The ECB “taper” meets “To infinity! And beyond!”

Yesterday was central banker day when we heard from Mark Carney of the Bank of England, Mario Draghi of the ECB and Janet Yellen of the US Federal Reserve. I covered the woes of Governor Carney yesterday and note that even that keen supporter of him Bloomberg is now pointing out that he is losing the debate. As it happened Janet Yellen was also giving a speech in London and gave a huge hostage to fortune.

Yellen today: “Don’t see another crisis in our lifetimes” Yellen May 2016: “We Didn’t See The Financial Crisis Coming” ( @Stalingrad_Poor )

Let us hope she is in good health and if you really wanted to embarrass her you would look at what she was saying in 2007/08. However the most significant speech came at the best location as the ECB has decamped to its summer break, excuse me central banking forum, at the Portuguese resort of Sintra.

Mario Draghi

As President Draghi enjoyed his morning espresso before giving his keynote speech he will have let out a sigh of relief that it was not about banking supervision. After all the bailout of the Veneto Banks in Italy would have come up and people might have asked on whose watch as Governor of the Bank of Italy the problems built up? Even worse one of the young economists invited might have wondered why the legal infrastructure covering the Italian banking sector is nicknamed the “Draghi Laws”?

However even in the area of monetary policy there are problems to be faced as I pointed out on the 13th of March.

It too is in a zone where ch-ch-changes are ahead. I have written several times already explaining that with inflation pretty much on target and economic growth having improved its rate of expansion of its balance sheet looks far to high even at the 60 billion Euros a month due in April.

Indeed on the 26th of May I noted that Mario himself had implicitly admitted as much.

As a result, the euro area is now witnessing an increasingly solid recovery driven largely by a virtuous circle of employment and consumption, although underlying inflation pressures remain subdued. The convergence of credit conditions across countries has also contributed to the upswing becoming more broad-based across sectors and countries. Euro area GDP growth is currently 1.7%, and surveys point to continued resilience in the coming quarters.

That simply does not go with an official deposit rate of -0.4% and 60 billion Euros a month of Quantitative Easing. Policy is expansionary in what is in Euro area terms a boom.

This was the first problem that Mario faced which is how to bask in the success of economic growth whilst avoiding the obvious counterpoint that policy is now wrong. He did this partly by indulging in an international comparison.

since January 2015 – that is, following the announcement of the expanded asset purchase programme (APP) – GDP
has grown by 3.6% in the euro area. That is a higher growth rate than in same period following QE1 or QE2 in the United States, and a percentage point lower than the period after QE3. Employment in the euro area has also risen by more than four million since we announced the expanded APP, comparable with both QE2 and QE3 in the US, and considerably higher than QE1.

You may note that Mario is picking his own variables meaning that unemployment for example is omitted as are differences of timing and circumstance. But on this road we got the section which had an immediate impact on financial markets.

The threat of deflation is gone and reflationary forces are at play.

So we got an implicit admittal that policy is pro-cyclical or if you prefer wrong. A reduction in monthly QE purchases of 20 billion a month is dwarfed by the change in circumstances. But we have to be told something is happening so there was this.

This more favourable balance of risks has been already reflected in our monetary policy stance, via the adjustments we have made to our forward guidance.

You have my permission to laugh at this point! If he went out into the streets of Sintra I wonder how many would know who he is let alone be running their lives to the tune of his Forward Guidance!? Whilst his Forward Guidance has not been quite the disaster of Mark Carney the sentence below shows a misfire.

This illustrates that core inflation does not
always give us a clear reading of underlying inflation dynamics.

The truth is as I have argued all along that there was no deflation threat in terms of a downwards spiral for inflation because it was driven by this.

Oil-related base effects are also the main driver of the considerable volatility in headline inflation that we have seen, and will be seeing, in the euro area………. As a result, in the first quarter of 2017, oil-sensitive items  were still holding back core inflation.

I guess the many parts of the media which have copy and pasted the core inflation/deflation theme will be hoping that their readers have a bout of amnesia. Or to put it another way that Mario has set up a straw (wo)man below.

What is clear is that our monetary policy measures have been successful in avoiding a deflationary spiral and securing the anchoring of inflation expectations.

Actually if you look elsewhere in his speech you will see that if you consider all the effort put in that in fact his policies had a relatively minor impact.

Between 2016 and 2019 we estimate that our monetary policy will have lifted inflation by 1.7 percentage points,
cumulatively.

So it took a balance sheet of 4.2 trillion Euros ( and of course rising as this goes to 2019) to get that? You can look at the current flow of 60 billion a month which makes it look a little better but it is not a lot of bang for your Euro.

Market Movements

There was a clear response to the mention of the word “reflationary” as the Euro rose strongly. It rose above 1.13 to the US Dollar as it continued the stronger  phase we have been seeing in 2017 as it opened the year more like 1.04.  Also government bond yields rose although the media reports of “jumps” made me smile as I noted that the German ten-year yield was only 0.4% and the two-year was -0.57%! Remember when the ECB promised it was fixing the issue of demand for German bonds?

Comment

On the surface this is a triumph for Forward Guidance as Mario’s speech tightens monetary policy via higher bond yields and a higher value for the Euro on the foreign exchanges. Yet if we go back to March 2014 he himself pointed out the flaw in this.

Now, as a rule of thumb, each 10% permanent effective exchange rate appreciation lowers inflation by around 40 to 50 basis points.

You see the effective or trade-weighted index dipped to 93.5 in the middle of April but was 97.2 at yesterday’s close. If we note that Mario is not achieving his inflation target and may be moving away from it we get food for thought.

Euro area annual inflation was 1.4% in May 2017, down from 1.9% in April.

