Greece rearms but what about the economy?

These times does have historical echoes but in the main we can at least reassure ourselves that one at least is not in play. However Greece is finding itself in a situation where in an echo of the past it is now boosting its military. From Neoskosmos last month.

Greece’s new arms procurement program features:

  • A squadron 18 Rafale fighter jets to replace the older Mirage 2000 warplanes
  • Four Multi-Role frigates, along with the refurbishment of four existing ones
  • Four Romeo navy helicopters
  • New anti-tank weapons for the Army
  • New torpedoes for the Navy
  • New guided missiles for its Air Force

The Greek PM also announced the recruitment of a total of 15,000 soldier personnel over the next five years, while the Defence industry and the country’s Armed Forces are set for an overhaul, with modernisation initiatives and strengthening of cyberattack protection systems respectively.

Some of this will provide a domestic economic boost with the extra 15,000 soldiers and some of the frigate work. Much will go abroad with President Macron no doubt pleased with the orders for French aircraft as he was calling for more of this not so long ago. As a major defence producer France often benefits from higher defence spending. That scenario has echoes in the beginnings of the Greek crisis as the economy collapsed and people noted the relatively strong Greek military which had bought French equipment. Actually a different purchase became quite a scandal as bribery and corruption allegations came to light. The German Type 214 submarines had a host of problems too as the contract became a disaster in pretty much every respect.

The driving force behind this is highlighted by Kathimerini below.

Turkey’s seismic survey vessel, Oruc Reis, was sailing 18 nautical miles off the Greek island of Kastellorizo on Tuesday morning. The vessel, which had its transmitter off, was heading northeast and, assuming it continues its course at its current speed, it was expected to reach a point 12 nautical miles off Kastellorizo by around noon.

The catch is that many of the defence plans above take many years to come to fruition and Greece is under pressure from Turkey in the present.

The Economy

At the end of June the Bank of Greece told us this.

According to the Bank of Greece baseline scenario, economic activity in 2020 is expected to contract substantially, by 5.8%, and to recover in 2021, posting a growth rate of 5.6%, while in 2022 growth will be 3.7%. According to the mild scenario, which assumes a shorter period of transition to normality, GDP is projected to decline by 4.4% in 2020 and to increase by 5.8% and 3.8%, respectively, in 2021 and 2022. The adverse scenario, associated with a possible second wave of COVID-19, assumes a more severe and protracted impact of the pandemic and a slower recovery, with GDP falling by 9.4% in 2020, before rebounding to 5.7% in 2021 and 4.5% in 2022.

As it turns out it is the latter more pessimistic scenario which is in people’s minds this week. As I regularly point out the forecasts of rebounds in 2021 and 22 are pretty much for PR purposes as we do not even know how 2020 will end. This is even more exacerbated in Greece which has been forecast to grow by around 2% a year for the last decade whereas the reality has been of a severe economic depression.

The projection of a 9.4% decline would mean that we would then be looking at a decline of around 30% from the peak back in 2009. I am keeping this as a broad brush as so much is uncertain right now. But one thing we can be sure of is that historians will report this episode as a Great Depression.

What about the public finances?

There is a multitude of issues here so let us start with the latest numbers.

In January-September 2020, the central government cash balance recorded a deficit of €12,860 million, compared to a deficit of €1,243 million in the same period of 2019. During this period, ordinary budget revenue amounted to €30,312 million, compared to €35,279 million in the corresponding period of last year. Ordinary budget expenditure amounted to €41,332 million, from €37,879 million in January-September 2019.

Looking at the detail for September there was quite a plunge in revenue from 5.2 billion Euros last year to 3.8 billion this. Monthly figures can be erratic and there have been tax deferrals but that poses a question about further economic weakness?

If we try to look at how 2020 will pan out then last week the International Monetary Fund suggested this.

The Fund further anticipates the budget deficit this year to come to 9% of GDP, matching the global average rate, while the draft budget provides for 8.6% of GDP. In 2021 the deficit is expected to return to 3% of GDP rate, as allowed for by the general Stability Pact rules of the European Union, the IMF says, bettering the government’s forecast for 3.7% of GDP. ( Kathimerini)

As an aside I do like the idea that the Growth and Stability Pact still exists! That is a bit like the line from Hotel California.

“Relax”, said the night man
“We are programmed to receive
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave”

Actually it has only ever applied when it suited and I doubt it is going to suit for years. Anyway we can now shift our perspective to the national debt.

However, on the matter of the national debt, the government appears far more optimistic than the IMF. The Fund sees Greek debt soaring to 205.2% of GDP this year, from 180.9% in 2019, just as the Finance Ministry sees it contained at 197.4%. ( Kathimerini)

I do like the idea of it being “contained” at 197.4% don’t you? George Orwell would be very proud. So we can expect of the order of 200%. Looking ahead we see a familiar refrain.

For 2021 the government anticipates a reduction of the debt to 184.7% of GDP, compared to 200.5% that the IMF projects before easing to 187.3% in 2022 and to 177% in 2023. ( Kathimerini)

This is a by now familiar feature of official forecasts in this area which have sung along with the Beatles.

It’s getting better all the time

Meanwhile each time we look again the numbers are larger.

Debt Costs

This has been a rocky road from the initial days of punishing Greece to the ESM ( European Stability Mechanism) telling us how much it has saved Greece via Euro area “solidarity”

Conditions on the loans from the EFSF and ESM are much more favourable than those in the market. This saves Greeces around €12 billion every year, or 6.7 percent of its economy: a substantial form of solidarity.

These days the European Central Bank is also in the game with Greece now part of its QE bond buying programme. So its ten-year yield is a mere 0.83% and costs of new debt are low.

Comment

I have several issues with all of this. Let me start with the basic one which is that the shambles of a “rescue” that collapsed the economy was always vulnerable to the next downturn.I do not just mean the size of the economic depression which is frankly bad enough but how long it is lasted. I still recall the official claims that alternative views such as mine ( default and devalue) would collapse the economy. The reality is that the “rescue” has collapsed it and people may live their lives without Greece getting back to where it was.

Next comes the associated swerve in fiscal policy where Greece was supposed to be running a primary surplus for years. This ran the same risk of being vulnerable to the economic cycle who has now hit. We are now told to “Spend! Spend! Spend!” in a breathtaking U-Turn. Looking back some of this was real fantasy stuff.

 In 2032, they will review whether additional debt measures are needed to keep Greece’s gross financing needs below the agreed thresholds ( ESM)

Mind you the ESM still has this on its webpage.

Now, these programmes have started to bear fruit. The economy is growing again, and unemployment is falling. After many years of painful reforms, Greece’s citizens are seeing more jobs opening up, and standards of living are expected to rise.

Shifting back to defence we see that another burden is being placed on the Greek people in what seems a Merry Go Round. Reality seldom seems to intervene much here but let me leave you with a last thought. What sort of state must the Greek banks be in?

 

 

Do we face austerity and tax rises after the Covid-19 pandemic?

We have been in uncertain times for a while now and this has only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. One particular area of concern are the public finances of nations who are copying the “Spend! Spend! Spend!” prescription of football pools winner Viv Nicholson. For younger readers the football pools were what people did before lotteries. Indeed if we note the latest IMF Fiscal Monitor there was an issue even before the new era.

Prior to the pandemic, public and private debt were
already high and rising in most countries, reaching
225 percent of GDP in 2019, 30 percentage points
above the level prevailing before the global financial
crisis. Global public debt rose faster over the period,
standing at 83 percent of GDP in 2019.

We get a pretty conventional response for the IMF which has this as a mantra.

And despite access to financing varying sharply across countries, medium- to long-term fiscal strategies were needed virtually everywhere.

There is a counterpoint here which is that the fiscal strategies approved by the IMF have been a disaster. There is of course Greece but in a way Japan is worse. Following IMF advice it began a policy of raising its Consumption Tax to reduce its fiscal deficit. It took five years for it to take the second step as the first in 2014 caused quite a dive in the economy. Then the second step last year saw Japan’s economy contract again, just in time to be on the back foot as the Covid-19 pandemic arrived.

