Climate change is on Mark Carney’s agenda as he ignores the rise in consumer credit

As November ends and we move into December there is a fair bit for the Bank of England to consider.Only a week ago we were told this by the new “flash” Markit PMI business survey.

“The weak survey data puts the economy on course for a 0.2% drop in GDP in the fourth quarter, and also pushes the PMI further into territory that would normally be associated with the Bank of England adding more stimulus to the economy”

Poor old Markit never seem to question why more stimulus is apparently nearly always needed, But this was quite a different outlook to what the Bank of England had told us earlier this month.

The MPC expected continued subdued growth, of 0.2%, in 2019 Q4.

Another factor to add in is that the Bank of England has in an example of being once bitten, twice shy lost a bit of faith in the Markit PMIs since the day the absent-minded professor Ben Broadbent so lauded them.

Although business survey indicators, taken together, pointed to a contraction in GDP in Q4, the relationship between survey responses and growth appeared to have been weaker at times of uncertainty and some firms may have considered a no-deal Brexit as likely when they had
responded to the latest available surveys/

Even central bankers must realise that the panicky hints of a 0.1% Bank Rate based on the post EU Leave vote PMIs was a complete failure.

The UK Pound £

This has been in a stronger phase and was noted in the monetary minutes.

The sterling exchange rate index had
increased by around 3% since the previous MPC meeting, and sterling implied volatilities had fallen back
somewhat, although they remained significantly higher than their euro and dollar counterparts.

If we look now we see that the broad effective or trade weighted exchange rate fell to around 73.5 in mid August but is now 79.3. Under the old Bank of England rule of thumb that was considered to be nearly equivalent to a 1.5% interest-rate rise. Even if we reduce the impact as times have changed I think and trim the effect we are still left in my opinion with say a 1% rise.

We can look at that in two ways.Firstly it has a material impact and secondly it has hard not to have a wry smile. After all who can actually see the present Bank of England raising interest-rates by 1%?! Events would have to have taken over.

Broad Money

We can also look at the likely outlook via the money supply numbers. This morning the Bank of England has told us this.

Broad money (M4ex) is a measure of the amount of money held by households, non-financial businesses (PNFCs) and financial companies that do not act as intermediaries, such as pension funds or insurance companies (NIOFCs). Total money holdings in October rose by £1.6 billion, this was weak compared to both September and the average of the previous six-months.

That is a slowing after three better months. This is an erratic series and we see that this month businesses were responsible.

The amount of money held by households rose by £3.7 billion in October, primarily driven by increased holdings of interest bearing sight deposits. NIOFC’s money holdings fell by £2.4 billion, while the amount held by PNFCs rose by £0.4 billion.

If we switch to what does this mean? Well broad money impacts nominal output around 18 months to 2 years ahead.  So with an annual rate of growth of 3.6% we would expect economic growth of 1.6% assuming the Bank of England hits its 2% inflation target. That’s the theory as reality is usually not so convenient so please take this as a broad brush.

The good news is that the last 6 months or so have seen a pick-up so we may see one in 2021.The problem is that the numbers had been falling since the impact of the “Sledgehammer QE” of the summer/autumn of 2016. So it is no great surprise to those who look at the monetary data that economic growth has been weak and using it suggests similar as we head into 2020.

Mortgage Lending

We cannot look into the mind of a central banker without noting the large area taken up by the housing market.From that perspective this is good news below.

Net mortgage borrowing by households was £4.3 billion in October, £0.4 billion higher than in September. The recent stability in the monthly flows has left the annual growth rate unchanged at 3.2%, close to levels seen over the past three years. Mortgage approvals for house purchase (an indicator for future lending) fell slightly in October, to 65,000, but remained within the narrow range seen over the past two years.

Indeed their hearts must have been racing when they read this in the Guardian yesterday.

House price growth in the UK has picked up

Only to be dashed when they read further down.

The average price of a home rose by 0.5% in November to £215,734, according to Nationwide building society. This is the biggest monthly rise since July 2018, and up from 0.2% in October. The annual growth rate picked up to 0.8% from 0.4%, the highest since April.

Whilst we welcome the relative improvement in affordability from the point of view of the Bank of England this will lead to head scratching. They went to a lot of effort with the Funding for Lending Scheme back in the summer of 2012 to get net mortgage lending back into positive territory. But it and real wage growth have lost their mojo for now in this area.

Consumer Credit

By contrast this has lifted off again.

The extra amount borrowed by consumers in order to buy goods and services rose to £1.3 billion in October, above the £1.1 billion average since July 2018. Within this, net borrowing for both credit cards and other loans and advances rose, to £0.4 billion and £1.0 billion respectively.

The annual growth rate of consumer credit was 6.1% in October, up from 5.9% in September.

Is there anything else in the UK economy rising at an annual rate of 6.1%? Also there is an element of being economical with the truth below.

This is the first increase in the annual growth rate since June 2018, but it remains considerably lower than its post-crisis peak of 10.9% in November 2016.

You see last month they revised the figures by adding an extra £6.1 billion or around 5 months worth of growth at the current rate. Anyway the total is now £225 billion.

Comment

For the moment the Bank of England is in a type of purdah period which the Governor is using to expand into other areas.