So as the markets assume what might be called “tapering” ( in terms of monthly QE purchases) or “normalisation” in terms of interest-rates we can look further ahead and wonder if “To infinity! And Beyond!” will win? After all if the economy slows later this year  and inflation remains below target ………

There are two intangible factors here. Firstly the path of inflation these days depends mostly in the price of crude oil. Secondly whilst I avoid politics like the plague it is true that we will find out more about what the ECB really intends once this years major elections are done and dusted as the word “independent” gets another modification in my financial lexicon for these times

 

Of Denmark its banks and negative interest-rates

The situation regarding negative interest-rates mostly acquires attention via the Euro or the Yen. If the media moves beyond that it then looks at Switzerland and maybe Sweden. But there is an outbreak of negative interest-rates in the Nordic countries if we note that we have already covered Sweden, Finland is in the Euro and the often ignored Denmark has this.

Effective from 8 January 2016, Danmarks Nationalbank’s ( DNB ) interest rate on certificates of deposit is increased by 0.10 percentage point to -0.65 per cent.

Actually Denmark is just about to reach five years of negative interest-rates as it was in July of 2012 that the certificate of deposit rate was cut to -0.2% although it has not quite been continuous as it there were a few months that it rose to the apparently giddy heights of 0.05%.

In case you are wondering why Denmark has done this then there are two possible answers. Geography offers one as we note that proximity to the Euro area is associated with ever lower and indeed negative interest-rates. Actually due to its exchange rate policy Denmark is just about as near to being in the Euro as it could be without actually being so.

Denmark maintains a fixed-exchange-rate policy vis-à-vis the euro area and participates in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, ERM 2, at a central rate of 746.038 kroner per 100 euro with a fluctuation band of +/- 2.25 per cent.

Currently that involves an interest-rate that is -0.25% lower than in the Euro area but the margin does vary as for example when the interest-rate rose in 2014 when the DNB tried to guess what the ECB would do next and got it wrong.

A Problem

If we think of the Danish economy then we think of negative interest-rates being implemented due to weak economic growth. Well the DNB has had to face up to this.

However, the November revision stands out as an unusually large upward revision of the compilation of GDP level and
growth……… average annual GDP growth has now
been compiled at 1.3 per cent for the period 2010-
15, up from 0.8 per cent in the previous compilation.
GDP in volume terms is now 3.4 per cent higher in
2015 than previously compiled,

Ooops! As this begins before interest-rate went negative we have yet another question mark against highly activist monetary policy. The cause confirms a couple of the themes of this website.

new figures for Danish firms’ foreign
trading in which goods and services do not cross the
Danish border entailed substantial revisions

So the trade figures were wrong which is a generic statement across the world as they are both erratic and unreliable. Also such GDP shifts make suggestions like this from former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers look none too bright.

moving away from inflation targeting to something like nominal gross domestic product-level targeting would be a better idea.

In this situation he would be targeting a number which was later changed markedly, what could go wrong?

Also there is a problem for the DNB as we note that it has a negative interest-rate of -0.65% but faces an economy doing this.

heading towards a boom with output above the normal level of capacity utilisation……….The Danish economy is very close to its capacity limit.

Whatever happened to taking away the punchbowl as the party starts getting going?

Oh and below is an example of central banker speech not far off a sort of Comical Ali effort.

Despite the upward revision of GDP, Danmarks Nationalbank’s assessment of economic developments
since the financial crisis is basically unchanged.

The banks

This is of course “the precious” of the financial world which must be preserved at all costs according to central bankers. We were told that negative interest-rates would hurt the banks, how has that turned out? From Bloomberg.

Despite half a decade of negative interest rates, Denmark’s banks are making more money than ever before.

What does the DNB think?

Overall, the largest Danish banks achieved their
best ever performance in 2016, and their financial
statements for the 1st quarter of 2017 also recorded
sound profits…………In some areas, financial developments are similar to developments in the period up to the financial crisis in 2008, so there is every reason to watch out for
speed blindness.

Still no doubt the profits have gone towards making sure “this time is different”? Er, perhaps not.

On the other hand, the capital base has not increased notably since 2013, unlike in Norway and Sweden where the banks have higher capital adequacy.

What about house prices?

Both equity prices and prices of owner-occupied
homes have soared, as they did in the years prior to
the financial crisis.

Although the DNB is keen to emphasise a difference.

As then, prices of owner-occupied homes in Copenhagen have risen considerably, but with the difference that the price rises have not yet spread to the rest of Denmark to the same degree. The prices of rental properties have also increased and are back at the 2007 level immediately before
the financial crisis set in

It will have been relieved to note a dip in house price inflation to 4.2% at the end of 2016 although perhaps less keen on the fact that house prices are back to the levels which caused so much trouble pre credit crunch. Of course the banking sector will be happy with higher house prices as it improves their asset book whereas first-time buyers will be considerably less keen as prices move out of reach.

In spite of the efforts of the DNB I note that the Danes have in fact been reining in their borrowing. If we look at the negative interest-rate era we see that the household debt to GDP ratio has fallen from 135% to 120% showing that your average Dane is not entirely reassured by developments. A more sensible strategy than that employed by some of the smaller Danish banks who failed the more extreme version of the banking stress tests.

A Space Oddity

Politician’s the world over say the most ridiculous things and here is the Danish version.

Denmark should cut taxes to encourage people to work more, which would increase the supply of labour and help prevent the economy from overheating in 2018, Finance Minister Kristian Jensen said…

So we fix overheating by putting our foot on the accelerator?

Comment

If we look wider than we have so far today we see that international developments should be boosting the Danish economy in 2017. This mostly comes from the fact that the Euro area economy is having a better year which should boost the Danish trade figures if this from the Copenhagen News is any guide.