The IMF is expecting to see quite a change this year.

In 2020, global general government debt is estimated to make an unprecedented jump up to almost 100 percent of GDP. The major increase in the primary deficit and the sharp contraction in economic activity of 4.7 percent projected in the latest World Economic Outlook, are the main drivers of this development.

Oh and where have we heard this before? The old this is “temporary” line.

But 2020 is an exceptional year in terms of
debt dynamics, and public debt is expected to stabilize
to about 100 percent of GDP until 2025, benefiting
from negative interest-growth differentials.

I make the point not because I have a crystal ball but because I know I do not. Right now the path to the end of this year looks extremely uncertain with for example France imposing a curfew on Paris and other major cities and Germany hinting at another lockdown. So we have little idea about 2021 let alone 2025.

The IMF is in favour of more spending this time around.

These high levels of public debt are hence not the
most immediate risk. The near-term priority is to
avoid premature withdrawal of fiscal support. Support
should persist, at least into 2021, to sustain the recovery and to limit long-term scarring. Health and education should be given prime consideration everywhere.

I would have more time for its view on wasteful spending and protection of the vulnerable if the places where it has intervened had actually seen much reform and protection.

Fiscally constrained economies should prioritize the
protection of the most vulnerable and eliminate
wasteful spending.

Economic Theory

The IMF view this time around is based on this view of public spending.

The Fiscal Monitor estimates that a 1 percent of
GDP increase in public investment, in advanced
economies and emerging markets, has the potential to push GDP up by 2.7 percent, private investment by
10 percent and, most importantly, to create between
20 and 33 million jobs, directly and indirectly. Investment in health and education and in digital and green
infrastructure can connect people, improve economy wide productivity, and improve resilience to climate
change and future pandemics.

If true we are saved! After all each £ or Euro or $ will become 2.7 of them and them 2.7 times that. But then we spot “has the potential” and it finishes with a sentence that reminds me of the  company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage from the South Sea Bubble. For those unaware of the story it disappeared without trace but with investors money.

For newer readers this whole area has become a minefield for the IMF because it thought the fiscal multiplier for Greece would be 0.5 and got involved in imposing austerity on Greece. It then was forced into a U-Turn putting the multiplier above 1 as it was forced to do by the economic collapse which was by then visible to all.

Institute for Fiscal Studies

It has provided a British spin on these events although the theme is true pretty much everywhere we look.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the public health measures implemented to contain it will lead to a huge spike in government borrowing this year. We forecast the deficit to climb to £350 billion (17% of GDP) in 2020–21, more than six times the level forecast just seven months ago at the March Budget. Around two-thirds of this increase comes from the large packages of tax cuts and spending increases that the government has introduced in response to the pandemic. But underlying economic weakness will add close to £100 billion to the deficit this year – 1.7 times the total forecast for the deficit as of March.

I suggest you take these numbers as a broad brush as it will be a long economic journey to April exemplified by that fact that whilst I am typing this it has been announced that London will rise a tier in the UK Covid-19 restrictions from this weekend. I note they think that £250 billion of this is an active response and £100 billion is passive or a form of automatic stabiliser.

They follow the IMF line but with a kicker that it is understandably nervous about these days.

But, in the medium term, getting the public finances back on track will require decisive action from policymakers. The Chancellor should champion a general recognition that, once the economy has been restored to health, a fiscal tightening will follow.

They are much less optimistic than the IMF about the middle of this decade/

Under our central scenario, and assuming none of the temporary giveaways in 2020–21 are continued, borrowing in 2024–25 is forecast to be over £150 billion as a result of lower tax revenues and higher spending through the welfare system.

They do suggest future austerity.

Once the economy has recovered, policy action will be needed to prevent debt from continuing to rise as a share of national income. Even if the government were comfortable with stabilising debt at 100% of national income – its highest level since 1960 – it would still need a fiscal tightening worth 2.1% of national income, or £43 billion in today’s terms.

Comment

As you can see the mood music from the establishment and think tanks has changed somewhat since the early days of the credit crunch.Austerity was en vogue then but now we see that if at all it is a few years ahead. Let me now switch to the elephant in the room which has oiled this and it was my subject of yesterday, where the fall in bond yields means governments can borrow very cheaply and sometimes be paid to do it. That subject is hitting the newswires this morning.

The German 10-year bond yield declined to the lowest level in five months on Wednesday as coronavirus’s resurgence across the Eurozone strengthened the haven demand for the government debt. ( FXStreet)

It is -0.61% as I type this and even the thirty-year yield is now -0.22%. So all new German borrowing is better than free as it provides a return for taxpayers rather than investors. According to Aman Portugal is beginning to enjoy more of this as well.

According to the IGCP, which manages public debt, at the Bloomberg agency, €654 million were auctioned in bonds with a maturity of 17 October 2028 (about eight years) at an interest rate of -0.085%.

Although for our purposes we need to look at longer-term borrowing so the thirty-year issue at 0.47% is more relevant. But in the circumstances that is amazingly cheap.

In essence this is what is different this time around and it is one arm of government helping another as the enormous pile of bonds purchased by central banks continue to grow. The Bank of England bought another £4.4 billion this week. So we have a window where this matters much less than before. It does not mean we can borrow whatever we like it does mean that old levels of debt to GDP such as 90% ( remember it?) and 100% and even 120% are different now.

In the end the game changer is economic growth which in itself posts something of a warning as pre pandemic we had issues with it. Rather awkward that coincides with the QE era doesn’t it as we mull the way it gives with one hand but takes away with another?

UK National Grid

It was only last week I warned about this.

National Grid warns of short supply of electricity over next few days ( The Guardian)

Good job it has not got especially cold yet.

Is this the end of yield?

A feature of my career has been both lower interest-rates and bond yields. There have been many occasions when it did not feel like that! For example I remember asking Legal and General why they were buying the UK Long bond ( Gilt) at a yield of 15%. Apologies if I have shocked millennial and Generation Z readers there. There was also the day in 1992 when the UK fell out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and interest-rates were not only raised to 12% but another rise to 15% was also announced. The latter by the way was scrapped as that example of Forward Guidance did not even survive into the next day.

These days the numbers for interest-rates and yields have become much lower, For example it seemed something of a threshold when the benchmark UK bond or Gilt yield crossed 2%. That was mostly driven by the concept of it being at least in theory ( we have an inflation target of 2% per annum) the threshold between having a real yield and not having one. The threshold however was soon bypassed as the Gilt market continued to surge in price terms. So much in fact that we moved a decimal point as 2.0% became 0.2%. In fact it is very close to the latter ( 0.22%) as I type this.

What happened to the Bond Vigilantes?

We get something of an insight into this by looking at the case of Italy. In the Euro area crisis we saw its benchmark bond yield rise above 7% and if we compare then to now everything is worse.

In the second quarter of 2020 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was revised downwards by 13% to the previous
quarter (from 12.8%)………In Q2, Gross disposable income of consumer households decreased in nominal terms by 5.8% with respect to the previous quarter, while final consumption expenditure decreased by 11.5% in nominal terms. Thus, the saving rate increased to 18.6%, 5.3 percentage points higher than in the previous quarter.

That is from the Italian Statistics Office last week. It has been followed this week by this from the IMF.

The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday raised its Italy GDP forecast for 2020 to -10.6%, from June’s -12.8%.
That is an improvement of 2.2 percentage points.
But the IMF cut its Italian growth forecast for next year.
GDP is now expected to rise 5.2% in 2021, 1.1 percentage points lower than the 6.3% forecast in June. ( ANSA)

So the IMF have made this year look better but taken half of that away next year. Actually it makes a mockery of the forecasting process because if you do better then surely that should continue? But, for our purposes today, the issue is of a large fall in economic output in double-digits. This especially matters for Italy because we know from our long-running “Girlfriend in a Coma” theme that it struggles to grow in the better times. So if it loses ground we have to question not only when it will regain it but also if it will?

Switching to debt dynamics ANSA also reported this.

The IMF also said Italy’s public debt will rise to 161.8% of GDP this year, from 134.8% last year, and will then fall to 158.3% in 2021 and 152.6% in 2025.

