The ECB faces a growing policy dilemma

Today I want to look at what was one of the earliest themes of this blog which is that central banks will dither and delay before they reduce their policy easing and accommodation. Or to put it another way they will be too late because they are afraid of moving too soon and being given the blame should the economy hic-cup or turn downwards. Back in the day I did not realise how far central banks would go with the Bank of Japan seemingly only limited by how many assets there are in existence in Japan as it chomps on government bonds and acts as a Tokyo whale in equity markets. Actually it has made yet more announcements today including this from Governor Kuroda according to Marketwatch.

“There is not much likelihood that we will further lower the negative rate” from the current minus 0.1%, Kuroda said in parliament, citing Japan’s accelerating growth.

Last time he said something like that he cut them 8 days later if I recall correctly!

However the focus right now is on Europe and in particular on the ECB ( European Central Bank). as it faces the policy exit question I posed on the 19th of January.

If we look at the overall picture we see that 2017 poses quite a few issues for central banks as they approach the stage which the brightest always feared. If you come off it will the economy go “cold turkey” or merely have some withdrawal systems? What if the future they have borrowed from emerges and is worse than otherwise?

What has changed?

Yesterday brought news on economic prospects which will have simultaneously cheered and worried Mario Draghi and the ECB. It started with France.

The Markit Flash France Composite Output Index, based on around 85% of normal monthly survey replies, registered 56.2, compared to January’s reading of 54.1. The latest figure pointed to the sharpest rate of growth since May 2011.

Welcome news indeed and considering the ongoing unemployment issue that I looked it only a few days ago this was a welcome feature of the service sector boom.

Staffing numbers rose for the fourth consecutive month during February. The increase was underpinned by a solid rate of growth in the service sector,

Unusually for Markit it did not provide any forecast for expected GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth from this which is likely to have been caused by its clashes with the French establishment in the past. It has regularly reported private-sector growth slower than the official numbers so this is quite a change.

Next up was Germany and the good news theme continued.

The Markit Flash Germany Composite Output Index rose from January’s fourmonth low of 54.8 to 56.1, the highest since April 2014 and signalling strong growth in the eurozone’s largest economy. Output has risen continuously since May 2013.

The situation is different here because of course Germany has performed better than France in recent times illustrated by its very different unemployment rate. I note that manufacturing is doing well as it benefits from the much lower exchange rate the Euro provides compared to where any prospective German mark would be priced. Markit is much more willing to project forwards from this.

The latest PMI adds to our expectations that economic growth will strengthen in the first quarter to around 0.6% q-o-q, marking a strong start to 2017.

Whilst these are the two largest Eurozone economies there are others so let us add them into the mix.

“The eurozone economy moved up a gear in February. The rise in the flash PMI to its highest since April 2011 means that GDP growth of 0.6% could be seen in the first quarter if this pace of expansion is sustained into March.

There are actually two cautionary notes here. The first is that these indices rely on sentiment as well as numbers and as they point out March is yet to come. But the surveys indicate potential for a very good start to 2017 for the Eurozone.

As the objectives of central banks have moved towards economic growth there is an obvious issue when they look good and it is to coin a phrase “pumping up the volume”.

Also there was a hopeful sign for a chronic Euro area problem which is persistent unemployment in many countries.

February saw the largest monthly rise in employment since August 2007. Service sector jobs were created at a rate not seen for nine years and factory headcounts showed the second-largest rise in almost six years.

What about inflation?

Just like it fell more quickly and further than the ECB expected it has rather caught it on the hop with its rise. The move from 1.1% in December to 1.8% in January means it is just below 2% or where the “rules based” ECB wants it. There is an update later but even if it nudges the number slightly the song has the same drum and bass lines. Indeed yesterday’s surveys pointed to concerns that more inflation is coming over the horizon.

Inflationary pressures meanwhile continued to intensify. Firms’ average input costs rose at the steepest rate since May 2011, with rates accelerating in both services and manufacturing. The latter once again recorded the steeper rise, linked to higher global commodity prices, the weak euro and suppliers regaining some pricing power amid stronger demand.

In the past such news would have the ECB rushing to raise interest-rates which leaves it in an awkward position. The only leg it has left to stand on in this area is weak wage growth.

Asset prices

Mario Draghi’s espresso will taste better this morning as he notes this.


Although even the espresso may provide food for thought.

Oh I don’t know…Robusta coffee futures creeping back towards 5-1/2 year highs

That pesky inflation again. Oh sorry I mean the temporary or transient phase!

As to house prices there is a wide variation but central bankers always want more don’t they?

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 3.4% in the euro area and by 4.3% in the EU in the third quarter of 2016 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

Of course should any boom turn to bust then the rhetoric switches to it was not possible to forecast this and therefore it was a “surprise” and nobody’s fault. The Bank of England was plugging that particular line for all it’s worth only yesterday.

The Euro

Much is going on here and it has been singing along to “Down, Down” by Status Quo again. For example it has moved very near to crossing 1.05 versus the US Dollar this morning which makes us wonder if economists might be right and it will reach parity. Such forecasts are rarely right so it would be its own type of Black Swan but more seriously we are seeing a weaker phase for the Euro as it has fallen from just over 96 in early November 2016 to 93.4 now. Here economists return to their usual form as this has seen the UK Pound £ nudge 1.19 this morning or further away from the parity so enthusiastically forecast by some.

A factor in this brings us back to QE and ECB action. A problem I have reported on has got worse and as ever it involves Germany. The two-year Schatz yield has fallen as low as -0.87% as investors continue to demand German paper even if they have to pay to get it. This is creating quite a differential ( for these times anyway) with US Dollar rates and thereby pushing the Euro lower.


