Will the UK be raising or reducing taxes?

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

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

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

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

Okay and when would it happen?

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

Okay so there is an Undertone(s) here.

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

Economic Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

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

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

“UK debt now larger than size of whole economy”

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Can US house prices bounce?

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

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

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

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

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

The Policy Response

The other tsunami is the policy response to the pandemic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their explanation is below.

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

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

Mortgage Rates

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

Let me hand you over to CNBC from Thursday.

Mortgage rates set new record low, falling below 3%

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

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

Mortgage Amounts

CNBC noted some action here too.

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

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

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

Mortgage demand is back on the rise according to them.

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

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

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

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

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

What about prices?

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

Comment

As Todd Terry sang.

Something’s goin’ on in your soul

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

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

But as @mikealfred reports there is demand out there.

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

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

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

Podcast

 

 

 

Where next for the economy of Spain and house prices?

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

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

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

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

Today

Markit INS offered us some thoughts earlier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ECB

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

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

Yesterday though there was something to get Lyndsey Buckingham singing.

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

The Investing Channel

 

What is happening to the economy of Italy right now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy GDP

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

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

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

Yesterday the Italian Statistics Office produced its Monthly Report.

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

Okay let’s look back to February.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh and as to Eurobonds well actually they do exist.

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fiscal Policy will now take centre stage as France has shown

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

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

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

Best of luck with that.

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

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

 over coming months the Committee will increase its holdings of Treasury securities by at least $500 billion and its holdings of agency mortgage-backed securities by at least $200 billion.

Step Forwards France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Selling Bans

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the oil price shock of 2020

Today is one where we are mulling how something which in isolation is good news has led to so much financial market distress overnight and this morning. So much so that for once comparisons with 2008 and the credit crunch have some credibility.

And I felt a rush like a rolling bolt of thunder
Spinning my head around and taking my body under
Oh, what a night ( The Four Seasons)

Just as people were getting ready for markets to be impacted by the lock down of Lombardy and other regions in Italy there was a Mexican stand-off in the oil market. This came on top of what seemed at the time large falls on Friday where depending on which oil benchmark you looked at the fall was either 9% or 10%.Then there was this.

DUBAI, March 8 (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, plans to raise its crude oil production significantly above 10 million barrels per day (bpd) in April, after the collapse of the OPEC supply cut agreement with Russia, two sources told Reuters on Sunday.

State oil giant Aramco will boost its crude output after the current OPEC+ cut deal expires at the end of March, the sources said.

Whilst they are playing a game of who blinks first the oil price has collapsed. From Platts Oil

New York — Crude futures tumbled roughly 30% on the open Sunday evening, following news that Saudi Aramco cut its Official Selling Prices for April delivery. ICE front-month Brent fell $14.25 on the open to $31.02/b, before climbing back to trade around $35.22/b at 2238 GMT. NYMEX front-month crude futures fell $11.28 to $30/b on the open, before rising to trade at around $32.00/b.

The Real Economy

Let us get straight to the positive impact of this because in the madness so many are missing it.

We find that a 10 percent increase in global oil inflation increases, on average, domestic inflation by about 0.4
percentage point on impact, with the effect vanishing after two years and being similar between advanced and developing economies. We also find that the effect is asymmetric, with positive oil price shocks having a larger effect than negative ones. ( IMF 2017 Working Paper )

There is plenty of food for thought in the reduced relative impact of lower oil prices for those who believe they are passed on with less enthusiasm and sometimes not passed on at all. But if the IMF are right we will see a reduction in inflation of around 0.6% should oil prices remain here.

As to the impact on economic growth the literature has got rather confused as this from the Bank of Spain in 2016 shows.

Although our findings point to a negative influence from oil price increases on economic growth, this phenomenon is far from being stable and has gone through different phases over time. Further research is necessary to fathom this complex relationship.

Let me give you an example of how it will work which is via higher real wages. Of course central bankers do not want to tell us that because they are trying to raise inflation and are hoping people will not spot that lower real wages will likely be a consequence. To be fair to the IMF it does manage to give us a good laugh.

The impact of oil price shocks, however,
has declined over time due in large part to a better conduct of monetary policy.

