Should the ECB be reformed and how?

This morning has brought an intriguing opinion piece in the Alphaville section of the Financial Times. It concerns the European Central Bank and comes from what you might call a classic insider as the header suggests.

Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, Société Générale chairman, Project Associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Senior Fellow at LUISS School of European Political Economy in Rome.

This covers a lot of ground as after all shouldn’t  being chairman of Societe Generale be a full-time job? This dichotomy where lower jobs are full-time but more senior ones are not seems to be ever more common. With a share price less than a quarter of what it was at its peak and furthermore it being down 25% over the past year you might think directors would be fully employed trying to make things better. Of course we are invariably told that such people can have so many roles because they are so capable and intelligent which of course then begs the question of how we are where we are?

For some reason the Financial Times header was a little forgetful of the fact that Mr Bini Smaghi was an Executive Board member of the ECB for six years from 2005. This matters as it is likely that he is being used like a weather vane, so let us take a look.

The Inflation Target

Here is the opening salvo, with which regular readers will be familiar.

The ECB’s primary objective is price stability, defined as “a rate of inflation below but close to 2 per cent”. The average inflation rate over the 20 years of the euro has been 1.7 per cent, which may suggest success.

Now even your average Martian will be aware that the last decade has not been a success but look what Lorenzo picks out.

However, the result has been less satisfactory (a dalliance with deflation) in more recent periods.

This focusing on deflation is misleading for several reasons. Firstly he is deliberately equating falling prices or disinflation with shrinking aggregate demand or deflation. This matters because Lorenzo’s “deflation” was essentially the result of a lower oil price as I pointed out at the time. Also rather than a problem, at a time of restricted wage growth lower and indeed negative inflation provides an economic boost via its positive impact on real wages. I pointed this out back on the 29th of January 2015.

However if we look at the retail-sectors in the UK,Spain and Ireland we see that price falls are so far being accompanied by volume gains and as it happens by strong volume gains. This could not contradict conventional economic theory much more clearly.

Thus Lorenzo is flying something of a false flag here and is an example of what I predicted back then.

 If the history of the credit crunch is any guide many will try to ignore reality and instead cling to their prized and pet theories but I prefer reality ever time.

You will not be surprised to find that the suggestion is a loosening of the target as seen below.

 Furthermore, research shows that the ECB’s policy decisions over the years anyway reflect a symmetric interpretation of the target around 2 per cent. So why not move to such a target? It would at least be more transparent.

This matters even more if we note that in spite of the negative interest-rates and the QE inspired balance sheet expansion the ECB has in its own terms not yet achieved its target. This is because whilst inflation is above 2% at 2.1% of that some 0.8% is energy costs which are mostly outside its control. Putting it another way it is remarkable how little consumer inflation has been created by so much monetary easing. In fact with it so low we have to question whether it also has disinflationary influences not predicted by economics 101.

Thus even what seems a minor reshuffling of the target would if we remain in a similar situation to now lead to the possibility of a large policy change. We could get QE to its current maximum in terms of Euro area sovereign bonds where they are bought up to the limit imposed by the German bond market. In a way it all comes from this misrepresentation or lie.

 reconsider the definition of price stability.

Price stability would be 0% not 2% per annum. In response my suggestion would be to lower the Euro area inflation target to either 1.5% or 1%.

Signals

The next bit is even odder.

The two pillars are analysis of economic and monetary data, but the latter — money and credit aggregates — have proved over time to be unreliable predictors of inflationary pressures……….. In July 2008, for instance, the resilient fast pace of credit growth justified the rate hike which was made, even as the real economy had started to show signs of a slowdown

Actually if we look at annual M1 growth which is the leading indicator for monetary data the annual rate of growth had fallen from 11.7% in December 2005 to 0.1% in July 2008. So the truth is that the ECB simply looked at (backwards-looking) credit growth rather than the clear signal from M1. Actually, looking at like that the series without seasonal adjustment could hardly be much clearer.

Collateral

As you can imagine our bank chairman is not keen on the way countries can be excluded from this. After all who will think of the banks holding their debt? Here is his proposed solution.

Consideration should be given to return to a system based on progressive haircuts.

Share risk, as well as supervision

This would have the Starship Enterprise on yellow if not red alert. This is the current state of play.

Banks that are solvent, but do not have adequate collateral, may require the central bank to act as a so-called “lender of last resort”. That function for banks is still decentralized, with the national central banks bearing the risks.

So if an Italian bank were to fail it is the responsibility of the Bank of Italy to step in. Whereas Lorenzo wants this.

In particular, if the decision on whether a bank is solvent and is eligible to emergency lending is centralized, the risk for such lending should be shared.

So in this new universe the ECB would be responsible and not the Bank of Italy as the federal web gets more steel and perhaps titanium. The issue of being “solvent” is usually a red herring as central banks seem to find the most disastrous business models as being viable.

Exit Troika, stage left

Nobody seems to have told Lorenzo about the nomenclature change to “The Institutions”, but of course bankers often struggle with current events. Anyway it is hard to disagree with the thrust here, frankly who would want to be a member of it?

Remaining a member of the Troika is now less justified, and the unpopularity of adjustment programmes tends to erode the ECB’s reputation and independence.

Let somebody else take the blame!

