The first business surveys about this economic depression appear

This morning has seen the first actual signals of the scale of the economic slow down going on. One of the problems with official economic data is the  time lag before we get it and this has been exacerbated by the fact that this has been an economic contraction on speed ( LSD). By the time they tell us how bad it has been we may be in quite a different world! It is always a battle between accuracy and timeliness for economic data. Thus eyes will have turned to the business surveys released this morning.

Do ya do ya do ya do ya
Ooh I’m looking for clues
Ooh I’m looking for clues
Ooh I’m looking for clues ( Robert Palmer)

Japan

The main series began in Japan earlier and brace yourselves.

#Japan‘s economic downturn deepens drastically in March, dragged down by a sharp contraction in the service sector, according to #PMI data as #coronavirus outbreak led to plummeting tourism, event cancellations and supply chain disruptions. ( IHS Markit )

The composite output index was at 35.8 which indicates an annualised fall in GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) approaching 8% should it continue. There was a split between manufacturing ( 44.8) and services ( 32.7) but not the way we have got used to. The manufacturing number was the worst since April 2009 and the services one was the worst since the series began in 2007.

France

Next in the series came La Belle France and we needed to brace ourselves even more.

March Flash France PMI suggest GDP is collapsing at an annualised rate approaching double digits, with the Composite Output PMI at an all-time low of 30.2 (51.9 – Feb). Both services and manufacturers recorded extreme drops in output on the month.

There was more to come.

French private sector activity contracted at the
sharpest rate in nearly 22 years of data collection
during March, amid widespread business closures
due to the coronavirus outbreak.

There are obvious fears about employment and hence unemployment.

Amid falling new orders, private sector firms cut
their staff numbers for the first time in nearly threeand-a-half years during March. Moreover, the rate
of reduction was the quickest since April 2013.

I also noted this as I have my concerns about inflation as the Ivory Towers work themselves into deflation mode one more time.

Despite weaker demand conditions, supply
shortages drove input prices higher in March…….with
manufacturers raising output prices for the first time
in three months

We could see disinflation in some areas with sharp inflation in others.

Germany

Next up was Germany and by now investors were in the brace position.

The headline Flash Germany
Composite PMI Output Index plunged from 50.7 in
February to 37.2, its lowest since February 2009.
The preliminary data were based on responses
collected between March 12-23.

This led to this analysis.

“The unprecedented collapse in the PMI
underscores how Germany is headed for recession,
and a steep one at that. The March data are
indicative of GDP falling at a quarterly rate of
around 2%, and the escalation of measures to
contain the virus outbreak mean we should be
braced for the downturn to further intensify in the
second quarter.”

You may be thinking that this is better than the ones above but there is a catch. Regular readers will recall that due to a problem in the way it looks at supply this series has inflated the German manufacturing data. This has happened again.

The headline Flash Germany
Manufacturing PMI sank to 45.7, though it was
supported somewhat by a further increase in
supplier delivery times – the most marked since
July 2018 – and a noticeably slower fall in stocks of
purchases, both linked to supply-side disruption

So the truth is that the German numbers are closer to France once we allow for this. We also see the first signals of trouble in the labour markets.

After increasing – albeit marginally – in each of the
previous four months, employment across
Germany’s private sector returned to contraction in
March. The decline was the steepest since May
2009 and was underpinned by similarly sharp drops
in workforce numbers across both manufacturing
and services.

Also we note a continuing pattern where services are being hit much harder than manufacturing, Of course manufacturing had seen a rough 2019 but services have essentially plunged at a rapid rate.

The Euro Area

We do not get much individual detail but you can see that the other Euro area nations are doing even worse.

The rest of the euro area reported an even
steeper decline than seen in both France and
Germany, led by comfortably the sharpest fall in
service sector activity ever recorded, though
manufacturing output also shrank at the steepest
rate for almost 11 years.

I am trying hard to think of PMI numbers in the 20s I have seen before.

Flash Eurozone Services PMI Activity Index(2)
at 28.4 (52.6 in February). Record low (since
July 1998)

Putting it all together we get this.

The March PMI is indicative of GDP slumping at a
quarterly rate of around 2%,

The UK

Our numbers turned up to a similar drum beat and bass line.

At 37.1 in March, down from 53.0 in February, the seasonally adjusted IHS Markit / CIPS Flash UK Composite Output Index – which is based on approximately 85% of usual monthly replies – signalled the fastest downturn in private sector business activity since the series began in January 1998. The prior low of 38.1 was seen in November 2008.

This was supported by the manufacturing PMI being at 48 but it looks as though we have at least some of the issues at play in the German number too.

Longer suppliers’ delivery times are typically seen as an
advance indicator of rising demand for raw materials and
therefore have a positive influence on the Manufacturing PMI index.

The numbers added to the household finances one from IHS Markit yesterday.

UK consumers are already feeling the financial pinch of
coronavirus, according to the IHS Markit UK Household Finance Index. With the country on the brink of lockdown during the survey collection dates (12-17 March), surveyed households reported the largest degree of pessimism towards job security in over eight years,
with those employed in entertainment and manufacturing sectors deeming their jobs to be at the most risk.

Comment

So we have the first inklings of what is taking place in the world economy and we can add it to the 40.7 released by Australia yesterday. However we need a note of caution as these numbers have had troubles before and the issue over the treatment of suppliers delivery times is an issue right now. Also it does not appear to matter if your PMI is 30 or 37 we seem to get told this.

