What are the economic prospects for the Euro area?

As we progress into 2020 there has been a flurry of information on the Euro area economy. However there has been quite a bit of dissatisfaction with the usual indicators so statistics offices have been looking  at alternatives and here is the German effort.

The Federal Office for Goods Transport (BAG) and the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) report that the mileage covered by trucks with four or more axles, which are subject to toll charges, on German motorways decreased a seasonally adjusted 0.6% in December 2019 compared with the previous month.

As a conceptual plan this can be added to the way that their colleagues in Italy are now analysing output on Twitter and therefore may now think world war three has begun. Returning to the numbers the German truck data reminds us that the Euro areas largest economy is struggling. That was reinforced this morning by some more conventional economic data.

Germany exported goods to the value of 112.9 billion euros and imported goods to the value of 94.6 billion euros in November 2019. Based on provisional data, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that German exports decreased by 2.9% and imports by 1.6% in November 2019 on the same month a year earlier. Compared with October 2019, exports were down 2.3% and imports 0.5% after calendar and seasonal adjustment.

We get a reminder that what was one if the causes of economic imbalance before the credit crunch has if anything grown as we note the size of Germany’s trade surplus.  It is something that each month provides support for the level of the Euro. Switching to economic trends we see that compared to a year before the larger export volume has fallen by more than import volume. This was even higher on a monthly basis as we note that the gap between the two widened. But both numbers indicate a contractionary influence on the German economy and hence GDP ( Gross Domestic Product).

Production

Today’s data opened with a flicker of positive news.

In November 2019, production in industry was up by 1.1% on the previous month on a price, seasonally and calendar adjusted basis according to provisional data of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). In October 2019, the corrected figure shows a decrease of 1.0% (primary -1.7%) from September 2019.

However this still meant this.

-2.6% on the same month a year earlier (price and calendar adjusted)

There is a particular significance in the upwards revision to October as some felt that the original numbers virtually guaranteed a contraction in GDP in the last quarter of 2019. In terms of a breakdown the better November figures relied on investment.

In November 2019, production in industry excluding energy and construction was up by 1.0%. Within industry, the production of capital goods increased by 2.4% and the production of consumer goods by 0.5%. The production of intermediate goods showed a decrease by 0.5%.

Only time will tell if the investment was wise. The orders data released yesterday was not especially hopeful.

Based on provisional data, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) reports that price-adjusted new orders in manufacturing had decreased in November 2019 a seasonally and calendar adjusted 1.3% on the previous month.

Producing more into weaker orders has an obvious flaw and on an annual basis the situation was even worse.

-6.5% on the same month a year earlier (price and calendar adjusted)

Perhaps the investment was for the domestic economy as we look into the detail.

Domestic orders increased by 1.6% and foreign orders fell 3.1% in November 2019 on the previous month. New orders from the euro area were down 3.3%, new orders from other countries decreased 2.8% compared to October 2019.

But if we widen our outlook from Germany to the wider Euro area we see that it was the source of the strongest monthly slowing.

In a broad sweep orders for production rose from 2013 to December 2017 with the series peaking at 117.1 ( 2015=100) but we have been falling since and have now gone back to 2015 at 100.3.

The Labour Market

By contrast there is more to cheer from this area.

The euro area (EA19) seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate was 7.5% in November 2019, stable compared with
October 2019 and down from 7.9% in November 2018. This remains the lowest rate recorded in the euro area
since July 2008.

In terms of the broad trend the Euro area is now pretty much back to where it was before the credit crunch and is a long way from the peak of above 12% seen around 2013. But there are catches and nuances to this of which a major one is this.

In November 2019, the unemployment rate in the United States was 3.5%, down from 3.6% in October 2019 and
from 3.7% in November 2018.

That is quite a gap and whilst there may be issues around how the numbers are calculated that still leaves quite a gap. Also unemployment is a lagging indicator but it may be showing signs of turning.

Compared with October 2019, the number of persons unemployed increased by
34 000 in the EU28 and decreased by 10 000 in the euro area. Compared with November 2018, unemployment fell
by 768 000 in the EU28 and by 624 000 in the euro area.

The rate of decline has plainly slowed and if we look at Germany again we wait to see what the next move is.

Adjusted for seasonal and irregular effects, the number of unemployed remained unchanged from the previous month, standing at 1.36 million people as well. The adjusted unemployment rate was 3.1% in November, without any changes since May 2019.

Looking Ahead

There was some hope for 2020 reflected in the Markit PMI business surveys.

Business optimism about the year ahead has also improved
to its best since last May, suggesting the mood
among business has steadily improved in recent
months.

However the actual data was suggested a low base to start from.

Another month of subdued business activity in
December rounded off the eurozone’s worst quarter
since 2013. The PMI data suggest the euro area
will struggle to have grown by more than 0.1% in
the closing three months of 2019.

There is a nuance in that France continues to do better than Germany meaning that in their turf war France is in a relative ascendancy. In its monthly review the Italian statistics office has found some cheer for the year ahead.

The sectoral divide between falling industrial production and resilient turnover in services persists. However, business survey indicators convey first signals of optimism in manufacturing. Economic growth is projected to slightly increase its pace to moderate growth rates of 0.3% over the forecast horizon.

Comment

The problem for the ECB is that its monetary taps are pretty much fully open and money supply growth is fairly strong but as Markit puts it.

At face value, the weak performance is
disappointing given additional stimulus from the
ECB, with the drag from the ongoing plight of the
manufacturing sector a major concern.

It is having an impact but is not enough so far.