Comment

The good news is the implied view that the ECB needs reform. Sadly the predictable part is that it heads in a direction which has so far caused more trouble than it has solved. For those who believe that the Euro establishment want crises so that they can present what they wanted to achieve anyway as part of the crisis resolution there is another tick in that box. My suggestion would be for a much more root and branch reform of central banking. For example inflation control has morphed into inflation creation or in consumer inflation terms attempted inflation control. Plus of course a boost for those who own assets.

However it is also true that the ECB has been left exposed and in the cold by the Euro establishment. The lack of any political response in terms of economic policy to the credit crunch left it and monetary policy with far too much to do. It has overplayed its hand in response, and must now fear heading into the next downturn with its foot still pressing down on the accelerator. At least it managed to shuffle its holdings of Greek debt largely to another Euro area body but that process and its insistence on full repayment added to the crisis at its height.

Heading forwards I would have two main suggestions.

  1. Lower the inflation target
  2. Much more questioning of what QE actually achieves.
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The Dollar shortage of 2018 and maybe 19

Today we return to a topic which has been regularly in the headlines in 2018. We started the year with the US administration that looking like it was talking the US Dollar lower in line with its America First policy. Back on the 23rd of January we were mulling this.

“Obviously a weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities,” Mnuchin told reporters in Davos. The currency’s short term value is “not a concern of ours at all,” he said.

However as the year has gone by we have found ourselves mulling what the US Treasury Secretary said next.

“Longer term, the strength of the dollar is a reflection of the strength of the U.S. economy and the fact that it is and will continue to be the primary currency in terms of the reserve currency,” he said.

If we look at matters from the perspective of the Euro then the 1.20 of the opening of 2018 was fairly quickly replaced by 1.25. But since then the US Dollar has rallied and has moved to 1.15. Some of that has been in the past few days as it has moved from 1.18 to 1.15. That recent pattern has been repeated across most currencies and at 114 the US Dollar us now up on the year against the Yen as well. The UK Pound has suffered this year from a combination of the Brexit process and the machinations of the unreliable boyfriend but it too has been falling recently against the US Dollar to below US $1.30 whilst holding station with other currencies.

Year end problems

The currency moves above are being at least partly driven by this from Reuters.

As the Fed raises interest rates and reduces its balance sheet, and the dollar and U.S. bond yields move up, overseas investors are finding it increasingly difficult and costly to access dollars. That much is obvious. What’s perhaps more surprising – and potentially worrying – is just how expensive and scarce those dollars are becoming.

So with US Dollar scarce it seems that some have been dipping their toes into the spot currency markets as a hedge. This is because other avenues have become more expensive.

Until this week the cross-currency basis market, one of the most closely-watched measures of broad dollar demand, liquidity and funding, had showed no sign of stress. Demand for offshore dollars was being met easily and at comfortable prices.But the basis widened sharply on Thursday, the day after the Fed raised rates for the eighth time this cycle and signalled it fully intends to carry on hiking. In euros, it was the biggest one-day widening since the Great Financial Crisis.

So last week there was a type of double whammy of which the first part came from the US Federal Reserve.

In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 2 to 2-1/4 percent.

So US official interest-rates have risen but something else has been happening.

Three-month dollar funding costs are currently running around 2.50 pct. Not high by historical standards and, on the face of it, surely manageable for most borrowers. But it is heading higher, and the availability of dollars is shrinking.

So as you can see a premium is being paid on official interest-rates. So we have higher interest-rates and a more expensive currency. We know that in spite of the official rhetoric that various countries are moving away from dollar use the trend has been the other way. From Reuters again.

All this at a time when the world’s reliance on the dollar has never been greater. Its dominance as the international funding currency has grown rapidly since the 2008 crisis, especially for emerging market borrowers.

Dollar credit to the non-bank sector outside the United States stood at 14 percent of global GDP at the end of March this year, up from 9.5 pct at the end of 2007, according to the Bank for International Settlements.

Dollar lending to non-bank emerging markets has more than doubled to around $3.7 trillion since the crisis and a similar amount has been borrowed through currency swaps.

Regular readers will recall that back on the 25th of September I took a look at the potential for a US Dollar shortage as we face a new era.

The question to my mind going forwards is will we see a reversal in the QT or Quantitative Tightening era? The supply of US Dollars is now being reduced by it and we wait to see what the consequences are.

Indian problems

The largest country in the sub-continent has been feeling the squeeze in several ways recently. One has been the move away from emerging market economies and currencies. Another has been the impact of the fact that India is a large oil importer and the price of crude oil has been rising making the problem worse. This morning’s move through US $86 for a barrel of Brent Crude Oil may fade away but over the past year we have seen a rise of around 53%. For the Indian Rupee this has been something of what might be called a perfect storm as it has found itself under pressure from different avenues at the same time. Back on the 16th of August I looked at the Indian crude oil dependency and since then the metric have got worse. The price of oil has risen further and partly in response to that the Rupee has weakened from 70 to the US Dollar which was a record low at the time to 74 today.

Accordingly I noted this earlier from Business Standard.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on Wednesday allowed oil-marketing companies (OMCs) to raise dollars directly from overseas markets without a need for hedging.

In a post-market notification, the RBI said the minimum maturity profile of the borrowings should be three years and five years, and the overall cap under the scheme would be $10 billion. The central bank relaxed criteria for this.

It gives us a guide to the scale of the Indian problem.