There are obvious issues here for the ECB as it faces a period where economic growth could pick-up which is of course good but inflation will be doing the same which is not only far from good it is against its official mandate. It does plan to trim its monthly rate of bond buying to 60 billion Euros a month from 80 billion but of course it still has a deposit rate of -0.4%. Thus the accelerator is still being pressed hard. But as we note that the lags of monetary policy are around 18 months then it may well find itself doing that as both growth and inflation rise. Should that lead to trouble then a so-called stimulus will end up having exactly the reverse effect. Yet the consensus remains along the lines of this from Markit yesterday.

No change in policy
therefore looks likely until at least after the German
elections in September.



The unemployment rate in France continues to signal trouble

It is time for us to nip across the Channel or perhaps I should say La Manche and take a look at what is going on in the French economy. This morning has brought news which reminds us of a clear difference between the UK and French economy so let us get straight to the French statistics office.

In Q4 2016, the average ILO unemployment rate in metropolitan France and overseas departments stood at 10.0% of active population, after 10.1% in Q3 2016.

Thus we note immediately that the unemployment rate is still in double-digits albeit only just. Here is some more detail.

In metropolitan France only, the number of unemployed decreased by 31,000 to 2.8 million people unemployed; thus, the unemployment rate decreased by 0.1 percentage points q-o-q, standing at 9.7% of active population. It decreased among youths and persons aged 50 and over, whereas it increased for those aged 25 to 49. Over a year, the unemployment rate fell by 0.2 percentage points.

So unemployment is falling but very slowly and it is higher in the overseas departments. It is also rising in what you might call the peak working group of 25 to 49 year olds. It was only yesterday we noted that the UK unemployment rate was much lower and in fact less than half of that above.

the unemployment rate for people was 4.8%; it has not been lower since July to September 2005

Thus if we were looking for the key to French economic problems it is the continuing high level of unemployment. If we look back to pre credit crunch times we see that it was a little over 7% it then rose to 9.5% but later got pushed as high as 10.5% by the consequences of the Euro area crisis and has only fallen since to 10% if we use the overall rate. Thus we see that there has only been a small recovery which means that another factor is at play here which is time. A lot of people will have been unemployed for long periods with it would appear not a lot of hope of relief or ch-ch-changes for the better.

Among unemployed, 1.2 million were seeking a job for at least one year. The long-term unemployed rate stood at 4.2% of active population in Q4 2016. It decreased by 0.1 percentage points compared to Q3 2016 and Q4 2015.

The long-term unemployment rate is not far off what the total UK unemployment rate was for December (4.6%) which provides a clear difference between the two economies. Here is the UK rate for comparison.

404,000 people who had been unemployed for over 12 months, 86,000 fewer than for a year earlier

It is not so easy to get wages data but the non-farm private-sector rise was 1.2% in the year to the third quarter. So there was some real wage growth but I also note the rate of growth was slowing gently since the peak of 2.3% at the end of 2011 and of course inflation is picking up pretty much everywhere as the US “surprise” yesterday reminded pretty much everyone, well apart from us. Unless French wage growth picks up it like the UK will be facing real wage falls in 2017.


There is an obvious consequence of the UK producing a broadly similar output to France with a lower unemployment rate if we note that productivity these days is in fact labour productivity. There are always caveats in the numbers but the UK Office for National Statistics took a look a year ago.

below that of Italy and France by 14 and 15 percentage points respectively ( Final estimates for 2014 show that UK output per worker was:)

My worry about these numbers has always been Japan which for its faults is a strong exporter and yet its productivity is even worse than the already poor UK.

above that of Japan by 14 percentage points

Economic growth

This remains poor albeit with a flicker of hope at the end of 2016.

In Q4 2016, GDP in volume terms* accelerated: +0.4%, after +0.2% in Q3. On average over the year, GDP kept rising, practically at the same pace: +1.1% after +1.2% in 2015. Without working day adjustment, GDP growth amounts to +1.2 % in 2016, after +1.3 % in 2015.

However the pattern is for these flickers of hope but unlike the UK where economic growth has been fairly steady France sees quite wide swings. For example GDP rose by 0.6% in Q1 so the economy pretty much flatlined in Q2 and Q3 combined. Whether this is a measurement issue or the way it is unclear. We do know however that it seems to come to a fair extent from foreign trade.

All in all, foreign trade balance contributed slightly to GDP growth: +0.1 points after −0.7 points. ( in the last quarter of 2016).

But as we look for perspective we do see an issue as for example 2016 should have seen two major benefits which is the impact of the lower oil price continuing and the extraordinary stimulus of the ECB ( European Central Bank). Yet economic growth in 2015 and 2016 were both weak and show little signs of any great impact. If we switch to the Euro then its trade weighted value peaked at 113.6 in November 2009 and has fallen since with ebbs and flows to 93.5 now so that should have helped overall. In the shorter term the Euro has rotated around its current level.


With its more dirigiste approach you might expect the French economy to have done better here but as I have pointed out before that is not really so. If we look at manufacturing France saw growth in 2016 but we see a hint of trouble in the index for it being 103 at the end of 2016 on an index based at 100 in 2010. So overall rather weak and poor growth. Well it is all rather British as we note the previous peak was 118.5 in April 2008. Actually with its 13% decline that is a lot worse than the UK.

manufacturing (was) 4.7% lower when compared with the pre-downturn peak in February 2008.

Of course there are also links as the proposed purchase of Opel ( Vauxhall in the UK) by Peugeot reminds us.

Oh and those mulling the de-industrialisation of the West might want to note that the French manufacturing index was 120.9 back in December 2000.