Denmark has been ranked seventh in the new edition of the World Competitiveness Yearbook for 2017, which has just published by the Swiss business school IMD.

But if we allow for the upwards revision to growth we see that monetary policy is extraordinarily expansionary for an economy which seems to be growing steadily ( 0.6% in Q1) . What would they do in a slow down?

We also learn a few things about negative interest-rates. Firstly the banking sector has done rather well out of them – presumably by a combination of raising margins and central bank protection as we have discussed on here frequently – and secondly they did not turn out to be temporary did they?

Yet as we see so often elsewhere some events do challenge the official statistics. From the Copenhagen Post.

Aarhus may be enjoying ample wind in its sails by being the European Capital of Culture this year, but not everything is jovial in the ‘City of Smiles’.

On average, the Danish aid organisation Kirkens Korshær has received 211 homeless every day in Aarhus from March 2016-March 2017, an increase of 42 percent compared to the previous year, where the figure was 159.

Portugal

Let me offer my deepest sympathies to all those affected by that dreadful forest fire yesterday.

The problems of the banks of Italy part 101

It is time to look again at a topic which is a saga of rinse and repeat. Okay I am not sure it is part 101 but it certainly feels like a never-ending story. Let us remind ourselves that the hands of the current President of the ECB ( European Central Bank) Mario Draghi are all over this situation. Why? Well let me hand you over to the ECB itself on his career so far.

1997-1998: Chair of the Committee set up to revise Italy’s corporate and financial legislation and to draft the law that governs Italian financial markets (also known as the “Draghi Law”)

It is a bit awkward to deny responsibility for the set of laws which bear you name! This happened during the period ( 1991-2001) that Mario was Director General of the Italian Treasury. After a period at the Vampire Squid ( Goldman Sachs) there was further career progression.

2006-October 2011Governor, Banca d’Italia

There were also questions about the close relationship and dealings between the Italian Treasury and the Vampire Squid over currency swaps.

https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2010/02/09/145201/goldmans-trojan-greek-currency-swap/?mhq5j=e2

But with Mario linking the Bank of Italy and the ECB via his various roles the latest spat in the banking crisis saga must be more than an embarrassment.

The inspection at Banca Popolare di Vicenza that began in 2015 was launched at the request of the Bank of Italy and was conducted by Bank of Italy personnel. Any subsequent decisions were not the responsibility of the Bank of Italy but of the European Central Bank, because in November 2014 Banca Popolare di Vicenza had become a ‘significant’ institution and was subject to the European Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM). ( h/t @FerdiGiugliano )

So we can see that the Bank of Italy is trying to shift at least some of the blame for one of the troubled Veneto banks to the ECB. At this point Shaggy should be playing on its intercom system.

It wasn’t me…….It wasn’t me

An official denial

At the end of last month the Governor of the Bank of Italy gave us its Annual Report.

At the end of 2016 Italian banks’ non-performing loans, recorded in balance sheets net of write-downs, came to €173 billion or 9.4 per cent of total loans. The €350 billion figure often cited in the press refers to the nominal value of the exposures and does not take account of the losses already entered in balance sheets and is therefore not indicative of banks’ actual credit risk.

Indeed he went further.

Those held by intermediaries experiencing difficulties, which could find themselves obliged to offload them rapidly, amount to around €20 billion.

I suppose your view on this depends on whether you think that 20 billion Euros is a lot or a mere bagatelle. It makes you wonder why the problems at the Veneto banks and Monte Paschi seem to be taking so long to solve does it not?

Meanwhile he did indicate a route to what Taylor Swift might call “Trouble, trouble,trouble”.

At the current rate of growth, GDP would return to its 2007 level in the first half of the 2020s.

An economy performing as insipidly as that is bound to cause difficulties for its banks, but not so for the finances of its central bank.

The 2016 financial year closed with a net profit of €2.7 billion; after allocations to the ordinary reserve and dividends paid to the shareholders, €2.2 billion were allocated to the State, in addition to the €1.3 billion paid in taxes.

The QE era has seen a boom in the claimed profits for central banks and as you can see they will be very popular with politician’s as they hand them over cash to spend.

The ECB is pouring money in

The obvious problem with telling us everything is okay is that Governor Visco is part of the ECB which is pouring money into the Italian banks. From the Financial Times.

According to ECB data as of the end of April, Italian banks hold just over €250bn of the total long-term loans — almost a third of the total.

There is a counter argument that the situation where the Italian banks rely so much on the ECB has in fact simply kicked that poor battered can down the road.

“Some of them [Italian banks] are unprofitable even with the ECB’s cheap funding,” adds Christian Scarafia, co-head of Western European Banks at Fitch.

Fitch also observes that the TLTRO funding is tied up with Italy’s management of the non-performing loans that beset its banks. “The weak asset quality in Italy is certainly the big issue in the country and access to cheap ECB funding has meant that banks could continue to operate without having to address the asset quality problem in a more decisive manner,” says Mr Scarafia. (FT)

It was intriguing to note that the Spanish bank BBVA declared 36 million Euros of profits in April from the -0.2% interest-rate on its loans from the ECB. A good use of taxpayer backed money?

The Veneto Banks

For something that is apparently no big deal and according to Finance Minister Padoan has been “exaggerated” this keeps returning to the news as this from Reuters today shows.

Italian banks are considering assisting in a rescue of troubled lenders Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca by pumping 1.2 billion euros (1.1 billion pounds) of private capital into the two regional banks, sources familiar with the matter said.

Good money after bad?

Italian banks, which have already pumped 3.4 billion euros into the two ailing rivals, had said until now that they would not stump up more money.

As you can see the ball keeps being batted between the banks, the state , and the Atlante fund which is a mostly private hybrid of bank money with some state support. Such confusion and obfuscation is usually for a good reason. A bail in has the problem of the retail depositors who were persuaded to invest in bank bonds.