Those numbers raise a wry smile as we were told back in the day by the Euro area that 120% on this measure was significant. That was quite an own goal at the time but now it has been left well behind. As to the projected declines I would ignore them as they are a given in official forecasts but the reality is that the numbers keep singing along with Jackie Wilson.

You know your love (your love keeps lifting me)
Keep on lifting (love keeps lifting me)
Higher (lifting me)
Higher and higher (higher)

Actually Italy has over time been relatively successful in terms of its annual deficit but not now.

The IMF sees a budget deficit of 13% this year and 6.2% next, falling to 2.5% by 2025.

In a Bond  Vigilante world we would see a soaring bond yields as we note all metrics being worse. Whereas last week I noted this.

Italian 10-Year Government #Bond #Yield Falls To Lowest In More Than A Year At 0.765% – RTRS

This represents quite a move in the opposite direction from when the infamous “‘We are not here to close spreads. This is not the function or the mission of the ECB.’” quote from ECB President Christine Lagarde saw the yield head for 3%. That was as recent as March.

Monday brought more of the same.

Italy‘s 10-year and 30-year sovereign bond yields have dropped to all time-lows of 0.72% and 1.59%, respectively. ( @fwred)

Actually the bond market rally has continued meaning that at 0.64% the Italian benchmark yield is below the US one at 0.72%. This has led some to conclude that Italy is more creditworthy than the US, but perhaps they just have a sense of humour. John Authers of Bloomberg puts it like this.

Forza Italia! The Italian spread over German bunds is the lowest in three years, while the yield on Italian bonds is the lowest since at least 1320: (h/t Jim Reid, @DeutscheBank

)

Take care with the last bit because if I recall my history correctly Italy began around 1870.

But the fundamental point that Italy illustrates is that the Bond Vigilante theme relating to economic problems is presently defunct. In fact we see the opposite of it in markets as you make the most money from markets which start with the worst prospects as there is more to gain.

What about exchange-rate problems Shaun?

This is a subtext which does still continue. Only on Monday we noted that Turkey had to pay 6.5% for a US Dollar bond. Some of the exchange-rate risk is removed by issuing in US Dollars but not all because at some point Turkish Lira need to be used to repay it. But 6.5% looks stellar right now. There is also Argentina where yields are between 40% and 50%.

These are special cases where the yields mostly reflect an expected fall in the currency.

Comment

I have looked at Italy in detail because it illustrates so many of the points at hand. It should be seeing bond yield rises if we apply past thinking styles but we are seeing its doppelganger. The situation is very similar in Greece where the benchmark bond yield is 0.78%. If we look wider around the world we see this.From Bloomberg.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. says the stockpile of developed sovereign debt with a negative yields adjusted for inflation has doubled over the past two years to $31 trillion.

As the Federal Reserve prepares to let prices run hotter to fix the pandemic-hit labor market, the Wall Street bank has a message for investors: Get used to it.“Despite how logic defying the phenomenon is, negative real yields will likely stay with us for a long period to come,” wrote strategists including Boyang Liu and Eddie Yoon.

Adding in inflation means that the situation gets worse for bond owners. There is a familiar theme here because those who own bonds have had quite a party. But the hangover is on its way for future owners who see a market where the profits have already been taken, so what is left for them?

I have left out until now the major cause of the moves in recent times which has been all the QE bond buying by central banks. An example of this will take place this afternoon in my home country when the Bank of England buys another £1.473 billion. The market price for bonds these days is what the central bank is willing to pay. If you can call it a market price. Next comes the issue that countries are relying on this and here is the Governor of the Bank of Italy in Corriere della Sera

Then there is the average cost of debt. Right now it’s 2.4%. It is a high value.

2.4% high? So we arrive at my point which is that the central bankers will drive yields ever lower and as to any turn it will require quite a change as they sing along with McFadden & Whitehead.

Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now!
We’re on the move!
Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now!
We’ve got the groove!

Some welcome good economic news for the UK

Today is proving to be something of a rarity in the current Covid-19 pandemic as it has brought some better and indeed good economic news. It is for the UK but let us hope that such trends will be repeated elsewhere. It is also in an area that can operate as a leading indicator.

In July 2020, retail sales volumes increased by 3.6% when compared with June, and are 3.0% above pre-pandemic levels in February 2020.

As you can see not only did July improve on June but it took the UK above its pre pandemic levels. If we look at the breakdown we see that quite a lot was going on in the detail.

In July, the volume of food store sales and non-store retailing remained at high sales levels, despite monthly contractions in these sectors at negative 3.1% and 2.1% respectively.

In July, fuel sales continued to recover from low sales levels but were still 11.7% lower than February; recent analysis shows that car road traffic in July was around 17 percentage points lower compared with the first week in February, according to data from the Department for Transport.

As you can see food sales dipped ( probably good for our waistlines) as did non store retailing but the recovery in fuel sales from the nadir when so few were driving was a stronger influence. I suspect the fuel sales issue is likely to continue this month based on the new establishment passion for people diving their cars to work. That of course clashes with their past enthusiasm for the now rather empty looking public transport ( the famous double-decker red buses of London are now limited to a mere 30 passengers and the ones passing me these days rarely seem anywhere near that). Actually it also collides with the recent public works for creating cycle lanes out of is not nowhere restricted space in London which has had me scratching my head and I am a regular Boris Bike user.

As we look further I thought that I was clearly not typical as what I bought was clothing but then I noted the stores bit.

Clothing store sales were the worst hit during the pandemic and volume sales in July remained 25.7% lower than February, even with a July 2020 monthly increase of 11.9% in this sector.

Online retail sales fell by 7.0% in July when compared with June, but the strong growth experienced over the pandemic has meant that sales are still 50.4% higher than February’s pre-pandemic levels.

In fact the only downbeat part of today;s report was the implication that the decline of the high street has been given another shove by the current pandemic. On the upside we are seeing innovation and change. Also if we look for some perspective we see quite a switch on terms of trend.

When compared with the previous three months, a stronger rate of growth is seen in the three months to July, at 5.1% and 6.1% for value and volume sales respectively. This was following eight consecutive months of decline in the three-month on three-month growth rate.

It is easy to forget in the melee of news but UK Retail Sales growth had been slip-sliding away and now we find ourselves recording what is a V-Shaped recovery in its purest form.

There is another undercut to this which feeds into a theme I first established on the 29th of January 2015 which is like Kryptonite for central bankers and their lust for inflation. If we look at the value and volume figures we see that prices have fallen and they have led to a higher volume of sales.I doubt that will feature in any Bank of England Working Paper.

Purchasing Manager’s Indices

These do not have the street credibility they once did. However the UK numbers covering August also provided some good news today.

August’s data illustrates that the recovery has gained speed
across both the manufacturing and service sectors since July. The combined expansion of UK private sector output was the fastest for almost seven years, following sharp improvements in business and consumer spending from the lows seen in April.

Public-Sector Finances

This is an example of a number which is both good and bad at the same time.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks, PSNB ex) in July 2020 is estimated to have been £26.7 billion, £28.3 billion more than in July 2019 and the fourth highest borrowing in any month on record (records began in 1993).

That is because we did need support for the economy ( how much is of course debateable) and even so the monthly numbers are falling especially if we note this as well.

Borrowing estimates are subject to greater than usual uncertainty; borrowing in June 2020 was revised down by £6.0 billion to £29.5 billion, largely because of stronger than previously estimated tax receipts and National Insurance contributions.

We can now switch to describing the position as the good the bad and the ugly.

Borrowing in the first four months of this financial year (April to July 2020) is estimated to have been £150.5 billion, £128.4 billion more than in the same period last year and the highest borrowing in any April to July period on record (records began in 1993), with each of the months from April to July being records.

The size of the debt is a combination of ugly and bad but we see that the numbers look like they are falling quite quickly now. Indeed if we allow for the effect of the economy picking up that impact should be reinforced especially if we allow for this.

