The European Investment Bank and the UK’s missing £7.6 billion

The European Investment Bank is a major part of the European Union’s and also the Euro area’s infrastructure. Yet so many have not heard of it which I plan to begin to correct today. But there are also big issues and a possible expensive error on the way as the UK’s relationship with it gets set to change assuming that the UK does carry out some form of Brexit. As we stand the UK is one of the four largest shareholders ( along with France,Germany and Italy) with a shareholding of 16.1% or 39.2 billions Euros according to the EIB.

What is the EIB?

The first impression is that it is very large as we look at the scale of its operations.

Since its establishment in 1958 the EU bank has invested over a trillion euros.

Even in these inflated times that is quite a lot and it is expanding fast.

Lending: From ECU 10bn in 1988, our annual lending neared EUR 45bn in the mid-2000s before jumping to EUR 79bn in 2009 as a temporary response to the crisis. It was EUR 55.63bn in 2018.

In terms of its own operations it has been a win for Luxembourg. Quite a win really when you note its very small shareholding in the venture.

Our HQ: Founded in Brussels in 1958 as the Treaty of Rome comes into force, we moved to Luxembourg in 1968. We relocated to our current site in 1980 with a major new building extension completed in 2008.

As to its lending this is described here.

We support projects that make a significant contribution to sustainable growth and employment in Europe and beyond. Our activities focus on four priority areas:

 

Innovation and skills are key ingredients for ensuring sustainable growth and creating high-value jobs.

 

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are important drivers of growth, innovation and employment in Europe…..Supporting access to finance for SMEs and mid-caps is a top priority for the EIB Group.

 

Infrastructure is an essential pillar that interconnects internal markets and economies.

 

As the EU bank, we have made climate action one of our top priorities and today we are the largest multilateral provider of climate finance worldwide.

We commit to climate change adaptation and mitigationmore than 25% of our total financing.

One way of looking at the EIB is that it’s role involves some regional policy which is of course an apposite issue both across the region and within the Euro area. Although it comes with buzzwords and phrases like “smart,sustainable and inclusive growth” which mean what exactly?

As the EU bank, promoting economic and social cohesion is one of the principles that guide us throughout our activities. Our investments support the delivery of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

Also it operates a financial version of foreign policy.

Outside the EU, the EIB’s activities reflect EU external policy. The EIB is active mainly in the pre-accession countries and eastern and southern neighbours.
The EIB also operates in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, Asia and Latin America, financing local private sector development, social and economic infrastructure and climate action projects.

Where does the money come from?

You may have spotted that the capital quoted is less than the lending with a ratio of one to a bit over four.

Building on its financial merits, the EIB is able to borrow at attractive rates, and the benefits of EIB’s borrowing conditions are passed on to project promoters.

It also specialises in what it calls green finance.

The Bank plays a leading role in the Green Bond market. The EIB issued the world’s first Green Bond in 2007, called Climate Awareness Bonds (CABs). Since then, the Bank has expanded CAB issuance across a number of currencies, providing benchmark size transactions in the core currencies EUR, USD and GBP.

It borrows very cheaply as last week it issue a three-year US Dollar bond at only 0.114% over what the US Treasury can borrow at. In January it borrowed for ten-years in Euros at a mere 0.742%. So we see that especially in these times of ultra-low interest-rates and bond yields the EIB is a vehicle that can provide lending for a very low annual cost. In that sense it has been quite a triumph as I do not believe it is picked up on national balance sheets and when I checked with the UK Office for National Statistics only realised numbers are picked up which matters as pretty much all of it is notional.

The UK and the EIB

The House of Lords reported on its role in the UK at the end of January.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) has been active in the UK since 1973,during which time it has lent more than €118 billion to key infrastructure projects…… In 2015 alone, the EIB provided £5.6 billion for 40 different projects, amounting to approximately one-third of total investment in UK infrastructure.

This provokes an immediate thought about another bank namely the Bank of England. The Funding for Lending Scheme which began in the summer of 2012 was supposed to push small and medium-sized business lending higher but did not, That looks even more of a failure as we note that until recently the EIB has been expanding its support of lending.

Next although the House of Lords do not put it this way we have a clear driver of the fall in business investment in the UK which was picked up in last week’s economic growth (GDP) data.

This is all the more worrying given the 87 percent fall in EIB funding since 2016 and the fact that new UK projects will no longer have access to the EIB after 29 March 2019, until and unless a future relationship is agreed.

So I can only support this conclusion 100%.

It is therefore seriously concerning that, with Brexit and the associated loss of access to EIB financing a matter of
weeks away, the Government has said nothing publicly about its ambitions for a future relationship with the EIB.

With the problems in the UK infrastructure arena with the failure of Carillion and the more recent problems at Interserve already providing flashing warning lights this echoes too.

Losing access to the EIB will have negative consequences for the financing of UK infrastructure. Not only does the EIB offer cheaper and longer-term loans than commercial lenders, but the quality of its independent expertise and due
diligence also provides projects with a stamp of approval that crowds in additional private investment.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here as we mull what is an organisation with many successes but also issues as we note it has come under more political control. For example the way it has a role in the financial version of foreign policy and being used as a type of Euro area fiscal policy under the ( Jean-Claude) Juncker Plan. Those are political rather than financial choices.