That does give us the next link in the story but before we get there let me give you two major problems right now which have links. The first is that the oil price Mexican stand-off has a silent player which is the US shale oil industry. As I have pointed out before it runs on a cash flow business model which has just seen likely future flows of cash drop by a third.

Now we get to the second impact which is on credit markets. Here is WordOil on this and remember this is from Thursday.

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) –Troubled oil and gas companies may have a hard time persuading their bankers to keep extending credit as the outlook darkens for energy, potentially leading to more bankruptcies in the already-beleaguered sector.

Lenders evaluate the value of oil reserves used as collateral for bank loans twice a year, a process that’s not likely to go well amid weak commodity prices, falling demand, shuttered capital markets and fears of coronavirus dampening global growth. Banks may cut their lending to cash-starved energy companies by 10% to 20% this spring, according to investors and analysts.

That will all have got a lot worse on Friday and accelerated today. I think you can all see the problem for the shale oil producers but the issue is now so large it will pose a risk to some of those who have lent them the money.

US oil/junk bonds: busts to show folly of last reboot ( FT Energy )

I am not sure where the FT is going with this bit though.

There will be no shortage of capital standing ready to recapitalise the energy sector….

Perhaps they have a pair of glasses like the ones worn by Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. Meanwhile back in the real world there was this before the latest falls.

More than one-third of high-yield energy debt is trading at distressed levels. Oil and gas producers with bonds trading with double-digit yields include California Resources Corp., Range Resources Corp., Southwestern Energy Co., Antero Resources Corp., Comstock Resources Inc., Extraction Oil & Gas Inc. and Oasis Petroleum Inc. ( World Oil)

Central Banks

As the oil price news arrived central bankers will have been getting text messages to come into work early. Let me explain why. Firstly we know that some credit markets were already stressed and that the US Federal Reserve had been fiddling while Rome burns as people sang along with Aloe Blacc.

I need a dollar, dollar a dollar is what I need
hey hey
Well I need a dollar, dollar a dollar is what I need
hey hey
And I said I need dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need.

Whoever decided to taper the fortnightly Repo operations to US $20 billion had enough issues when US $70 billion was requested on Thursday, now I guess he or she is not answering the phone. Anyway the role of a central bank in a crisis like this is to be lender of last resort and splash the cash. At the same time it should be doing emergency investigations to discover the true state of affairs in terms of solvency.

This is because some funds and maybe even banks must have been hit hard by this and may go under. Anyone long oil has obvious problems and if that is combined with oil lending it must look dreadful. If anyone has geared positions we could be facing another Long-Term Capital Management. Meanwhile in unrelated news has anyone mentioned the derivatives book of Deutsche Bank lately?

The spectre of more interest-rate cuts hangs over us like a sword of damocles. I type that because I think they will make things worse rather than better and central banks would be better employed with the liquidity issues above. They are much less glamorous but are certainly more effective in this type of crisis. Frankly I think further interest-rate cuts will only make things worse.

Comment

I have covered a lot of ground today but let me move onto home turf. We can also look at things via bond yields and it feels like ages ago that I marked your cards when it was only last Thursday! Anyway we have been on this case for years.

Treasury 10-Year Note Yield Slides Below 0.5% for First Time ( @DiMartinoBooth)

Yes it was only early last week that we noted a record low as it went below 1%. Meanwhile that was last night and this is now.

Overnight the US 10-year traded 0.33%, under 0.44% now. The longbond traded down to 0.70% overnight. The bond futures were up over 12 points. Now trading 0.85%. Note how “gappy” this chart is. Liquidity is an issue. ( @biancoresearch )

This really matters and not in the way you may be thinking. The obvious move is that if you are long bonds you have again done really well and congratulations. Also there is basically no yield these days as for example, my home country the UK has seen a negative Gilt yield this morning around the two-year maturity.

But the real hammer on the nail will not be in price ( interest-rates) it will be in quantity as some places will be unable to lend today. Some of it will be predictable ( oil) but in these situations there is usually something as well from left field. So let me end this part Hill Street Blues style.

Let’s be careful out there

Podcast

I have not mentioned stock markets today but I was on the case of bank shares in my weekly podcast. Because at these yields and interest-rates they lack a business model.

 

 

 

What will happen to house prices now?

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

Bond Yields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mortgage Lending

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Is this the beginning of the end for yield?

