The challenge for the ECB remains Italy and its banks

This week has seen something of an expected shifting of the sands from the European Central Bank ( ECB) about the economic prospects for the Euro area. On Monday its President Mario Draghi told the European Parliament this.

The data that have become available since my last visit in September have been somewhat weaker than expected. Euro area GDP grew by 0.2% in the third quarter. This follows growth of 0.4% in both the first and second quarter of 2018. The loss in growth momentum mainly reflects weaker trade growth, but also some country and sector-specific factors.

What he did not say was that back in 2017 quarterly growth had risen to 0.7% for a time. Back then the situation was a happy one for Mario and his colleagues as their extraordinary monetary policies looked like they were bearing some fruit. However the challenge was always what happens when they begin to close the tap? Let me illustrate things by looking again at his speech.

The unemployment rate declined to 8.1% in September 2018, which is the lowest level observed since late 2008, and employment continued to increase in the third quarter……..¬†Wages are rising as labour markets continue to improve and labour supply shortages become increasingly binding in some countries.

There is a ying and yang here because whilst we should all welcome the improvement in the unemployment rate, we would expect the falls to slow and maybe stop in line with the reduced economic growth rate. So is around 8% it for the unemployment rate even after negative interest-rates ( still -0.4%) and a balance sheet now over 4.6 trillion Euros? That seems implied to some extent in talk of “labour supply shortages” when the unemployment rate is around double that of the US and UK and treble that of Japan. This returns us to the fear that the long-term unemployment in some of the Euro area is effectively permanent something we looked at during the crisis. In another form another ECB policymaker has suggested that.

I will focus my remarks today on the economies of central, eastern and south-eastern Europe (CESEE), covering both those that are already part of the European Union (EU) and those that are EU candidate countries or potential candidates………..Clearly, for most countries, convergence towards the EU-28 average has practically stalled since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008

Care is needed as only some of these countries are in the Euro but of course some of the others should be converging due to the application process. Even Benoit Coeure admits this.

And if there is no credible prospect of lower-income countries catching up soon, there is a risk that people living in those countries begin questioning the very benefits of membership of the EU or the currency union.

I have a couple of thoughts for you. Firstly Lithuania has done relatively well but the fact I have friends from there highlights how many are in London leading to the thought that how much has that development aided its economy? You may need to probe a little as due to the fact it was part of Russia back in the day some prefer to say they are Russian. Also the data reminds us of how poor that area that was once called Yugoslavia remains. It is hardly going to be helped by the development described below by Balkan Insight.

At the fifth joint meeting of the governments of Albania and Kosovo in Peja, in Kosovo, the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama backed the decision of the Kosovo government to raise the tax on imports from Serbia and Bosnia from 10 to 100 per cent.

Banks

Here the ECB is conflicted. Like all central banks its priority is “the precious” otherwise known as the banks. Yet it is part of the operation to apply pressure on Italy and take a look at this development.

As this is very significant let us break it down and yes in the world of negative interest-rates and expanded central bank balance sheets Unicredit has just paid an eye-watering 7.83% on some bonds. Just the 6.83% higher than at the opening of 2018 and imagine if you held similar bonds with it. Ouch! Of that there is an element driven by changes in Italy’s situation but the additional part added by Unicredit seems to be around 3.5%.

If we look back I recall describing Unicredit as a zombie bank on Sky News around 7 years ago. The official view in more recent times is that it has been a success story in the way it has dealt with non performing loans and the like. Although of course success is a relative term with a share price of 11.5 Euros as opposed to the previous peak of more like 370 Euros. Now it is paying nearly 8% for its debt we need not only to question even that heavily depreciated share price and it gives a pretty dreadful implied view for the weaker Italian banks such as Monte Paschi which Johannes mentions. Also those non-performing loans which were packaged up and sold at what we were told “great deals” whereas now they look dreadful, well on the long side anyway.

Perhaps this was what the Bank of Italy meant by this.

The fall in prices for Italian government securities has caused a reduction in capital reserves and
liquidity and an increase in the cost of wholesale funding. The sharp decline in bank share prices has resulted
in a marked increase in the cost of equity. Should the tensions on the sovereign debt market be protracted, the
repercussions for banks could be significant, especially for some small and medium-sized banks.

Comment

We can bring things right up to date with this morning’s money supply data.

Annual growth rate of narrower monetary aggregate M1, comprising currency in circulation and overnight deposits, stood at 6.8% in October, unchanged from previous month.

So we are holding station to some extent although in real terms we are slightly lower as inflation has picked up to 2.2%. Thus the near-term outlook remains weak and we can expect a similar fourth quarter to the third. Actually I would not be surprised if it was slightly better but still weak..

Looking around a couple of years ahead the position is slightly better although we do not know yet how much of this well be inflation as opposed to growth.

Annual growth rate of broad monetary aggregate M3 increased to 3.9% in October 2018 from 3.6% in September (revised from 3.5%).

On the other side of the coin credit flows to businesses seem to have tightened.

Annual growth rate of adjusted loans to non-financial corporations decreased to 3.9% in October from 4.3% in September

Personally I think that the latter number is a lagging indicator but the ECB has trumpeted it as more of a leading one so let’s see.

The external factor which is currently in play is the lower oil price which will soon begin to give a boost and will reduce inflation if it remains near US $60 for the Brent Crude benchmark. But none the less the midnight oil will be burning at the ECB as it mulls the possibility that all that balance sheet expansion and negative interest-rates gave economic activity such a welcome but relatively small boost. Also it will be on action stations about the Italian banking sector. For myself I fear what this new squeeze on Italian banks will do to the lending to the wider economy which of course had ground to a halt as it is.

