Germany will be the bellweather for the next stage of ECB monetary easing

Today there only is one topic and it was given a lead in late last night from Japan. There GDP growth was announced as 0.3% for the last quarter of 2018 which sounded okay on its own but meant that the economy shrank by 0.4% in the second half of 2018. Also it meant that it was the same size as a year before. So a bad omen for the economic growth news awaited from Germany.

In the fourth quarter of 2018, the gross domestic product (GDP) remained nearly at the previous quarter’s level after adjustment for price, seasonal and calendar variations.

If you want some real precision Claus Vistensen has given it a go.

German GDP up a dizzying 0.0173% in Q4.

Of course the numbers are nothing like that accurate and Germany now faces a situation where its economy shrank by 0.2% in the second half of 2018. The full year is described below.

Hence short-term economic development in Germany showed two trends in 2018. The Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) reports that, after a dynamic start into the first half of the year (+0.4% in the first quarter, +0.5% in the second quarter), a small dip (-0.2% in the third quarter, 0.0% in the fourth quarter) was recorded in the second half of the year. For the whole year of 2018, this was an increase of 1.4% (calendar adjusted: 1.5%). Hence growth was slightly smaller than reported in January.

Another way of looking at the slowdown is to compare the average annual rate of growth in 2018 of 1.5% with it now.

+0.6% on the same quarter a year earlier (price and calendar adjusted)

If we look at the quarter just gone in detail we see that it was domestic demand that stopped the situation being even worse.

The quarter-on-quarter comparison (price, seasonally and calendar adjusted) reveals that positive contributions mainly came from domestic demand. Gross fixed capital formation, especially in construction but also in machinery and equipment, increased markedly compared with the third quarter of 2018. While household final consumption expenditure increased slightly, general government final consumption expenditure was markedly up at the end of the year.

Is the pick up in government spending another recessionary signal? So far there is no clear sign of any rise in unemployment that is not normal for the time of year.

the number of persons in employment fell by 146,000, or 0.3%, in December 2018 on the previous month. The month-on-month decrease was smaller than the relevant average of the past five years (-158,000 people.

Actually we can say that it looks like there has been a fall in productivity as the year on year annual GDP growth rate of 0.6% compares with this.

Number of persons in employment in the fourth quarter of 2018 up 1.1% on the fourth quarter of 2017.

Also German industry does not seem to have lost confidence as we note the rise in investment which is the opposite of the UK where it ha been struggling. But something that traditionally helps the German economy did not.

However, development of foreign trade did not make a positive contribution to growth in the fourth quarter. According to provisional calculations, exports and imports of goods and services increased nearly at the same rate in the quarter-on-quarter comparison.

In a world sense that is not so bad news as the German trade surplus is something which is a global imbalance but for Germany right now it is a problem for economic growth.

So let us move on as we note that German economic growth peaked at 2.8% in the autumn of 2017 and is now 0.6%.

Inflation

This morning’s release on this front does not doubt have an element of new year sales but seems to suggest that inflation has faded.

 the selling prices in wholesale trade increased by 1.1% in January 2019 from the corresponding month of the preceding year. In December 2018 and in November 2018 the annual rates of change had been +2.5% and +3.5%, respectively.
From December 2018 to January 2019 the index fell by 0.7%.

Bond Yields

It is worth reminding ourselves how low the German ten-year yield is at 0.11%. That according to my chart compares to 0.77% a year ago and is certainly not what you might expect from reading either mainstream economics and media thoughts. That is because the German bond market has boomed as the ECB central bank reduced and then ended its monthly purchases of German government bonds. Let me give you some thoughts on why this is so.

  1. Those who invest their money have seen a German economic slowing and moved into bonds.
  2. Whilst monthly QE ended there are still ECB holdings of 517 billion Euros which is a tidy sum especially when you note Germany not expanding its debt and is running a fiscal surplus.
  3. The likelihood of a new ECB QE programme ( please see Tuesday’s post) has been rising and rising. Frankly the only reason it has not been restarted is the embarrassment of doing so after only just ending it.

Accordingly it would not take much more for the benchmark ten-year yield to go negative again. After all all yields out to the nine-year maturity now are. Let me point out how extraordinary that is on two counts. First that it happened at all and next the length of time for which negative bond yields have persisted.

If we look at that from another perspective we see that Germany could if it so chose respond to this slowing with fiscal policy. It can borrow for essentially nothing and in both absolute and relative terms its national debt has been falling. The awkward part is presentational after many years of telling other euro area countries ( most recently Italy) that this is a bad idea!

Comment

If you are a subscriber to the theme that Euro area monetary policy has generally been set for Germany’s benefit then there is plenty of food for thought in the above. Indeed it all started with the large devaluation it engineered for its exporters via swapping the Deutschmark for the Euro. That is currently very valuable because a mere glance at Switzerland suggests that rather than 1.13 to the US Dollar  the DM would be say 1.50 and maybe higher. Care is needed because as the Euro area’s largest economy of course it should be a major factor in monetary policy just not the only one.

Right now there will be chuntering of teeth in Frankfurt on two counts. Firstly that my theme that the timing of what you do matters nearly as much as what you do and on this front the ECB has got it wrong. Next comes the issue that it was not supposed to be the German economy that was to be a QE junkie. Yes the trade issues have not helped but it is deeper than that.

