Will UK real wages and its banks ever escape the depression they seem trapped in?

Today brings the UK labour market into focus and in particular the situation regarding both real and nominal wage growth. Before we get to that there was news yesterday evening from the Bank of England on one of the highest paid categories.

The 2019 stress test shows the UK banking system is resilient to deep simultaneous recessions in the UK and global economies that are more severe overall than the global financial crisis, combined with large falls in asset prices and a separate stress of misconduct costs. It would therefore be able to withstand the stress and continue to meet credit demand from UK households and businesses.

Yes it is time for the results of the annual banking stress tests which of course are designed to look rigorous but for no-one to fail. So far the Bank of England has avoided the embarrassment of its Euro area peers who have seen a collapse quite soon after. In terms of the detail there is this.

Losses on corporate exposures are higher than in previous tests, reflecting some deterioration in asset quality and a more severe global scenario. Despite this, and weakness in banks’ underlying profitability (which reduces their ability to offset losses with earnings), all seven participating banks and building societies remain above their hurdle rates. The major UK banks’ aggregate CET1 capital ratio after the 2019 stress scenario would still be more than twice its level before the crisis.

As you can see the Bank of England is happy to slap itself on the back here as it notes capital ratios. Although of course higher capital ratios have posed their own problems abroad as we have seen in the US Repo crisis.

Major UK banks’ capital ratios have remained stable since year end 2018, the starting point of the 2019 stress test. At the end of 2019 Q3, their CET1 ratios were over three times higher than at the start of the global financial crisis. Major UK banks also continue to hold sizeable liquid asset buffers.

Actually the latter bit is also an explanation as to why banks struggle to make profits these days and why many think that their business model is broken.

Also I note that their view is that the highest rate of annual house price growth in the period 1987-2006 was 6.6% and the average 1.7%. I can see how they kept the average low by starting at a time that then saw the 1990-92 drop but only 6.6% as a maximum? Odd therefore if prices have risen so little that house prices to income seem now to have become house prices versus household disposable income and thereby often two incomes rather than one.

In terms of share prices this does not seem to have gone down that well with Lloyds more than 4% lower at 64 pence, Royal Bank of Scotland more than 3% lower at 252.5 pence and Barclays over 3% lower at 186 pence. Meanwhile it is hard not to have a wry smile at the fact that the UK bank which you might think needs a stress test which is Metro Bank was not included in the test. Although it has not avoided a share price fall today as it has fallen over 3% to 198 pence. Indeed, this confirms that it is the one which most needs a test as we note it was £22 as recently as January.

Labour Market

Let us start with what are a couple of pieces of good news.

The UK employment rate was estimated at 76.2%, 0.4 percentage points higher than a year earlier but little changed on the previous quarter; despite just reaching a new record high, the employment rate has been broadly flat over the last few quarters.

They get themselves into a little bit of a mess there so let me zero in on the good bit which is tucked away elsewhere.

There was a 24,000 increase in employment on the quarter.

There was also a favourable shift towards full-time work.

This was driven by a quarterly increase for men (up 54,000) and full-time employees (up 50,000 to a record high of 20.71 million), but partly offset by a 30,000 decrease for women and a 61,000 decrease for part-time employees.

I do not know why there was some sexism at play and suspect it is just part of the ebb and flow unless one of you have a better suggestion.

The next good bit was this.

the estimated UK unemployment rate for all people was 3.8%, 0.3 percentage points lower than a year earlier but largely unchanged on the previous quarter…….For August to October 2019, an estimated 1.28 million people were unemployed. This is 93,000 fewer than a year earlier and 673,000 fewer than five years earlier.

There were fears that the unemployment rate might rise. But the reality has been reported by the BBC like this.

UK unemployment fell to its lowest level since January 1975 in the three months to October this year. The number of people out of work fell  by 13,000 to 1.281 million.

Wages

This area more problematic and complex so let me start my explanation with the data.

Estimated annual growth in average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain slowed to 3.2% for total pay (including bonuses) and 3.5% for regular pay (excluding bonuses).

The first impact is simply of lower numbers than we have become used to especially for total pay. Let us move to the explanation provided.

The annual growth in total pay was weakened by unusually high bonus payments paid in October 2018 compared with more typical average bonus payments paid in October 2019.

I have looked at the detail and this seems to have been in the finance and construction sectors where bonus pay was £12 per week and £6 per week lower than a year before. I have to confess I am struggling to think why October 2018 was so good as the numbers now are in line with the others? Anyway this should wash out so to speak in the next 2 months as October 2018 really stood out. Otherwise I would be rather troubled about a monthly increase this year that is only 2.4% above a year before.

So if we now switch to regular pay then 3.5% is a bit lower than we had become used to but in some ways is more troubling. This is because the spot figure for October was 3.2% and it looks as if it might be sustained.

This public sector pay growth pattern is affected by the timing of NHS pay rises which saw some April 2018 pay increases not being paid until summer 2018. As a result, public sector pay estimates for the months April to July 2019 include two NHS pay rises for 2018 and 2019 when compared with 2018. In addition, the single month of April 2019 included a one-off payment to some NHS staff.

Thus public-sector pay growth has faded away and is also now 3.2% on a spot monthly basis.