Debt and deficits

This has received some publicity as Presidential candidate Fillon said this only yesterday. From Bloomberg.

Reviving a statement he made after becoming prime minister in 2007, Fillon said France is essentially bankrupt and warned that it can face situations comparable to those of Greece, Portugal and Italy. “You think it can’t happen here but it can,” he said.

As to the figures the fiscal deficit at 3.5% of GDP is better than the UK but of course does fall foul of the Euro area 3% limit. The national debt to GDP ratio is 97.5% and has been rising. On the 7th of this month I pointed out that France could still borrow very cheaply due to the ECB QE program but that relative to its peers it was slipping. That has been reinforced this week as for the first time for quite a while the Irish ten-year yield fell to French levels.  It may seem odd to point this out on a day when France has been paid to issue some short-tern debt but the situation has gone from ultra cheap to very cheap overall and there is a cost there.


I pointed out back on the 2nd of November last year that there were more similarities between the UK and French economies than we are often told but that there are some clear differences. We have looked at the labour market today in detail but there is also this.

There is much to consider here as we note that for France the new economic growth norm seems to be 1% rather than the 2% we somewhat disappointedly recognise for ourselves. Over time if that persists the power of compounding will make it a big deal.

Oh and of course house prices if we look at the UK boom which began in the middle of 2013 we see that France has in fact seen house prices stagnate since then as the index was 103.03 ( Q2 2013) back then compared to 102.82 in the third quarter of 2016

Will rising bond yields mean ECB QE is To Infinity! And Beyond!?

Yesterday the ECB ( European Central Bank ) President Mario Draghi spoke at the European Parliament and in his speech were some curious and intriguing phrases.

Our current monetary policy stance foresees that, if the inflation outlook becomes less favourable, or if financial conditions become inconsistent with further progress towards a sustained adjustment in the path of inflation, the Governing Council is prepared to increase the asset purchase programme in terms of size and/or duration.

I say that bit was curious because it contrasted with the other rhetoric in the speech as we were told how well things are going.

Over the last two years GDP per capita has increased by 3% in the euro area, which compares well with other major advanced economies. Economic sentiment is at its highest level in five years. Unemployment has fallen to 9.6%, its lowest level since May 2009. And the ratio of public debt to GDP is declining for the second consecutive year.

The talk of what I would call “More,More,More” is also a contrast to the December policy decision which went down the road of less or more specifically slower.

We will continue to purchase assets at a monthly pace of €80 billion until March. Starting from April, our net asset purchases will run at a monthly pace of €60 billion, and we will reinvest the securities purchased earlier under our programme, as they mature. This will add to our monthly net purchases.

There was another swerve from Mario Draghi who had written to a couple of MEPs telling them that a country leaving the Euro would have to settle their Target 2 balances ( I analysed this on the  23rd of January ) whereas now we were told this.

L’euro e’ irrevocabile, the euro is irrevocable

Of course Italian is his natural language bur perhaps also there was a message to his home country which has seen the rise of political parties who are against Euro membership.

Such words do have impacts on bond markets and yields but I was particularly interested in this bit. From @macrocredit.


A rather curious observation from someone who is effectively doing just that and of course for an establishment which trumpeted the convergence of bond yield spreads back before the Euro area crisis. Just to be clear which is meant here is the gap between the bond yield of Germany and other nations such as Spain or Italy. These days Mario Draghi seems to be displaying all the consistency of Arsene Wenger.

Oh and rather like the Bank of England he seems to be preparing himself for a rise in inflation.

As I have argued before, our monetary policy strategy prescribes that we should not react to individual data points and short-lived increases in inflation.

Spanish energy consumers may not be so sanguine!

Growing divergence in bond yields

The reality has been that recently we have seen a growing divergence in Euro area bond yields. This has happened in spite of the fact that the ECB QE ( Quantitative Easing) bond buying program has continued. As of the latest update it has purchased some 1.34 trillion Euros of sovereign bonds as well as of course other types of bonds. Perhaps markets are already adjusting to the reduction in the rate of purchases planned to begin on April 1st.


Ch-ch-changes here are right at the core of the Euro project which is the Franco-German axis. If we look back to last autumn we see a ten-year yield which fell below 0.1% and now we see one of 1.12%. This has left it some 0.76% higher than its German equivalent.

Care is needed as these are still low levels but politicians get used to an annual windfall from ,lower bond yields and so any rise will be unwelcome. It is still true that up to the five-year maturity France can borrow at negative bond yields but it is also true that a chill wind of change seems to be blowing at the moment. The next funding auction will be much more painful than its predecessor and the number below suggests we may not have to wait too long for it.

The government borrowing requirement for 2017 is therefore forecast to reach €185.4bn.


Here in Mario’s home country the situation is more material as the ten-year yield has risen to 2.36% or 2% over that of Germany. This will be expensive for politicians in the same manner as for France except of course the yield is more expensive and as the Italian Treasury confirms below the larger national debt poses its own demands.

The redemptions over the coming year are just under 216 billion euros (excluding BOTs), or some 30 billion euros more than in 2016, including approximately 3.3 billion euros in relation to the international programme. At the same time, the redemptions of currently outstanding BOTs amount to just over 107 billion euros, which is below the comparable amount in 2016 (115 billion euros) as a result of the policy initiated some years ago to reduce the borrowing in this segment.

The Italian Treasury has also noted the trends we are discussing today.

As a result of these developments, the yield differentials between Italian government securities and similar securities from other core European countries (in particular, Germany) started to increase in September 2016……. the final two months of 2016 have been marked by a significant increase in interest rates in the bond market in the United States,

Although we are also told this

In Europe, the picture is very different.