Next comes the issue of how the UK might Brexit from this and looking at the House of Lords report it is quite a scandal.

Under the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK will, over a period of 12 years, receive the €3.5 billion of capital it has paid in to the EIB. However, the UK will not receive any share of the profits that the EIB has accumulated, nor any
interest or dividends. Given that this could amount to €7.6 billion, almost 20 percent of the UK’s obligations under the £35–39 billion financial settlement, we regret that the Government has failed to provide an adequate explanation of the position taken in the negotiations.

Whoever is responsible for this on the UK side should be named and shamed.

Weekly Podcast

 

 

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What is the purpose of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England?

This week has been one where we have found ourselves observing and analysing the both the reality and the consequences of the global economic slow down. Yesterday gave us an opportunity to peer into the mind of a Bank of England policymaker and first Gertjan Vlieghe was keen to establish why he is paid the big bucks.

When the global economy is doing well, the UK usually tends to do well too. When the global economy is
sluggish, the UK economy tends to be sluggish too.

Thanks for that Gertjan! Next comes something that has been an issue since the credit crunch hit which has been the issue of what David Bowie called ch-ch-changes.

We are in a period of unusual uncertainty around the economic outlook.
There is a tendency to say every quarter that things are more uncertain than before, and of course that
cannot always be true. It must be that sometimes uncertainty is less than it was before.

Now put yourself in Gertjan’s shoes as someone who has been consistently wrong and has turned it into something of an art form. The future must be terrifying to someone like that and indeed it is.

Setting monetary policy requires making decisions even when the outlook is uncertain.

Actually the outlook is always uncertain especially if we look back for Gertjan and his colleagues.

The Forward Guidance Lie

Here is Gertjan making his case.

Rather, we need to respond to news about the economy as
we receive it, in a systematic and predictable way that agents in the economy can factor into their decisions.

There are several problems with this. Firstly how many people even take notice of the Bank of England. Secondly that situation will have only have been made worse by the way that the Forward Guidance has not only been wrong it has been deeply misleading, For example in August 2016 after more than two years of hints and promises about a Bank Rate rise Gerthan voted instead for a Bank Rate cut and £60 billion of Sledgehammer QE. So those who had taken the Forward Guidance advice and for example remortgaged into a fixed-rate were materially disadvantaged.

Not content with that Gertjan seems on the road to doing it again. So let us remind ourselves of the official view.

The Committee judges that, were the economy to develop broadly in line with its Inflation Report projections, an ongoing tightening of monetary policy over the forecast period, at a gradual pace and to a limited extent, would be appropriate to return inflation sustainably to the 2% target at a conventional horizon.

Yet Gertjan has got cold feet again.

I will discuss what news we have had about the economy in recent quarters, and how that has changed my
thinking about the appropriate path of monetary policy.

Why do I have a feeling of deja vu? Here is the old Vlieghe.

When I first spoke about the future path of Bank Rate a year ago, I thought one to two quarter point hikes per
year in Bank Rate was the most likely central case

Here is the new Vlieghe.

On the assumption that global growth does not slow materially further than it has so far, that the path to Brexit
involves a lengthy transition period in line with the government’s stated objectives, that pay growth continues
around its recent pace, and that we start to see some evidence of pay growth leading to upward consumer
price pressure, a path of Bank Rate that involves around one quarter point hike per year seems a reasonable
central case.

As you can see Gertjan is trying to present himself in the manner of an engineer perhaps fine tuning an aircraft wing design. The first problem is that last time he tried this his aircraft crashed on take-off as a promised Bank Rate rise turned into a cut. Next comes the issue of why you would raise Bank Rate once a year? After all it would feel like forever before anything materially changed. Five years of it would get Bank Rate to only 2%!

The reality is that if we look at his view of a slowing world economy it is hard to believe that he wants to raise interest-rates at all. Also as his speech is very downbeat about Brexit as the Bank of England consistently is then it is hard not to mull what he told the Evening Standard back in April 2016.

“Theoretically, I think interest rates could go a little bit negative.”

Even that was an odd phrase as of course quite a few countries had them including the country where he was born. Anyway here is my immediate response on twitter to his speech.

Shorter Gertjan Vlieghe : Can I vote for a Bank Rate cut yet please Governor?

If we step back and look at the overall Bank of England picture we see that the Monetary Policy Committee is becoming an increasing waste of time. We are paying eight people to say “I agree with Mark” and flatter the Governor’s ego.

Retail Sales

Here Gertjan Vlieghe had almost impeccable timing.

Domestic growth has slowed somewhat more than expected, especially around the turn of the year.

Just in time for this official release today about UK Retail Sales.

Year-on-year growth in the quantity bought in January 2019 was 4.2%, the highest since December 2016; while year-on-year average store prices slowed to 0.4%, the lowest price increase since November 2016.