Anyway the peaks and troughs are as follows.

construction saw the highest estimated growth at 5.0% for total pay and 5.4% for regular pay…….retail, wholesale, hotels and restaurants saw the lowest growth, estimated at 2.3% for total pay and 2.5% for regular pay; this is the sector with the lowest average weekly pay (£339 regular pay compared with £510 across the whole economy)

Comment

There are elements here with which we have become familiar. The quantity numbers remain good with employment rising and unemployment falling although the rate of change of both has fallen. Where we have an issue is in the area of wage growth. The context here is that it did improve just not as much as we previously thought it did. However we still have this.

In real terms (after adjusting for inflation), annual growth in total pay is estimated to be 1.5%, and annual growth in regular pay is estimated to be 1.8%.

That is calculated using the woeful CPIH inflation measure but by chance it at CPI are pretty similar right now, so I will simply point out it would be lower but still positive using RPI.

Thus we see that wage growth and inflation seem both set to fall over the next few months as we wait to see how that balances out. But the underlying issue is that we have an area which in spite of the recent improvements is still stuck in a depression.

For October 2019, average regular pay, before tax and other deductions, for employees in Great Britain was estimated at £510 per week in nominal terms. The figure in real terms (constant 2015 prices) is £472 per week, which is still £1 (0.2%) lower than the pre-recession peak of £473 per week for April 2008.

The equivalent figures for total pay in real terms are £502 per week in October 2019 and £525 in February 2008, a 4.3% difference.

Fingers crossed that we can escape it…..

 

Sweden has a growing unemployment problem

Today is one for some humility and no I am not referring to the UK election. It relates to Sweden and developments there in economic policy and its measurement which have turned out to be extraordinary even for these times. Let me start by taking you back to the 22nd of August when I noted this.

I am less concerned by the contraction than the annual rate. There had been a good first quarter so the best perspective was shown by an annual rate of 1.4%. You see in recent years Sweden has seen annual economic growth peak at 4.5% and at the opening of 2018 it was 3.6%.

We now know that this broad trend continued into the third quarter.

Calendar adjusted and compared with the third quarter of 2018, GDP grew by 1.6 percent.

What was really odd about the situation is that after years of negative interest-rates the Riksbank raised interest-rates at the end of last year to -0.25% and plans this month to get back to 0%. So it has kept interest-rates negative in a boom and waited for a slow down to raise them. But there is more.

The Unemployment Debacle

If we step forwards to October 24th there was another development.

As economic activity has entered a phase of lower growth in
2019, the labour market has also cooled down. Unemployment is deemed to have increased slightly during the year. ( Riksbank)

Actually it looked a bit more than slightly if we switch to Sweden Statistics.

In September 2019, there were 391 000 unemployed persons aged 15─74, not seasonally adjusted, an increase of 62 000 compared with September 2018.

The Riksbank at this point was suggesting it would raise to 0% but gave Forward Guidance which was lower! Make of that what you will.

But in late October Sweden Statistics dropped something of a bombshell.

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Recent Swedish jobless figures – which that have shown a sharp rise in unemployment and led to calls for the central bank to postpone planned interest rate hikes – are suspect, the country’s Statistics Office said on Thursday………….The problems also led to the unemployment rate being underestimated at the start of the year and then overestimated in more recent months.

The smoothed unemployment rate was lowered from 7.3% to 6.8% in response to this and changed the narrative, assuming of course that they had got it right this time. The headline rate went from 7.1% to 6%.

This morning we got the latest update and here it is.

In November 2019, there were 378 000 unemployed persons aged 15─74, not seasonally adjusted, which is an increase of 63 000 persons compared with the same period a year ago. The unemployment rate increased by 1.0 percentage points and amounted to 6.8 percent.

As you can see eyes will have turned to the headline rate having gone from 6% to 6.8% making us wonder if the new methodology has now started to give similar results to the old one. It had been expected to rise but to say 6.3% not 6.8%. We get some more insight from this.

Among persons aged 15–74, smoothed and seasonally adjusted data shows an increase in both the number of unemployed persons and the unemployment rate, compared with nearby months. There were 384 000 unemployed persons in November 2019, which corresponds to an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent.

A much smaller move but again higher and because it is smoothed we also start to think we are back to where we were as this from Danske Bank makes clear.

Ooops! The very unreliable revised new #LFS data showed a significant bounce back up to 7.3 % seasonally adjusted! This is very close to what our model suggested. Ironically, this is just as bad as the old figures suggested. But perhaps these are wrong too? ( Michael Grahn )

So the new supposedly better data is now giving a similar answer to the old. Just for clarity they are taking out the smoothing or averaging effect and looking to give us a spot answer for November unemployment.

The Wider Economy

One way of looking at the work situation is to look at hours worked.

On average, the number of hours worked amounted to 154.3 million per week in November 2019.

But that is lower than under the old system.

On average, the number of hours worked amounted to 156.5 million per week in September 2019…..On average, the number of hours worked amounted to 156.2 million per week in August 2019.

This is really awkward as under the new system Sweden has just under an extra half a million employees but the total number of house worked has fallen. Make of that what you will.

If switch to production we saw a by now familiar beat hammered out earlier this month.

Production in the industry sector decreased by 3.0 percent in October in calendar adjusted figures compared with the same period of the previous year. The industry for machinery and equipment n.e.c. decreased by 6.8 percent in fixed prices and accounted for the largest contribution, -0.2* percentage points, to the development in total private sector production.

Monthly output was up by 0.2% seasonally adjusted but as you can see was well below last year’s. This means Sweden is relying on services for any growth.

Production in the service sector increased by 1.1 percent in October in calendar adjusted figures compared with the same period of the previous year. Trade activities increased by 3.6 percent in fixed prices and contributed the most, 0.5 percentage points, to the development in total private sector production.