Self-assessed Income Tax receipts were £4.8 billion in July 2020, £4.5 billion less than in July 2019, because of the government’s deferral policy;

National Debt

There has been some shocking reporting of this today which basically involves copy and pasting this.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks, PSND ex) has exceeded £2 trillion for the first time; at the end of July 2020, debt was £2,004.0 billion, £227.6 billion more than at the same point last year.

It is a nice click bait headline but if you read the full document you will spot this.

The Bank of England’s (BoE’s) contribution to debt is largely a result of its quantitative easing activities via the Bank of England Asset Purchase Facility Fund (APF), Term Funding Schemes (TFS) and Covid Corporate Financing Facility Fund (CCFF).

If we were to remove the temporary debt impact of these schemes along with the other transactions relating to the normal operations of BoE, PSND ex at the end of July 2020 would reduce by £194.8 billion (or 9.8 percentage points of GDP) to £1,809.3 billion (or 90.7% of GDP).

Regular readers may be having a wry smile at me finally being nice to the Term Funding Scheme! But its total should not be added to the national debt and nor should profits from the Bank of England QE holdings. Apparently profit is now debt or something like that.

As a result of these gilt holdings, the impact of the APF on public sector net debt stands at £115.8 billion, the difference between the nominal value of its gilt holdings and the market value it paid at the time of purchase.

Comment

It is nice to report some better news for the economy and let us hope it will continue until we arrive at the next information point which is how the economy responds to the end of the furlough scheme in October. As to the Public Finances I have avoided any references to the Office for Budget Responsibility until now as they have managed to limbo under their own usual low standards. Accordingly even my first rule of OBR Club that the OBR is always wrong may need an upwards revision.

Let me now take you away from the fantasy that the Bank of England has taken UK debt above £2 trillion and return to an Earth where it is implicitly financing the debt. Here is the Resolution Foundation.

These high fiscal costs of lockdown look to be manageable, though. 1) The @UK_DMO   has raised over £243bn since mid-March. 2) While debt is going up, the costs are still going down. Interest payments were £2.4bn in July 2020, a £2bn fall compared with July 2019.

That shows how much debt we have issued but how can it be cheaper? This is because the Bank of England has turned up as a buyer of first resort. At the peak it was buying some £13,5 billion of UK bonds a week and whilst the weekly pace has now dropped to £4.4 billion you can see that it has been like a powered up Pac-Man. Or if you prefer buying some £657 billion of something does tend to move the price and yield especially if we compare it to the total market.

Gilts make up the largest component of debt. At the end of July 2020 there were £1,681.2 billion of central government gilts in circulation.

Finally the UK Retail Prices Index consultation closes tonight and please feel free to contact HM Treasury to ask why they are trying to neuter out best inflation measure?

 

 

More QE will be on the agenda of the US Federal Reserve

Later today the policymakers of what is effectively the world’s central bank meet up to deliberate before making their policy announcement tomorrow evening UK time. Although there is a catch in my description because the US Federal Reserve goes through sustained periods when it effectively ignores the rest of the world and becomes like the US itself can do, rather isolationist. The Financial Times puts it like this.

US coronavirus surge to dominate Federal Reserve meeting…..Central bank policymakers face delicate decision on best way to deliver more monetary support.

As it happens the coronavirus numbers look a little better today. But there are clearly domestic issues at hand which is a switch on the initial situation where on the middle of March the US Federal Reserve intervened to help the rest of the world with foreign exchange liquidity swaps. We were ahead of that game on March 16th. Anyway, that was then and now we see the US $446 billion that they rose to is now US $118 billion and falling.

The US Dollar

There has been a shift of emphasis with Aloe Blacc mulling a dip in royalties from this.

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

This was represented back in the spring not only by a Dollar rally that especially hit the Emerging Market currencies but the Fed response I looked at above. Since then we have gone from slip-sliding away to the Fallin’ of Alicia Keys. Putting that into numbers the peak of 103.6 for September Dollar Index futures on March 19th has been replaced by 93.9 this morning.

If we look at the Euro it fell to 1.06 versus the Dollar and a warning signal flashed as the parity calls began. They had their usual impact as it is now at 1.17. Actually there were some parity calls for the UK Pound $ too so you will not be surprised to see it above US $1.28 as I type this. In terms of economic policy perhaps the most significant is the Japanese Yen at 105.50 because the Bank of Japan has made an enormous effort to weaken it and looks increasingly like King Canute.

There are economic efforts from this as I recall the words of the then Vice-Chair Stanley Fischer from 2015.

Figure 3 uses these results to gauge how a 10 percent dollar appreciation would reduce U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) through the net export channels we have just discussed. The staff’s model indicates that the direct effects on GDP through net exports are large, with GDP falling over 1-1/2 percent below baseline after three years.

We have seen the reverse of that so a rise in GDP of 1.5%. Of course such moves seem smaller right now and they need the move to be sustained but a welcome development none the less.

Whilst the US economy is less affected in terms of inflation than others due to the role of the US Dollar as the reserve currency in which commodities are prices there still is an impact.

This particular model implies that core PCE inflation dips about 0.5 percent in the two quarters following the appreciation before gradually returning to baseline, which is consistent with a four-quarter decline in core PCE inflation of about 0.3 percent in the first year following the shock.

Again this impact is the other way so inflation will rise. For those unaware PCE means Personal Consumption Expenditures and as so familiar for an official choice leads to a lower inflation reading than the more widely known CPI alternative.

Back Home

Interest-Rates

This is a troubled area for the US Federal Reserve which resembles the shambles of General Custer at Little Big Horn. We we being signposted to a “normalisation” where the new interest-rate would be of the order of 3%+ or what was called r*. I am pleased to report I called it out at the time as the reality was that the underpinnings of this particular Ivory Tower crumbled as the eye of Trump turned on it. The pandemic in this sense provided cover for the US Federal Reserve to cut to around 0.1% ( strictly 0% to 0.25%).

Back on March 16th I noted this and you know my view in official denials.

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

I also not this from Reuters yesterday,

With U.S. central bank officials resisting negative interest rates,

How are they resisting them? They could hardly have cut much quicker! This feels like a PR campaign ahead of applying them at some future date.

Yield Curve Control

This is the new way of explaining that the central bank is funding government policy. Although not on the scale some are claiming.

Foreigners have levelled off buying US Debt. Federal Reserve buying has gone parabolic. This tells us all this additional debt the govt is issuing by running HUGE budget deficits is being purchased by directly the Fed. That is what they do in “banana republics”. #monetizethedebt

That was from Ben Rickert on Twitter and is the number one tweet if you look for the US Federal Reserve. Sadly for someone who calls himself The Mentor actual purchases of US government bonds have declined substantially.

the Desk plans to continue to increase SOMA holdings of Treasury securities at that pace, which is the equivalent of approximately $80 billion per month.  ( New York Fed.)

That is less in a month than it was buying some days as I recall a period when it was US £125 billion a day.

If Ben had not ramped up his rhetoric he would be on the scent because Yield Curve Control is where the central bank implicitly rather than explicitly finances the government. Regular readers will have noted my updates on the Bank of Japan doing this and there have been several variations but the sum is that the benchmark ten-year yield has been kept in a range between -0.1% and 0.1%.

There is an obvious issue with the US ten-year yield being around 0.6% and we may see tomorrow the beginning of the process of getting it lower. On the tenth of this month I pointed out that some US bond yields could go negative and if we are to see a Japanese style YCC then the Fed needs to get on with it for the reasons I will note below.

Comment

As the battleground for the US Federal Reserve now seems to be bond yields it has a problem.

INSKEEP: Senator, our time is short. I’ve got a couple of quick questions here. Is there a limit to how much the United States can borrow? Granting the emergency, its another trillion dollars here. ( NPR)

Even in these inflated times that is a lot and the Democrat opposition want treble that. With an election around the corner we are likely to see more grand spending schemes. But returning to the Fed that is a lot to fund and $80 billion a month looks rather thin in response. So somewhere on this yellow brick road I am expecting more QE.

Oh and if you look at Japan if it has done any good it is well hidden. But that seems not to bother policymakers much these days. Also another example of Turning Japanese is provided by giving QE  new name. After all successes do not need one do they?