This week has seen some extraordinary events and it is time to take stock. The truth is that something I have both feared and expected is on motion again. It has come with a familiar refrain that it cant happen here until it does! On this road to nowhere the Corona Virus pandemic is in fact just another brick in the wall. It concerns us now and let me express my sympathy for those affected and afflicted but the world economic system was so rigid after all the central banking intervention that something was always going to turn up.

The point is that each so-called Black Swan event has the same consequence and let me give you the main events this week so far.

 the Federal Open Market Committee decided today to lower the target range for the federal funds rate by 1/2 percentage point, to 1 to 1‑1/4 percent.

At its meeting today, the Board decided to lower the cash rate by 25 basis points to 0.50 per cent. The Board took this decision to support the economy as it responds to the global coronavirus outbreak. ( Reserve Bank of Australia)

This was followed yesterday afternoon by this.

The Bank of Canada today lowered its target for the overnight rate by 50 basis points to 1 ¼ percent. The Bank Rate is correspondingly 1 ½ percent and the deposit rate is 1 percent.

Also there have been the central banks of Malaysia and Moldova. But that is not it as we now expect cuts from the Bank of England and ECB amongst others. Actually before the next Bank of England meeting the US Federal Reserve will probably have cut again as once you are a slave to equity markets that is what you are.

But this is merely a staging post in today’s story because when this party started central banks learnt that their Ivory Tower assumptions were wrong. They assumed that other interest-rates such as mortgage-rates and bond yields would slavishly follow, but they had minds of their own. So we got QE bond buying and then credit easing to deal with that.

Then as the credit crunch developed we saw bond yields fall substantially after various wrong turns. For example the Euro area crisis saw bond yields in double-digits before we entered the “whatever it take” era begun by Mario Draghi.

What about now?

Let me now jump forwards in time Dr. Who style and bring this up to date.

Ten-year US Treasury yields—the benchmark for global financing—got a shove below 1% after the Federal Reserve made an emergency cut to its target rate yesterday. It’s the lowest rate ever, according to records going back to 1871. ( @Ray_O_Johnson  )

It was only a week ago it seemed remarkable it had gone through 1.3% and it opened the year at more like 1.9%. So we learnt that as we expected the US was not as different as so many “experts” have tried to claim as when the going got tough its central bank unveiled the playbook which has been so unsuccessful elsewhere.

Canada is in a similar position with a ten-year yield of 1.02% although there are two subplots. It has been here before in the credit crunch era and it has seen some wild swings since its official interest-rate move with the yield going as low as 0.88%. Australia is at 0.77% some one and half percent lower than a year ago.

The economic consequences

Let me illustrate for the United States via CNBC.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages fell to 3.57% from 3.73% last week. That drop caused a 26% surge in weekly refinance applications, the Mortgage Bankers Association said. Compared with one year ago, refinance volume was nearly 224% higher.

And the beat goes on.

Detroit-based Quicken Loans saw record-setting volume on Monday and Tuesday, as rates fell to a record low. CEO Jay Farner said the new ways of processing loans are making it easier to handle even tremendous volume spikes.

Even the numbers above are behind events as Mortgage News Daily is reporting that the 30-year fixed rate mortgage is now at 3.16% and the 15-year at 2.88%. Actually the trend is clear but it matters who you call.

Some are offering conventional 30yr fixed rates that are as high as 3.5%–even for top tier qualifications.  On the other side of the spectrum, more than a few lenders are quoting 2.875% for the same scenarios.  The average lender is somewhere in between, but that average is nonetheless an all-time low.

So here we have an immediate consequence which central bankers seem to forget in their press releases. This is that the housing market will receive yet another heroin injection. This will be true in Canada and Australia as well and in Australia’s case will add to last year’s 3 interest-rate cuts.

Economics 101 argues that lower costs for business borrowing increase investment. However when the US Federal Reserve looked at the numbers it was much less clear.  I doubt it will stop people claiming that though.

Fiscal Policy

This has just got a lot cheaper pretty much everywhere. This does not get a lot of attention because it is a slow burner as for example the UK issues a new Gilt this week which will be at a yield at least 4% lower than before, But it will be a while before the next one and so on. On the other side of the coin yields have been falling throughout the credit crunch era as a trend so governments have been able to spend more for the same situation. This is another reason why this does not get much attention as governments of whatever hue want to take the credit for this.

