The ECB faces a growing policy dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

What has changed?

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

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

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

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

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

Next up was Germany and the good news theme continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about inflation?

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

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

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

Asset prices

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

GERMANY’S DAX RISES ABOVE 12,000 FIRST TIME SINCE APRIL 2015 ( h/t Darlington_Dick)

Although even the espresso may provide food for thought.

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

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

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

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

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

The Euro

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

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

Comment

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

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

 

 

Inflation is back!

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

An inflationary surge in Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germany

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

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

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

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

Euro area

This morning’s headline is this.

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

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

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

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

Weetabix

The Financial Times reported this yesterday.

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

UK National Statistician

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Rising bond yields are feeding into the real economy

Once upon a time most people saw central banks as organisations which raised interest-rates to slow inflation and/or an economy and cut them to have the reverse effect. Such simple times! Well for those who were not actually working in bond markets anyway. The credit crunch changed things in various ways firstly because we saw so many interest-rate cuts ( approximately 700 I believe now) but also because central bankers ran out of road. What I mean by that is the advent of ZIRP or near 0% interest-rates was not enough for some who plunged into the icy cold waters of negative interest-rates. This has posed all sorts of problems of which one is credibility as for example Bank of England Governor Mark Carney told us the “lower bound” for UK Bank Rate was 0.5% then later cut to 0.25%!

If all that had worked we would not be where we are and we would not have seen central banks singing along with Huey Lewis and the News.

I want a new drug
One that won’t make me sick
One that won’t make me crash my car
Or make me feel three feet thick

This of course was QE (Quantitative Easing) style policies which became increasingly the policy option of choice for central banks because of a change. This is because the official interest-rate is a short-term one usually for overnight interest-rates so 24 hours if you like. As central banks mostly now meet 8 times a year you can consider it lasts for a month and a bit but in the interest-rate environment that changes little as you see there are a whole world of interest-rates unaffected by that. Pre credit crunch they mostly but not always moved with the official rate afterwards the effect faded. So central banks moved to affect them more directly as lowering longer-term interest-rates reduces the price of fixed-rate mortgages and business loans or at least it should. Also much less badged by central bankers buying sovereign bonds to do so makes government borrowing cheaper and therefore makes the “independent” central bank rather popular with politicians.

That was then and this is now

Whilst there is still a lot of QE going on we are seeing ch-ch-changes even in official policy as for example from the US Federal Reserve which has raised interest-rates twice and this morning this from China.

Chinese press reports that the PBoC have raised interest rate on one-year MLF loans by 10bps to 3.1% ( @SigmaSqwauk)

The Chinese bond market future fell a point to below 96 on the news which raised a wry smile at a bond market future below 100 ( which used to be very common) but indicated higher bond yields. These are becoming more common albeit with ebbs and flows and are on that road because of the return of inflation. So many countries got a reminder of this in December as we have noted as there were pick-ups in the level of annual inflation and projecting that forwards leaves current yields looking a bit less than thin. Or to put it another way all the central bank bond-buying has created a false market for sovereign and in other cases corporate bonds.

The UK

Back on the 14th of June last year I expressed my fears for the UK Gilt market.

There is much to consider as we note that inflation expectations and bond yields are two trains running in opposite directions on the same track.

In the meantime we have had the EU leave vote and an extra £60 billion of Bank of England QE of which we will see some £1 billion this afternoon. This drove the ten-year Gilt yield to near 0.5%. Hooray for the “Sledgehammer” of Andy Haldane and Mark Carney? Er no because in chart terms they have left UK taxpayers on an island that now looks far away as markets have concentrated more on thoughts like this one from the 14th of October last year.

Now if we add to this the extra 1.5% of annual inflation I expect as the impact of the lower UK Pound £ then even the new higher yields look rather crackpot.

In spite of the “Sledgehammer” which was designed by Bank of England lifer Andy Haldane the UK ten-year Gilt yield is at 1.44% so higher than it was before the EU leave vote whilst his ammunition locker is nearly empty. So he has driven the UK Gilt market like the Duke of York used to drill his men. I do hope he will be pressed on the economic effects of this and in the real world please not on his Ivory Tower spreadsheet.

The Grand old Duke of York he had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.
When they were up, they were up
And when they were down, they were down
And when they were only halfway up
They were neither up nor down.

If you look at inflation trends the Gilt yield remains too low. Oh and do not forget the £20 billion added to the National Debt  by the Term Funding Scheme of the Bank of England.