The March PMI is indicative of GDP slumping at a
quarterly rate of around 2%,

Now I am slightly exaggerating because they have said 1.5% to 2% for the UK but if we are there then France and the Euro area must be more like 3% and maybe worse if the series is to be consistent.

Next I thought I would give you some number-crunching from Japan.

TOKYO (Reuters) – The Bank of Japan on Tuesday acknowledged unrealized losses of 2-3 trillion yen ($18-$27 billion) on its holdings of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) after a rout in Japanese stock prices, raising the prospect it could post an annual loss this year.

Our To Infinity! And Beyond! Theme has been in play for The Tokyo Whale and the emphasis is mine.

Its stock purchase started at a pace of one trillion yen per year in 2013 when the Nikkei was around 12,000. The buying expanded to 3 trillion yen in 2014 and to 6 trillion yen in 2016, ostensibly to boost economic growth and lift inflation, but many investors view the policy as direct intervention to prop up share prices.

Surely not! But the taxpayer may be about to get a warning of sorts.

The unrealized loss of 2-3 trillion yen would wipe out about 1.7 trillion yen of recurring profits the BOJ is estimated to make this year from interest payments on its massive bond holdings, said Hiroshi Ugai, senior economist at J.P. Morgan.

For today that will be on the back burner as the Nikkei 225 equity index rose 7% to just above 18,000 which means that its purchases of over 200 billion Yen yesterday will be onside at least as we note the “clip size” has nearly trebled for The Tokyo Whale.

 

 

The biggest move by the US Federal Reserve was the one concerning liquidity or FX Swaps

Last night the week started with the arrival of the Kiwi cavalry as the Reserve Bank of New Zealand announced this.

The Official Cash Rate (OCR) is 0.25 percent, reduced from 1.0 percent, and will remain at this level for at least the next 12 months.

With international sporting events being cancelled this was unlikely to have been caused by a defeat for the All Blacks as the statement then confirmed.

The negative economic implications of the COVID-19 virus continue to rise warranting further monetary stimulus.

But soon any muttering in the virtual trading rooms was replaced by quite a roar as this was announced.

Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. The effects of the coronavirus will weigh on economic activity in the near term and pose risks to the economic outlook. In light of these developments, the Committee decided to lower the target range for the federal funds rate to 0 to 1/4 percent. The Committee expects to maintain this target range until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals. This action will help support economic activity, strong labor market conditions, and inflation returning to the Committee’s symmetric 2 percent objective. ( US Federal Reserve)

So a 1% interest-rate cut to the previous credit crunch era low for interest-rates and whilst the timing was a surprise it was not a shock. This is because on Saturday evening President Donald Trump had ramped up the pressure by saying that he had the ability to fire the Chair Jeroen Powell. The odd points in the statement were the reference to returning to being “on track” for its objectives which seems like from another world as well as reminding people of Greece which has been “on track” to recovery all the way through its collapse into depression. Also “strong labor market conditions” is simply untrue now. All that is before the reference to inflation returning to target when some will be paying much higher prices for goods due to shortages.

QE5

This came sliding down the slipway last night which will have come as no surprise to regular readers who have followed to my “To Infinity! And Beyond!” theme.

To support the smooth functioning of markets for Treasury securities and agency mortgage-backed securities that are central to the flow of credit to households and businesses, over coming months the Committee will increase its holdings of Treasury securities by at least $500 billion and its holdings of agency mortgage-backed securities by at least $200 billion.

This is quite punchy as we note that the previous peak for its balance sheet was 4.5 trillion Dollars and now it will go above 5 trillion. The Repos may ebb and flow bad as we stand it looks set to head to 5.2 trillion or so. The odd part of the statement was the reference to the “smooth functioning” of the Treasury Bond market when buying such a large amount further reduces liquidity in a market with liquidity problems already. For those unaware off the run bonds ( non benchmarks) have been struggling recently. The situation for mortgage bonds is much clearer as some will no doubt be grateful for any buyers at all. Although whether buying the latter is a good idea for the US taxpayer underwriting all of this is a moot point. At least the money used is effectively free at around 0%.

Liquidity Swaps

This was the most significant announcement of all for two reasons. Firstly it was the only one which was coordinated and secondly because it stares at the heart of one of the main problems right now. Cue Aloe Blacc.

I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
Hey hey
Well I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
Hey hey
And I said I need dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
And if I share with you my story would you share your dollar with me
Bad times are comin’ and I reap what I don’t sow.

I have suggested several times recently that there will be banks and funds in trouble right now as we see simultaneous moves in bond, equity and oil markets. That will only be getting worse as the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil approaches US $31. This means that some – and the rumour factory will be at full production – will be finding hard to get US Dollars and some may not be able to get them at all. So the response is that the main central banks will be able to.

The Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, the Federal Reserve, and the Swiss National Bank are today announcing a coordinated action to enhance the provision of liquidity via the standing U.S. dollar liquidity swap line arrangements.

These central banks have agreed to lower the pricing on the standing U.S. dollar liquidity swap arrangements by 25 basis points, so that the new rate will be the U.S. dollar overnight index swap (OIS) rate plus 25 basis points.

So it appears that price matters for some giving us a hint of the scale of the issue here. If I recall correct a 0.5% cut was made as the credit crunch got into gear. Also there was this enhancement to the operations.

 To increase the swap lines’ effectiveness in providing term liquidity, the foreign central banks with regular U.S. dollar liquidity operations have also agreed to begin offering U.S. dollars weekly in each jurisdiction with an 84-day maturity, in addition to the 1-week maturity operations currently offered. These changes will take effect with the next scheduled operations during the week of March 16.