Still at least the researchers at the Kansas City Fed have kept their sense of humour.

Based on the FOMC’s past use of forward guidance, we argue that date-based forward guidance has the potential to deliver much, though not all, of the accommodation of yield curve control.

Will the UK be raising or reducing taxes?

The UK Public Finances data we looked at on Friday has triggered something of a policy response. Or at least some proposals, although if we look at the Financial Times the messaging has got itself in a mess.

Rishi Sunak is planning to defer tax rises and cut public spending in his Autumn Budget after delivering a further stimulus for the UK economy.

That looks a little confused on its own with its message of a stimulus followed by what looks like a lagged version of what has become known as austerity. That leads us to something of a collision between economics 101 and likely human behaviour. Let me explain with reference to the suggested plans.

The Treasury is first considering a temporary cut to value added tax and specific reductions in the rate for some sectors, according to those close to the chancellor, following significant pressure from industry and Tory MPs. A lower VAT rate for the tourism sector — including pubs, restaurants and hotels — is one option being discussed.

Okay and when would it happen?

This could come as early as July as the government prepares to scrap the two-metre social distancing rule and replace it with “one metre plus” guidelines that are likely to include further use of masks and physical screens.

Okay so there is an Undertone(s) here.

Its going to happen – happen – till your change your mind
Its going to happen – happen – happens all the time
Its going to happen – happen – till your change your mind.

Economic Impact

We do have some recent evidence for the impact of what is a change in a consumption tax and it comes from Japan last autumn. So let us remind ourselves via the Japan Times.

Japan saw a 6.3 percent economic contraction in the last three months of 2019, fueling criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to carry out the tax increase at a vulnerable time for the economy. After factoring in the early signs of impact from the coronavirus, analysts now believe the economy is falling into recession.

That is in the American annualised style and as we note the further downward revision and convert we now see the economy shrank by 1.9% in that quarter, driven by factors like this.

Like many people in Japan, she isn’t planning to splash out again anytime soon, leaving the economy teetering on the edge of recession. And that was before the spreading coronavirus gave yet more cause for caution.

“These days, I really scrutinize the price tags,” Mitsui said.

The economic consequence of this change in behaviour is shown below.

Household spending fell for the third straight month in December on the continued impact of October’s consumption tax hike together with sluggish demand for winter items due to warm temperatures, government data showed Friday.

Spending by households with two or more people dropped 4.8 percent in real terms from a year earlier to ¥321,380 ($2,900), the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications said.

The collective impact on the quarter was for a 3% fall in private consumption on the quarter.

So we see that a consumption tax rise led to quite a drop in the economy thus we have some hope for the impact of the reverse. Indeed the impact looks really rather powerful. This reinforces the impact we saw of the VAT rise back in 2010. One area where we have less evidence is the impact of inflation which is harder to read. I would expect there to be a welcome disinflationary effect in the UK that is stronger that we would see in Japan. Why? Well price rises in Japan tend to not have secondary impacts on inflation and of course there were two other factors. The Japanese economy was slowing anyway as the consumption tax brake was applied and now we have the further impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Bank of Japan calculates various inflation indices to try to suggest its policies are working but the latest release excluding the effects of the consumption tax rises suggests inflation is er 0% ( actually slightly below), so if you like what is normal for Japan.

What next?

There is a possible worm in the apple of the UK plans, so let us return to the FT.

But any move to lower VAT — at considerable cost to the exchequer — would come with a sting in the tail, as Mr Sunak works up proposals for deferred tax rises and lower public spending as part of the autumn Budget.

The message switches from “Spend! Spend! Spend!” to tighten your belts which adds a layer of confusion. For younger and overseas readers the spend quote is from Viv Nicholson who won the (football) pools which was analagous to winning the lottery now and I think you have already figured her plan.

The response seems to have been influenced at least to some extent by mis-reporting like this, which I noted on social media over the weekend.

There has been some really rather poor reporting from the BBC today with analysis by @DharshiniDavid

“UK debt now larger than size of whole economy”

There were several factors at play such as the policies of the Bank of England inflating the recorded numbers by £195.6 billion whereas even in pessimistic scenario it might not be a tenth of that. Also the numbers were not only based on a forecast they were based on a forecast by the Office of Budget Responsibility which has lived down to its reputation by being wrong yet again. How much of an influence that was in this is hard to say.

Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough and a former Treasury adviser, said: “We simultaneously need a stimulus now to fight recession, but also need to roll the pitch so that we can deal with very high levels of debt.”

Neil seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it. An excellent idea in theory but one which crumbles in practice. However his lack of realism is typical of someone who has been involved at the Treasury. Next is an anonymous effort at sticking the boot in.

Another former Tory minister said the public finances were so stretched that a fiscal tightening would be necessary before long: “The public aren’t going to like it but it feels like either spending cuts or tax rises are going to be necessary soon.”

Comment

The situation is on one level quite simple. Will a VAT cut boost the economy? Yes it will both directly as people spend more and then via a secondary effect of lower inflation via some lower prices. The second bit is awkward for the inflationistas so we may not seem them for a day or two. The undercut is the impact on the public finances which will be added to the £8.6 billion fall in VAT receipts in the year so far. There will be some amelioration as for example people dash for a haircut or a pint of beer at their local pub, but overall receipts will be lower. The overall impact depends on the economic boost and how long it lasts and the evidence we have is positive.

Switching to the public finances the numbers are not as bad as some have claimed, partly because of a factor which should get more publicity. In the fiscal year so far (April and May) the cost of our debt fell by £1.1 billion to £8.4 billion due to lower inflation and the fact our ordinary debt is so cheap to finance. I would be switching as much debt as I could to the fifty-year maturity at a yield of around 0.5% and in fact would issue some 100 year Gilts. In the long run we will have to deal with the capital issue of the debt we are issuing at an express rate but as it is cheap the interest implications are relatively minor. What we need to squarer the circle is some economic growth. That will reduce the tax increases required.

Let me end by looking at the other side of the coin from the slice of humble pie i put in front of myself on Friday. So a slap on the back for this.

Regular readers will be aware that I wrote a piece in City-AM in September 2013 suggesting the Bank of England should let maturing Gilts do just that. So by now we would have trimmed the total down a fair bit which would be logical over a period where we have seen economic growth which back then was solid, hence my suggestion.

Because it seems to be on the radar of the present Governor.

#Monetary policy – significant change of approach suggested by #BOE governor #Bailey – says may be best for the bank to start reversing its asset purchases before raising interest rates on a sustained basis. Opposite view to that which has been held at BoE ( @HowardArcherUK )

 

 

 

 

Can US house prices bounce?

The US housing market is seeing two tsunami style forces at once but in opposite directions. The first is the economic impact of the Covid-19 virus pandemic on both wages (down) and unemployment (up). Unfortunately the official statistics released only last week are outright misleading as you can see below.

Real average hourly earnings increased 6.5 percent, seasonally adjusted, from May 2019 to May 2020.
The change in real average hourly earnings combined with an increase of 0.9 percent in the average
workweek resulted in 7.4-percent increase in real average weekly earnings over this period.

We got a better idea to the unemployment state of play on Thursday as we note the scale of the issue.

The advance unadjusted number for persons claiming UI benefits in state programs totaled 18,919,804, a decrease of 178,671 (or -0.9 percent) from the preceding week.

The only hopeful bit is the small decline. Anyway let us advance with our own view is that we will be seeing much higher unemployment in 2020 although hopefully falling and falling real wages.

The Policy Response

The other tsunami is the policy response to the pandemic.

FISCAL STIMULUS (FEDERAL) – The U.S. House of Representatives passed a $2.2 trillion aid package – the largest in history – on March 27 including a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for direct payments of up to $3,000 to millions of U.S. families.

That was the Reuters summary of the policy response which has been added to in the meantime. In essence it is a response to the job losses and an attempt to resist the fall in wages.

Next comes the US Federal Reserve which has charged in like the US Cavalry. Here are their words from the report made to Congress last week.