With some of the banks in trouble too such as Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank we could see a “surprise” easing from the ECB especially if there is a no-deal Brexit. That would provide a smokescreen for a fast U-Turn.

Me on The Investing Channel

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This looks like the end of the interest-rates rising cycle

This feels like one of those days where there has been an epoch shift or to be more specific the morning after the night before. It is not as if we have been caught by surprise, as unlike so many have been ahead of the curve about the world economic slow down, and hence the implications for interest-rates and monetary policy. But there will be much wider implications from this as we go forwards and let us start from the fact that the biggest economic decision of 2019 may have just been made by a technocrat.

What happened?

The US Federal Reserve is significant on several counts. There is the ordinary significance of it being responsible for monetary policy in the world’s largest economy and for its reserve currency. There has recently been an additional one as it has been the standard-bearer for voluntarily raising interest-rates. Yet last night we got a combination of this.

 the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 percent……… In light of global economic and financial developments and muted inflation pressures, the Committee will be patient as it determines what future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate may be appropriate to support these outcomes.

No great surprise in the lack of a move last night but the promises that peaked at 3-4 interest-rate increases in 2019 have morphed into “will be patient” or perhaps 0. Then there was an additional statement which copied a part of what has become the European Central Bank model.

The Committee is prepared to adjust any of the details for completing balance sheet normalization in light of economic and financial developments. Moreover, the Committee would be prepared to use its full range of tools, including altering the size and composition of its balance sheet, if future economic conditions were to warrant a more accommodative monetary policy than can be achieved solely by reducing the federal funds rate.

So what has been called Quantitative Tightening or QT where some of the bonds bought previously are allowed to run off has run out of steam or “economic and financial developments”. The use of the word financial is significant as frankly it only reinforces the view that past falls in equity markets have driven this and we do get a flicker of democratic involvement ( I will leave readers to decide if that is good or bad) as of course they upset President Trump.

Next comes something which regular readers will know is something I have long suspected which is that in any slow down QE4 will come down the slipway. Or to be more specific the Federal Reserve balance sheet will no longer be contracting but will be expanded again. A particular significance of this will be that it could start with the balance sheet already being over US $4 Trillion in size.

There are various consequences of all of this. Two of them are major themes of my work with one of them being the earliest. As central banks went “all in” in terms of monetary policy I feared they would delay any exit policy and thus end up in the wrong cycle. The Fed deserves some credit for at least trying ( unlike so many others) but if not too little it was too late. Next is the issue of “junkie culture” where I feared we would be unable to wean ourselves off cheap credit and yields well that looks like where we are at right now. Some of you deserve credit for pointing out that the “new normal” would mean interest-rates would not go above 3% as that is looking rather en vogue today. That is in spite of the annualised economic growth rate being reported as 3.4% and the unemployment rate being reported as 3.9%.

Along this road the concept of independence of the US Federal Reserve and Chair Jerome Powell has folded like a deck chair, although some ( often ex-central bankers) retain a touching faith in the concept.

The Consequences

Equity Markets

The issue here is summarised to some extent by this tweet from James Mackintosh of the Wall Street Journal.

The FTSE 100 dividend yield ended 2018 3.5 percentage points above the 10-year Gilt yield, the most ever. One possibility: Market pricing risk of dividends being slashed after Brexit. Another: UK stocks are cheap. Or Gilt yields far too low.

After last nights Powell U-Turn whilst Gilt yields are in my opinion too low the reality is that going forwards they look more likely to stay there than before. Therefore on that measure the equity market looks cheap. Or to express it in another form the Yellen put for equity markets which replaced the Bernanke put has not been replaced by the Powell put option. This does not mean that they cannot fall but it does mean that monetary policy will do its best to stop them falling.

This brings us to the concept of the Plunge Protection Team a phrase I do use and sometimes I am joking. But this monetary policy  U-Turn following the way that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin spoke to the largest banks just before Christmas looks like a concerted effort.

Fiscal Policy

That to my mind has just seen a shift too and it comes from bond yields. Pressure for them to rise has just ended at least from one source. If you take the view that bond yields are the sum of expected future interest-rates then the latter has been shifting lower. If we stay with the US forecasts of 4% bond yields now face a reality of a ten-year Treasury Note yield of 2.67% and a thirty-year yield of 3.02%.

Thus fiscal policy just got cheaper and in some places it is currently very cheap if we look at a 1.24% ten-year Gilt yield in my country the UK and ultra-cheap if we look at Germany with its ten-year Bund yield of 0.18%. Let me offer you some thoughts on this.

  1. I know people like to laugh at the Donald but his fiscal plan of tax cuts has coincided with an economic slow down and now has got less expensive via lower bond yields.
  2. The concept of us all turning at least partly Japanese gets another tick in the box as they have never fully escaped the easing cycle either.
  3. Was the original plan of central bank “independence” to allow policies the politicians could never get away with?
  4. Ironically the countries that can most afford a fiscal boost such as Germany are those most set against it. Of course an element of its lower yields is due to its fiscal surplus but to my mind only a small bit.
  5. Politicians seem to be more in favour of fiscal policy when it is more expensive (higher bond yields) rather than cheaper. I cannot fully explain that but it often happens, perhaps they are just slow on the uptake.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here and the truth is some of this we have been observing over the last month or two as markets have adjusted to a newer reality. I have developed a new theory in the credit crunch era which is that conventional thought once it believes something takes quite some time to change after the evidence has shifted or the complete opposite of the famous quote attributed to JM Keynes.