Then we got something actively misleading because the real issue here is for overseas markets.

The new pricing and maturity offerings will remain in place as long as appropriate to support the smooth functioning of U.S. dollar funding markets.

For newer readers wondering who these might be? The main borrowers in recent times have been the European Central Bank and less so the Bank of Japan. This is repeated at the moment as some US $58 million was borrowed by a Euro area bank last week. Very small scale but maybe a toe in the water.

Comment

Some of the things I have feared are taking place right now. We see for example more and more central banks clustering around an interest-rate of 0% or ZIRP ( Zero Interest-Rate Policy). Frankly I expect more as you know my view on official denials.

#BREAKING Fed’s Powell says negative interest rates not likely to be appropriate ( @AFP )

You could also throw in the track record of the Chair of the US Federal Reserve for (bad) luck.

Meanwhile rumours of fund collapses are rife.

Platinum down 18%, silver down 14% Palladium down 12%, Gold down 4% – someone is getting liquidated ( @econhedge )

Some of that may be self-fulfilling but there is a message in that particular bottle.

As to what happens next? I will update more as this week develops but I expect more fiscal policy back stopped by central banks. More central banks to buy equities as I note the Bank of Japan announced earlier it will double its operations this year. Helicopter Money is a little more awkward though as gathering to collect it would spread the Corona Virus. As Bloc Party put it.

Are you hoping for a miracle? (it’s not enough, it’s not enough)
Are you hoping for a miracle? (it’s not enough, it’s not enough)
Are you hoping for a miracle? (it’s not enough, it’s not enough)
Are you hoping for a miracle? (it’s not enough, it’s not enough)

Let me sign off for today by welcoming the new Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey.

Podcast

I would signpost the second part of it this week as eyes will turn to the problems in the structure of the ECB likely to be exposed in a crisis.

 

 

Central Banks will demand even more powers in response to this crisis

Yesterday was quite something with the extraordinary oil price decline topped off by a more than 2000 point fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in the United States. I know that it is an outdated and flawed index but nonetheless it felt symbolic. So far today things are quieter with some bounce back in equity markets and the reverse in bond markets. But we have some familiar themes at play so let us get straight to them.

Japan

The Bank of Japan has been at the outer limit of monetary policy for some time now as The Mainichi pointed out earlier today.

The BOJ already owns around 50 percent of outstanding Japanese government bonds of about 1,000 trillion yen ($9.73 trillion), while pledging to buy 80 trillion yen of them per year. It has also bought nearly exchange traded funds.

Further cuts in the negative interest rate of minus 0.1 percent, which have pushed down longer-term interest rates for years, are expected to snap the profitability of the banking sector and hurt returns for insurers and pensions of private companies.

They have got a little excited on the issue of equity purchases as I am not sure what a nearly exchange traded fund is? Let me help out by pointing out that the Bank of Japan purchased some 101.4 billion Yen of equity ETFs both yesterday and today. Today’s purchases have a different perspective because the market closed higher, this is because the Bank of Japan has established a principle of only buying on down days. In this present crisis it has abandoned that twice so far. In addition its “clip size” has risen from 70.4 billion Yen to 101.4 billion. So far in March it has bought around 410 billion Ten of equities.

So Andrea True Connection continues to be playing from its loudspeakers.

More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it

It also buys commercial property ETFs although it is much less enthusiatic about this and has only bought 3.6 billlion Yen of them this month. Frankly I am not sure what these particular purchases are to achieve but they continue.

Fiscal Policy

I regularly point out that fiscal policy has been oiled and facilitated by the low level of bond yields. As The Mainichi points out above The Tokyo Whale has purchased half the Japanese bond market meaning that at many maturities Japan is being paid to borrow and even the thirty-year yield is a mere 0.3%. Thus it helps this.

President Donald Trump on Monday said he will be taking “major” steps to gird the U.S. economy against the impact of the spreading coronavirus outbreak, while Japan’s government plans to spend more than $4 billion in a second package of steps to cope with fallout from the virus. ( Reuters)

If we stay with Japan for now I note that as I looked this up there were references to a US $122 billion stimulus as recently as December. This is a problem as Japan keeps needing more fiscal stimuli and it is a particular issue right now. This is because last year’s rise in the Consumption Tax was supposed to improve the fiscal position whereas all we have seen since is stimuli or moves in the opposite direction.

This is a recurring theme in Japan as we mull the consequences of such extreme monetary action. Let me give you another example of a backwash for the control agenda. The policy of Yield Curve Control because it aims at a specific yield target for Japanese Government Bonds has been keeping yields up and not down in recent times.

The Euro area

It was only last week that I suggested the ECB could become the next major central bank to buy equities and thus I noted this overnight from a former Vice-President.

Should the central banks’ mandate be extended to explicitly include financial stability, giving them more instruments to try to contain asset prices booms instead of just “mopping-up after the crash”. Policy reviews are ongoing and everything must be on the table this time.

That is Vitor Constancio saying “everything must be on the table this time”.

I doubt he meant this but something has turned up today that will require ECB support.

ROME (Reuters) – Payments on mortgages will be suspended across the whole of Italy after the coronavirus outbreak, Italy’s deputy economy minister said on Tuesday.

“Yes, that will be the case, for individuals and households,” Laura Castelli said in an interview with Radio Anch’io, when asked about the possibility.