So Sweden has maybe some growth which will get a boost from construction.

Production in the construction sector increased by 2.1 percent in October in calendar adjusted figures compared with the same period of the previous year. This sector increased by 2.1 percent in fixed prices, not calendar-adjusted.

If we switch to private-sector surveys then Swedbank tells us this.

The purchasing managers’ index for the private service sector (Services PMI) dropped in November for the third month in a row to 47.9 from 49.4 in October. The
decrease in the index means that service sector activity is continuing to decline in the fourth quarter to levels that have not been seen in six years and that are
contributing to lower hiring needs in service companies,

So maybe the service sector growth has gone as well. The overall measure speaks for itself.

Silf/Swedbank’s PMI Composite index dropped for the third straight month to 47.2 in November from 48.5 in October, reinforcing the view that private sector activity is
slowing in the fourth quarter. Since November of last year the composite index has fallen 7.6 points

Comment

There are two clear issues in this. Of which the first is the insane way in which the Riksbank kept interest-rates negative in a boom and now is raising them in a slowing.

Updated GDP tracker after Nov LFS dropped to a new low since 2012, just 0.26% yoy. ( Michael Grahn of Danske )

Some signals suggest that this may now be a decline or contraction. But whatever the detail the Swedish economy has slowed and will not be helped much by the slower Euro area and UK economies. An interest-rate rise could be at the worst moment and fail the Bananarama critique.

It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
And that’s what gets results

Next is the issue of lies, damned lies and statistics. I am sure Sweden’s statisticians are doing their best but making mistakes like they have about unemployment is a pretty basic fail. It reminds us that these are surveys and not actual counts and adds to the mess Japan made of wages growth. So we know a lot less than we think we do and this poses yet another problem for the central bankers who seem to want to control everything these days.

Let me end with the thought that UK readers should vote and Rest In Peace to Marie Fredriksson of Roxette.

She’s got the look (She’s got the look) She’s got the look (She’s got the look)
What in the world can make a brown-eyed girl turn blue
When everything I’ll ever do I’ll do for you
And I go la la la la la she’s got the look

 

 

 

 

Greece GDP growth is a tactical success but a strategic disaster

Yesterday the Eurogroup made a statement lauding the economic progress made by Greece.

We welcome the confirmation by the institutions that Greece is projected to comfortably meet the primary surplus target of 3,5% of GDP for 2019. We also welcome the adoption of a budget for 2020, which is projected to ensure the achievement of the primary surplus target and which includes a package of growth-friendly measures aimed at reducing the tax burden on capital and labour. Greece has also made significant progress with broader structural reforms, notably in the area of the labour market, digital governance, investment licensing and the business environment.

Actually of course this is another form of punishment beating as we note that the depression ravaged Greek economy will find 3.5% of GDP subtracted from it each year. It is hard not to then laugh at the mention of “growth-friendly” measures. Moving to reform well this all started in the spring of 2010 so why is reform still needed? Indeed the next bit seems to suggest not much has been done at all.

 It will be crucial for Greece to maintain, and where necessary accelerate, reform momentum going forward, including through determined implementation of reforms on all levels. Against this background, we welcome that the Greek authorities reiterated their general commitment to continue the implementation of all key reforms adopted under the ESM programme, especially as regards the reduction of arrears to zero, recruitments in the public sector and privatisations.

Anyway they are going to give Greece some of the interest and profits they have taken off it back.

Subject to the completion of national procedures, the EWG and the EFSF Board of Directors are expected to approve the transfer of SMP-ANFA income equivalent amounts and the reduction to zero of the step-up interest margin on certain EFSF loans worth EUR 767 million in total.

What about the economy?

We have reached the stage I have long feared where any improvement is presented as a triumph. This ignores two things which is how bad matters got and how long it has taken to get here. Or to put it another way Christine Lagarde was right to describe it as “shock and awe” when she was French finance minister but in the opposite way to what she intended.

Manufacturing

This week’s PMI survey from Markit was quite upbeat.

November PMI® survey data signalled a quicker improvement in operating conditions across the Greek manufacturing sector. Overall growth was supported by sharper expansions in output and new orders. Stronger domestic and foreign client demand led to a faster rise in workforce numbers and a greater degree of business confidence.

The reading of 54.1 is really rather good at a time when many other countries are reporting declines although of course the bit below compares to a simply dreadful period.

The rate of overall growth was solid and among the sharpest seen over the last decade.

However there was some good news in a welcome area too.

In response to greater new order volumes, Greek
manufacturers expanded their workforce numbers at a steep pace that was the quickest for seven months.

Also there was some optimism for next year.

Our current forecasts point towards a faster expansion in industrial production in 2020, with the rate of growth expected to pick-up to 1.1% year-on-year.

Sadly though if we look at the previous declines even at such a rate before Maxine Nightingale would be happy.

We gotta get right back to where we started from

Retail Trade

If we switch to the official data we see that the recent news looks good.

The Overall Volume Index in retail trade (i.e. turnover in retail trade at constant prices) in September 2019, increased by 5.1%, compared with the corresponding index of September 2018, while, compared with the corresponding index of August 2019, decreased by 3.9%

So in annual terms strong growth which should be welcomed. But having followed the situation in Greece for some time I know that the retail sector collapsed in the crisis. So we need to look back and if we stay with September we see that the index ( 2015=100) was 144.5 in 2009 and 129.3 in 2010 whereas this year it was 107.3. In fact looking back the peak in September was in 2006 at 167.1 so as you can see here is an extraordinary depression which brings the recent growth into perspective.

