The perils of Persimmon and how easy monetary policy helped create excess profits

One of the main themes of my work is that  the monetary easing by central banks has boosted asset prices, but the catch is that for example rises in house prices are inflation for the first-time buyer as well as those trading up. So the theme that it is all wealth effects is untrue. But we find that the effort to pump up house prices has also involved governments and in the UK much of this has been focused on the Help To Buy scheme. There are two main problems with this of which the opening one is simply that if you give people “help” in this form it is only brief because house prices rise to the new amount that can be afforded rather quickly. This creates windfall gains for existing home owners and the companies that build the houses. It is the latter we will focus on as there is a candidate in number one position for earning what in my days as a student were called “excess profits”. So one bit of economics 101 exists even if it is only good news for the shareholders and managers of in this instance Persimmon Homes.

Persimmon

From Reuters earlier.

Britain’s Persimmon Plc, which is under scrutiny from the government for its practices under the “Help to Buy” scheme, on Tuesday named interim Chief Executive Officer Dave Jenkinson to the role on a permanent basis.

The company, whose former CEO Jeff Fairburn stepped down last year amid backlash surrounding his bonus package, reported a 13 percent rise in full-year pretax profit to 1.09 billion pounds ($1.43 billion)

So profits are now over a billion pounds and we can remind ourselves that at Persimmon profits were at an excess level on an individual basis as we go back to the 22nd of October last year.

The boss of house building firm Persimmon has walked off in the middle of a BBC interview after being asked about his £75m bonus.

“I’d rather not talk about that,” Jeff Fairburn said, when asked if he had regrets about last year’s payout.

The £75m, which was reduced from £100m after a public outcry, is believed to be the largest by a listed UK firm.

In this instance we can spell excess profits with one word, greed. Returning to the company itself I explained back then how the excess profits were built up.

But the real problem is that Help To Buy provided what is called in economic theory excess profits for housebuilders. We have looked before at how it helped them to make high profits on the sale of each house and it also boosted volumes in a double whammy effect.

This morning we have been provided with some numbers to that effect. From the BBC.

Almost half the homes it built (7,970 out of 16,449) sold through the Help-to-Buy scheme Average selling price of all its homes: £215,563…….Mike Amey, managing director of global investment management firm Pimco, told the BBC that profit per household at Persimmon had trebled since Help To Buy was introduced.

I think he means per house built but we get the idea. So we see that Help To Buy has allowed Persimmon to build more houses at treble the previous profit. This has led to this.

The Persimmon money machine rolls on, profits past the £1bn mark and £2.2bn returned to shareholders in the past seven years, with the promise of more – much more – to come. ( BBC)

When Help To Buy started back in April 2013 the share price was around £9 as opposed to the current £24 and of course as noted above money has also been returned to shareholders. I guess that avoids the rise in the share price becoming even higher. As the current market capitalisation is £7.6 billion according to Investing.com the extra dividends have been both significant and material.

Shoddy Work

This is a section my late father would be more than happy for me to emphasise. His work as a plastering subcontractor saw him work on one estate which was built so badly it was easier in the end to knock it all down. Another was where the architect was proud of his inward sloping balconies and ignored warnings of the dangers, well until it rained anyway. So let me note that the excess profits have not been accompanied by high quality work.

Persimmon has been dogged by complaints about poor build quality among Help to Buy customers – with satisfaction rates remaining below its 4-star target of 80%. ( SkyNews )

Reuters have suggested the housing minister James Brokenshire is now on the case.

However the company – along with some others in the sector – has attracted criticism for practices such as selling houses with rising leasehold charges which make them hard or impossible to sell on, and for poor quality workmanship.

“Leasehold, build quality, their leadership seemingly not getting they’re accountable to their customers, are all points that have been raised by (the minister) privately,” the source said, echoing a report in The Times newspaper.

The issue with leasehold charges is a national disgrace. The issues concerning leasehold and freehold ownership were supposed to have been settled years and indeed decades ago. Yet the scandal goes on and nothing has been done about it.

