about Andy’s enthusiasm for dumbing down.

Andy Haldane cites the MPC’s recent use of the “car metaphor” as a success in attempting to engage the public. Which is fine. But I’d like to hear his thoughts on damage caused by bad/inaccurate metaphors (eg. “maxing out the country’s credit card”) ( Andy Bruce of Reuters )

Also there was a particularly arrogant section on inflation which I think I am the only person to point out.

This unfamiliarity with economic concepts extends to a lack of understanding of these concepts in practice.
For example, the Bank of England regularly surveys the general public to gauge their views on inflation.
When given a small number of options, less than a quarter of the public typically identify the correct range within which the current inflation rate lies. More than 40% simply say that they do not know.

Perhaps they find from their experience that they cannot believe the numbers and once you look at the data the 40% may simply be informed and honest.

Bank stress tests

The true purpose of a central bank stress test is to make it look like you are doing the job thoroughly whilst making sure that if any bank fails it is only a minor one. Also if any extra capital is required it needs to be kept to a minimum.This was illustrated in 2013 by the European Central Bank. From the Financial Times.

The European Central Bank has appointed consultants who said Anglo Irish was the best bank in the world, three years before it had to be nationalised, to advise on a review of lenders. Consultants Oliver Wyman, which made the embarrassing Anglo Irish assessment in 2006 in a “shareholder performance hall of fame”, has since been involved in bank stress tests in Spain last year and Slovenia this year.

To do this you need a certain degree of intellectual flexibility as Oliver Wyman pointed out.

Today one sees that differently.

Today’s results

Here is the scenario deployed by the Bank of England. From its Governor Mark Carney.

The economic scenario in the 2017 stress test is more severe than the deep recession that followed
the global financial crisis. Vulnerabilities in the global economy trigger a 2.4% fall in world GDP
and a 4.7% fall in UK GDP.
In the stress scenario, there is a sudden reduction in investor appetite for UK assets and sterling
falls sharply, as vulnerabilities associated with the UK’s large current account deficit crystallise.
Bank Rate rises sharply to 4.0% and unemployment more than doubles to 9.5%. UK residential
and commercial real estate prices fall by 33% and 40%, respectively.

Everybody at the Bank of England must have required a cup of calming chamomile tea or perhaps something stronger at the thought of all the hard won property “gains” being eroded. But what did this do to the banks? From the Financial Times.

In the BoE exercise, RBS’s capital ratio fell to a low point of 7 per cent – below its 7.4 per cent minimum “systemic reference point”, while Barclays’ capital ratio fell to a low point of 7.4 per cent – below its 7.9 per cent minimum requirement.

Regular readers will not be surprised to see issues at the still accident prone RBS which always appears to be a year away from improvement. Those who have followed the retrenchment of Barclays such as its retreat from Africa will not be shocked either. Students will also be hoping that falling below the minimum requirement will be graded as a pass by their examiners!

One move the Bank of England has made is this.

The FPC is raising the UK countercyclical capital buffer rate from 0.5% to 1%, with binding effect from
28 November 2018.  This will establish a system-wide UK countercyclical capital buffer of £11.4 billion.

This sounds grand and may be reported by some as such but it is in reality only a type of bureaucratic paper shuffling as the banks already had the capital so reality is unchanged. Oh and we cannot move on without noting the appearance of the central bankers favourite word in this area.

Given the tripling of its capital base and marked improvement in funding profiles over the past
decade, the UK banking system is resilient to the potential risks associated with a disorderly
Brexit.

Comment

We see the UK establishment in full cry. No I do not mean the royal marriage as that is not until next year. But we do see on what might be considered “a good day to bury bad news” with the bank stress tests occupying reporters time this from the Financial Conduct Authority.

The independent review found that there had been widespread inappropriate treatment of SME customers by RBS…….The independent review found that some elements of this inappropriate treatment of customers should also be considered systematic

We may end up wondering how independent the review is as we note it has only taken ten years to come to fruition! People who were bankrupted have suffered immensely in that dilatory time frame. Next on the establishment deployment came as I switched on the television earlier whilst doing some knee rehab to see the ex-wife of a cabinet minister Vicky Pryce expounding on the bank stress tests on BBC Breakfast. If only all convicted criminals saw such open-mindedness.

If we return to Andy Haldane then he deserves a little sympathy on the personal level after all it must be grim doing a tour of the UK when the purpose has long gone. It is revealing that his list of supporters has thinned out considerably although most have done so quietly rather than taking the mea culpa road. At what point will the criteria for success or failure that would be applied to you or I be applied to the Chief Economist at the Bank of England?