The oil-swap facility was much anticipated in the market, as that would have taken the pressure away from the market substantially. Annually, the dollar demand on oil count is $120 billion, or about $500 million, on a daily basis for every working day.

And the driving factor was a lack of US Dollar liquidity

The RBI announcements on liquidity are more focused towards providing relief to the NBFCs (non-banking financial companies) and banks, rather than cooling of the rupee in the FX markets,

Let us move on after noting that the Reserve Bank of India may have had a busy day.

Currency dealers say the RBI intervened lightly in the market.

Comment

Overnight we have seen news regarding a possible impact on the US treasury bond market which is for holders a source of US Dollars. From Janus Henderson US.

Euroland, Japanese previous buyers of 10yr Treasuries have been priced out of market due to changes in hedge costs.  For Insurance companies in Germany / Japan for instance, U.S. Treasuries yield only -.10% / -.01%. Lack of foreign buying at these levels likely leading to lower Treasury prices.

This has impacted the US treasury bond market overnight and prices have fallen and yields risen. The ten-year Treasury Note now yields 3.21% instead of 3.15%. That does not make Bill Gross right ( he was famously wrong about UK Gilts being on a bed of nitroglycerine ) as the line of least resistance for markets would be to mark them lower in price terms and see what happens. Try and panic some into selling.

As to the yield issue which may seem odd the problem is that the cost of currency hedging your position is such that you lose the yield. Thus relatively high yielding US Treasuries end up being similar to Japanese Government Bonds and German Bunds.

As ever when there are squeezes on it is not so much the overall position which is a danger but the flows. For example India’s pol problem is good news for oil exporters but if they are not recycling their dollars then there is an imbalance. I guess of the sort which is why this temporary feature became permanent.

In November 2011, the Federal Reserve announced that it had authorized temporary foreign-currency liquidity swap lines with the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, and the Swiss National Bank.

Me on Core Finance TV

 

The Italian job just got a whole lot harder

The last few days have brought back memories of old times as an old stomping ground has returned to the forefront of financial news. This has been the Italian bond market which has been since Friday morning a real life example of the trading phrase “Don’t try to catch a falling piano”, or in some cases knife. If we look at the Italian bond future it has fallen 6 points since late on Thursday from a bit above 127 to a bit above 121. For these times a 2 point a day drop in a bond market is quite a bit especially when we consider that one large holder will not be selling. That is of course the European Central Bank or ECB which as of the 21st of September had bought some 356.4 billion Euros of them. So we note as an initial point that  falls of this magnitude, which has been on average the old price limit for US Treasury Bond futures ( a 2 point move led to a temporary trading stop back in the day) can happen even in the QE era.

Putting this another way the yield on the Italian ten-year benchmark bond has risen to 3.4%. This means that if we look at the deposit rate of the ECB which is -0.4% there is quite a yield curve here. It starts early with for those who have been invested here quite a chilling thought. You see as recently as mid may the Italian two-year yield was negative ( last December it was -0.36%) whereas at the time of typing this it is 1.56%. So those long have had a disaster although of course they can hold the bond to maturity and just lose the yield. Although of course we would not be here if there were not at least the beginnings of fears over the maturity itself such as perhaps you not being paid in Euros. From @DailyFXTeam.

EUR Borghi comments on the desirability of Italy having its own currency push Italian 10-yr yields to 3.4%, highest since March, 2014

Claudio Borghi is the chief adviser to Matteo Salvini who is Deputy Prime Minister and has been upping the rhetoric himself this morning. Via Twitters translation service.

In Italy No one is drinking the threats of Juncker, which now associates our country with Greece.

Madness they call it madness

There has been plenty of this including this curious statement yesterday from Matteo Salvini.

*ITALY’S SALVINI SAYS `GENTLEMEN OF THE SPREAD’ WILL UNDERSTAND

If we bypass the obvious sexism he is referring to the yield spread between Italian bonds and the benchmark for the Euro area which is of course Germany. A part of the Euro project is that these should converge over time as economies also converge. Except we have seen quite a divergence recently as if we look at the ten-year gap this morning it reached 3% per annum, which if you held to maturity would be a tidy sum especially if this fantasy came true.

Borghi advocating an ECB enforced max spread to Germany of 150bps. ( h/t @stewhampton )

In recent times it would appear that the ECB has been the main buyer of BTPs but it as of this week has reduced again its purchases and will buy around 1.7 billion Euros only in October. As we stand it seems unlikely to fire up its QE programme just for Italy. It did buy Italian bonds back at the peak of the Euro area crisis but bond yields were more than double what they are now.

The Deficit

In the grand scheme of things the change here has been quite minor. From Reuters.

Italy new eurosceptic government proposed on Thursday a budget that increases the deficit to 2.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2019, tripling it in comparison with the plans of its predecessors.

Actually the real change has been from 1.8% of GDP as rumoured just over a week ago, as we find that 0.6% of GDP has turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Actually the real switch in my opinion is not to be found here but rather in the implications for the national debt.

Under EU law Italy should reduce its public debt rather than increase borrowing. Rome’s total debt is worth 133 percent of GDP.

Just as a reminder the Euro area limit is supposed to be 60% of GDP. Thus Italy is supposed to be reducing its ratio but we know that it has been increasing it over the credit crunch era. Should the higher bond yields last then they will put further upwards pressure on it and in some respects Italy will start to look a little like Greece.

