How quickly is the economy of Germany slowing?

Until last week the consensus about the German economy was that is was the main engine of what had become called the Euro boom. Some were thinking that it might even pick up the pace on this.

 For the whole year of 2017, this was an increase of 2.2% (calendar-adjusted: +2.5%),

This was driven by the PMI or Purchasing Managers Index business surveys from Markit which as I pointed out on the 3rd of January were extremely upbeat.

2017 was a record-breaking year for the German
manufacturing sector: the PMI posted an all-time
high in December, and the current 37-month
sequence of improving business conditions
surpassed the previous record set in the run up to
the financial crisis.

This was followed by the overall or Composite PMI rising to 59 in January which suggested this.

“If this level is maintained over February and March,
the PMI is indicating that first quarter GDP would rise
by approximately 1.0% quarter-on-quarter”

Actually that was for the overall Euro area which had a reading of 58,8. The catch has been that even this series has been dipping since as we now see this being reported.

The pace of growth in Germany’s private sector cooled at the end of the first quarter, with the services PMI retreating further from January’s recent peak to signal a loss of momentum in line with that seen in manufacturing.

This led to this being suggested.

it still promises to be a strong 2018 for the German economy – with IHS Markit forecasting GDP growth to pick up to 2.8%

Still upbeat but considerably more sanguine than the heady days of January. Then there was this to add into the mix.

However, unusually cold weather in March combined with continuing payback from January’s jump in activity has led to the construction PMI falling into contraction territory for the first time in over three years

Official Data on Production and Trade

The official data posted something of a warning last week.

In February 2018, production in industry was down by 1.6% from the previous month on a price, seasonally and working day adjusted basis according to provisional data of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis)…….In February 2018, production in industry excluding energy and construction was down by 2.0%. Within industry, the production of capital goods decreased by 3.1% and the production of consumer goods by 1.5%. The production of intermediate goods showed a decrease by 0.7%. Energy production was up by 4.0% in February 2018 and the production in construction decreased by 2.2%.

As you can see the monthly fall was pretty widespread and only offset by a colder winter. Whilst this did show an annual increase of 2.6% that was a long way below the 6.3% that had been reported for January and December. So on this occasion the PMI surveys decline seems to have been backed by the official numbers as we await for the March numbers which if the relationship holds will show a further slowing on an annual basis.

Thrown into this mix is concern that the decline is related to fear over the rise in protectionism and possible trade wars.

If we move to this morning’s trade data it starts well but then hits trouble.

Germany exported goods to the value of 104.7 billion euros and imported goods to the value of 86.3 billion euros in February 2018. Based on provisional data, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that German exports increased by 2.4% and imports by 4.7% in February 2018 year on year. After calendar and seasonal adjustment, exports fell by 3.2% and imports by 1.3% compared with January 2018.

This may well be an issue going forwards if it is repeated as last year net exports boosted the German economy and added 0.8% to GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) growth.

On a monthly basis we saw this.

Exports-3.2% on the previous month (calendar and seasonally adjusted). Imports –1.3% on the previous month (calendar and seasonally adjusted).

Of course monthly trade figures are unreliable but this time around they do fit with the production data. The export figures look like they peaked at the end of 2017 from an adjusted ( seasonally and calendar) 111.5 billion Euros to 107.5 billion on that basis in February.

What are the monetary trends?

If we look at the Euro area in general then there are signs of a reduced rate of growth.

The annual growth rate of the narrower aggregate M1, which includes currency in circulation
and overnight deposits, decreased to 8.4% in February, from 8.8% in January.

The accompanying chart shows that this series peaked at just under 10% per annum last autumn. So that surge may have brought the recorded peaks in economic activity around the turn of the year but is not heading south. If we move to the broader measure we see this.

The annual growth rate of the broad monetary aggregate M3 decreased to 4.2% in February 2018, from
4.5% in January, averaging 4.4% in the three months up to February.

This had been over 5% last autumn and like its narrower counterpart has drifted lower. If you apply a broad money rule then one would expect a combination of lower inflation and growth which is awkward for a central bank trying to push inflation higher.  If we move to credit then the impulse is fading for households and businesses.

The annual growth rate of adjusted loans to the private sector (i.e. adjusted for loan sales, securitisation
and notional cash pooling) decreased to 3.0% in February, compared with 3.3% in January.

This is more of a lagging than leading indicator of circumstances.

These are of course Euro area statistics rather than Germany but they do give us an idea of the overall state of play. A possible signal of issues closer to home are the ongoing travails of Deutsche Bank. There has been a bounce in the share price today in response to the new Chief Executive Officer or CEO as Sewing replaces Cryan but 11.8 Euros compares to over 17 Euros last May. Yet in the meantime the economy has been seeing a boom and added to that as I looked at late last month house price growth will have been boosting the asset book of the bank yet the underlying theme seems to come from Coldplay.

Oh no, what’s this?
A spider web and I’m caught in the middle
So I turned to run
And thought of all the stupid things I’d done

Comment

The heady days of the opening of 2018 have gone and in truth the business surveys did seem rather over excited as I pointed out on January 3rd.

This morning we saw official data on something that has proved fairly reliable as a leading indicator in the credit crunch era. From Destatis.

In November 2017, roughly 44.7 million persons resident in Germany were in employment according to provisional calculations of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). Compared with November 2016, the number of persons in employment increased by 617,000 or 1.4%.

The rise in employment has been pretty consistent over the past year signalling a “steady as she goes” rate of economic growth.

We can bring that more up to date.

 In February 2018, roughly 44.3 million persons resident in Germany were in employment according to provisional calculations of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). Compared with February 2017, the number of persons in employment increased by 1.4% (+621,000 people).

Thus we see that it continues to suggest steady if not spectacular growth and bypasses the excitement at the turn of the year. Looking forwards we see that the monetary impulse is slowing which is consistent with the reduction in monthly QE to 30 billion Euros a month from the ECB. We then face the issue of how Germany will follow a good first quarter? At the moment a growth slow down seems likely just in time for the ECB to end QE! So it may well be a case of watch this space…..