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?

In reality many have continued on with thoughts about interest-rate rises in 2019 perhaps most bizarrely in the case of the ECB. Whereas for now central bankers seem to have Taylor Swift on repeat to sooth away any such thoughts.

We are never ever ever getting back together,
We are never ever ever getting back together,
You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me
But we are never ever ever ever getting back together

 

 

 

Current bond yields imply a depressing view of the world economy

Let me welcome you all to 2019 as we advance on another new year. I hope that it will be a good one for all of you. As I look at financial markets there has been a development which in isolation is good news. This is that the US ten-year Treasury Bond yield is now 2.67%. That is good news for US taxpayers as their government can borrow more cheaply in spite of the current shut down of part of it and good news for US mortgage borrowers as it feed into fixed-rate borrowing costs. It compares to this situation which I looked at back on the 6th of December.

Now let us look at the US ten-year yield which is 2.9% as I type this and we see that in basic terms it is predicting a couple more 0.25% interest-rate rises.

I will look at why in a moment but let us now shift to the Wall Street Journal for another comparison.

The yield closed Monday at 2.68%, up from the 2.41% where it ended 2017.

The pattern is described by the WSJ below.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note—which moves inversely to price and helps set borrowing costs for consumers and businesses around the world—climbed higher at the start of 2018 as stocks rose and the dollar weakened. Investors were content to look past geopolitical tensions, and bonds’ fixed rates, given expectations for a soaring profits and economic growth……..Now, the yield has retreated from multiyear highs hit in November, falling below 3%

The pattern was that the ten-year Treasury Bond rose to 3.26% and you may recall that there were forecasts of it going above 4% at that time. To be fair “bond king” ( CNBC) Jeffrey Gundlach was looking at the thirty-year yield but that has just dipped below 3% today in a different big figure move. Back in July the St. Louis Federal Reserve looked at why it thought US bond yields were rising.

The expected long-term inflation rate and the expected long-term real growth rate of the economy are the most important factors that influence long-term yields. If bond buyers expect higher inflation or higher real growth, they will expect higher interest rates in the future and thus will demand a higher yield on the bonds they buy today.

Central bankers love this sort of thing but I wish you the best of luck in figuring either out in reality! Especially after the past credit crunch driven decade. We can say that the US economy has performed better than its peers so there is a little light in the fog but the next bit to my mind is more important than we are told.

Bond yields also depend on the uncertainty about these factors, so the volatility of expected inflation and growth also influence long-bond yields, but these variables are harder to measure and have smaller effects.

Yes they are harder to measure but we should not use that as an excuse to say they have smaller effects just because that is all we can find. The period between when that was written in July and now shows us how powerful this can be if we look at the ch-ch-changes. Also this bit has not worn well.

The growth in expected future fiscal deficits is likely to have contributed to the rise in relative yields.

That was true but is even more true now an yet yields have fallen as I pointed out earlier. Financial markets pick and choose which factors are the most important at the time and I note the St.Louis Fed missed out the main driver of bond yields in the modern era which is the impact of the policy of the Federal Reserve itself.

The international picture

I do agree with the St.Louis Fed on this point.

The international yields usually, but not always, move together. (  the U.K., Canada, Germany, Japan, Switzerland)

The next bit is awkward for them to analyse as we are back to the impact of central banking policies again. So Germany for instance has seen its bond yields continue to be driven lower by purchases made by the European Central Bank or ECB which have just stopped. But we see that the ten-year German bund yields a mere 0.18% as I type this. Again in isolation that is a benefit for German taxpayers and borrowers but there is also a problem which is highlighted by this from the Markit PMI from this morning.

The headline IHS Markit/BME Germany Manufacturing
PMI – a single-figure snapshot of the performance of the
manufacturing economy – slipped to 51.5 in December,
down from 51.8 in November and its lowest reading since
March 2016. It marked the eleventh time that the index had
fallen in 2018, down from a record high in December 2017.

The German economy has hit a weak phase and this includes the 0.2% fall in GDP in the third quarter of 2018. But the problem is that long-term it has benefited from a lower currency via replacing the Deutschmark with the Euro and in more recent times it has benefited from low and then negative interest-rates. What else is there? Also regular readers who have followed my regular updates on the weakening money supply data in the Euro area may have a wry smile at this.

but the extent of the slowdown has been somewhat of a surprise.

Central banking policy

This has changed although as ever the rhetoric is in the wrong direction. From Reuters.

The most prominent hawk on the European Central Bank’s board still expects an interest rate hike in 2019 but concedes that this will depend on inflation data in the first half of the year………Sabine Lautenschlaeger, a German who has long called for the ECB to tighten its ultra-loose policy, still hopes for a move next year if data allows.

Actually as we have looked at above the data would be considered grounds for considering an interest-rate cut if the ECB deposit rate was not already -0.4%. In my opinion we cannot completely rule out a rise because just like we saw in Sweden before Christmas there could be an attempt to get back to 0% before things get any worse. But it would be an example of what in itself being a good idea being done with bad timing which means it should not happen.