 

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The ESM is being made ready to lead the next set of Euro area bailouts

Yesterday saw something of a change in the way that the Euro area would deal with a future crisis. A special purpose vehicle or SPV that was created in response to the post credit crunch crisis is expanding its role. This is the ESM or European Stability Mechanism which was the second effort in this area as the initial effort called the European Financial Stability Fund or EFSF turned out to be anything but that. However that was then and this is now at let me explain the driving force behind all of this which the EFSF highlighted in a press release on the 9th of this month.

The European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) raised ‚ā¨4 billion today in a new 5-year benchmark bond, completing the EFSF‚Äôs funding needs for 2018………..The spread of the 0.20% bond, maturing on 17 January 2024, was fixed at mid swaps minus 13 basis points, for a reoffer yield of 0.258%. The order book was in excess of ‚ā¨5.3 billion.

As you can see it can borrow on extraordinarily cheap terms as it borrows at 0.26% for five years. Back in the day there were questions as to what interest-rate these collective Euro area institutions would be able to borrow at? We now know that they have been able to borrow if not at Germany;s rate ( it was around -0.15% on that day) at what we might consider to be a Germanic rate. Or as Middle of the Road put it.

Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep chirp

In a way it is extraordinary but amidst the turmoil these two vehicles which whilst they still have differences are treated by markets pretty much as they are one have been able to do this. From the 2017 annual report.

The ESM has a strong financial capacity. The EFSF
and the ESM together have disbursed ‚ā¨273 billion in
loans since inception. The ESM has an unused lending
capacity of ‚ā¨380 billion, after taking into account
the maximum possible disbursements to Greece.

As you can see there is still plenty of ammunition in the locker and once the Euro area switched course from punishing nations ( too late for Greece) it allowed it to trumpet things like the one below.

As a result of ESM and EFSF lending terms, our five beneficiary countries saved a total of ‚ā¨16.6¬†billion in debt service payments in 2017, compared to the assumed market cost of funding. Greece alone saved ‚ā¨12¬†billion last year, the equivalent of 6.7% of the country‚Äôs GDP.

Yet it is in fact a geared SPV which is another of its attractions until of course the day that really matters.

to ensure the preservation of the¬†paid-in capital of ‚ā¨80.4 billion.1 This money was paid¬†in by the 19 euro area countries, and is by far the largest¬†paid-in capital of any IFI.

Okay so what changes are planned?

This was explained on Friday in Les Echos by ESM Chair Klaus Regling.

The ESM will play a more important role in financial crisis management together with the European Commission. At the beginning of the crisis, there was the troika consisting of the Commission, the ECB and the IMF. With the third programme for Greece in 2015, the ESM was added and it became a quartet. In the future, in principle, a tandem composed of the Commission and the ESM will deal with assistance programmes for countries in financial difficulty. The IMF and the ECB will play a less important role than 8 years ago.

The IMF move seems sensible on two counts. Firstly it should never have got itself involved in the Euro area in the first place as it has a balance of payments surplus. Secondly and this is of course interrelated to the first point the Euro area cannot always rely on it having a French managing director. The ECB may be more subtle as we mull whether its (large) balance sheet will be deployed in other roles? As an aside it is hardly a sign of success if you have to keep changing the names.

The banks

As we know “the precious” must always be protected in case anyone tries to throw it into Mount Doom. There are obvious issues in Greece to be dealt with.

Both Piraeus Bank and the National Bank of Greece dropped to all time record lows today. ( h/t @nikoschrysoloras )

Actually Piraeus Bank has dropped another 5% today so he could rinse and repeat his message. It seems that the triumphant last bailout is going the way of the previous triumphant bailout. Also there is my old employer Deutsche Bank which has got near to breaking the 8 Euro barrier today which will help to bring the Germans on board. Adding to the fear about its derivatives book is the allegation that some US $150 billion of the Danske money laundering scandal went through the books of¬† DB’s US subsidiary. Sometimes this sort of thing gets really mind-boggling as we observe the period when Danske had a bigger market capitalisation than DB partly driven by money laundering that was facilitated by DB. Do I have that right?

Anyway in the future Klaus Regling may well be stepping in. From his interview with Les Echos.

In June, we agreed that the ESM will provide the backstop. Its volume will be the same as the volume of the Single Resolution Fund. This is being built up with bank contributions and it will reach 1% of bank deposits at the end of 2023, in other words ‚ā¨55 to 60 billion. The decision to use this security net in case the resolution fund is insufficient has to be taken very quickly, even if the parliaments of some countries need to be consulted.

They seem to be hurrying along for some reason…..

 This will be in 2024 at the latest and it could be earlier.

Exactly how can the troubled banking sector which in relative terms is not far off as weak as it was when the credit crunch hit pay for all of this?

Italy

Regular readers will be aware that due to their astonishing track record we take careful note of official denials. Well on the 6th of October the ESM wrote to the Editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The claim that the ESM is guaranteeing Italy’s state debt is wrong. Italy has never lost access to international financial markets. Therefore, Italy has never had a rescue programme with the ESM or its temporary predecessor institution, the EFSF. For the same reason, the ESM has neither guaranteed Italy’s state debt nor has it granted Italy any emergency loans.