 

 

 

 

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What does the 10 year yield of Greece tell us?

Today’s headline or title introduces a subject which I find both frustrating and annoying.This is not only because it regularly misunderstood but also because it represents something of a financialisation of the human experience. What I mean by that is that some have used it as a way of suggesting an improvement in Greek economic performance that does not exist. Personally I sometimes wonder if it is used because it is the one signal that does show a clear improving trend. Let me illustrate with this from the LSE European Politics blog this morning.

A fall like that looks good on the face of it. Few point out the irony which is that falls in bond yields like that used to mean that a country was heading into at best a recession and probably a depression. Actually a drop from around 10% to around 4% indicates that something may be wrong so let us investigate.

The Greek bond market

A troubling sign arrives when we look for the benchmark 10 year bond of Greece and see that the benchmark page at the Hellenic Republic debt agency or PDMA is “under construction”. If we look at the data at the end of 2017 we see that of total debt of 328.7 billion the total of bonds is around 50.4 billion and if we add in treasury bills and the like we get to 65.4 billion.

By comparison the European Stability Mechanism or ESM tells us this.

The loan packages from the ESM and EFSF are by far the largest the world has ever seen. The two institutions own half of Greece’s debt.

Actually the support for Greece totals some 233 billion Euros which means we need to add the IMF and the original Greece “rescue” package to the numbers above.

Oh and as to the bond total well there is still the SMP which sounds like something used in the Matrix series of films but is in fact the Securities Markets Program which has mostly been forgotten but still amounts to 85 billion Euros. These days that is I guess a balancing item in the ECB accounts but it does appear here and there.

The ECB’s interest income from its SMP holdings of Greek government bonds amounted to €154 million (2016: €185 million).

There was a time that the SMP was a big deal and regular readers will recall so was its “sterilisation” but the ECB got bored with that in 2014 and gave up. Oh well!

But if we move on we see that there are relatively few Greek bonds around and of those that do exist the ECB holds a fair bit.

Why has the bond yield fallen then?

You could argue that the bond yield should have fallen before. A possible reason for it not doing so is that it is now too small a market for big hedge funds to bother with, especially if we note that a busy month now for the market (December) had a volume of 120 million Euros. But if we look from now there have been changes in the bond metrics. For example the average maturity of Greek bonds has risen mostly by the fact that ESM loans have an average maturity of 32 years. Also bond investors may have noticed a certain “To Infinity! And Beyond” willingness from the ESM and added that to the overall bond maturity of 18.32 years.

Fiscal Matters

The LSE blog summarises matters like this.

Greece has outperformed Programme budget targets . According to the Hellenic Fiscal Council, Greece may have reached a 3.5% primary surplus in 2017 already, versus a target of 1.75%. There are reasons to be optimistic about Greece meeting the fiscal targets in 2018 as well. Maintaining a 3.5% primary surplus also in the years to come appears feasible. On balance, the overall improvement of the fiscal situation is impressive.

From a bond investor’s point of view this if combined with the extended average maturity looks more than impressive as it means on their metrics the thorny issue of repayment has been kicked into the future. They will also like this statement from the ESM on the 27th of March.

 Today the Board of Directors of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) approved the fourth tranche of €6.7 billion of ESM financial assistance for Greece. …….The tranche will be used for debt service, domestic arrears clearance and for establishing a cash buffer.

Problems in the real economy

There is a very descriptive chart in the LSE blog.

This shows us that the initial credit crunch impact on Greece was what we might call Euro area standard. But those of a nervous disposition might want to take the advice of BBC children’s programming from back in the day and look away now from the real crisis. Here we saw “shock and awe” but not of the form promised by Christine Lagarde which back then was France’s Finance Minister. An attempt to achieve the fiscal probity so approved of by bond markets saw the economy plunge into quite a recession and made an already bad situation worse. But the rub is that the recovery such as it is was not the “V-shaped” bounce back you might expect but rather this.

However, not only is there no indication of any catching up following the crisis, but also the pace of growth remains below the Eurozone’s.

So whilst we now have some growth there has been no relative recovery and in fact on that metric things have got worse. This comes in spite of the “Grecovery” theme of around 2013 which was an example of what we now call Fake News and of course was loved by the Euro area establishment. The reality is not only did thy make the recession worse they seem to have managed to prevent a bounce back as well. We can bring this up to date with the latest business survey for Greek manufacturing.

At 55.0, the index reading signalled a
marked rate of growth, albeit one that was weaker
than the multi-year high seen in February (56.1).

I am pleased to see that but you see that is slightly worse than what the UK did in March. I will not tire you with the different themes and descriptions in the media but simply say I am sad for Greece and  its people and use the famous words of Muhammad Ali.

Is that all you’ve got George?

Comment

If we step back we can see the impact of what is called “internal competitiveness” or if you prefer squeezing real wages. Let us look at that a different way as the UK had some of this albeit not as much. But the measure here we gives us a scale of the disaster is unemployment which has got better in Greece but comparing an unemployment rate of 20.8% with one of 4.3% is eloquent enough I think.

It also gives us an easy cause of this issue raised by the LSE.

Direct tax revenues are not performing very well. The high rate of social contributions has probably increased the area of tax evasion.

Also I am reminded that the IMF has failed in an area it mostly used to be successful in.

The external position has improved sharply, although more because of weakness in domestic demand than strength in export activity. Export performance remains underwhelming.

You see on that performance any improvement will simply put Greece back into balance of payments problems which is sort of where we came in. Also there is this from the Bank of Greece.

On 8 March 2018 the Governing Council of the ECB did not object to an ELA-ceiling for Greek banks of €16.6 billion, up to and including Wednesday, 11 April 2018, following a request by the Bank of Greece.

The reduction of €3.2 billion in the ceiling reflects an improvement of the liquidity situation of Greek banks, taking into account flows stemming from private sector deposits and from the banks’ access to wholesale financial markets. 

So it has got better but it has yet to go away.