Those figures confirm my theme that lower inflation leads to better consumption data via higher real wages. This is a very awkward issue for the Bank of England as it wants to push the 0.4% inflation above up to 2% in what would be a clear policy error.

In the three months to January 2019, the quantity bought increased by 0.7% when compared with the previous three months.The monthly growth rate in the quantity bought increased by 1.0% in January 2019, following a decline of 0.7% in December 2018.

A good January has pulled the quarterly numbers higher and the driving force is show below.

The quantity bought in textile, clothing and footwear stores showed strong year-on-year growth at 5.5% as stores took advantage of the January sales, with a year-on-year price fall of 0.9%.

Comment

This speech just highlights what a mess the situation has become at the Bank of England. A policymaker gives a speech talking about interest-rate rises whilst the meat of the speech outlines a situation more suited to interest-rate cuts. The economy is smaller due to Brexit morphs into world economic slow down and yet Gertjan apparently thinks we are silly enough to believe he intends to raise interest-rates. Even in a Brexit deal scenario he doesn’t seem to have even convinced himself.

If a transition period is successfully negotiated, and a near term “no deal” scenario is therefore avoided, I
would expect the exchange rate to appreciate somewhat. The degree of future monetary tightening will in
part depend on how large this appreciation is.

Also 2018 taught us how useful the money supply data can be in predicting economic events and yet they have been ignored by Gertjan as we see a reason why he is groping in the dark all the time. That brings me to my point for today which is that the Bank of England has become one big echo chamber with a lack of diversity in any respect but most importantly in views. External members are supposed to bring a fresh outlook but this has failed for some time now. So it would be simpler if we saved the other eight salaries and let Governor Carney set interest-rates as really all they are doing is saying “I agree with Mark”. After all even the Bank of Japan with its culture of face manages to produce some dissent these days.

 

 

Germany will be the bellweather for the next stage of ECB monetary easing

Today there only is one topic and it was given a lead in late last night from Japan. There GDP growth was announced as 0.3% for the last quarter of 2018 which sounded okay on its own but meant that the economy shrank by 0.4% in the second half of 2018. Also it meant that it was the same size as a year before. So a bad omen for the economic growth news awaited from Germany.

In the fourth quarter of 2018, the gross domestic product (GDP) remained nearly at the previous quarter’s level after adjustment for price, seasonal and calendar variations.

If you want some real precision Claus Vistensen has given it a go.

German GDP up a dizzying 0.0173% in Q4.

Of course the numbers are nothing like that accurate and Germany now faces a situation where its economy shrank by 0.2% in the second half of 2018. The full year is described below.

Hence short-term economic development in Germany showed two trends in 2018. The Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) reports that, after a dynamic start into the first half of the year (+0.4% in the first quarter, +0.5% in the second quarter), a small dip (-0.2% in the third quarter, 0.0% in the fourth quarter) was recorded in the second half of the year. For the whole year of 2018, this was an increase of 1.4% (calendar adjusted: 1.5%). Hence growth was slightly smaller than reported in January.

Another way of looking at the slowdown is to compare the average annual rate of growth in 2018 of 1.5% with it now.

+0.6% on the same quarter a year earlier (price and calendar adjusted)

If we look at the quarter just gone in detail we see that it was domestic demand that stopped the situation being even worse.

The quarter-on-quarter comparison (price, seasonally and calendar adjusted) reveals that positive contributions mainly came from domestic demand. Gross fixed capital formation, especially in construction but also in machinery and equipment, increased markedly compared with the third quarter of 2018. While household final consumption expenditure increased slightly, general government final consumption expenditure was markedly up at the end of the year.

Is the pick up in government spending another recessionary signal? So far there is no clear sign of any rise in unemployment that is not normal for the time of year.

the number of persons in employment fell by 146,000, or 0.3%, in December 2018 on the previous month. The month-on-month decrease was smaller than the relevant average of the past five years (-158,000 people.

Actually we can say that it looks like there has been a fall in productivity as the year on year annual GDP growth rate of 0.6% compares with this.

Number of persons in employment in the fourth quarter of 2018 up 1.1% on the fourth quarter of 2017.

Also German industry does not seem to have lost confidence as we note the rise in investment which is the opposite of the UK where it ha been struggling. But something that traditionally helps the German economy did not.

However, development of foreign trade did not make a positive contribution to growth in the fourth quarter. According to provisional calculations, exports and imports of goods and services increased nearly at the same rate in the quarter-on-quarter comparison.

In a world sense that is not so bad news as the German trade surplus is something which is a global imbalance but for Germany right now it is a problem for economic growth.

So let us move on as we note that German economic growth peaked at 2.8% in the autumn of 2017 and is now 0.6%.

Inflation

This morning’s release on this front does not doubt have an element of new year sales but seems to suggest that inflation has faded.

 the selling prices in wholesale trade increased by 1.1% in January 2019 from the corresponding month of the preceding year. In December 2018 and in November 2018 the annual rates of change had been +2.5% and +3.5%, respectively.
From December 2018 to January 2019 the index fell by 0.7%.