Of course not as Italy would have to do as it is told first and presently there is little or no sign of that. But one day…

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here and the likely new role of the ESM is at the top. It is convenient for politicians to pass their responsibilities to technocrats as the latter can take the bad news from a country bailout. However whilst it will need to be approved by the 19 Euro area parliaments these things have a powerful tendency to turn out different to the description on the tin. Just look at the Greek bailout for example.

Whereas the banking moves seem more sotto voce in this but as we seem to be in the middle of if not a crisis a phase where we have seen bank share prices tumble we need to be on alert. It is not just the Euro area girding its loins as for example it was only a few short months ago we were noting plans for more capital for the Bank of England. It is quite an indictment of the bank bailout culture that all these years later we seem to be as David Bowie so aptly put it.

Where’s your shame
You’ve left us up to our necks in it
Time may change me
But you can’t trace time

Mario Draghi and the ECB prepare for a change of course next month

After a week where the UK has dominated the headlines it is time to switch to the Euro area.  This is for two reasons.  We receive the latest inflation data but also because a speech from European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has addressed an issue we have been watching as 2018 has developed. We have been waiting to see how he and it will respond to the economic slow down that is apparent. This is especially important as during the credit crunch era the ECB has not only been the first responder to any economic downturns it has also regularly found itself to be the only one. Thus it finds itself in a position whereby in terms of negative interest-rates ( deposit rate of -0.4%) and balance sheet ( still expanding at 15 billion Euros per month ) and credit easing still heavily deployed. Accordingly this sentence from Mario echoes what we have been discussing for quite a while.

The key issue at stake is as follows: are we witnessing a temporary ‚Äúsoft patch‚ÄĚ or a more lasting deterioration in the growth outlook?

The latter would be somewhat devastating for the man who was ready to do “whatever it takes” to save the Euro as it would return us to discussions about its problems a major one of has been slow economic growth.

Some rhetoric

It seems to be a feature these days of official speeches that they open with what in basketball terms would be called a head fake. Prime Minister Theresa May did it yesterday with an opening sentence which could have been followed by a resignation and Mario opened with what could have been about “broad based” economic growth.

The euro area economy has now been growing for five years, and we expect the expansion to continue in the coming years.

Of course central bankers always expect the latter until there is no other choice. Indeed he confirms that line of thought later.

There is certainly no reason why the expansion in the euro area should abruptly come to an end.

As we move on we get an interesting perspective on the past as well as a comparison with the United States.

Since 1975 there have been five periods of rising GDP in the euro area. The average duration from trough to peak is 31 quarters, with GDP increasing by 21% over that period. The current expansion in the euro area, however, has lasted just 22 quarters and GDP is only around 10% above the trough. In contrast, the expansion in the United States has lasted 37 quarters, and GDP has risen by 21%.

The obvious point is whether you can use the Euro area as a concept before it even existed?! Added to that via the “convergence” promised by the Euro area founders economic growth should be better now than then, except of course we have seen plenty of divergence too. Also you might find it odd to be pointing out that the US has done better especially as the way it is put which reminds us that for all the extraordinary monetary action the Euro area has only grown by 10%. Even that relies on something of a swinging ball as of course he is comparing with the bottom of the dip rather than the past peak as otherwise the number would be a fair bit weaker. Mario is leaving a bit of a trap here, however, or to be more precise he thinks he is.

How have we got here?

First we open with two standard replies the first is that whilst any growth is permanent setbacks are temporary and the other fallback is to blame the weather.

The first is one-off factors, which have clearly played an important role in the underperformance of growth since the start of the year. In the first half of 2018, weather, sickness and industrial action affected output in a number of countries.

Actually that makes the third quarter look even worse as they had gone by then yet growth slowed. He is on safer ground here though.

Production slowed as carmakers tried to avoid building up inventory of untested models, which weighed heavily on economies with large automobile sectors, such as Germany. Indeed, the German economy actually contracted in the third quarter, removing at least 0.1 percentage points from quarterly euro area growth.

This is another marker being put down because it you are thinking that you might need to further expand monetary policy it is best to try to get the Germans onside and reminding them that they too have issues will help. Indeed for those who believe that ECB policy is essentially set for Germany it may be not far off a clincher.

There is something that may worry German car producers if they are followers of ECB euphemisms.

The latest data already show production normalising.

After all the ECB itself may not achieve that.

Trade

This paragraph is interesting on quite a few levels.

The second source of the slowdown has been weaker trade growth, which is broader-based. Net exports contributed 1.4 percentage points to euro area growth in 2017, while so far this year they have removed 0.2 percentage points. World trade growth decelerated from 5.2% in 2017 to 4.6% in the first half of this year.

Oddly Mario then converts a slow down in growth to this.

We are witnessing a long-term slowdown in world trade.

As we note the change in the impact of trade on the Euro area there are several factors in play. You could argue that 2017 was a victory for the “internal competitiveness” austerity model applied although when we get to the collective that is awkward as the Euro area runs a large surplus driven by Germany. From the point of view of the rest of the world they would like it to reduce although the preferable route would be for the Euro area ( Germany ) to import more.

Employment

Mario cheers rightly for this.

Over the past five years, employment has increased by 9.5 million people, rising by 2.6 million in Germany, 2.1 million in Spain, 1 million in France and 1 million in Italy.

I bet he enjoyed the last bit especially! But later there is a catch which provides food for thought.

 But since 2013 more than 70% of employment growth has come from those aged 55-74. This partly reflects the impact of past structural reforms, such as to pension systems.

Probably not the ECB pension though as we are reminded of “Us and Them” by Pink Floyd.