Italy’s banking lobby ABI said on Monday lenders representing 90% of total banking assets would offer debt moratoriums to small firms and households grappling with the economic fallout from Italy’s coronavirus outbreak.

Yesterday we noted that businesses were going to get a debt payment moratorium and today we see mortgages will also be on the list. This will immediately lead to trouble for the banks and of course the Italian banks were in enough trouble as it is. Even the bank considered the strongest Unicredit has a share price 23% lower than a year ago and of course there are all the zombies.

This also impacts at a time when Italian bond yields have risen albeit to a mere 1.3% for the ten-year benchmark. But even that leads to worries as Reuters point out.

Despite the introduction of tougher banking regulation and oversight in the wake of the euro zone debt crisis a decade ago, the doom loop remains.

Italian banks held 388.22 billion euros of Italian government bonds in their portfolios at the end of January, around a sixth of the country’s public debt.

“The feedback loop between the sovereign and banks in Italy is alive and well, and both sovereign and bank debt should trade in lock-step,” said Antoine Bouvet, senior rates strategist at ING.

Mentions of something that was in danger of being forgotten are on the rise so let me point out this from the ECB website.

The Governing Council will consider Outright Monetary Transactions to the extent that they are warranted from a monetary policy perspective as long as programme conditionality is fully respected, and terminate them once their objectives are achieved or when there is non-compliance with the macroeconomic adjustment or precautionary programme.

There are other issues here as plainly Italy is about to blast through the Stability and Growth Pact or Maastricht fiscal rules. Also I note that the European Stability Mechanism would be involved as why put things on balance sheet when you can tuck them away in a Special Purpose Vehicle or SPV? But the ECB will be busy and let me throw a snack into the debate, might it support bank shares?

Comment

There is quite a bit to consider here and the news keeps coming on this front.

#JAPAN SEEN MULLING EXPANSION OF ETF BUYING PROGRAM, KYODO SAYS – BBG ( @C.Barraud )

On and on it goes with so few ever questioning why it is always more needed? At some point you need an audit of progress so far and successes and failures. Whereas obvious failures get swept under the carpet. Let me give you an example of this from a Sweden which had negative interest-rates for several years but has now climbed back to the giddy heights of 0%. Yet Sweden Statistics reports this.

In recent years, households have made large net deposits in bank accounts despite low interest rates.

Then there is this as well.

Households’ net purchases of new tenant-own apartments amounted to SEK 21 billion in the fourth quarter of 2019, which is the highest value ever in a single quarter.

This returns us to the side-effects of such policies which is where we came in looking at Japan which has loads of them.

But ever quick to use a crisis to expand their powers the central bankers will be greedily using this crisis to do so. So we can expect more mortgage moratorium’s which of course will require even more help for “The Precious”.

Just as I was posting this it seems to be happening already.

BREAKING: RBS confirms it will give a three-month mortgage payment holiday to homeowners impacted by coronavirus. Follows Italy saying mortgage payments will be suspended. ( @gordonrayner )

I wonder if the Bank of England has been moving behind the scenes? Meanwhile it too moved on yesterday as one of the bonds it purchased in its Operation Twist QE purchases was at a negative yield.

What will happen to house prices now?

I thought that I would end this week with a topic that we can look at from many angles. For example the first question asked by the bodies that have dominated this week, central banks, is what will this do to house prices? Well in ordinary times this weeks actions would have quite an impact and I am including in this expectations of future action by the Bank of England and European Central Bank (ECB). For newer readers this is because bond yields and their consequent impact on mortgage rates move these days ahead of policy action and sometimes well ahead. Of course, maybe one day central banks will fail to ease but such beliefs rely on ignoring the history of the credit crunch so far where such events were described rather aptly by Muse with supermassive black hole and monetary tightening was described by Oasis with Definitely Maybe,or perhaps better still by Rod Stewart with I Was Only Joking.

Bond Yields

The world has moved on even since I looked at this yesterday. Perhaps even faster than I suggested it might! Well played to any reader either long bonds or long a bond fund as you have had an excellent 2020. Sadly those on the other side of the balance sheet looking for an annuity are in the reverse situation. Not many places will put it like this but the US Federal Reserve has completely lost control of events this week and has learnt nothing from the mistakes of the Bank of Japan and ECB.

What I mean by this is that the US ten-year yield is now 0.78%. It was only this week that they went below 1% for the first time ever and last week we were looking at it hitting new lows like 1.3%. It started the year at 1.9%. This has been added to by the US Long Bond which has soared overnight reducing the thirty-year yield to 1.36% or 0.21% lower. What this means is that the already much lower US mortgage rates are going much lower still and I would quote some but I am afraid they simply cannot keep up with the bond market surge. Although I do note that Mortgage Daily News is wondering if things will be juiced even more?!

One of them suggested mortgage rates have more room to move lower if the Fed decides to start reinvesting its first $20bln a month of MBS proceeds again (which it currently allows to “roll off” the balance sheet). ( MBS = Mortgage Backed Securities )

As I am typing this events are getting even more extraordinary so let me hand you over to Bloomberg.

U.S. 10-year Treasury yield drops below 0.7%

I have experienced these sort of moves with bond markets falling but cannot recall them ever rallying like this so it is a once in a lifetime move.

You may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say yourself
“My God! What have I done?” ( Talking Heads )

So I now expect another sharp move lower in US mortgage rates and I expect this to be followed by much of the world. For example in my home country the UK mortgages are mostly fixed-rate these days ( in fact over 90%) so the five-year Gilt yield gives us a marker on what is likely to happen next. It has fallen to 0.14% this morning and so UK mortgages will be seeing more of this from Mortgage Strategy.

