Is Greece growing more quickly than the UK?

Today we return to a long running and grim saga which is the story of Greece and its economic crisis. However Bloomberg has put a new spin on it as follows.

Greece is growing faster than Britain and is outperforming it in financial markets.

Okay so let us take a deeper look at what they are saying. Matthew Winkler who is the Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Bloomberg News, whatever that means, goes on to tell us this.

In a role reversal not even the most prescient dared to anticipate, Greece is growing faster than the U.K. and outperforming it in financial markets. ……..Now that Europe is leading the developed world in growth, productivity and job creation after the euro gained 14.2 percent last year — the most among 16 major currencies and the strongest appreciation since 2003 — Greece is the biggest beneficiary and Britain is the new sick man of Europe.

This is really quite extraordinary stuff isn’t it? Let me just mark that the author seems to be looking entirely through the prism of financial markets and look at what else he has to say.

In the bond market, Greece is the king of total return (income plus appreciation), handing investors 60 percent since the Brexit vote. U.K. debt securities lost 3 percent, and similar bonds sold by euro-zone countries gained 7 percent during the same period, according to the Bloomberg Barclays indexes measured in dollars. Since March 1, 2012, when the crisis of confidence over Greece was at its peak and its debt was trading at 30 cents on the dollar, Greek bonds have returned 429 percent, dwarfing the 19 percent for euro bonds and 10 percent for the U.K., Bloomberg data show.

Also money is flowing into the Greek stock market.

ETF flows to Europe gained 15 percent and 13 percent to the U.K. during the same period. The Global X MSCI Greece ETF, the largest U.S.-based exchange-traded fund investing in Greek companies, is benefiting from a 35 percent increase in net inflows since the 2016 Brexit vote.

Finally we do actually get something based on the real economy.

The same analysts also forecast that Greece will overtake Britain in GDP growth. They expect Greece to see its GDP rise 2.15 percent this year and 2.2 percent in 2019 as the U.K. grows 1.4 percent and 1.5 percent.

Many of you will have spotted that the Greece is growing faster than the UK has suddenly morphed into people forecasting it will grow quicker than it! This poses a particular problem where Greece is concerned and can be illustrated by the year 2012. Back then we had been assured by the Troika that the Greek economy would grow by 2% on its way to an economic recovery and the UK was back then enmeshed in “triple-dip” fears. Actually there was no UK triple dip and the Greek economy shrank by around 7% on the year before.

GDP growth

According to the Greek statistics office these are the latest figures.

The available seasonally adjusted data
indicate that in the 3rd quarter of 2017 the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) in volume terms increased by 0.3% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2017, while in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2016, it increased by 1.3%.

Thus we see that if we move from forecasts and rhetoric to reality Greece has some economic growth which we should welcome but not only is that slower than the UK in context it is really poor if we look at its record. After the severe economic depression it has been through the economy should be rebounding rather than edging forwards. I have written many times that it should be seeing sharp “V Shaped” growth rather than this “L Shaped” effort.

If we look back the GDP at market prices peaked in Greece in 2008 at 231.9 billion Euros but in 2016 it was only 175.9 billion giving a decline of the order of 24% or 56 billion Euros. That is why it should be racing forwards now to recover at least part of the lost ground but sadly as I have predicted many times it is not. Even if the forecasts presented as a triumph above come true it will be a long long time before Greece gets back to 2008 levels. Whereas the UK economy is a bit under 11% larger and to be frank we think that has been rather a poor period.

Job creation

You may note that there was a shift to Europe leading the world on job creation as opposed to Greece so let us investigate the numbers.

The number of employed persons increased by 94,071 persons compared with November 2016 (a 2.6% rate of increase) and decreased by 9,659 persons compared with October 2017 (a 0.3% rate of decrease).

I am pleased to see that the trend is for higher employment albeit there has been a monthly dip. Actually if we look further the last 3 months have seen a fall so let us hope we are not seeing another false dawn. Further perspective is provided by these numbers.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in November 2017 was 20.9% compared to the upward revised 23.3% in November 2016 and the upward revised 20.9% in October 2017. The number of employed in November 2017 amounted to 3,761,452 persons. The number of unemployed amounted to 995,899 while the number of inactive to 3,242,383.

The first issue is the level of unemployment which has improved but still has the power to shock due to its level. The largest shock comes from a youth unemployment rate of 43.7% which is better than it was but leaves us mulling a lost generation as some seem set to be out of work for years to come and maybe for good. Or perhaps as Richard Hell and the Voidoids put it.

I belong to the Blank Generation, and
I can take it or leave it each time.

Before I move on I would just like to mark the level of inactivity in Greece which flatters the numbers more than a little.

Bond Markets

Last week there was a fair bit of cheerleading for this. From the Financial Times.

Greece has wrapped up the sale of a seven-year bond after a 48-hour delay blamed on international market turbulence, raising €3bn at a yield of 3.5 per cent. The issue marked the first time since 2014 that the country has raised new money. A five-year bond issue last July raised €3bn, about half of which involved swapping existing debt for longer-dated paper.