The world needs a new, sustainable financial system to stop runaway climate change…….A new, sustainable financial system is under construction. It is funding the initiatives and innovations of the private sector and amplifying the effectiveness of governments’ climate policies—it could even accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. ( IMF )

Those worried about the future of the planet should be terrified at the present march of the globetrotting central bankers onto their lawns.Just look at their track record! But I guess Governor Carney is in need of a new job.

Returning to his present job we see that an interest-rate cut on the 19th of next month is looking increasingly likely. After all they are seldom much bothered by issues such as consumer credit rising although these days they seem to be having ever more trouble simply counting.

Some statistics on the outstanding amount of lending and deposits within the banking sector have been revised for September. In the first vintage of September’s statistics, some of this data was reported using an approach that was inconsistent to previous data, and reduced the total amounts outstanding. The current vintage of data corrects for this.

Even less reason for them to be involved in the future of the planet and that is before we get to their forecasting record….

The Investing Channel

Good news for the UK economy on the wages and broad money front less so on consumer credit

Today I feel sorry for whoever has to explain this at the Bank of England morning meeting.

“Annual house price growth remained below 1% for the 11th
month in a row in October, at 0.4%. Average prices rose by
around £800 over the last 12 months, a significant slowing
compared with recent years – for example, in the same
period to October 2016, prices increased by £9,100.”

That was from the Nationwide Building Society which has brought news to spoil a central banker’s breakfast. After all they have done their best.

“Moreover, mortgage rates remain close to all-time lows –
more than 95% of borrowers have opted for fixed rate deals
in recent quarters, around half of which have opted to fix for five years.”

The irony here is that they have made their own Bank Rate changes pretty impotent. I recall in the early days of this decade noting that nearly all mortgages in Portugal were fixed-rate ones and thinking we were different. Well not any more!

But unlike Governor Carney I consider this to be a good news story because of this bit.

the unemployment rate remains close to 40 year lows and real earnings growth (i.e. after taking account of inflation) is close to levels prevailing before the financial crisis.

So houses are becoming more affordable in general terms and the Nationwide is beginning to pick this up as its earnings to house price ratio has fallen from 5.2 to 5. Although the falls are concentrated in London ( from 10 to 8.9) and the outer London area ( 7.2 to 6.7). Both Northern Ireland ( now 4) and the West Midlands ( now 4.7) have seen small rises.

UK Wages

We can look at the wages position in more detail because this morning has brought the results of the annual ASHE survey.

Median weekly earnings for full-time employees reached £585 in April 2019, an increase of 2.9% since April 2018….In real terms (after adjusting for inflation), median full-time employee earnings increased by 0.9% in the year to April 2019.

So we see something of a turning in the situation for the better although sadly the situation for real wages is not that good, as it relies on the Imputed Rent driven CPIH measure of inflation. So maybe we had 0.5% growth in real wages.

Even using the fantasy driven inflation measure we are still worse off than we once were.

Median weekly earnings in real terms are still 2.9% lower (£18 lower) than the peak in 2008 of £603 in 2019 prices.

These numbers conceal wide regional variations as highlighted here.

In April 2019, the City of London had the highest gross weekly earnings for full-time employees (£1,052) and Newark and Sherwood had the lowest (£431).

Also the way to get a pay rise was to change jobs.

In 2019, the difference in growth in earnings for full-time employees who changed jobs since April 2018 (8.0%) compared with those who stayed in the same job (1.6%) was high, suggesting stronger upward pressure on wages compared with other years.

Tucked away in the detail was some good news for part-time workers.

Median weekly earnings for part-time jobs increased at a greater rate. In 2019, earnings increased by 5.2% in nominal terms, which translates to a 3.1% increase in real terms. The median weekly earnings for part-time employee jobs of £197 is 6.5% higher than in 2008 in real terms.

It seems that the changes in the national minimum wage have had a positive impact here.

Meanwhile far from everyone has seen a rise.

The proportion of employees experiencing a pay freeze or a decrease in earnings (in real terms) in 2019 (35.7%) is lower than in 2018 (43.3%) and in 2011 (relative to 2010) when it was 60.5%.

Mortgages

From the Bank of England today.

Mortgage market indicators point to continued stability in the market. Net mortgage borrowing by households was little changed at £3.8 billion in September. The stability in the monthly flows has left the annual growth rate unchanged at 3.2%. Growth rates have now remained close to this figure for the past three years. Mortgage approvals for house purchase (an indicator for future lending) were also broadly unchanged in September, at 66,000, and remained within the narrow range seen over the past three years.

As you can see this was a case of what Talking Heads would call.

Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was

Although there is a nuance in that the longer-term objective of the Bank of England is still in play. The true purpose of the Funding for Lending Scheme of the summer of 2012 was to get net mortgage credit consistently positive. That was achieved as there have been no monthly declines since ( unlike in 2010 and 2011) and over time the amount has risen. Nothing like the £9 billion pluses of 2007 but much higher than post credit crunch.

Consumer Credit

The credit impulse provided by the Funding for Lending Scheme was always likely to leak into here.

The annual growth rate of consumer credit was 6.0% in September. This growth rate has now been falling steadily for nearly three years. Revisions to the data this month, however, mean that the annual growth rate has been revised up slightly over the past two and a half years.

Let me give you an example of how the rate of consumer credit growth has been falling from last month’s update.

The annual growth rate of consumer credit continued to slow in August, falling to 5.4%.

The “revised up slightly” means it is now being reported as 6.1%. This is really poor as we can all make mistakes but this is a big deal and needs a full explanation as something has gone wrong enough on a scale to change the narrative.