Euro area

In spite of all the efforts of Mario Draghi and his bond-buyers we have seen rising yields here too and falling prices. Even the perceived safe-haven of German bonds is feeling the winds of change.

in danger of taking out Dec spike highs in yield of 0.456% (10yr cash) ( @MontyLaw)

We of course gain some perspective but noting that even after price falls the yield feared is only 0.456%! However it is higher and as we look elsewhere in the Euro area we do start to see yield levels which are becoming material. Maybe not yet in Italy where the ten-year yield has risen to 2.06% but the 4% of Portugal will be a continuous itch for a country with such a high national debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio. It has been around 4% for a while now which is an issue as these things take time to impact and I note this which is odd for a country that the IMF is supposed to have left.

WILL PARTICIPATE IN EUROGROUP DISCUSSION ON – BBG ( h/t @C_Barraud)

 

The US

The election of President Trump had an immediate effect on the US bond market as I pointed out at the time.

There has been a clear market adjustment to this which is that the 30 year ( long bond) yield has risen by 0.12% to 2.75%.

 

As I type this we get a clear idea of the trend this has been in play overall by noting that the long bond yield is now 3.06%.  We can now shift to an economic effect of this by noting that the US 30 year mortgage-rate is now 4.06% and has been rising since late September when in dipped into the low 3.3s%. So there will be a contractionary economic effect via higher mortgage and remortgage costs. There will be others too but this is the clearest cause and effect link and will be seen in other places around the world.

Japan

Here we have a slightly different situation as the Bank of Japan has promised to keep the ten-year yield around 0% so you can take today’s 0.07% as either success or failure. In general bond yields have nudged higher but the truth is that the Bank of Japan so dominates this market it is hard to say what it tells us apart from what The Tokyo Whale wants it too. Also the inflation situation is different as Japan remains at around 0%.

Comment

We find ourselves observing a changing landscape. Whilst not quite a return of the bond vigilantes the band does strike up an occasional tune. When it plays it is mostly humming along to the return of consumer inflation which of course has mostly be driven by the end of the fall in the crude oil price and indeed its rebound. What that has done is made inflation adjusted or real yields look very negative indeed. Whilst Ivory Tower spreadsheets may smile the problem is finding investors willing to buy this as we see markets at the wrong price and yield. Unless central banks are willing to buy bond markets in their entirety then yields will ebb and flow but the trend seems set to be higher and in some cases much higher. For example German bunds have “safe-haven” status but how does a yield of 0.44% for a ten-year bond go with a central bank expecting inflation to go above 2% as the Bundesbank informed us earlier this week?

The economic effects of this will be felt in mortgage,business and other borrowing rates. This will include governments many of whom have got used to cheap and indeed ultra-cheap credit.

 

 

 

The confusion around the Target2 system of the Euro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How has this come about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, so this time is different!

What is Target2?

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

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

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

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

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

How could it go wrong?

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

The currency problems of the Czech Republic mount

Today I wish to take a journey to central Europe to take a look at a place which was described by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in September 1938 like this.

“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Of course there are some geo-political issues of that time which are recurring but as we note that the country of back then was spilt into two as we now have Slovakia and the Czech Republic there is something else to interest us. This is the exchange-rate policy of the Czech National Bank (CNB).

The CNB therefore decided in November 2013, in accordance with its statutory mandate to maintain price stability and in line with its previous communications, to start using the exchange rate of the koruna as an additional monetary policy instrument.

A slightly curious description as in preceding paragraphs they told us that what we would now call Forward Guidance on the subject had been working.

caused the Czech koruna to weaken in late 2012/early 2013

We are of course familiar with central bankers struggling with reality and Forward Guidance being a particular problem on this front with up regularly being the new down. However in spite of the claimed improvement we find ourselves noting that yet again what is described these days as “Moar” was required.

The CNB undertook to intervene in the foreign exchange market to weaken the koruna so as to maintain the exchange rate close to CZK 27 to the euro. This exchange rate commitment is asymmetric, i.e. the CNB will stop the koruna appreciating below CZK 27 to the euro but will leave any further depreciation above CZK 27 entirely in the hands of supply and demand on the foreign exchange market.

What is the significance of this?