Monte Paschi

On the 2nd of this month we were told that the problem had been solved and yet the saga like so many others continues on.

HEDGE FUND SAID IN TALKS TO BUY $270 MILLION MONTEPASCHI LOANS ( h/t @lemasabachthani )

Seems odd if it has been solved don’t you think? Mind you according to the FT the European Banking Authourity may have found a way of keeping it out of the news.

The EBA said it would be up to supervisors to decide whether to include any bank in restructuring within the stress tests, and European Central Bank supervisors have decided not to include Monte dei Paschi, people briefed on the matter said.

So bottom place is available again.

Comment

This has certainly been more of a marathon than a sprint and in fact maybe like a 100 or 200 mile race. The Italian establishment used to boast that only 0.2% of GDP was used to bailout Italian banks but of course it is now absolutely clear that this effort to stop its national debt rising even higher allowed the banking sector to carry on in the same not very merry way. This week the environment has changed somewhat with Santander buying Banco Popular for one Euro. Although of course the capital raising of 7 billion Euros needs to be factored into the equation. I guess Unicredit has troubles enough of its own and could not reasonably go for yet another rights issue!

Me on TipTV Finance

http://tiptv.co.uk/living-extraordinary-times-not-yes-man-economics/

 

The British and Irish Lions

I have been somewhat remiss in not wishing our players well on what is the hardest rugby tour of all which is a trip into the heart of the All Blacks. I am thoroughly enjoying it although of course we need to raise our game after a narrow win and a loss. Here’s hoping!

 

 

 

Will 2017 see an economic rennaisance for France?

This morning has opened with some better economic news for France as GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) growth was revised higher.

In Q1 2017, GDP in volume terms* rose barely less fast (+0.4%) than in Q4 2016 (+0.5%).

The French statistical service have put in it downbeat fashion and you have to read to the end to spot it as it is right at the bottom.

The GDP growth for Q1 2017 is raised from +0.3% to +0.4%.

There was also a good sign in the fact that investment was strong.

In Q1 2017, total GFCF accelerated sharply (+1.2% after +0.5%), especially that of enterprises (+1.9% after +0.9%)……Investment in manufactured goods was more dynamic (+1.6% after +0.4%), notably in equipment goods. Similarly, GFCF in market services accelerated sharply (+1.9% after +0.7%), notably in information-communication and business services.

However it was not a perfect report as there were signs of what you might call the British problem as trade problems subtracted from the growth.

Exports fell back in Q1 2017 (−0.8% after +1.0%), especially in transport equipment and “other manufactured goods”. Imports accelerated (+1.4% after +0.6%)………..All in all, foreign trade balance weighed down on GDP growth by −0.7 points, after a contribution of +0.1 points in the previous quarter.

If we look back there may be an issue building here as import growth was 4.2% in 2016 which considerably exceeded export growth at 2.1%. So it may well be true that the French are getting more like the British which is something of an irony in these times.

You may be wondering how there was any economic growth after the net trade deficit and that is because inventories swung the other way and offset it.

In Q1 2017, the contribution of changes in inventories to GDP growth amounted to +0.7 points (after −0.2 points at the end of 2016). They increased especially in transport equipment and “other industrial goods” (pharmaceuticals, metallurgy and chemicals).

The optimistic view on this is that French businesses are stocking up for a good 2017 with the danger being that any disappointment would subtract for growth later this year.

Also as feels so common in what we consider to be the first world the manufacturing industry continues to struggle.

Manufacturing output fell back (−0.2% after +0.7%), mainly due to a sharp decline in the coke and refined petroleum branch and a slowdown in transport equipment.

Looking ahead

The good news is that the private-sector business surveys are very optimistic at the moment.

The latest PMI data points to further strong growth momentum in the French private sector, with the expansion quickening to a six-year peak.

Of course France has been in a rough patch so that may not be as good as it reads or sounds so let us look further.

The service sector saw activity increase for the eleventh time in as many months. Moreover, the rate of expansion accelerated to a six-year high and was sharp overall. Manufacturing output also continued to rise markedly, albeit to a fractionally weaker extent than in April.

As you can see the service sector is pulling the economy forwards and manufacturing is growing as well according to the survey. Unusually Markit do not make a GDP prediction from this but we can if we note they think this for the Euro area which has a lower reading than France.

consistent with 0.6- 0.7% GDP growth.

So let us say 0.7% then and also remind ourselves that it has not been common in recent years for there to be an expectation that France will outperform its Euro area peers.

However this morning’s official survey on households did come with a worrying finale to the good news stream.

In May 2017, households’ confidence in the economic situation has improved anew after a four-month stability: the synthetic index has gained 2 points, reaching 102, above its long-term average and at its highest level since August 2007.

What could go wrong?

Unemployment

This has been the Achilles heel for France in the credit crunch era but this too has seen some better news.

In Q1 2017, the average ILO unemployment rate in metropolitan France and the overseas departments (excluding Mayotte) stood at 9.6% of active population, after 10.0% in Q4 2016.

The good news is that we see the unemployment rate finally fall into single digits. The bad news is that it mostly seems to be people who have given up looking for work.

The activity rate of people aged 15-64 stood at 71.4% in Q1 2017. It decreased by 0.3 percentage points compared to the previous quarter and a year earlier.

The business surveys are optimistic that employment is now improving as we see here.

Bolstered by strong client demand, French private sector firms raised their staffing numbers in May, thereby continuing a trend that has been evident since November last year. Furthermore, the rate of job creation quickened to a 69-month high.

Monetary policy

Yesterday we heard from ECB ( European Central Bank ) President Mario Draghi and he opened with some bombast.