Thus in summary we see that we have seen something of a divorce between the Greek financial and real economies. Prospects for the bond market look good but the real economy has not done much more than stop falling with a lot of ground still to be reclaimed. Those who look at credit conditions will not be reassured by this from the LSE blog.

 According to the Bank of Greece, the annual growth rate of credit to the private sector stood at -1.0% in February, and that of credit to corporations at 0.2%.

There was a time when the supporters and acolytes of the Euro area “shock and awe” package accused me and others who were in the default and devaluation camp of being willing to collapse the economy so let me finish with some Michael Jackson.

Remember the time
Remember the time
Do you remember, girl
Remember the time

 

 

Number Crunching and Seigniorage at the ECB

This week has seen a flurry of activity at the ECB or European Central Bank and I do not mean the usual “sauces” which have been raising some doubt about a further reduction in the monthly flow ( currently 30 billion Euros) of QE bond purchases. Let us open with some Brexit bingo from the Financial Times.

Brussels is considering a €56bn raid on European Central Bank profits to plug a hole in the EU’s long-term budget after Brexit.  The European Commission will discuss the plan at its weekly meeting on Wednesday, where it is due to consider a range of new revenue sources as it tries to maintain its financial firepower once the EU’s second-biggest net budget contributor leaves the bloc in 2019.

There is some debate over whether the UK will be the second or third largest net contributor but you get the message. We also get a clear sign of the bureaucratic mind which of course wants more revenue rather than cutting spending in true Sir Humphrey Appleby style. But why not simply get the money from the usual sources ( minus one)?

The commission is considering an ECB cash raid as a quick way to generate money for the common EU pot as several wealthier members, including the Netherlands and Austria, refuse to raise their contributions to the €1tn EU budget after the UK’s departure.

Okay so as they do not want to pay how would it raid the ECB?

The ECB proposal would divert profits made by the eurozone’s 19 national central banks from printing banknotes straight into EU coffers. The commission estimates the revenue stream could generate €56bn during the seven-year span of the next EU budget.

No doubt more than a few of you have spotted what Shakespeare would call the rub here but let me explain.

Seigniorage

This is the profit from issuing money which comes from the fact that if we take the example of the picture of the 50 Euro note it costs a lot less than that to make one. So as it comes off the printing presses hey presto there is a large profit, or rather when someone wants it there is. From the ECB.

They make their way to you via your bank, which pays the face value of the notes to the central bank. To do this your bank usually needs to borrow money from the central bank or it pays by handing over some of its assets. The central bank earns interest on the money it lends, or receives a return on the assets it acquires – and this is called seigniorage income.

To give you an idea the US Federal Reserve calculates it costs some 12.9 cents to make each US $50 note so the note is almost “all gravy” to coin a phrase. A little care is needed as smaller denomination coins actually make a loss – hence the campaigns from time to time to get rid of them – but overall the operation is extremely profitable. However you may note that it is not the capital profits under discussion here ( that presumable can wait for a more desperate time) it is the income from them.

Is anybody else thinking that the campaign to get rid of the 500 Euro note might now have a rethink? Kenneth Rogoff might go from hero ( of the establishment) to zero overnight.

But then we hit a rather large stumbling block.

Although the ECB does not physically issue banknotes, it has been agreed that of all the banknotes in circulation in the euro area, 8% – in terms of value – are considered to be issued by the European Central Bank. The national central banks put the notes into circulation on the ECB’s behalf, and the ECB earns seigniorage income on the 8% through the claim it holds on the national central banks.

Okay before we break that down let us have a break for some humour. From kim in a comment to the FT article.

The ECB takes a cut of the transferred seignorage, to pay for its Christmas Party.

But the 8% is a gift as you see the income goes to the central bank which is each national one.  Oops!

Danger! Will Robinson Danger!

There are consequences here and let me take you back in time to explain them. Let me illustrate from the Maverecon Blog of my tutor from back in the day Willem Buiter from 2009.

The NCBs that own the ECB themselves have a range of formal ownership arrangements, but
are ultimately under the financial control of their national fiscal authorities, because the
national fiscal authority can always tax the NCB.

So we are back in a way to how this story started because the money belongs to the national governments via their treasuries or if you consider belongs to be over playing it they can at least take it via taxation. It is not usually expressed as taxation but we regularly discuss payments from central banks to national treasuries as part of QE declared profits. Most of us would love to be able to declare something “independent” then sing along with the Steve Miller Band.

Go on take the money and run
Go on take the money and run
Go on take the money and run
Go on take the money and run

We of course would sooner or later end up in jail unless we had the wisdom to set up a bank ourselves. But then looking back to 2009 there is this that strikes to the core of the ECB itself.

What makes the ECB more independent than any other central bank is the fact that it has 16 national Treasuries as its counterparties rather than a single national Treasury. Should a European fiscal federal authority ever emerge, the anomaly of the ECB as a de facto as well as a de jure financially independent central bank would probably come to an end.

There are of course some extra treasuries now so it should be even more independent and yet seems set to lose it. My argument with my old tutor would be that politicians are pretty much the same the world over so the situation has always been more like the episode of Star Trek where the USS Enterprise is swallowed by a giant amoeba in my opinion. Of which this is simply the latest step. It should not be true under the rules of mathematics but we know that in human behaviour more can sometimes be less.

The Income

Actually there is a problem here too as the ECB notes.

Seigniorage income has been falling since 2008, in line with a decline in euro area interest rates.

Let me make that clearer because you see at the moment their isn’t any because the current account rate is a grand 0%. Actually contrary to the forecasts above the ECB under Mario Draghi seems in no hurry to raise interest-rates so they could be there for a while and may well survive his term as ECB President. If a recession hits they could cut interest-rates again in which case the European Commission will have shot itself in the foot.

Comment

There are several issues here which go to the heart of an “independent” central bank. Up until now it has operated in concert with the establishment where lower interest-rates and QE have generated gains for the establishment. But the irony of the European Commission proposal would be that it would lose if the ECB cut interest-rates again as seigniorage income would be negative. So suddenly we might find that they are keen on higher interest-rates which is quite a tangled web! It might have been far better if the subject had remained in the text books.