However, policymakers will be encouraged by the resilient
performance of the more domestically-focused
service sector, where growth accelerated in
December to its highest since August.

This brings us back to the opening theme of this year which has been central bankers both past and present singing along with the band Sweet.

Does anyone know the way, did we hear someone say
(We just haven’t got a clue what to do)
Does anyone know the way, there’s got to be a way
To blockbuster

Hence their move towards fiscal policy which is quite a cheek in the circumstances.

The conceptual issue is that all the intervention and central planning has left the Euro area struggling for any sustained economic growth and certainly slower growth than before. This is symbolised by Italy which remains a girlfriend in a coma.

The Composite Output Index* posted at 49.3 in December,
down from 49.6 in November, to signal a second consecutive fall in Italian private sector output. Moreover, the decline quickened to a marginal pace.

 

The inflation problem is only in the minds of central bankers

Yesterday we looked at the trend towards negative interest-rates and today we can link this into the issue of inflation. So let me open with this morning’s release from Swiss Statistics.

The consumer price index (CPI) remained stable in December 2019 compared with the previous month, remaining at 101.7 points (December 2015 = 100). Inflation was +0.2% compared with the same month of the previous year. The average annual inflation reached +0.4% in 2019.These are the results of the Federal Statistical Office (FSO).

The basic situation is not only that there is little or no inflation but that there has been very little since 2015. Actually if we switch to the Euro area measure called CPI in the UK we see that it picks up even less.

In December 2019, the Swiss Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) stood at 101.17 points
(base 2015=100). This corresponds to a rate of change of +0.2% compared with the previous month
and of –0.1% compared with the same month of the previous year.

Negative Interest-Rates

There is a nice bit of timing here in that the situation changed back in 2015 on the 15th to be precise and I am sure many of you still recall it.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is discontinuing the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro. At the same time, it is lowering the interest rate on sight deposit account balances that exceed a given exemption threshold by 0.5 percentage points, to −0.75%.

If we look at this in inflation terms then the implied mantra suggested by Ben Bernanke yesterday would be that Switzerland would have seen some whereas it has not. In fact the (nearly) 5 years since then have been remarkable for their lack of inflation.

There is a secondary issue here related to the exchange rate which is that the negative interest-rate was supposed to weaken it. That is a main route as to how it is supposed to raise inflation but we find that we are nearly back where we began. What I mean by that is the exchange-rate referred to above is 1.084 compared to the Euro. So the Swiss tried to import inflation but have not succeeded and awkwardly for fans of negative interest-rates part of the issue is that the ECB ( European Central Bank) joined the party reminding me of a point I made just under 2 years ago on the 9th of January 2018.

For all the fire and fury ( sorry) there remains a simple underlying point which is that if one currency declines falls or devalues then others have to rise. That is especially awkward for central banks as they attempt to explain how trying to manipulate a zero-sum game brings overall benefits.

The Low Inflation Issue

Let me now switch to another Swiss based organisation the Bank for International Settlements  or BIS. This is often known as the central bankers central bank and I think we learn a lot from just the first sentence.

Inflation in advanced economies (AEs) continues to be subdued, remaining below central banks’ target
in spite of aggressive and persistent monetary policy accommodation over a prolonged period.

As we find so often this begs more than a few questions. For a start why is nobody wondering why all this effort is not wprking as intended? The related issue is then why they are persisting with something that is not working? The Eagles had a view on this.

They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast

We then get quite a swerve.

To escape the low inflation trap, we argue that, as suggested by Jean-Claude Trichet, governments
and social partners put in place “consensus packages” that include a fiscal policy that supports demand
and a series of ad hoc nominal wage increases over several years.

Actually there are two large swerves here. The first is the switch away from the monetary policies which have been applied on an ever larger scale each time with the promise that this time they will work. Next is a pretty breathtaking switch to advocacy of fiscal policy by the very same Jean-Claude Trichet who was involved in the application of exactly the reverse in places like Greece during his tenure at the ECB.

Their plan is to simply add to the control freakery.

As political economy conditions evolve, this role should be progressively substituted by rebalancing the macro
policy mix with a more expansionary fiscal policy. More importantly, social partners and governments
control an extremely powerful lever, ie the setting of wages at least in the public sector and potentially
in the private sector, to re-anchor inflation expectations near 2%.

The theory was that technocratic central bankers would aim for inflation targets set by elected politicians. Now they want to tell the politicians what to so all just to hit an inflation target that was chosen merely because it seemed right at the time. Next they want wages to rise at this arbitrary rate too! The ordinary worker will get a wage rise of 2% in this environment so that prices can rise by 2% as well. It is the economics equivalent of the Orwellian statements of the novel 1984

Indeed they even think that they can tell employers what to do.

Finally, in a full employment context,
employers have an incentive to implement wage increases to keep their best performing employees
and, given that nominal labour costs of all employers would increase in parallel, they would able to raise
prices in line with the increase of their wage bills with limited risk of losing clients

Ah “full employment” the concept which is in practical terms meaningless as we discussed only yesterday.

Also as someone who studied the “social contracts” or what revealingly were called “wage and price spirals” in the UK the BIS presents in its paper a rose tinted version of the past. Some might say misleading. In the meantime as the economy has changed I would say that they would be even less likely to work.

Putting this another way the Euro area inflation numbers from earlier showed something the ordinary person will dislike but central bankers will cheer.

Looking at the main components of euro area inflation, food, alcohol & tobacco is expected to have the highest
annual rate in December (2.0%, compared with 1.9% in November),

I would send the central bankers out to explain to food shoppers how this is in fact the nirvana of “price stability” as for new readers that is what they call inflation of 2% per annum. We would likely get another ” I cannot eat an I-Pad” moment.