On this road you can see why governments are so keen on “independent” central banks in a you scratch my back and I will scratch yours sort of way.

Comment

There are various lessons to be had here. The most basic is that interest-rates and yields continue to sing along with Alicia Keys.

I keep on fallin’
In and out of love
With you
Sometimes I love ya
Sometimes you make me blue
Sometimes I feel good
At times I feel used
Lovin’ you darlin’
Makes me so confused.

We get occassional rises but the trend is down which means that there has been a change because QE only started because official interest-rates got disconnected to bond yields and mortgage rates. Now we see the link is back. But I think that is just an illusion because some QE is still happening in Japan and the Euro area and more is expected elsewhere. Remember responses to QE now take place before it happens. Other interest-rates sometimes go their own not very merry way as the rise to 40% for unsecured overdrafts in the UK shows

This is really bad news for supporters of the UK Office for Budget Responsibility and the US Congressional Budget Office as their numbers will need large revisions yet again! The mainstream media and “experts” will of course have a case of collective amnesia about this next week for the UK Budget. But the point is seemingly too subtle for them that in the dynamic world in which we now exist such steady-state analysis is in fact misleading.

I think that this is counterproductive for three main reasons.

  1. If pumping up the housing market worked we would have been saved long ago.
  2. The evidence from countries with negative interest-rates and yields is that contrary to economic theory people look to save more which depresses the economy.
  3. Similarly if we look at Germany,Sweden and Switzerland countries with negative yields often look to reduce their debt rather than spend more.

Thus we find that the magic bullet has no magic at all and instead causes pain.

The Investing Channel

 

 

 

Was that the bond market tantrum of 2019?

Sometimes economics and financial markets provoke a wry smile. This morning has already provided an example of that as Germany’s statistics office tells us Germany exported 4.6% more in September than a year ago, so booming. Yes the same statistics office that told us yesterday that production was down by 4.3% in September so busting if there is such a word. The last couple of months have given us another example of this do let me start by looking at one side of what has taken place.

QE expansion

We have seen two of the world’s major central banks take steps to expand their QE bond buying one explicitly and the other more implicitly. We looked at the European Central Bank or ECB only on Wednesday.

The Governing Council decided to restart net purchases under each constituent programme of the asset purchase programme (APP)……….. at a monthly pace of €20 billion as from 1 November 2019.

More implicitly have been the actions of the US Federal Reserve as it continues to struggle with the Repo crisis.

Based on these considerations, last Friday the FOMC announced that the Fed will be purchasing U.S. Treasury bills at least into the second quarter of next year.7 Specifically, the Desk announced an initial monthly pace of purchases of $60 billion.

That was John Williams of the New York Fed who added this interesting bit.

These permanent purchases

Also there is this.

In concert with these purchases, the FOMC announced that the Desk will continue temporary overnight and term open market operations at least through January of next year.

Maybe a hint that they think dome of this is year end US Dollar demand. But we find that the daily operations continue and at US $80.14 billion as of yesterday they continue on a grand scale. So the Treasury Bill purchases and fortnightly Repo’s have achieved what exactly?

If we move from the official denials that this is QE to looking at the balance sheet we see that it is back above 4 trillions dollars and rising. In fact it was US $4.02 trillion at the end of last month or around US $250 billion higher in this phase.

Bond Markets

You might think and indeed economics 101 would predict that bond markets would be surging and yields falling right now. But we have learnt that things are much more complex than that. Let me illustrate with the US ten-year Treasury Note. You might expect some sort of boost from the expansion of the balance sheet and the purchases of Treasury Bills. But no, the futures contact which nearly made 132 early last month is at 128 and a half now. At one point yesterday the yield looked like it might make 2% as there was quite a rout but some calm returned and it is 1.91% as I type this.

As an aside this is another reminder of the relative impotence of interest-rate cuts these days as if anything a trigger for yields rising was the US interest-rate cut last week. The Ivory Towers will be lost in the clouds yest again.