Vida Homeloans has announced a series of rate cuts to its residential and buy-to-let mortgage ranges……

Still in the residential range, Vida’s 75 per cent LTV five-year fix has gone down from 5.39 per cent to 4.99 per cent, and its 65 per cent LTV five-year fix from 5.49 per cent to 5.04 per cent.

In the BTL range, the 75 per cent LTV five-year fix has been cut from 4.64 per cent to 4.04 per cent.

I have picked them out because they are specialist lenders for non standard credit. You know the sort of thing we were promised would never happen again. Also we read about turning Japanese but we seem to be turning Italian as payment holidays appear.

Lenders are “ready and able” to offer help to borrowers affected by the Coronavirus outbreak, UK Finance has pledged.

The trade body says this may come in the form of repayment relief to customers whose earnings have been hit or costs increased as a result of contracting the virus or  because of the measures imposed to stop it spreading.

It comes after a number of lenders including TSB, Natwest and Saffron Building Society offered payment holidays to borrowers who had been severely affected by recent flooding.

So we can see that this particular tap is as wide open as it has ever been and as we look around the world we can expect similar moves in many places. In terms of exceptions there is one maybe because Germany is returning to previous bond yield lows ( -0.74% for the benchmark ten-year) and via its policy of yield curve control the Bank of Japan is stopping much of this happening. The latter is another in quite a long list of events from the lost decade era in Japan and I am pointing it out for three reasons.The first is that it is raising rather than reducing bond yields as intended. The second is that therefore we will not see a housing market boost. The third is that I am alone in pointing such things out as the “think tanks” continue to laud yield curve control. After all copying Japan has worked so well hasn’t it?

Mortgage Lending

We can also expect a boost from here. There are plenty of rumours of credit easing especially from the ECB as frankly it has few other options. I would expect much trumpeting of this going to smaller businesses but by some unexplained and unexpected event ( except by some financial terrorist writers) it will go straight into the mortgage market. My home country had an example of this with the Funding for Lending Scheme where the counterfactual needed to be applied to business lending bit was not required for mortgage lending. Japan also had a scheme for smaller businesses where large companies immediately set up subsidiaries and claimed.

Comment

So far I have given these for those expecting a house price rally.

Reasons to be cheerful, part three
1, 2, 3 ( Ian Dury)

For newer readers this is not something I welcome as it is inflation for first-time buyers.

Now let me look at the other side of the coin and there are two main factors. The first is what John Maynard Keynes called “animal spirits” or the film Return to the Forbidden Planet called “monsters of the id”. With worries about jobs and quarantine will people be willing to buy? That may lead to a lagged effect as people refinance now and buy at a later date.

The next is mortgage supply. Whilst the official taps are opening and they are building new pipes as I type there will be some banks and financial institutions that will be under pressure here and thus will not be able to lend. Some we can figure out but other are unpredictable and let me give you a symbol of a big stress factor right now, Yesterday’s 14 day Repo saw around US $70 billion of demand and only US $20 billion was supplied. So dollars are in short supply somewhere and frankly the US Federal Reserve policy of reducing Repo sizes looks pretty stupid.

 

 

 

The ECB could be the next central bank to start buying equities

It feels like quite a week already and yet it is only Monday morning! As rumours circulated and fears grew after some pretty shocking data out of China on Sunday the Bank of Japan was limbering up for some open mouth action. Below is the statement from Governor Kuroda.

Global financial and capital markets have been unstable recently with growing uncertainties about the outlook for economic activity due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Bank of Japan will closely monitor future developments, and will strive to provide ample liquidity and ensure stability in financial markets through appropriate market operations and asset purchases.

Actually most people were becoming much clearer about the economic impact of the Corona Virus which I will come to in a moment. You see in the language of central bankers “uncertainties” means exactly the reverse of the common usage and means they now fear a sharp downturn too. This will be a particular issue for Japan which saw its economy shrink by 1.6% in the final quarter of last year.

But there was a chaser to this cocktail which is the clear hint of what in foreign exchange markets the Bank of Japan calls “bold action” or intervention. This not only added to this from Chair Powell of the US Federal Reserve on Friday but came with more.

The fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain strong. However, the coronavirus poses evolving risks to economic activity. The Federal Reserve is closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic outlook. We will use our tools and act as appropriate to support the economy.

As an aside if the fundamentals of the US economy were strong the statement would not be required would it?

The Kuroda Put Option

The problem for the Bank of Japan is that it was providing so much liquidity anyway as Reuters summarises.

Under a policy dubbed yield curve control, the BOJ guides short-term rates at -0.1% and pledges to cap long-term borrowing costs around zero. It also buys government bonds and risky assets, such as ETFs, as part of its massive stimulus program.

The Reuters journalist is a bit shy at the end because the Bank of Japan has been buying equity ETFs for some time as well as smaller commercial property purchases. I have been watching and all last week apart from the public holiday on Monday they bought 70.4 billion Yen each day.

Regular readers will be aware that the Bank of Japan buys on down days in the equity market and that the clip size is as above. Or if you prefer Japan actually has an explicit Plunge Protection Team or PPT and it was active last week. This morning though Governor Kuroda went beyond open mouth operations.

BoJ Bought Japan Stock ETFs On Monday – RTRS Market Sources BoJ Normally Does Not Buy ETFs On Day TOPIX Index Is Up In Morning ( @LiveSquawk )

As you can see they have changed tactics from buying on falls to singing along with Endor.