Bond Yields

It is worth reminding ourselves how low the German ten-year yield is at 0.11%. That according to my chart compares to 0.77% a year ago and is certainly not what you might expect from reading either mainstream economics and media thoughts. That is because the German bond market has boomed as the ECB central bank reduced and then ended its monthly purchases of German government bonds. Let me give you some thoughts on why this is so.

  1. Those who invest their money have seen a German economic slowing and moved into bonds.
  2. Whilst monthly QE ended there are still ECB holdings of 517 billion Euros which is a tidy sum especially when you note Germany not expanding its debt and is running a fiscal surplus.
  3. The likelihood of a new ECB QE programme ( please see Tuesday’s post) has been rising and rising. Frankly the only reason it has not been restarted is the embarrassment of doing so after only just ending it.

Accordingly it would not take much more for the benchmark ten-year yield to go negative again. After all all yields out to the nine-year maturity now are. Let me point out how extraordinary that is on two counts. First that it happened at all and next the length of time for which negative bond yields have persisted.

If we look at that from another perspective we see that Germany could if it so chose respond to this slowing with fiscal policy. It can borrow for essentially nothing and in both absolute and relative terms its national debt has been falling. The awkward part is presentational after many years of telling other euro area countries ( most recently Italy) that this is a bad idea!

Comment

If you are a subscriber to the theme that Euro area monetary policy has generally been set for Germany’s benefit then there is plenty of food for thought in the above. Indeed it all started with the large devaluation it engineered for its exporters via swapping the Deutschmark for the Euro. That is currently very valuable because a mere glance at Switzerland suggests that rather than 1.13 to the US Dollar  the DM would be say 1.50 and maybe higher. Care is needed because as the Euro area’s largest economy of course it should be a major factor in monetary policy just not the only one.

Right now there will be chuntering of teeth in Frankfurt on two counts. Firstly that my theme that the timing of what you do matters nearly as much as what you do and on this front the ECB has got it wrong. Next comes the issue that it was not supposed to be the German economy that was to be a QE junkie. Yes the trade issues have not helped but it is deeper than that.

With some of the banks in trouble too such as Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank we could see a “surprise” easing from the ECB especially if there is a no-deal Brexit. That would provide a smokescreen for a fast U-Turn.

Me on The Investing Channel

Good news for UK inflation comes with another attempt to mislead us

Yesterday saw quite a development in the UK inflation measurement saga as the Treasury Select Committee joined the fray by writing to the UK National Statistician John Pullinger.

As the Economic Affairs Committee presented in their report, the error caused the RPI to be artificially inflated by 0.3 percentage points in 2010……There was general agreement amongst the witnesses spoken to that the 0.3 percentage point increase was an error, and of course you yourself admitted this. Instead of fixing this however, you have designated RPI a “legacy measure”, making no further  improvements to the index. This is not a tenable position when the index remains in widespread use. The past RPI index-linked Gilt matures in 2068.

As I have already replied to the Financial Times on the subject there are some good parts to this but also problems.

Fair enough, except we have an immediate problem as the very bodies which have so failed us over the past 7 years such as the UK Statistics Authority are now supposed to fix a problem they are not only part of they have contributed to. When I gave evidence to it I felt it was simply going through the motions.

The National Statistician and the UK Statistics Authority have failed so comprehensively they cannot be part of the solution. Also as I have reflected on this there are two other problems. Firstly the approach above seems to want to turn the clock back to before 2010 when the RPI was affected by a change in the method of collecting prices for clothing which has turned out to especially impact fashion clothing. Whereas we need to go forwards with an improved model. Also they have come out with a 0.3% number out of thin air as I recall the evidence of Simon Briscoe who gave the most evidence in this area and he wanted further research to get a number rather than stating one, So this from the Treasury Select Committee is both unfounded and potentially misleading.

This has led to a £1 billion yearly windfall for index-linked gilt holders, at the expense of consumers, like students who have seen interest on their loans rise, or rail passengers affected by increasing fares.

You see students,consumers and rail passengers have been affected by a political choice which was to use the higher RPI for when we pay for things and the invariably lower CPI when the government pays for things. Former Chancellor George Osborne was responsible for this swerve which boosted the government;s finances via a type of stealth tax. So I can see why government MPs are keen to push this view but more surprised that opposition MPs have joined in, perhaps they were so busy looking good for the crowd they did not stop to think.

There is also another serious problem as I wrote to the FT.

Next we have the issue that official communiques seem to forget that there are problems with other inflation measures too. For example the House of Lords was very critical of a major part of the measure the UK Office for National Statistics has pushed hard.

 

“We are not convinced by the use of rental equivalence in CPIH to impute owner-occupier housing costs”

 

Can anybody spot the mention of the flawed CPIH above? Those of a fair mind looking for balance would think it deserves it. You see it is always like that……

As you can see there are familiar issues here where the establishment takes evidence but then cherry picks it to come to an answer it wanted all along! A balanced report would recommend changes to both RPI and CPIH. After all the latter is supposed to be the new main inflation measure. Also the use of 0.3% seems to be answering a question before it has been properly asked! We were supposed to go forwards and measure the impact of the changes made in 2010 so if the MPs via their own expertise have calculated the answer at 0.3% they should explain their calculations and reasoning.