Also there are national issues as some national central banks issue more cash that others under the ECB system. We find ourselves quickly returning to yesterday.

The value of accumulated net issuance of euro banknotes by the Bundesbank rose between the end of 2009 and the end of 2017 from € 348 billion to € 635 billion. Since 2010
On average, the Bundesbank gave an average of € 35.8 billion in euro banknotes a year.
This corresponds to an average annual growth rate of 7.8%.

Or we can put that another way as Lorcan R Kelly does here.

The Bundesbank has, since the introduction of the euro in 2002, put a net 327 billion euros into circulation above its on-paper allocation………In total, 592 billion of the 1.1 trillion euros worth of banknotes in circulation at the end of 2016 started life at the Bundesbank.

The ECB explains this by giving an example of German tourists spending money abroad whereas I am sure I am not the only person who remembers the phase where people were worried about the Euro and therefore keen on “German” Euros as opposed to in the worst case “Greek” ones. Also should interest-rates rise there is a cost as you have to pay if over your allocation.

Should the ECB, over time, raise benchmark interest rates to 2 percent, for example, that would impose an annual cost of 6.5 billion euros on the Bundesbank.

So a transfer to the European Commission what could go wrong. Also if we note that this seems to be something under the aegis of Mr.Juncker he might be able to help out with this.

One more thing worth noting from the data is the position of Luxembourg’s central bank. It has an allocation of less than 3 billion euros and yet has put over 96 billion euros into circulation, and in this case it doesn’t seem like holiday makers are to blame.

So as a final thought is the US Federal Reserve planning a Seigniorage party with its interest-rate rises?

 

Germany also faces ever more unaffordable housing

The economy of Germany has been seeing good times as Chic would put it and this morning has seen an indicator of this. From Destatis.

 The debt owed by the overall public budget (Federation, Länder, municipalities/associations of municipalities and social security funds, including all extra budgets) to the non-public sector amounted to 1,965.5 billion euros at the end of the fourth quarter of 2017. ……..Based on provisional results, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that this was a decrease in debt of 2.1%, or 41.3 billion euros, compared with the end of the fourth quarter of 2016.

We talk of Germany being a surplus economy and here is another sign of it as it applies to itself the medicine it has prescribed for others.

 Net lending of general government amounted to 36.6 billion euros in 2017…….. When measured as a percentage of gross domestic product at current prices (3,263.4 billion euros), the surplus ratio of general government was +1.1%.

Of course all of this is much easier in a growing economy.

 For the whole year of 2017, this was an increase of 2.2% (calendar-adjusted: +2.5%),

Thus the national debt to GDP ratio will have declined and I am sure more than a few of you will have noted that the total debt is a fair bit smaller than Italy’s for a larger economy. This parsimony has of course been helped by European Central Bank purchases of German Bunds which means that even five-year bonds have a negative yield ( -0.07%). Of course there is a chicken and egg situation here but 469 billion Euros of bond purchases in a growing economy lead to yields which would lead past computer models to blow up like HAL-9000 in the Film 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Trade

Whilst we are looking at surpluses there is this ongoing saga which continued last year.

Arithmetically, the balance of exports and imports had an effect of +0.8 percentage points on GDP growth compared with the previous year.

Ironically Germany did actually boost its imports ( 4.8%) but its export performance ( 5.6%) was even better. This meant that the same old song was being played.

According to provisional results of the Deutsche Bundesbank, the current account of the balance of payments showed a surplus of 257.1 billion euros in 2017.

If we allow for the inaccuracies in the data and the latest “trade wars” debate mostly raised by President Trump has highlighted the issues here with some countries thinking they are both in surplus/deficit with each other the German surplus is a constant. This poses quite a few questions as of course on one line of thinking it was a cause of the credit crunch.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Commission have for years urged Germany to lift domestic demand and imports in order to reduce global economic imbalances and fuel global growth, including within the euro zone.

As time has passed it is hard not to wonder about how much Germany could have helped its Euro area partners via this route. Of course a catch is that it would have to want what they produce which gets forgotten. Also I find a wry humour in organisations like the IMF and EC telling Germans to “spend,spend,spend” to coin a phrase and consume more and yet also warn regularly about climate change.

Labour Market

There is another sign of success if we note this.

The adjusted unemployment rate was 3.6% again in January 2018……….Compared with January 2017, the number of persons in employment increased by 1.4% (+631,000 people). Roughly 1.6 million people were unemployed in January 2018, 160,000 fewer than a year earlier.

So we see that the quantity numbers for the labour market are very good as the unemployment rate chases that of Japan. However if we move to the quality arena things look a little different. From Bloomberg.

The scramble for qualified workers has become an existential issue for companies across Germany, which are offering enticements ranging from overseas sojourns and ski outings to subsidized housing and sausage platters.

Let us park the issue of whether the sausages are delicious and consider the cause of this.

After years of robust growth, unemployment has dropped to a record low of 5.4 percent, and the country has 1.2 million unfilled jobs—nearly equivalent to the population of Munich. Manufacturing, construction, and health care are particularly stretched, and 1 in 4 businesses may have to hold back production as a result of the labor crunch, the European Union reports.

So our HAL-9000 would predict wage growth and of course if it was in a central bank it would be flashing “output gap negative” and predicting stellar wage growth. Meanwhile back in the real world.

The corporate largesse hasn’t dramatically boosted salaries, at least so far. Compensation in Germany rose 13 percent in the last five years as unions moderated wage demands to help their companies maintain an edge in the face of growing global competition.

There is another similarity here with Japan in that the financial media have been telling us that wages are about to soar or sometimes that agreements have been signed. So they must spend their lives being disappointed as whilst the German figures are better than Japan’s they are not what has been promised.

If we look into the detail of the report we see that in spite of strong circumstances companies these days seem to prefer one-off payments rather than wage rises. Have we changed that much in response to the credit crunch as in being less certain about the future or not believing what we are told in this case about economic strength? There is some logic behind that in an era of Fake News stretching to diesel engines and indeed hybrid performance if we consider areas especially relevant to Germany, Maybe wages measures should switch to earnings per hour.

the country’s biggest union this year accepted a lower increase in salaries in exchange for the right to work fewer hours.