The problem is in the interest-rate as Greece has got the opportunity to borrow at a much higher rate than it has been doing! Let me hand you over to the European Stability Mechanism or ESM.

The loans, at very low-interest rates with long maturities, are giving Greece fiscal breathing space to bring its public finances in order……..Moreover, the EFSF and ESM loans lead to substantially lower financing costs for the country. That is because the two institutions can borrow cash much more cheaply than Greece itself, and offer a long period for repayment.

As you can see the two narratives are contradictory as we note Greece is now choosing to issue more expensively at a considerably higher interest-rate or yield. This matters a lot due to its circumstances.

They point to the debt-to-GDP ratio, which stands at more than 180%.


I would be more than happy if the Greek economy was set to grow more quickly than the UK as frankly it not only needs to be growing much faster it should be doing so for the reason I explained earlier. As someone who has consistently made the case for it needing a default and devaluation I find it stunning that the Bloomberg article claims this is a success for Greece.

 the euro gained 14.2 percent last year — the most among 16 major currencies and the strongest appreciation since 2003

After all the set backs for Greece and its people what they do not need is a higher exchange rate. Finally the better prospects for the Euro area offer some hope of better days but they will be braked somewhat by the higher currency.

The confused narrative seems to also involve claiming that paying more on your debt is a good thing. Awkward in the circumstances to be making the case for sovereignty! But the real issue is to get out of this sort of situation which is sucking demand out of the economy. From Kathimerini.

 It is no coincidence that the “increased post-bailout monitoring” is expected to end in 2022, when the obligation for high primary surpluses of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product expires.

So in conclusion there is a lot to consider here as we wish Greece well for 2018. It badly needs a much better year but frankly also more considered and thoughtful analysis as those who have suffered through this deserve much better. The ordinary Greek was mostly unaware of what their establishment was doing as it fiddled the data and let the oligarchs slip slide away from paying their taxes.



What are the consequences of rising bond yields?

So far in 2018 we have seen a move towards higher bond yields across the financial world. This poses more than a few questions not least for the central banks who went to unparalleled efforts in terms of scale to try to reduce them. This as I pointed out on the 6th of December led to some changes.

The credit crunch era has brought bond markets towards the centre stage of economics and finance. Before then there were rare expressions of interest in either a crisis or if the media wanted to film a response to an economic data release. You see equities trade rarely but bonds a lot so they filmed us instead and claimed we were equities trades so sorry for my part in any deception!

At the moment they are back in the news and this morning the Bank of Japan responded. From the Wall Street Journal.

The Bank of Japan took on the market and won—for now.

As Japanese 10-year bond yields threatened to break through the 0.1% mark early Friday, the bank threw down the gantlet and offered to buy out every player in the market.

If we step back for a moment it is hard not to have a wry smile at the Bank of Japan defending a yield on a mere 0.1%!  Not much of a yield or a bear market is it? It poses the question of how strong the economic recovery might be if that is all we can take. Overall it is a consequence of this.

“Today’s action was aimed at firmly implementing the bank’s policy target of guiding the 10-year yield around zero, taking into consideration recent large increases in long-term yields,” a senior BOJ official said. For the BOJ, “around zero” essentially means up to but not including 0.1%.

I am not so sure about the “large increases in long-term yields” story as in fact the thirty and forty-year yields have been dropping. But the response was as follows.

The bank offered to buy an unlimited amount of JGBs with remaining maturities of five to 10 years at a fixed rate of 0.11%, the same level it used on two previous occasions. Yields slipped to 0.85% from 0.95%.

This poses a couple of questions. Firstly for the argument that the Bank of Japan is tapering its bond buying or QE ( which is called QQE in Japan) as offering to buy an “unlimited amount” is hardly tapering. The issue here you may note is rather like that of the Swiss National Bank defending the Swiss Franc at 1.20 which suddenly found it was intervening on an enormous scale. So what looks like tapering could morph into expansion quite easily. How very Japanese!

Also I guess if you own 40% or so of a market as the Bank of Japan does you too would be touchy and nervous about any rise in yield and fall in prices. Time for En Vogue on its tannoy loudspeakers.

Hold me tight and don’t let go
Don’t let go
You have the right to lose control
Don’t let go

Maybe our songstresses even had a view for us on how likely it is that the central banking control freaks will reverse course.

I know you think that if we move too soon it would all end

The UK

This is an intriguing one as you see the ten-year Gilt yield has risen to 1.58% this morning  Here is how Bloomberg reflects on this.

Ten-year gilt yields climbed five basis points to 1.58 percent as of 9:29 a.m. London time, after touching 1.59 percent, their highest level since May 2016. The yield has surged about 40 basis points this year.