The situation is even more pronounced in the Euro area where actual purchases have been ongoing for a week now. However in line with our buy the rumour and sell the fact theme we see that the German bond market has fallen a fair bit. In mid-August the benchmark ten-year yield went below -0.7% whereas now it is -0.26%. So Germany is still being paid to borrow at that maturity but considerably less. Indeed at the thirty-year maturity they do have to pay something albeit not very much ( 0.24%).

The UK

There have been a couple of consequences in the UK. The first I spotted in yesterday’s output from the Bank of England.

Mortgage rates and personal loan rates remain near
historical lows, with the rates on some fixed-rate mortgages continuing to fall over the past few months (Table 2.B).
Interest rates on credit cards have increased, although the effective rate paid by the average borrower has remained
stable, in part because of the past lengthening of interest-free periods.

Whilst this is true, if you are going to parade the knowledge of the absent-minded professor Ben Broadbent about foreign exchange options then you should be aware that as Todd Terry put it.

Something’s goin’ on

The five-year Gilt yield has risen from a nadir of 0.22% to 0.52% so the ultra-low period of mortgage rates is on its way out should we stay here.

If we move to the fiscal policy space in the UK then we see that the message that we can borrow cheaply has arrived in the general election campaign.

Although debt stocks are high in many developed countries, debt service ratios are very low. The UK gross debt stock has doubled from 42 per cent of GDP in 1985 to 84 per cent of GDP today, yet debt interest service has halved, from 4 per cent of GDP to below 2 per cent over the same period. It has rarely been lower. A rule using the debt stock would argue for fiscal consolidation, whereas a debt service metric suggests there is ample room for fiscal expansion. Especially as market interest rates are extraordinarily low. (  FT Alphaville)

https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2019/11/06/1573068343000/Is-it-time-for-a-shift-in-fiscal-rules–/

I have avoided the political promises which peak I think with the Greens suggestion of an extra £100 billion a year. But the Toby Nangle and Neville Hill proposal above has strengths and has similarities to what I have suggested here for some time. But I think it needs to come with some way of locking the debt costs in, so if you borrow more because it is cheap you borrow for fifty years and not five. It reinforces my suggestion of the 27th of June that the UK should issue some 100 year Gilts.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here and let me start with the borrow whilst it is still cheap theme. There are issues as highlighted by this from Francine Lacqua of Bloomberg.

London’s Elizabeth line has been delayed by a year, and will require extra funding, according to TfL

For those unaware this was called Crossrail ( renaming is often a warning sign) which will be a welcome addition to the London transport infrastructure combing elements of The Tube with the railways. But it gets ever later and more expensive.

There was also some irony as regards the Bank of England as in response to the sole decent question at its presser yesterday (from Joumanna Bercetche of CNBC) Governor Carney effectively suggested the next rate move would be down not up. Yet Gilt yields rose.

Next comes the issue of whether this is a sea-change or just part of the normal ebb and flow of financial markets? We will find out more this afternoon as we wait to see if there were more than just singed fingers in the German bond market for example or whether some were stopped out? After all reporting you had taken negative yield and a capital loss poses more than a few questions about your competence. Even the most credulous will now know it is not a one-way bet but on the other hand if you are expecting QE4 to come down the New York slipway then you can place your bets at much better levels than before.

Do not forget Greece is still in an economic depression

Today I intend to look at something which I and I know from your replies many of you have long feared. This is that the merest flicker of better news from Greece will be used as a way of obscuring the fact that it is still in an economic crisis. At least I think that is what we should be calling an economic depression. So let me take you straight to the Financial Times.

Today, on the face of things, the emergency is over and the outlook is bright. The authorities have lifted capital controls, imposed four years ago. Greece’s 10-year bond yield touched an all-time low in July. Consumer confidence is at its highest level since 2000. Elections in July produced a comfortable parliamentary majority for New Democracy, a conservative party committed under prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to a well-designed programme of economic reform, fiscal responsibility and administrative modernisation.

Firstly let me give the FT some credit for lowering its paywall for a bit. However the latter sentence is playing politics which is an area they have got into trouble with this year on the subject of Greece but I will leave that there as I keep out of politics.

As to the economics you may note that the first 2 points cover financial markets rather than the real economy and even the first point is a sentiment measure rather than a real development. If we work our way through them it is of course welcome that capital controls have now ended although it is also true that it is troubling that they lasted for more than four years.