Forward he cried from the rear
And the front rank died
And the general sat
And the lines on the map
Moved from side to side.

Also whilst no doubt some of these women wanted to work there will be others who had no choice.

The share of women in work has also risen by more than 10 percentage points since the start of EMU to almost 60% ‚Äď its highest level ever

Put another way this sentence below could fit into a section concerning the productivity crisis.

 In addition, countries that have implemented structural reforms have in general seen a rise in labour demand in recent years compared with the pre-crisis period. Germany, Portugal and Spain are all good examples.

There is a section on wages but Mario end up taking something of an each-way bet on this.

But in the light of the lags between wages and prices after a period of low inflation, patience and persistence in our monetary policy is still needed.

Money Supply and Credit

This is how central bankers report a sustained and considerable slow down in the money supply.

The cost of bank borrowing for firms fell to record lows in the first half of this year across all large euro area economies, while the growth of loans to firms stood at its highest rate since 2012. The growth rate of loans to households is also the strongest since 2012, with consumer credit now acting as the most dynamic component, reflecting the ongoing strength of consumption.

Also the emphasis below is mine and regular readers are permitted a wry smile.

Household net worth remains at solid levels on the back of rising house prices and is adding to continued consumption growth.

Comment

We are being warmed up for something of a change of course in case it is necessary.

When the Governing Council met in October, we confirmed our confidence in the economic outlook………….When the latest round of projections is available at our next meeting in December, we will be better placed to make a full assessment of the risks to growth and inflation.

As if they are not already thinking along those lines! The next bit is duo fold. It reminds us that the Euro area has abandoned fiscal policy but does have a kicker for the future.

To protect their households and firms from rising interest rates, high-debt countries should not increase their debt even further and all countries should respect the rules of the Union.

The kicker is perhaps a hint that there is a solution to that as well.

In conclusion, I want to emphasise how completing Economic and Monetary Union has become more urgent over time not less urgent ‚Äď and not only for the economic reasoning that has always underpinned my remarks, but also to preserve our European construction………….more Europe is the answer.

There Mario leaps out of his apparent trap singing along to Luther Vandross.

I just don’t wanna stop
Oh my love, a million days in your arms
Is never too much (never too much, never too much, never too much)

Podcast

 

Slowing growth and higher inflation is a toxic combination for the Euro area

Sometimes life comes at you fast and the last week will have come at the European Central Bank with an element of ground rush. It was only on the 30th of last month we were looking at this development.

Seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.2% in the euro area (EA19) and by 0.3% in the EU28 during the third quarter
of 2018,

Which brought to mind this description from the preceding ECB press conference.

Incoming information, while somewhat weaker than expected, remains overall consistent with an ongoing broad-based expansion of the euro area economy and gradually rising inflation pressures. The underlying strength of the economy continues to support our confidence ……..

There was an issue with broad-based as the Italian economy registered no growth at all and the idea of “underlying strength” did not really go with quarterly growth of a mere 0.2%. But of course one should not place too much emphasis on one GDP reading.

Business Surveys

However this morning has brought us to this from the Markit Purchasing Managers Indices.

Eurozone growth weakens to lowest in over two years

The immediate thought is, lower than 0.2% quarterly growth? Let us look deeper.

Both the manufacturing and service sectors
recorded slower rates of growth during October.
Following on from September, manufacturing
registered the weaker increase in output, posting its
lowest growth in nearly four years. Despite
remaining at a solid level, the service sector saw its
slowest expansion since the start of 2017.

There is a certain sense of irony in the reported slow down being broad-based. The issue with manufacturing is no doubt driven by the automotive sector which has the trade issues to add to the ongoing diesel scandal. That slow down has spread to the services sector. Geographically we see that Germany is in a soft patch and I will come to Italy in a moment. This also stuck out.

France and Spain, in contrast, have
seen more resilient business conditions, though both
are registering much slower growth than earlier in
the year.

Fair enough for Spain as we looked at only last Wednesday, but France had a bad start of 2018 so that is something of a confused message.

Italy

The situation continues to deteriorate here.

Italy’s service sector suffered a drop in
performance during October, with business activity
falling for the first time in over two years. This was
partly due to the weakest expansion in new
business in 44 months.

Although I am not so sure about the perspective?

After a period of solid growth in activity

The reality is that fears of a “triple-dip” for Italy will only be raised by this. Also the issue over the proposed Budget has not gone away as this from @LiveSquawk makes clear.

EU’s Moscovici: Sanctions Can Be Applied If There Is No Compromise On Italy Budget -Policy In Italy That Entails Higher Public Debt Is Not Favourable To Growth.

Commissioner Moscovici is however being trolled by people pointing out that France broke the Euro area fiscal rules when he was finance minister. He ran deficits of 4.8% of GDP, followed by 4.1% and 3,9% which were above the 3% limit and in one instance double what Italy plans. This is of course awkward but not probably for Pierre as his other worldly pronouncements on Greece have indicated a somewhat loose relationship with reality.

Actually the Italian situation has thrown up another challenge to the Euro area orthodoxy.

 

Regular readers will be aware I am no fan of simply projecting the pre credit crunch period forwards but I do think that the Brad Setser point that Italy is nowhere near regaining where it was is relevant. If you think that such a situation is “above potential” then you have a fair bit of explaining to do. Some of this is unfair on the ECB in that it has to look at the whole Euro area as if it was a sovereign nation it would be a situation crying out for some regional policy transfers. Like say from Germany with its fiscal surplus. Anyway I will leave that there and move on.