Don’t you know pump it up
You’ve got to pump it up
Don’t you know pump it up
You’ve got to pump it up

Also there was this.

BANK OF JAPAN BOUGHT RECORD TOTAL 101.4B YEN OF ETFS TODAY ( @russian_market )

Actually about a billion was commercial property but the principle is that the Bank of Japan has increased its operations considerably as well as buying on an up day. So the Nikkei 225 index ended up 201 points at 21,344 as The Tokyo Whale felt hungry.

Coordinated action

The Bank of England has also been indulging in some open mouth operations today.

“The Bank continues to monitor developments and is assessing its potential impacts on the global and UK economies and financial systems.

The Bank is working closely with HM Treasury and the FCA – as well as our international partners – to ensure all necessary steps are taken to protect financial and monetary stability.” ( The Guardian)

The rumours are that interest-rate cuts will vary from 1% from the Federal Reserve to 0.5% at places like the Bank of England to 0.1% at the ECB and Swiss National Bank. The latter are more constrained because they already have negative interest-rates and frankly cutting by 0.1% just seems silly ( which I guess means that they might….)

There have already been market responses to this. For example the US ten-year Treasury Bond yield has fallen below 1.1%. The ten-year at 0.75% is a full percent below the upper end of the official US interest-rate. So the hints of interest-rate cuts are in full flow as we see Treasuries go to places we were assured by some they could not go. Oh and you can have some full number-crunching as you get your head around reports that expectations of an interest-rate cut in Australia are now over 100%

The Real Economy

China

If we switch now to hat got this central banking party started it was this. From the South China Morning Post on Saturday.

Chinese manufacturing activity plunged to an all-time low in February, with the first official data published amid the coronavirus outbreak confirming fears over the impact on the Chinese economy.

The official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) slowed to 35.7, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said on Saturday, having slipped to 50.0 in January when the full impact of the corona virus was not yet evident.

The only brief flicker of humour came from this.

Analysts polled by Bloomberg had expected the February reading to come in at 45.0.

Although you might think that manufacturing would be affected the most there was worse to come.

China’s non-manufacturing PMI – a gauge of sentiment in the services and construction sectors – also dropped, to 29.6 from 54.1 in January. This was also the lowest on record, below the previous low of 49.7 in November 2011, according to the NBS. Analysts polled by Bloomberg had expected the February reading to come in at 50.5.

To give you an idea of scale Greece saw its PMI ( it only has a manufacturing one) fell into the mid-30s as its economic depression began. So we are now facing not only a decline in economic growth in China but actual falls. This is reinforced by stories that factories are being asked to keep machines running even if there are no workers to properly operate them to conceal the size of the slow down.

Comment

The problem for central banks is that they are already so heavily deployed on what is called extraordinary monetary policy measures. Thus their ammunition locker is depleted and in truth what they have does not work well with a supply shock anyway as I explain in the podcast below. So we can expect them to act anyway but look for new tools and the next one is already being deployed by two central banks. I have covered the Bank of Japan so step forwards the Swiss National Bank.

Total sight deposits at the SNB rose by CHF3.51bn last week… ( @nghrbi)

Adding that to last weeks foreign exchange intervention suggests it has another 1 billion Swiss Francs to invest in (mostly US) equities.

Who might be next? Well the Euro is being strong in this phase partly I think because of the fact it has less scope for interest-rate cuts and partly because of its trade surplus. Could it copy the Swiss and intervene to weaken the Euro and investing some of the Euros into equities? It would be a “soft” way of joining the party. Once the principle is established then it can expand its activities following the model it has established with other policies.

As for other central banks they will be waiting for interest-rates to hit 0% I think. After all then the money created to buy the shares will be “free money” and what can go wrong?

Podcast

 

Japan sees quite a GDP contraction in spite of the Bank of Japan buying 8% of the equity market

Overnight the agenda for today was set by news out of the land of the rising sun or Nihon. Oh and I do not mean the effort to reproduce the plot line of the film Alien ( Gaijin) for those poor passengers on that quarantined cruise ship. It was this reported by the Asahi Shimbun.

Gross domestic product declined by a seasonally adjusted 1.6 percent in the quarter from the previous three months, or an annualized 6.3 percent, the Cabinet Office figures showed.

The contraction of 6.3 percent was far worse than expectations of many private-sector economists, who predicted a shrinkage of 4 percent or so.

Just to clarify the quarterly fall was 1.6% or using the Japanese style 6.3% in annualised terms. What they do not tell us is that this means that the Japanese economy was 0.4% smaller at the end of 2019 than it was at the end of 2018. So quite a reverse on the previous trend in 2019 which was for the annual rate of growth to pock up.

The Cause

Let me take you back to October 7th last year.

After twice being postponed by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the consumption tax on Tuesday will rise to 10 percent from 8 percent, with the government maintaining that the increased burden on consumers is essential to boost social welfare programs and reduce the swelling national debt. ( The Japan Times )

I pointed out back then that I feared what the impact of this would be.

This is an odd move when we note the current malaise in the world economy which just gets worse as we note the fact that the Pacific region in particular is suffering. We looked at one facet of this last week as Australia cut interest-rates for the third time since the beginning of the summer.

As you can see this was a risky move and it came with something of an official denial of the economic impact.

 about a quarter of the ¥8 trillion cost of the 2014 hike, according to the government and the Bank of Japan.