This is considered a bear market which as someone who has definitely seen such moves in a day and maybe when we were ejected from the ERM in 1992 maybe an hour is hard to take. So let us settle on a QE era bear market. Also the QE link comes back in as the high for UK Gilts was driven by the panic buys of late summer 2016 when the Bank of England dove into the market like a kamikaze pushing the yield down to 0.5%. From time to time apologists for such moves claim that QE does not make losses but if you pay 120 for something and get back 100 at maturity what is that please?

Intriguingly at least one player may have been wondering about a real bear market. From James Mackintosh in the WSJ.

The trade goes like this: borrow £750 million ($1 billion) for 100 years at a time when money is basically free. Invest it in shares. Pocket the difference.

Okay perhaps not a real bear market as that would affect shares too and as you see below the money is cheap in historical terms but not free.

 The scale of that demand was shown Wednesday when Wellcome’s 100-year bond was more than four times oversubscribed with a coupon of just 2.517%, the lowest ever paid on a corporate century bond.

That is not likely to be much in real yield terms and I would much rather be Welcome that those who bought the bonds. They think along the lines I pointed out in my post on Monday on pensions and the distorted world there.

Wellcome Chief Investment Officer Nick Moakes says ultralong bonds are distorted by rules forcing insurance companies and pension funds to buy them at any price, creating an uneconomic demand he is happy to satisfy with a bond issue

Of course buying equities at what is something of a top after a succession of all-time highs might be a case of not the best timing.

The US

This is the leader of the pack on such matters on two counts. It is the world’s largest economy and it currently has a central bank which is in the process of raising interest-rates. It’s central bank is even reducing its stock of bonds albeit at a snail’s pace. If we stick with the domestic impact then it is led by the thirty-year yield which has nudged over 3%. This means that the thirty-year fixed mortgage rate is now 4.23% as we look for the clearest link between the financial world and the real economy.

If we look at the shorter end of the scale we see that the rate rises so far combined with the expectations of more have seen the two-year yield rise to 2.16% as opposed to the 1.2% of this time last year. So there has been a tightening of monetary conditions all round from this route.


There is a lot to consider here and let us start with the economics. A rise in bond yields tightens monetary conditions and in that sense is a logical response to the better economic environment. However it is awkward for central banks who have paid more than the 100 they will get from their treasury on maturity as politicians have got used to spending the explicit and implicit profits. If they sell their holdings then they will exacerbate the price falls and weaken their remaining stock.

Moving to the foreign exchanges we have seen something rather odd. If you buy the US Dollar you get 2.8% right now if you put the money in a ten-year US Treasury Note whereas if you buy the Japanese Yen you only get 0.9%. So the US Dollar is rising right? Eh no, as I have covered many times. Of course some may be buying now thinking that an US Dollar in the 109s is attractive combined with picking up a 2.7% relative yield. Similar arguments can be made for the Euro and UK Pound £ albeit with smaller yield differentials.

Here is another thought for you. Imagine a Swiss or German version of Wellcome if there is one and how cheaply they could borrow for 100 years. Actually with its international position it could presumably have borrowed in Euros. Perhaps it is bullish of the UK Pound £……..brave if you look back 100 years.

Meanwhile if the bond bear market and its consequences are all too much there is apparently something which can take the pain away.



Carillion highlights the many problems of credit crunch era pension financing

This morning’s news brings us back to a problem which has dogged the credit crunch era. The advent of first official interest-rate cuts and then central bank balance sheet expansion was designed to pull economic demand from the future to the present. This poses an issue for pensions as it does for all long-term savings contracts as they rely on the future. The issue has become clearest when we look at a consequence of the widespread monetary easing which was reflected in a question on Thursday to ECB ( European Central Bank) President Mario Draghi which mentioned “10 Trillion” dollars of negative yielding bonds. If you start doing any sort of maths you find that the negative yields imply you will be getting less back in the future than you pay in now and that is before you factor in the impact of inflation. Who invests to make a loss?

Putting it another way here are the real yields as of today from Germany. Not what economics 101 would predict for am economy in a boom is it?

Just for clarity some of the nominal yields are negative as shown in the chart but even when they go positive they are negative if we allow for inflation prospects and estimate a real yield.


This reflects the conceptual issue as we note that its business model was to take advantage of the era of monetary easing. Take a look at this from the House of Commons Briefing Paper.

Over the eight years from December 2009 to January 2018, the total owed by Carillion in loans increased from £242 million to an estimated £1.3 billion – more than five times the value at the beginning of the decade.

So it was able to borrow on a large-scale as we note an effect of these times which is often forgotten. Not only did it become cheaper to borrow for many purposes but there was an availability of credit meaning that Carillion could borrow ever more as well as cheaply. As an aside the banks would no doubt have been happy to make some business lending but as I reported many years ago now about Japan you don’t always get the sort of business lending you want as we note what it did with it.

In the eight years from 2009 to 2016, Carillion paid out £554 million in dividends, almost as much as the cash it made from operations. In the five years from 2012 to 2016, Carillion paid out £217 million more in dividends than it generated in cash from its operations.

