The ECB now considers fiscal policy via QE to be its most effective economic weapon

Yesterday saw ECB President Christine Lagarde give a speech to the European Parliament and it was in some ways quite an extraordinary affair. Let me highlight with her opening salvo on the Euro area economy.

Euro area growth momentum has been slowing down since the start of 2018, largely on account of global uncertainties and weaker international trade. Moderating growth has also weakened pressure on prices, and inflation remains some distance below our medium-term aim.

In the circumstances that is quite an admittal of failure. After all the ECB has deployed negative interest-rates with the Deposit Rate most recently reduced to -0.5% and large quantities of QE bond buying. No amount of blaming Johnny Foreigner as Christine tries to do can cover up the fact that the switch to a more aggressive monetary policy stance around 2015 created what now seems a brief “Euro boom” but now back to slow and perhaps no growth.

But according to Christine the ECB has played a stormer.

 The ECB’s monetary policy since 2014 relies on four elements: a negative policy rate, asset purchases, forward guidance, and targeted lending operations. These measures have helped to preserve favourable lending conditions, support the resilience of the domestic economy and – most importantly in the recent period – shield the euro area economy from global headwinds.

It is hard not to laugh at the inclusion of forward guidance as a factor as let’s face it most will be unaware of it. Indeed some of those who do follow it ( mainstream economists) started last year suggesting there would be interest-rate increases in the Euro area before diving below the parapet. There seems to be something about them and the New Year because we saw optimistic forecasts this year too which have already crumbled in the face of an inconvenient reality. Moving on you may note the language of of “support” and “helped” has taken a bit of a step backwards.

Also as Christine has guided us to 2018 we get a slightly different message now to what her predecessor told us as this example from the June press conference highlights.

This moderation reflects a pull-back from the very high levels of growth in 2017, compounded by an increase in uncertainty and some temporary and supply-side factors at both the domestic and the global level, as well as weaker impetus from external trade.

As you can see he was worried about the domestic economy too and mentioned it first before global and trade influences. This distinction matters because as we will come too Christine is suggesting that monetary policy is not far off “maxxed out” as Mark Carney once put it.

For balance whilst there is some cherry picking going on below I welcome the improved labour market situation.

Our policy stimulus has supported economic growth, resulting in more jobs and higher wages for euro area citizens. Euro area unemployment, at 7.4%, is at its lowest level since May 2008. Wages increased at an average rate of 2.5% in the first three quarters of 2019, significantly above their long-term average.

Although it is hard not to note that the level of wages growth is worse than in the US and UK for example and the unemployment rate is much worse. You may note that the rate of wages growth being above average means it is for best that the ECB is not hitting its inflation target. Also we get “supported economic growth” rather than any numbers, can you guess why?

Debt Monetisation

You may recall that one of the original QE fears was that central banks would monetise government debt with the text book example being it buying government bonds when they were/are issued. This expands the money supply ( cash is paid for the bonds) leading to inflation and perhaps hyper-inflation and a lower exchange-rate.

What we have seen has turned out to be rather different as for example QE has led to much more asset price inflation ( bond, equity and house prices) than consumer price inflation. But a sentence in the Christine Lagarde speech hints at a powerful influence from what we have seen.

 Indeed, when interest rates are low, fiscal policy can be highly effective:

Actually she means bond yields and there are various examples of which in the circumstances this is pretty extraordinary.

Another record for Greece: 10 yr government bonds fall below 1% for the first time in history (from almost 4% a year ago)  ( @gusbaratta )

This is in response to this quoted by Amna last week.

 “If the situation continues to improve and based on the criteria we implement for all these purchases, I am relatively convinced that Greek bonds will be eligible as well.” Greek bonds are currently not eligible for purchase by the ECB since they are not yet rated as investment grade, one of the basic criteria of the ECB.

Can anybody think why Greek bonds are not investment grade? There is another contradiction here if we return to yesterday’s speech.

Other policy areas – notably fiscal and structural polices – also have to play their part. These policies can boost productivity growth and lift growth potential, thereby underpinning the effectiveness of our measures.

Because poor old Greece is supposed to be running a fiscal surplus due to its debt burden, so how can it take advantage of this? A similar if milder problem is faced by Italy which you may recall was told last year it could not indulge in fiscal policy.

