What are the economic prospects for the Euro area?

As we progress into 2020 there has been a flurry of information on the Euro area economy. However there has been quite a bit of dissatisfaction with the usual indicators so statistics offices have been looking  at alternatives and here is the German effort.

The Federal Office for Goods Transport (BAG) and the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) report that the mileage covered by trucks with four or more axles, which are subject to toll charges, on German motorways decreased a seasonally adjusted 0.6% in December 2019 compared with the previous month.

As a conceptual plan this can be added to the way that their colleagues in Italy are now analysing output on Twitter and therefore may now think world war three has begun. Returning to the numbers the German truck data reminds us that the Euro areas largest economy is struggling. That was reinforced this morning by some more conventional economic data.

Germany exported goods to the value of 112.9 billion euros and imported goods to the value of 94.6 billion euros in November 2019. Based on provisional data, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that German exports decreased by 2.9% and imports by 1.6% in November 2019 on the same month a year earlier. Compared with October 2019, exports were down 2.3% and imports 0.5% after calendar and seasonal adjustment.

We get a reminder that what was one if the causes of economic imbalance before the credit crunch has if anything grown as we note the size of Germany’s trade surplus.  It is something that each month provides support for the level of the Euro. Switching to economic trends we see that compared to a year before the larger export volume has fallen by more than import volume. This was even higher on a monthly basis as we note that the gap between the two widened. But both numbers indicate a contractionary influence on the German economy and hence GDP ( Gross Domestic Product).

Production

Today’s data opened with a flicker of positive news.

In November 2019, production in industry was up by 1.1% on the previous month on a price, seasonally and calendar adjusted basis according to provisional data of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). In October 2019, the corrected figure shows a decrease of 1.0% (primary -1.7%) from September 2019.

However this still meant this.

-2.6% on the same month a year earlier (price and calendar adjusted)

There is a particular significance in the upwards revision to October as some felt that the original numbers virtually guaranteed a contraction in GDP in the last quarter of 2019. In terms of a breakdown the better November figures relied on investment.

In November 2019, production in industry excluding energy and construction was up by 1.0%. Within industry, the production of capital goods increased by 2.4% and the production of consumer goods by 0.5%. The production of intermediate goods showed a decrease by 0.5%.

Only time will tell if the investment was wise. The orders data released yesterday was not especially hopeful.

Based on provisional data, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) reports that price-adjusted new orders in manufacturing had decreased in November 2019 a seasonally and calendar adjusted 1.3% on the previous month.

Producing more into weaker orders has an obvious flaw and on an annual basis the situation was even worse.

-6.5% on the same month a year earlier (price and calendar adjusted)

Perhaps the investment was for the domestic economy as we look into the detail.

Domestic orders increased by 1.6% and foreign orders fell 3.1% in November 2019 on the previous month. New orders from the euro area were down 3.3%, new orders from other countries decreased 2.8% compared to October 2019.

But if we widen our outlook from Germany to the wider Euro area we see that it was the source of the strongest monthly slowing.

In a broad sweep orders for production rose from 2013 to December 2017 with the series peaking at 117.1 ( 2015=100) but we have been falling since and have now gone back to 2015 at 100.3.

The Labour Market

By contrast there is more to cheer from this area.

The euro area (EA19) seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate was 7.5% in November 2019, stable compared with
October 2019 and down from 7.9% in November 2018. This remains the lowest rate recorded in the euro area
since July 2008.

In terms of the broad trend the Euro area is now pretty much back to where it was before the credit crunch and is a long way from the peak of above 12% seen around 2013. But there are catches and nuances to this of which a major one is this.

In November 2019, the unemployment rate in the United States was 3.5%, down from 3.6% in October 2019 and
from 3.7% in November 2018.

That is quite a gap and whilst there may be issues around how the numbers are calculated that still leaves quite a gap. Also unemployment is a lagging indicator but it may be showing signs of turning.

Compared with October 2019, the number of persons unemployed increased by
34 000 in the EU28 and decreased by 10 000 in the euro area. Compared with November 2018, unemployment fell
by 768 000 in the EU28 and by 624 000 in the euro area.

The rate of decline has plainly slowed and if we look at Germany again we wait to see what the next move is.

Adjusted for seasonal and irregular effects, the number of unemployed remained unchanged from the previous month, standing at 1.36 million people as well. The adjusted unemployment rate was 3.1% in November, without any changes since May 2019.

Looking Ahead

There was some hope for 2020 reflected in the Markit PMI business surveys.

Business optimism about the year ahead has also improved
to its best since last May, suggesting the mood
among business has steadily improved in recent
months.

However the actual data was suggested a low base to start from.

Another month of subdued business activity in
December rounded off the eurozone’s worst quarter
since 2013. The PMI data suggest the euro area
will struggle to have grown by more than 0.1% in
the closing three months of 2019.

There is a nuance in that France continues to do better than Germany meaning that in their turf war France is in a relative ascendancy. In its monthly review the Italian statistics office has found some cheer for the year ahead.