Ch-ch-changes

This did the rounds on Friday afternoon.

ECB Said To Be Considering Fresh TLTRO – MNI ( @LiveSquawk )

Targeted Long-Term Refinancing Operation in case you were wondering and as to new targets well Reuters gives a nod and a wink.

Euro zone banks took up 739 billion euros at the ECB’s latest round of TLTRO, in March 2017. Of this, so far 14.6 has been repaid, with the rest falling due in 2020 and 2021.

This may prove painful in countries such as Italy, where banks have to repay some 250 billion euros worth of TLTRO money amid rising market rates and an unfavorable political situation.

So the targets of a type of maturity extension would be 2020/1 in terms of time and Italy in terms of geography. More generally we have the issue of oiling the banking wheels. Oh and whilst the Italian amount is rather similar to some measures of how much they have put into Italian bonds there is no direct link in my view.

Housing market

If you give a bank cheap liquidity then this morning’s ECB Publication makes it clear where it tends to go.

The upturn in the euro area housing market is in its fourth year. Measured in terms of annual growth rates, house prices started to pick up at the end of 2013, while the pick-up in residential investment started somewhat later, at the end of 2014. The latest available data (first quarter of 2018) indicate annual growth rates above their long-term averages, for both indicators.

How has this been driven?

 In addition, financing conditions remained favourable, as reflected in composite bank lending rates for house purchase that have declined by more than 130 basis points since 2013 and by easing credit standards. This has given rise to a higher demand for loans for house purchase and a substantial strengthening in new mortgage lending.

Indeed even QE gets a slap on the back.

Private and institutional investors, both domestically and globally based, searching for yield may thus have contributed to additional housing demand.

It is at least something the central planners can influence and watch.

Housing market developments affect investment and consumption decisions and can thus be a major determinant of the broader business cycle. They also have wealth and collateral effects and can thus play a key role in shaping the broader financial cycle. The housing market’s pivotal role in the business and financial cycles makes it a regular subject of monitoring and assessment for monetary policy and financial stability considerations.

 

Comment

The ECB now finds itself between something of a rock and a hard place. If we start with the rock then the question is whether the shift is just a slow down for a bit or something more? The latter would have the ECB shifting very uncomfortably around its board room table as it would be facing it with interest-rates already negative and QE just stopping in flow terms. Let me now bring in the hard place from today’s Markit PMI survey.

Meanwhile, prices data signalled another sharp
increase in company operating expenses. Rising
energy and fuel prices were widely reported to have
underpinned inflation, whilst there was some
evidence of higher labour costs (especially in
Germany).

Whilst there may be some hopeful news for wages tucked in there the main message is of inflationary pressure. Of course central bankers like to ignore energy costs but the ECB will be hoping for further falls in the oil price, otherwise it might find itself in rather a cleft stick. It is easy to forget that its “pumping it up” stage was oiled by falling energy prices.

Yet an alternative would be fiscal policy which hits the problem of it being a bad idea according to the Euro area’s pronouncements on Italy.

 

The economy of Spain provides some welcome good news for the ECB

A rush of economic data over the past 24 hours allows us as to follow Sylvia’s “I’m off to sunny Spain”. This gives us another perspective as we switch from the third largest economy ( Italy) yesterday where economic growth has ground to a halt again whereas in the fourth largest it is doing this according to the statistics office.

The Spanish GDP registers a growth of 0.6% in the third quarter of 2018 to the previous quarter in terms of volume. This rate is similar to that registered in the second quarter of the year. The annual growth of GDP stands at 2.5%, a rate similar to that of the quarter preceding.

As you can see two countries which were part of the Euro area crisis are now seeing very different circumstances. At the moment Spain is a case of steady as she goes because quarterly growth has been 0.6% for each of 2018’s quarters so far.

If we back for some perspective we are reminded of the trouble that hit Spain. It did begin to recover from the initial impact of the credit crunch but then the Euro area crisis arrived at economic growth headed into negative territory in 2011-13 peaking at a quarterly decline of 1% at the end of 2013. This was followed by improvements in 2014 such that quarterly growth reached 1.2% in the first quarter of 2015. Since then quarterly growth has been strong for these times varying between the current 0.6% and the 0.9% of the opening of 2017.

So we see that Spain saw the hard times with annual economic growth falling to -3.5% late in 2012 but can rebound as illustrated by the 4.1% of late 2015. Those who have followed my updates on Greece will recall that I often refer to the fact that after its precipitous and sustained decline it should have had in terms of economic recovery a “V-shaped” rally in economic growth. Well Spain gives an example of that whereas Greece has not. If we switch to yesterday’s theme Spain is a much happier case for the “broad-based economic expansion” claims of Mario Draghi and the ECB because whilst economic growth has slowed it is still good and is pulling the Euro area average higher.

Inflation

If we continue with the mandate of the ECB we were told this by Spain statistics yesterday.

The annual change in the flash estimate of the CPI stands at 2.3% in October, the same registered in September
The annual rate of the flash estimate of the HICP is 2.3%.

So inflation is over target and has been picking up in 2018 with the current mix described below.

In this behavior, the decrease in the prices of electricity stand out, compared to the increase
registered in 2017, and the rise in gas prices.

From the point of the ECB if we look at inflation above target and the economic growth rate and point out that it is withdrawing the stimulus provided by monthly QE. However the water gets somewhat choppier if we look at another inflation measure.