The main target in President Lagarde’s sights is of course Germany. It has plenty of scope to expand fiscal policy as it has a surplus. It would in fact in many instances actually be paid to do so as it has a ten-year yield of -0.37% as I type this meaning real or inflation adjusted yields are heavily negative. In terms of economics 101 it should be rushing to take advantage of this except we see another example of economic incentives not achieving much at all as Germany seems mostly oblivious to this. There is an undercut as the German economy needs a boost right now. Although there is another issue as it got a lower exchange rate and lower interest-rates via Euro membership now if it uses fiscal policy and that struggles too, what’s left?

Mission Creep

If things are not going well then you need a distraction, preferably a grand one

We also have to gear up on climate change – and not only because we care as citizens of this world. Like digitalisation, climate change affects the context in which central banks operate. So we increasingly need to take these effects into account in central banks’ policies and operations.

Readers will disagree about climate change but one thing everyone should be able to agree on is that central bankers are completely ill equipped to deal with the issue.

Comment

This morning’s release from Eurostat was simultaneously eloquent and disappointing.

In December 2019 compared with November 2019, seasonally adjusted industrial production fell by 2.1% in the
euro area (EA19)……In December 2019 compared with December 2018, industrial production decreased by 4.1% in the euro area……The average industrial production for the year 2019, compared with 2018, fell by 1.7% in the euro area

The index is at 100.6 so we are nearly back to 2015 levels as it was set at 100 and we have the impact of the Corona Virus yet to come. Actually we can go further back is this is where we were in 2011. Another context is that the Euro area GDP growth reading of 0.1% will be put under pressure by this.

In a nutshell this is why the ECB President wants to discuss things other than monetary policy as even central bankers are being forced to discuss this.

 We are fully aware that the low interest rate environment has a bearing on savings income, asset valuation, risk-taking and house prices. And we are closely monitoring possible negative side effects to ensure they do not outweigh the positive impact of our measures on credit conditions, job creation and wage income.

But central bankers are creatures of habit so soon some will be calling for yet another interest-rate cut.

Let me finish with some humour.

Governors had to stop trashing policy decisions once taken and keep internal disputes out of the media, presenting a common external front, 11 sources — both critics and supporters of the ECB’s last, controversial stimulus package — told Reuters.

Yep, the ECB has leaked that there are no leaks….

 

 

 

Debt monetisation by the Bank of England

Today sees the release of the latest public finances data for the UK and they have been genuinely changed by the Brexit Referendum. Some care is needed here as there is a clear and present danger of Brexit fatigue setting in as highlighted by RANSquawk yesterday.

minutes mention “referendum” 33 times!

However the genuine change I am referring to is the way that the leave vote has accelerated an existing trend towards lower borrowing rates for the UK government. We have seen UK Gilt prices surge and thus yields plunge with a couple of brief episodes of negative yields in the 3/4 year maturity region.

Bank of England

The Bank of England is currently doing its best to drive Gilt yields even lower and has undertaken 3 further rounds of  purchases of UK Gilts totalling some £3.51 billion this week alone. There will be no further purchases today because the bond buyers at the Bank of England find those 3 days to be so stressful and tiring that they then need a 4 day weekend to recover!

However the crucial point was made on Tuesday when Gilts maturing in the 2060s were purchased. You see the Bank of England bought at yields of 1.13% (2060), 1.14% (2065) and 1.15% (2068). A pittance or a mere bagatelle. It is hard not to have a wry smile at the shape of the UK yield curve these days but let me move on as that is something for those who have followed it for many years as I have. The fundamental point as I have been making in my articles on fiscal policy is that such yields completely change the position as we can now borrow for fifty years amazingly cheaply. Unless there has been a complete revolution in the UK inflation outlook then these represent negative real or inflation adjusted yields and quit possibly substantially negative ones. It was only on Wednesday that the RPI inflation index was recorded at 1.9% which means compared to it all of our Gilt yields are lower now and even the CPI is on its way up in spite of the effort to keep it low via the omission of owner-occupied housing.

Also there is the issue of the prices the Bank of England is paying which was 198,150 and 191 respectively for the 3 Gilts maturing in the 2060s. If it is to hold these to maturity then it will only get 100 back in nominal terms which is likely to be heavily depreciated in real terms. If it sells them along the way then it will require someone to pay more than what are record highs driven by it. On that road you get the QE to infinity argument or as Coldplay put it in the song trouble.