Assuming this number is correct here is the detail for September itself.

The extra amount borrowed by consumers in order to buy goods and services fell slightly to £0.8 billion in September, and for the second month in a row was below £1.1 billion, the average since July 2018.

Broad Money

There was some good news in this release for the UK economy.

Total money holdings in September rose by £10.9 billion, broadly flat on the month, and remaining above the average of the past 6 months.

The amount of money held by households rose by £5.5 billion in September, primarily driven by increased holdings of interest bearing sight deposits. NIOFC’s money holdings rose by £4.3 billion, while the amount held by PNFCs rose by £1.0 billion.

I am a little unclear how a rise of just under £11 billion is “broadly flat”! But anyway this continues the improvement in the annual growth rate to 3.9% as opposed to the 1.8% of both January and May. Individual months can be erratic but we seem to have turned higher as a trend.

Comment

There have been several bits of good news for the UK economy today. The first is the confirmation of the improvement in the trajectory for real wages and some rather good growth for those working part-time. This feeds into the next bit which is the way that houses and flats are slowly becoming more affordable albeit that much of the progress has been in London and its environs. Looking ahead we see that the improvement in broad money growth is hopeful for the early part of 2021.

The higher trajectory for consumer credit growth is mixed,however. Whilst it will have provided a boost it is back to the age old UK economic problem of borrowing on credit and then wondering about the trade gap. It is especially poor that the Bank of England has been unable to count the numbers correctly. Also it is time for my regular reminder that the credit easing policies were supposed to boost lending to smaller businesses. How is that going?

while the growth rate of borrowing by SMEs rose slightly to 1.0%.

Woeful and a clear misrepresentation of what they were really up to.

NB

I later discovered that the Bank of England revised Consumer Credit higher by some £6.1 billion in August meaning that as of the end of September it was £225.1 billion.

 

 

 

Helicopter Money is not the answer to our economic problems

One of the features of the credit crunch era is the way that policies which seem extraordinary have a way of coming to fruition. We have seen many examples of this in the world of monetary policy. The two headliners would be negative interest-rates and Quantitative Easing or QE bond buying. The latter had previously only been a feature of the response to the “lost decade” in Japan but is now widespread. If it had worked we would not be discussing the “lost decades” but that seems to bother only me. Also these moves are invariably badged as temporary but so far none of them have gone away. Indeed in my home country the Bank of England is currently making QE look about as permanent as it can be.

As set out in the minutes of the MPC meeting ending on 31 July 2019, the MPC has agreed to make £15.2bn of gilt purchases, financed by central bank reserves, to reinvest the cash flows associated with the maturity on 7 September 2019 of a gilt owned by the Asset Purchase Facility (APF).

It will reinvest another £1.27 billion today but it is tomorrow that will be the real example of “To Infinity! And Beyond!” when it buys long and ultra-long dated Gilts.

These themes were on my mind when I noted this in the Daily Telegraph.

A radical world of “helicopter money” – where central banks fund government spending – is “inevitable” as policymakers run out of ammunition ahead of the next recession, top economists have warned.

Central banks are likely to “explore more unconventional policies” in the next downturn and blur the lines between fiscal and monetary policy with radical new tools, such as monetary financing, Deutsche Bank argued.

Let us just mark the issue that Deutsche Bank are top economists and move on. As to the details here is the original suggestion from Milton Friedman.

Let us suppose now that one day a helicopter flies over this community and drops an additional $1,000 in bills from the sky, which is, of course, hastily collected by members of the community. Let us suppose further that everyone is convinced that this is a unique event which will never be repeated.

Those of you who follow me on social media will know that I note the daily RAF Chinook flights over Battersea as they could carry a lot of notes. Perhaps they could name them “Carney’s Cash” and “Broadbent’s Bonanza” for the occasion.

The one time this sort of thing was tried it was in fact via a tax rebate in Japan and amounted to £142 if my memory serves me correctly. However being Japanese they mostly saved it so it was not repeated. So any UK repetition of this would be different as if you look at out habits we would be likely to spend it which starts well but then of course would be likely to make our current account deficit worse. Here from this morning is a reminder of it.

The UK current account deficit narrowed by £7.9 billion to £25.2 billion in Quarter 2 (Apr to June) 2019, or 4.6% of gross domestic product (GDP).

Whilst it is welcome we did better the overall picture is this.

The UK has run a current account deficit in each quarter since Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 1998 or, when considering annual totals, 1983.

So there is an issue although I have many doubts about the accuracy of the numbers especially when we get to investment flows. Let me give an example from the savings numbers released this morning.

The most notable recent revision was in 2017, when the previously published lowest annual saving ratio on record was revised upwards from 3.9% to 5.3%, meaning that the lowest annual saving ratio on record is now observed in 1971 where it stood at 4.8%.

If you remember the media furore at the time that is quite a big deal. Also it gets worse.

The annual households’ saving ratio in 2018 was revised upwards 1.9 percentage points to 6.1%.

Let’s us move on by noting how an emergency measure is being presented as almost normal which of course is more than familiar. We will know when they intend to begin it because we will see a phase of official denials as they get their PR spinning in first.

GDP Growth

This morning’s UK release was rather inconvenient for the monetary expansion apologists as we saw this.