Real GDP in the euro area has expanded for 16 consecutive quarters, growing by 1.7% year-on-year during the first quarter of 2017. Unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since 2009. Consumer and business sentiment has risen to a six-year high,

You might be wondering about monetary policy after such views being expressed but in fact we got this.

For domestic price pressures to strengthen, we still need very accommodative financing conditions, which are themselves dependent on a fairly substantial amount of monetary accommodation.

Is that a Tom Petty style full speed ahead and “Damn The Torpedoes”? For now perhaps but there are two other influences. In terms of a tactical influence Mario Draghi will have noted the rise of the Euro since it bottomed versus the US Dollar in December last year and would prefer it to be lower than the 1.12 it has risen to. Also more strategically as we have discussed on here before he will be waiting for the Euro area elections to pass before making any real change of course in my opinion. That leaves us mulling once again the concept of an independent central banker as we note that economic growth is on the upswing in election year.

Thus France finds itself benefiting from 293.7 billion Euros of sovereign bond purchases meaning it can issue and be paid for it out to around the 6 years maturity and only pay 0.74% on ten-year bonds. This is a considerable help to the fiscal situation and the government. In addition there are the corporate bond purchases and the covered bond purchases to help the banks. The latter gets so little publicity for the 232 billion Euros on the ECB’s books. Plus we have negative interest-rates and a Euro exchange rate pushed lower.

Has monetary policy ever been so expansionary at this stage of the economic cycle?

House prices

There was some further news to warm the cockles of Mario Draghi’s heart this morning.

In Q1 2017, the prices of second-hand dwellings kept increasing: +1.9% compared to the previous quarter (provisional seasonally adjusted results). The increase is virtually similar for flats (+1.9%) and for houses (+1.8%).

Over a year, the increase in prices was confirmed and strengthened: +3.0% compared to Q1 2016 after +1.5% the quarter before.

Up until now we have seen very little house price inflation in France and whilst the rate is relatively low it does look to be on the rise which represents a clear change. If you add this to the house price rises in Germany that I analysed on the 8th of this month then the ECB will be pleased if first-time buyers will not be.

Comment

It looks as though France is in a better phase of economic growth. This is certainly needed as we look at the unemployment rate issue but there is also another factor as this from French statistics indicates.

 2016 (GDP growth unchanged, at +1.1% WDA), 2015 (−0.2 points at +1.0%) and 2014 (+0.3 points at +1.0%)

As you can see the annual rate of economic growth has been essentially 1% as we note something of a reshuffle in the timing. Indeed in spite of a better couple of quarters the current annual rate of economic growth in France is you guessed it 1%! Somehow 1% became the new normal as we wait and hope for better news as 2017 develops. Should we get that then at this stage of the cycle I fear we may then be shifting to how long can it last?!

 

 

What next for the world of negative interest-rates?

There were supposed to be two main general economic issues for 2017. The first was the return of inflation as the price of crude oil stopped being a strong disinflationary force. The second was that we would see a rise in interest-rates and bond yields as we saw an economic recovery combined with the aforementioned inflation. This was described as the “reflation” scenario and the financial trade based on it was to be short bonds. However we have seen a rise in inflation to above target in the UK and US and to just below it in the Euro area but the bond market and interest-rate move has been really rather different.

Negative Official Interest-Rates

Euro area

These are still around particularly in Europe where the main player is the European Central Bank. This plays out in three main areas as it has an official deposit rate of -0.4%, it also has its long-term refinancing operations where banks have been able to borrow out to the early 2020s at an interest-rate that can also be as low as -0.4% plus of course purchasing sovereign bonds at negative yields. So whilst the rate of monthly bond purchases has fallen to 60 billion Euros a month the envelope of negative interest-rates is still large in spite of the economic recovery described earlier this week by ECB President Draghi.

As a result, the euro area is now witnessing an increasingly solid recovery driven largely by a virtuous circle of employment and consumption, although underlying inflation pressures remain subdued. The convergence of credit conditions across countries has also contributed to the upswing becoming more broad-based across sectors and countries. Euro area GDP growth is currently 1.7%, and surveys point to continued resilience in the coming quarters.

Indeed the economic optimism was turned up another notch by the Markit PMI business surveys on Tuesday.

The PMI data indicate that eurozone growth remained impressively strong in May. Business activity is expanding at its fastest rate for six years so far in the second quarter, consistent with 0.6- 0.7% GDP growth. The consensus forecast of 0.4% second quarter growth could well prove overly pessimistic………

That is better than “resilience” I think.

Sweden

This is one of the high fortresses of negative interest-rates as you can see from the latest announcement.

The Executive Board decided to extend the purchases of government bonds by SEK 15 billion during the second half of 2017 and to hold the repo rate unchanged at −0.50 per cent. The repo rate is now not expected to be raised until mid-2018, which is slightly later than in the previous forecast.

As you can see a move away from the world of negative interest-rates seems to have moved further into the distance rather than get nearer. If you look at the economic situation then you may quite reasonably wonder what is going on here?

Swedish economic activity is good and is expected to strengthen further over the next few years. Confidence indicators show that households and companies are optimistic and demand for exports is strong. The economic upturn means that the demand for labour is still strong.

We do not have the numbers for the first quarter but we do know that GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) increased by 1% in the last quarter of 2016. If you read the statement below then it gets ever harder to justify the current official interest-rate.

Rising mortgage debt is a serious threat to Sweden’s economy while regulators need to introduce tougher measures to strengthen banks against future shocks, the central bank said in its semi-annual stability report, published on Wednesday………Swedish house prices have doubled over the last decade. Apartment prices have tripled. Household debt levels – in relation to disposable income – are among the highest in Europe.