Now let us skip to the pensions situation.

Carillion has 13 UK defined benefit pension schemes with 27,000 members. In January 2018, the trustees estimated that the schemes’ Pension Protection Fund (PPF) deficit (the shortfall compared to what is needed to pay PPF compensation levels) was up to £900 million

So shareholders got dividends and we know the directors were well paid and were able to think of the future. From the Financial Times.

Allowing clawback conditions to be changed a year ago, striking out corporate failure as a reason to take back bonuses.

Yet they were somewhat more forgetful about the futures of others.

When did this start?

Rather concerningly the problems were long-standing. From Josephine Cumbo in the Financial Times.

In written evidence to the Committee, Robin Ellison, chair of Carillion pension scheme trustees, said the trustees had tried to agree higher funding contributions from the company in 2008, 2011 and 2013.

Even worse there are higher estimates of the problem emerging from the woodwork.

In his letter to the committee, Mr Ellison revealed that the funding shortfall for five of the six Carillion pension funds he chairs widened from £508m in 2013 to around £990m in 2016 when measured on a “technical provisions” basis. This is the measure used to set contributions from the employer every three years. However, the “buyout” deficit, or the measure used by the Pension Protection Fund to value a creditor claim for the pension debt, is nearer £2bn according to Mr Ellison.

This brings us to the subject of the regulator as we wonder what it has been doing over the past decade?

On Monday, the Work and Pensions Select Committee published new evidence claiming that the Pension Regulator (TPR) was alerted to problems with the company’s main pension plans as long ago as in 2008, when the scheme’s trustees and the company were locked in a funding dispute.

We seem to be back to the issue of who regulates the regulators as this looks like the behaviour of yet another paper tiger.

What is a pensions deficit?

In theory this is easy as it is simply an expected future shortfall. The problem is that more than a few variables are unknowable such as investment returns, inflation and interest-rates and yields in the future. The modern era started in 1997 with the Minimum Funding Requirement which had an impact on the markets I was working in/on at the time. From HM Parliament.

it appears to have created some extra demand in the long end of the gilts market, which may have contributed to the depression of yields.

This led to the view that one of the aims of the MFR was to support the Gilt market. Then another issue arose which has continued which is the use of yields to value pensions as only a year later there was a big change for dividend yields in pension funds.

the dividend yield is no longer a reliable measure of “value” for UK equities – this is partly due to the abolition of tax credits on UK dividends in the July 1997 Budget, which
has changed companies’ behaviour over profit distribution, and partly because investors are willing to value shares on future long-term expectations, despite the
absence of dividends or profits

More recently we have seen corporate bond yields used for pension deficits but this has brought its own problems as central banks have intervened here. Firstly by making them more attractive by cutting interest-rates then reinforcing it via balance sheet expansion via bond buying. Then explicitly by actually buying corporate bonds as the Bank of England did in August 2016 and less obviously via the ongoing ECB programme as UK companies do issue Euro denominated bonds.

The irony of all this is that if you had bought long-dated UK Gilts two decades ago you would have done really rather well especially if you sold to the “Sledgehammer” buying of the Bank of England as it sent the market to all time highs with its panic inspired move.

What about direct contribution pensions?

These are simply ones where you put money in ( and if lucky your employer does as well) and it is invested and you make or loss depending on how the investments do. This is different to the schemes above where the employer promises a return based on your salary or earnings. According to the Financial Times just over a week ago the costs here are not quite what we are told.

The total cost of investing in popular funds, including those run by Janus Henderson, BlackRock and Vanguard, is up to four times higher than first thought, FTfm can reveal today. The Mifid II trading rules, which came into force this month, have forced asset managers to disclose hidden charges.

Some care is needed as platform charges are not caused by the fund management group but there are charges which are far from transparent.


There is much here to consider. The concept of investing for the future is simple and yet the credit crunch era has made it more complicated. For example there was a time ( and no doubt regulatory rules still suggest it) that the safest investment was a government inflation or indexed linked bond. No we see a time when in the UK and Germany you are pretty much guaranteeing yourself a loss in real terms if you hold them to maturity. If we look at conventional bonds they yield so little there is no fat on the bone as real yields are hard to come by.

Ironically this will have benefited some as if you had been holding bonds over the ,long-term then you are quids ( Dollars, Euros,Yen) in as we have been in a bull market. More recently equities have joined that party but here is the rub. In my opinion central baking easing has helped drive this too as current investors/pensioners benefit from borrowing from future returns. The claimed “wealth effects” must make it harder to make money going forwards as we note that like in Japan zombie companies which is what we are increasingly looking at with Carillion were indeed propped up.

Meanwhile I would suggested that especially if we consider their student debt burden millennials are unlikely to be able to buy a home and invest in a pension simply by giving up takeaway coffee and avocado toast.

Also I am pleased to report that the spirit of Sir Humphrey Appleby is alive and kicking at the UK Pensions Regulator.