The 2014 rise in the Consumption Tax ( in rough terms the equivalent of VAT in the UK and Europe) had hit the Japanese economy hard, so the official claim of that the new impact would be a quarter was something I doubted. Now let us return to the Asahi Shimbun this morning.

Japan’s economy shrank in the October-December period for the first time in five quarters, as the sales tax hike and natural disasters pummeled personal consumption, according to preliminary figures released on Feb. 17.

The exact numbers are below.

Personal consumption, which accounts for more than half of Japan’s GDP, grew by 0.5 percent in the July-September period.

But the figure plunged to minus 2.9 percent for the three months from October, when the government raised the consumption tax rate to 10 percent from 8 percent.

We had previously looked at the boost to consumption before the tax rise as electrical appliances in particular were purchased. This will have flattered the economic data for the third quarter of last year and raised the GDP growth rate. But as you can see the party has had quite a hangover. On its own this would have led to a 2.2% decline in quarterly GDP.

The spinning has continued apace.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of economic revitalization, gave a positive outlook for personal consumption in a statement released on Feb. 17.

“The margin of decline in personal consumption is likely to shrink,” he said.

As John Lennon points out in the song Getting Better.

It can’t get no worse

As ever there is a familiar scapegoat which is the weather.

Destructive typhoons that hit eastern Japan and the warmer winter also fueled the slowdown in personal spending, such as purchases of winter clothes.

Although as @Priapus has pointed out there was an impact on the Rugby World Cup and the Japanese Grand Prix.

Investment and Exports

These will be on people’s minds as we try to look forwards. According to the Asahi Shimbun the situation for investment is also poor.

Investment in equipment by businesses, for example, shrank by 3.7 percent, a sharp decline from a rise of 0.5 percent in the preceding quarter, while housing investment tumbled 3.7 percent from an increase of 1.2 percent.

New housing starts have also been waning since the tax hike.

Many companies’ business performances are deteriorating, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

The business investment fall was presumably in response to the trade war and the deteriorating conditions in the Pacific economy we looked at in the latter part of 2019 and of course predates the Corona Virus. By contrast the Bank of Japan like all central banks will be more concerned about the housing market.

Switching to trade itself the position appears brighter.

In contrast, external demand pushed up GDP by 0.5 percentage point.

But in fact this was due to imports falling by 2.6% so a negative and exports fell too albeit by a mere 0.1%. That pattern was repeated for the annual comparison as exports were 2.2% lower than a year before and imports 4.3% lower. It is one of the quirks of the way GDP is calculated that a fall in imports larger than a fall in exports boosts GDP in this instance by 0.4%. Thus the annual comparison would have been -0.8% without it.

Comment

Sometimes the numbers are eloquent in themselves. If we look at the pattern for private consumption in Japan we see that it fell from 306.2 trillion Yen to 291.6 trillion in the first half of 2014 as the first tax rise hit. Well on the same seasonally adjusted basis and 2011 basis it was 294 trillion Yen in the last quarter of 2019. If we allow for the fact that 2014 saw a tax based boost then decline then consumption in 2019 had barely exceeded what it was before the first tax rise before being knocked on the head again. Or if you prefer it has been groundhog day for consumption in Japan since 2013. That is awkward on two counts. Firstly the Japanese trade surplus was one of the economic world’s imbalances pre credit crunch and expanding consumption so that it imported more was the positive way out of it. Instead we are doing the reverse. Also one of the “lost decade” issues for Japan was weak consumption growth which has just got weaker.

This leaves the Japanese establishment in quite a pickle. The government has already announced one stimulus programme and is suggesting it may begin another. The catch is that you are then throwing away the gains to the fiscal position from the Consumption Tax rise. This poses a challenge to the whole Abenomics programme which intended to improve the fiscal position by fiscal stimulus leading to economic growth. I am sure you have spotted the problem here.

Next comes the Bank of Japan which may want to respond but how? For newer readers it has already introduced negative interest-rates ( -0.1%) and bought Japanese Government Bonds like it is a powered up Pac-Man to quote the Kaiser Chiefs, But the extent of its monetary expansionism is best highlighted by this from Etf Stream earlier.

According to the BoJ funds flow report for Q3 2019, the bank now owns some 8% of the entire Japanese equity market, mostly through the current ETF-buying programme.

Hence the nickname of The Tokyo Whale.They think the rate of buying has slowed but I think that’s an illusion because it buys on down days and as The Donald so regularly tweets equity markets are rallying. Just this morning the German Dax index has hit another all-time high. But what do they do next? They cannot buy that many more ETFs because they have bought so many already. As you can see they are already a material player in the equity market and they run the Japanese Government Bond market as that is what Yield Curve Control means. Ironically the latter has seen higher yields at times in an example of how water could run uphill rather than down if the Bank of Japan was in charge of it. It will be wondering how the Japanese Yen has pretty much ignored today’s news.

Also as a final point. More and more countries are finding it hard to raise taxes aren’t they?

Podcast

 

 

 

Where next for the Japanese Yen and the Bank of Japan?

As the third most traded currency the Japanese Yen is one of the bedrocks of the world economy. In spite of the size and strength of the Japanese economy the currency tail can wag the economy dog as we saw on the period of the “Carry Trade” and its consequences. For newer readers I looked at the initial impact back on the 19th of September 2016.

 Ironically if done on a large-scale as happened back in the day with the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen it lowers the currency and so not only is the interest cheaper but you have a capital gain. What could go wrong? Well we will come to that. But this same effect turned out to make things uncomfortable for both Japan and Switzerland as their currencies were pushed lower and lower.