Comment

Let me now bring in some issues which change things substantially and let me open with something that has got FT Alphaville spinning itself into quicksand.

As far as most people are concerned, there is more than enough inflation. Cœuré noted in his speech that most households think the average rate in the eurozone between 2004 and last year has been 9 per cent (in fact it was 1.6 per cent). That’s partly down to higher housing costs (which are not wholly included in central banks’ measurement of inflation).

That last sentence is really rather desperate as it nods to the official FT view of inflation which is in quite a mess on the issue of housing inflation. Actually the things which tend to go up ( house prices) are excluded from the Euro area measure of inflation. There was a plan to include them but that turned out to be an attempt simply to waste time ( about 3 years as it happened). Why? Well they would rather tell you that this is a wealth effect.

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 4.2% in both the euro area and the EU in the
second quarter of 2019 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

Looking at the situation we see that a sort of Holy Grail has developed – the 2% per annum inflation target – with little or no backing. After all its use was then followed by the credit crunch which non central bankers will consider to be a rather devastating critique. One road out of this is to raise the inflation target even higher to 3%, 4% or more, or so we are told.

There are two main issues with this of which the first is that if you cannot hit the 2% target then 3% or 4% seems pointless. But to my mind the bigger one is that in an era of lower numbers why be King Canute when instead one can learn and adapt. I would either lower the inflation target and/or put house prices in it so that they better reflect the ordinary experience. The reason they do not go down this road is explained by a four letter word, debt. Or as the Eagles put it.

Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice
And she said: “We are all just prisoners here
Of our own device”

Is the Bundesbank still sure that Germany is not facing a recession?

The year so far has seen a development which has changed the economic debate especially in Europe.This is the malaise affecting the German economy which for so long has been lauded. This continued in 2017 which saw quarterly GDP growth of 1.2%, 0.6%, 0.9% and 0.7% giving the impression that it had returned to what had in the past been regarded as normal service. However before the trade war was a glint in President Trump’s eye and indeed before the ECB QE programme stopped things changed. As I have pointed out previously we did not know this at the time because it is only after more recent revisions that we knew 2018 opened with 0.1% and then 0.4% rather changing the theme and meaning that the subsequent -0.1% would have been less of a shock. We can put the whole situation in perspective by noting that German GDP was 106.04 at the end of 2017 and was 107.03 at the end of the third quarter this year. As Talking Heads would put it.

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

Industrial Production

This has been a troubled area for some time as regular readers will be aware. Throughout it we have seen many in social media claim that in the detail they can see reasons for an improvement, whereas in fact things have headed further south. This morning has produced another really bad number. .

WIESBADEN – In October 2019, production in industry was down by 1.7% on the previous month on a price, seasonally and calendar adjusted basis according to provisional data of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). In September 2019, the corrected figure shows a decrease of 0.6% from August 2019, thus confirming the provisional result published in the previous month.

If we look at the breakdown we see that the future is not bright according to those producing capital goods.

Within industry, the production of intermediate goods increased by 1.0% and the production of consumer goods by 0.3%. The production of capital goods showed a decrease by 4.4%. Outside industry, energy production was up by 2.3% in October 2019 and the production in construction decreased by 2.8%.

There is a flicker of hope from intermediate goods but consumer goods fell. There is an additional dampener from the construction data as well.

Moving to the index we see that the index set at 100 in 2015 is at 99.4 so we are seeing a decline especially compared to the peak of 107.8 in May last year. If we exclude construction from the data set the position is even worse as the index is at 97.6.

The annual comparison just compounds the gloom.

-5.3% on the same month a year earlier (price and calendar adjusted)

Looking Ahead

Yesterday also saw bad news on the orders front.

WIESBADEN – Based on provisional data, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) reports that price-adjusted new orders in manufacturing had decreased in October 2019 a seasonally and calendar adjusted 0.4% on the previous month.

This was a contrast to a hint of an uptick in the previous month.

For September 2019, revision of the preliminary outcome resulted in an increase of 1.5% compared with August 2019 (provisional: +1.3%).

If we peer into the October detail we see that this time around the problem was domestic rather than external.

Domestic orders decreased by 3.2% and foreign orders rose 1.5% in October 2019 on the previous month. New orders from the euro area were up 11.1%, new orders from other countries decreased 4.1% compared to September 2019.

The oddity here is the surge in orders from the rest of the Euro area when we are expecting economic growth there to be very flat. If we switch to Monday’s Markit PMI then there was no sign of anything like it.

At the aggregate eurozone level, ongoing declines in
output and new orders were again recorded.

Indeed ICIS reported this in October based on the Markit survey.

Sharp declines in order book volumes weighed on operating conditions during the month, concentrated on intermediate goods producers, while consumer goods makers saw significantly milder levels of deterioration.

If we look back we see that this series has turned out to be a very good leading indicator as the peak was in November 2017 at 108.9 where 2015 = 100. Also we see that in fact it is domestic orders which have slumped the most arguing a bit against the claim that all of this is trade war driven.

The annual picture is below.

-5.5% on the same month a year earlier (price and calendar adjusted)

Monetary Policy

This has remained extraordinarily easy but does not appear to have made any difference at all. The turn in production took place when ECB QE was still going full steam ahead for example. Indeed even those who voted for such measures seem to have lost the faith as this from yesterday’s twitter output from former Vice-president Vitor Constancio suggests.