Switzerland

The Swiss National Bank feels trapped by the pressure on the Swiss Franc.

The Swiss franc is still significantly overvalued. The negative interest rate and the SNB’s willingness to intervene in the foreign exchange market are necessary and appropriate to ease pressure on the Swiss franc. Negative interest has at least partially restored the traditional interest rate differential against other countries.

You may note that they are pointing the blame pretty much at the ECB and the Euro for the need to have an interest-rate of -0.75% ( strictly a range between -0.25% and -1.25%).

Denmark

As you can see Denmark’s Nationalbank has not moved this year either.

Effective from 8 January 2016, Danmarks Nationalbank’s interest rate on certificates of deposit is increased by 0.10 percentage point to -0.65 per cent.

The 2016 move left it a little exposed when the ECB cut again later than year but it remains firmly in negative interest-rate territory.

Japan

Until now we have been looking at issues surrounding the Euro both geographically and economically but we need to go a lot further east to see the -0.1% interest-rate of the Bank of Japan. Added to that is its policy of bond purchases where it aims to keep the ten-year yield at approximately 0%. So there is no great sign of a change here either.

 

The United States

Here of course we have seen an effort to move interest-rates to a move positive level but so far we have not seen that much and it has not been followed by any of the other major central banks. Indeed one central bank which is normally synchronised with it is the Bank of England but it cut interest-rates and expanded its balance sheet last August so it has headed in the opposite direction this time around.

This theme has been reflected in the US bond market where we saw a rise in yields when President Trump was elected but I note now that not much has happened since. The ten-year Treasury Note now yields around 2.25% which is pretty much where it was back then. We did see a rise to above 2.6% but that faded away as events moved on. Even the prospect of a beginning of an unwinding of all of the bond holdings of the Federal Reserve does not seem to have had much impact. That seems extraordinarily sanguine to me but there are two further factors which are at play. One is that investors do not believe this will happen on any great scale and also that there is no rule book or indeed much experience of how bond markets behave when a central bank looks for the exit.

How much?

There was a time when we were regularly updated on the size of the negative yielding bond universe whereas that has faded but there is this from Fitch Ratings in early March.

Rising long-term sovereign bond yields across the eurozone contributed to a decline in outstanding negative yielding sovereign debt to $8.6 trillion as of March 1 from $9.1 trillion near year-end 2016.

The fall such as it was seemed to be in longer dated maturities.

The total of negative-yielding sovereign debt with remaining maturities of greater than seven years fell significantly to $0.5 trillion as of Mar. 1 from over $2.6 trillion on June 27 2016.

Since then German bond yields have moved only a little so the general picture looks not to be much different.

Comment

I wanted to point out today the fact that whilst it feels like the economic world has moved on in 2017 in fact the negative interest-rate and yield story has changed a lot less than we might have thought. It has fallen out of the media spotlight and perceptions but it has remained as a large iceberg floating around.

One of my themes has been that we will find out more about the economic effects of negative interest-rates as more time passes. Accordingly I noted this from VoxEU yesterday.

Banks throughout the Eurozone are reluctant to cut retail deposit rates below zero, wary of possible client reactions

That has remained true as time has passed and it seems ever clearer that the banking sector is afraid of a type of deposit flight should they offer less than 0% on ordinary retail savings. That distinguishes it from institutional or pension markets where as we have discussed before there have been lots of negative yields and interest-rates. Also if we look at average deposit rates there remain quite large differences in the circumstances.

For example, the average rate on Belgian deposits has dropped to 0.03%. If Belgians took their money across the border, they could get almost ten times that in the Netherlands (0.28%). In France even, rates average 0.43%.

If we move to household borrowing rates we see that there are much wider discrepancies as we wonder if at this level we can in fact call this one monetary policy?

The Finns borrow against 1.8%, the Irish pay 3.6%

Some of the differences are down to different preferences but as the Irish borrowing is more likely to be secured ( mortgages) you might reasonably expect them to be paying less. Oh and as a final point as we move to borrowing we note that rates are a fair distance from the official ones meaning that the banks yet again have a pretty solid margin in their favour, which is somewhat contrary to what we keep being told.

Greece, how long can it keep going like this?

Today’s topic reminds me of the famous quote by Karl Marx.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

Sadly Karl did not tell us what to do on the 4th,5th and 6th occasions of the same thing as I note the news from Reuters on Friday.

The legislation contains more austerity measures, including pension cuts and a higher tax burden that will go into effect in 2019-20 to ensure a primary budget surplus, excluding debt servicing outlays, of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product.

This sounds so so familiar doesn’t it which of course poses its own problem in the circumstances. This continues if we look at the detail.

The income tax exemption is reduced to 5,600-5,700 euros from 8,600 euros to generate revenues of about 1.9 billion euros. The lower threshold will mean an increased tax burden of about 650 euros for taxpayers.

Up to 18 percent cuts in main and supplementary pensions and freezing of benefits thereafter until 2022. The cuts will result in savings of 2.3 billion euros.

I do not know about you but if I was raising taxes in Greece I would not be raising them on the poorest as lowering the lower income tax threshold will hit them disproportionately. After all it was the very rich who helped precipitate this crisis by not paying tax not the poor. But the underlying principle’s are pretty much what we have seen since the spring of 2010 especially if we add in this part.

Sale of stakes in railways, Thessaloniki port, Athens International Airport, Hellenic Petroleum and real estate assets to generate targeted privatization revenue of 2.15 billion euros this year and 2.07 billion euros in 2018.

This reminds me of the original target which was for 50 billion Euros of revenue from privatisations by 2015. As you can see the objectives are much smaller now after all the failures in this area and of course these days assets in Greece have a much lower price due to the economic depression which has raged for the last 7 years. Back then for example the General Index at the Athens Stock Exchange was around 1500 as opposed to just below 800 now suggesting that this is yet another area where Greek finances are chasing their tail.