But America already does that and it has not changed the picture but maybe still worth a go.

House Prices

I note that in February the Bundesbank picked out house prices and told us this.

According to current estimates, price
exaggerations in urban areas overall in 2017
amounted to between 15% and 30%. In
the big cities, where considerable overvaluations
had already been measured earlier,
the price deviations are likely to have increased
further to 35%.

Price “exaggerations” is a new one but presumably is being driven by this.

According to figures based on bulwiengesa AG
data residential property prices in urban
areas in Germany continued to increase
sharply by around 9%, and hence at a
somewhat faster pace than in the three
preceding years, when the increase averaged
7½%.

Indeed there may well be issues similar to the British buy to let problem.

As in 2016, the rate of inflation for rental
apartment buildings in the towns and cities
as well as in Germany as a whole was markedly
higher than for owner- occupied housing.

Comment

So we have good times in many respects as after all many would see rising house prices as that too. Of course I do not and let me now throw in the impact of easy monetary policy at a time of economic growth.

The average mortgage rate, which had already hit
an all- time low in the preceding year, settled
at 1.7%, which was slightly above its
2016 level.

Interestingly the cost of housing is soaring relative to wages however you try to play it.

The continuing sharp price rises for housing
in urban centres were accompanied by a
significant increase of 7¼% in rents in new
contracts, which are chiefl y the outcome of
rent adjustments in the case of repeat occupancies.

This poses a question for what would happen if later in 2018 we see an economic slowing as suggested by weaker monetary data and some lower commodity prices? We will have to see about that but much further ahead is the issue of Germany’s demographics which combine a low birth rate, rising life expectancy ( economics is clearly the dismal science here) and an aging population. This leaves the intriguing thought that travelling towards it just like in Japan leads to negative interest-rates, low wage growth and a trade surplus…….Yet the public finances are very different.

Cash is King

Something else that Germany shares with the UK. From the Bundesbank March report via Google Translate.

The value of accumulated net issuance of euro banknotes by the Bundesbank rose between the end of 2009 and the end of 2017 from € 348 billion to € 635 billion. Since 2010
On average, the Bundesbank gave an average of € 35.8 billion in euro banknotes a year.
This corresponds to an average annual growth rate of 7.8%.

Yet we keep being told that cash is so yesterday whereas we may still be in the adventures of Stevie V

Money talks, mmm, mmm, money talks
Dirty cash I want you, dirty cash I need you, oho
Money talks, money talks
Dirty cash I want you, dirty cash I need you, oho

 

Euro area monetary policy heads for a new frontier

The issue of monetary policy in the Euro area is of significance on several levels. Obviously it affects the Euro area itself but also it affects many countries around it as in a nod to the sad departure of Stephen Hawking overnight it is time to sing along with Muse.

Into the supermassive
Supermassive black hole
Supermassive black hole
Supermassive black hole
Supermassive black hole

This has been demonstrated by the way that zero and then negative interest-rates ( a deposit rate of -0.4%) in the Euro has forced others in the locale to follow suit. It was and is a factor in the -0.5% of Sweden the -0.65% certificate of deposit rate in Denmark and the -0.75% of Switzerland amongst others. It is also a factor in the UK still remaining with a Bank Rate of 0.5% after so many years have passed and not following the more traditional route of aping the moves of the US Federal Reserve.

What next?

This is the question on many lips both inside for obvious reasons but also outside the Euro area for the reasons above. Why? Well the President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi explained this earlier today in Frankfurt.

The economy has been growing consistently above current estimates of potential growth, by more than a percentage point last year. All euro area confidence indicators are close to their highest levels since the start of monetary union, even if the latest readings came in slightly below expectations.

This as I regularly point out means that monetary policy is facing a new frontier. This is because it is procyclical where it is expansionary in an existing expansion. Mario has in fact gone further than me in one area as in his view it is even more procyclical leading to output being more than 1% above potential. If that sounds a little mad I will return to it in a moment.  But another factor in this new frontier is the way that both negative interest-rates and QE have been deployed.

We’ll open up the doors and climb into the dawn
Confess your passion your secret fear
Prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier ( Donald Fagen)

Potential Output?

Looking at what output has been allows us to figure it out.

Over the whole year 2017, GDP rose by 2.3% in the euro area ( Eurostat)

That would mean that potential output is only 1% per annum but I suspect Mario really means the 2.7% if you compare the last quarter of 2017 with a year before so 1.5%. That is rather downbeat which is very common amongst central bankers these days as for example Governor Carney and the Bank of England used different language “speed limit” for the UK but also came to 1.5%. Due to demographic pressures the Bank of Japan is even more downbeat for Nihon at 1%.

We will see how the media treat that as they make a big deal of the UK situation but let is move onto what causes them to think this? We come to something which is genuinely troubling.

Second, the degree of slack itself is uncertain. Even if slack is now receding, estimates of the size of the output gap have to be made with caution. Strong growth may be leading to higher potential output, as crisis-induced hysteresis may be reversed in conditions of stronger demand. And the effects of past structural reforms, especially in the labour market, may now be showing up in potential output.

As you can see the certainty of earlier has gone as this clearly points out they do not know. We are back to imposing theory on reality again and even worse a failed theory as later we get this.

Phillips curve decompositions find that past low inflation dragged down wage growth from its long-term average by around 0.2 percentage points each year between 2014 and 2017.

If we step back we see that according to the Phillips Curve wages should be soaring as we are above potential output whereas in fact they are doing this.

 The unexplained residuals in the model – which in the past were sizeable – are diminishing, suggesting the link between unemployment and wages should improve.

As in there is no link visible yet but if you inhale enough hopium it will be along at some point! Also I hope you enjoyed the reference to labour market reforms from Mario as we mull the contrast between that and his policy press conferences which every time without fail have a section calling for economic reform.

More! More! More!