In 2014 when the main policy rate reached zero, keeping a corridor implied a negative deposit rate. There was then a risk of deflation and it was supposed to be a temporary tool.Since last year I have been tweeting against going to deeper negative rates.

A welcome realisation but it is too late for him to change policy now.

The problem for monetary policy is that with the German ten-year yield being -0.3% and the official deposit rate being -0.5% what more can be done? It all has the feeling of the famous phrase from Newt in the film Aliens.

It wont make any difference

Fiscal Policy

The policy was explained by Reuters in late October.

Eurostat said Germany’s revenues last year exceeded expenses by more than previously estimated, allowing Berlin to post a budget surplus of 1.9% of its output, above the 1.7% that Eurostat had calculated in April.

That has been the state of play for several years now and the spending increases for next year may not change that much.

The total German state budget for next year is to be €362 billion ($399 billion), €5.6 billion more than is being spent this year. ( DW )

Although further down in the article it seems that the change may be somewhat limited.

As in previous years, and following the example of his conservative predecessor, the Social Democrat Finance Minister Scholz has pledged not to take on any more debt – maintaining Germany’s commitment to the so-called “black zero”: a balanced budget.

Some more spending may have an implicit effect on the industrial production numbers. Indeed defence spending can have a direct impact should orders by forthcoming for new frigates or tanks.

Yesterday FAZ reported that this fiscal year was more or less the same as the last.

German state is facing a significant surplus this year. All in all, revenues will exceed spending by around 50 billion euros. This is apparent from an internal template for the Stability Council meeting on 13 December. It contains the information on the state’s net lending of between € 49.5 and 56.5 billion.

Comment

There is a case here of living by the sword and perhaps then dying by it as it is what has been considered a great success for Germany which has hit the buffers last year then this. The manufacturing sector is around 23% of the economy and so the production figures have a large impact. October is only the first month of three but such weak numbers for an important area pose a question for GDP in the quarter as a whole? Rather awkwardly pay rates seem to have risen into the decline.

The third quarter saw an exceptionally strong
increase in negotiated pay rates. Including additional benefits, these rates rose year-on-year
by 4.2% in the third quarter of 2019, compared
with 2.1% in 2018. This temporary, considerably higher growth rate was mainly due to new
special payments in the metal-working and
electrical engineering industries, which had
been agreed last year and were first due in July
2019.

Before we knew the more recent data the Bundesbank was telling us this.

The slowdown of the German economy will
probably continue in the fourth quarter of
2019. However, it is not likely to intensify markedly. As things currently stand, overall economic output could more or less stagnate.
Thus, the economy would largely tread water
again in the second half of this year as a whole.

Then they left what is now looking like a hostage to fortune.

However, from today’s vantage point, there is
no reason to fear that Germany will slide into recession.

 

 

Negative interest-rates are on the march yet again

A feature of the modern era is that things which are permanent are described as “temporary”. This has been particularly true in the era of interest-rates as it is easy to forget now that the low interest-rates of 2009/10 were supposed to be so. The reality is that they went even lower and in more than a few places went negative which again was supposed to be temporary. But the list got longer along the lines of the famous Elvis Presley song.

We’re caught in a trap
I can’t walk out
Because I love you too much baby

I have written before that I think that there are two factors in this being passed onto the ordinary depositor. Firstly how negative interest-rates become and secondly how long they are negative for. The reason why there is any delay in the pass on to depositors and savers is that the banks are afraid they will withdraw their cash and hence break their business model apart.

Germany

On the 19th of last month we noted that some German banks were looking to spread the negativity net wider and according to Bloomberg some smaller ones have broken ranks.

After five years of negative rates imposed by the European Central Bank, German lenders are breaking the last taboo: Charging retail clients for their savings starting with very first euro in the their accounts.

While many banks have been passing on negative rates to retail clients for some time, they have typically only done so for deposits of 100,000 euros ($111,000) or more. That is changing, with one small lender close to Munich planning to impose a rate of minus 0.5% to all savings in certain new accounts. Another bank in the east of the country has introduced a similar policy and a third is considering an even higher charge.

This is the system we have some to expect where a small bank or two is used as a pathfinder to test the water. I wonder if there is some sort of arrangement here although this from Bloomberg is also true.

 While there are some exemptions under the policy, years of sub-par profitability have left especially smaller lenders with few options to offset the cost of the ECB’s charges.

The irony is not lost on me that policies brought in to protect “The Precious” are now damaging it and may yet destroy it. I also find it fascinating to whom Bloomberg went for an opinion as it is straight out of the European equivalent of Yes Prime Minister.

“For now, negative rates are probably a signal to new clients that a bank doesn’t need any additional deposits,” said Isabel Schnabel, a professor at the University of Bonn who was nominated by Germany to join the ECB’s Executive Board. “I would assume that banks are a lot more cautious with existing customers.”

Kylie Minogues “Spinning Around” should be playing in the background to that. Still Isabel should fit in well with the ECB Executive Board as we get some strong hints as to why she was nominated.

Who is it?

The banks are shown below.

Now Volksbank Raiffeisenbank Fuerstenfeldbruck, a regional bank close to Munich, is among the first brushing off such concerns. The bank says it will impose a negative rate of 0.5% on new clients who open a popular form of saving account……….Kreissparkasse Stendal, in the east of the country, has a similar policy for clients who have no other relationship with the bank. Both lenders levy the charges on new customers who open a type of savings account that allows for daily, unlimited withdrawals, a popular instrument among German savers. Existing customers are mostly exempt for now.

The way that this has been such a slow process shows that the banks are afraid of deposit flight or a type of run on the bank. So far we do not know when that would occur although we do know now that some versions of negative interest-rates do not cause it. As the plan below is for an extra -0.05% it seems unlikely to be the trigger.