I will be writing to them challenging them on these issues. They seem to be unduly influenced by the work of the economics editor of the Financial Times Chris Giles who keeps claiming that index-linked Gilt holders who he called “the gnomes of Zurich” at the Royal Statistical Society. I have challenged him on that statement as after spending many years in that market I do not recall ever dealing with one of these creatures and we know that many UK pension funds including the Bank of England one invest in it instead. Until we do the proper research we cannot know if there has been a windfall let alone the size of it. Chris is much quieter these days past about his vigorous support of CPIH and rental equivalence.

Today’s Data

This brought some welcome good news.

The all items CPI annual rate is 1.8%, down from 2.1% in December.

This has various consequences as for example it has been quite a while since the Bank of England has been below its inflation target. Although as it was partly to do with the Ofgem price cap some of it will not last as it reversed it a few days ago.

The largest downward contribution to the change in the 12-month rate came from electricity, gas and other fuels, with prices overall falling between December 2018 and January 2019 compared with price rises the same time a year ago.

Actually just as I am typing this I see this on Sky News.

Energy supplier Npower says it will raise its standard gas and electricity prices by 10% from 1 April.

If we look further upstream for price trends we see that the pressure continues to be downwards.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 2.1% on the year to January 2019, down from 2.4% in December 2018…..The growth rate of prices for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process slowed to 2.9% on the year to January 2019, down from 3.2% in December 2018.

If we move to the RPI we see that it fell as well and also would have been on target in annual terms.

The all items RPI annual rate is 2.5%, down from 2.7% last month. The annual rate for RPIX, the all items RPI excluding mortgage interest payments (MIPs), is
2.5%, down from 2.7% last month.

Comment

It is a welcome development that I can point out that UK real wages are now increasing against all our inflation measures. After a credit crunch that has been something of a nuclear winter for real wage growth it is nice to see and report on, but sadly we have a long way to go to get back to where we were. Some good news in what looks like an economic downturn.

Let me translate my views on inflation measurement above to a real life example. You see if you follow the establishment mantra you tell people they are better off than they are as the Resolution Foundation has done here.

 

Using the CPIH inflation measure understates the fall in real wages we have seen via its use of rents that are never paid ( Imputed Rent) as a measure of owner occupied housing costs. For newer readers CPIH assumes that people who own a house pay themselves rent and even worse these “estimates” are based on rental data which is dubious and suggested by some to be 1% too low via the wrong balance between new and old rents. In a nutshell this is why I have persisted in my long campaign about inflation measurement because the establishment is happy to produce numbers which to be polite are economical with the truth. I am not.

 

We are now facing a reality of QE to infinity

Today has according to CNBC brought us to a birthday anniversary.

Happy birthday to the BOJ it’s the twentieth anniversary of them starting QE ( @purpleline)

As ever the picture is complicated as the Bank of Japan started buying commercial paper ( which we consider part of QE now) in 1997 and started purchases of Japanese Government Bonds in March 2001. But the underlying principle is that it has been around for much of the “lost decade” period and those claiming success have an obvious problem with the “lost decade” theme. Also they have a problem with then explaining why the name was changed in Japan from QE to QQE as name changes are a sure sign of something that has gone wrong. After all if you have a great brand you don’t change the name. In case you were wondering it is now Qualitative and Quantitative Easing.

It was not consider a triumph as even early on (2006) the San Francisco Fed was worried about this.

While these outcomes appear to be consistent with the intentions of the program, the magnitudes of these impacts are still very uncertain. Moreover, in strengthening the performance of the weakest Japanese banks, quantitative easing may have had the undesired impact of delaying structural reform.

That second sentence has echoed around all subsequent attempts at QE leading to the zombie banks theme of which at the moment Deutsche Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland come to mind but there are plenty of others. The gain was a small drop in JGB yields which is why government’s love the policy as it makes it cheaper for them to borrow.

In 2012 the IMF conducted its own review but with similar results.

Using different measures for economic activity, ranging from growth to unemployment, the VAR
regressions pick up some impact on economic activity. While the evidence is still weak, these results are still an improvement over earlier findings looking at previous QE periods

Looked at like that it makes you wonder why some many countries copied this course of action? The band Sweet gave us a clue I think.

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

Central banks cut interest-rates to what they considered the lower bound saw it was not working and were desperate to find something else. On that subject a theme of mine was confirmed yesterday when David Blanchflower who was a Bank of England policymaker tweeting this.

at mpc in 2008 we were told zlb was .5% for tech reasons relating to building societies. ( ZLB = Zero Lower Bound)

In response to my enquiry that I had heard it was the banks he replied he thought it was due to a regulation but cannot remember exactly. It certainly was a line repeated by Governor Carney although he of course then contradicted it by cutting to 0.25%!

To Infinity! And Beyond!

Regular readers who have followed by argument that interest-rate increases in the United States could be accompanied by more QE in what would no doubt be called QE4 will not be surprised that I spotted this.