The first is simply geography and I mean by this proximity to the Euro which has caused problems for a raft of countries around it most notably Denmark and Switzerland with their negative interest-rates. Also the Swiss National Bank has become an enormous hedge fund via its currency interventions and recycling policy. Right now with equity markets on highs that looks a cunning plan but of course trying to realise it on any scale could switch that to the sort of cunning plan espoused by Baldrick in the television series Blackadder.

Next comes the issue that the more you fix the exchange-rate the less you can do about internal monetary policy. As the Swiss have found above the money supply and other matters cannot now be controlled. There is a Swiss like element to the policy.

The CNB can use infinite amounts of koruna to purchase foreign currency, as it itself issues the Czech currency in both paper and electronic form. The CNB is resolved to intervene in such volumes and for such duration as needed to maintain the chosen exchange rate level.

Be careful what you promise! Anyway the Koruna went above the 27 level until late summer 2015 since when if you are willing to ignore minor moves a fixed exchange-rate at 27. The price of this is that it needed to intervene starting at just over 1 billion Euros worth in July 2015 and peaking at just under 4 billion last October. The small-scale is probably simply the fact that for many of the main currency players and investors it is too small a market to bother with and that is for those who know it exists! Sometimes small is indeed beautiful.

What happens next?

Well on the 22nd of December this was decided.

The Bank Board therefore states again that the CNB will not discontinue the use of the exchange rate as a monetary policy instrument before 2017 Q2. The Bank Board still considers it likely that the commitment will be discontinued in mid-2017.

I guess worries immediately arise about any Forward Guidance from a central bank as we note that exit strategies if we are being polite have proved to be somewhat problematic. This morning’s update from the Czech Statistical Office has brought this into focus.

Consumer prices in December increased compared with November by 0.3%…….. The year-on-year growth of consumer prices amounted to 2.0%, i.e. 0.5 percentage points up on November. It is the highest year-on-year price growth since December 2012.

This is a bit like the point where a train or aircraft announces that you have arrived at your destination! What caused this?

The month-on-month rise in consumer prices in ‘food and non-alcoholic beverages’ came primarily from the increase in prices of vegetables by 10.6%, of which prices of vegetables cultivated for their fruit rose by 40.8%.

Are “vegetables cultivated for their fruit” tomatoes? Anyway the Czechs are seeing an outbreak of food inflation which of course hits the poorest the most.

Prices of rolls and baguettes were higher by 10.4% (1.5% in November), eggs by 13.7% (10.3% in November), fresh butter by 20.7% (16.6% in November). Prices of vegetables cultivated for their fruit were higher by 41.5% (a drop by 10.1% in November).

It looks like there are effects here which may unwind a bit but as we go into 2017 we can expect more of this if we look at the price of crude oil.

In ‘transport’, prices of automotive fuel turned from a drop in November by 0.3% to a growth by 4.3%.

Actually if we were to use the Euro area standard which has some logic if you are shadowing it as a currency then we are above the inflation target already albeit marginally.

the HICP in the Czech Republic in December went up by 0.3%, month-on-month, and by 2.1%, year-on-year.

Oh and there is a be afraid, be very afraid moment in the further detail.

So far, imputed rentals have been excluded from the HICP

If this from fastFT is any guide then the word control needs to go into my financial lexicon for these times.

Policymakers have maintained a hard upper limit on the koruna at CZK27 against the euro since 2013 in a bid to control inflation

What about unemployment?

Whilst the CNB has trouble ahead there is one area where things look pretty good and I mentioned it in passing yesterday as we looked at Germany.

the lowest unemployment rates in November 2016 were recorded in the Czech Republic (3.7%) and Germany (4.1%).

If we look more generally economic growth had disappointed a bit according to the CNB.

Industrial production growth slowed considerably, mainly reflecting an unexpected downturn in exports in October. The long-running decline in construction output, caused mainly by a drop in public investment, slowed only marginally in October. Retail sales growth remains at solid levels.

Since then we have discovered that industrial production rose by 1.3% in November on the month before making the numbers in that area look better.

More German than the Germans

If I give you a couple of snapshots you will understand what I mean.

The general government balance expressed as a percentage of GDP reached a high surplus of 2.16 percent in the third quarter of 2016…….General government consolidated gross debt decreased annually by 1.92 p.p. to 38.73 percent of GDP.

No doubt there is a (long) word in German for this but that is way beyond my language skills. Also whilst we are in a Germanic style surplus zone there is this.

In January−November 2016, trade surplus in national concept reached CZK 189.9 bn which represented a y−o−y increase of CZK 57.8 bn.