Comment

The environment remains extremely favourable for the likes of Persimmon and it continues to receive a bit more than a helping hand from the Help To Buy scheme. This is because whilst we have seen some house price falls these are mostly around central London where prices are too high for Help To Buy anyway. We are left to observe a scheme that has enriched one group of people the shareholders and massively enriched the managers and directors. It is not as if the quality of the work has been high and in fact the reverse seems to be the case.

There is a clear issue in the way that these things have been allowed to persist as we all make mistakes but even if we give the government a free pass on the first year or two we cannot give it a free pass on the way it has allowed this to persist. I do hope that government ministers will not in the future be joining housebuilders boards of directors.

If we move to monetary policy there may be further relief for house builders if the evidence of Sir David Ramsden to Parliament earlier is any guide.

I agree with the MPC’s collective view
that the monetary policy response to Brexit, whatever form it takes, will not be automatic and could
be in either direction.

Also Governor Mark Carney points out this.

Although the principles guiding the MPC’s choice of threshold still hold, the creation of the
Term Funding Scheme had reduced the effective lower bound on Bank Rate from ½% to 0%.

Also the Governor has got himself into something of a mess with this statement.

The MPC now views that the level from which Bank Rate can be cut materially is now
around 1½%.

So the cut from 0.5% to 0.25% was not “material”? Odd because I recall him claiming that it has saved around 250,000 jobs……

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Forward Guidance Lie

Here is Gertjan making his case.

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

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

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

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

Yet Gertjan has got cold feet again.

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

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

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

Here is the new Vlieghe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retail Sales

Here Gertjan Vlieghe had almost impeccable timing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Turmoil of EU departure constrains policymakers despite tight labour market.

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

This has implications for the timing, pace and degree of Bank Rate increases.
There’s already great speculation about the exact timing of the first rate hike and this decision is becoming
more balanced.
It could happen sooner than markets currently expect.

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

The case for an interest-rate rise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

How long will it be before the Bank of England cuts interest-rates?

This morning has opened with some good news for the UK economy and it has come from the Nationwide Building Society. So let us get straight to it.

Annual house price growth slows to its
weakest pace since February 2013. Prices fell 0.7% in the month of December,after taking account of seasonal factors.

I wish those that own their own house no ill but the index level of 425.7 in December compares with 107.1 when the monthly series first began in January of 1991, so you can see that it has been a case of party on for house prices. If you want a longer-term perspective then the quarterly numbers which began at 100 at the end of 1952 were 11.429.5 and the end of the third quarter of 2018. I think we can call that a boom! Putting it another way the house price to earnings ratio is 5.1 which is not far off the pre credit crunch peak of 5.4.

The actual change is confirmed as being below both the rate of consumer inflation and wage growth later.

UK house price growth slowed noticeably as 2018 drew to a close, with prices just 0.5% higher than December 2017.

Also the Nationwide which claims to be the UK’s second largest mortgage lender is not particularly optimistic looking ahead.

In particular, measures of consumer confidence weakened
in December and surveyors reported a further fall in new
buyer enquiries towards the end of the year. While the
number of properties coming onto the market also slowed,
this doesn’t appear to have been enough to prevent a
modest shift in the balance of demand and supply in favour
of buyers.

Although they then seem to change their mind.

It is likely that the recent slowdown is attributable to the
impact of the uncertain economic outlook on buyer
sentiment, given that it has occurred against a backdrop of
solid employment growth, stronger wage growth and
continued low borrowing costs.

The economic environment is seeing some ch-ch-changes right now but let us first sort out some number-crunching where each UK country has done better than the average.

Amongst the home nations Northern Ireland recorded the
strongest growth in 2018, with prices up 5.8%, though
Wales also recorded a respectable 4% gain. By contrast,
Scotland saw a more modest 0.9% increase, while England
saw the smallest rise of just 0.7% over the year.