Anyway those who have followed the many debacles in this particular area which have mostly involved Mario Draghi’s past employer Goldman Sachs will note this next bit with concern.

Again in 2017, the transactions in derivatives instruments will support active portfolio management, and they will be aimed at improving the portfolio performance in the current market environment.

Should problems emerge then let me place a marker down which is that the average maturity of 6.76 years is not the longest.


Here the numbers are more severe as Portugal has a ten-year yield of 4.24% and of course it has a similar national debt to economic output ratio to Italy so it is an outlier on two fronts. It need to raise this in 2017.

The Republic has a gross issuance target of EUR 14 billion to EUR 16 billion through both auctions and syndications.

To be fair it started last month but do you see the catch?

The size was set at EUR 3 billion and the new OT 10-year benchmark was finally priced at 16:15 CET with a coupon of 4.125% and a re-offer yield of 4.227%.

That is expensive in these times of a bond market super boom. Portugal has now paid off some 44% of its borrowings from the IMF but it is coming with an increasingly expensive kicker. Maybe that is why the European establishment wanted the IMF involved in its next review of Portugal’s circumstances.

Also at just over five years the average maturity is relatively short which would mean any return of the bond vigilantes would soon have Portugal looking for outside help again.

As of December 31, 2016 the Portuguese State direct debt amounted to EUR 236,283 million, decreasing 0.5% vis-à-vis the end of the previous month ( 133.4% of GDP).


Bond markets will of course ebb and flow but recently we have seen an overall trend and this does pose questions for several countries in the Euro area in particular. The clear examples are Italy and Portugal but there are also concerns elsewhere such as in France. These forces take time but a brake will be applied to national budgets as debt costs rise after several years when politicians will have been quietly cheering ECB policies which have driven falls. Of course higher inflation will raise debt costs for nations such as Italy which have index-linked stocks as well.

If we step back we see how difficult it will be for the ECB to end its QE sovereign bond buying program and even harder to ever reverse the stock or portfolio of bonds it has bought so far. This returns me to the issues I raised on January 19th.

If we look at the overall picture we see that 2017 poses quite a few issues for central banks as they approach the stage which the brightest always feared. If you come off it will the economy go “cold turkey” or merely have some withdrawal systems? What if the future they have borrowed from emerges and is worse than otherwise?

Meanwhile with the ECB being under fire for currency manipulation ( in favour of Germany in particular) it is not clear to me that this from Benoit Coeure will help.

The ECB has no specific exchange rate target, but the single currency has adjusted as a consequence. Since its last peak in 2011, the euro has depreciated by almost 30% against the dollar. The euro is now at a level that is appropriate for the economic situation in Europe.

Inflation is back!

Regular readers will be aware that as 2016 progressed and the price of crude oil did not fall like it did in the latter part of 2015 that a rise in consumer inflation was on the cards pretty much across the world. This would of course be exacerbated in countries with a weak currency against the US Dollar and ameliorated by those with a strong currency. This morning has brought an example of this from a country which I gave some praise to only on Monday so let us investigate.

An inflationary surge in Spain

This mornings data release from the statistics institute INE was eye-catching indeed. Via Google Translate

The estimated annual inflation of the CPI in January 2017 is 3.0%, according to the An advance indicator prepared by INE.This indicator provides an advance of the CPI which, if confirmed, would increase of 1.4 points in its annual rate, since in December this variation was of 1.6%.

Okay and the reason why was no great surprise to us on here.

This increase is mainly explained by the rise in the prices of electricity and The fuels (gasoil and gasoline) in front of the drop that they experienced last year.

So as David Bowie put it they have been putting out fire with gasoline. As we investigate further I note that El Pais labels it as an Ultimate Hora and gives us some more detail.

The agency blames the acceleration of inflation to the rise in electricity prices, which this month has exploded, affecting mainly consumers in the regulated market of light, 46.5% of households, Which pay according to the hourly evolution of electricity prices in the wholesale market.

Actually that sounds ominous in the UK as the National Grid was effectively promising no blackouts yesterday but at the cost of more volatile ( which of course means higher) domestic energy prices. The actual numbers for Spanish consumers are eye-watering.

The average price of the megawatt hour (MWh) in the wholesale electricity market was on January 1, 51.9 euros. This Tuesday, the last day of January, the average price stands at 73.27 euros, 43.4% more. On Wednesday 25, the average stood at 91.88 euros (78.9% more than January 1), with maximums of more than 100 euros for the time stretches with more demand. Consumers receiving the regulated tariff (Voluntary Price for the Small Consumer, PVPC) will see those increases already reflected in their next receipt of light and have already been noted in the CPI, which has registered the highest level for more than four Years,

I guess they must be grateful that this has not been a long cold winter as such prices would have appeared earlier and maybe gone higher. The push higher in the inflation measure was exacerbated by the fact that fuel prices fell this time last year.

Thus, in January 2016, electricity fell by 13% compared to the same month in 2015. The gas price fell at a rate of 15%, while other fuels (diesel for heating, butane …) went down To 19.9%. Finally, the fuel and lubricants registered a year-on-year decrease of 7.1%.

It would seem that El Pais has cottoned onto one of my themes.

 The evolution of oil prices largely explained the behavior of the CPI in Spain. In January of 2016, the oil marked minimums in less than 30 dollars. Now, with the price of a barrel of brent upwards (around 55 dollars), fuels are rising and expenses related to housing are rising: gas, of course, a byproduct, and electricity, which is generated Partly by burning gas.