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

What can we actually borrow at?

Some care is needed as the Gilt market is plainly gaming the Bank of England as they know it has to buy to back up the words of its Governor Calamity Carney. Also the promises of its Chief Economist Andy Haldane as what use is an empty sledgehammer?

Yesterday we sold an extra £1.25 billion of our 2055 Gilt at a yield of 1.21% so if we look at infrastructure projects there must be at least some room for manoeuvre as I suggested on the 4th of this month.

So there is scope on that basis but my suggestion is that we start from the more micro level than the grand macro plans which have so let us down in the credit crunch era. Rather than money looking for projects let us go the other way and look for projects that we feel would genuinely be beneficial. I am open to suggestions but as I discussed only on Friday the UK’s power infrastructure seems to have plenty of scope for ch-ch-changes and improvement to me.

There were quite a few suggestions in the comments for those wanting to think more about this.

Debt monetisation

I raise the concept because whilst we are not seeing this in its purest form there are issues when the Bank of England buys Gilts in a maturity zone on a Tuesday and we sell one on a Thursday. Just to be clear it did not buy the 2055 Gilt and will not do so next Tuesday.

UKT 4.25% 2055 is excluded from the 23/08/16 operation because it has been auctioned by the DMO within one week of the purchase operation.

However when I worked in the Gilt market a lot of business was one Gilt versus another. Back then younger readers may be amused to learn that whilst there was some computer support I amongst others would do such calculations in our heads. How archaic and perhaps even antediluvian! These days though surely an algorithm style operation could do it in a millionth of a second. Now where does that leave the concept of debt monetisation? Not explicit but presumably implicit.

Today’s data

Nice to see a surplus and it was caused by July being a month for self-assessment income tax payments albeit a minor disappointment in the size.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) was in surplus by £1.0 billion in July 2016; a decrease in surplus of £0.2 billion compared with July 2015.

Here is a little more perspective.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £3.0 billion to £23.7 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April to July 2016), compared with the same period in 2015.

The revenue situation seems to be responding to the economic growth seen.

This was around 3% higher than in the previous financial year-to-date, largely due to receiving more Income Tax, Corporation Tax and National Insurance contributions, along with taxes on production such as VAT and Stamp Duty, compared with the previous year.

In July itself it was particularly nice to see this as it has been a bone of contention for a while.

Corporation Tax1 increased by £0.6 billion, or 8.4%, to £7.5 billion

National Debt

It was hard not to have a wry smile at this part of the report.

This is the second successive month of debt falling on the year as a percentage of GDP and indicates that GDP is currently increasing (year-on-year) faster than net debt excluding public sector banks.

Chancellor George Osborne made a big deal out of that issue but despite various wheezes and not a little financial misrepresentation it remained elusive and outside his grasp. Now it arrives just after he gets the order of the boot. Life’s not fair as Lilly Allen reminds us.

Care is needed as it is only for two months so far. Also on the subject of misrepresentation we publish debt to GDP numbers that are on a different basis to other countries. This is not well explained by the media as many are unaware of it themselves, I still remember BBC Economics Editor Stephanie Flanders demonstrating poor knowledge of the subject matter. So having pointed out that Spain passed 100% yesterday here are comparable numbers for us.

general government deficit (Maastricht borrowing) in the financial year ending March 2016 (April 2015 to March 2016) was £74.5 billion, equivalent to 4.0% of GDP

general government gross debt (Maastricht debt) at the end of March 2016 was £1,649.2 billion, equivalent to 87.7% of GDP.

Comment

We find that the fiscal envelope of the UK has changed considerably in a short space of time. There is an irony that our patchy progress on the issue of our fiscal deficit, especially if you factor in the economic growth since 2013, has moved away from the front of the queue. The replacement has been the fact that we can now borrow so cheaply for the long-term and this provide plenty of opportunities as we note that the “bond vigilantes” are at least temporarily impotent.

However I counsel caution as if low bond yields and fiscal deficit spending were certain cures for the credit crunch malaise as many are now claiming then Japan would not be in the economic mess it is in would it? But we seem to be fulfilling at least a bit of what the Vapors promised.

I’m turning Japanese I think I’m turning Japanese I really think so
Turning Japanese I think I’m turning Japanese I really think so
I’m turning Japanese I think I’m turning Japanese I really think so
Turning Japanese I think I’m turning Japanese I really think so