They have I think switched from the monthly to the quarterly data here as that average was up by 1.3%.

The UK economy

We have now received the last of the UK Markit Purchasing Manager Index surveys so let us get straight to it.

At 51.6 in December, the seasonally adjusted All Sector
Output Index was up slightly from 51.0 in November.
However, the latest reading pointed to the second-slowest
rate of business activity expansion since July 2016.

I am a little surprised they mention July 2016 so perhaps they are hoping we have short memories and do not recall how it turned into a lesson about being careful about indices driven by sentiment. This was mostly driven by the manufacturing sector which had Markit looking for a scapegoat.

December saw the UK PMI rise to a six-month high,
following short-term boosts to inventory holdings and
inflows of new business as companies stepped up their
preparations for a potentially disruptive Brexit.
Stocks of purchases and finished goods both rose
at near survey-record rates, while stock-piling by
customers at home and abroad took new orders growth
to a ten-month high.

So preparation is bad as presumably would be no preparation. It is especially awkward for their uncertainty theme which was supposed to be reducing output. But let us move onto the main point here which is that the UK is apparently managing some economic growth but not a lot. This matters if we now switch to the wider economic outlook.

The world economy

As I have been typing this the Chinese cavalry have arrived. Reuters.

China’s just cut bank reserve requirement ratios by 100 bps, releasing an estimated RMB1.5t in liquidity by Jan 25. expected this, but argues the central bank can do a lot more – like cutting benchmark guidance lending rates.

Reuters are understandably pleased about finding someone who got something right. But the deeper issue is the economic prognosis behind this which we dipped into on Wednesday and is that the Chinese economy is slowing. For those wondering about what the People’s Bank of China is up to it is expanding the money supply via reducing the reserves banks have to hold which allows them to lend more. So they are acting on the quantity of money rather than the price or interest-rate of it. This relies on the banks then actually lending more. Or more specifically not just lending to those in distress.

Then there is the Euro area which according to the Markit PMIs is doing this.

The eurozone economy moved down another gear
at the end of 2018, with growth down considerably
from the elevated rates at the start of the year.
December saw business activity grow at the
weakest rate since late-2014 as inflows of new
work barely rose……….The data are consistent with eurozone GDP rising by just under 0.3% in the fourth quarter, but with quarterly growth momentum slowing to 0.15% in December.

We need to rake these numbers as a broad sweep rather than going for specific accuracy as, for example, Germany is described as being at a five-year low which requires amnesia about the 0.2% GDP contraction in the third quarter of this year.

Comment

If we switch to our leading indicator for the UK which is money supply growth we see a by now familiar pattern. The two signals of broad money growth have diverged a bit but neither M4 growth at 2.2% in November or M4 lending growth at 3.5% are especially optimistic. That only gets worse once you subtract inflation from it. Or to put it another way in ordinary times we would be in a situation where a bank rate cut would be expected.

What does the Bank of England crystal ball or what is called Forward Guidance in one of Governor Mark Carney’s policy innovations tell us?

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

So “I agree with Mark” seems to be the most popular phase which should make taxpayers wonder why we bother with the other 8 salaries? Indeed one of them will be in quite a panic now as back in May Deputy Governor Ramsden told us that 8.8% consumer credit growth was “Weak” so I dread to think what he makes of the current 7.1%. Although @NicTrades has a different view.

that’s China fast!

So that is how a promised Bank Rate rise begins to metamorphose into a Bank Rate cut which will be presented as “unexpected” ( as opposed to on here where we have been watching the journey of travel for nearly a year) and a “surprise”, just like the last time this happened just over 2 years ago.

Let me finish by welcoming the addition of two women to the Financial Policy Committee as there is of course nothing like a Dame.

Dame Colette Bowe and Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia have been appointed as external members of ‘s Financial Policy Committee (FPC)

So sadly the diversity agenda only adds female members of the establishment to the existing list of male establishment appointees. That went disastrously with the Honorable Charlotte Hogg who proved that even being the daughter of an Earl and a Baroness cannot allow you to avoid family issues, especially when you forget you have a brother.