So far we have looked at Spain’s own CPI but the situation was the same for the official Euro area measure called HICP ( which confusingly is called CPI in the UK) as it rose to an annual rate of 3% as well. This poses an issue for the ECB as El Pais points out.

In any case, inflation is already at levels above the ECB’s target of 2%

Also it points out that Spain will see a reduction in real purchasing power as wage growth is now much lower than inflation.

already at levels that imply a loss of purchasing power for pensioners – the government will only update pensions by 0.25 %, The minimum that marks the law, for officials, whose salaries will not rise above 1%, and the vast majority of wage earners, since the average wage increase agreed in the agreements remained at 1, 06%.

There are also other concerns as to how it may affect Spain’s economic recovery.

As Spanish inflation is above European, the Spanish economy may lose competitiveness, not only because it may affect exports, but also because it may lead to a rise in wages.


A little more prosaic and also for December and not January but we saw this from Germany yesterday.

The inflation rate in Germany as measured by the consumer price index is expected to be +1.9% in January 2017. A similarly high rate of inflation was last measured in July 2013 (+1.9%).

German consumers will be particularly disappointed to note that the inflation was in essential items such as energy (5.8%) and food (3.2%). Of course central bankers and their media acolytes will rush to call these non-core as we wonder if they sit in the cold and dark without food themselves?!

This poses another problem for the ECB as Germany is now pretty much on its inflation target ( just below 2%) and this morning has also posted good news on unemployment where the rate has fallen to 5.9%.

Euro area

This morning’s headline is this.

Euro area annual inflation is expected to be 1.8% in January 2017, up from 1.1% in December 2016, according to a flash estimate from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.

So a by now familiar surge as we note that it is now in the zone where the ECB can say it is achieving its inflation target. Of course it will look for excuses.

energy is expected to have the highest annual rate in January (8.1%, compared with 2.6% in December), followed by food, alcohol & tobacco (1.7%, compared with 1.2% in December),

Accordingly if you take out the things people really need ( energy and food) the “core” inflation rate falls to 0.9%. But the heat is on now as Glenn Frey would say.


The Financial Times reported this yesterday.

Giles Turrell, chief executive of Weetabix, said on Monday that the company was absorbing the higher cost of dollar denominated wheat but that Weetabix prices were likely to go up later this year by “mid-single digits”.

Sadly the decline of the FT continues as the “may” is reported in the headline as “Weetabix prices hiked” . The Guardian was much fairer although this bit raised a smile.

Although the company harvests wheat in Northamptonshire, it is sold in US dollars on global markets, meaning the cost in pounds to buy wheat in the UK has gone up.


It is hard not to have a wry smile as it was not that long ago in 2016 that the consensus was that inflation is dead and of course before that the “deflation nutters” were in full cry. Any news from them today? Of course the official mantra will be on the lines of this as reported by DailyFX.

ECB’s Villeroy says concerns about rising inflation are exaggerated.

What was that about never believing anything until it is officially denied? It was only yesterday that another ECB board member was informing us that there would be no change in monetary policy for 6 months when today’s inflation and GDP data suggests it is already behind the curve, as I pointed out on the 19th of this month. Although as ever Italy ( unemployment rising to 12%) is lagging behind. As Livesquawk points out not everyone has got the memo.

Spanish EconMin deGuindos: Inflationary Trend In Europe Could Lead To Tightening Of MonPol, Higher Interest Rates

So we see a problem and whilst some of the move in Spain is particular to one month it is also true that the pattern has changed now and so should the response of the ECB as it looks forwards.

UK National Statistician

Thank you to John Pullinger for meeting a group of inflation specialists including me at the Royal Statistical Society last Wednesday. I was pleased to point out that his letter to the Guardian of a week ago made in my opinion a case for using real numbers for owner-occupied housing such as house prices and mortgage-rates as opposed to the intended use of an imputed number such as Rental Equivalence. This will be more important when the UK makes the changes planned for March. Here is the section of his letter which I quoted.

And there is a real yearning for trustworthy analysis that deals with both the inherent biases in many data sources and also the vested interests of many who try to cloak their own opinions and prejudices as “killer facts”.






Greece is drowning under all the debt its “rescue” brought

After looking at the recent economic success of Spain on Friday, which was confirmed this morning by the official data showing 3.2% GDP growth in 2016 it is time to look at the other side of the Euro area coin. This is a situation that continues to be described by one of the songs of Elton John.

It’s sad, so sad
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd
It’s sad, so sad
Why can’t we talk it over
Oh it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word

This is the situation facing Greece which is on its way back into the news headlines after of course another sequence of headlines proclaiming a combination of triumph and improvement. What is triggering this is some new analysis from the IMF or International Monetary fund and it is all about the debt burden. It is hard not to have a wry smile at this as the IMF has been telling us the burden is sustainable for quite some time in spite of it obviously not being so as I have regularly pointed out in here.

The IMF analysis

The Financial Times has summarised it like this.

Greece faces what is likely to be an “explosive” surge in its public debt levels that within decades will mean it will owe almost three times the country’s annual economic output unless given significant debt relief, the International Monetary Fund has warned in a confidential report.

Not that confidential then! Or perhaps conforming to the definition of it in Yes Prime Minister. Worrying after some better news in relative terms from the World Economic Forum suggesting that Greece was a lot further down the list of national debt per person (capita) than you might think. Japan of course was at the head at US $85.7k per person and intriguingly Ireland second at US $67.1k per person but Greece was a fair way down the list at US $32.1k each. Of course it’s problem is relative to the size of its economic output or GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

If we look at the detail of the IMF report it speaks for itself.