UK gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by an unrevised 0.2% in Quarter 2 (Apr to June) 2019, having grown by an upwardly revised 0.6% in the first quarter of the year.

This meant that the annual rate of growth rose to 1.3% which is better than the Euro area’s 1.2%. I point this out because Michael Saunders of the Bank of England was telling us on Friday that we were in a weaker position. Also there was this.

Annual GDP growth in 2017 is now estimated at 1.9%, revised up from 1.8%,

So we move on knowing that the past was better than we thought. or if you prefer that economic growth has slowed by less than we thought.

Money Supply

There has been an improvement in recent months and here is this morning’s release from the Bank of England.

Broad money (M4ex) is a measure of the total amount of money held by households, non-financial businesses (PNFCs) and NIOFCs. In August, money holdings rose by £10.4 billion, with positive contributions from all sectors.

 

The total amount of money held by households rose by £4.6 billion in August. This was primarily due to a large increase in non-interest bearing deposits. The total amount of money held by NIOFCs rose by £3.3 billion, while the amount held by PNFCs rose by £2.5 billion.

Sorry for their love of acronyms and NIOFCs are non intermediating financial companies.

This means that the annual rate of growth for broad money is 3.3% as opposed to the 1.8% registered in May. The main changes have come in July and now August.

If we switch to M4 lending which is sometimes a useful guide then things have improved considerably as the rate of annual growth has pushed up to 5.5%. As mortgage lending remained pretty similar it has been driven by this.

Borrowing by financial companies that do not act as intermediaries, such as pension funds or insurance companies (NIOFCs), rose to £16.6 billion in August, the largest amount since monthly figures were first collected in 2009. Fund managers were the largest contributor to this strength.

Thus as so often with this sort of data ( bank lending) we are left wondering what the economic impact will be?

Consumer Credit

This continues on its merry way.

The extra amount borrowed by consumers in order to buy goods and services fell to £0.9 billion in August, slightly below the £1.0 billion average since July 2018.

The Bank of England are keen to point out this.

The annual growth rate of consumer credit continued to slow in August, falling to 5.4%. This remains considerably lower than its peak of 10.9% in November 2016, and is the lowest level since February 2014.

There are several elements of context to this. Firstly the rate of growth has been so fast it has raised the total to £218.6 billion so percentages would naturally fall. Also the weakening of the car market has contributed. Next the numbers are still much higher than anything else in the economy.

Small Business Loans

Remember when the monetary easing was supposedly for smaller businesses? Well there is a reason why that went quiet.

In contrast, the growth rate of borrowing by SMEs weakened slightly to 0.7%.

Comment

If we consider the overall situation we find several problems with helicopter money. The first is that it is supposed to be an emergency response when we keep being told we are not in an emergency but rather a recovery. It is a bit like putting an electric shock on a heart which is still beating. The next is that it would be an extraordinary move and yet again a big change would be made by unelected technocrats. This reminds me that some years ago I made the case for Bank of England policymakers to be elected. Finally it is just another way of the establishment making things easier for itself at the expense of the wider population.

This is because the wider population would be at risk of inflation and maybe much more inflation. This need not be consumer inflation as so far in the credit crunch era we have seen moves in asset prices such as bonds, equities and house prices. The latter of course allows the establishment to claim people are better off when first-time buyers are clearly worse off. Putting it another way this is why they are so resistant to putting house prices in the inflation indices and the new push to use fantasy rents suggests they fear helicopter money and negative interest-rates are on the horizon.

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What are the prospects for UK mortgage rates?

Today I thought I would reverse things around and look at a consequence of one of 2019’s themes. So let me hand you over to Moneyfacts.

The data shows that the largest rate reduction has been recorded in the five year maximum 80% loan-to-value (LTV) tier, which has fallen by 0.09% to 2.78%, followed by the five year maximum 70% and 85% LTV tiers, which have both decreased by 0.07% to 2.99% and 2.80% respectively. In fact, the only LTV tier to see a rate increase is the two year fixed at a maximum 65% LTV, which has increased by 0.01% to 2.03% from this time last month.

Oh and remember all the rhetoric from politicians after the credit crunch about there being no future for risky mortgage lending?

Since the beginning of this year, our analysis shows that the strongest rate competition appeared to take place at the maximum 95% LTV market, with lenders attempting to attract potential first-time buyers, which are considered the lifeblood of the mortgage and property market. As a result, the two year average fixed rate at this tier was driven down from 3.46% on 1 January to 3.24% by 16 May, where this rate has relatively remained unchanged since.

However those are averages which of course contain more than a few non-competitive offers. If we look further you can borrow at 1.33% from the Post Office for 2 years and at 1,67% from it for five years. These are remortgage rates with 40% equity.

Switching now to the driver of all this let me now point out that the two-year Gilt yield is 0.37% and the five-year is 0.3%. There are two perspectives on this of which the opening one is that the five-year fixed looks a worse deal in a relative comparison. However if we look back we see that it is five-year mortgage rates which have plunged. According to Statista the five-year mortgage rate was some 2% higher in June 2014 ( 3.69%) and apart from a small blip up when Bank Rate was raised to 0.75% has essentially been falling ever since. So five-year fixed rate mortgages are tactically bad but strategically good.

Just for clarity it is not the Gilt yields themselves that directly impact fixed-rate mortgages it is the swap rates that they influence. But with things as they are I expect the downwards pressure to remain.

What about a Bank Rate cut?