The sectoral divide between falling industrial production and resilient turnover in services persists. However, business survey indicators convey first signals of optimism in manufacturing. Economic growth is projected to slightly increase its pace to moderate growth rates of 0.3% over the forecast horizon.

Comment

The problem for the ECB is that its monetary taps are pretty much fully open and money supply growth is fairly strong but as Markit puts it.

At face value, the weak performance is
disappointing given additional stimulus from the
ECB, with the drag from the ongoing plight of the
manufacturing sector a major concern.

It is having an impact but is not enough so far.

However, policymakers will be encouraged by the resilient
performance of the more domestically-focused
service sector, where growth accelerated in
December to its highest since August.

This brings us back to the opening theme of this year which has been central bankers both past and present singing along with the band Sweet.

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

Hence their move towards fiscal policy which is quite a cheek in the circumstances.

The conceptual issue is that all the intervention and central planning has left the Euro area struggling for any sustained economic growth and certainly slower growth than before. This is symbolised by Italy which remains a girlfriend in a coma.

The Composite Output Index* posted at 49.3 in December,
down from 49.6 in November, to signal a second consecutive fall in Italian private sector output. Moreover, the decline quickened to a marginal pace.

 

The inflation problem is only in the minds of central bankers

Yesterday we looked at the trend towards negative interest-rates and today we can link this into the issue of inflation. So let me open with this morning’s release from Swiss Statistics.

The consumer price index (CPI) remained stable in December 2019 compared with the previous month, remaining at 101.7 points (December 2015 = 100). Inflation was +0.2% compared with the same month of the previous year. The average annual inflation reached +0.4% in 2019.These are the results of the Federal Statistical Office (FSO).

The basic situation is not only that there is little or no inflation but that there has been very little since 2015. Actually if we switch to the Euro area measure called CPI in the UK we see that it picks up even less.

In December 2019, the Swiss Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) stood at 101.17 points
(base 2015=100). This corresponds to a rate of change of +0.2% compared with the previous month
and of –0.1% compared with the same month of the previous year.

Negative Interest-Rates

There is a nice bit of timing here in that the situation changed back in 2015 on the 15th to be precise and I am sure many of you still recall it.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is discontinuing the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro. At the same time, it is lowering the interest rate on sight deposit account balances that exceed a given exemption threshold by 0.5 percentage points, to −0.75%.

If we look at this in inflation terms then the implied mantra suggested by Ben Bernanke yesterday would be that Switzerland would have seen some whereas it has not. In fact the (nearly) 5 years since then have been remarkable for their lack of inflation.

There is a secondary issue here related to the exchange rate which is that the negative interest-rate was supposed to weaken it. That is a main route as to how it is supposed to raise inflation but we find that we are nearly back where we began. What I mean by that is the exchange-rate referred to above is 1.084 compared to the Euro. So the Swiss tried to import inflation but have not succeeded and awkwardly for fans of negative interest-rates part of the issue is that the ECB ( European Central Bank) joined the party reminding me of a point I made just under 2 years ago on the 9th of January 2018.

For all the fire and fury ( sorry) there remains a simple underlying point which is that if one currency declines falls or devalues then others have to rise. That is especially awkward for central banks as they attempt to explain how trying to manipulate a zero-sum game brings overall benefits.

The Low Inflation Issue

Let me now switch to another Swiss based organisation the Bank for International Settlements  or BIS. This is often known as the central bankers central bank and I think we learn a lot from just the first sentence.

Inflation in advanced economies (AEs) continues to be subdued, remaining below central banks’ target
in spite of aggressive and persistent monetary policy accommodation over a prolonged period.

As we find so often this begs more than a few questions. For a start why is nobody wondering why all this effort is not wprking as intended? The related issue is then why they are persisting with something that is not working? The Eagles had a view on this.

They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast

We then get quite a swerve.

To escape the low inflation trap, we argue that, as suggested by Jean-Claude Trichet, governments
and social partners put in place “consensus packages” that include a fiscal policy that supports demand
and a series of ad hoc nominal wage increases over several years.

Actually there are two large swerves here. The first is the switch away from the monetary policies which have been applied on an ever larger scale each time with the promise that this time they will work. Next is a pretty breathtaking switch to advocacy of fiscal policy by the very same Jean-Claude Trichet who was involved in the application of exactly the reverse in places like Greece during his tenure at the ECB.

Their plan is to simply add to the control freakery.

As political economy conditions evolve, this role should be progressively substituted by rebalancing the macro
policy mix with a more expansionary fiscal policy. More importantly, social partners and governments
control an extremely powerful lever, ie the setting of wages at least in the public sector and potentially
in the private sector, to re-anchor inflation expectations near 2%.