The fund calculated that Greece’s debt load would reach 170 per cent of gross domestic product by 2020 and 164 per cent by 2022, “but become explosive thereafter” and grow to 275 per cent of GDP by 2060.

If we switch to Kathimerini we find out the driving force of the deterioration in the debt sustainability analysis.

Greece’s gross financing needs are estimated at less than 20 percent of GDP until 2031 but after that they skyrocket to 33 percent in 2040 and then to 62 percent by 2060.

If we step back for some perspective here we see confirmation of one of my main themes on Greece. This has been that the debt relief measures have made the interest burden lighter but have done nothing about the capital debt burden which has in fact increased in spite of the PSI private-sector debt reprofiling. We can bring in that poor battered can now because the Euro area and the IMF thought they had kicked it far enough into the future not to matter whereas the IMF is now having second thoughts. In short it has looked at the future and decided that it looks none too bright.

The crux of the matter is the amount of the austerity burden that Greece can bear going forwards. Back in May 2016 the IMF expressed its concerns of future economic growth.

Against this background, staff has lowered its long-term growth assumption to 1¼ percent, even as over the medium-term growth is expected to rebound more strongly as the output gap closes.

That will do nothing for the debt burden and will have been entwined with the extraordinary amount of austerity required under the current plans.

This suggests that it is unrealistic to assume that Greece can undertake the additional adjustment of 4½ percent of GDP needed to base the DSA on a primary surplus of 3½ percent of GDP.

As an alternative the IMF suggested something of a relaxation presumably in the hope that Greece could then sustain a higher economic growth rate.

The Euro area view

This was represented last week by Klaus Regling of the European Stability Mechanism or ESM.

I think it’s really important for Greece because it will reduce interest rate risk and improve Greek debt sustainability.

What was that Klaus?

we are dealing here with a bond exchange, where floating rate notes disbursed by the ESM and EFSF to Greece for bank recapitalisation will be exchanged for fixed coupon notes. There are measures related to swap arrangements that will reduce the risk that Greece will have to pay a higher interest rate on its loans when market rates go up………In addition, the EFSF waived the step-up interest rate margin for the year 2017 on a particular loan tranche. A margin of 2% had originally been foreseen, to be paid from 2017 on.

As you can see each time Greece is supposed to pay more they discover it cannot and we need more “short-term” measures which according to Klaus will achieve this.

All this will go a long way in easing the debt burden for Greece over time, according to our debt sustainability analysis. It could lead to a cumulative reduction of the Greek debt to GDP ratio of around 20 percentage points over the time horizon until 2060.

It does not seem a lot when you look at the IMF numbers does it. Also Euro area ministers repeated something which they have said pretty much every year of the crisis, from the FT.

Mr Dijsselbloem, who is also the Dutch finance minister, said that Greece was recovering faster than anyone expected.

Really? What was that about fake news again?

Retail Sales

We can learn a lot from these numbers and let us start with some badly needed good news.

The overall volume index in retail trade (i.e. turnover in retail trade at constant prices) in November 2016, recorded an increase of 3.6%.

Although sadly some of the gloss fades when we note this.

The seasonally adjusted overall volume index in November 2016 compared with the corresponding index  of October 2016 recorded a decrease of 0.2%.

So overall a welcome year on year rise and the strongest category was books and stationery. However perspective is provided if we look at the index which is at 69.7 where 2010 was 100. As that sinks in you get a true idea of the economic depression that has raged in Greece over the period of the “rescue” and the “bailout”. Most chilling of all is that the food beverages and tobacco index is at 55.6 on the same basis leaving us with the thin hope that the Greeks have given up smoking and fizzy drinks.

Also it is far from reassuring to see the European Commission release consumer confidence data for Greece indicating a fall of 3.4 to 67.8.


There is much to consider here but we find ourselves looking back to the Private-Sector Initiative or debt relief of 2012. I stated back then that the official bodies such as the ECB and IMF needed to be involved as well because they owned so much of the debt. It did not happen because the ECB said “over my dead body” and as shown below what were then called the Troika but are now called the Institutions pursued a course of fake news.

Thanks to Michael Kosmides of CNN Greece who sent me that chart. As we note the fake news let me give you another warning which is that Greece these days depends on its official creditors so news like this from Bloomberg last week is much less relevant than it once was.

The yield on Greece’s two-year bonds surged 58 basis points to 7.47 percent, while those on benchmark 10-year bonds rose 22 basis points to 7.13 percent as of 2:41 p.m in London.

The real issue is that Greece desperately needs economic growth and lots of it. As I pointed out on December 16th.

Compared to when she ( Christine Lagarde of the IMF) and her colleagues were already boasting about future success, the Greek economy has shrunk by 19%, which means that the total credit crunch contraction became 26%




The confusion around the Target2 system of the Euro

As the Euro crisis developed there were a wide range of discussions and disagreements. One of the longest lasting and most polarised was and indeed is the one over the Target2 settlement system. There has been a new outbreak of this which has been triggered by a letter published on Friday by ECB (European Central Bank) President Mario Draghi. Let us cut straight to the chase.

If a country were to leave the Eurosystem, its national central bank’s claims on or liabilities to the ECB would need to be settled in full.

Boom! This opens more than one can of worms and one rather large one is opened if we step bank in time to July 2012 and the emphasis is mine.

And so we view this, and I do not think we are unbiased observers, we think the euro is irreversible. And it’s not an empty word now, because I preceded saying exactly what actions have been made, are being made to make it irreversible.

That speech was also famous for something else which is relevant to the discussion.

Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.