Indeed the retail sector was one of the worst affected areas.

Trade

This is one way of measuring the competitiveness of an economy and of course is the area the International Monetary Fund used to prioritise before various French leaders thought they knew better. After such a long depression you might think the situation would be fixed but no.

The deficit of the Trade Balance, for the 9-month period from January to September 2019 amounted to 16,500.5 million euros (18,313.6 million dollars) in comparison with 15,390.6 million euros (18,139.7 million dollars) for the corresponding period of the year 2018, recording an increase, in euros, of 7.2%.

However there is a bright spot which we find by switching to the Bank of Greece.

A rise in the surplus of the services balance is due to an improvement primarily in the travel balance and secondarily in the transport and other services balance. Travel receipts and non-residents’ arrivals increased by 14% and 3.8% year-on-year respectively. In addition, transport (mainly sea transport) receipts rose by 5.5%.

Shipping and tourism are traditional Greek businesses and the impact of the services sector improves the situation quite a bit.

In the January-September 2019 period, the current account was almost balanced, while a €1.4 billion deficit was recorded in the same period of 2018. This development reflects mainly a rise in the services surplus and also an improvement in the primary and the secondary income accounts, which more than offset an increase in the deficit of the balance of goods.

In fact tourism has played an absolute blinder for both the trade position and the economy.

In January-September 2019, the balance of travel services showed a surplus of €14,032 million, up from a surplus of €12,507 million in the same period of 2018. This development is attributed to an increase, by 14.0% or €1,976 million, in travel receipts, which were only partly offset by travel payments, up by 28.0% or €450 million.

GDP

Today has brought the latest GDP data from Greek statistics.

The available seasonally adjusted data indicate that in the 3rd quarter of 2019 the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) in volume terms increased by 0.6% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2019, while
in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2018, it increased by 2.3%.

The story here is of export driven growth which provides some hope. The domestic economy shrank with consumption 0.4% lower and investment 5% lower on a quarterly basis whereas there was this on the external side.

Exports of goods and services increased by 4.5% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2019……….Imports of goods and services increased by 0.6% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2019.

Comment

At first it looks extraordinary that the Greek domestic economy could shrink on a quarterly basis but then of course we need to remind ourselves that the fiscal policy described at the beginning of this article is extraordinarily contractionary. So in essence the recovery seems to be depending rather a lot on the tourism industry. I also note that if we look at the Euro area data there is an unwelcome mention in the employment section.

The largest decreases were observed in Lithuania (-1.2%), Romania (-1.1%), Finland (-0.5%) and Greece (-0.3%).

Not what you would hope for in a recovery period.

Switching to an idea of the scale of the depression we see that in the latest quarter GDP was 49 billion Euros, compared to the previous peak in the spring of 2007 of 63.3 billion Euros ( 2010 prices). So more than 12 years later still nearly 23% lower. That is what you call a great depression and at the current rate of growth it will be quite some time before we get right back where Greece started from.

 

Italy faces yet more economic hard times

This morning has brought more signs of the economic malaise that is affecting Italy, a subject which just goes on and on and on. Here is the statistics office.

In 2019, GDP is expected to increase by 0.2 percent in real terms. The domestic demand will provide a contribution of 0.8 percentage points while foreign demand will account for a positive 0.2 percentage point and inventories will provide a negative contribution (-0.8 percentage points).

That is a reduction of 0.1% on the previous forecast. In one way I doubt their forecasts are accurate to 0.1% but then in another way counting 0.1% growth is their job in Italy. The breakdown is odd though. As the net foreign demand may be small but any growth is welcome at a time of a time war but with domestic demand growing why are inventories being chopped?

So annual economic growth has gone 1.7% in 2017 and 0.8% last year and will now be 0.2% if they are correct. They do manage a little optimism for next year.

In 2020, GDP is estimated to increase by 0.6 percent in real terms driven by the contribution of domestic demand (+0.7
percentage points) associated to a positive contribution of the foreign demand (+0.1 p.p.) and a negative contribution of inventories (-0.2 p.p.).

So the main change here is that the decline in inventories slows. If we switch to a positive we are reminded that Italy’s trade position looks pretty good for these times.

In 2019, exports will increase by 1.7 percent and imports will grow by 1.3 percent, both are expected
to slighty accelerate in 2020 (+1.8% and +1.7% respectively)

Looking at domestic demand it will be supported by wages growth and by this.

Labour market conditions will improve over the forecasting period but at moderate pace. Employment
growth is expected to stabilise at 0,7 percent in 2019 and in 2020. At the same time, the rate of
unemployment will decrease at 10.0 percent in the current year and at 9.9 percent in 2020.

They mean 10% this year and 9.9% next although there is a catch with that.

The number of unemployed persons declined (-1.7%, -44 thousand in the last month); the decrease was the result of a remarkable drop among men and a light increase for women, and involved all age groups, with the exception of over 50 aged people. The unemployment rate dropped to 9.7% (-0.2 percentage points), the youth rate decreased to 27.8% (-0.7 percentage points).

As you can see the unemployment rate was already below what it is supposed to be next year so I struggle to see how that is going to boost domestic demand. Perhaps they are hoping that employment will continue to rise.

In October 2019 the estimate of employed people increased (+0.2%, +46 thousand); the employment rate rose at 59.2% (+0.1 percentage points).