The Regulator said: “It is too early to comment on whether with different information we could or would have taken action in the past or whether we will take action in the future, based on any new information that comes to light.” ( h/t @JosephineCumbo )



What and indeed where next for bond markets?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bond vigilantes

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

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


A flat yield curve?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



What is austerity and how much of it have we seen?

The subject of austerity is something which has accompanied the lifespan of this blog so 7 years now. The cause of its rise to prominence was of course the onset of the credit crunch which led to higher fiscal deficits and then national debts via two routes. The first was the economic recession ( for example in the UK GDP fell by approximately 6% as an initial response) leading to a fall in tax revenue and a rise in social security payments. The next factor was the banking bailouts which added to national debts of which the extreme case was Ireland where the national debt to GDP ratio rose from as low as 24% in 2006 to 120% in 2012.  It was a rarely challenged feature of the time that the banks had to be bailed out as they were treated like “the precious” in the Lord of the Rings and there was no Frodo to throw them into the fires of Mount Doom.

It was considered that there had to be a change in economic policy in response to the weaker economic situation and higher public-sector deficits and debts. This was supported on the theoretical side by this summarised by the LSE.

The Reinhart-Rogoff research is best known for its result that, across a broad range of countries and historical periods, economic growth declines dramatically when a country’s level of public debt exceeds 90% of gross domestic product……… they report that average (i.e. the mean figure in formal statistical terms) annual GDP growth ranges between about 3% and 4% when the ratio of public debt to GDP is below 90%. But they claimed that average growth collapses to -0.1% when the ratio rises above a 90% threshold.

The work of Reinhart and Rogoff was later pulled apart due to mistakes in it but by then it was too late to initial policy. It was also apparently too late to reverse the perception amongst some that Kenneth Rogoff who these days spend much of his time trying to get cash money banned is a genius. That moniker seems to have arrived via telling the establishment what it wants to hear.

The current situation

The UK Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times ahead of Wednesday’s UK Budget stating this.

The chancellor should use this moment to lift his sights, address the immediate crisis in Britain’s public services that his party created, and change course from the past seven disastrous years of austerity.

If we ignore the politics the issue of austerity is in the headlines again but what it is has changed over time. Before I move on it seems that both our Chancellor who seemed to think there were no unemployed at one point over the weekend and the Shadow Chancellor was seems to be unaware the UK economy has been growing for around 5 years seem equally out of touch.

Original Austerity

This involved cutting back government expenditure and raising taxation to reduce the fiscal deficits which has risen for the reasons explained earlier. Furthermore it was claimed that such policies would stop rises in the national debt and in some extreme examples reduce it. The extreme hardcore example of this was the Euro area austerity imposed on Greece as summarised in May 2010 by the IMF.

First, the government’s finances must be sustainable. That requires reducing the fiscal deficit and placing the debt-to-GDP ratio on a downward trajectory……With the budget deficit at 13.6 percent of GDP and public debt at 115 percent in 2009, adjustment is a matter of extreme urgency to avoid the debt spiraling further out of control.

A savage version of austerity was begun which frankly looked more like a punishment beating than an economic policy.

The authorities have already begun fiscal consolidation equivalent to 5 percent of GDP.

But the Managing Director of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Khan was apparently confident that austerity in this form would lead to economic growth.

we are confident that the economy will emerge more dynamic and robust from this crisis—and able to deliver the growth, jobs and prosperity that the country needs for the future.

Maybe one day it will but so far there has been very little recovery from the economic depression inflicted on Greece by the policy prescription. This has meant that the national debt to GDP ratio has risen to 175% in spite of the fact that there was the “PSI” partial default in 2012. It is hard to think of a clearer case of an economic policy disaster than this form of disaster as for example my suggestion that you needed  a currency devaluation to kick-start growth in such a situation was ignored.

A gentler variation

This came from the UK where the coalition government announced this in the summer of 2010.

a policy decision to reduce total spending by an additional £32 billion a year by 2014-15, including debt interest savings;

In addition there were tax rises of which the headline was the rise in the expenditure tax VAT from 17.5% to 20%. These were supposed to lead to this.

Public sector net borrowing falls from 11.0 per cent of GDP in 2009-10 to 1.1 per cent in 2015-16. Public sector net debt is forecast to rise to a peak of 70.3 per cent of GDP in 2013-14, before falling to 67.4 per cent in 2015-16.

As Fleetwood Mac would put it “Oh Well”. In fact the deficit was 3.8% of GDP in the year in question and the national debt continued to rise to 83.8% of GDP. So we have a mixed scorecard where the idea of a surplus was a mirage but the deficit did fall but not fast enough to prevent the national debt from rising. Much of the positive news though comes from the fact that the UK economy began a period of sustained economic growth in 2012.

Economic growth

We have already seen the impact of economic growth via having some (  UK) and seeing none and indeed continued contractions ( Greece). But the classic case of the impact of it on the public finances is Ireland where the national debt to GDP ratio os now reported as being 72.8%.