So how can you leave something which is irreversible? Accordingly you will not be settling up partly because Mario will not let it happen. That July 2012 speech was a success for keeping the Euro going forwards although reading it again exposes a fair bit of hot air and boasting about relative economic success of which the clearest critic is the ECB’s 1.5 trillion Euros plus of QE (Quantitative Easing) and -0.4% deposit interest-rate.

But as I read the crucial sentence in the letter to Mr Marco Valli (MEP) and Mr Marco Zanni (MEP) my other thought was that Mario Draghi had just boosted the credibility of those who have argued that Target2 balances matter.

How has this come about?

Ironically this is another side-effect of the QE programme.

the recent increase in TARGET2 balances largely reflects liquidity flows stemming from the ECB’s asset purchase programme (APP).

Oops! Also the change is how can one put it? Geographically concentrated.

Almost 80% of bonds purchased by national central banks under the APP were sold by counterparties that are not resident in the same country as the purchasing national central bank, and roughly half of the purchases were from counterparties located outside the euro area, most of which mainly access the TARGET2 payments system via the Deutsche Bundesbank.

As we note that foreign investors have been selling Euro area bonds to the ECB on a large-scale we see this as a consequence of who they have chosen to sell them too.

This, in turn, resulted in an increase in the Deutsche Bundesbank’s TARGET2 balance vis-à-vis the ECB.

With Germanic accuracy we are told that this amounted to 754,262,914,964.24 Euros as of the end of 2016. It may be hard to believe now but back in the early 2000s there were occasions when the German Bundesbank was a debtor in this system but the amounts back then were far far smaller. You will not be surprised to read it became a creditor as the credit crunch hit and at the end of 2008 that amounted to 115.3 billion Euros. At the time of Mario’s “whatever it takes” speech the balance was 727.2 billion Euros. This of course poses the problem that it we are in so much of a better place now why are we seeing a new record surplus? Here is the official reply.

However, the current increase in TARGET2 balances is not a symptom of increased stress and is therefore inherently different from the previous episodes of rising balances.

Ah, so this time is different!

What is Target2?

It is a settlement system which represents the monetary side of transactions described below by the Bundesbank.

These payment transactions can take a wide variety of forms, such as payment for a goods delivery, the purchase or sale of a security, the granting or repayment of a loan or the depositing of funds at a bank, among many others.

Now this reminds me of the case of the way changes in UK £M3 were represented some 30 years or so ago. This is because back then just because there was an accounting identity we were told there had to be a causal identity as well. Sadly that did not go so well. However the scale of Target2 leads to worries.

An average of around 350,000 payments with a value of just under €2½ trillion are processed using TARGET2 each working day, a figure which is broadly equivalent to the size of Germany’s GDP.

Other central banks have settlement systems but you see where the difference is comes from the fact that the Bank of Japan works in an environment of political and monetary union so nobody worries much about balances between Kobe and Osaka. The problem is created because the Euro is an economic concept which crosses national boundaries. Thus these cash-flows cross national boundaries. But the Target2 balances are not a causal force they are a consequence of financial actions elsewhere. For example back in 2011/12 they built up because of the banking crises seen and now they are building up ironically as part of the ECB’s response to that and the subsequent economic problems.

How could it go wrong?

There are two possibilities. The mildest would be something that cannot be settled under the current structure as described by Beate Resazt here.

in Target2 there is always a danger that one leg of a transaction is paid and the counterparty is not willing or able to fulfil its part of the business. For this eventuality banks have to provide collateral. If collateral turns out to be insufficient to realize the full amount the resulting loss is shared by the euro area NCBs in line with their capital shares.

So a risk but after so many stresses we have avoided that so far meaning it is there as a risk but the ECB has so far kept on top of it. The bigger issue is of course someone leaving the Euro as Mario Draghi stated. This poses all sorts of questions. The current fractious state of Brexit negotiations would presumably be considered to be something of a tea-party compared to this so there are genuine dangers. In such an environment the worst case scenario would be if the departing state refused to settle its deficit as after all it would likely be in deficit. Some argue that there is no deficit only claims and perhaps they have a point when everyone is still in the Euro as you can then argue that in essence this is simply a settlement system run by the ECB. But we return to what if you leave when you are now outside the system and refuse to settle up what would now be a deficit?


As I indicated earlier to my mind rather than being a problem in itself the Target2 issue indicates problems elsewhere. For example the German current account surplus or the way that ECB QE is settled mostly at the German Bundesbank. So when we see headlines like “debt” or “profit and loss” I am not convinced as it is an accounting system telling us about flows of cash. Of course cash flow leads many companies to come a cropper and indeed can do to governments as we are reminded again that this would not be a subject for debate beyond regional policy if there was fiscal and political union.

Somebody leaving seems likely to be an explosive event both politically and economically and in the turmoil lots would happen. For example a new currency for the country concerned and probably an element of default on debts too. This would bounce around the Target2 system but it would be an accounting identity rather than a cause.

Central banks face an inflation inspired policy exit dilemma

Later today the ECB ( European Central Bank) will announce it latest policy decisions on interest-rates and extraordinary monetary policy such as QE ( Quantitative Easing) asset purchases. I am not expecting any grand announcement of change as this came last time if you recall.

As regards non-standard monetary policy measures, we will continue to make purchases under the asset purchase programme (APP) at the current monthly pace of €80 billion until the end of March 2017. From April 2017, our net asset purchases are intended to continue at a monthly pace of €60 billion until the end of December 2017, or beyond, if necessary, and in any case until the Governing Council sees a sustained adjustment in the path of inflation consistent with its inflation aim.