Comment

So far I have avoided the phrase competitive devaluation but this is what we have seen from the Czech Republic. To put it another way it can be labelled as “exporting deflation” as it has kept its exchange rate lower than otherwise to gain a competitive gain which means that someone else has lost via a competitive disadvantage. Not too friendly and this has been added to via the fact it has shadowed the Euro which itself has fallen. If we were looking for a concrete example of this then perhaps Reuters have shown us one earlier today.

Skoda Auto, the Czech unit of carmaker Volkswagen (DE:VOWG_p), raised global deliveries by 6.8 percent to a record 1.13 million cars in 2016, lifted by rising sales in Europe and China, the company said on Tuesday.

This leaves us with two issues. The first is that the economies trying to lower their currency are a large group if we start with the main group of the Euro area, China and Japan with the UK of course also recently depreciating. Secondly looking forwards the CNB faces the issue of how it exits if inflation picks up quickly or whether it follows the central banker philosophy of shouting both “temporary” and “counterfactual” whilst looking the other way.

Is this the revenge of the bond vigilantes?

The latter part of 2016 has seen quite a change in the state of play in bond markets. If we look at my own country the UK we only have to look back to the middle of August to see a situation where the UK Gilt market surged to an all-time high. This was driven by what was called a “Sledgehammer” of monetary easing according to the Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane.  This comprised not only £60 billion of Gilt purchases and £10 billion of corporate bond purchases but also promises of “more,more,more” later in the year. Not only was this a time of bond market highs it was also a time of what so far at least has been “peak QE” as central planners like our Andy flexed both their muscles (funded of course by a combination of the ability to create money and taxpayer backing) and their rhetoric.

However those who pushed the UK Gilt market to new highs following the Bank of England now face large losses as you see it has fallen heavily since. The ten-year Gilt yield which fell to 0.5% is now 1.5% as the Bank of England’s Forward Guidance looks ever more like General Custer at Little Big Horn with bond vigilantes replacing the Red Indians. Let me switch into price terms which will give you a clearer idea of the scale of what has taken place. There are always issues with any such measure but the UK Gilt which matures in 2030 can be considered as an average. Fresh with his central planning mandate Mark Carney paid 152.7 for it back in mid-August but last week he got a relative bargain at 138 and if today’s prices hold will be paying much less later this week.

This of course means that the Bank of England has made fairly solid losses on this round of QE as we wonder if that is the “Sledgehammer” referred to. So will anyone else who bought with them and I raise this as some may have been forced to buy in a type of “stop-loss” situation as we wait to see if the pain became too much for some pension funds and insurance companies. Such a situation would be a complete failure as we recall central banks are supposed to supervise and maintain free and fair markets which awkwardly involves stopping the very price and yield manipulation that QE relies on.

As we stand the overall Bank of England QE operation will be in profit but of course that has been partly driven by the new round of it! Anyway here is a picture of the Sledgehammer as it currently stands.

What has driven this?

The UK may well have been at least partially a driving force on the world scene in mid-summer but of course the recent player has been the Trump Truck on its journey to the White House. I recall pointing out on here on November 9th that this part of his acceptance speech meant that a new fiscal policy seemed on its way.

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.

It had an immediate impact.

There has been a clear market adjustment to this which is that the 30 year ( long bond) yield has risen by 0.12% to 2.75%.

We have of course more perspective now and this morning that yield has nudged 3.2%. Of course there is ebb and flow but also we have seen a clear trend.

Crude Oil

This has also been a player via its impact on expectations for inflation. This morning the announced deal between OPEC and non-OPEC countries saw the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil rising 5% to around US $57 per barrel. This compares to the recent nadir of around US $42 in early August. There are of course differences in taxation and so on but roughly I would expect this to raise annual consumer inflation by around 0.5%. This time around the effect seems set to be larger as we have so far replaced the price falls of the latter part of 2015 with rises in 2016. Of course the oil price will change between now and the end of 2016 but this gives an idea of the impact as we stand.

There has also been a general shift higher in commodities prices or to be more specific a surge in metals prices which has only partially been offset by the others. The CRB (Commodity Research Bureau) Index opened 2016 in the low 370s and is now 427.