Sadly the Irish figures rely on you believing that nominal GDP rose by 68 billion Euros or 36.8% in 2015 which frankly brings the numbers into disrepute.


The textbook definitions of austerity used to involved bringing public sector deficits into surplus and cutting the national debt. These days this has been watered down and may for example involve reducing expenditure as a percentage of the economy which may mean it still grows as long as the economy grows faster! The FT defines it thus.

Austerity measures refer to official actions taken by the government, during a period of adverse economic conditions, to reduce its budget deficit using a combination of spending cuts or tax rises.

So are we always in “adverse economic conditions” in the UK now? After all we still have austerity after 5 years of official economic growth.

What we have discovered is that expenditure cuts are hard to achieve and in fact have often been transfers. For example benefits have been squeezed but the basic state pension has benefited from the triple lock. Also if last years shambles over National Insurance is any guide we are finding it increasingly hard to raise taxes. Not impossible as Stamp Duty receipts have surged for example but they may well be eroded on Wednesday.

Also something unexpected, indeed for governments “something wonderful” happened which was the general reduction in the cost of debt via lower bond yields. Some of that was a result of long-term planning as the rise of “independent” central banks allowed them to indulge in bond buying on an extraordinary scale and some as Prince would say is a Sign O’The Times. As we stand the new lower bond yield environment has shifted the goal posts to some extent in my opinion. The only issue is whether we will take advantage of it or blow it? Also if we had the bond yields we might have expected with the current situation would public finances have improved much?

Meanwhile let me wonder if a subsection of austerity was always a bad idea? This is from DW in August.

Germany’s federal budget  surplus hit a record 18.3 billion euros ($21.6 billion) for the first half of 2017.

With its role in the Euro area should a country with its trade surpluses be aiming at a fiscal surplus too or should it be more expansionary to help reduce both and thus help others?



Why have the bond markets lost their bark and their vigilantes?

The credit crunch era took us on quite a journey in terms of interest-rates. At first central banks reduced official short-term interest-rates in the hope that they would fix the problem. Then they embarked on Quantitative Easing policies which were designed to reduce long-term interest-rates or bond yields. This was because quite a few important interest-rates are not especially dependent on official interest-rates and may from time to time even move in the opposite direction. An example is fixed-rate mortgages. However if they are a “cure” then one day all the downwards manipulation of interest-rates and yields needs to stop. Of course the fact that it is still going on all these years later poses its own issues.

The United States looked as though it was heading on that road last year on two counts. Firstly the Federal Reserve was in a program to raise interest-rates and secondly both Presidential candidates indicated plans for a fiscal stimulus. When Donald Trump was elected as President he reinforced this by telling us this as I reported back on November 9th.

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none, and we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.

This was somewhat reminiscent of the “New Deal” of President F.D. Roosevelt although I counselled caution at the time and of course any fiscal expansion would be added to by the plan for tax cuts. The two impacted on bond markets as shown below.

There has been a clear market adjustment to this which is that the 30 year ( long bond) yield has risen by 0.12% to 2.75%.

In the US this tends to have a direct impact on fixed mortgage-rates as many places quote a 30 year one.

What happened next?

US bond yields did rise and in mid March the 10 year Treasury Note yield rose to 2.63% meaning that it was approaching the long bond yield quoted above. Meanwhile the long bond yield rose to 3.21%. However as we look back now those were twin peaks and have been replaced by 2.07% and 2.69% respectively.

Why might this be?

Whilst there does seem to be some sort of concrete plan for tax cuts there is little sign of much concrete around any infrastructure spending. So that has drifted away and there has been an element of this with official interest-rate rises. The US Federal Reserve has raised them to a range between 1% and 1.25% but seems to be in no hurry to raise them further. It does plan to reduce its balance sheet but the plan is very small compared to its size.

The Recovery

The US economy has continued to grow in 2017 as shown below.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 3.0 percent in the second quarter of 2017 (table 1), according to the “second” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the first quarter, real GDP increased 1.2 percent. ( These are annualised figures )

This has not been enough to unsettle bond markets especially if we add in that so far in 2017 inflation has if anything faded. Here are the latest numbers from NASDAQ.

Excluding food prices and fuel, core PCE measure – the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation – increased 1.4% in July year over year compared with 1.5% in June. However, it edged up 0.1% in July on a monthly basis. Therefore, it is still far from the Fed’s target of 2%.

For once it does not matter if you use a core inflation measure as it comes to the same answer as the headline! Although the annual rate has only fallen by 0.2% for the core measure since March as opposed to 0.4% for the headline. But we are left with okay growth and fading inflation which gives us a reason why bond markets have rallied and yields fallen.

What about wages?

The various output gap style theories that falling and indeed low unemployment rates would push wage and in particular real wage growth higher have not come to fruition. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From July 2016 to July 2017, real average hourly earnings increased 0.8 percent, seasonally adjusted. The increase in real average hourly earnings combined with no change in the average workweek resulted in a 0.7-percent increase in real average weekly earnings over this period.