Weekly Podcast

Including my answer to this question from Rob Wilson.

How can economies such as Italy and Japan endures decades of virtually zero growth and yet the general population don’t seem to be suffering compared to other economies with growth?

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is going on at the Bank of England these days?

Yesterday saw the publication of Brexit forecasts from HM Treasury and the Bank of England. The former was always going to be politically driven but the Bank of England is supposed to be independent, although these days we have to ask independent of what? There is little sign of that to be seen. Let us take a look at the Bank of England scenarios.

The estimated paths for GDP, CPI inflation and unemployment in the Economic Partnership scenarios are
shown in Charts A, B and C. The range reflects the sensitivity to the key assumptions about the extent to
which trade barriers rise, and how rapidly uncertainty declines. GDP is between 1¼% and 3¾% lower than
the May 2016 trend by end-2023. Relative to the November 2018 Inflation Report projection, by end-2023 it is 1¾% higher in the Close scenario, and ¾% lower in the Less Close scenario.

After singing its own fingers last time around it is calling these scenarios rather than forecasts but pretty much everyone is ignoring that. The problem with this sort of thing is that you end up doing things the other way around. Frankly the answers are decided and then the assumptions are picked to get you there. We do know some things.

Productivity growth has slowed, sterling has depreciated and the increase in inflation has squeezed real incomes.

However really the most certainty we have is about the middle part of a lower UK Pound £ and even there the Bank of England seems to omit its own part ( Bank Rate cut and Sledgehammer QE ) in the fall. That caused the fall in real incomes as we see how policy affected the results.

If we move wider the Bank of England attracted fire from both sides as for example this is from the former Monetary Policy Committee member Andrew Sentance who is a remain supporter.

The reputation of economic forecasts has taken a bad blow today with both UK government and appearing to use forecasts to support political objectives. Let’s debate – which I strongly oppose – rationally without recourse to bogus forecasts.

Why would he think that?

Well take a look at this.

The estimated paths for GDP, CPI inflation and unemployment in the disruptive and disorderly scenarios
are shown in Charts A, B and C. GDP is between 7¾% and 10½% lower than the May 2016 trend by end 2023.
Relative to the November 2018 Inflation Report projection, GDP is between 4¾% and 7¾% lower by
end-2023. This is accompanied by a rise in unemployment to between 5¾% and 7½%. Inflation in these
scenarios then rises to between 4¼% and 6½%.

It is the latter point about inflation and a claimed implication of it I wish to subject to both analysis and number-crunching.

How would the Bank of England respond to higher inflation?

Here is the claimed response.

Monetary policy responds mechanically to balance deviations of inflation from target and output
relative to potential. Bank Rate rises to 5.5%.

Let us see how monetary policy last responded to an expected deviation of inflation above target to back this up.

This package comprises:  a 25 basis point cut in Bank Rate to 0.25%; a new Term Funding Scheme to reinforce the pass-through of the cut in Bank Rate; the purchase of up to £10 billion of UK corporate bonds; and an expansion of the asset purchase scheme for UK government bonds of £60 billion, taking the total stock of these asset purchases to £435 billion.

As you can see the mechanical response seems to be missing! Unless of course you count the mechanical response of the mind of Mark Carney as he panicked thinking the UK was going into recession. The other 8 either panicked too or meekly fell in line. The point is further highlighted if we look at the scenario assumed for the exchange-rate of the UK Pound £.

And as the sterling risk premium increases, sterling falls by 25%, in addition to the 9% it has already fallen
since the May 2016 Inflation Report.

Let us examine the reaction function. Let us say that the £ had fallen by 10% when the Bank of England took action then if it ” responds mechanically” we would expect this time around to see a 0.625% reduction in Bank Rate and some £150 billion of extra QE as well as another Term Funding Scheme bank subsidy of over £300 billion.