I am sure many of you thinking this so let me address it. As we stand UK Gilt yields are expecting two Bank Rate cuts of 0.25% so fixed-rate mortgages are already adjusting to that. Whereas in such a scenario variable-rate mortgages would fall and may well over the next couple of years be a better deal. Of course interest-rates could rise after October 31st should we Brexit on that date but we know that Bank of England Governor Carney cuts interest-rates with the speed of Usain Bolt but raises them at the speed of a tortoise which is hibernating. So only a real calamity would cause the latter. After all this is the world in which we now live.

Danish banks now buckling under the pressure of negative interest rates, with another lender announcing it will impose fees on large retail deposits. ( h/t Tracy Alloway)

Or indeed a world where the benchmark yield in Italy fell below 1% yesterday.

Just for clarity these are my opinions and not advice. Also there is the issue raised by Robert Pearson in the comments section about the banks having higher cost of funds limiting possible mortgage-rate falls.

The Outer Limits

Time for a reminder of something which has ignored the falls in Bank Rate and everything else. The Bank of England quoted interest-rate for credit cards is 20% and has risen in the credit crunch era.

What about the Mortgage Market?

We had figures earlier this week but today the Bank of England offered a wider view.

Net mortgage borrowing by households picked up in July, rising to £4.6 billion. While this was the strongest since March 2016, it reflected a fall in repayments rather than an increase in new lending. The annual growth rate remained at 3.2%, close to the level seen since 2016. Mortgage approvals for house purchase (an indicator for future lending) increased in July to 67,300. This was the strongest since July 2017, but remains within the very narrow range seen over the past two years.

The fall in repayments is curious and amounted to £900 million on a monthly basis and repeats what happened in June. It is dangerous to extrapolate too much from a couple of months but maybe some borrowing is going through this route or at current interest-rates some think it is not worth repaying.

Overall these are better numbers but not as strong as the UK Finance ones from Wednesday.

House Prices

In spite of the favourable situation provided by falling mortgage rates as we have just looked at and improving real wages house prices are not responding. From the Nationwide.

Annual house price growth remained below 1% for the ninth
month in a row in August, at 0.6%. While house price
growth has remained fairly stable, there have been mixed
signals from the property market in recent months.

In fact the unadjusted price fell by around £1600 on a monthly basis.

Unsecured Credit

The Bank of England slips this headline in for the copy and pasters.

Net consumer credit rose by £0.9 billion in July, broadly in line with the average seen over the past year.

But this represents this.

The annual growth rate of consumer credit remained at 5.5% in July, markedly lower than its peak of 10.9% in November 2016. This slowing reflects the weaker monthly lending flows over most of the past year.

Is there anything else growing at an annual rate of 5.5% in the UK? Perhaps the Bank of England is being wistful for the days when its Sledgehammer QE drove the annual rate of growth up to 10.9%. Also care is needed here about the slowing as much of it may simply reflect a slowing in car loans about which the Bank of England mostly keeps the data to itself ( I have asked).

Broad Money

If we look further ahead ( around 18 months) there was a glimmer of sunlight for the wider economy this morning.

Broad money (M4ex) is a measure of the total amount of money held by households, non-financial businesses (PNFC’s) and financial corporations that do not act to intermediate financial transactions (NIOFCs). In July, total money holdings rose by £18.9 billion, the largest monthly increase since May 2018. The increase on the month was driven by PNFCs, for which money held rose to £5.1 billion following a fall in June

The annual rate of growth is now 3.1% which is the best it has been since this time last year. M4 lending has also been picking up and is now 4.3% so there are some positive signs albeit from low levels.

Comment

We live in a curious world because let me add in another factor. The mortgage rates and yields we are discussing today are all strongly negative in real terms when we allow for inflation. Not only are Gilt real yields negative bit the ordinary person can borrow at negative real rates too if they have some equity. Not on a credit card though!

On current trends we may well get very low longer-term fixed-rate mortgages as presumably the ten-year fixed mortgage-rate will start to tumble too. In the uncertainty we face that could look very attractive I think. But again that is simply my opinion and not advice.

As for how low can they go? For the moment a base seems to have formed around the unwillingness/fear of banks on countries with negative interest-rates to actually impose this on the ordinary depositor. But we also know that our central planning overlords have several cunning plans in mind for this.

 

Retail Sales continue to be a bright spot for the UK economy

Today brings us up to date on the UK retail sector but before we get to it there is something that will have the full attention of the Bank of England. Let me hand you over to City-AM.

The Royal Bank of Scotland was hit this morning on the news that two brokers had lowered their forecasts for the company’s shares.

Analysts at Macquarie downgraded the company from buy to neutral this morning, slashing its target price to 201p, from 246p.

Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs reiterated its buy rating on the stock, but lowered its target price to 325p from 360p.

Shares were trading down around eight per cent to 182.5p.

Firstly at least I warned you as those who read my post on the sixth of this month will be aware. The theme of the credit crunch era has been that RBS is always about to turn a corner ( as in a way highlighted by a 360p price target) but the path turns out to be this one.