If we stay with the subject of wages here is today’s data from Japan. From the Financial Times.


Unadjusted labour cash earnings fell 0.3 per cent year on year in July, down from a 0.4 per cent increase a month earlier, according to a preliminary estimate by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare…….Special cash earnings, which includes bonuses, were down 2.2 per cent on the same month a year ago.

If we widen our discussion geographically and look at the US where there is some wage growth we see that in other places there is not as real wages in Japan fell by 0.8%. If we stay with Japan for a moment then we see that in spite of the media proclamations over the past 4 years that wages are about to turn upwards we are still waiting. Bonuses were supposed to surge this summer. So the “output gap” continues to fail and there is little pressure on bond yields from wage growth in Japan.


This of course continues in quite a few places. In terms of the headline players we have the 60 billion Euros a month of the European Central Bank and the yield curve control of the Bank of Japan which it expects to be around 80 trillion Yen a year. I raise these points as a bond yield rally in these areas would require these to be substantially reduced or stopped. We expect little substantive change from the ECB until the election season is over but some were expecting a reduction from it as the Euro area economy improved. As time passes it will have to make some changes as its rules suggest it will run out of German bonds to buy next spring and the more it shuffles to avoid that the more likely it will run out of bonds to buy in France, Spain and even Italy.

Added to this are the sovereign wealth funds as for example Norway which seems to be rebalancing in favour of US Euro and UK bonds. There are also the investment plans of the Swiss National Bank.


So we see a dog that has little bark and has not bitten. Some of this is really good news as unlike the central banker cartel I am pleased that so far inflation has for them disappointed. Although as we look ahead there may be issues from some commodity prices. From

December copper futures trading on the Comex market in New York made fresh highs on Tuesday after the world’s number one producer of the metal reported a sharp drop in production.
Copper touched $3.1785 a pound ($7,007 per tonne) in morning trade, the highest since September 2014. Copper is now up by more than 50% compared to this time last year.

So Dr,Copper may be giving us a hint although I also note that hedge funds are getting involved so this may be a “financialisation” move as opposed to a real one.

Another factor which would change things would be some real wage growth. Perhaps along the lines of this released by the German statistics office last week.

The collectively agreed earnings, as measured by the index of agreed monthly earnings including extra payments, increased by an average 3.8% in the second quarter of 2017 compared with the same quarter of the previous year. This is the highest rise since the beginning of the time series in 2011. The Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that, excluding extra payments, the year-on-year increase in the second quarter of 2017 was 3.4%.

If we move to my home country then it remains hard to believe with our penchant for inflation we have a ten-year Gilt yield of 1.01% as I type this. Even worse a five-year Gilt yield of 0.43% as you will lose the total yield in inflation this year alone. I can see how a “punter” might buy at times front-running events or the Bank of England but how can it be an investment unless you expect quite an economic depression?




Will rising bond yields mean ECB QE is To Infinity! And Beyond!?

Yesterday the ECB ( European Central Bank ) President Mario Draghi spoke at the European Parliament and in his speech were some curious and intriguing phrases.

Our current monetary policy stance foresees that, if the inflation outlook becomes less favourable, or if financial conditions become inconsistent with further progress towards a sustained adjustment in the path of inflation, the Governing Council is prepared to increase the asset purchase programme in terms of size and/or duration.

I say that bit was curious because it contrasted with the other rhetoric in the speech as we were told how well things are going.

Over the last two years GDP per capita has increased by 3% in the euro area, which compares well with other major advanced economies. Economic sentiment is at its highest level in five years. Unemployment has fallen to 9.6%, its lowest level since May 2009. And the ratio of public debt to GDP is declining for the second consecutive year.

The talk of what I would call “More,More,More” is also a contrast to the December policy decision which went down the road of less or more specifically slower.

We will continue to purchase assets at a monthly pace of €80 billion until March. Starting from April, our net asset purchases will run at a monthly pace of €60 billion, and we will reinvest the securities purchased earlier under our programme, as they mature. This will add to our monthly net purchases.

There was another swerve from Mario Draghi who had written to a couple of MEPs telling them that a country leaving the Euro would have to settle their Target 2 balances ( I analysed this on the  23rd of January ) whereas now we were told this.

L’euro e’ irrevocabile, the euro is irrevocable

Of course Italian is his natural language bur perhaps also there was a message to his home country which has seen the rise of political parties who are against Euro membership.

Such words do have impacts on bond markets and yields but I was particularly interested in this bit. From @macrocredit.


A rather curious observation from someone who is effectively doing just that and of course for an establishment which trumpeted the convergence of bond yield spreads back before the Euro area crisis. Just to be clear which is meant here is the gap between the bond yield of Germany and other nations such as Spain or Italy. These days Mario Draghi seems to be displaying all the consistency of Arsene Wenger.