It is somewhat awkward when you are telling people the economy is running hot and implying it is overheating if you also say it may be about to run faster.

Non-essential purchases – which make up around 50% of household spending in the euro area – tend to be postponed during recessions and then to catch up as the business cycle advances. Such purchases are currently only 2% above their pre-crisis level, compared with 9% for essential ones. This implies that discretionary household spending still has scope to support the expansion.

So it is below potential Mario? Also an area central bankers love to see boom also seems to be below potential.

Moreover, housing investment is still 17% below its pre-crisis level and is only now starting to pick up, which will likely add an extra impulse to the recovery dynamic.

What about inflation?

This if you look at a Phillips Curve world should be on the march in both senses as wages and prices should be heading upwards and yet.

Wage growth has been trending upwards for the euro area as a whole, rising by 0.5 percentage points from the trough in mid-2016.

Not much is it? As to be fair Mario points out.

But consistent with the weakening of the relationship between slack and inflation, the adjustment of wages during the recovery has so far been atypically slow.

The trouble is the analysis seems to be based on pure hopium.

That said, our analysis suggests that, as the cycle advances, the standard wage Phillips curve should hold better for the euro area on average. The unexplained residuals in the model – which in the past were sizeable – are diminishing, suggesting the link between unemployment and wages should improve.

So when you really want it to work ( in a crisis) it fails and in calmer times it does not seem to work either. But they will continue with it anyway like someone who s stuck in the mud.

Comment

Actually I think that Mario Draghi is more intelligent than this as we see several themes come together. Back in the dim and distant days when I began Notayesmanseconomics I offered the opinion that central bankers would dither when it became time to reverse course on their stimuli. This became a bigger factor as the stimuli grew. Now we see a central banker telling us.

But we still need to see further evidence that inflation dynamics are moving in the right direction. So monetary policy will remain patient, persistent and prudent.

This works nicely for Mario as the inflation forecasts remain below the 1.97% inflation target defined by a predecessor of his ( Monsieur JC Trichet).

The latest ECB projections foresee a pickup in headline inflation from an average rate of 1.4% this year to 1.7% in 2020.

Thus as he has hinted at in past speeches which more than a few seem to have forgotten Mario Draghi may depart as ECB President without ever raising interest-rates. In fact it seems to be his plan and it is something he will leave as a “present” for whoever follows him. Another form of stimulus may have slowed but is still around as well.

The cumulative redemptions under the asset purchase programme between March 2018 and February 2019 are expected to be around EUR 167 billion. And reinvestment amounts will remain sizeable thereafter.

So now we see that policy has been decided and a theory ( Phillips Curve ) has been chosen which is convenient. Mario may not believe it either but it suits his purpose as does claiming their has been labour market reform. This is the same way that we have switched from the economic growth of the “Whatever it takes” speech to inflation now both suggest the same policy which allows Mario to give himself a round of applause.

 Considering all of the monetary measures taken between mid-2014 and October 2017, the overall impact on euro area growth and inflation is estimated, in both cases, to be around 1.9 percentage points cumulatively for the period between 2016 and 2019.

So another masterly performance from Mario Draghi but it should not cover up the many risks from advancing onto a new frontier of procyclical monetary policy.

 

 

 

 

Portugal hopes to end its lost decade later this year

It is time for us once again to head south and take a look at what is going on in the Portuguese economy? The opening salvo is that 2017 was the best year seen for some time. From Portugal Statistics.

In 2017, the Portuguese Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 2.7% in real terms, 1.1 percentage points higher than the rate of change registered in 2016, reaching, in nominal terms, around 193 billion euros. In nominal terms, GDP increased 4.1% (3.2 in 2016),

So both economic growth and an acceleration in it from 2016. In essence the performance was an internal thing.

The contribution of domestic demand to GDP growth increased to 2.9 percentage points (1.6 percentage points in 2016), mainly due to the acceleration of Investment. Net external demand registered a negative contribution of 0.2 percentage points (null in 2016),  with Imports of Goods and Services accelerating slightly more intensely than Exports of Goods and Services.

It is hard not to feel a slight chill down the spine at the latter section as it has led Portugal to go cap in hand to the IMF ( International Monetary Fund) somewhat regularly over the past decades. But to be fair the last quarter was better on this front.

The contribution of net external demand to GDP quarter-on-quarter growth rate shifted from negative to positive, due to the significantly higher acceleration of Exports of Goods and Services than of Imports of Goods and Services.

Indeed the last quarter was good all round.

Comparing with the previous quarter, GDP increased by
0.7% in real terms.

Also whilst it fell from the heady peaks of earlier in the year investment had a good year.

Investment, when compared with the same quarter of
2016, increased by 5.9% in volume in the last quarter of
2017, a 4.4 percentage points deceleration from the
previous quarter.

This was particularly welcome as it needed it as I pointed out on the 6th of July last year the economic depression Portugal has been through saw investment collapse.

 A fair proportion of this is the fall in investment because whilst it has grown by 5.5% over the past year the level in the latest quarter of 7.7 billion Euros was still a long way below the 10.9 billion Euros of the second quarter of 2008.

Unemployment

The national accounts brought a hopeful sign on this front too.

In the fourth quarter of 2017, seasonally adjusted
employment registered a year-on-year rate of change of
3.2%, (3.1% in the previous quarter)

Of course this does not have to mean unemployment fell but in this instance as we learnt at the end of last month the news is good.

The December 2017 unemployment rate was 8.0%, down by 0.1 percentage points (p.p.) from the previous month’s
level, by 0.5 p.p. from three months before and by 2.2% from the same month of 2016…………The provisional unemployment rate estimate for January 2018 was 7.9%.

This means that the statistics office was able to point this out.

only going back to July 2004 it
is possible to find a rate lower than that.

The one area that continues to be an issue is this one.

The youth unemployment rate stood at 22.2% and
remained unchanged from the month before,

Is Portugal ending up with something of a core youth unemployment problem?