Instead we are expected to believe that the Bank of England would raise and not cut interest-rates and would do so by 4.75%! There is also an issue with the timing as the forward guidance of the Bank of England has been for Bank Rate rises for over 4 years now and we have had precisely 0.25% in net terms. So at the current rate of progress the interest-rate increases would be complete somewhere around the turn of the century.

Actually there is more because other interest-rates would go even higher it would appear.

Uncertainty about institutional credibility leads to a pronounced increase in risk premia on sterling
assets, including a 100bps increase in the term premium on gilts.

So an extra 1% on Gilt yields although this is only related to a particular piece of theory as we skip what they would be apart from an implication of maybe 6.5%. A particular catch in that is the current ten-year yield is a mere 1.33% and over the past 24 hours it has been falling adding to the previous falls I have been reporting for a while now. Markets do of course move in the wrong direction at times but Gilt investors seem to be placing their bets on the Gilt market and ignoring the Bank of England scenario.

But wait there is more.

Overall, interest rates on loans to households and businesses rise by 250bps more than Bank Rate.

Can this sort of thing happen? Yes as we saw it in the build up to the credit crunch as UK interest-rates disconnected from Bank Rate by around 2%. Also yesterday we were noting such a thing via the fact that Unicredit of Italy has found itself paying 7.83% on a bond which was yielding only 1% as recently as yesterday. But there are two main problems of which the first occurred on Mark Carney’s watch as we note that they way he “responds mechanically” to such developments is to sing along with MARRS.

Pump up the volume
Pump up the volume
Pump up the volume
Get down

Actually such a response by the Bank of England was typical before the advent of Governor Carney. Recall this?

For instance, during the financial crisis the exchange rate
depreciated around 30% initially but settled to be around 25% below its pre-crisis peak in the following
couple of years.

So in a broad sweep in line with the new worst case scenario especially as we recall that inflation went above 5% on both main measures. So Bank Rate went to 5.5%? Er now it was slashed by over 4% to 0.5% and we saw the advent of QE that eventually rose in that phase to £375 billion.

Comment

The first comment was provided by financial markets as we have already noted the Gilt market rally which was accompanied by the UK Pound £ rallying above US $1.28. The UK FTSE 100 did fall but only by 13 points. If there is anything a Bank of England Governor would hate it is being ignored.

Actually the timing was bad too. For some reason the report was delayed from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm but due to yet another problem it was another ten minutes late. This means that very quickly eyes turned to this by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell.

Stocks ripped higher on Wednesday after Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said interest rates are close to neutral, a change in tone from remarks the central bank chief made nearly two months ago. ( CNBC )

Roughly that seems to take 0.5% off the expected path of US interest-rates and has led to the US ten-year Treasury Note yield falling back to 3%. Also trying to convince people about higher inflation is not so easy when the oil price ( WTI) falls below US $50.

Me on Core Finance TV

 

 

 

 

 

What can we expect next from UK house prices?

A feature of the credit crunch era has been the way that central banks have concentrated so much firepower on the housing market so that they can get house prices rising again. Of course they mostly hide under the euphemism of asset prices on this particular road. For them it is a win-win as it provides wealth effects and supports the banking sector via raising the value of its mortgage book. The increasingly poor first time buyer finds him or herself facing inflation via higher prices rather than wealth effects as we note the consumer inflation indices are constructed to avoid the whole issue.

This moves onto the issue of Forward Guidance which exists mostly in a fantasy world too. Let me give you an example from the Bank (of England) Underground Blog.

 It is reasonable to suppose that the more someone knows about a central bank and how it conducts policy, the more confidence they will have that the central bank will act to bring inflation back to target.

Really? To do so you have to ignore the two main periods in the credit crunch era when the Bank of England “looked through” inflation above target as real wages were hit hard. Yet they continue to churn out this sort of thing.