Oh and rather like the Bank of England he seems to be preparing himself for a rise in inflation.

As I have argued before, our monetary policy strategy prescribes that we should not react to individual data points and short-lived increases in inflation.

Spanish energy consumers may not be so sanguine!

Growing divergence in bond yields

The reality has been that recently we have seen a growing divergence in Euro area bond yields. This has happened in spite of the fact that the ECB QE ( Quantitative Easing) bond buying program has continued. As of the latest update it has purchased some 1.34 trillion Euros of sovereign bonds as well as of course other types of bonds. Perhaps markets are already adjusting to the reduction in the rate of purchases planned to begin on April 1st.


Ch-ch-changes here are right at the core of the Euro project which is the Franco-German axis. If we look back to last autumn we see a ten-year yield which fell below 0.1% and now we see one of 1.12%. This has left it some 0.76% higher than its German equivalent.

Care is needed as these are still low levels but politicians get used to an annual windfall from ,lower bond yields and so any rise will be unwelcome. It is still true that up to the five-year maturity France can borrow at negative bond yields but it is also true that a chill wind of change seems to be blowing at the moment. The next funding auction will be much more painful than its predecessor and the number below suggests we may not have to wait too long for it.

The government borrowing requirement for 2017 is therefore forecast to reach €185.4bn.


Here in Mario’s home country the situation is more material as the ten-year yield has risen to 2.36% or 2% over that of Germany. This will be expensive for politicians in the same manner as for France except of course the yield is more expensive and as the Italian Treasury confirms below the larger national debt poses its own demands.

The redemptions over the coming year are just under 216 billion euros (excluding BOTs), or some 30 billion euros more than in 2016, including approximately 3.3 billion euros in relation to the international programme. At the same time, the redemptions of currently outstanding BOTs amount to just over 107 billion euros, which is below the comparable amount in 2016 (115 billion euros) as a result of the policy initiated some years ago to reduce the borrowing in this segment.

The Italian Treasury has also noted the trends we are discussing today.

As a result of these developments, the yield differentials between Italian government securities and similar securities from other core European countries (in particular, Germany) started to increase in September 2016……. the final two months of 2016 have been marked by a significant increase in interest rates in the bond market in the United States,

Although we are also told this

In Europe, the picture is very different.

Anyway those who have followed the many debacles in this particular area which have mostly involved Mario Draghi’s past employer Goldman Sachs will note this next bit with concern.

Again in 2017, the transactions in derivatives instruments will support active portfolio management, and they will be aimed at improving the portfolio performance in the current market environment.

Should problems emerge then let me place a marker down which is that the average maturity of 6.76 years is not the longest.


Here the numbers are more severe as Portugal has a ten-year yield of 4.24% and of course it has a similar national debt to economic output ratio to Italy so it is an outlier on two fronts. It need to raise this in 2017.

The Republic has a gross issuance target of EUR 14 billion to EUR 16 billion through both auctions and syndications.

To be fair it started last month but do you see the catch?

The size was set at EUR 3 billion and the new OT 10-year benchmark was finally priced at 16:15 CET with a coupon of 4.125% and a re-offer yield of 4.227%.

That is expensive in these times of a bond market super boom. Portugal has now paid off some 44% of its borrowings from the IMF but it is coming with an increasingly expensive kicker. Maybe that is why the European establishment wanted the IMF involved in its next review of Portugal’s circumstances.

Also at just over five years the average maturity is relatively short which would mean any return of the bond vigilantes would soon have Portugal looking for outside help again.

As of December 31, 2016 the Portuguese State direct debt amounted to EUR 236,283 million, decreasing 0.5% vis-à-vis the end of the previous month ( 133.4% of GDP).


Bond markets will of course ebb and flow but recently we have seen an overall trend and this does pose questions for several countries in the Euro area in particular. The clear examples are Italy and Portugal but there are also concerns elsewhere such as in France. These forces take time but a brake will be applied to national budgets as debt costs rise after several years when politicians will have been quietly cheering ECB policies which have driven falls. Of course higher inflation will raise debt costs for nations such as Italy which have index-linked stocks as well.

If we step back we see how difficult it will be for the ECB to end its QE sovereign bond buying program and even harder to ever reverse the stock or portfolio of bonds it has bought so far. This returns me to the issues I raised on January 19th.

If we look at the overall picture we see that 2017 poses quite a few issues for central banks as they approach the stage which the brightest always feared. If you come off it will the economy go “cold turkey” or merely have some withdrawal systems? What if the future they have borrowed from emerges and is worse than otherwise?

Meanwhile with the ECB being under fire for currency manipulation ( in favour of Germany in particular) it is not clear to me that this from Benoit Coeure will help.

The ECB has no specific exchange rate target, but the single currency has adjusted as a consequence. Since its last peak in 2011, the euro has depreciated by almost 30% against the dollar. The euro is now at a level that is appropriate for the economic situation in Europe.