The annual variation rate of the Housing Price Index (HPI) in the second quarter of 2018 increased six tenths, standing at 6.8%. By type of housing, the variation rate of new housing stood at 5.7%, remaining unchanged
as compared with the previous quarter. On the other hand, the annual variation of second-hand housing increased by seven tenths, up to 7.0%.

The first impact is the rate of annual change and this is more awkward for the ECB as it is hard not to think of the appropriateness of its -0.4% deposit rate for Spain. Its impact on mortgage rates especially when combined with the other monetary easing has put Spain on a road which led to “trouble,trouble,trouble” last time around. For those of you wondering what Spanish mortgage rates are here via Google Translate is this morning’s update.

In mortgages on homes, the average interest rate is 2.62% (4.3%) lower than August 2017) and the average term of 24 years. 59.8% of mortgages on housing is made at a variable rate and 40.2% at a fixed rate. Mortgages at a fixed rate they experience an increase of 3.9% in the annual rate. The average interest rate at the beginning is 2.43% for mortgages on variable-rate homes. (with a decrease of 5.5%) and 2.99% for fixed rate (3.1% lower).

As fixed-interest mortgages are only around half a percent per annum higher the number taking variable-rate ones seems high. However I have to admit my view is that Mario Draghi has no intention of raising interest-rates on his watch and the overall Euro area GDP news from yesterday backs that up. Of course we are switching from fact to opinion there and as a strategy I would suggest that any narrowing of the gap between the two types gives an opportunity to lock in what are in historical terms very low levels.

Labour Market

The economic growth phase that Spain has seen means we have good news here.

The number of employed increases by 183,900 people in the third quarter of 2018 compared to the previous quarter (0.95%) and stands at 19,528,000. In terms seasonally adjusted, the quarterly variation is 0.48%. Employment has grown by 478,800 people (2.51%) in the last 12 months.

Higher employment does not necessarily mean lower unemployment but fortunately in this instance it does.

The number of unemployed persons decreased this quarter by 164,100 people (-4.70%) and it stands at
3,326,000. In seasonally adjusted terms, the quarterly variation is -2.29%. In recent months unemployment has decreased by 405,800 people (-10.87%).  The unemployment rate stands at 14.55%, which is 73 hundredths less than in the previous quarter. In the last year this rate has fallen by 1.83 points.

But whilst the news is indeed better we get some perspective by the fact that the unemployment rate at 14.55% is not only still in double-digits but is well over that Euro area average. Indeed it is more than 10% higher than in the UK or US and around 12% higher than Japan.

As to the youth employment situation the good news is that the number of 16-19 year olds employed rose by nearly 12% to 165.500 over the past year. However some 137,800 are recorded as unemployed.

Comment

The Spanish economy has provided plenty of good news for the Euro area in the past few years, but that does not mean that there are no concerns. We have already looked at the issue of house prices and the past fears which arise from their development. Also for those who consider this to be because of the “internal competitiveness” model will be worried by this described by El Pais.

External demand, which helped in the worst moments to pull the Spanish economy, subtracted 0.5 points per year from GDP. And in the quarter, exports fell by 1.8%, entering for the first time negative rates since the third quarter of 2013. While it is true that imports also decreased by 1.2%.

Some of this no doubt relates to the automotive sector which for those who have not followed developments has been a success for Spain albeit that some of the gains have come from cannibalising production from elsewhere in the Euro area. An example of a troubled 2018 has been provided by Ecomotor today by revealing that VW Navarra has cut its production target by 10,000 cars for 2018. Oh and I nearly forgot to mention the Spanish banks especially the smaller ones hit by the court ruling on Stamp Duty.

But returning to the good news the economic growth means that Spain has seen the debt to GDP ratio that had nudged above 100% drop back to 98.3%. That is the road to a ten-year bond yield less than half that of Italy at 1.56% in spite of the fact that the planned fiscal deficit at 2.7% is higher.

The Euro area GDP slow down puts the ECB in a pickle

Some days several economic themes come at us at once and this morning is an example of that. Only yesterday I was pointing out the problems of establishment Ivory Tower economic forecasting via the continued failures of the Office for Budget Responsibility or OBR. For many in the media it was a case of carry on regardless in spite of the fact that it was a Budget essentially based on past OBR errors. Perhaps they did not realise as they gave credibility to the GDP forecasts that they were based on the new establishment Ivory Tower theory that the economy cannot grow at an annual rate of more than 1.5%. A few decimal points were added and taken away at random to give a veneer of ch-ch-changes but that is the basis of it. Let me give you an example of this sort of Ivory Tower thinking from the OBR Report yesterday and the emphasis is mine.

In March 2017 and then again in November 2017, we reduced our estimate of the equilibrium rate of unemployment, in both cases reflecting the fact that unemployment had fallen below our previous estimate with little apparent impact on wage growth.

Actually those who recall the Bank of England using its Forward Guidance, which of course turned out to be anything but, pointing us towards a 7% unemployment rate will understand the intellectual bankruptcy of all this. But on this “output gap” rubbish goes mostly unchallenged.

Also what is not explained is why the future is so dim after so many extraordinary monetary policies that we keep being told were to boost growth.

The Italian Job

Those themes come to mind as yet another one has been demonstrated yet again by Italy this morning. From its statistics office.

In the third quarter of 2018 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume estimate of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was unchanged with respect to the previous quarter and increased by 0.8 per cent over the same quarter of previous year.

This brings us back sadly to the “Girlfriend in a coma theme” where Italy cannot grow at more than 1% per annum on any sustained basis.