The same result?

Last week saw yet more sad economic news from Greece.

The available seasonally adjusted data indicate that in the 1 st quarter of 2017 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 0.1% in comparison with the 4 th quarter of 2016, while it decreased by 0.5% in comparison with the 1 st quarter of 2016. ( Greece Statistics).

This meant that yet another recession had begun which will be a feature of the ongoing economic depression. Another feature of this era has been the official denials an example of which from the 8th of March is below.

Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was confident that the times of recession were over and that “Greece has returned back to growth” as he told his cabinet ministers……..After seven years of recession, Greece has returned to positive growth rates he underlined.

He was not alone as European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici was regularly telling us that the Greek economy had recovered. This means that as we look at the period of austerity where such people have regularly trumpeted success the reality is that the Greek economy has collapsed. The scale of this collapse retains the power to shock as the peak pre credit crunch quarterly economic output of 63.3 billion Euros ( 2010 prices) fell to 59 billion in 2010 which led to the Euro area stepping in. However rather than the promised boom with economic growth returning in 2012 and then continuing at 2%+ as forecast the economy collapsed in that year at an annual rate of between 8% and 10% and as of the opening of 2017 quarterly GDP was 45.8 billion Euros.

What is astonishing is that even after all the mishaps of 2015 with the bank run and monetary crisis there has been no recovery so far. The downwards cycle of austerity, economic collapse and then more austerity continues in a type of Status Quo.

Again again again again, again again again again

The Time Problem

The problem here is simply how long this has gone on for added to the fact that things are still getting worse or at best holding station in economic output terms. This means that numbers like those below have become long-term issues.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in February 2017 was 23.2% compared to 23.9% in February 2016 and the downward revised 23.3% in January 2017.

It is nice to see a fall but falls at the rate of 0.9% per annum would mean the unemployment rate would still be around 20% at the end of the decade following the “rescue” programme which I sincerely hope is not the “shock and awe” that Christine Lagarde proclaimed back then. If we move to the individual level there must be a large group of people who now are completely out of touch with what it means to work. I see a sign of this in the 25-34 age group where unemployment was 30.4% in February compared to 29.3% in the same month in 2012. This looks like a consequence of the young unemployed ( rate still 47.9%) simply getting older. As the female unemployment rate is higher I dread to think what the situation is for young women.

Meanwhile tractor production continues its rise apparently according to the German Finance Minister.

Schaeuble: Reforms Agreed By Greece Are Remarkable, Goal Is To Get Greece Competitive, It Is Not There Yet ( @LiveSquawk )

It reminds me of last summer’s hit song “7 Years” but after all this time if we had seen reform things would be better. The fact is that there has been so little of it. Putting it another way the IMF ( International Monetary Fund) has completely failed in what used to be its objective which was helping with Balance of Payments crises. Even after all the economic pain described above the Bank of Greece has reported this today.

Mar C/A deficit at €1.32 bln from €772.4 mln last year, 3-month C/A deficit at €2.53 bln from €2.37 bln last year ( h/t Macropolis )

QE for Greece

This is being presented as a type of solution but there are more than a few issues here. Firstly the reform one discussed above as Greece does not qualify. But also there is little gain for a country where its debt is so substantially in official hands anyway and the bodies involved ( ESM, EFSF) let Greece borrow so cheaply for so long. In fact ever more cheaply and ever longer as each debt crunch arrives. It would likely end up paying more for its debt in a QE world where it issues on its own and the ECB buys it later! So it could be proclaimed as a political triumph but quickly turn into a financial disaster especially as the ECB is likely to continue to taper the programme.

Also people seem to have forgotten that the ECB did buy a lot of Greek debt but more recently has been offloading it to other Euro area bodies who have treated Greece better than it did. One set of possible winners is holders of Greek government bonds right now who have had a good 2017 as prices have risen and yields fallen and good luck to them. But the media which trumpets this seems to have forgotten the bigger picture here and that if the hedge funds sell these at large profits to the ECB then the taxpayer has provided them with profits one more time.

Comment

So we arrive at yet another Eurogroup meeting on Greece and its problems. It is rather familiar that the economy is shrinking and the debt has grown again to 326.5 billion Euros in the first quarter of this year. There will be the usual proclamations of help and assistance but at the next meeting things are invariably worse. Is there any hope?

Well there is this from Greek Reporter.

The size of Greece’s underground economy — where transactions take place out of the radar of tax authorities — is estimated to be about one quarter of the country’s official GDP, according to University of Macedonia Professor Vassilis Vlachos….. Among the main factors contributing to the shadow economy increase, according to Vlachos, is the citizens’ sense that the tax burden is not distributed fairly and that there is a poor return in term of public services, as well as inadequate tax inspections……Based on the findings of the survey, participation in the shadow economy is at 60 percent for the general population and rises to 71.6 percent among the unemployed.

If he is correct then this is of course yet another fail for the Troika/Institutions. As to the official data there are some flickers of hope such as the recent industry figures and retail sales so let us cross our fingers.

 

Germany the currency manipulator?

Today gives us an opportunity to look again at the German economy. As we do so we see yet another situation where conventional analysis and media reporting is flawed. So often we read that Germany has in some way been defeated in its efforts to direct the policies of the ECB ( European Central Bank). The evidence for that are the regular bursts of rhetoric from the German Bundesbank against the policies of negative interest-rates and a balance sheet of the order of 4.5 trillion Euros. However this to my mind ignores a much larger victory Germany gained when it joined the Euro because it has achieved for itself a much lower and therefore more competitive exchange rate. It did so in a way which has avoided the barrage of “currency manipulator” allegations that have been fired at others because it was a type of stealth effort.