If we move back to the US the simple fact is that the interest-rate rise of a couple of weeks ago may be the last one. Also due to technical reasons ( the amount of Quantitative Tightening or QT depends on maturing bonds) the bond sales will slow in 2019 anyway, but in a slow down there will be pressure for QE4 to head down the slipway.

Comment

What started as good news leads to a more uncomfortable picture as we note that the real shift has been in economic data. This as we looked at last year got worse as we saw a slow down in monetary data lead to weaker economies around the world. This morning has seen another sign of this. From CNBC.

The moves in pre-market trade come after a private sector survey showed manufacturing activity in the world’s second-largest economy contracted for the first time in 19 months. China’s Markit Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for December dipped to 49.7 from 50.2 in November.

This added to the news that auto sales had fallen by 16% in November in China. We have also seen this from Chris Williamson on the Markit PMI data.

manufacturing indicates that last 3 months of 2018 saw the worst factory output growth since the Q2 2013, with firms having to eat into backorders to sustain production levels. Some temporary factors evident but trend looks worryingly weak

Stock markets have led this and I note that they are lower today although we need to note the extraordinary ups and downs of the holiday period. Also there is the role of the price of crude oil which also was volatile but overall has been falling. It supports bond prices and reduces bond yields but affecting inflation projections and also signalling a potentially weaker economy.

So there you have it as we find that what looks like good news is a signal for bad economic trends. It does show markets responding in the way that they should. The problem is their starting point and for that all eyes turn to the central banks who have driven them there. Get ready for the claims that “it could not possibly have been expected” and “Surprise!Surprise!” We already start with trillions of bonds with a negative yield so what can be gained?

The problematic nature of current bond yields

One of the features of the credit crunch era has been the falls in first world interest-rates and bond yields. The first phase saw the slashing of official short-term interest-rates and once that was seen to be inadequate, central banks directly purchased bonds to reduce yields further. It is seldom put like this but there was already an implied failure as according to the models back then the interest-rate cuts should have done the trick. Back then I was already looking ahead to when there would have to be ch-ch-changes and posted the view that central banks would delay what has become called policy normalisation.

For example back on the 24th of February 2011 I pointed out this about a speech from David Miles of the Bank of England.

 My problem with this is that when you act as they have and you have in effect used what weapons the Bank of England has virtually to the maximum by cutting interest-rates by 4.75%% and spending some £200 billion on asset purchases then you have been extraordinarily interventionist. Accordingly it is then hard for you to blame events because some of them are the consequence of your own actions……

What that illustrates is that already the truth was being manipulated and also I am glad I wrote “virtually to the maximum” as of course the amount of asset purchases has more than doubled. In addition we have seen credit easing in the UK via such policies as the Term Funding Scheme and the start of full-scale QE from the European Central Bank as well as negative interest-rates.

But the point about delaying proved to be very accurate as the Euro area is still actively pursuing QE and in net terms the UK has managed to raise interest-rates by a measly 0.25%. The opportunity in 2014/15 was meant with promises via Forward Guidance but no action.

The US

This is the one country which has taken clear action on the path to normalisation. Here is the current state of play.

In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 2 to 2-1/4 percent.

That is currently working out be be around 2.2% and more rises are promised. Also there is some reversing of the QE or Qualitative Tightening.

The Committee directs the Desk to continue
rolling over at auction the amount of principal
payments from the Federal Reserve’s holdings
of Treasury securities maturing during each
calendar month that exceeds $30 billion, and to
continue reinvesting in agency mortgage-backed
securities the amount of principal
payments from the Federal Reserve’s holdings
of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed
securities received during each calendar month
that exceeds $20 billion.

That combined with forecasts of another interest-rate rise in a fortnight and at least a couple next year seemed to put pressure on bond markets. However this sentence in a speech from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell shook things up on the 28th of last month and the emphasis is mine.

We therefore began to raise our policy rate gradually toward levels that are more normal in a healthy economy. Interest rates are still low by historical standards, and they remain just below the broad range of estimates of the level that would be neutral for the economy‑‑that is, neither speeding up nor slowing down growth.

You may note we seem to have travelled from “policy normalisation” to neutral. But what the neutral interest-rate represents is an attempt to figure out what interest-rate would neither stimulate or contract the economy. Or a sort of measure of what we might aim for as a new normal. When they are trying to put a pseudo scientific gloss on things economist and central bankers call it r-squared.

However the “just below” dropped the expected path for US interest-rates by 0.5%.

Bond Markets

Let me take you to the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

This quarter, yields on longer-dated bonds have dropped and those on two-year Treasurys are flat. The gap between two and 10-year Treasury yields is now around 0.11 percentage point, compared with around 0.55 percentage point at the beginning of the year.

This is attracting a lot of attention in the financial media but the change of 0.44% is pretty much my 0.5% suggestion above. Now let us look at the US ten-year yield which is 2.9% as I type this and we see that in basic terms it is predicting a couple more 0.25% interest-rate rises. This will come in the next year or so if true so it is not very different to the two-year yield of 2.76%.