At that point borrowers were having a party as the got a cheaper borrowing rate and a currency gain but the Japanese ( and Swiss) saw their currency being depressed. However the credit crunch ended that party as currency traders saw the risk and that people might buy Yen to cover the risk. Thus there was a combination of speculative and actual buying which saw the Yen strengthen from over 120 Yen to the US Dollar to below 80.

There were various impacts from this and starting in Japan life became difficult for its exporters and some sent production abroad as the mulled an exchange rate of around 78 to the US Dollar. For example some shifted production to Thailand. Looking wider the investors who remained in the carry trade shifted from profit to loss. On this road in generic terms the typical Japanese investor often described as Mrs. Watanabe was having a rough patch as in Yen terms their investments went being hit. Actually that is something of a generic over my career for Mrs Watanabe as timing of investments in say UK Gilts or Australian property has often been poor. Of course as it turns out property in Oz did work but you would have needed plenty of patience.

Enter the Bank of Japan

The next phase was a type of enter the dragon as the Bank of Japan in 2013 embarked on an extraordinary monetary stimulus programme. Under the banner of Abenomics that was designed to weaken the Yen although it was not officially one of the 3 arrows it was supposed to fire. For a while this worked as the Yen fell towards 125 to the US Dollar. But just as economics 101 felt it could celebrate a rare triumph the Yen then strengthened again and actually rallied to 101 in spite of negative interest-rates being deployed  leading to yet another new effort called QQE and Yield Curve Control in September 2016.

So we see that Japan had some success in weakening the Yen but that then ended and even with negative interest-rates and the purchases by the Bank of Japan below there was a fizzling out of any impact.

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

But you see these things have unintended consequences as Brad Setser points out below.

Japanese investors have been big buyers of foreign bonds—and U.S. bonds in particular. The lifers, the Japanese government through the government pension fund (GPIF), the Japanese government through Post Bank (which takes in deposits and cannot make loans so it buys foreign bonds since it cannot make money buying JGBs), and Norinchukin*

So a policy to weaken the Yen has a side-effect of strengthening it and even worse makes the global financial system more risky. Back to Brad.

In broad terms, a number of Japanese financial institutions have become, in part, dollar based intermediaries. They borrow dollars from U.S. money market funds, U.S. banks, and increasingly the world’s large reserve managers (all of whom want to hold short-term dollar claims for liquidity reasons) and invest in longer dated U.S. bonds.

What about now?

Things are rather different to this time last year when we were trying to figure out what had caused this?

The Japanese yen soared in early Asian trading on Thursday as the break of key technical levels triggered massive stop-loss sales of the U.S. and Australian dollars in very thin markets. The dollar collapsed to as low as 105.25 yen on Reuters dealing JPY=D3, a drop of 3.2 percent from the opening 108.76 and the lowest reading since March 2018. It was last trading around 107.50 yen………. ( Reuters )

That was from January 3rd whereas overnight we see this.

The major was trading 0.1 percent up at 110.09, having hit a high of 110.21 earlier, its highest since May 23.  ( EconoTimes )

On its own this may seen the Governor of the Bank of Japan have a quiet smile and a celebratory glass of sake. But falls in the Yen are associated with something else which will please the head of The Tokyo Whale.

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Tokyo stocks rose Tuesday, with the benchmark Nikkei index ending above 24,000 for the first time since mid-December, as investor sentiment improved on expectations for further easing of U.S.-China trade tensions. ( The Mainichi)

The Mainichi seems to have missed the currency connection with this but no doubt Governor Kuroda   will be pointing out both thresholds to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Has something changed?

On Monday JP Morgan thought so. Via Forex Flow.

But because in recent years the yen is no longer being sold off in the first place, it is not acting as much like a safe-haven currency as in the past.

Okay so why?

if interest rates increase in other countries (opening a wider gap with rates in Japan)

Well good luck with that one! Maybe some day but the credit crunch era has seen 733 interest-rate cuts. However the Financial Times has joined in.

First, Japan is running trade deficits, which would imply a weaker currency. Second, domestic asset managers are busy buying higher-yielding foreign assets. Third, Japanese companies, confronting a chronic shortage of decent ways to deploy their capital at home, are increasingly spending it on deals overseas.

The last point is a really rather devastating critique of the six years of Abenomics as one of the stated Arrows was for exactly the opposite. Also there us more trouble for economics 101 as a lower Yen has seen a trade surplus switch to a deficit. Actually I think that responses to exchange rate moves can be very slow and measured in years so with all the ch-ch-changes it is hard to know what move is in play.

Comment

There is much to reflect on here. For example today may be one to raise a smile at the Bank of Japan as it calculates the value of its large equity holdings and sees the Yen weaken across a threshold. But it is also true that exactly the same policies saw the “flash rally” of over a year ago. In addition we see that the enormous effort in play to weaken the Yen has seen compensating side-effects which raise the risk level in the international finance system. Really rather like the Carry Trade did.

A warning is required because in the short-term crossing a threshold like 110 Yen sees a reversal but we could see the Yen weaken for a while. This is problematic with so many others wanting to devalue their currency as well with the Bank of England currently in the van. From a Japanese perspective this will be see as a gain against a nation they have all sorts of issues with.

“China has made enforceable commitments to refrain from competitive devaluation, while promoting transparency and accountability,” US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused China of allowing the value of the yuan to fall, making Chinese goods cheaper.

But, on Monday, the US said that the value of the yuan had appreciated since August, at the height of the trade war. ( BBC )

How will that play out?