U.S. central bankers are currently debating whether it should confine its controversial tool of bond buying to purely emergency situations or if it should turn to that tool more regularly, San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Mary Daly said on Friday.

This is intriguing not least because the actual policy right now is an unwinding of QE that we call Qualitative Tightening or QT. We actually have not had much QT and already there seems to be an element of cold feet about it. Let us look at her exact words.

In the financial crisis, in the aftermath of that when we were trying to help the economy, we engaged in these quantitative easing policies, and an important question is, should those always be in the tool kit — should you always have those at your ready — or should you think about those are only tools you use when you really hit the zero lower bound and you have no other things you can do,” Daly told reporters after a talk at the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.

“You could imagine executing policy with your interest rate as your primary tool and the balance sheet as a secondary tool, but one that you would use more readily,” she added. “That’s not decided yet, but it’s part of what we are discussing now.”

These sort of “open mouth operations” are often a way of preparing us for decisions which if not already been taken are serious proposals. So there is an element of kite flying about this to see the response. The bit that sticks out for me is that Mary Daly is willing to use more readily something she is not even sure worked as this below is far from a claim of success for QE.

when we were trying to help the economy,

That is rather different to it did help.

If we move on to looking at the economic outlook then if the US Federal Reserve is debating this the European Central Bank must be desperate to restart QE. Maybe there was a hint this morning from Jens Weidmann of the German Bundesbank when he spoke in South Africa.

Central banks all over the world were forced to climb great hills over the last decade. And there are more hills on the horizon.

Comment

Let us step back for a moment and consider what QE is and what it has achieved. Is it money printing? Well in electronic terms yes as the money supply grows but it is also a liquidity swap in that the money is exchanged usually for government bonds which then leads to other liquidity swaps via purchases of other assets. Then the trail gets colder….

So the economic effects are

  1. Money flowing into other assets leading to equity and house prices being at least higher than otherwise and usually higher.
  2. It supports companies that would otherwise have folded leading to the zombie banks and businesses theme.
  3. Lower interest-rates and bond yields meaning that it has indirectly helped both politicians and fiscal policy. This does not get much of an airing in the media because it is not well understood.
  4. Higher narrow money supply which has not led to the surge in inflation expected by economics 101 although that is at least partly due to consumer inflation measures being directed to ignore asset prices.

These may improve economic growth at the margin but there are no grand effects here although Mario Draghi only recently claimed that it was responsible for the Euro improvement in 2016/17. But this ignores the problems created as for example many central bankers are now telling us economic growth has a “speed limit” of 1.5% and the place with QE longest ( Japan) guides us to below 1%. Also there are the problems with productivity which have popped up. Finally there is the issue of helping the already wealthy and boosting inequality that is so bad they have to keep making official denials.

Quantitative easing has also helped to reduce net wealth inequality slightly through its positive impact on house prices. ( ECB January 2019)

UK GDP had a relatively good second half of 2018 but a weak December

Today brings a raft of UK economic data as we look at economic growth ( GDP), trade, production (including manufacturing) and construction data. The good news is that we now take an extra fortnight or so to produce the numbers which are therefore more soundly based on actual rather than estimated numbers especially for the last month in the quarter. The not so good news is that I think that adding monthly GDP numbers adds as much confusion as it helps. Also we get too much on this day meaning that important points can be missed, which of course may be the point Yes Prime Minister style.

The scene has been set to some extent this morning by a speech from Luis de Guindos of the ECB.

Euro area data have been weaker than expected in recent months. In fact, industrial production growth fell in the second half of 2018 and the decline was widespread across sectors and most major economies. Business investment weakened. On the external side, euro area trade disappointed, with noticeable declines in net exports.

Whilst that is of course for the Euro area the UK has been affected as well by a change in direction for production. This is especially troubling as in January we were told this.

Production and manufacturing output have risen since then but remain 6.5% and 2.0% lower, respectively, in the three months to November 2018 than the pre-downturn gross domestic product (GDP) peak in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2008.

It had looked like we might get back to the previous peak for manufacturing but like a Northern rail train things at best are delayed. Production has got nowhere near. There have been positive shifts in it as efficiencies mean we need less electricity production but even so it is not a happy picture.

Gilt Yields

Readers will be aware that I have been pointing out for a while how cheap it is for the UK government and taxpayers to borrow and a ten-year Gilt yield of 1.17% backs that up. A factor in this is the weak economic outlook and another is expectations of more bond buying from the Bank of England. The possibility of the later got more likely at the end of last week as rumours began to circulate of a U-Turn from the US Federal Reserve in this area. Or a possible firing up of what would be called QE4 and perhaps QE to infinity.

The Financial Times has caught up with this to some extent.

Investors’ waning expectations of future rises in interest rates are giving a lift to the UK government bond market.

They note that foreign buyers seem to have returned which is awkward for the FT’s cote view to say the least. Also as we look back to the retirement of Bill Gross his idea that UK Gilts were on a “bed of nitroglycerine” was about as successful as Chelsea’s defence yesterday.Anyway I think it steals the thunder from today’s Institute of Fiscal Studies report.