If we look beyond Federal Reserve policy we have seen a fall in the price of oil over the past month or two. If we look at it in Brent Crude terms then just above US $86 of early October has been replaced by below US $59 this morning as oil follows equity markets lower. The exact amount of the change varies but the path for inflation now seems set to be lower as it has been rare in 2018 for the oil price to be below where it was this time last year. That is another reason for lower bond yields.

Is this a signal of a recession? Here is the St.Louis Fed from last week.

Does the recent flattening of the yield curve portend recession? Not necessarily. The flattening of the real yield curve may simply reflect the fact that real consumption growth is not expected to accelerate or decelerate from the present growth rate of about 1 percent year over year. On the other hand, a 1 percent growth rate is substantially lower than the U.S. historical average of 2 percent. Because of this, the risk that a negative shock (of comparable magnitude to past shocks) sends the economy into technical recession is increased.

That is a fascinating way of looking at it and in my experience precisely zero bond market participants will look at it like that. It is also revealing that we seem to just assume growth will now be lower. Didn’t they save us?

Comment

I wanted to look at this subject today because of the clear changes which are happening. Now it looks much less likely that US interest-rates will pass 3% and if they do not by much. So “normalisation” will be at best about two-thirds of what it might have been considered to be pre credit crunch ( 4.5%). Some of you have suggested that we can no longer afford interest-rates and yields above 3% so well done at least if we stay where we are! If Italy folds you may get a second tick in that box.

But as we look wider we see even more extraordinary developments. Let me take a look at my own country the UK which is in political disarray yet the ten-year Gilt yield is below 1.3%. So those predicting a surge in Gilt yields are slipping back into the bushes whilst I note the extraordinary absolute level and the persistence of negative real yields which bust past metrics. Germany has a ten-year yield of 0.26% and a five-year one of -0.3% as we note again more metrics which are busted.

So my view is that we cannot rely on old recession metrics because another cause of all of this is that QE4 from the US Fed has got closer. I have worried all along that interest-rate rises might run into more QE and if they do we will be singing along to Coldplay.

Oh no I see
A spider web and it’s me in the middle
So I twist and turn
Here am I in my little bubble

 

 

The Italian crisis continues to deepen

Sometimes financial life comes at your quickly and at others it feels like it takes an age. The current Italian crisis has managed in typically Italian style to have covered nearly all bases as we note the main driver simply being lack of economic growth meaning on a per head basis economic output is lower than when the Euro began, But if we move to the current there was a development yesterday, and context can be provided by statements from the new government that economic growth of 3% per annum is possible. From Italian statistics.

In 2018, GDP is expected to increase by 1.1 percent in real terms.The domestic demand will provide a contribution of 1.3 percentage points while foreign demand will account for a negative 0.2 percentage point and inventories will provide a null contribution. In 2019, GDP is estimated to increase by 1.3 percent in real terms driven by the contribution of domestic demand (1.3 percentage points)
associated to a null contribution of the foreign demand and inventories.

The initial response was surprise that Istat had held the previous forecast at 1.4% for so long. After all the Italian economy had been slowing for a while in quarterly terms from the peak of 0.5% and as it had been following a Noah’s Ark two-by-two style policy might have been expected to be 0.2% this time around, Except of course it was 0% reducing the annual rate to 0.8% which is below the current forecast.

If we look at the detail we see that such as it is there seems to be a reliance on consumption.

In 2018, exports will increase by 1.6 percent and imports will grow by 2.6 percent, both are expected
to accelerate in 2019 (3.2% and 3.5% respectively). Residential households consumption expenditure
is expected to grow by 0.9 percent in 2018 accelerating in 2019 (1.2%). The stabilisation in employment and the wages increase will support households purchasing power. Investment are expected to progressively decelerate both in 2018 (+3.9) and in 2019 (+3.2%).

In itself the trade decline is not a big deal as Italy has a strong trade position but it does subtract from GDP. It also poses a question for the Euro area “internal devaluation” model. Also it is hard not to question where that investment is going? After all in collective terms the economy is not growing. So we are left with domestic consumption relying on this.

Labour market conditions will improve over the forecasting period. Employment growth is expected to stabilise at 0,9 percent in 2018 and in 2019. At the same time, the rate of unemployment will decrease at 10.5 percent in the current year and at 10.2 percent in 2019.

Will the labour market continue to improve with economic growth slowing and maybe stopping completely? Frankly the only reason to forecast a better 2019 is the planned fiscal stimulus which of course is where the whole issue comes in.

Along the way we can get a new perspective from the fact that if we put 2010 at 100 the Italian economy peaked above 102 in early 2008 and has now recovered to just above 97.

Excessive Deficit Procedure

In essence the Euro area is stalling on the application of the EDP as it is hoping there might be a change of tack. Also I would imagine that it does not want to prod the Italian crisis with Brexit also up in the air. But there is something quite revealing in yesterday’s documentation from the European Commission.

Italy made a sizeable fiscal effort between 2010 and 2013, raising the primary surplus to over 2% of GDP and exiting the excessive deficit procedure in 2013 by keeping its headline deficit at a level not above 3% of GDP as of 2012 (down from more than 5% in 2009).