US Federal Reserve

This has had an influence as well. It contributed to the bond market rally by the way its promises of “3-5” interest-rate rises were replaced by a reality of none so far. Now we face the prospect of this Wednesday’s  meeting thinking that they probably have to do one now to retain any credibility at all. Back on November 9th I wondered if they would and there are still grounds for that as we look at Trump inspired uncertainty and higher bond yields and US Dollar strength. However on the other side of the idea I note that @NicTrades suggesting they could perhaps do 0.5% this week. Far too logical I think!

But as we look back at nearly all of 2016 how much worse could the Forward Guidance of the US Federal Reserve have been?

The Ultras

No not the Italian football hooligans as I am thinking here of the trend that involved countries issuing ever longer dated debt. If we stay with Italy though Mark Jasayoko had some thoughts yesterday on Twitter.

Italy‘s 50year bond issued on Oct 5 is down 11.33% since. = 4yrs of coupons Dear bond bulls, enjoy holding on for the next half century.

Oh Well as Fleetwood Mac would say. There was also Austria with its 70 year bond which pretty much immediately fell and I note that this morning reports of a yield rise approaching 0.1%.  Those who gambled on the ECB coming to the rescue are left with the reality that such long-dated bonds are currently excluded from its QE. As for the 100 year bond issued by Ireland in March the price may well have halved since then.

Perhaps the outer limit of this can be found in Mexico which issued a 100 year Euro denominated bond in March 2015. Of course not even Donald Trump can put a wall around a bond but it puts a chill up your spine none the less.

As we look at the whole environment we see that taxpayers have done well here or more likely governments who will spend the “gains” and investors will have lost. Should the wild swings lead to casualties and bailouts the taxpayer picture will get more complex.

Comment

So we have seen a sort of revenge of the bond vigilantes although care is needed as a few months hardly replaces a bear market which in trend terms has lasted for around 3 decades. However there is a real economy effect here and let me highlight it from the United States.

Interest rates on U.S. fixed-rate mortgages rose to their highest levels in more than two years……..The Washington-based industry group said 30-year fixed-rate conforming mortgages averaged 4.27 percent, the highest level since October 2014……..The spike in 30-year mortgage rates, which have risen about 0.50 percentage point since the Nov. 8 election, has reduced refinancing activity.

That effect will be seen in many other countries and we will also see the cost of business loans rise. Also over time governments which have of course got used to ever cheaper borrowing seem set to find that the tie which was forever being loosened is now being tightened. How is the fiscal expansionism recommended by establishment bodies such as the IMF looking now?

 

 

Time for The Italian Job?

In a year of events which were seemingly considered unexpected and at times unthinkable by the establishment we now face another role of the dice. This comes over the weekend in Italy. There is an irony that on the face of it the issues are domestic ones. As the Guardian describes below.

A series of major changes to the Italian political system. These reforms, which affect a third of the Italian constitution, have already been approved by parliament but by a slim margin, thus requiring that they also be passed by referendum……Under the proposed reforms, the Senate would lose almost all its power – the number of senators would be reduced from 315 to 100, and the remaining senators would no longer be elected directly.

The idea is to speed up legislation by in essence going from 2 political chambers to one to stop this sort of thing happening.

his means, put simply, that it can take a very long time for things to get done. For example, a law to give children born out-of-wedlock the same rights as children of married couples took nearly 1,300 days to be approved.

How very Italian! Which is of course part of Italy’s charm and also part of the problem. Another sign of this being Italy is that apparent reform involves creating an unelected second chamber. But the fundamental issue is that as so often happens the question on the ballot paper has morphed into becoming something of a vote on Prime Minister Renzi himself. Not perhaps the best plan when anti-establishment forces seem to have the upper hand. But as ever I will leave the political debate alone.

The economics

I recall that the appointment of Prime Minister Renzi was claimed as a new dawn for Italy and that his reforms would lead to much better economic growth. I remember asking supporters what changes were about to happen? If we look at yesterday’s update some 2 and a bit years down the road there seems to be little sign of progress.

In the third quarter of 2016 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 0.3 per cent with respect to the second quarter of 2016 and by 1.0 per cent in comparison with the third quarter of 2015.

The progress that there has been sees annual economic growth at 1% as opposed to 0.3%. So higher but of course feeds right into my theme that Italy struggles to get its economic growth rate above 1% in the good times. Are these good times? Well ECB President Mario Draghi keeps telling us that it is the negative interest-rates and QE bond buying of the ECB which has pushed economic growth higher. Also this has been a phase of a lower price for crude oil and indeed other commodities which should also have boosted the Italian economy. As per yesterday’s article that may be fading but as we look back it has certainly been in play.