If the coming spending review is to end austerity Chancellor will need to find extra billions.

I am not saying we should borrow more simply that we could and that we seem keener on borrowing when it is more expensive. The IFS do refer to borrowing costs half way through their report but that relies on people reading that far. They also offered a little insight between economic growth and borrowing.

A downgrade of GDP of 0.5% would reduce annual GDP by around £10 billion and a rule-of-thumb suggests it would add between around £5 billion and £7 billion to the deficit.

Economic growth

The headline was not too bad but it did come with a worrying kicker.

UK gross domestic product (GDP) in volume terms was estimated to have increased by 0.2% between Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2018 and Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2018; the quarterly path of GDP through 2018 remains unrevised.

There were concerns about the third quarter being affected by a downwards revision to trade data but apparently not via the magic of the annual accounts. Bur even so it was far from a stellar year.

GDP growth was estimated to have slowed to 1.4% between 2017 and 2018, the weakest it has been since 2009…….Compared with the same quarter in the previous year, the UK economy is estimated to have grown by 1.3%.

We shifted even more to being a services economy as it on its own provided some 0.35% of GDP growth meaning that production and construction declined bring us back to 0.2%.

The worrying kicker was this.

Month-on-month gross domestic product (GDP) growth was 0.2% in October and November 2018. However, monthly growth contracted by 0.4% in December 2018 . The last time that services, production and construction all fell on the month was September 2012.

I have little faith in the specific accuracy of the monthly data but it does seem clear that there was a weakening in December and it was widespread. Even the services sector saw a decline ( -0.2%) and the production decline accelerated to -0.5%. Construction fell by 2.8% but that has been a series in which we have least faith of all.

Production

We learn from the monthly GDP data that steel and car production had weak December’s which helped lead to this.

Production output fell by 0.5% between November 2018 and December 2018; the manufacturing sector provided the largest downward contribution with a fall of 0.7%.

Although the detail in this section gives a different emphasis.

There is widespread weakness this month, with 9 of the 13 sub-sectors falling. Of these, pharmaceuticals, which can be highly volatile, provided the largest negative contribution, with a decrease of 4.2%. There was also a notable fall of 2.8% from the other manufacturing and repair sub-sector, where four of the five sub-industries fell due to the impact of weakness from large businesses (with employment greater than 150 persons on average).

We have learnt over time that the pharmaceutical sector swings around quite wildly ( although not as much as seemingly in Ireland last month) so that may swing back. Also production was pulled lower by the warmer weather but continuing that theme there is a chill wind blowing for this sector none the less.

If we switch to a wider perspective it seems that the worldwide economic slowing is leading to a few crutches being used.

 underpinned by strong nominal export growth of 18.9% within alcoholic beverages and tobacco products.

Comment

The theme here is of the good, the bad and the ugly. Where the good is the way that the UK outperformed its European peers in the second half of 2018 after underperforming in the first half. The bad is the decline in the quarterly economic growth rate from 0.6% to 0.2%. Lastly the ugly is the plunge in December assuming that the data is reliable. We were never likely to escape the chill economic winds blowing in the production sector and need to cross our fingers about the impact on services. My theme that we are ever more rebalancing towards services continues in spite of the rhetoric of former Bank of England Governor Baron King of Lothbury.

Meanwhile we continue to have a balance of payment deficit.

The total trade deficit widened £8.4 billion to £32.3 billion between 2017 and 2018, due mainly to a £7.2 billion increase in services imports.

Exactly how much is hard to say as I have little faith in the services estimates. But with economic growth as it is let me leave you with some presumably unintentional humour from the Bank of England.

The Committee judges that, were the economy to develop broadly in line with its Inflation Report projections, an ongoing tightening of monetary policy over the forecast period, at a gradual pace and to a limited extent, would be appropriate to return inflation sustainably to the 2% target at a conventional horizon.

Weekly Podcast

 

 

 

Oh Italia!

Sometimes events just seem to gather their own momentum in the way that a rolling stone gathers moss so let me take you straight to the Italian Prime Minister this morning.

Italy Dep PM Di Maio: Low Growth Views `Theater Of The Absurd’: Messaggero ( @LiveSquawk )

I have to confess that after the way that the Italian economy has struggled for the last couple of decades this brought the Doobie Brothers to mind.

What a fool believes he sees
No wise man has the power to reason away
What seems to be
Is always better than nothing
And nothing at all

Then the Italian statistics office produced something of a tour de force.

In December 2018 the seasonally adjusted industrial production index decreased by 0.8% compared with
the previous month. The percentage change of the average of the last three months with respect to the
previous three months was -1.1.

As you can see these numbers are in fact worse than being just weak as they show a monthly and a quarterly fall. But they are in fact much better than the next one which is really rather shocking.

The calendar adjusted industrial production index decreased by 5.5% compared with December 2017
(calendar working days being 19 versus 18 days in December 2017); for the whole year 2018 the
percentage change was +0.8 compared with 2017.
The unadjusted industrial production index decreased by 2.5% compared with December 2017.