Also the impact of this move has been heightened by the credit crunch era. We find evidence for this if we look at Switzerland and the Swiss Franc which of the currencies we have is the most similar. How is it doing? Well let me hand you over to the Swiss National Bank. From Reuters yesterday.

The Swiss National Bank’s (SNB) policy of negative interest rates is not ideal but is nevertheless necessary in order to weaken Switzerland’s “significantly overvalued” currency, Chairman Thomas Jordan said on Thursday…………Jordan said negative interest rates, along with the central bank’s willingness to intervene in the currency were absolutely necessary in order to protect exporters from a stronger Swiss franc, which is a safe-haven currency in times of market stress.

So if the Swiss Franc is a safe haven currency what would a German Deutschmark be if it existed? I think we can be sure that its value would have soared in recent times which leads me back to the competitive advantage point. There is also an irony as we note that on Switzerland’s road Germany would have had negative interest-rates anyway and maybe more negative than now. Ouch! We find ourselves in some strange places these days. Also would it now be a hedge fund manager as it tried to find somewhere to put its currency reserves? This week raised a wry smile as Apple passed the US $150 mark as I thought that the Swiss National Bank would be one of those most pleased via its holdings. I guess if you have 695.9 billion Swiss Francs they burn a hole in your pocket or something like that.

The trade surplus

The opening paragraph of Tuesday’s trade figures hammer home a consequence of this.

Germany exported goods to the value of 118.2 billion euros and imported goods to the value of 92.9 billion euros in March 2017. These are the highest monthly figures ever reported for both exports and imports. Based on provisional data, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that German exports increased by 10.8% and imports by 14.7% in March 2017 year on year.

So if you are looking for evidence of a lower currency leading to trade advantages it is hard to miss the persistent surpluses of Germany.

The foreign trade balance showed a surplus of 25.4 billion euros in March 2017. In March 2016, the surplus amounted to 25.8 billion euros. In calendar and seasonally adjusted terms, the foreign trade balance recorded a surplus of 19.6 billion euros in March 2017.

Indeed the statistics agency has an in focus highlight which rams this home.

According to Eurostat data, Germany had the highest export surplus among EU countries (257 billion euros) in 2016, as was the case in the previous years. Germany exported goods totalling 1,210 billion euros while the value of imports was 953 billion euros. Compared with the previous year, the export surplus rose by roughly 3% – in 2015, it had been 248 billion euros.

Interestingly we see that the idea of the Euro area having a large trade  surplus is true but that the vast majority of it is Germany as it was 257 billion out of 272 billion Euros in 2016.

Bond yields

The other gain for Germany from a combination of ECB policy and the credit crunch era is the extraordinary low level of interest it has to pay to issue new debt. Indeed this has frequently been negative in recent times meaning that Germany has been paid to issue its debt.  Some of that is still true as for example the yield on its five-year benchmark bond is -0.31% as I type this.

Even if it were to borrow for ten years then Germany would only have to pay 0.41% which I cannot say often enough is extraordinarily low. So it has clearly benefited from the 368 billion Euros of purchases of German debt by the ECB as we mull if there was a country which needed them less?

The catch is that it is mostly the German government that has benefited as it looks to run a fiscal surplus. As to the ordinary German well as I pointed out earlier this week first-time buyers will be much less keen as the easy monetary policy of recent years has led to something of a house price boom in Germany.

GDP and economic output

This morning’s official GDP data had a familiar drumbeat to it.

In addition, the development of foreign trade was more dynamic and contributed to growth as exports increased more than imports, according to provisional results.

The quarterly number was good and this impression was reinforced by the breakdown of the numbers.

. In the first quarter of 2017, the gross domestic product (GDP) rose 0.6% on the fourth quarter of 2016 after adjustment for price, seasonal and calendar variations……. Capital formation increased substantially. Due to the mild weather, fixed capital formation especially in construction, but also in machinery and equipment was markedly up compared with the fourth quarter of 2016.

Is the weather allowed to be a positive influence? Only in Germany perhaps as elsewhere its role invariably is to take the blame. There is an undercut to this though as we mull the individual experience and note that economic growth over the past year was 1.7%.

The economic performance in the first quarter of 2017 was achieved by 43.7 million persons in employment, which was an increase of 638,000 or 1.5% on a year earlier.

So whilst the employment rise is welcome we see that it very nearly matches the level of economic growth. Also if we look back to the data we are left wondering if the construction investment boom is related to the house price boom and the UK economic model is being copied to some extent.

Comment

The economic outlook remains bright for Germany if the Markit business or PMI surveys are any guide.

IHS Markit expects German economic growth to strengthen to 0.7% qr/qr in the first quarter, and the April PMI provides an early signal that expansion will remain strong in the second quarter.

So something along the lines of more of the same is expected although of course that was only one month of this quarter. If we look at the overall situation let us use a type of Good Germany: Bad Germany type of analysis that mimics Italy.

The good sees that the reforms of the past have enabled Germany to expand its economy post credit crunch such that GDP  reached 110. 02 last year compared to 101.66 in 2008. It has a substantial trade surplus and these days has an internationally rare fiscal surplus.

The trouble is that some of the latter points are also part of Bad Germany as we see how its adoption of the Euro has helped feed its trade surplus via a more competitive exchange rate. Also there is the issue that one of the problems pre credit crunch was world imbalances and the German trade surplus was one of them. Within the Euro area some will wonder if it would be helped by less fiscal austerity. Then we get to the issue of comparing the rise in employment with GDP growth, is Germany like the rest of us struggling for productivity growth with its implications for wages? Also as I pointed out earlier this week the rise in house prices will make first-time buyers wonder if they are indeed better off?