Ever since then they have been keen to tell us this is not a taper and the formal minutes showed quite a bit of debate on the matter.

either to continue purchases at the current monthly pace of €80 billion for an additional six months, or to extend the programme by nine months to the end of December 2017 at a monthly pace of €60 billion. In both cases, purchases would be made alongside the forthcoming reinvestments starting in March 2017.

I think they made the right choice to reduce the size of the monthly purchases but do not see why they guaranteed it to the end of the year apart from them being afraid of markets getting withdrawal symptoms.

What are these policies supposed to do?

Back in 2015 the ECB issued a working paper on how it thought QE worked.

First, via the direct pass-through channel, the non-standard measures are expected to ease borrowing conditions in the private non-financial sector by easing banks’ refinancing conditions, thereby encouraging borrowing and expenditure for investment and consumption.

Actually this is a generic explanation of the claimed benefits of extraordinary policies and applies in some ways more directly to the TLTROs (Targeted longer-term refinancing operations) . As ever it is the “precious” which is considered to be the main beneficiary.

this encourages banks to increase their supply of loans that can be securitised, which tends to lower bank lending rates.

Of course this can have plenty of effects and let us remind ourselves that house prices in Portugal are rising at an annual rate of 7.6% which is the “highest price increase ever observed” as I analysed on Monday. Let us then move on by noting that officially this will be recorded as a “wealth effect” and will benefit the mortgage books of the troubled Portuguese banking sector whereas for first-time buyers and those looking to move up the property ladder it is inflation. Although the Euro area measure of inflation ignores this entirely.

In December 2016, the annual rate of change was 0.9% (0.5% in the previous month)

We note that even so it is rising and move on.

Next we have this effect.

Second, via the portfolio rebalancing channel, yields on a broad range of assets are lowered. Asset purchases by the central bank result in an increase in the liquidity holdings of the sellers of these assets. If the liquidity received is not considered a perfect substitute for the assets sold, the asset swap can lead to a rebalancing of portfolios towards other assets.

This is how the 0.1% and indeed the 0.01% benefit as they of course by definition have plenty of assets overall. It is also part of the road where 8 people have as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population.

There is supposed to be a third announcement effect but it is hard not to have a wry smile at the claims made for Forward Guidance when you read this.

It has been found to be muted in the United Kingdom, moderate in the euro area and highly uncertain in the United States,

Inflation Target

Here we have the definition of it.

The primary objective of the ECB’s monetary policy is to maintain price stability…….The ECB has defined price stability as a year-on-year increase in the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) for the euro area of below 2%.

There is clear abuse of language here as the Euro area his in fact had price stability with inflation ~0% in recent times but the ECB does not want this. Back in the day a past ECB President ( Trichet) gave us a rather precise definition of 1.97% in his valedictory speech.

Where are we now?

Yesterday there was something of a change.

Euro area annual inflation was 1.1% in December 2016, up from 0.6% in November. In December 2015 the rate was 0.2%.

So the broad sweep of higher inflation in December around Europe continued as we saw quite a jump. Some of that may unwind but 2017 is likely to see a higher and higher theme as we note transport for fuel rising at an annual rate of 6% and vegetables at 5.2% so exactly the wrong sort of inflation for consumers and workers. There is only one country now with disinflation which is Ireland but more than a few clustering around 2% including Germany at 1.7%. It makes you think if we move to today’s house price update how statisticians in Ireland can report disinflation with house prices rising at an annual rate of 7.1%. Also we seem set to see a phase of more general inflation worries from Germany which has house price inflation of 6.2%.

Exit strategies

Back in December 2009 my old tutor at the LSE Willem Buiter wrote this.

The large-scale ex-ante and ex-post quasi-fiscal subsidies handed out by the Fed and to a lesser extent by the other leading central banks, and the sheer magnitude of the redistribution of wealth and income among private agents that the central banks have engaged in could (and in my view should) cause a political storm.

He was not aware then of the scale of what he calls fiscal subsidies which have been handed out by the Bank of England, Bank of Japan and the ECB since amongst others. But here is his crucial conclusion.

Delay in the dropping of the veil is therefore likely.

The prediction that they will delay exiting from monetary policies such as QE is spot on in my view and is where we are now. We have seen a PR campaign for example by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney as he sings along to Shaggy on distributional issues concerning wealth and also income.

She saw the marks on my shoulder (It wasn’t me)
Heard the words that I told her (It wasn’t me)
Heard the scream get louder (It wasn’t me)

However I disagree with Willem completely here.

There are few if any technical problems involved in reversing the unconventional monetary policies – quantitative easing, credit easing and enhanced credit support – implemented by central banks around the world as short-term nominal interest rates became constrained by the zero lower bound.

I was never entirely convinced by this line of argument but of course to be fair to Willem the situation now concerning QE is completely different in terms of scale.  Many bond purchases look to be permanent and the UK for example has bought Gilts which mature in the 2060s.


If we look at the overall picture we see that 2017 poses quite a few issues for central banks as they approach the stage which the brightest always feared. If you come off it will the economy go “cold turkey” or merely have some withdrawal systems? What if the future they have borrowed from emerges and is worse than otherwise? We learn a little from what the US Federal Reserve has done but maybe not as much as we might think for two reasons. Firstly whilst it stopped new QE purchases it continues to reinvest maturing purchases from the past. Secondly in terms of the international picture it did so whilst so many others were on the “More.More,More” road as it got a type of first mover advantage.

The Bank of England is in a particularly bad place as it applied more when in fact there were arguments for less ( likely higher inflation) followed by the Bank of Japan which is buying assets so quickly. Accordingly I wait to see if we get any hints of future moves from the ECB today.

Oh and do you note that the official rationale for QE type policies never seems to involve confessing you would like a lower value for your currency?

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