The economy

This is the crux of the matter as the most revealing point is that the budget forecast relies on Italy growing at 1.6% or 1.7% next year. The catch for those who have not followed its economic trajectory is that it only grows at about 1% in the good years and has had a dreadful credit crunch era. Those who were cheerleaders for the “Renzinomics” of around 2014 need to eat more than one slice of humble pie as it never happened. Yesterday brought another same as it ever was signal.

Manufacturing operating conditions in Italy stagnated during September as output and new orders both fell marginally. Job creation was sustained, but at a much slower rate as signs of spare capacity persisted………September’s data also marked the first time in just over two years that the sector has failed to expand.
Manufacturing output fell in September. Although negligible, the decline in production marked a second successive monthly contraction in line with a similar development for new orders.

If we switch to the official monthly economic report it too is downbeat.

In August, both consumer confidence and the composite business indicator declined, influenced respectively by the worsening of economic expectations and the climate in manufacturing sector, which is further affected by the
decline in book orders and expectations on production.

So we see that Italy which grew by 0.5% in the first half of the year will do well to repeat that in the second half especially if we note the slowing of the Euro area money supply we looked at last Thursday.

Much better news came from the labour market.

In August 2018, 23.369 million persons were employed, +0.3% over July. Unemployed were 2.522 million,
-4.5% over the previous month……..Employment rate was 59.0%, +0.2 percentage points over the previous month, unemployment rate was 9.7%, -0.4 percentage points over July 2018 and inactivity rate was 34.5%, +0.1 points over the previous month.

Let us hope that is true as Italy badly needs some good economic news, but it has developed a habit of declaring such numbers and then revising them higher later. Also it remains a bad time to be young in Italy.

Youth unemployment rate (aged 15-24) was 31.0%, +0.2 percentage points over the previous month

Comment

The situation here is something which has been changed by some rather small developments. Why? Well it is a consequence of my “Girlfriend in a Coma” theme which I have been running for some years now. When you grow by so little in the good times you are left vulnerable to changes, and hence apparently small ones can cause trouble. This has been added to by the frankly silly rhetoric on both sides.

Added to this is the issue of the consequences of the QE era which has been a subject over the past couple of weeks. Italy tucked itself under the “Whatever it takes” umbrella of President Draghi of the ECB but has not reformed much if at all so as the umbrella gets folded up and put away it is vulnerable again. Since that speech was given in the summer of 2012 the Italian economy has grown by a bit over 2% and is still some 4-5% smaller than it was a decade ago. This is the real Girlfriend in a coma issue which has led to the problems with the banks and the national debt and has given us the Italian version of a lost decade. As the population has been growing the individual experience has been even worse than that.

The other way that Italy is different to Greece is that in Euro terms it is indeed systemic due to its much larger size.

 

 

 

 

Slowing money supply growth puts the ECB between a rock and a hard place

Sometimes life is awkward and this morning is an example of that for the central bankers of the Euro area at the European Central Bank or ECB. Let me open with the hard place which is a development we have been following closely in 2018 and comes direct from the ECB Towers.

The annual growth rate of the broad monetary aggregate M3 decreased to 3.5% in August 2018 from 4.0% in July, averaging 4.0% in the three months up to August.

This matters because if we look forwards the rule of thumb is that it represents the sum of economic growth and inflation. So we initially see that something of a squeeze is on. In fact it has been one of the guiding variables for ECB policy. Let me give you an example of this from the January press conference where Mario Draghi told us this.

Turning to the monetary analysis, broad money (M3) continues to expand at a robust pace, with an annual rate of growth of 4.9% in November 2017, after 5.0% in October, reflecting the impact of the ECB’s monetary policy measures and the low opportunity cost of holding the most liquid deposits.

Back then the garden looked rosy with the Euroboom apparently still continuing. But in the April press conference Mario Draghi had gone from bullish to nervous.

 It’s quite clear that since our last meeting, broadly all countries experienced, to different extents of course, some moderation in growth or some loss of momentum. When we look at the indicators that showed significant, sharp declines, we see that, first of all, the fact that all countries reported means that this loss of momentum is pretty broad across countries. It’s also broad across sectors because when we look at the indicators, it’s both hard and soft survey-based indicators.

He did not specifically refer to the money supply data but we now know that in March the rate of M3 growth had fallen to 3.7% and that whilst he may not have had all the data warning signs would be there. In such circumstances always look for what they do not tell you about!

Since then the numbers have fluctuated somewhat as it their want but the trend is clear as they sing along to “Fallin'” by Alicia Keys. The big picture is that the 5.3% of March 2018 has been replaced by 3.5% now.

The Rock

This for the ECB is its inflation target as it is one of the central banks who really do try very hard to achieve it as opposed to the lip-service of say the Bank of England. I still recall Jean-Claude Trichet defining it as 1.97% in his valedictory speech, and whilst that contains some spurious accuracy you get the idea. So in a sense what we now have are happy days.

The euro area annual inflation rate was 2.0% in August 2018, down from 2.1% in July 2018. A year earlier, the rate
was 1.5%.