Switching to Greek bonds we see that they did indeed join the worldwide bond party. I am not quite sure though about the all-time July low as you see it is 1.31% as I type this compared to being around 1% higher than that in July! Perhaps he has not checked since it dipped below 2% at the end of July which is hardly reassuring. As to why this has happened other than the worldwide trend there are 2 other factors. Firstly there is the way that the European Stability Mechanism has changed the debt envelope as the quote from Karl Regling below shows.

 In total, Greece received almost €290 billion in financial support, of which €205 billion came from the EFSF and the ESM.

So the Greek bond yield is approaching what the ESM charges. Another factor is they way that it has confirmed my “To Infinity! And Beyond!” theme as the average maturity was kicked like a can to 42.5 years. Next is a factor that I looked at on the 9th of July and Klaus also notes.

The general government primary balance in programme terms last year registered a surplus of 4.3% of GDP, strongly over-performing the fiscal target of 3.5% of GDP.

This is awkward for the political theme of the article as it was achieved by the previous government. Also let me be clear that whilst this is good for bond markets there is a big issue for the actual economy as 4.3% of demand was sucked out of it which is a lot is any circumstance but more so when you are still in an economic depression.

So it is a complex issue which to my mind has seen Greek bond yields move towards what the ESM is charging which is ~1%. Maybe the ECB will add it to its QE programme as well as whilst it does not qualify in terms of investment rating it could offer a waiver.

Greek Consumer Confidence

I have to confess referring to a confidence signal does set off a warning klaxon. But let us add in this from the Greek statistics office.

The overall volume index in retail trade (i.e. turnover in retail trade at constant prices) in June 2019, increased by
2.3%, compared with the corresponding index of June 2018……..The seasonally adjusted overall volume index in June 2019, compared with the corresponding index of May 2019, increased by 2.5%.

So there has been some growth. However there is a but and it is a BUT. You might like to sit down before you read the next bit. The volume index in June was 103.5 which compares to 177.7 in March 2008 and yes you did read that right. I regularly point out that monthly retail sales numbers are erratic so let me also point out that late 2007 and early 2008 had a sequence of numbers in the 170s. Even worse this century started with a reading of 115.4 in January 2000.

So we have seen a little growth but not much since the index was set at 100 in 2015 and you can either have a depression lasting this century or quite a severe depression since 2008 take your pick. Against that some optimism now is welcome but does not really cut it in my opinion.

Economic growth

There is a reference to it.

Even before these clouds appeared on the horizon, however, Greece was not rebounding from the debt crisis with the vigour of other stricken eurozone economies such as Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

That is one way of putting a level of GDP that has fallen 18% this decade. In 2010 prices it opened this decade with a quarterly performance of just over 59 billion Euros whereas in the second quarter of this year it was 48.3 billion. I am nit sure that “clouds on the horizon” really cover an annual growth rate struggling to each 2% after such a drop. Greece should be rebounding but of course as I have already pointed out the dent means that 4.3% of economic activity was sucked out of it last year. So no wonder it is an L-shaped and not a V-shaped recovery. At the current pace Greece may not get back to its previous peak in the next decade either.

Comment

There are some references to ongoing problems in Greece as for example the banks.

A second factor is the fragility of Greece’s banks. By the middle of this year, they were burdened with about €85bn in non-performing loans. To some extent, however, liquidity conditions are now improving.

Not mentioned is the fact that according to the Bank of Greece more than another 40 billion Euros needs writing off. From January 19th.

An absolutely indicative example can assess the immediate impact of a transfer of about €40 billion of NPLs, namely all denounced loans and €7.4 billion of DTCs ( Deferred Tax Credits).

That brings us to another problem which is that the debt was supposed to fall from 2012 onwards whereas even now there are plans for it to grow. So whilst the annual cost has been cut to low levels the burden just gets larger.

Also there has been a heavy human cost in terms of suicides, hospitals not being able to afford drugs and the like. It has been a grim run to say the least. The ordinary Greek did not deserve anything like that as they were guilty of very little. The Greek political class and banks were by contrast guilty of rather a lot. The cost is an ongoing depression which looks like it will continue for quite some time yet. After all I welcome the lower unemployment rate of 17% but also recall that such a rate was considered quite a disaster on the way up.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see ( Queen)