The latest Eurostat handbook raises another issue as it has a map of employment rate changes from 2006 to 2016. For Portugal this was a lost decade in this sense as in all areas apart from Lisbon (+1.1%) it fell from between 2.5% and 3,8%. Rather curiously if we divert across the border to a country now considered an economic success Spain it fell in all regions including by 7.2% in Andalucia. So whilst both countries will have improved in 2017 we get a hint of a size of the combined credit crunch and Euro area crises.

Is Portugal’s Lost Decade Over?

No it still has a little way to go and the emphasis below is mine. From the Bank of Portugal economic review.

economic activity will maintain
a growth profile over the projection horizon,
albeit at a gradually slower pace (2.3%, 1.9%
and 1.7% in 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively)
. At the end of the projection horizon,
GDP will stand approximately 4% above the level
seen prior to the international financial crisis.

So it will be back to the pre credit crunch peak around the autumn. We will have to see as the Bank of Portugal got 2016 wrong as I was already pointing out last July that the first half of 2016 had the economic growth it thought would arrive in the whole year. Maybe its troubles like so many establishment around the world is the way it is wedded to something which keeps failing.

Projected growth rates are above the average
estimates of potential growth of the Portuguese
economy and will translate into a positive output
gap in coming years.

Actually that sentence begs some other questions so let me add for newer readers that the economic history of Portugal is that it struggles to grow at more than 1% per annum on any sustained basis. In fact compared to its peers in the Euro area 2017 was a rare year as this below shows.

interrupting a long period of negative annual
average differentials observed from 2000
to 2016 (only excluding 2009).

This is unlikely to be helped by this where like in so many countries we see good news with a not so good kicker.

The employment growth in the most recent
years, which was fast when compared with activity
growth, has resulted in a decline in labour
productivity since 2014, a trend that will continue
into 2017. ( I presume they mean 2018).

House Prices

It would appear that there is indeed something going on here. From Portugal Statistics.

In the third quarter of 2017, the House Price Index (HPI) increased 10.4% in relation to the same period of 2016 (8.0% in the previous quarter). This rate of change, the highest ever recorded for the series starting in 2009, was essentially determined by the price behaviour of existing dwellings, which increased 11.5% in relation to the same quarter of 2016………….The HPI increased 3.5% between the second and third quarters of 2017

The peak of this was highlighted by The Portugal News last November.

Portugal’s most expensive neighbourhood is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the heart of Lisbon, where buying a house along the Avenida da Liberdade or Marquês de Pombal costs around €3,294 per square metre; up 46.1 percent in 12 months.

Time for the Outhere Brothers again.

I say boom boom boom let me hear u say wayo
I say boom boom boom now everybody say wayo

The banks

Finally some good news for the troubled Portuguese banking sector as their assets ( mortgages) will start to look much better as house prices rise. If we look at Novo Banco this may help with what Moodys calls a “very large stock of problematic assets” which the Portuguese taxpayer is helping with a recapitalisation of  3.9 billion Euros. Yet there are still problems as this from the Financial Times highlights.

Portuguese authorities last year launched a criminal investigation into the sale of €64m of Novo Banco bonds by a Portuguese insurance firm to Pimco that occurred at the end of 2015. A week later, the value of the bonds sold to Pimco were in effect wiped out by the country’s central bank.

This is an issue that brings no credit to Portugal as Novo Banco as the name implies was supposed to be a clean bank that was supposed to be sold off quickly.

Comment

So we have welcome economic news but as ever in line with economics being described as the “dismal science” we move to asking can it last? On that subject we need to note that an official interest-rate which is -0.4% and ongoing QE is worry some. Also Portugal receives quite a direct boost in its public finances from the QE as the flow of 489 million Euros  of purchases of its government bonds in February meaning the total is now over 32 billion means it has a ten-year yield of under 2%. Not bad when you have a national debt to GDP ratio of 126.2%.

To the question what happens when the stimulus stops? We find ourselves mulling the way that Portugal has under performed its Euro area peers or its demographics which were already poor before some of its educated youth departed in response to the lost decade as this from the Bank of Portugal makes clear.

The population’s ageing trend partly results from
the sharp decrease in fertility in the 1970s and
1980s,

So whilst some may claim this as a triumph for the “internal competitiveness” or don’t leave the Euro model 2017 was in fact only a tactical victory albeit a welcome one in a long campaign. Should some of the recent relative monetary and consumer confidence weakness persist we could see a slowing of Euro area economic growth in the summer/autumn just as the ECB is supposed to be ending its QE program and considering ending negative interest-rates. How would that work?

 

 

 

 

What is going on with the banks of Italy?

Yesterday saw something of a familiar theme as we were told this by Fabrizio Pagani, the chief of staff at Italy’s Ministry of Economy and Finance.

*PAGANI: ITALIAN BANKS ARE DEFINITELY FIXED ( h/t @mhewson_CMC )

You would be forgiven for thinking not only what again? But also experiencing some fatigue after being told it so often. Less than twelve hours later something else that is rather familiar turned up.

PAGANI SAYS ITALIAN BANKING NEEDS CONSOLIDATION ( h/t @lemasabachthani )

So they weren’t fixed for long it would seem! According to Bloomberg who had the interview we had another hostage to fortune as well from him.

“The story of Italian non-performing loans is over,” Pagani said.

He sounds so much like Finance Minster Padoan doesn’t he? In reality even those who are friendly to such ideas have doubts.

As you can see even Spain which was criticised for acting slowly in fact was 3/4 years ahead of Italy we note that the Italian problem got worse during this period. In fact Spain is in the process of repaying the ESM ( European Stability Mechanism) the money it borrowed for this.

Spain made the request for the repayment on 30 January 2018. One repayment will be for €2 billion, and is planned for 23 February 2018. The size of the second repayment will be €3 billion, and is scheduled for May 2018.

So in total this has happened.

Between December 2012 and February 2013, the ESM disbursed €41.3 billion to the Spanish government for the recapitalisation of the country’s banking sector……….Following the two repayments, Spain’s outstanding debt to the ESM will stand at €26.7 billion.

So Spain is exiting the procedure as Italy begins it and as is so usual Italy is doing it in its own way. For example in the tweet picture above the phrase bail in is used when in fact what it has done have had the features of bailouts as well. Also is this good or simply kicking the can somewhere else?