We’re on a road to nowhere
We’re on a road to nowhere
We’re on a road to nowhere

If you believed Brewin Dolphin on the 6th you may be wondering what happened to the ” path to redemption”? Also those with longer memories may be wondering about the “nest egg”

City Minister Lord Myners yesterday claimed that the ownership of RBS and LBG – which were both rescued from collapse by the Treasury in the credit crisis – represented a “nice little nest egg” for the taxpayer. ( Evening Standard September 2009)

I have picked this out for a reason because the Ivory Tower of the Bank of England has trumpeted the “Wealth Effects” of its policies whereas RBS has been a spectacular case of wealth destruction. I can widen this out as Barclays is at a recent low at 138 pence reminding me that the chairman who promised to double the share price has gone I think, which is for best because it has halved. The Zombie Janbouree continues with HSBC below £6 and Lloyds at 59 pence.

This is way beyond just a UK issue as for example the European banks are in quite a mess headlined by Deutsche Bank falling back below 6 Euros this morning. Or in some ways more so by the Spanish banks as the economy is still doing well but they look troubled too. Here is Mike Bird of the Wall Street Journal.

Japanese regional bank share prices have now broken below their Feb 2016 lows. The sector is, to use the technical terminology, completely screwed.

This is quite a change of approach from Mike who is something of the order of my doppleganger on Japan. Anyway my point is that the them here is that there have been no wealth effects from the banks and more seriously they cannot be supporting the economy.

The official Bank of England view is that banks are “resilient” and it is “vigilant”

Bond Yields

On the other side of the coin support is being provided by another surge in the UK Gilt market. These are extraordinary times with the UK having a ten-year yield of 0.44% and a five-year yield of 0.35%. Those who have owned UK Gilts have seen extraordinary gains and this includes the ordinary person with pension savings. However this is no silver bullet as we would be in a better place than we are if it was, But it does support the economy.

Whilst I am looking at this area let me deal with all the inverted yield curve mania going on via a tweet that proved rather popular yesterday.

Some worry about the yield curve ( 2s/10s) being inverted but I am sanguine about that. This is because when it bought £435 billion of UK Gilts the Bank of England distorted the market giving us an example of Goodhart’s Law.

It does not buy two-year Gilts thereby distorting the market and making past signals unreliable.

The Bank (as agent for BEAPFF) purchases conventional gilts with a minimum residual maturity of greater than three years in the secondary market.

Retail Sales

This morning has brought another good set of retail sales figures for the UK.

The quantity bought in July 2019 increased by 0.2% when compared with the previous month, with strong growth of 6.9% in non-store retailing.

The duff note there is the implication for the high street but the numbers below confirm that the situation for the UK economy overall remains positive.

In the three months to July 2019, the quantity bought in retail sales increased by 0.5% when compared with the previous three months, with food stores and fuel stores seeing a decline…….Year-on-year growth in the quantity bought increased by 3.3% in July 2019, with food stores being the only main sector reporting a fall at negative 0.5%.

The positive spin in the decline of the high streets is provided by this.

In July 2019, online retailing accounted for 19.9% of total retailing compared with 18.9% in June 2019, with an overall growth of 12.7% when compared with the same month a year earlier.

The flipside is that less money flows through the high street and sadly I suspect this is not a new trend.

Department stores’ growth increased for the first time this year with a month-on-month growth of 1.6%; this was following six consecutive months of decline.

Comment

Let me shift now to why is this happening? The situation regarding the UK consumer is strong and has been supported by several factors. The first is in the numbers themselves and repeats a theme I first highlighted on the 29th of January 2015.

Both the amount spent and the quantity bought in the retail industry reported strong growth of 3.9% and 3.3% respectively when compared with a year earlier.

That gives us an ersatz inflation measure of the order of 0.6% which made me look it up and the official deflator is 0.8%. That is very different to the ordinary inflation measures we see which are 2%-3%. So in a sense your money goes further ( strictly declines in value more slowly) and is compared to this.

Estimated annual growth in average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain increased to 3.7% for total pay (including bonuses) and 3.9% for regular pay (excluding bonuses).

So in real terms there are gains in this sector. Thus it is no great surprise it has done well.

Also there is the fact that whilst the annual rate of growth has slowed we are still on something of an unsecured credit orgy.

The additional amount borrowed by consumers to buy goods and services was £1.0 billion in June, compared with £0.9 billion in May…….The annual growth rate of consumer credit continued to slow in June, falling to 5.5%

Is anything else growing at an annual rate of 5.5%.

Cauliflowers

There seems to be something of a media mania here as this from BBC Essex illustrates.

“Customers I’ve never seen before are coming in just for cauliflowers” Great Baddow greengrocers Martin and George Dobson are selling imported cauliflowers at cost price as Britain experiences a shortage. Prices have reached £2.50

I checked in two local supermarkets and they were selling then for £1 albeit they were from Holland. Then I went to Lidl and they were selling UK cauliflowers for 75 pence. Maybe a bit smaller than usual but otherwise normal so I bought one.

The UK could borrow £25 billion or indeed more very cheaply if it wished

It would appear that one of the main features of the credit crunch era which has been turbo-charged in 2019 so far has escaped the chatting and think tank classes. This is the situation where the UK can borrow on extraordinarily cheap terms. As I type this the two-year and five-year Gilt yields are of the order of 0.46% and the benchmark ten-year is at 0.67%. The only other time we have ever seen yields down here is when Governor Mark Carney was cracking the whip over the Bank of England in late summer and autumn 2016 demanding that they buy Gilts at nearly any price. That kamikaze phase even pushed us briefly to negative yields as the market let him buy at eye watering prices.

This was on my mind as I read this from the Institute for Government which has written what it calls an explainer on whether the UK can do this.