Frankfurter Volksbank, one of the country’s largest cooperative lenders, is considering going even further and charging some new customers 0.55% for all their deposits, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported, without saying where it got the information. The lender said in a statement it has not made any decisions yet.

Denmark

The Straits Times has picked up on an interview by the Governor of the central bank Lars Rhode and it is rather revealing.

In Denmark, where banks have lived with negative rates since 2012, it’s now clear that life below zero isn’t about to end any time soon. People need to understand that it’s “lower for longer”, Rohde said. And that will “definitely” have negative consequences for lenders, he said.

He also gave a speech yesterday and in it there was this.

Digitalisation and new legislation give more players access to the market for bank products. From the payments market we know that digital solutions have a tendency to create natural monopolies because it costs less to perform one extra transaction once the digital infrastructure is in
place.

That was ominous as banks already have problems with their business model and it got worse as he told them who he had in mind.

In recent years, we have seen tech giants, such as Apple and Amazon, enter the financial market. Experience from both the USA and China shows that these firms are extending their original core business to include payments and subsequently also financial services such as
lending.

Is he telling them they are obsolete and dinosaurs. Still he did manage some humour.

Well-functioning IT systems and a tight rein on costs will be key competitive parameters for banks in the coming years.

As the Straits Times puts it.

But years of negative rates, tougher regulatory requirements and, in some cases, out of date technology, have put some banks on the back foot.

Indeed this may put a chill down bankers spines.

According to a report in Borsen on Tuesday, Apple Pay has now established itself as a considerably more popular app among Danish shop owners than a local mobile payment solution offered by Nets A/S, which has so far dominated digital payments within the Nordic region.

So far Danish banks are resisting the trend towards negative interest-rates for all.

For now, lenders have drawn the line at 750,000 kroner (S$152,000), which is the threshold below which deposits are covered by guarantees.

Comment

There is a steady drip drip here and there is some other news which suggests to me that the ECB may be genuinely afraid. In its latest round of monetary easing there was also tiering of deposits for banks at the ECB itself which may reduce the costs there by a third. But in the last week or two there are signs of something more subtle regarding bank capital.

Enter Mr Enria new head of the SSM… And Unicredit’ s new business plan presented this morning. In which they make clear that Pillar 2 would be CET1 AT1 and T2. This means in practice :

A) a big CET1 relief for banks (80bps for Unicredit)

B) a massive need of new AT1/T2

( @jeuasommenulle )

He thinks that today’s announcement from Unicredit of Italy hints that the capital requirements for risk-weighted assets are being trimmed. There has been a change in who is in charge and more flexibility seems to be in the offing. This adds to the hint provided last week in the proposed banking merger between Unicaja and Liberbank as in the past it might have been stymied by a demand for more capital. Oh and SSM is Single Supervisory Mechanism.

This echoes partly because of this if we return to the Governor of the Danish central bank.

This creates an underlying need for consolidation, also within the financial sector.

So it is a complex picture and remember some policymakers at the ECB wanted to turn the screw even harder with a Deposit Rate of -0.6%.

 

 

What more can the ECB do for the Euro?

Yesterday in something of a set piece event the new ECB President Christine Lagarde got out her pen to sign some banknotes and in the midst of her soaring rhetoric there were some interesting numbers.

In the euro area, banknotes are used for retail transactions more than any other means of payment. Some 79% of all transactions are carried out using cash, amounting to more than half of the total value of all payments.

So cash may no longer be king but it is still an important part of the Euro area economy. Indeed the numbers below suggest it may be an increasingly important part, perhaps driven by the fact that 0% is indeed better than the -0.5% deposit rate of the ECB.

And since their introduction, the number of euro banknotes in circulation has risen steadily, reflecting both the importance of cash in our economy and the euro’s international appeal. There are now 23 billion euro banknotes in circulation with a value of €1.26 trillion – a third of which are being used outside the euro area.

The latter reflection on use outside the Euro area is a rise because if we look elsewhere on the ECB website we are told this.

It is estimated that, in terms of value, between 20% and 25% of the euro banknotes in circulation are held outside the euro area, mainly in the neighbouring countries. The demand for euro banknotes rose steeply particularly in non-EU countries in eastern Europe when the financial crisis erupted in 2008 and national currencies depreciated against the euro.

We can figure out what was going on there as we recall the carry trade leading to mortgages and business borrowing being undertaken in Euros ( and Swiss Francs) in Eastern Europe. I guess that left some with a taste for the adventures of Stevie V.

Money talks, mmm-hmm-hmm, money talks
Dirty cash I want you, dirty cash I need you, woh-oh
Money talks, money talks
Dirty cash I want you, dirty cash I need you, woh-oh

I am not sure as to why the foreign holdings have risen so much. Some will no doubt cheer lead saying it is a sign of Euro acceptance and strength but there is the issue of notes being potentially used by money launderers and drug smugglers. The ECB is supposed to be against such criminal activity and has used that reason in its ending of production of 500 Euro notes.The circulation of them is in a gentle decline and there are now 458 million of them. The numbers of 200 Euro notes has shot higher as there were 253 million a year ago as opposed to 366 million ( and rising) now.

I did ask the ECB and they pointed me towards this.

Euro cash holdings are widespread in Albania, Croatia, the Czech Republic, the Republic of North Macedonia and Serbia. In those five countries, an average of 36% of respondents reported holding euro cash……..

That still leaves a fair bit unanswered.

Money Supply

There was some good news for the Euro area economic outlook earlier from this.