The carry-over annual GDP growth for 2018 is equal to 1.0%.

There was even a sort of a back to the future element if you take a look at the breakdown.

The quarter on quarter change is the result of an increase of value added in agriculture, forestry and
fishing and in services and a decrease in industry. From the demand side, there is a null contribution by
both the domestic component (gross of change in inventories) and the net export component.

If we now switch to forecasting it was only last Thursday lunchtime that Mario Draghi told us this at the ECB press conference.

Incoming information, while somewhat weaker than expected, remains overall consistent with an ongoing broad-based expansion of the euro area economy and gradually rising inflation pressures. The underlying strength of the economy continues to support our confidence that the sustained convergence of inflation to our aim will proceed……remains overall consistent with our baseline scenario of an ongoing broad-based economic expansion, supported by domestic demand and continued improvements in the labour market.

Just like in the song New York, New York it was apparently so good he told us twice. As to looking at Italy specifically we got a sort of official denial.

On Italy, you have to remember that Italy is a fiscal discussion, so there wasn’t much discussion about Italy.

An interesting reply as we note that no doubt they did have an estimate of the number and without the third-largest economy can you call an expansion broad-based? Actually the latest Eurostat release challenges that statement much more generally.

Seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.2% in the euro area (EA19) and by 0.3% in the EU28 during the third quarter
of 2018….¬†In the second quarter of 2018, GDP had grown by 0.4% in the euro¬†area and by 0.5% the EU28.¬†Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 1.7% in the euro area and
by 1.9% in the EU28 in the third quarter of 2018, after +2.2% and +2.1% respectively in the previous quarter.

As you can see the annual economic growth rate in the Euro area has been falling throughout 2018 as we recall that in the last quarter of 2017 it was 2.7% as opposed to the current 1.7%. This poses a question for a central bank doing this.

Regarding¬†non-standard monetary policy measures, we will continue to make net purchases under the asset purchase programme (APP) at the new monthly pace of ‚ā¨15 billion until the end of December 2018. We anticipate that, subject to incoming data confirming our medium-term inflation outlook, we will then end net purchases.

The simple fact is that if we allow for monetary lags then the reduction in monthly asset purchases from the peak of 80 billion Euros a month has been followed by a fall in economic growth. If we switch to the quarterly numbers we see a fall from 0.7% to 0.2% and there must be further worries for the last quarter of 2018.

Eurozone GDP growth continues to ease in line with PMI data, according to initial Q3 estimate. Flash October data signals further loss of momentum at the start of Q4. ( Markit PMI)

Back to Italy

Returning to an Italian theme there are genuine concerns of further trouble combined with some perspective from @fwred on twitter.

Italian GDP misses: stagnation in Q3 (+0.02% QoQ) and still 5% below pre-crisis levels. Material risk of a ‘triple dip’. Economic reality comes at you fast.

Let us hope that Italy has the same luck with a “triple dip” that the UK had back in 2012. But the real perspective and indeed measure of this part of the Euro area crisis is the fact that the economy is still some 5% smaller than a decade ago. No wonder voters wanted change.

A catch comes if we switch back to looking at forecasts again as we note that the new government has veered between optimistic ( 1.5%) on economic growth and what Cypress Hill described as “Insane in the membrane” with 3%. Politicians like a 3% growth rate as for example it was used by both sides in the UK 2010 general election. Why? It makes their plans look affordable and if (when) it goes wrong they simply sing along with Temptation(s).

But it was Just my imagination,
once again runnin’ away with me.
It was just my imagination runnin’ away with me.

If it goes really badly then they deploy Lily Allen.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

Meanwhile the tweet below describes the consequences.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here so let me start with the ECB. It now staring down a future like the one I have feared and written about for some time where the Euro area economy behaves in a junkie economics manner. Once the honey is withdrawn so is the growth. As ever that is not the only factor in play as economics does not have any test tubes but governing council members must be thinking this as they close their eyes at night. Well the brighter ones anyway.

What does it do then? It may still end monthly QE but that is mostly because it has been running out of German bonds to buy. My view that Mario Draghi intends to leave without ever raising interest-rates gets another tick. Maybe we will see the so far mythical OMTs or Outright Monetary Transactions deployed and Italy would be an obvious test case.

Also let me offer you one more morsel as food for thought. We keep being told about the OBR and ECB being “independent”. Have you spotted how “independent” bodies so regularly do the will of the establishment and sometimes manage to do more than the establishment itself could get away with?

 

 

What next for the War on Cash?

Yesterday we took a look at a country which seems to be happy heading for a post cash era. Sweden has seen nearly a halving of cash use in the past decade and the size of the change would be even larger if we factored in inflation and did the calculation in real terms. This is particularly significant as we remind ourselves that Sweden already has negative interest-rates, and as I pointed out yesterday there are roads ahead where it would cut them further from the current -0.5%. The reason why cash is an issue for negative interest-rates is that it offers 0%, and so there must be a “tipping point” where interest-rates go so negative that bank deposits switch to cash in enough size to create a bank run. Such a prospect has created terror in central banking halls and boardrooms and has been the main barrier to interest-rates being cut even lower than they have. In my own country the Bank of England was so terrified of the impact of lower interest-rates on the “precious” that it claimed 0.5% was a “lower bound”, even when other countries were below it. That had a different reason ( their creaking antiquated IT systems could not cope with 0%) but told us of their primary response function.

Cash in the USA

The Financial Times has taken a look at this and seems upset at the result.