Investors also snapped up more than 100 billion euros ($123 billion) in non-performing Italian bank loans last year, which has helped reduce the level of net bad debt across the sector by more than a third.

Some may think that this may be more like vultures on their prey.

This month, Bob Diamond and Corrado Passera, the former bosses of Barclays Plc and Intesa Sanpaolo SpA, joined forces to shop for a lender to smaller Italian companies.

Monte Paschi

It too was in the news yesterday as Bloomberg told us this.

Fabrizio Pagani, the chief of staff at Italy’s Ministry of Economy and Finance, told Bloomberg News that Monte Paschi is in the picture for mergers after taking substantial steps to clean up its balance sheet since its rescue and introduce new management practices.

Who wants to merge with a zombie? I am reminded of what my late father used to tell me which is that more than a few takeovers and mergers only exist because the muddle the figures for a year or to. I can see why the Italian state might be keen as they did this.

A sale of Monte Paschi would cap a saga that saw Italy’s third-biggest bank, an icon of national finance, become engulfed by bad debts, criminal cases, and 6.7 billion euros in losses in the last two years. The government salvaged it as part of a 8.3 billion-euro recapitalization that strained ties between the country and the European Union over bailout rules.

Italy paid some 6.49 Euros a share as opposed to the 3.18 as I type this as we mull how the “substantial steps” have been ignored by the market which has more than halved the share price? We also learnt something from its bond issue in January. From the Financial Times.

Despite the low rating, the bond sale was three times subscribed and priced at a yield of just 5.375 per cent, confirming Monte Paschi’s ability to tap markets after its 2017 recapitalisation,

“Just 5.375%”? As in Europe these days that feels like riches beyond imagination! Especially if you note this.

The Italian government will provide a guarantee to the investment grade rated senior notes in this securitisation, which Monte Paschi will “retain” on its books.

I also thought that the bailout fund Atlante was pretty much out of cash.

It is able to derecognise the non-performing loans, however, because the riskier “mezzanine” and junior notes are being sold to the Italian Recovery Fund………..
While this fund — formerly known as Atlante — is private, it is part of a government-led initiative to clean up the Italian banking sector, and has far lower return targets than typical distressed debt buyers.

Anyway the share price reflects something rather different from the rhetoric as I note that according to Il Populista our old friend Finance Minister Padoan is on the case again.

The state will remain in Mps “for a few years”. Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan told the unions to add that “giving a number would be wrong and counterproductive for the markets”.

Giving wrong numbers has never bothered him before as I note this description of him which may be a quirk of Google translate.

The Minister of Economy, without shame,

The ECB

Today has brought news that swings both ways for the Italian banks as we have got the data which determines the interest-rate for TLTRO II so it was not a surprise to see this.

The annual growth rate of adjusted loans to non-financial corporations increased to 3.4% in January, from 3.1% in December.

Of the new 24 billion Euros some 20 billion was for less than a year but presumably long enough to fulfil the ECB criteria with the Italian banks to the fore.

January net lending flows to the non-financial private sector were particularly strong in Germany and Italy (second largest in over 10 years). ( @fwred )

Yet so far they have gained little as the annual gain from this according to @fwred is 769 million Euros for the Spanish banks but 0 for the Italian ( Portuguese and Dutch) ones. Perhaps the last-minute dash will make a difference.

Veneto Banks

The collapse of Veneto Banca and Banca Popolare di Vicenza. last year led to many financial problems in the area. In banking terms this happened.

The two Veneto banks were wound down in June, with the state guaranteeing losses of up to €17bn, after the European Central Bank declared the lenders as failing. Intesa was handed as much as €4.8bn to help preserve its capital ratios from any adverse impact from the deal. ( FT)

Yet as this from IlFattoQuotidiano.it  in January shows the pain for many businesses and savers continues.

He finally gave up. But it took six hours of negotiation because the former Romanian bricklayer Marin Halarambie, 59, agreed to move his car from the entrance of the historic Veneto Banca headquarters in Montebelluna. Christmas Day had arrived to stage a very personal protest, as the bankruptcy of the bank cost him a loss of about 125 thousand euros.

Comment

This is a particularly Italian saga where official boasting about the lack of bank bailouts met a brick wall of bank collapses later. Even worse the problem deteriorated as they looked the other way. On this road equity investors suffered – who can forget Prime Minister Renzi telling people Monte Paschi was a good investment ? – and so did the savers who were encouraged to invest in the “safe” bank bonds.

Now the economic outlook is better we wait to see what happens next. But there is a clear distinction between my subject of yesterday the Netherlands and Italy and it is this. From January 11th.

According to preliminary estimates, in the third quarter of 2017: the House Price Index (see Italian IPAB) decreased by 0.5% compared with the previous quarter and by
0.8% in comparison to the same quarter of the previous year (it was -0.2% in the second quarter of 2017);

For all the machinations that have gone on Italy has so far been immune from the suggested cure seen so often elsewhere which is to make the banks mortgage assets look stronger via higher house prices. How very Italian! Still the winners here are Italian first time buyers if they can get a mortgage.

Last week Bank of Italy Deputy Governor Panetta gave a speech which in one way suggested he must know some incredibly pessimistic people.

During the financial crisis, Italy’s banking system proved much more resilient than expected by many observers.

But intriguingly he does agree with me that if the buyers of bad loans are getting a good deal this must weaken and not strengthen the banks?

A generalized sale of NPLs on the market would imply a large transfer of resources from banks to buyers.

No wonder Diamond Bob is on the case! Also this is yet again rather familiar.

While the secondary market for NPLs is showing signs of rapid growth, it is still opaque and relatively oligopolistic.

And?

Simultaneous, blanket sales would further depress
market prices, magnifying the gap between the book and market values of NPLs. The result
for banks would be significant losses and reduced capital. This could have unintended effects
on individual banks as well as macroeconomic consequences through a contraction in credit
supply in countries where high NPL stocks are a concern for several banks.