The reality if we look at the pattern of GDP was that returning to 2010 as our benchmark Italian GDP which was recovering from the initial credit crunch shock and rallying from ~94 to ~97 turned south from early 2011 and fell to below 93. Back then the EC and its acolytes were claiming that this was an expansionary fiscal contraction whereas if we allow for the lags it hit the Italian economy hard. There have been various mea culpas ( IMF mostly) and redactions of history since. But not only did Italy struggle to recover as even now we are only back to the 97 level where in GDP terms it started from of course it was then benefiting from both fiscal and monetary policy. Or as Mario Draghi likes to put it.

an ongoing broad-based economic expansion

If we look back to my article from the 26th of October Italy is now being told that fiscal policy cannot help and may make things worse too. So Italians may reasonably be annoyed and sing along with All Time Low.

‘Cause I’m damned if I do ya, damned if I don’t

Things that will not improve their humour is that it is the same Olivier Blanchard pushing this who was in the van of arguing that a fiscal contraction would boost the economy. Also that Euro area rhetoric is making the situation of their bond market worse.

Bond Market

Back on the 2nd of October I noted that the benchmark ten-year yield for Italy had risen to 3.4% but that such things took time to have an impact on the real as opposed to financial economy. Well it is 3.47% as I type this and I note that @liukzilla calculated that this phase of higher yields will cost Italy around 6.6 billion Euros in higher debt costs. Care is needed as it is not something to pay now but say over the next ten years as interest is paid. But a rising problem.

The new government suggested that retail investors might surge into the market but they have bought less than one billion Euro’s of this week’s offer which is at best a damp squib. Of course there are the banks…

Italian banks

Did somebody mention the banks? They are of course stuffed full of Italian government bonds and you can see the state of play courtesy of @LiveSquawk.

Italy’s 5 Star Movement Has Proposed Measures To Allow Unlisted Banks And Insurers Not To Mark To Market Gvt Bonds – RTRS Sources.

Yes that bad. But the circus for banks carries on regardless it would appear as we move to Reuters.

Carige said Italian banks had guaranteed they would buy bonds worth 320 million euros, with a further 80 million euros earmarked for private investors, possibly including existing shareholders.

So the tin can gets another kick as we note that this weakens the other banks which participate.

Comment

Let me add another dimension provided courtesy of the Financial Times Magazine and let us first set the scene.

Mafia syndicates in Italy have an estimated annual turnover of €150bn, according to a report by the anti-Mafia parliamentary committee in 2017.

They have moved into agriculture as it seems like easy money and the economic crisis gave them an opportunity as whilst conventional business struggled they had cash.

With margins as high as 700 per cent, profits from olive oil, for example, can be higher than those from cocaine — and with far less risk.

Also it gives you clean money to which Michael Corleone would nod approvingly. Here is one route.

A Mafia family could claim about €1m a year in EU subsidies on 1,000 hectares, while leasing it for as little as €37,000. “With profit margins as high as 2,000 per cent, with no risk, why sell drugs or carry out robberies when you can just wait for the cheque to arrive in the post?” he says by telephone from his home.

Here is an even more unpleasant one.

In February last year, 42 members of the Piromalli clan in Calabria were arrested and 40 farms seized in connection with the export of counterfeit oil to the US, sold as extra virgin, which retails for at least €7 a litre. A number of those arrested are now in prison awaiting trial. According to police, about 50 per cent of all extra-virgin olive oil sold in Italy is adulterated with cheap, poor-quality oil. Globally the proportion is even higher.

Makes me wonder about the bottle of olive oil in my kitchen and the “made in Italy” spaghetti. It is all nearly as bad as the video of Patrice Evra and the chicken or perhaps we should say salmonella.

 

 

 

 

The Italian job just got a whole lot harder

The last few days have brought back memories of old times as an old stomping ground has returned to the forefront of financial news. This has been the Italian bond market which has been since Friday morning a real life example of the trading phrase “Don’t try to catch a falling piano”, or in some cases knife. If we look at the Italian bond future it has fallen 6 points since late on Thursday from a bit above 127 to a bit above 121. For these times a 2 point a day drop in a bond market is quite a bit especially when we consider that one large holder will not be selling. That is of course the European Central Bank or ECB which as of the 21st of September had bought some 356.4 billion Euros of them. So we note as an initial point that  falls of this magnitude, which has been on average the old price limit for US Treasury Bond futures ( a 2 point move led to a temporary trading stop back in the day) can happen even in the QE era.

Putting this another way the yield on the Italian ten-year benchmark bond has risen to 3.4%. This means that if we look at the deposit rate of the ECB which is -0.4% there is quite a yield curve here. It starts early with for those who have been invested here quite a chilling thought. You see as recently as mid may the Italian two-year yield was negative ( last December it was -0.36%) whereas at the time of typing this it is 1.56%. So those long have had a disaster although of course they can hold the bond to maturity and just lose the yield. Although of course we would not be here if there were not at least the beginnings of fears over the maturity itself such as perhaps you not being paid in Euros. From @DailyFXTeam.

EUR Borghi comments on the desirability of Italy having its own currency push Italian 10-yr yields to 3.4%, highest since March, 2014

Claudio Borghi is the chief adviser to Matteo Salvini who is Deputy Prime Minister and has been upping the rhetoric himself this morning. Via Twitters translation service.

In Italy No one is drinking the threats of Juncker, which now associates our country with Greece.

Madness they call it madness

There has been plenty of this including this curious statement yesterday from Matteo Salvini.