The Markit PMIs

There was very little cheer to be found in the latest private-sector business survey published earlier.

The Composite Output Index* posted at 49.6 in November,
down from 50.8 in October and signalling the first decline in Italian private sector output since May. Despite this, the rate of contraction was marginal.
Underpinning the latest downturn was a marked slowdown
in service sector activity growth during November, whilst
manufacturing output recorded its sixteenth consecutive
month of contraction. The latest decrease was sharp but
eased slightly from October.

I doubt anyone is surprised by the state of play in Italian manufacturing so the issue here is the apparent downturn in the service sector. This leads to fears about December and for the current quarter as a whole. Also the official trade optimism is not found here.

Meanwhile, export sales continue to fall.

Sadly there is little solace to be found if we look at the wider Euro area.

The final eurozone PMI for November came in
slightly ahead of the earlier flash estimate but still
indicates a near-stagnant economy. The survey
data are indicating GDP growth of just 0.1% in the
fourth quarter, with manufacturing continuing to act
as a major drag. Worryingly, the service sector is
also on course for its weakest quarterly expansion
for five years, hinting strongly that the slowdown
continues to spread.

Unicredit

We have looked regularly at the Italian banking sector and its tale of woe. But this is from what is often considered its strongest bank.

After cutting a fifth of its staff and shutting a quarter of its branches in mature markets in recent years, UniCredit said it would make a further 8,000 job cuts and close 500 branches under a new plan to 2023………UniCredit’s announcement triggered anger among unions in Italy, where 5,500 layoffs and up to 450 branch closures are expected given the relative size of the network compared with franchises in Germany, Austria and central and eastern Europe.

Back in January 2012 I described Unicredit as a zombie bank on the business programme on Sky News. It has spent much if not all of the intervening period proving me right. That is in spite of the fact that ECB QE has given it large profits on its holdings of Italian government bonds. Yet someone will apparently gain.

UniCredit promised 8 billion euros ($9 billion) in dividends and share buybacks on Tuesday in a bid to revive its sickly share price, although profit at Italy’s top bank will barely grow despite plans to shed 9% of its staff.

This is quite a mess as there are all sorts of issues with the share buyback era in my opinion.  In the unlikely event of me coming to power I might rule them ultra vires as I think the ordinary shareholder is being manipulated. Beneath this is a deeper point about lack of reform in the Italian banking sector and hence its inability to support the economy. This is of course a chicken and egg situation where a weak economy faces off with a weak banking sector.

Mind you this morning Moodys have taken the opposite view.

The outlook for Italy’s banking system has changed to stable from negative as problem loans will continue to fall, while banks’ funding conditions improve and their capital holds steady, Moody’s Investors Service said in a report published today.

“We expect Italian banks’ problem loans to fall in 2020 for a fifth consecutive year,” said Fabio Iannò, VP-Senior Credit Officer at Moody’s. “However, their problem loan ratio of around 8% remains more than double the European Union average of 3%, according to European Banking Authority data. We also take into account our forecast for weak yet positive Italian GDP growth, and our stable outlook on Italy’s sovereign rating.”

What could go wrong?

Comment

There is a familiar drumbeat and indeed bass line to all of this. In the midst of it I find it really rather amazing that Moodys can take UK banks from stable to negative whilst doing the reverse for Italian ones! As we look for perspective we see that the “Euro boom” and monetary easing by the ECB saw annual economic growth of a mere 1.7% in 2017 which has faded to more or less zero now. We are back once again to the “girlfriend in a coma” theme.

Italy has strengths in that it has a solid trade position and is a net saver yet somehow this never seems to reach the GDP data. Maybe the grey economy provides an answer but year after year it fails to be measured. Of course if politico are correct there is always plenty of trade and turnover here.

Italy’s new coalition government might not last the winter, with tensions reaching a peak this week over EU bailout reform……The 5Stars oppose the planned ESM reform because they say it would make it harder for highly indebted countries, like Italy, to access bailout funds without painful public-debt restructuring.

That reminds me about fiscal policy which is the new go to in the Euro area according to ECB President Christine Lagarde, well except for Italy and Greece.

 

 

 

Where next for US house prices?

Yesterday brought us up to date in the state of play in the US housing market. So without further ado let us take a look.

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, reported a 3.2% annual gain in September, up from 3.1% in the previous month. The 10-City Composite annual increase came in at 1.5%, no change from the previous month. The 20-City Composite posted a 2.1% year-over-year gain, up from 2.0% in the previous month.

The first impression is that by the standards we have got used to that is a low number providing us with another context for the interest-rate cuts we have seen in 2019 from the US Federal Reserve. Of course it is not only the Fed that likes higher asset prices.

“DOW, NASDAQ, S&P 500 CLOSE AT RECORD HIGHS”

Another new Stock Market Record. Enjoy!

Those are 2 separate tweets from Monday from President Trump who not only loves a stock market rally but enjoys claiming it is all down to him. I do not recall him specifically noting house prices but it seems in the same asset price pumping spirit to me.

In my opinion the crucial part of the analysis provided by S&P comes right at the beginning.

After a long period of decelerating price increases, it’s notable that in September both the national and
20-city composite indices rose at a higher rate than in August, while the 10-city index’s September rise
matched its August performance. It is, of course, too soon to say whether this month marks an end to
the deceleration or is merely a pause in the longer-term trend.