Actually Mario Draghi may have been thinking of his home country when he said this in Wednesday.

Without concerted effort on structural reforms, per capita income growth in euro area is likely to stagnate or even decline

Per capita GDP has fallen by around 6% since it joined the Euro by my calculations. Whereas he is pointing out he things others have made ch-ch-changes.

Reforms in Spain in mid-2012 are example of a structural reform that has been successful in unblocking the labour market.

What country was he thinking of as a comparison with Spain here as he is interviwed by El Pais?

It is also true that Spain enacted reforms and repaired its financial sector earlier than others, which has proved crucial.

Every ECB meeting there is a part of Mario Draghi’s speech which is as nailed on as say Sergio Parisse in the Italian rugby team. It calls for structural reforms and is an example of rinse and repeat.

The banks

Last weekend the Financial Times shifted towards panic mode.

Up to eight of Italy’s troubled banks risk failing if prime minister Matteo Renzi loses a constitutional referendum next weekend and ensuing market turbulence deters investors from recapitalising them, officials and senior bankers say.

I guess you are wondering which 8?

Italy has eight banks known to be in various stages of distress: its third largest by assets, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, mid-sized banks Popolare di Vicenza, Veneto Banca and Carige, and four small banks rescued last year: Banca Etruria, CariChieti, Banca delle Marche, and CariFerrara.

Not Unicredit? That would make nine like say the Nazgul.

Monte Paschi

Let us stick with the world’s oldest bank for as moment and there is maybe a saviour on the horizon. From @creditmacro.

MontePaschi may sign preliminary investment agreement with Qatar Investment Authority between Saturday and Monday, Il Sole 24 Ore reports.

Mind you to that ying there is also a yang as Reuters have just reported.

Italy is discussing with the European Commission the terms of a state bailout of ailing bank Monte dei Paschi (BMPS.MI) that has already been requested and could be launched next week if needed, Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported on Friday.

Italy’s third-largest bank needs to raise 5 billion euros ($5.3 billion) by the end of the year to plug a capital shortfall identified by European Central Bank stress tests or face the risk of being wound down.

Care is needed as we have “may” on one side and “could be” on the other. But we do at least have an official denial and we know what they mean! From @livesquawk.

Italian Govt Undersecretary: MontePaschi Will Not Need State Help – ANSA

Anyway the Bank of Italy is dreaming of the future as it let is know on Wednesday.

The Bank of Italy has identified the UniCredit, Intesa Sanpaolo and Monte dei Paschi di Siena banking groups as other systemically important institutions (O-SIIs) authorized to operate in Italy in 2017. The three groups will have to maintain a capital buffer for the O-SIIs of 1.00, 0.75 and 0.25 per cent respectively of their total risk exposure, to be achieved within four years according to the transitional period shown in Table 1.

So SII has replaced SIGI which replaced TBTF ( Too Big To fail) as we go acronym crazy. Do I have that right?

Oh and if you are systemically important should they not all have the same thresholds?

Comment

We find ourselves facing for the first time in 2016 an event where this time the “shock” result is the expected one. Accordingly financial markets should have made much of their adjustment already. Although on the face of it I find it is hard to see much insurance in an Italian two-year government bond yielding 0.22% or indeed a five-year one yielding 0.89%. But perhaps as Reuters reports Mario Draghi has a put option ready for them.

The European Central Bank is ready to temporarily step up purchases of Italian government bonds if the result of a crucial referendum on Sunday sharply drives up borrowing costs for the euro zone’s largest debtor, central bank sources told Reuters.

Ah that word “temporarily” again! Those most annoyed by this should be the Portuguese who have much higher bond yields but by contrast have seen fewer bond purchases than their theoretical share.

As for the Euro it has drifted lower recently as we note an exchange-rate around 1.06 to the US Dollar and the UK Pound has regained ground to 1.18. The trade-weighted move has been from 96.1 to 94.4 so relatively minor. However looking forwards whilst there could be a knee-jerk fall surely an increase in the possibility of Italy leaving the Euro makes it more of a “hard” and “safe-haven” currency so it could later rise.

Don’t get a job involving numbers

This is from a Bank of Italy working paper on undeclared assets.

Third, it estimates the portion of tax evasion connected to the underreporting of foreign assets to range between $20 trillion and $42 billion a year over the period 2001-2013 for capital income tax,

Thanks for that!