During the election campaign, Johnson said that it “is certainly true is at the moment (that) there is cash available.  There’s headroom of about £22bn to £25bn at the moment.”

The whole concept is predicated on a complete fantasy.

This figure for headroom refers to the gap between the latest official forecast for borrowing in 2020/21 and the maximum amount that is consistent with meeting Philip Hammond’s fiscal mandate – that borrowing should be no more than 2% of GDP in 2020/21, after adjusting for the ups and downs of the economic cycle (which is typically referred to as “cyclically-adjusted” or “structural” borrowing).

Firstly no sniggering at the back please when you read “the latest official forecast for borrowing in 2020/21” as we recall that the first rule of OBR Club is that the OBR is always wrong! Next comes the “fiscal mandate” which in the ordinary course of events would have a half-life that would not reach 2021 which is of course even more likely now that the man called Spreadsheet Phil has fallen on his sword.

Oh and that is before we get to “structural” borrowing which means pretty much whatever you want it too. But finally we get a grain of truth.

Mr Hammond has bequeathed his successor a level of borrowing that is low by historical standards. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s March forecast suggested borrowing would be 0.9% of GDP (or £21bn) next year, virtually all of which would be structural.

The reliance on the number-crunching of the serially unreliable OBR is odd but there is a kernel of truth in there which is that we are currently not borrowing much. Last year it was 1.1% of GDP and the debt to GDP ratio has been falling as the economy has grown faster than the debt.

This brings me back to the piece de resistance which is that we can borrow incredibly cheaply and if we look at in terms of the infrastructure life cycle the thirty-year Gilt yield is a mere 1.33%. So we could if we chose borrow quite a large sum on very cheap terms. As to how much well into the tens of billions and maybe a hundred billion. Just in case readers think I am breaking my political neutrality I have made similar points to my friend Ann Pettifor who is an adviser to the Labour Party with the only difference being that markets would trust a Corbyn led government less. How much less is hard to say as we know that any yield ( the Greek ten-year is around 2%) tends to get hoovered up these days.

If we move to the other side of the coin which is how such funds would be spent the picture then sees some dark clouds. They are called Hinkley C, HS2 and the Smart Meter debacle although I think the latter was foisted onto out electricity bills.

Oh and before I move on real yields are much more complicated than often presented. After all none of us know what UK inflation will be over the next 30 years, but it seems more than likely that the yields above will not only be negative but significantly so.

Consumer Credit

We can continue our number crunching with this from the Bank of England this morning.

The annual growth rate of consumer credit continued to slow in June, falling to 5.5%. Annual growth has fallen steadily since its peak in late 2016, and particularly over the past year reflecting a fall in the average monthly net flow of consumer credit. Since July last year, the net flow has averaged £1.0 billion per month, compared with £1.5 billion per month in the year to June 2018.

Let me translate this a little. The annual rate of growth has fallen since they pumped it up with their “Sledgehammer QE” of August 2016. This was a change in claimed strategy as of course Governor Carney has regularly told us that “This is not a debt fueled recovery” ( BBC August 2015). Of course according to Governor Carney the August 2016 move saved around 250,000 jobs although even his biggest fans have to admit he has had a lot of problems in the area of unemployment forecasting.

Whilst 5.5% is slower than compares not only to an extraordinary surge but is for example nearly double wage growth, quadruple likely GDP growth and around five times real wage growth. Also the actual amount at £218.1 billion has grown considerably.

Mortgages

There seems to be a serious media effort going on to support the UK housing market. Here is @fastFT from earlier.

Rise in mortgage borrowing points to stabilisation in UK house market.

Does it? Here is the actual Bank of England data.

Net mortgage borrowing by households was £3.7 billion, close to the average of the previous three years. This followed a slightly weaker net flow of £2.9 billion in May. The annual growth rate of mortgage lending remained stable at 3.1%, around the level that it has been at since 2016.

The trouble for House price bulls is that those are the sort of levels which saw house price growth across the UK grind to a near halt. A similar situation exists for what seems to be coming down the chain.

Mortgage approvals for house purchase (an indicator of future lending) increased by around 800 in June to 66,400 and the number of approvals for remortgaging rose slightly to 47,000. Notwithstanding these small rises, mortgage approvals remained within the narrow ranges seen over the past three years.

Comment

I have looked at things in a different light today showing how numbers are twisted, manipulated and if that does not do the trick get simply ignored like the level of bond yields. Some of this sadly starts at the official level where we get what are in practice meaningless concepts like structural borrowing or this from Bank of England Governor Mark Carney in August 2015 via the BBC.

“The timing of a rise in interest rates is drawing nearer,” Bank of England governor Mark Carney says at the start of the Inflation Report press conference. He also says speculation about when interest rates begin to rise is a good thing and a sign of growing economic confidence.

Let me finish by referring to a campaign I have been running for seven years or so now which is over the impact of the Funding for Lending Scheme. Remember all the promises about small business lending?

and the growth of SME borrowing rose to 0.8%, its highest since August 2017.

Also as we note lending to SMEs at £167.8 billion has fallen far below unsecured credit is it rude to wonder how much of the £67.6 billion lent to the real estate sector ended up in the buy-to let bubble?