Annual growth rate of narrower monetary aggregate M1, comprising currency in circulation and overnight deposits, increased to 8.4% in October from 7.9% in September.

Here we are adding some electronic money to the cash above and we can see that the upwards trend seen in 2019 has been reinstated after last month’s dip. Or if you prefer we have returned to August!

This gives an explanation of how the services sector has held up as the trade war has hit manufacturing. According to the Markit PMI surveys this is especially true in France.

Service sector growth continued to run at one of the highest
recorded over the past year.

The Euro area and the ECB should be grateful for this as according to Matkit even with the monetary growth things in this quarter are weak.

“The eurozone economy remained becalmed for a
third successive month in November, with the
lacklustre PMI indicative of GDP growing at a
quarterly rate of just 0.1%, down from 0.2% in the
third quarter.”

If we switch to the longer-term outlook we see this.

The annual growth rate of the broad monetary aggregate M3 stood at 5.6% in October 2019, unchanged from the previous month, averaging 5.6% in the three months up to October.

I think we get the idea that it is 5.6%! Anyway as we know M1 rose the wider sectors must have fallen.

The annual growth rate of short-term deposits other than overnight deposits (M2-M1) decreased to 0.6% in October from 1.2% in September. The annual growth rate of marketable instruments (M3-M2) was -2.4% in October, compared with -1.1% in September.

The growth rate of 5.6% suggests a better economic outlook for 2021 and head but there is a catch which is this.

 net external assets contributed 3.0 percentage points (up from 2.8 percentage points)

The external influence has been growing over the past year or so and if we subtract it then broad money growth is a mere 2.6% and flashing a warning.

Official Surveys

Today’s releases were upbeat.

In November 2019, the Economic Sentiment Indicator (ESI) increased slightly in both the euro area (by 0.5 points to
101.3) and the EU (by 0.9 points to 100.0)……Amongst the largest euro-area economies, the ESI increased in Spain (+0.7), France and Germany (both by +0.4), while it remained virtually unchanged in Italy (-0.1) and worsened in the Netherlands (−1.0).

However there was another sign of trouble,trouble,trouble for manufacturing.

According to the bi-annual investment survey carried out in October/November this year, real investment in the
manufacturing industry in 2019 is expected to decrease by 2% in both the euro area and the EU. Compared to the
previous survey conducted in March/April this year, this represents a downward revision by 6 and 5 percentage
points for the euro area and the EU, respectively. For 2020, managers expect an increase in real investment by 1%
in both regions.

Care is needed with this series though because if you believed it wholesale Germany would be having a good year economically.

Comment

The ECB finds itself at something of a crossroads.Some elements here are simple as with a weak economy and blow target inflation then its policy easing looks justified.It does not seem to have many monetarists on board but it could easily argue that monetary growth is supporting the economy.

The more difficult elements come from how quickly it had to ease policy again as the ceasefire only lasted around ten months. This then brings into focus the question of why economic growth has been so weak? One way it is trying to answer this is provided by the way it has replaced someone who sometimes behaved like a politician with an actual one which suggests a bigger effort in this area.

“Countries with fiscal space should use it quickly, even more so when they suffer an asymmetric shock like Germany,” Villeroy told the Europlace international forum in Tokyo. “Those with high public debt should make their public finances more growth-friendly. ( Reuters)

Some of this is more French trolling of Germany but France has been more in favour of fiscal policy all along. As a side-effect by providing more bunds for the ECB to buy more fiscal policy from Germany would allow another expansion of monetary policy.

That leaves us with a curiosity that may become the equivalent of a singularity. Central banks have failed in the credit crunch era yet their importance rises and especially in the Euro area they seem to feel it is their role to dictate to politicians,

 

 

 

Christine Lagarde trolls Germany and asks for more fiscal stimulus

This morning has seen the first set piece speech of the new ECB President Christine Lagarde and it would not be her without some empty rhetoric.

The idea of European renewal may, for some, elicit feelings of cynicism. We have heard it many times before: “Europe is at a crossroads”; “now is Europe’s moment”. Often that has not proven to be the case. But this time does in fact seem different.

To her perhaps, just like the Greek bailout was “shock and awe” which I suppose in the end it was just as a doppelganger of what she meant.

We also got some trolling of Germany.

Ongoing trade tensions and geopolitical uncertainties are contributing to a slowdown in world trade growth, which has more than halved since last year. This has in turn depressed global growth to its lowest level since the great financial crisis.

These uncertainties have proven to be more persistent than expected, and this is clearly impacting on the euro area. Growth is expected to be 1.1% this year, i.e. 0.7 percentage points lower than we projected a year ago

A lot of the reduction and impact has been on Germany but what Christine does not say is that this has become a regular Euro area issue where economic growth has been downgraded or poor or both. Briefly around 2017 we had the Euro boom but that required the monetary taps to be wide open. Missing here in the analysis is the fact that the stimulus was withdrawn into a growth slowdown.

Did I say there was some trolling of Germany?

At the same time, there are also changes of a more structural nature. We are starting to see a global shift – driven mainly by emerging markets – from external demand to domestic demand, from investment to consumption and from manufacturing to services.

Then we move onto rhetoric that is simply misleading.

The answer lies in converting the world’s second largest economy into one that is open to the world but confident in itself – an economy that makes full use of Europe’s potential to unleash higher rates of domestic demand and long-term growth.

She is setting policy for the Euro area and not Europe and the ECB itself tells us this about the Euro area.

Compared with its individual member countries, the euro area is a large and much more closed economy. In terms of its share of global GDP, it is the world’s third-largest economy, after the United States and China.