Except if you take my rule of thumb above and in a broad sweep the amount left over for economic growth has gone from ~3.5% to more like 1.5%. This morning has brought news which suggests the inflation collar may be getting a little tighter. We do not get the overall number for Germany until later today but the individual lander have been reporting higher numbers with Bavaria leading the charge at 0.5% monthly and 2.5% annually for its CPI. However we do now have what appears to be a leaked number as @fwred explains.

Yep, German CPI apparently leaked early once again . 0.4% MoM consistent with strong regional data, would push inflation rate to 2.3-2.4% YoY, way above expectations.

As the largest economy in the Euro area that will pull inflation higher directly and of course there is also the implicit influence that many inflation trends will be international within the shared currency. Returning to my rule of thumb there is even less scope for economic growth if this is an accurate picture of the inflation trend.

Narrow Money

If broad money growth gives us the general direction of travel then narrow money gives us the impulse for the next few months or so. How is that going?

The annual growth rate of the narrower aggregate M1, which comprises currency in circulation and overnight deposits, decreased to 6.4% in August from 6.9% in July.

This compares to the 9.9% of September last year which is the recent peak. So the short-term impulse has weakened considerably since then and in terms of quarterly GDP growth we have seen a drop from around 0.7% to 0.4% or so. Of course we are now left wondering if more is to come?

A significant part of this has been the actions of the ECB itself as the 9.9% growth of last September was a consequence of monthly QE purchases being ramped up 80 billion Euros per month in the year from April 2016. Now of course we are in a different situation with them about to drop from 30 billion to 15 billion. This suggests that the fall in M1 growth has further to go.

What about credit?

These have been in a better phase so we can expect the ECB and its area of influence to give them emphasis.

However in my view there are two issues with this. The opening one is that they are  backwards as well as forwards looking as they represent a response to the better growth phase the Euro area was in. The next is that they are in the M3 numbers and in fact represent basically its growth right now ( 3.4%) as the other components net out.

Comment

Today’s news continues a theme of 2018 which is that money supply growth has been fading. In the Euro area this has been exacerbated by the winding down of the expansionary monetary policy of the ECB. Some of it is still there as it used to tell us that a deposit rate of -0.4% was a powerful influence here but much of the QE flow has gone. Thus in the period ahead we will find out if the Euro area economy was like a junkie sipping the sweet syrup of combined QE and NIRP. This morning’s economic sentiment data showing a drop of 0.7 to 110.9 might be another example of people and businesses getting the message.

Looking at the international environment we see that the ECB is increasingly out of phase. Not only did the US Federal Reserve raise interest-rates but so did a central bank nearer to home.

At its meeting today, the CNB Bank Board increased the two-week repo rate (2W repo rate) by 25 basis points to 1.50% ( C = Czech )

The situation is complex as we wait to see if they depress the international economy or we shake it off. But the ECB remains with negative interest-rates when economic growth looks set to slow. What could go wrong?

Me on Core Finance TV

 

 

 

 

The struggles of the French economy are continuing

This morning has brought more disappointing news both for and from the French economy. The statistics institute has released this.

In September 2018, households’ confidence in the economic situation has declined: the synthetic index has lost 2 points and reached its lowest level since April 2016. It remains below its long-term average (100).

This index has been in use for 31 years now so the fact that it is below its long-term average does give us some perspective. Also reaching a level not seen since April 2016 takes us back to around when what we might call the Euroboom began (in the second quarter of 2016 the French economy shrank by 0.2%) which will provide some food for thought for the European Central Bank or ECB. It has been on the wires leaking hints about how it will continue to withdraw its monetary stimulus just as its second largest economy has shown more hints of weakness. If we stay with the Euro theme this measure welcomed it by going above 120 but such heady days were capped by 9/11 and now we have seen 97,97,96 and then 94 in September. So there has been a long-running decline overall which did see a rally in the period 2013 to 17 but perhaps ominously turned down at a similar level to 2007/08. Also the outlook is not bright according to French households.

Future standard of living in France: strong
degradation……… The share of households
considering that the future standard of living in France
will improve in the next twelve months has sharply
declined: the corresponding balance has lost 7 points
and stands below its long-term average.

Markit PMI

This hammered out a similar beat last week.

Output growth across the French private sector
slipped to its lowest since December 2016 during the
latest survey period, with data indicating a broadbased
slowdown across both the manufacturing and
service sectors.

This slowdown had as part of it something you might expect with the ongoing diesel debacle and the trade wars.

Manufacturing businesses frequently reported a deterioration in the automotive sector.

This poses a question if we move to what the French economy did in the first half of 2018. Just as a reminder quarterly economic growth went 0.2% in something of a surprise but then backed it up with another 0.2% reading. I contacted Markit’s chief economist pointing out that a reduction on 0.2% as implied by their survey looked grim. But they are sticking to the view that France did better in the first half of the year and in spite of the recorded slowdown is doing this.

Across the region, growth slowed in Germany and
France but both continued to outperform the rest of
the eurozone as a whole, where the pace of
expansion held close to two-year lows.

I have no idea how France is outperforming by doing worse but there you have it. There were times when Markit was accused by the French government of being too pessimistic about France whereas now it must be delighted with its work.

The official surveys for businesses are also above their long-term averages but the situation here is awkward especially if we look at services. Here the confidence indicator has been stable around 105 for a few months or so suggesting growth and yet if we move to the actual data we know that the French economy has struggled.

Bank of France

In the circumstances the projections released earlier this month look rather optimistic.