If we look at the situation we see that things are very different from the 10% per annum rate reached in 2014 and indeed the 7% per annum seen in the early part of last year.That will concern the Fed which went to an extreme amount of effort to get house prices rising again. From a peak of 184.62 in July of 2006 the national index fell to 134.62 in February of 2012 and has now rallied to 212.2 or 58% up from the low and 15% up from the previous peak.

As ever there are regional differences.

Phoenix, Charlotte and Tampa reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities. In
September, Phoenix led the way with a 6.0% year-over-year price increase, followed by Charlotte with
a 4.6% increase and Tampa with a 4.5% increase. Ten of the 20 cities reported greater price increases
in the year ending September 2019 versus the year ending August 2019…….. Of the 20 cities in the composite, only one (San Francisco) saw a year-over-year price
decline in September

Mortgage Rates

If we look for an influence here we see a contributor to the end of the 7% per annum house price rise in 2018 as they rose back then. But since then things have been rather different as those who have followed my updates on the US bond market will be expecting. Indeed Mortgage News Daily put it like this.

2019 has been the best year for mortgage rates since 2011.  Big, long-lasting improvements such as this one are increasingly susceptible to bounces/corrections……Fed policy and the US/China trade war have been key players.

But we see that so far a move that began in bond markets around last November has yet to have a major influence on house prices. If you wish to know what US house buyers are paying for a mortgage here is the state of play.

Today’s Most Prevalent Rates For Top Tier Scenarios

  • 30YR FIXED -3.75%
  • FHA/VA – 3.375%
  • 15 YEAR FIXED – 3.375%
  • 5 YEAR ARMS –  3.25-3.75% depending on the lender

More recently bonds seem to be rallying again so we may see another dip in mortgage rates but we will have to see and with Thanksgiving Day on the horizon things may be well be quiet for the rest of this week.

The economy

This has been less helpful for house prices.There may be a minor revision later but as we stand the third quarter did this.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased 1.9 percent in the third quarter of 2019, according to the “advance” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the second quarter, real GDP increased 2.0 percent. ( US BEA ).

Each quarter in 2019 has seen lower growth and that trend seems set to continue.

The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 0.7% for 2019:Q4.

News from this week’s data releases increased the nowcast for 2019:Q4 by 0.3 percentage point.

Positive surprises from housing data drove most of the increase.

Something of a mixture there as the number rallied due to housing data from building permits and housing starts.Mind you more supply into the same demand could push future prices lower! But returning to the wider economy back in late September the NY Fed was expecting economic growth in line with the previous 5 months of around 2% in annualised terms.But now even with a rally it is a mere 0.7%.

Employment and Wages

The situation here has continued to improve.

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 128,000 in October, and the unemployment rate was little
changed at 3.6 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Notable job gains occurred in
food services and drinking places, social assistance, and financial activities……..In October, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 6 cents to $28.18. Over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have increased by 3.0 percent.

But the real issue here is the last number. Yes the US has wage gains and they are real wage gains with CPI being as shown below in October.

Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 1.8 percent before seasonal adjustment.

So this should be helping although it is a slow burner at just over 1% per annum and of course we are reminded that according to the Ivory Towers the employment situation should mean that wage growth is a fair bit higher and certainly over 4% per annum.

Moving back to looking at house prices then wage growth is pretty much the same so houses are not getting more affordable on this criteria.

Comment

As we review the situation it is hard not to laugh at this from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Monday.

While events of the year have not much changed the outlook,

You can take this one of two ways.Firstly his interest-rate cuts are not especially relevant or you can wonder why he did them? Looking at the trend for GDP growth does few favours to his statement nor for this bit.

Fortunately, the outlook for further progress is good

Indeed he seemed to keep contradicting himself.

 The preview indicated that job gains over that period were about half a million lower than previously reported. On a monthly basis, job gains were likely about 170,000 per month, rather than 210,000.

But I do note that house prices did get an implicit reference.

But the wealth of middle-income families—savings, home equity, and other assets—has only recently surpassed levels seen before the Great Recession, and the wealth of people with lower incomes, while growing, has yet to fully recover.

As to other signals we get told pretty much every day that the trade war is fixed so there is not a little fatigue and ennui on this subject. Looking at the money supply then it should be supportive but the most recent number for narrow money M1 at 6.8% shows a bit of fading too.

So whilst we may see a boost for the economy from around the spring of next year we seem set for more of the same for house prices.Unless of course the US Federal Reserve has to act again which with the ongoing Repo numbers is a possibility. The background is this though which brings me back to why central bankers are so keen on keeping on keeping house prices out of consumer inflation measures.Can you guess which of the lines below goes into the official CPI?

https://www.bourbonfm.com/blog/house-price-index-vs-owners-equivalent-rent-residences-1990

Whilst it is not sadly up to date it does establish a principle….

 

 

Australia gets ready for QE but claims to reject negative interest-rates

So far the credit crunch era has been relatively kind to Australia. A major factor in this has simply been one of location as its huge natural resources have been a boon and that has been added to by its proximity to a large source of demand. Or putting it another way that is why we have at times given it the label of the South China Territories. However times are now rather different with the headlines being occupied by the subject of the various trade wars and as we have noted along the way this is particularly impacting on the Pacific region. Thus we find that the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia has given a speech this morning on unconventional monetary policy as they too fear that the super massive black hole that was the impact of the credit crunch may be pulling them towards an event horizon.

Why?

If we look at the state of play as claimed by Philip Lowe you may be wondering why this speech is necessary at all?