 And Haldane and McMahon, using the institutional knowledge score discussed above, show that for the UK, higher knowledge corresponds to greater satisfaction with the Bank, and inflation expectations closer to 2% at all horizons.

So according to the Bank of England you are none to bright if you disagree with them! I think it would have been better if Andy Haldane stuck to being a nosy parker about others Spotify play lists.

The area where the general public has I think grasped the nettle as regards central banking forward guidance is in the area of house prices. The Bank of England loudspeakers have been blaring out Yazz’s one hit.

The only way is up, baby
For you and me now
The only way is up, baby
For you and me now

Indeed even if things go wrong then we can apparently party on.

But if we should be evicted
Huh, from our homes
We’ll just move somewhere else
And still carry on

Where are we now?

If we switch to the current state of play we are in a situation where the new supply of moves to boost house prices have dried up. For example the Term Funding Scheme ended in February and after over four years of dithering the Bank of England raised Bank Rate to 0.75% in August. Combining this with the fall in real wages after the EU leave vote led to me expecting house prices to begin to fall but so far only in London has this happened. One factor in this has led to a blog from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research or NIESR last week.

The key point is that although the political turmoil was of great concern, the impact on bond prices followed a pattern we have seen before in which risk rises but expectations of a policy response militate against the risk.

The politics may be of great concern to the NIESR but the UK Gilt market has been driven by the intervention of the Bank of England. Not only has it already bought some £435 billion of it but its behaviour with the Sledgehammer QE of August 2016 has led to expectations of more of it in any setback. The irony is that good news may make the Gilt market fall because it makes extra QE less likely. The impact of this has been heightened by the way the Bank of England was apparently willing to pay pretty much any price for Gilts in the late summer of 2016. For the first time ever one section of the market saw negative yields as the market picked off the Bank of England’s buyers.

Mortgage Rates

This is where the Gilt yield meets an economic impact. If we think about mortgage rates then they are most driven by the five-year yield. On the day of the August Bank Rate it was 1.1% and of course according to the Bank of England the intelligent observer would be expecting further “limited and gradual rises” along the lines of its forward guidance. Yet it is 0.96% as I type this and the latest mortgage news seems to be following this. From Mortgage Strategy.

TSB has reduced interest rates by up to 0.35 per cent on mortgages for residential, home purchase and remortgage borrowers.

Changes applied include reductions of up to 0.35 per cent on five-year fixed deals up to 95 per cent LTV in its house purchase range; reductions of up to 0.25 per cent on two-year fixes up to 90 per cent LTV; and up to 0.30 per cent on five-year fixes up to 90 per cent LTV for remortgage borrowers.

That was from Friday and this was from Thursday.

Investec Private Bank has announced cuts to a series of its fixed and tracker mortgages.

Reductions total up to 0.50 per cent, and all within the 80 per cent – 85 per cent owner-occupier category.

Specifically, the variable rate mortgage has been cut by 0.50 per cent, the three-year fixed rate product by 0.10 per cent, the four-year by 0.15 per cent, and the five-year fixed rate by 0.20 per cent.

So the mortgage rates which had overall risen are in some cases on the way back down again. We will have to see how this plays out as Moneyfacts are still recording higher 2 year mortgage rates ( 2.51% now versus the low of 2.33% in January). I am placing an emphasis on fixed-rate mortgages because of the recent state of play.

The vast majority of new mortgage loans – 96% – are on fixed interest rates, typically for two or five years.

Currently half of all outstanding loans are on fixed rates, equating to about 4.7 million households.  ( BBC in August).

Lending

According to UK Finance which was the British Bankers Association in the same way that the leaky Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant became the leak-free Sellafield this is the state of play.

Gross mortgage lending across the residential market in October was £25.5bn, some 5.6 per cent higher than last October. The number of mortgages approved by the main high street banks in October was 4.1 per cent lower than last October; although approvals for house purchase were 3.6 per cent higher, remortgage approvals were 13.5 per cent lower and approvals for other secured borrowing were 1.3 per cent lower.