Just for clarity output was 2.5% lower but as there was an extra working day this year then on a like for like basis it was some 5.5% lower. I would say that was a depressionary type number except of course Italy has been in a long-standing depression.

Digging deeper into the numbers we see that on a seasonally adjusted basis there was a rally in industrial production as the 100 of 2015 nearly made 110 in November 2017, but now it has fallen back to 103.9. But even that pales compared to the calendar adjusted index which is now at 93.3. So whilst the different indices can cause some confusion the overall picture is clear. We do not get a lot of detail on manufacturing except that on a seasonally adjusted basis output was 5.5% lower in December than a year ago.

The drop is such that we could see a downwards revision to the Italian GDP data for the fourth quarter of last year which was -0.2% as it is. Actually the annual number at 0.1% looks vulnerable and might make more impact if the annual rate of growth falls back to 0%. Production in a modern economy does not have the impact it once did and Italy’s statisticians were expecting a fall but not one on this scale.

Monthly Economic Report

After the above we advance on this with trepidation.

World economic deceleration has spilled over into Q4, particularly in the industrial sector, which has
experienced a broad-based loss of momentum in many economies and a further slowing in global trade growth.
In November, according to CPB data the merchandise World trade in volume decreased 1.6%.

So it is everyone else’s fault in a familiar refrain, what is Italian for Johnny Foreigner? This is rather amusingly immediately contradicted by the data.

In Italy, real GDP fell by 0.2% in Q4 2018, following a 0.1% drop in the previous quarter. The negative result is
mainly attributable to domestic demand while the contribution of net export was positive.

So in fact it was the domestic economy causing the slow down. This thought is added to by the trade data where the fall in exports is dwarfed by the fall in imports at least in November as we only have partial data for December.

As for foreign trade, in November 2018 seasonally-adjusted data, compared to October 2018, decreased both
for exports (-0.4%) and for imports (-2.2%). Exports drop for EU countries (-1.3%) and rose for non EU
countries (+0.6%). However, according to preliminary estimates in December also exports to non-EU
countries decreased by 5.0%.

Now let me give an example of how economics can be the dismal science. Because whilst in isolation the numbers below are welcome with falling output they suggest falling productivity.

In the same month, the labour market, employment stabilized and the unemployment rate decreased only
marginally.

The future looks none too bright either,

In January 2019, the consumer confidence improved while the composite business climate
indicator decreased further. The leading indicator experienced a sharp fall suggesting a
worsening of the Italian cyclical position in the coming months.

Indeed and thank you for @liukzilla for pointing this out the Italian version does hint at some possible downgrades, Via Google Translate.

The data of industrial production amplify the tendency to reduce the rhythms of
activity started in the first few months of 2018 (-1.1% the economic variation in T4).

Also a none too bright future.

Data on industry orders also showed a negative trend, with a decrease for both markets in the September-November quarter (-1.3% and -1.0% respectively on the market).
internal and foreign).

The Consumer

Yesterday’s data provided no cheer either.

In December 2018, both value and volume of retail trade contracted by 0.7% when compared with the previous month. Year-on-year growth rate fell by 0.6% in value terms, while the quantity sold decreased by 0.5%.

Although on a quarterly basis there was a little bit assuming you think the numbers are that accurate,

In the three months to December (Quarter 4), the value of retail trade rose by 0.1%, showing a slowdown
to growth in comparison with the previous quarter (+0.4%), while the volume remained unchanged at
+0.3%.

Actually there was never much of a recovery here as the index only briefing rose to 102 if we take 2015 as 100 and now is at 101.5 according to the chart provided. Odd because you might reasonably have expected all the monetary stimulus to have impacted on consumer spending.

Population

This is now declining in spite of a fair bit of immigration.

On 1 st January 2019, the population was estimated to be 60,391,000 and the decrease on the previous year was
around 90,000 units (-1.5 per thousand)………The net international migration amounted to +190 thousand, recording a slight increase on the previous year (+188
thousand). Both immigration (349 thousand) and emigration (160 thousand) increased (+1.7% and +3.1%
respecitvely).

Bond Markets

I have pointed out many times that Italian bond yields have risen for Italy in both absolute and relative terms. Let me present another perspective on this from the thirty-year bond it issued earlier this week.

Today Italy issued 8bln 30yr BTPs. Had it issued the same bond last April, it would have received around 1.3 bilion more cash from the market. ( @gusbaratta ).

Comment

This is quite a mess in a lovely country. Also the ironies abound as for example expanding fiscal policy into an economic decline was only recently rejected by the Euro area authorities. They also have just ended some of the monetary stimulus by ending monthly QE at what appears to be exactly the wrong time. So whilst the Italian government deserves some criticism so do the Euro area authorities. For example if the ECB has the powers it claims why is it not using them?

Of course I don’t want to speculate about what contingency would call for a specific instrument but if you look at the number of instruments we have in place now, we can conclude that it’s not true that the ECB has run out of fuel or has run out of instruments. We have all our toolbox still available. ( Mario Draghi )

But just when you might have thought it cannot get any worse it has.

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