In a less dynamic, more uncertain international
environment, French GDP is expected to expand
by 1.6% in 2018, 2019 and 2020. GDP growth
should remain above potential, helping to drive
further reductions in France’s unemployment rate.

They are plainly suggesting that the first half of 2018 will be followed by a vastly more dynamic second half involving growth of 1.2% as opposed to 0.4%. But once you look past that I note that 1.6% economic growth is described as “above potential” which to me seems somewhat depressing. Central bankers have a habit of thinking the same thing at the same time and this reads rather like the 1.5% speed limit that the Bank of England Ivory Tower has suggested for the UK economy.

In essence it is downbeat for domestic demand but hopes that export growth and some investment growth will take up the slack. Let us hope that it is right about the area below as unemployment in France remains elevated compared to its peers.

The ILO unemployment rate should fall gradually
to 8.3% at the end of 2020 (France and overseas
departments)

Although that is still high meaning that for some in France unemployment will be all that they have known.

Public Finances

Perhaps we are seeing an official response to the growth malaise. From Reuters.

France will reduce the tax burden on households and companies by nearly 25 billion euros ($29.4 billion) next year, the government said in its 2019 budget bill, pushing the deficit up towards an EU cap as the economy fails to gain pace.

This represents a change of direction although we do see something very familiar these days in the split between businesses and individuals.

Households will see their tax bill reduced by a total 6 billion euros while business taxes will fall by 18.8 billion euros, resulting in the overall tax burden decreasing to 44.2 percent of national income, the lowest for France since 2012.

There is also some pump priming on the expenditure side of the accounts although it is a reduction on the previous 1.4%.

While the government has kept overall public spending stable this year after inflation, the 2019 budget foresees an increase of 0.6 percent after inflation.

If we move to the debt situation we see what is a factor in President Macron’s enthusiasm for a shared budget in the Euro area.

At the end of Q1 2018, the Maastricht debt reached
€2,255.3 billion, a €36.9 billion increase in comparison
to Q4 2017. It accounted for 97.6% of gross domestic
product (GDP), 0.8 points higher than last quarter’s
level.

This looked like it was going through 100% but was rescued by the growth spurt. Now we wait to see what happens next should the French economy continue the struggles of the first half of 2018.Also there are risks on the debt costs side as we see two factors at play.The first is the tend towards higher bond yields we have sen recently and the second is the ongoing reduction in ECB purchases of French government bonds which had reached 410 billion Euros at the end of August.

Comment

If you want some good news then the sporting front has provided it for France in 2018 with its football world cup victory and it is just about to host golf’s Ryder Cup. But the economic news has disappointed pretty much across the board in an irony considering it is supposed to now have a business friendly government. It is true that the tax cuts are weighted towards the private-sector but so far the economy has slowed down rather than speeding up.

Unless the French statistics office has been missing things the ECB will also be noting that its second largest economy has turned weaker. That will provoke thoughts suggesting it can only boom in response to pretty much flat out monetary stimulus. Also there will be worries about what might happen if the ECB tightens policy as opposed to reducing stimulus. There is a case for that from the inflation data as the annual rate has risen to 2.6% on the equivalent measure to UK CPI which may be why French consumers feel so negative about the economy.

The current issues with the sale of Rafale fighter jets to India seems symbolic too. Corruption in such sales is of course far from unique to France but I also note that the way President Macron is distancing himself from it ( It was not on my watch….) bodes badly for what may happen next.

 

 

 

 

 

The Italian economy looks to be heading south again

Today has opened with what is more disappointing economic news for the land of la dolce vita. From the Italian Statistics Office or Istat.

In July 2018 the seasonally adjusted industrial production index decreased by 1.8% compared with the previous month. The percentage change of the average of the last three months with respect to the previous three months was -0.2.
The calendar adjusted industrial production index decreased by 1.3% compared with July 2017 (calendar working days being 22 versus 21 days in July 2017);

As you can see output was down both on the preceding month and on a year ago. This is especially disappointing as the year had started with some decent momentum as shown by the year to date numbers.

 in the period January-July 2018 the percentage change was +2.0 compared with the same period of 2017.

However if we look back we see that the push higher in output came in the last three months of 2017 and this year has seen more monthly declines on a seasonally adjusted basis ( 4) than rises (3). Looking ahead we see that things may even get worse as the Markit PMI business survey for manufacturing tells us this.

Italy’s manufacturing sector eased towards
stagnation during August. Both output and new
orders were lower, undermined by weak domestic
demand, whilst employment increased to the
weakest degree since September 2016……..Expectations were at their lowest for over five years.

This seems set to impact on the wider economic position.

At current levels, the PMI data suggest industry
may well provide a net negative contribution to
wider GDP levels in the third quarter of the year.

With Italy’s ongoing struggle concerning economic growth that is yet another problem to face. But it is something with which it has become increasingly familiar as the industrial production sector is still in a severe depression. What I mean by that is the peak for this series was 133.3 in August of 2007 and the benchmarking at 100 for eight years later (2015) shows what Taylor Swift would call “trouble,trouble,trouble” . The initial fall was sharp and peaked at an annual rate of 26% but there was a recovery however, in that lies the rub. In 2011 Italy saw a bounce back in production to 111.9 at the peak but then the Euro area crisis saw it plunge the depths again. It did respond to the “Euroboom” in 2016 and 17 but looks like it is falling again and an index of 105.2 in July tells its own story.