Economics

It is revealing that the next section was titled “resilience and rebalancing” words which these days send a bit of a chill down the spine. This chill continues as we see a call for this.

And when global growth falls, stronger internal demand can help protect jobs, too. This is because domestic demand is linked more to services – which are more labour-intensive – while external demand is linked more to manufacturing, which is less labour-intensive.

We are seeing that shield in action in the euro area today: the resilience of services is the key reason why employment has not yet been affected by the global manufacturing slowdown.

The word “yet” may turn out to be rather important. Also there is a catch which is sugar coated..

In the euro area, domestic demand has contributed to the recovery, helping to create 11.4 million new jobs since mid-2013.

But then reality intervenes.

But over the past ten years, domestic demand growth has been almost 2 percentage points lower on average than it was in the decade before the crisis, and it has been slower than that of our main trading partners.

In addition there is a problem.

The ECB’s accommodative policy stance has been a key driver of domestic demand during the recovery, and that stance remains in place.

This is highlighted if we think what Euro area domestic demand would have been without all the ECB stimulus. Her predecessor Mario Draghi suggested that this was in the area of a 2% boost to both GDP and inflation. I guess Christine left that out as it would be too revealing, or it could be that she is simply unaware of it.

A Double Play

The space for monetary policy is limited as Mario Draghi in what I think was a revealing move tied the new ECB President’s hands for a bit by resuming QE ( 20 billion Euros a month) and cutting the deposit rate to -0.5%. So we are left with what some might call interference in politics.

One key element here is euro area fiscal policy, which is not just about the aggregate stance of public spending, but also its composition. Investment is a particularly important part of the response to today’s challenges, because it is both today’s demand and tomorrow’s supply.

The problem is defining what investment is and which bits are  genuinely useful. For example I recall in the Euro area crisis the example of new toll roads in Portugal which were empty because people could not afford them.

However as with some many central bankers these days Christine firmly presses the climate change klaxon.

While investment needs are of course country-specific, there is today a cross-cutting case for investment in a common future that is more productive, more digital and greener.

There is a clear problem below if we look at growth prospects in the light of this speech alone.

But a stronger domestic economy also rests on higher business investment, and for that raising productivity is equally important. Firms need to be confident in future growth if they are to commit long-range capital.

Because as even Christine is forced to admit the US has done better in this area.

Though all advanced economies are facing a growth challenge, the euro area has been slower to embrace innovation and capitalise on the digital age than others such as the United States. This is also reflected in differences in total factor productivity growth, which has risen by only half as much in the euro area as it has in the United States since 2000.

How do we deal with this? Well she is a politician so bring out some large numbers that most will immediately forget.

And the projected gains are significant: new studies find that the full implementation of the Services Directive would lead to gains in the order of €380 billion], while completing the digital single market would yield annual benefits of more than €170 billion.

Comment

The most revealing part of all this is below as you know you are in trouble when politicians start talking about opportunities.

We have a unique possibility to respond to a changing and challenging world by investing in our future, strengthening our common institutions and empowering the world’s second largest economy.

Maybe by the next speech someone will have told her it is the third largest. Also what growth and why has it not be tried over the past 20 years?

In this way, we could tap into new sources of growth that would otherwise be suppressed.

Let me switch tack and welcome a new female head of a central bank but if we look at the other main example we see yet another problem. Here is Janet Yellen on CNBC.

“Some of the most disturbing notes came from people who said, ’I work and I played by the rules and I save for retirement and I have money in the bank, and you know, I’m getting absolutely nothing,” Yellen recalled. “Savers are getting penalized. It’s true.”

This is even more true in the Euro area as we looked at on Tuesday but Lagarde  just skates by.

fewer side effects

The problem has been highlighted this morning by the Markit PMI business surveys.

The eurozone economy remained becalmed for a
third successive month in November, with the
lacklustre PMI indicative of GDP growing at a
quarterly rate of just 0.1%, down from 0.2% in the
third quarter.

Another nuance is that you can read the speech as in essence the French trolling Germany which seems to be a theme these days and a source of Euro area friction.

Also if we look at money markets there may be trouble ahead.

SPIKE IN ECB’S NEW OVERNIGHT RATE ESTR THIS WEEK SPARKED BY REGULAR CONTINGENCY PLANNING BY FRENCH BANKS – TRADERS  ( @PriapusIQ )

Why the 20th of the month?

We end by returning to an all too familiar theme, why do we always need stimulus?

 

 

 

The ECB starts to face up to some of the problems of the Euro area banks

Today has brought the Euro area financial sector and banks in particular into focus as the ECB ( European Central Bank ) issues its latest financial stability report. More than a decade after the credit crunch hit one might reasonably think that this should be a story of success but it is not like that. Because the ECB is rather unlikely to put it like this a major problem is that the medicine to fix the banks ( lower interest-rates) turned out to be harmful to them if you not only continued but increased the dose. Or as Britney Spears would put it, the impact of negative interest-rates on banks is.

I’m addicted to you
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
And I love what you do
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?

Actually the FSR starts with another confession of trouble as it reviews the Euro area economy.

The euro area economic outlook has deteriorated, with growth expected to remain subdued for longer. Mirroring global growth patterns, information since the previous FSR indicates a more protracted weakness of the euro area economy, leading to a downward revision of real GDP growth forecasts for 2020-21.

There is the by traditional element of blaming Johnny Foreigner which has some credibility with the trade war issue. However if we look deeper we were reminded only yesterday about the told of the Euro area in its genesis.