*ITALY’S SALVINI SAYS `GENTLEMEN OF THE SPREAD’ WILL UNDERSTAND

If we bypass the obvious sexism he is referring to the yield spread between Italian bonds and the benchmark for the Euro area which is of course Germany. A part of the Euro project is that these should converge over time as economies also converge. Except we have seen quite a divergence recently as if we look at the ten-year gap this morning it reached 3% per annum, which if you held to maturity would be a tidy sum especially if this fantasy came true.

Borghi advocating an ECB enforced max spread to Germany of 150bps. ( h/t @stewhampton )

In recent times it would appear that the ECB has been the main buyer of BTPs but it as of this week has reduced again its purchases and will buy around 1.7 billion Euros only in October. As we stand it seems unlikely to fire up its QE programme just for Italy. It did buy Italian bonds back at the peak of the Euro area crisis but bond yields were more than double what they are now.

The Deficit

In the grand scheme of things the change here has been quite minor. From Reuters.

Italy new eurosceptic government proposed on Thursday a budget that increases the deficit to 2.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2019, tripling it in comparison with the plans of its predecessors.

Actually the real change has been from 1.8% of GDP as rumoured just over a week ago, as we find that 0.6% of GDP has turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Actually the real switch in my opinion is not to be found here but rather in the implications for the national debt.

Under EU law Italy should reduce its public debt rather than increase borrowing. Rome’s total debt is worth 133 percent of GDP.

Just as a reminder the Euro area limit is supposed to be 60% of GDP. Thus Italy is supposed to be reducing its ratio but we know that it has been increasing it over the credit crunch era. Should the higher bond yields last then they will put further upwards pressure on it and in some respects Italy will start to look a little like Greece.

The economy

This is the crux of the matter as the most revealing point is that the budget forecast relies on Italy growing at 1.6% or 1.7% next year. The catch for those who have not followed its economic trajectory is that it only grows at about 1% in the good years and has had a dreadful credit crunch era. Those who were cheerleaders for the “Renzinomics” of around 2014 need to eat more than one slice of humble pie as it never happened. Yesterday brought another same as it ever was signal.

Manufacturing operating conditions in Italy stagnated during September as output and new orders both fell marginally. Job creation was sustained, but at a much slower rate as signs of spare capacity persisted………September’s data also marked the first time in just over two years that the sector has failed to expand.
Manufacturing output fell in September. Although negligible, the decline in production marked a second successive monthly contraction in line with a similar development for new orders.

If we switch to the official monthly economic report it too is downbeat.

In August, both consumer confidence and the composite business indicator declined, influenced respectively by the worsening of economic expectations and the climate in manufacturing sector, which is further affected by the
decline in book orders and expectations on production.

So we see that Italy which grew by 0.5% in the first half of the year will do well to repeat that in the second half especially if we note the slowing of the Euro area money supply we looked at last Thursday.

Much better news came from the labour market.

In August 2018, 23.369 million persons were employed, +0.3% over July. Unemployed were 2.522 million,
-4.5% over the previous month……..Employment rate was 59.0%, +0.2 percentage points over the previous month, unemployment rate was 9.7%, -0.4 percentage points over July 2018 and inactivity rate was 34.5%, +0.1 points over the previous month.

Let us hope that is true as Italy badly needs some good economic news, but it has developed a habit of declaring such numbers and then revising them higher later. Also it remains a bad time to be young in Italy.

Youth unemployment rate (aged 15-24) was 31.0%, +0.2 percentage points over the previous month

Comment

The situation here is something which has been changed by some rather small developments. Why? Well it is a consequence of my “Girlfriend in a Coma” theme which I have been running for some years now. When you grow by so little in the good times you are left vulnerable to changes, and hence apparently small ones can cause trouble. This has been added to by the frankly silly rhetoric on both sides.

Added to this is the issue of the consequences of the QE era which has been a subject over the past couple of weeks. Italy tucked itself under the “Whatever it takes” umbrella of President Draghi of the ECB but has not reformed much if at all so as the umbrella gets folded up and put away it is vulnerable again. Since that speech was given in the summer of 2012 the Italian economy has grown by a bit over 2% and is still some 4-5% smaller than it was a decade ago. This is the real Girlfriend in a coma issue which has led to the problems with the banks and the national debt and has given us the Italian version of a lost decade. As the population has been growing the individual experience has been even worse than that.

The other way that Italy is different to Greece is that in Euro terms it is indeed systemic due to its much larger size.

 

 

 

 

Where next for US monetary policy?

So much of the economic news in 2018 has related to developments in the US economy. In particular monetary policy as the world has found itself adjusting to what is called these days a “normalisation” of policy in the United States. To my mind that poses the immediate question of what is normal now? I am sure we can all agree that monetary policy has been abnormal over the past decade or so but along that path it has also begun to feel normal. People up to the age of ten will know no different and if we allow some time to be a child maybe even those at university regard what we have now as normal. After all they will have grown up in a world of low and then negative interest-rates. The media mostly copy and paste the official pronouncements that tell us it has been good for us and “saved” the economy.

I am thinking this because the US Federal Reserve last night gave a hint that it thinks something else may be the new normal.