So all these years later it is still 21% lower than the previous peak. We worry in the UK about a production number which is 6.1% lower but as you can see we at least have some hope of regaining it unlike Italy.

The wider outlook

Italy’s economy is heavily influenced by its Euro area colleagues and they seem to be noting a slow down as well. From @stewhampton

The ECB committee that oversees the compilation of the forecasts now sees the risks to economic growth as tilted to the downside.

Perhaps they have suddenly noted their own money supply data! At which point they are some time behind us.  Also in the language of central bankers this is significant as they do not switch from “broadly balanced” to “tilted to the downside” lightly, and especially not when they are winding down a stimulus program.

So we see that the Italian economy will not be getting much of a boost from its neighbours and colleagues into the end of 2018.

Employment

Yet again this morning’s official release poses a question about the economic situation in July?

In the most recent monthly data (July 2018), net of seasonality, the number of employees showed a slight decrease compared to June 2018 (-0.1%) and the employment rate remained stable.

This modifies the previous picture which had been good.

The year-on-year trend showed a growth of 387 thousand employees (+1.7% in one year), concentrated among temporary employees against the decline of those permanent (+390 thousand and -33 thousand, respectively) and the growth of the self-employed (+30 thousand).

So more people were in work which is very welcome in a country where a high level of unemployment has persisted. We keep being told that the unemployment rate in Italy has fallen below 11% ( in this instance to 10.7%) but then later it gets revised back up again. Of course even 10.7% is high. I would imagine many of you have already spotted that the employment growth is entirely one of temporary jobs which does not augur well if things continue to slow down.

Some better news

Italy is a delightful country so let us note what some might regard as a triumph for the “internal competitivesness” policies of the Euro area.

Italy’s current account position is one of the country’s most improved economic fundamentals since the financial crisis. As the above chart shows, it improved by 6.2 percentage points to a sizable surplus of 2.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) last year—the highest level since 1997—from a deficit of 3.4% of GDP in 2010.

That is from DBRS research who in this section will have the champagne glasses clinking at the European Commission/

external cost competitiveness gains related to relatively slower domestic wage growth.

The Italian worker who has been forced to shoulder this will not be anything like as pleased as we note that some of the gain comes directly from this.

In response to the recession, nominal imports of goods declined significantly by around 5% a year between 2012 and
2013.

Also Italy has benefited from lower oil prices.

Since then, lower energy prices further contributed to the improvement in the current account, and Italy’s imported energy bill bottomed out at 1.6% of GDP in 2016, down from a peak of 3.9% of GDP in 2012.

Not quite the export-led growth of the economics textbooks is it? Still maybe there will be a boost from tourism.

Why everyone is suddenly going to Milan on vacation ( Wall Street Journal)

According to the WSJ Milan has  “been hiding in plain sight for decades ” which must be news to all of those who have been there which include yours truly.

Comment

The downbeat economic news has arrived just as things seemed to have got calmer regarding the new coalition government. Or as DBRS research puts it.

More recently, the leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to adhere to the European Union (EU) framework. In DBRS’s view, this is a positive development.

This has meant that the ten-year bond yield which had risen above 3.2% is now 2.75%. So congratulations to anyone who has been long Italian bonds over the past ten days or so and should you choose you will be able to afford to join the WSJ in Milan as a reward. However bond yields have shifted higher if we return to the bigger picture so this will continue to be a factor.

In DBRS’s view, total interest expenditure as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) may slightly narrow this year compared with the 3.8% of GDP recorded in
2017.

As new issuance has got more expensive than in 2017 I am not sure about the narrowing point.

Also there is the ongoing sage about the Italian banks which has become something of a never-ending story. Officially Unicredit has been the success story here and yet if it is such a success why were rumours like these circulating yesterday?

The other rumour was a merger with Societe Generale of France. Anyway the current share price of around 13 Euros is a long way short of the previous peak of 370 or so. This reminds us of the news stories surrounding the fall of Lehman Bros. a decade ago as it has been a dreadful decade for both Unicredit and Italy as we note the economy is still 5% smaller than the previous peak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have a serious problem with real wages

One of the features of the early days of this website was the fact that there were regular replies/comments suggesting that wages and earnings would continue to be a problem for some time. I doff my cap to those who first suggested it as it has become a theme of the credit crunch era. This means that your unofficial Forward Guidance was vastly more accurate and useful than those paid to do it. Here is an example from back then (Summer 2010) from the grandly named Office for Budget Responsibility or OBR.

Wages and salaries growth rises gradually throughout the forecast, reaching 5½ percent in 2014.

That to borrow from Star Wars seems like something from “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”. It is even worse if we look at the situation in terms of real wages as the OBR forecast that it would be on target, so we see that real wage growth would be 3% per annum. Happy days indeed! But it was just an illusion.

The scale of that illusion was illustrated by this from Geoff Tily of the Trade Union Congress or TUC earlier this week.

So in the decade before the first TUC meeting in 1868, real wages had fallen by 0.1%. Since then, only the decade to 2018 has seen a worse performance, with real wages down by a whopping 4.4%.