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Why I now fear a sharp slowing of the US economy later this year

So far the trend towards economic weakness has by passed the United States much to the glee of President Trump. Some of you may have seen the rap to camera by Larry Kudlow who is the President of the National Economic Council which ended with “we are killing it on the economy.” Hubris is of course a dangerous thing and as I shall explain looks like it has not had the best of timing. It was based on the 0.8% (as we measure it) economic growth for the first quarter and took us through the latest employment numbers. He did not specify actual numbers but on Friday the Bureau for Labor Statistics told us this.

Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 263,000 in April, and the unemployment rate declined to 3.6 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today.

They were good numbers for this stage of the cycle although these days the numbers continue to have this problem.

The labor force participation rate declined by 0.2 percentage point to 62.8 percent in April but was unchanged from a year earlier.

For those who have not followed this saga the US economy pre credit crunch had a participation rate of 66/67% and thus there are a lot of missing people from the ratios above. Moving back to positives this from Thursday was really something to shout about.

Nonfarm business sector labor productivity increased 3.6 percent in the first quarter of 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today, as output increased 4.1 percent and hours worked increased 0.5 percent.

As ever for US data that is annualised but at a time of the “productivity puzzle” a 0.9% growth in one quarter after annual increases of 1.7% in 2017 and 2.1% in 2018 suggests the US has entered a better phase.

Credit

Last night there was a flicker of a warning from Consumer Credit flows. From the Federal Reserve

Consumer credit increased at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4-1/4 percent during the first quarter. Revolving credit increased at an annual rate of 1-1/2 percent, while nonrevolving credit increased 5-1/4 percent. In March, consumer credit increased at an annual rate of 3 percent.

To UK eyes used to surges in this area nearly all numbers look low! But as we look at the numbers we see a reduction in quarterly growth from the 5.5% of both the last two quarters of 2018 to 4.25%. Indeed in monthly terms the annual growth rate has gone 5.1%, 4.6% and now a sharper drop to 3.1% in March establishing a pretty clear trend.

If we look further into the March data we see that revolving credit actually fell by US $26 billion or 2.5% and it was this which dragged down the numbers. So let us check what it is.

Revolving credit plans may be unsecured or secured by collateral and allow a consumer to borrow up to a prearranged limit and repay the debt in one or more installments. Credit card loans comprise most of revolving consumer credit measured in the G.19, but other types, such as prearranged overdraft plans, are also included.

Okay so it is  credit cards and overdrafts which on a net basis were repaid in March. At 1.06 trillion dollars they are around a quarter of consumer credit. There was a slight dip in what is called nonrevolving credit but there was no sign of the sharp drop that we saw in UK car loans within it.

Money Supply

This has worked as a reliable leading indicator over the past couple of years or so and this caught my eye. The narrow measure of the money supply or M1 in the United States saw a fall of just over forty billion dollars in March. That catches the eye because it does not fit at all with an economy growing at an annual rate of 3.2%. Indeed we see now that over the three months to March M1 money supply contracted by 2.7%. That means that the annual rate of growth has been reduced to 1.9%. Thus we see that it has fallen below the rate of economic growth recorded which is a clear warning sign. Indeed a warning sign which has worked very well elsewhere.

It may well be something that has been driven by Qualitative Tightening as described by James Bullard of the St.Louis Fed on March 7th.

The Fed has been able to reduce reserve balances (deposits by depository institutions) by about 40 percent from the peak of $2.8 trillion, which occurred in July 2014. (The overall size of the balance sheet has declined by a lower percentage from its peak of $4.5 trillion due to currency growth.)

Actually Mr.Bullard seemed pretty desperate with this bit.

This provides one rationale for why balance sheet policy may be less important today than it was during the period when QE was most effective.

So you claim all the gains but the reverse is nothing to do with you. He might get some support today from the manager of Barcelona football club but I doubt many would allow you to laud a 3-0 win but ignore a 4-0 loss!

More seriously the speech from Mr.Bullard is starting to look like an official denial and we know what to do with those. Perhaps he is a fan of the group Electronic.

I hate that mirror, it makes me feel so worthless
I’m an original sinner but when I’m with you I couldn’t care less
I’ve been getting away with it all my life
Getting away with it … all my life

Interest-Rates

Going through the numbers a by now familiar problem emerged. Let me remind you that in the United States official and market interest-rates are of the order of 2.5%. The ten-year yield is just below it and the official interest-rate is 2.25% to 2.5%.

Now let us look at the interest-rates faced by many people. If you want a car loan you pay around 5.5% to a bank and 6.7% to a finance company, if you want a personal loan you pay 10.4% and on a credit card you pay 15.1%. Those affected by this may take some persuading that this is an era of very low interest-rates.

Comment

This is the clearest warning shot we have seen for the US economy. Outright falls in narrow money supply of this magnitude are rare on a monthly basis. Maybe there is an issue with the seasonal adjustment but if we switch to the unadjusted series we see that March was 37 billion dollars lower than in December which is a very different pattern to the year before. Thus as we move through the autumn I now fear a US slow down and another month or so like this would make me fear a sharp slow down.

Moving to the wider measure called M2 also shows a slowing as the rate of growth over the past twelve months of 3.8% has been replaced by one of 2.8% in the latest three months. It tends to impact further ahead ( 2 years or so) and represents a combination of growth and inflation so as you can see it is not optimistic either. However it is not as reliable as the narrow money signal has been.

Thus in something that raises a wry smile we are facing the possibility that President Trump has been right in calling for an interest-rate cut.