Specifically, at two meetings in March, the FOMC lowered the target range for the federal funds rate by a total of 1-1/2 percentage points, bringing it to the current range of 0 to 1/4 percent.

That meant that they have now in this area at least nearly fulfilled the wishes of President Trump. They also pumped up their balance sheet.

The Federal Reserve swiftly took a series of policy actions to address these developments. The FOMC announced it would purchase Treasury securities and agency MBS in the amounts needed to ensure smooth market functioning and the effective transmission of monetary policy to broader financial conditions. The Open Market Desk began offering large-scale overnight and term repurchase agreement operations. The Federal Reserve coordinated with other central banks to enhance the provision of liquidity via the standing U.S. dollar liquidity swap line arrangements and announced the establishment of temporary U.S. dollar liquidity arrangements (swap lines) with additional central banks.

Their explanation is below.

 Market functioning deteriorated in many markets in late February and much of March, including the critical Treasury and agency MBS markets.

Let me use my updated version of my financial lexicon for these times. Market function deteriorated means prices fell and yields rose and this happening in the area of government and mortgage borrowing made them panic buy in response.

Mortgage Rates

It seems hard to believe now but the US ten-year opened the year at 1.9%, Whereas now after the recent fall driven by the words of Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell it is 0.68%. Quite a move and it means that it has been another good year for bond market investors. The thirty-year yield is 1.41% as we note that there has been a large downwards push as we now look at mortgage rates.

Let me hand you over to CNBC from Thursday.

Mortgage rates set new record low, falling below 3%

How many times have I ended up reporting record lows for mortgage rates? Anyway we did get some more detail.

The average rate on the popular 30-year fixed mortgage hit 2.97% Thursday, according to Mortgage News Daily……..For top-tier borrowers, some lenders were quoting as low as 2.75%. Lower-tier borrowers would see higher rates.

Mortgage Amounts

CNBC noted some action here too.

Low rates have fueled a sharp and fast recovery in the housing market, especially for homebuilders. Mortgage applications to purchase a home were up 13% annually last week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

According to Realtor.com the party is just getting started although I have helped out with a little emphasis.

Meanwhile, buyers who still have jobs have been descending on the market en masse, enticed by record-low mortgage interest rates. Rates fell below 3%, to hit an all-time low of 2.94% for 30-year fixed-rate loans on Thursday, according to Mortgage News Daily.

Mortgage demand is back on the rise according to them.

For the past three weeks, the number of buyers applying for purchase mortgages rose year over year, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Applications shot up 12.7% annually in the week ending June 5. They were also up 15% from the previous week.

Call me suspicious but I thought it best to check the supply figures as well.

Mortgage credit availability decreased in May according to the Mortgage Credit Availability Index (MCAI)………..The MCAI fell by 3.1 percent to 129.3 in May. A decline in the MCAI indicates that lending standards are tightening, while increases in the index are indicative of loosening credit.

So a decline but still a lot higher than when it was set at 100 in 2012. The recent peak at the end of last year was of the order of 185 and was plainly singing along to the Outhere Brothers.

Boom boom boom let me here you say way-ooh (way-ooh)
Me say boom boom boom now everybody say way-ooh (way-ooh)

What about prices?

As the summer home-buying season gets underway, median home prices are surging. They shot up 4.3% year over year as the number of homes for sale continued to dry up in the week ending June 6, according to a recent realtor.com® report. That’s correct: Prices are going up despite this week’s announcement that the U.S. officially entered a recession in February.

Comment

As Todd Terry sang.

Something’s goin’ on in your soul

The housing market is seeing some surprises although I counsel caution. As I read the pieces about I note that a 4.3% rise is described as “shot up” whereas this gives a better perspective.

While that’s below the typical 5% to 6% annual price appreciation this time of year, it’s nearly back to what it was before the coronavirus pandemic. Median prices were rising 4.5% in the first two weeks of March before the COVID-19 lockdowns began. Nationally, the median home list price was $330,000 in May, according to the most recent realtor.com data.

But as @mikealfred reports there is demand out there.

Did someone forget to tell residential real estate buyers about the recession? I’m helping my in-laws buy a house in Las Vegas right now. Nearly every house in their price range coming to market sees 40+ showings and 5+ offers in the first few days. Crazy demand.

Of course there is the issue as to at what price?

So there we have it. The Federal Reserve will be happy as it has created a demand to buy property. The catch is that it is like crack and if they are to keep house prices rising they will have to intervene on an ever larger scale. For the moment their policy is also being flattered by house supply being low and I doubt that will last. To me this house price rally feels like trying to levitate over the edge of a cliff.

Podcast

 

 

 

Where next for the economy of Spain and house prices?

We can pick up on quite a lot of what is happening economically by taking a look at Spain which has been something of a yo-yo in the credit crunch era. It was hit then began to recover then was affected by the Euro area crisis but from around 2014/15 was maybe the clearest case of the Euro boom as it posted GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth as high as 4.2% in late 2015. Since then in something of a contradiction for the policies of the ECB economic growth has slowed but nonetheless Spain was an outperformer. Indeed such that things were quiet on the usual metrics such as national debt and so on. It shows how a burst of GDP growth can change things.

Of course that was this and we are now in the eye of the economic storm of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the end of last month Spain’s official statisticians fired an opening salvo on the state of play.

The Spanish GDP registered a variation of ─5.2% in the first quarter of 2020 with respect to the previous quarter in terms of volume. This rate was 5.6 points lower than that
recorded for the fourth quarter…….. Year-on-year GDP variation of GDP stood at ─4.1%, compared with 1.8% in the previous quarter.

To be fair to them they had doubts about the numbers but felt they had a duty to at least produce some.

Today

Markit INS offered us some thoughts earlier.

Record falls in both manufacturing and service sector output ensured that the Spanish private sector overall experienced a considerable and unprecedented contraction of economic activity during April. After accounting for seasonal factors, the Composite Output Index* recorded a new low of 9.2, down from 26.7 in March.

A single-digit PMI still comes as a bit of a shock as we recall that Greece in its crisis only fell to around 30 on this measure. Here is some more detail from their report.

The sharp contraction was driven by rapid reductions in
demand and new business as widespread government
restrictions on non-essential economic activity – both
at home and abroad – weighed heavily on company
performance. There was a record reduction in composite
new business and overall workloads – as measured by
backlogs of work – during April.

We can spin that round to an estimated impact on GDP.

Allowing for a likely shift in the traditionally strong linear relationship between GDP and PMI data, we estimate the economy is currently contracting at a quarterly rate of around 7%.

They then confess to something I have pointed out before about the way they treat the Euro area.

Whilst startling enough, this figure may well prove
to be conservative, with the depth of the downturn
undoubtedly greater than anything we have ever seen
before.

For our purposes we see that a double-digit fall in GDP seems likely and even this morning’s forecasts from the European Commission are on that road.

For the year as whole, GDP is forecast to
decline by almost 9½%.

I do like the 1/2% as if any forecast is that accurate right now! One element in the detail that especially concerns me is the labour market because it had been something of a laggard in the Spanish boom phase.

The unemployment rate is expected to rise rapidly, amplifying the shock to the economy, although job losses should be partly reabsorbed as activity picks up again. However, the recovery in the labour market is expected to be slower amid high uncertainty, weak corporate balance-sheet positions, and the disproportionate impact of the
crisis on labour intensive sectors, such as retail and
hospitality.

This was the state of play at the end of March.

The unemployment rate increased 63 hundredths and stood at 14.41%. In the last 12 months, this rate decreased by 0.29 hundredths.

Actually if we note the change in the inactivity rate then the real answer was more like 16%. As Elton John would say.

It’s sad, so sad (so sad)
It’s a sad, sad situation.

This bit is like licking your finger and putting it out the window to see how fast your spaceship is travelling.

This, together with a strong positive
carry-over from the last quarters of 2020, would bring annual GDP growth to 7% in 2021, leaving
output in 2021 about 3% below its 2019 level.

Perhaps the European Commission is worried about the effect on its own income which depends on economic output in the member states and does not want to frighten the horses.