So rather than the sunlit uplands suggested by the OBR we have seen a much more grim reality. As an aside this brings us back to the problem of “experts”. In my opinion you deserve that label if you get things right, for example aircraft designers as air travel is very safe. Whereas official economics bodies are regularly wrong and therefore in spite of the lauding they get from the media do not deserve such a label. I also note that those who debate that issue with me and claim that it does not matter the forecasts are wrong (!) are often from the group that have hopes of gaining employment in this area.

Discovering Japan

This morning has brought more news on wage growth in Japan but before we get to it we need to set the scene. This is because the land of the rising sun has been anything but in terms of wage growth. Or as Japan Macro Advisers put it.

Wages in Japan has been steadily falling in Japan since 1998. Between 1997 and 2012, wages have declined by 12.5%, or by 0.9% per year on average.

Japan has been the leader of the pack in a race nobody wants to win. It also provided a warning which has come in two guises. Firstly the concept of real wages falling in a first world industrialised country and secondly the very long period for which this has been sustained. This is one of the major players in the concept of the lost decade for Japan which in this regard has now lasted for two of them.

This was a driver between the original claims for Abenomics where ending the deflationary mindset was supposed involve higher wage growth. In reality the performance is shown by the official real wage index which was set at 100 in 2015 and was 100.5 last year. So very little growth and in fact a reduction on the 101 of 2014. But hope springs eternal and we know that May and especially June were much better so here is Reuters on this morning’s release of the July data.

Separate data showed Japanese workers’ inflation-adjusted real wages rose 0.4 percent in July from a year earlier, marking a third consecutive month of gains.

What this tells us is that as the bonus season is passing the better phase was for bonuses and nor regular wages or salaries. So whilst the news is welcome it is not the new dawn that some have tried to present it as. Indeed tucked away in the Reuters report is a major issue in this area.

 firms remain wary of raising wages, despite reaping record profits.

The link between companies doing well and wages rising in response has been broken for a while now. Earlier this week Japan Press Weekly was on the case.

Finance Ministry statistics released on September 3 show that in 2017, large corporations with more than one billion yen in capital increased their internal reserves by 22.4 trillion yen to a record 425.8 trillion yen.

Compared with the previous year, big businesses’ current profit was inflated by 4.8 trillion yen to 57.6 trillion yen, 2.3 times larger than that in 2012 when Prime Minister Abe made his comeback. The remuneration for each board member was 19.3 million yen a year, up 600,000 yen from a year earlier. Meanwhile, workers’ annual income stood at 5.75 million yen on average, down 54,000 yen from the previous year.

The section about the rise in profits for big businesses under Abenomics resonates because the critique of his first term was exactly that. He benefited Japan Inc and big business.

The United States

Later today we get the non farm payrolls release from the US telling us more about wage growth. But as we stand in spite of the fact the US economy has had a good 2018 so far the state of play is a familiar one.

Real average hourly earnings decreased 0.2 percent, seasonally adjusted, from July 2017 to July 2018.
Combining the change in real average hourly earnings with the 0.3-percent increase in the average
workweek resulted in a 0.1-percent increase in real average weekly earnings over this period.

Indeed if we look back as Pew Research has done we see that real wage growth has been absent for some time.

A similar measure – the “usual weekly earnings” of employed, full-time wage and salary workers – tells much the same story, albeit over a shorter time period. In seasonally adjusted current dollars, median usual weekly earnings rose from $232 in the first quarter of 1979 (when the data series began) to $879 in the second quarter of this year, which might sound like a lot. But in real, inflation-adjusted terms, the median has barely budged over that period: That $232 in 1979 had the same purchasing power as $840 in today’s dollars.

There have been gains in benefits but not wages over these times.

The Euro area

The Czech National Bank has looked at this and we see an ever more familiar drumbeat.

 In the euro area, nominal wage growth was 1.7% in 2017 Q4, while real wages were broadly flat.

This comes with factors you might expect ( Italy) but also I note Spain which is doing well.

In Italy, by contrast, hourly wages dropped both in nominal terms and in real terms (i.e. adjusted for consumer price inflation). Spain and Austria also recorded wage decreases in real terms.

Also they are not particularly optimistic looking forwards.

However, the wage growth outlooks available for the euro area and especially for Germany do not see wages accelerating significantly any time soon.

We could apply that much wider.

Comment

The message today was explained by Bob Dylan many years ago.

There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

The truth is that the economics profession has been slow to realise that not only would the credit crunch reduce wage growth, but that it was already troubled. Only last night in a reply to a comment I referred to Deputy Governor Wilkins of the Bank of Canada spinning the same old song.

Yet, wages were rising less quickly than we would expect in an economy that is near capacity.

The same old “output gap” mantra when in fact the reality is of inflation at 3% and wages growth at 2.5%.

To be fair some places do seem to be adjusting as the Czech National Bank faces up to an issue that the UK economics establishment continually assures us is not true.

Migration from Eastern Europe, Italy and Spain,3 which has increased mainly because of the financial and debt crisis, is playing a major role. Workers from these countries are increasing the labour supply and perhaps exerting less upward pressure on wages than incumbents. ( They are referring to German wage growth).

Some however seem to inhabit an entirely different universe as this op-ed from November last year in The Japan Times shows.

Thinning labor puts upward pressure on wages, increasing living standards……

 

Let me leave you with an optimistic thought. As I watched the AI documentaries on BBC Four this week I wondered if rather than fearing it we should have hopes for it. Maybe the rise of the machines will be fairer than our current overlords.