In September 2019 the current account of the euro area recorded a surplus of €28 billion, compared with a surplus of €29 billion in August 2019. In the 12-month period to September 2019, the current account recorded a surplus of €321 billion (2.7% of euro area GDP), compared with a surplus of €378 billion (3.3% of euro area GDP) in the 12 months to September 2018.

It sometimes gets forgotten now that one of the factors in the build-up to the credit crunch was the Euro area ( essentially German ) trade surplus.

However the essential message here is that lower economic growth is providing a challenge to the Euro area financial sector and banks and tucked away at the bottom of this section is one of the reasons why.

At the same time, inflationary pressures in the euro area are forecast to remain muted over the next two years, translating into overall weaker nominal growth prospects.

Paying down debt can be achieved via inflation as well as real economic growth and is one of the reasons why the ECB keeps implementing policies to get inflation up towards its 2% per annum target. A sort of stealth tax.

Bond Markets

There is a warning here.

Asset valuations, reliant on low interest rates, could face future corrections.

If we start with sovereign bonds then there is am implied danger for Germany as it has the largest sector with negative yields. But if we switch to banking exposure then eyes turn to Italy because not only does it have a large relative national debt but its banks hold a relatively large proportion of it at 20%. They will have done rather well out of the ten-year yield falling by over 2% to 1.3% over the past year but is that the only way Italian banks make money these days? There is a reflection of this sort of thing below.

Very low interest rates, coupled with the large number of investors which have gradually increased the duration of their fixed income portfolios, could exacerbate potential losses if an abrupt repricing were to materialise in the medium-to-long run.

Tucked away is an arrow fired at Germany.

there is a strong case for governments with fiscal space to act in an effective and timely manner.

What about the banks?

Here we go.

Bank profitability concerns remain prominent. Bank profitability prospects have weakened against the backdrop of the deteriorating growth outlook  and the low interest rate environment, especially for banks also facing structural cost and income challenges (see Special Feature A).

Nobody seems to want to back them with their money.

Reflecting these concerns, euro area banks’ market valuations remain depressed with an average price-to-book ratio of around 0.6.

Although the ECB would not put it like this if this was a rock concert the headliner would be my old employer Deutsche Bank. It has a share price of 6.5 Euros which certainly must depress long-term shareholders who have consistently lost money. There have been rallies in this example of a bear market and well played if you have taken advantage but each time they have been followed by Alicia Keys on the stereo.

Oh, baby
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
Fall
I keep

This bit is both true and simply breathtaking!

Banks have made slow progress in addressing structural challenges to profitability.

If you have policies which are fertiliser for zombie banks then complaining about a march of the zombies is a bit much. In this area it is Halloween every day.

If you are wondering about Special Feature A so was I.

These banks all stand out in terms of elevated cost-to-income ratios. But there also appear to be three distinct groups: (i) banks struggling with legacy asset problems; (ii) banks with weak income-generation capacity; and (iii) banks suffering from a combination of cost and revenue-side problems.

We are told this is only for a “sub set” but point (iii) is plainly a generic issue in the Euro area banking sector. The proposed solution looks not a little desperate.

But in systems with many weak-performing small banks, consolidation within their domestic system could improve performance. Finally, a combination of bank-level restructuring and cross-border M&A activity could help reduce the costs and diversify the revenues of large banks that are performing poorly.

Consolidating the cajas in Spain and some of the smaller banks in Italy did reduce the number of banks in trouble but did not change the problem.There is a bit of shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic about this which turns to laughter as I consider “cross-border M&A activity”. Like RBS in the UK? That was one of the ways we got into this mess. One of the problems with banking right now is what do they diversify into?

On aggregate, euro area banks’ return on equity is expected to remain low, limiting the sector’s ability to increase resilience through retained earnings

Er well yes.

Should this all go wrong we will be told we were warned.

A banking system operating with significant overcapacity is also vulnerable to weak competitors driving down lending standards and an underpricing of risk.

Shadow Banking?

Some of the role of banks has moved elsewhere and of course there are plenty of issues for long-term savings in a negative interest-rate world.

After a slight decline in the last quarter of 2018, the total assets of investment funds (IFs), money market funds (MMFs), financial vehicle corporations, insurance corporations (ICs), pension funds (PFs) and other financial institutions gradually increased to almost €46 trillion in June 2019, and represented 56% of total financial sector assets.

Also what do you expect if you drive some corporate bond yields negative by buying so many of them?

But more recently, the low cost of market-based debt has supported a further increase in NFCs’ debt issuance – particularly of investment-grade bonds.

Can anybody remember a time when relying on bond ratings went wrong?

Negative interest-rates again.

As yields have fallen, non-bank financial intermediaries hold a growing share of low-yielding bonds, which decreases their investment income in the medium term and encourages risk-taking.

Comment

The press release is if we read between the lines quite damning.

Low interest rates support economic activity, but there can be side effects

Signs of excessive risk-taking in some sectors require monitoring and targeted macroprudential action in some countries

Banks have further increased resilience, but have made limited progress in improving profitability.

It is welcome that we are seeing some confession of central banking sins but it comes with something else I have noticed recently which is that ECB related accounts are taking the battle to social media.

Dear fellow German economists, if you are wondering what you can do for Europe: Please help to dispel the harmful & wrong narratives about the @ecb  ‘s monetary policy, floating around in political and media circles. These threaten the euro more than many other things.

That is from Isabel Schnabel who is the German government and Eurogroup approved candidate to be a new member on the ECB board. From the replies it is not going down too well but we can see clearly why she was appointed at least.

Me on The Investing Channel