The central scenario for the Australian economy remains for economic growth to pick up from here, to reach around 3 per cent in 2021. This pick-up in growth should see a reduction in the unemployment rate and a lift in inflation. So we are expecting things to be moving in the right direction, although only gradually.

This is straight out of the central banking playbook where you discuss such moves and then imply they will not be necessary. They think it is a way of deflecting blame and speaking of deflecting blame interest-rate cuts are nothing to do with them either.

low interest rates are not a temporary phenomenon. Rather, they are likely to be with us for some time and are the result of some powerful global factors that are affecting interest rates everywhere

If interest-rates are indeed set by “powerful global factors” then we could trim central banks down to a small staff surely?

Banks

As ever it turns out to be all about “The Precious! The Precious!” for any central banker.

At the moment, though, Australia’s financial markets are operating normally and our financial institutions are able to access funding on reasonable terms. In any given currency, the Australian banks can raise funds at the same price as other similarly rated financial institutions around the world, and markets are not stressed.

You might think that plunging into unconventional economic policy might be driven by the real economy but oh no as you can see there is a different driver. In spite of the effort below to say Australia is different this means that it has learnt nothing and will make the same mistakes.

We are not in the same situation that has been faced in Europe and Japan. Our growth prospects are stronger, our banking system is in much better shape, our demographic profile is better and we have not had a period of deflation. So we are in a much stronger position.

Again this is a central banking standard as they claim “this time is different” and then apply exactly the same policies!

QE it is then

We get various denials which I will come to in a bit but the crux of the matter is below.

My fourth point is that if – and it is important to emphasise the word if – the Reserve Bank were to undertake a program of quantitative easing, we would purchase government bonds, and we would do so in the secondary market.

The explanation of why he would choose this option will certainly be popular with Australia’s politician’s.

The first is the direct price impact of buying government bonds, which lowers their yields. And the second is through market expectations or a signalling effect, with the bond purchases reinforcing the credibility of the Reserve Bank’s commitment to keep the cash rate low for an extended period.

You may note that he has contradicted himself with the second point as he has already told us that low interest-rates are “are likely to be with us for some time”.  He then points out again that he has already acted this year.

It is important to remember that the economy is benefiting from the already low level of interest rates, recent tax cuts, ongoing spending on infrastructure, the upswing in housing prices in some markets and a brighter outlook for the resources sector.

That also gets awkward because having cut interest-rates by 0.75% already this calendar year Governor Lowe is implying we could get to his QE threshold quite quickly.

Our current thinking is that QE becomes an option to be considered at a cash rate of 0.25 per cent, but not before that. At a cash rate of 0.25 per cent, the interest rate paid on surplus balances at the Reserve Bank would already be at zero given the corridor system we operate. So from that perspective, we would, at that point, be dealing with zero interest rates.

Why QE?

Well he is clearly no fan of negative interest-rates.

More broadly, though, having examined the international evidence, it is not clear that the experience with negative interest rates has been a success.

Indeed he may even have read yesterday’s post on here.

Negative interest rates also create problems for pension funds that need to fund long-term liabilities.

Or perhaps he has been a longer-term follower.

In addition, there is evidence that they can encourage households to save more and spend less, especially when people are concerned about the possibility of lower income in retirement. A move to negative interest rates can also damage confidence in the general economic outlook and make people more cautious.

Although this bit is quite a hostage to fortune and may come back to haunt Governor Lowe.

The second observation is that negative interest rates in Australia are extraordinarily unlikely.

Comment

It is hard not to have a wry smile as central bankers catch up with a point I was making about a decade ago.

Given these considerations, it is not surprising that some analysts now talk about the ‘reversal interest rate’ – that is, the interest rate at which lower rates become contractionary, rather than expansionary

I argued it was in the region of 1.5% and Australia is now well below it so it is I think singing along with Coldplay.

Oh no I see
A spider web and it’s me in the middle
So I twist and turn
Here am I in my little bubble

As to why the RBA is preparing the ground for even more monetary action then let me switch to Deputy Governor Debelle who also spoke today. This starts well.

Over much of the past three years, employment has grown at a healthy annual pace of 2½ per cent. This has been faster than we had expected, particularly so, given economic growth was slower than we had expected.

But in a reversal of the Meatloaf dictum that “two out of three aint bad” we get this.

But the unemployment rate has turned out to be very close to what we had expected and has moved sideways around 5¼ per cent for some time now………Then I will look at wages growth and show that the lower average wage outcomes of the past few years have reflected the increased prevalence of wages growth in the 2s across the economy.

The next issue is that does the mere mention of QE operate in the same manner as The Candyman in the film? If so that is at least 2 mentions in Australia so at the most we have 3 to go before it appears.

Finally with a ten-year bond yield already at 1.06% or about 1.5% lower than a year ago, what extra is there to be gained?

 

 

 

 

UK employment trends will worry the Bank of England

Today moves us on from the output situation of the UK economy to the employment and wages situation. On the latter we have already received some good news this week. From the BBC.

Thousands of UK workers will enjoy a pre-Christmas pay bump if their employer is a member of the “real living wage” campaign.

Businesses who have signed up to the voluntary scheme will lift their UK hourly rate by 30p to £9.30.

People living in London will see their hourly pay rise by 20p to £10.75.

The scheme is separate to the statutory National Living Wage for workers aged 25 and above which currently stands at £8.21 an hour.