If they are right this seems to be a case of steady as she goes.

Comment

The situation so far is one of partial success for my view if the monthly update from Acadata is any guide.

House prices rebounded in October, up 0.4% – the first increase since February. The annual rate of price increases
continued to slow, however, dropping to just 1.0%.
Despite this, most regions continue to show growth, the exceptions being both the South East and North East, which show modest falls on an annual basis. The average price of a home in England and Wales is now £304,433, up from £301,367 last October.

So no national fall as hoped ( lower house prices would help first time buyers) but at east a slowing of the rise to below the rate of growth of both inflation and wages. There is also plenty of noise around as one official measure is still showing over 3% growth whilst the Rightmove asking prices survey shows falls. As ever the numbers are not easy to wade through as for example I have my doubts about this.

In London annual price growth has slowed substantially in the last month, falling to just 1.8%, yet there has still been an increase of £10,889 in the last twelve months with the average price in London now standing at £620,571.

The noose around house prices is complex as for example we have seen today in the trajectory of mortgage rates and reporting requires number-crunching as this from Politics Live in the Guardian shows.

GDP per head would fall by 3% a year, amounting to an average cost per person a year of £1,090 at today’s prices.

I would like to see an explanation of why it would fall 3% a year wouldn’t you? Much more likely the NIESR suggests a 3% fall in total and just for clarity it is against a rising trend. Of course if we saw falls as reported in the Guardian we would see the 18% drop in house prices suggested by some before the EU referendum whereas so far we have seen a slowing of the rises. But the outlook still looks cloudy for house prices and I still hope that first time buyers get some hope in terms of lower prices rather than help to borrow more.

Podcast

Central banking forward guidance ignores the rules of probability

Today we can continue our journey into the world of central bankers which is a cosy international club. It was hard as the New York Federal Reserve Bank reported in glowing terms the visit of its President John Williams to the Bronx not to recall a previous effort from his predecessor William Dudley. From Reuters in 2011.

He then stretched for a real world example. The only problem was he chose the Apple’s latest tablet computer that hit stores on Friday, which may be more popular at the New York Fed’s headquarters near Wall Street than it is on the gritty streets of Queens.

“Today you can buy an iPad 2 that costs the same as an iPad 1 that is twice as powerful,” he said.”You have to look at the prices of all things.”

This prompted guffaws and widespread murmuring from the audience, with one audience member calling the comment “tone deaf.”

“I can’t eat an iPad,” another said.

That of course echoed around the world. This event by the Tweet storm looks more controlled in terms of audience so he may have avoided questions like this.

“When was the last time, sir, that you went grocery shopping?” one audience member asked.

Equilibrium Unemployment

Last night Michael Saunders of the Bank of England gave a speech to the CBI and as early as the fourth sentence he was pontificating about the theory that just will not die and about a number he cannot possibly know.

In the last 10-15 years, these effects from population ageing have been fairly benign, reducing the equilibrium jobless rate and neutral interest rate.

Let me now take you back just over five years when David “I can see for” Miles was giving us forward guidance on the equilibrium unemployment rate.

we will not tighten monetary policy until a recovery is strong enough and sustained enough that it has made a meaningful dent in unemployment so that it at least falls to 7 per cent…….. that linking the horizon over which an exceptionally expansionary monetary policy continues to support demand to the rate of unemployment has merit.

It is easy to forget now that we were being steered away from using GDP for monetary policy and towards the unemployment rate along these lines. Poor old David must wish he had never uttered the words below.

I suspect this is largely because the weight of money is behind a view that the significant positive news on the economic outlook means that the 7% unemployment level might be reached within around eighteen months………

Actually the unemployment rate plunged such that by the New Year these words were even more embarrassing.

If that is so unemployment is likely to fall rather more
slowly than would be usual.