Americans can’t quit cash

If we switch to the actual research which was undertaken by  the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta, Boston, Richmond, and San Francisco we see the following.

In October 2017, U.S. consumers each made on average 41.0 payments for the month . Thus, on average, an adult consumer made 1.3 payments per day. Notably, an average
of 40.2 percent of consumers per day reported making zero payments. Also in October 2017, U.S. consumers each made on average $3,418 worth of payments for
the month.

So after finding out how much as well as how often? We get to see via what method.

In October 2017, consumers paid mostly with cash (30.3 percent of payments), debit cards (26.2 percent), and credit cards (21.0 percent). These instruments accounted for three-quarters of the number of payments, but only about 40 percent of the total value of payments, because they tend to be used more for smaller-value payments. In contrast,
electronic payments accounted for 30.3 percent of the value of total payments but only 8.9 percent of the number
of payments. Checks, at 17.7 percent, continued to account for a relatively high percentage of the value of
payments.

As you can see cash remains king (queen) in volume terms but has faded in value terms. The bit that sticks out to me is the amount still accounted for by Checks ( cheques) as I am struggling to think of the last time that I used one. Also the comments section provides a reason as to why cash remains in use for small payments on such a large-scale in the US.

Americans carry cash for smaller transactions partly because their unstinting devotion to the $1 bill means it is much lighter.  I can carry round a bunch of 1s and 5s for coffee in the day at a fraction of the weight of the euros or pounds that would do the similar job in Europe. ( Saughton)

For those unaware UK coins are fairly heavy and the £1 and £2 coins get more use than you might expect as the Bank of England has had its struggles with getting £5 notes into general circulation. So suit and trouser pockets can take a bit of a pasting. If we continue in the same vein even the convenience of digital payments faces an apparent challenge.

Those of us still paying cash are standing in lines behind phonsters fumbling with their payment app. When it looks faster and easier I’ll switch. ( Proclone )

That may be because it does not work well.

The other main reason the US lags on electronic purchases is because the cashless infrastructure is atrocious. ( Saughton)

Also that it may be businesses rather than consumers which prefer cash.

Mom and pop stores and restaurants may require cash for any transaction, and almost all do for purchases under $10. Cheques for larger payments are also due to vendor requirement. That dynamic would be worth comparing to other markets instead of implying consumer preference. ( Pharmacy )

What about the Euro area?

I noted that the replies pointed out the way that cash remains prevalent in Germany (historical), Belgium ( tax-avoidance) and Austria ( see Germany) so let us take a look. From the European Central Bank or ECB.

The survey results show that in 2016 cash was the dominant payment instrument at POS. In terms of number, 79% of all transactions were carried out using cash,
amounting to 54% of the total value of all payments. Cards were the second most frequently used payment instrument at POS; 19% of all transactions were settled using a payment card. In terms of value, this amounts to 39% of the total value paid at POS. ( POS = Point Of Sale )

I doubt using geography as a method of analysis will surprise you much.

In terms of number¬†of transactions, cash was most used in the southern euro area countries, as well as¬†in Germany, Austria and Slovenia, where 80% or more of POS transactions were¬†conducted with cash……… In
terms of value, the share of cash was highest in Greece, Cyprus and Malta (above 70%), while it was lowest in the Benelux countries, Estonia, France and Finland (at,
or below, 33%).

The ECB thinks it tells us this.

This seems to challenge the perception that
cash is rapidly being replaced by cashless means of payment.

It then goes further.

The study confirms that cash is not only used as a means of payment, but also as a store of value, with almost a quarter of consumers keeping some cash at home as a
precautionary reserve. It also shows that more people than often thought use high¬†denomination banknotes; almost 20% of respondents reported having a ‚ā¨200 or
‚ā¨500 banknote in their possession in the year before the survey was carried out.

This means that the ECB will find itself in opposition to more than a few of its population soon.

¬†It has decided to permanently stop producing the ‚ā¨500 banknote and to exclude it from the Europa series, taking into account concerns that this banknote could facilitate illicit activities. The issuance of the ‚ā¨500 will be stopped around the end of 2018, when the ‚ā¨100 and ‚ā¨200 banknotes of the Europa series are planned to be introduced,

 

Comment

Let us consider the relationship between the use of cash and financial crime. You may note that the ECB statement uses the word “could”. That as I pointed out back on the 5th of May 2016 is because the German Bundesbank thinks this.

There is scant concrete information on the extent to which cash is being used to facilitate illicit activity……… the volume of notes devoted to such transactions is unknown and would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to estimate.

So the ECB seems to be basing its policy on the rhetoric of Kenneth Rogoff who in a not entirely unrelated coincidence thinks that central banks will have to go even further into negative interest-rates next time around. Our Ken has been rather quite recently on the subject of cash equals crime. This may be because if we look above we see that Estonia has moved away from cash both relatively and absolutely and yet you will have had to have spent 2018 under a stone to have missed this.

Danske Bank Estonia has been revealed as the hub of a $234bn money laundering scheme involving Russian and Eastern European customers. ( Frances Coppola)

Perhaps the authorities were too busy checking on the 500 Euro notes and missed a crime that would have taken four of out five of the total Euro area circulation. Priorities eh?

There are levels I think where this will be come more urgent. I have suggested before that I think that around -2% would be the level where people might move away from banks on a larger scale. So far in terms of headline official rates the lowest is the -0.75% of Switzerland. Of course another problem area would be created if we saw bank bailins on any scale which may be a reason why so many bank share prices have struggled.

Me on Core Finance TV