The Living Wage Foundation said its “real” pay rate – which applies to all employees over 18 – is calculated independently and is based on costs such as food, clothing and household bills.

If we look at the wider pay picture we see from the Bank of England that it has been really rather good.

Pay growth has increased steadily over the past few years as the labour market has tightened. Private sector regular
pay growth was 4.0% in the three months to August, as high as it has been in over a decade. The
strength in pay growth has been broadly based, with growth picking up in both the private and public sectors in recent years.

I am not so sure about their “increased steadily” as they have been like the boy ( and occasional girl) who cried wolf on this subject. But we have seen a better phase and it is this that has been a major factor in keeping us away from recession and seeing some economic growth. The fear looking ahead is that it may fade.

A number of indicators suggest that pay pressures are no longer building, and pay growth may cool over the coming
months . The Bank’s settlements database suggests pay awards are clustering between 2% and 3%, slightly
lower than a year ago. Surveys by the REC and the Bank’s Agents also suggest pay growth is stabilising a little below
the pace of growth in the official data.

This may not be as bad for real pay growth as you might think because there are grounds for thinking inflation will decline. The rally in the UK Pound £ will help bring it lower and I note that having improved against the Euro to over 1.16 we should head towards the inflation rate there.

Euro area annual inflation is expected to be 0.7% in October 2019, down from 0.8% in September according to a
flash estimate from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.

Today’s Data

If we start with the wages data then maybe the Bank of England has been right for once. It does not happen often so let’s give them a little credit.

In the year to September 2019, nominal total pay (which includes bonus payments) grew by 3.6% to reach £542 per week. Over the same period, nominal regular pay (which excludes bonus payments) grew by 3.6% to reach £508 per week.

The nuance to this is that it was not so long ago we would be quite happy with this and there were suspicions that the numbers had been boosted by the timing of NHS settlements. The official view on the impact of this is shown below.

Total and regular pay can be expressed in real terms when they have been deflated. We deflate them using the Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH) (2015=100). After adjustment, real total pay increased by 1.8% over the year to £502 in September 2019. Real regular pay increased by 1.7% over the year to £470.

I am pleased they have switched to “we deflate them” which at least gives some sort of hint of the woeful inflation measure they use as it is driven ( 17%) by imputed rents. As it happens because house price growth has fallen back it is not as wrong as usual but is still an over estimate of real wage growth in my opinion.

There was a counter current in the detail because September wage growth at 3.6% was better than the 3.4% of August. The sector pulling it higher was construction at 6%.

A Wages Depression?

If we move to the bigger picture then even using such a flattering and favourable view of inflation cannot escape this reality.

real regular pay was £3 (or 0.63%) lower than the pre-downturn peak of reached in the three months to April 2008 (£473). The real total pay value of £502 in September was £23 (or 4.38%) lower than the peak reached in the three months to February 2008 (£525).

In spite of the recovery we have seen in other areas particularly output and employment those numbers are a stark reminder that the credit crunch era has brought ch-ch-changes. Even at the current rate of real wage growth it will be more than a couple of years before we do a Maxine Nightingale and get right back where we started from.

Employment

The Resolution Foundation have summed it up here.

it’s clear that there is no bigger change to our economy over this period than the employment boom. Over 3 million more people are in work and the working-age employment rate is around 3 percentage points higher than when we were last broadly at full employment in 2008.

They however find themselves in some theoretical quicksand highlighted by their use of “full employment” when it was a fair bit lower than now and the use of “broadly” does not cut it. They are in the same quicksand with wages as higher labour supply has apparently kept it low and yet in the past we recall being told that higher migration ( higher labour supply) did not affect wage growth.

But the picture here has been like the “Boom! Boom! Boom!” of the Black-Eyed Peas as we note that now the winds of change might be blowing.

The latest UK Labour Force Survey (LFS) estimates for Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2019 saw employment decline by 58,000 to 32.75 million, the second rolling quarterly decrease. However, in the year to September 2019, employment increased by 323,000.

This is consistent with a slowing economy and high levels of employment. We will have to see if the numbers will ebb and flow or have now turned lower. Also the mixture has changed as recent years have been a case of let’s hear it for the girls.

The fall in employment in Quarter 3 was driven by the fall in the number of women in employment, down by 93,000 to 15.46 million. Over the same period, the number of employed men increased by 35,000 to 17.3 million.

Comment

Let me now switch to the best part of today’s report which is this.

The level of unemployment fell by 23,000 to 1.31 million in Quarter 3 2019, while the unemployment rate fell by 0.1 percentage point to 3.8%. Compared with Quarter 3 2018, the level of unemployment decreased by 72,000.

For newer readers unemployment and employment can both rise or as they have in this instance fall. It seems illogical but there is also an inactive category, but the specific move at this time of year is probably related to students.

The mixed picture we have today of slowing wage growth with employment falling will be noted at the Bank of England. Already 2 have voted for an interest-rate cut and more much of these will see that number rise. Of course the Bank of England is in quite a mess as Samuel Tombs of Pantheon inadvertently pointed out.

And at 3.8%, the u/e rate is well below the MPC’s estimate of its sustainable level, 4.25%.

So wage growth should be rising. Oh well! Also that is before we get to them thinking it was 4.5%, 5%, 5.5% and 6.5%. So they do not know what they are doing which usually in their case means another interest-rate cut is in the offing.

That would be curious as we are in a phase where bond yields generally have been backing up. The UK 5 and 2 year yields have risen in response to 0.55%, who said markets were always right? Or indeed always logical?