Putting it another way the equilibrium unemployment rate is now 4.25% according to the Bank of England via 4.5%,5%, 5.5% and 6,5%. They may have guided to 6% as well but I do not recall it and these things tend to get redacted. Imagine you went to an engineer who guided you towards 7000 revs in your car then a few years later decided it was 4250! This sort of thing can only happen because central banking is a closed shop where the establishment appoint the same old “independent” crew.

Returning to Michael Saunders and yesterday he loses the plot more here.

Over the last 25 years, the share of the 25-64 age population with tertiary level (ie university or
similar) education has risen from 19% to 43%, a bigger rise than in most advanced economies (see figure
4).ix The tertiary education share among people aged 25-40 years is now around 50%, and the rise in this
measure has slowed in recent years.

A triumph according to Michael except he ignores the fact that this accompanies a really poor period for real wages. Indeed if the workforce is indeed more qualified, then real wages are even lower on a like for like basis. Are qualifications now required for lower skilled jobs and frankly what value are they? These are the real questions central bankers ignore as they pose the question how did we get here? That of course has been driven by their policies.

The attempt to use demographics as a smokescreen clears quickly as we compare the number below with the 2.75% error.

 This shift in workforce composition away from age groups that tend to have high jobless rates has cut the equilibrium jobless rate by about 0.3 percentage point since 2007.

 

Neutral Interest-Rate

We now move on to one of the central banking obsessions of our times. The so-called neutral interest-rate is examined below.

However, the MPC judges that, in practice, population ageing currently is lifting the stock of household assets, both in the UK and globally – and hence is pushing the equilibrium level of global real interest rates lower, and will continue to do so for some time.

Interesting ( sorry). If we look at the UK real interest-rate are low because the Bank of England put them there! It then thought bond yields were too high so QE was used to help lower them. Even this was not enough so it used credit easing to reduce mortgage rates. On the other side of the coin it has had two main phases of what it calls “looking through” rises in inflation. The first in 2010/11 when both main consumer inflation measures peaked above 5% per annum and then more recently after the EU leave vote.

The fundamental issue here is something that I learnt during my days as an option trader. On the quiet days we spent many hours discussing how to measure low probability events or what we would call  far out of the money options. One company called CRT built quite a empire based on the view that low probability events were undervalued and therefore bought them and counted the profits. Those of you who have followed the collapse of the company called OptionsSellers last weekend might note that it appears ( it has been vague on the details) to have done the reverse and accordingly according to the CRT theory has lost money. In this instance all of it.

Bringing this back to central bankers lets us note that Bank Rate is presently 0.75% and the estimate of the neutral rate is say in the range 2.5% to 3%. Because that is far away and also because interest-rate changes have been so rare that is an extraordinarily low probability event. An intelligent man or woman would therefore conclude that they are likely to know little or nothing about it until there is more evidence ( like some actual interest-rate rises). By contrast central bankers regularly opine about it and attempt to present it as a fact when in fact the rest of us are singing along to Ivan Van Dahl.

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

Comment

I would like to look at something I think we can all agree with.

For most of the last 10 years, the economy has generally had significant amounts of spare capacity.

But look where it then goes.

Now, with the economy having grown above its modest potential pace for six or seven years that spare
capacity has been used up, with supply and demand in the economy broadly in balance.

Really? A more intelligent statement would be to say that the quantity measure (employment) has been strong but wage growth has been disappointingly weak. The failures around the “output gap” have led to claims wage growth is on the turn for many years from this crew. The reality is that the two main real wage falls have come when they have “looked through” inflation.

Anyway he saved the best to nearly last. If so how come we are where we are then?

BoE research suggests that this is not the case for the UK so far, and that the total impact of interest rate changes on growth and inflation is similar to the pre-crisis period.xlv The easing in mid-2016 seemed to provide the expected boost to the economy.

There are a couple of escape clauses in the second sentence such as “seemed to” and “expected” ( by who?) but we seem to be in “the operation was a success but the patient died” territory to me.