The staff provided a briefing that summarized its analysis
of the extent to which some of the Committee’s monetary
policy tools could provide adequate policy accommodation
if, in future economic downturns, the policy
rate were again to become constrained by the effective
lower bound (ELB)

This begs various questions of which the first is simply as we have just been through the biggest trial ever of such policies surely they know them as well as they ever will? Next comes another troubling thought which is the rather odd theory that you need to raise interest-rates now so that you have room to cut them later. This is something which is not far off bizarre but seems to be believed by some. Personally I think you should raise interest-rates when you think there are good reasons for doing so as otherwise you are emulating the Grand Old Duke of York. Also there are costs to moving interest-rates so if you put them up to bring them down you have made things worse not better.

You may also note that the Zero Lower Bound or ZLB  has become the ELB with Effective replacing zero. Is there a hint here that the US would be prepared to move to negative interest-rates next time around? After all we exist in a world where in spite of the recorded recovery we still have negative interest-rates in parts of Europe and in Japan. Indeed the -0.4% deposit rate at the ECB has survived what the media have called the “Euroboom”.

Effective Lower Bound

There are some odd statements to note about all of this. For example.

Accordingly,in their view, spells at the ELB could become
more frequent and protracted than in the past, consistent
with the staff’s analysis.

Seeing as we have been there precisely once what does “more frequent” actually mean? Also considering how long we were there the concept of it being even more protracted is not a little chilling if we consider what that implies. Also this next bit is not a little breathtaking when we consider the scale of the application of the policy “toolkit”

They also emphasized that there was considerable uncertainty about the economic effects of these tools. Consistent with that view, a few participants noted that economic researchers had not yet reached a consensus about the effectiveness of unconventional policies.

I do not know about you but perhaps they might have given that a bit more thought before they expanded the Federal Reserve balance sheet to above 4 trillion dollars! As to possible consequences let me link two different parts of their analysis which would give me sleepless nights if I had implemented such policies.

A number of participants indicated that there might be significant costs associated with the use of unconventional policies……….. That decline was viewed as likely driven by various factors, including slower trend growth of the labor force and productivity as well as increased demand for safe assets.

Policy Now

This is the state of play for interest-rates.

The Committee expects that further gradual increases in the target range for the federal funds rate will be consistent with sustained expansion of economic activity,

How far? Well Robert Kaplan of the Dallas Fed gave a road map on Tuesday.

With the current fed funds rate at 1.75 to 2 percent, it would take approximately three or four more federal funds rate increases of a quarter of a percent to get into the range of this estimated neutral level.

At this stage, I believe the Federal Reserve should be gradually raising the fed funds rate until we reach this neutral level.

So circa 2.5% is the target and that seems to have been accepted by the bond market as we see the ten-year Treasury Note yield at 2.82% and the thirty-year Treasury Bond yield at 2.98%. When you read about the “yield curve” and in particular reports of it being flattish this is what they mean as we have a difference of a bit over 1% between the official interest-rate and the thirty-year bond.

There has been a lot of discussion about what this means but to my mind it simply means that the bond market has figured out where the US Federal Reserve intends to send interest-rates and has set prices in response. It will have noted the problems abroad that the interest-rate rises have contributed too and the discussions about possible future cuts and adjusted yields downwards. Whether that turns out to be right or wrong is a matter of opinion but to my mind whilst we have QT now ( the Federal Reserve balance sheet is being shrunk albeit relatively slowly) regular readers will be aware I think there are scenarios where interest-rates go up and the QE purchases begin again. Some such thoughts were perhaps on the mind of Robert Kaplan on Tuesday.

Despite the fact that the current economic expansion is the second longest in the postwar period, U.S. government debt held by the public now stands at 75.8 percent of GDP, and the present value of unfunded entitlements is estimated at approximately $54 trillion. The recent tax legislation and bipartisan budget compromise legislation are likely to exacerbate these issues. As a consequence of this level of debt, the U.S. is much less likely to have the fiscal capacity to fight the next recession.

Notice the reference to US debt held by the public which of course omits the holdings by the Fed itself.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here and so far I have left out two factors. The first is the Donald who has expressed a dislike for interest-rate rises but so far on a much more minor scale than say President Erdogan in Turkey. Next is the issue of the Dollar which is two-fold as in its exchange-rate and how many of them there are to go around. As to the dollar exchange rate then stormy times for the US President seem to have capped it for the short-term. But as to quantity the era of QT seems unsurprisingly to have reduced the supply around the world and therefore contributed to troubles in places which relied on there being plenty of them.

This brings us to the Jackson Hole symposium which starts today where central bankers gather to discuss what to do next. For example back in 2012 Micheal Woodford gave a speech about Forward Guidance which has now become an accepted part of the “toolkit”. Central bankers seem to inhabit a world where it is not a laughing-stock and instead is avidly received and listened to by an expectant population. This time around the official story is of “normalisation” as even the unreliable boyfriend has raised interest-rates albeit only a nervous once. Also the Swedes are again promising to reduce their negativity although that has become something of a hardy perennial.

But in the backrooms I suspect the conversation will shift to “what do we do next time?” when the next recession hits and for the market aware that may be added to by the recent price behaviour of Dr,Copper. On such a road the normalisation debate may suddenly become an Outkast.

I’m sorry, Ms. Jackson, I am for real
Never meant to make your daughter cry
I apologize a trillion times