ECB

I have already pointed out that Euro area monetary policy has been out of kilter with Spain. In fact the ECB got out the punch bowl when the Spanish economy was really booming in 2015 as an annual economic growth rate of 4.2% was combined with an official interest-rate of -0.2% and then -0.3%. Oh Well! As Fleetwood Mac would say.

One area that will have benefited is the Spanish government via the way that the QE bond buying of the ECB has reduced sovereign bond yields. Thus Spain can borrow very cheaply as it has a ten-year yield of 0.86% which reflects the 271 billion Euro purchased by the ECB. This will have oiled the public expenditure wheels although this gets very little publicity as the official bodies which tend to be copied and pasted by the media have no interest in pointing it out.

Yesterday though there was something to get Lyndsey Buckingham singing.

I should run on the double
I think I’m in trouble,
I think I’m in trouble.

This was when we learnt a couple of things from the German Constitutional Court. Firstly it would appear that judges everywhere were a quite ridiculous garb. Next that they discovered something they had previously overlooked was an issue and posed questions for the ECB QE programme or at least the Bundesbank version of it. This did affect Spain as whilst it still borrows cheaply yields have risen this week.

Comment

The first context is one of sadness as the Spanish economy recovery not only grinds to a halt but engages reverse gear and at quite a rate. As an aside I wonder what those who use “output gap” style analysis are doing now? I would say they would be hoping we have forgotten that but it is like an antibiotic resistant bacteria that keeps coming back. As to 2021 I find it amazing that we have forecasts when we do not even know where we are now!

Switching to the Bank of Spain ( which operates QE in Spain on behalf of the ECB) it must be having a wry smile. I expect a Euro area version of Yes Prime Minister to play out where the German Constitutional Court ends up taking so long to act that by the the new PEPP programme is over. There is a deeper issue though about the fact that the ECB has found itself trapped in a spiders web of QE and negative interest-rates from which it has been unable to escape from.

Also an important area for Spain which will have benefited from the NIRP policy is this.

The annual rate of the Housing Price Index (HPI) in the fourth quarter of 2019 decreased one
percentage point, standing at 3.6%. This was the lowest since the first quarter of 2015.

Let me leave that as a question. What do readers think will happen next?

The Investing Channel

 

What is happening to the economy of Italy right now?

Today has brought the economy of Italy back into focus and before I look at the economics let me express my deepest sympathy for also those affected by the Corona Virus there.

Like a soul without a mind
In a body without a heart
I’m missing every part, ( Massive Attack)

Returning to the economics there were hopes from Italy of some financial and economic relief from the overnight Eurogroup meeting so let me hand you over to its President Mario Centeno.

After 16h of discussions we came close to a deal but we are not there yet. I suspended the #Eurogroup & continue tomorrow, thu. My goal remains: A strong EU safety net against fallout of #covid19 (to shield workers, firms &countries)& commit/ to a sizeable recovery plan

Let us consider what it could do? There are essentially four topics at play. Firstly there is the issue of extra spending.

Diplomatic sources and officials said a feud between Italy and the Netherlands over what conditions should be attached to euro zone credit for governments fighting the pandemic was blocking progress on half a trillion euros worth of aid. ( Reuters)

Although actually in a copying of the Juncker Plan that regular readers will recall a lot of this is borrowing and money from Special Purpose Vehicles.

Further proposals under discussions include credit lines from the euro zone bailout fund that would be worth up to 2% of a country’s economic output, or 240 billion euros in total. The conditions for gaining access to this money remain a sticking point.

Granting the European Investment Bank 25 billion euros of extra guarantees so it can step up lending to companies by a further 200 billion euros is another option.

The third is support for the EU executive’s plan to raise 100 billion euros on the market against 25 billion euros of guarantees from all governments in the bloc to subsidise wages so that firms can cut working hours rather than sack people. ( Reuters).

Actually there were apparently requests for even more money to be deployed.

ECB urges measures worth 1.5 trillion euros this year to tackle virus crisis . ( @TradingFloorAudio )

The next issue is how this will be paid for? We have already tip-toed onto that subject because the reference to the Euro bailout fund refers to the European Stability Mechanism or ESM. The catch with it is the issue of conditionality or if you prefer terms. This is awkward on two counts as the two main bits are that a country has to have lost access to market financing which is not true and that it is supposed to present a macroeconomic adjustment programme of austerity when in fact the plan would be to “Spend! Spend!Spend!”

The use of the European Investment Bank is complicated by the UK still being a 14% shareholder.

Finally in this sweep we have the elephant in the room which is the issuing of joint Euro area bonds or as they have been rebranded Corona Bonds. This has collided with a regular problem which is that the countries which would in effect be financing this are not keen at all whereas those that would benefit are very keen but cannot persuade the former. We have been down this road so many times now and have always ended up singing along with Talking Heads.

We’re on a road to nowhere
Come on inside
Taking that ride to nowhere
We’ll take that ride

Italy GDP

Before I look at the impact of the above on Italy we need to see where it stands in economic terms. The opening salvo was fired by the IHS Markit survey from only five days ago which now feels a bit like forever.

The Composite Output Index* dropped from 50.7 in February to 20.2 in March, falling a record 30.5 points and signalling the sharpest contraction in Italian private sector output since the series began in January 1998.
The downturn was most marked in the service sector,
although both services providers and manufactures reported record reductions in output during March.

This came with the lowest PMI number I can recall which was 17.4 for the services sector. We have learnt over time to take these surveys with several pinches of salt but it was clear we were seeing a large fall in economic output which in the case of Italy comes on the back of at best stagnation.

Yesterday the Italian Statistics Office produced its Monthly Report.

First signals of COVID -19 economic effects are displayed by March consumer and business surveys -which deteriorated sharply- and February extra EU trade and retail trade.

Okay let’s look back to February.

Extra Eu trade preliminary figures were influenced by the sharp fall of exports towards China (-21.6% with respect to
the same month of the previous year) were the epidemic originated. Retail trade improved possibly due to the
increase of precautionary expenditure for food in the first phases of the health emergency.

So the only good news was some precautionary buying of food and other essentials.

Now March and as BBC children’s TV used to say, are you sitting comfortably?

In March, the consumer confidence climate slumped. The heavy deterioration affected all index components. More
specifically, the economic climate current and future and the expectation on unemployment plummeted. These
negative signals suggest that there might be in the coming months a deterioration in income, consumption and labour
market figures.

They have modelled what they think the impact will be from this.

We provide two different scenarios, the first in which the lockdown will be concentrated in March and April and
the second in which the lockdown will last until June. In the first case consumption will be reduced by 4.1% on
yearly basis in the second case by 9.9% . The consumption fall would determine a value added contraction by 1.9% and 4.5% respectively.

If we now add in the other sectors we get an even larger GDP fall for example there is this.

More precisely, for sectors in lockdown or for which we assume that the turnover is near zero
(i.e. tourism) we evaluate the overall reduction of production and its impact on consumption.

If we factor in tourism as being virtually zero then the fall in GDP implied above doubles at least as it would be seen in the exports numbers rather than consumption.

Comment

If we look at the Italian situation we see that its own spending plans dwarf the Euro area ones. Here is Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte from Monday via Google Translate.

Today’s decree brings 400 billion of liquidity for businesses, with the #CuraItalia we had freed 350. We are talking about 750 billion, almost half of our GDP. The state is there and immediately puts its firepower into the engine of the economy. When Italy gets up it runs.

The next context is that this is way beyond the ability of the ESM to deal with alone.

 The ESM, with its unused financial firepower of €410 billion, could provide credit lines at low interest rates. ( Klaus Regling)

Actually that is more than we have been told in the past but as you can see the numbers are so large here even 10 billion is not especially material. As there would be calls from countries other than Italy the ESM presently needs more ammo.

If we look at the public debt of Italy it was 2.44 trillion Euros at the end of the third quarter of last year. So if the spending plans above come to fruition we will see it rise to more like 3.2 trillion. With the economy shrinking we could see a debt to GDP figure of the order of 200% for a time. The real issue is for how long a time?

As to the bond vigilantes then they have mostly been anaesthetised by the QE buying of the ECB which is likely to be around 15 billion Euros or so per month. Whilst the Eurogroup indecison has raised the benchmark ten-year yield by 0.08% today ( and I am assuming the ECB is buying more today to resist this) it is at 1.67% under control. But as you can see even the powered up Pac-Man of the ECB is in danger of being swamped by the size of the bond issuance.

Oh and as to Eurobonds well actually they do exist.

When both the EIB and the ESM increase their actions, they need to issue bonds to finance their lending. The EIB – and to a smaller extent the European Commission – issue such debt for all 27 EU Member States, and the ESM for the 19 euro area countries. These three institutions have issued mutualised debt, i.e. European debt, for many years already. Today, these institutions have around €800 billion in outstanding European debt. ( Klaus Regling)

Let me finish with something more optimistic Italy has a large grey economy estimated at over 200 billion Euros and it is a nation of savers.

The saving rate of consumer households was 8.2%, 0.1 percentage points lower than in the previous quarter. ( Istat)

Let us cross our fingers and hope that it can mobilise both.

 

 

Fiscal Policy will now take centre stage as France has shown

One of our themes is now fully in play. We have observed over the past year or two a shift in establishment thinking towards fiscal policy. This had both bad and good elements. The bad was that it reflected a reality where all the extraordinary monetary policies had proved to be much weaker than the the claims of their supporters and even worse for them were running out of road. The current crisis has reminded us of this as we have had, for example, two emergency moves from the US Federal Reserve already, in its role as a de facto world central bank.

A more positive factor in this has been the change we have been observing in bond yields. We can get a handle on this by looking back at the world’s biggest which is the US Treasury Bond market. Back in the autumn of 2018 when worlds like “normalisation” ans phrases like “Quantitative Tightening” were in vogue the benchmark ten year yield saw peaks around 3.15%. Basically it then spent most of a year halving before rallying back to 1.9% at the end of last year and beginning of this. But this move took place in spite of the fact that we have the Trump Tax Boost which was estimated to have an impact of the order of one trillion US Dollars. I mention this because as well as the obvious another theme was in play which was that the Ivory Towers were wrong-footed yet again. The Congressional Budget Office has had to keep reducing its estimate of debt costs as the rises it expected turned into falls. Also whilst I am on this subject I am not sure this from January is going to turn out so well!

In 2020, inflation-adjusted GDP is projected to grow by 2.2 percent, largely because
of continued strength in consumer spending and a rebound in business fixed investment. Output is
projected to be higher than the economy’s maximum sustainable output this year to a greater degree
than it has been in recent years, leading to higher inflation and interest rates after a period in which
both were low, on average.

Best of luck with that.

Meanwhile we have seen a fair bit of volatility in bond yields but the US ten-year is 0.8% as I type this. Even the long bond ( 30 years) is a relatively mere 1.4%.

Thus borrowing is very cheap and only on Sunday night the US Federal Reserve arrived in town and did its best to keep it so.

 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.

Step Forwards France

There was an announcement yesterday evening by President Macron which was announced in gushing terms by Faisal Islam of the BBC.

The €300 billion euro fiscal support package announced by Macron for the French economy, to ensure businesses dont go bust and taxes/ charges suspended, is worth about 12% of its GDP – in UK terms that would mean £265 billion…

This morning the French Finance Minster has given some different numbers.

French measures to help companies and employees weather the coronavirus storm will be worth some €45bn, the country’s finance minister Bruno Le Maire said on Tuesday. ( Financial Times)

He went on to give some details of how it would be spent.

He told RTL radio the package of financial aid, which includes payments to temporarily redundant workers and deferments of tax and social security bills, would help “the economy to restart once the corona virus epidemic is behind us”. Previously he had referred to “tens of billions of euros”.

Now let us look at the previous position for France. We had previously note that France was in the middle of a fiscal nudge anyway as the first half of 2019 saw quarterly deficits of 3.2% and 3.1% of GDP respectively, The third quarter was back within the Maastricht rules as it fell to 2.5% of GDP but we still had a boost overall and as you can see below the national debt to GDP ratio went over 100%

At the end of Q3 2019, Maastricht’s debt reached €2,415.1 billion, up €39.6 billion in comparison to Q2 2019. It accounted for 100.4% of gross domestic product (GDP), 0.9 points higher than last quarter. Net public debt increased more moderately (€+15.0 billion) and accounted for 90.3 % of GDP.

Of course debt to GDP numbers have gone out of fashion partly because the “bond vigilantes” so rarely turn up these days. There was a time that a debt to GDP ratio above 100% would have them flying in but they restricted their flying well before the Corona Virus made such a move fashionable. The French ten-year yield is up this morning but at 0.27% is hardly a deterrent in itself to more fiscal action. However whilst it is still as low as it has ever been before this stage of the crisis a thirty-year yield of 0.8% is up a fair bit on the 0.2% we saw only last week. Another factor in play is this.

Third, we decided to add a temporary envelope of additional net asset purchases of €120 billion until the end of the year, ensuring a strong contribution from the private sector purchase programmes. ( ECB )

Whilst only a proportion of the buying we can expect monthly purchases of French government bonds to rise from the previous 4 billion Euros or so and accordingly the total to push on from 434.4 billion. Also whilst President Lagarde was willing to express a haughty disdain for “bond spreads” I suspect the former French Finance Minister would be charging to the rescue of France if necessary.

One feature of French life is that taxes are relatively high.

The tax-to-GDP ratio varies significantly between Member States, with the highest share of taxes and social
contributions in percentage of GDP in 2018 being recorded in France (48.4%), Belgium (47.2%) and Denmark
(45.9%), followed by Sweden (44.4%), Austria (42.8%), Finland (42.4%) and Italy (42.0%). ( Eurostat )

Short Selling Bans

France along with some other European nations announced short-selling bans this morning which stop investors selling shares they do not own.

#BREAKING French market regulator bans short-selling on 92 stocks: statement ( @afp )

I pointed out that these things have a track record of failure

These sort of things cause a market rally in the short-term but usually wear off in a day or two.

The initial rally to over 4000 on the CAC 40 index soon wore off and we are now unchanged on the day having at one point being 100 points off. Of course some policy work will be writing a paper reminding us of the counterfactual.

Comment

I am expecting a lot more fiscal action in the next few days. The French template is for a move a bit less than 2% of GDP. That will of course rise as GDP falls.

The French government was assuming the economy would shrink about 1 per cent this year, instead of growing more than 1 per cent as previously predicted, Mr Le Maire said. ( Financial Times)

Frankly that looks very optimistic right now. The situation is fast moving as doe example Airbus which only yesterday expected to remain open announced this today.

Following the implementation of new measures in France and Spain to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Airbus has decided to temporarily pause production and assembly activities at its French and Spanish sites across the Company for the next four days. This will allow sufficient time to implement stringent health and safety conditions in terms of hygiene, cleaning and self-distancing, while improving the efficiency of operations under the new working conditions.

Let me now shift to the other part of the package.

Mr Le Maire said ammunition to prop up the economy also included €300bn of French state guarantees for bank loans to businesses and €1tn of such guarantees from European institutions. ( FT )

The problem is how will this work in practice? The numbers sound grand but for example the Bank of England announced up to £290 billion for SMEs only last week which everyone seems to have forgotten already! One bit that seemed rather devoid of reality to me at the time was this.

The release of the countercyclical capital buffer will support up to £190bn of bank lending to businesses. That is equivalent to 13 times banks’ net lending to businesses in 2019.

Returning to pure fiscal policy I am expecting more of it and would suggest it is aimed at two areas.

  1. Supporting individuals who through not fault of their own have seen incomes plunge and maybe disappear.
  2. Similar for small businesses and indeed larger ones which are considered vital.

Just for clarity that does not mean for banks and the housing market where such monies have a habit of ending up.

Meanwhile a country which badly needs help is still suffering from the “ECB not here to close bond spreads” of Christine Lagarde last week as its ten-year yield has risen to 2.3%. Her open mouth operation has undone a lot of ECB buying.