The theory was that technocratic central bankers would aim for inflation targets set by elected politicians. Now they want to tell the politicians what to so all just to hit an inflation target that was chosen merely because it seemed right at the time. Next they want wages to rise at this arbitrary rate too! The ordinary worker will get a wage rise of 2% in this environment so that prices can rise by 2% as well. It is the economics equivalent of the Orwellian statements of the novel 1984

Indeed they even think that they can tell employers what to do.

Finally, in a full employment context,
employers have an incentive to implement wage increases to keep their best performing employees
and, given that nominal labour costs of all employers would increase in parallel, they would able to raise
prices in line with the increase of their wage bills with limited risk of losing clients

Ah “full employment” the concept which is in practical terms meaningless as we discussed only yesterday.

Also as someone who studied the “social contracts” or what revealingly were called “wage and price spirals” in the UK the BIS presents in its paper a rose tinted version of the past. Some might say misleading. In the meantime as the economy has changed I would say that they would be even less likely to work.

Putting this another way the Euro area inflation numbers from earlier showed something the ordinary person will dislike but central bankers will cheer.

Looking at the main components of euro area inflation, food, alcohol & tobacco is expected to have the highest
annual rate in December (2.0%, compared with 1.9% in November),

I would send the central bankers out to explain to food shoppers how this is in fact the nirvana of “price stability” as for new readers that is what they call inflation of 2% per annum. We would likely get another ” I cannot eat an I-Pad” moment.

Comment

Let me now bring in some issues which change things substantially and let me open with something that has got FT Alphaville spinning itself into quicksand.

As far as most people are concerned, there is more than enough inflation. Cœuré noted in his speech that most households think the average rate in the eurozone between 2004 and last year has been 9 per cent (in fact it was 1.6 per cent). That’s partly down to higher housing costs (which are not wholly included in central banks’ measurement of inflation).

That last sentence is really rather desperate as it nods to the official FT view of inflation which is in quite a mess on the issue of housing inflation. Actually the things which tend to go up ( house prices) are excluded from the Euro area measure of inflation. There was a plan to include them but that turned out to be an attempt simply to waste time ( about 3 years as it happened). Why? Well they would rather tell you that this is a wealth effect.

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 4.2% in both the euro area and the EU in the
second quarter of 2019 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

Looking at the situation we see that a sort of Holy Grail has developed – the 2% per annum inflation target – with little or no backing. After all its use was then followed by the credit crunch which non central bankers will consider to be a rather devastating critique. One road out of this is to raise the inflation target even higher to 3%, 4% or more, or so we are told.

There are two main issues with this of which the first is that if you cannot hit the 2% target then 3% or 4% seems pointless. But to my mind the bigger one is that in an era of lower numbers why be King Canute when instead one can learn and adapt. I would either lower the inflation target and/or put house prices in it so that they better reflect the ordinary experience. The reason they do not go down this road is explained by a four letter word, debt. Or as the Eagles put it.

Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice
And she said: “We are all just prisoners here
Of our own device”

Meet the new boss same as the old boss as the CFA Franc becomes the Eco

As Christmas approaches things usually quieten down but if turn out eyes to Africa and in particular West Africa there have been some currency developments over the weekend. So without further ado let me hand you over to Reuters.

West Africa’s monetary union has agreed with France to rename its CFA franc the Eco and cut some of the financial links with Paris that have underpinned the region’s common currency since its creation soon World War Two.

So we have both an economic/financial element and a colonial one. We have looked at the CFA Franc briefly before but now courtesy of LSE Blogs let us have a refresher.

Firstly, a fixed rate of exchange with the euro (and previously the French franc) set at 1 euro = 655.957 CFA francs. Secondly, a French guarantee of the unlimited convertibility of CFA francs into euros. Thirdly, a centralisation of foreign exchange reserves. Since 2005, the two central banks – the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) and the Bank of Central African States (BEAC) – have been required to deposit 50 per cent of their foreign exchange reserves in a special French Treasury ‘operating account’. Immediately following independence, this figure stood at 100 per cent (and from 1973 to 2005, at 65 per cent)……The final pillar of the CFA franc, is the principle of free capital transfer within the franc zone.

As you can see via their relationship with France the countries here became implicit members of the Euro, and follow the broad sweep of its monetary policy. If we return to Reuters the scope of the issue and ch-ch-changes is explained.

The CFA is used in 14 African countries with a combined population of about 150 million and $235 billion of gross domestic product.

However, the changes will only affect the West African form of the currency used by Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo – all former French colonies except Guinea Bissau.

The Central Bank of West African States or BCEAO

If we look at monetary policy here we do see one advantage of this.

The minimum interest rate for bidding on open market transactions (calls for bidding) and the interest rate applicable on the marginal lending window (repo rate), whose levels are currently set by the Monetary Policy Committee at respectively 2.50% and 4.50%, are the principal leading interest rates of the BCEAO.

That is considerably lower than what is common in that part of Africa as Ghana is at 16% and Nigeria 13,5% so there is a gain here.

The Economy

According to Friday’s meeting of the council of ministers for the BCEAO things are in fact going really rather well.

The Council of Ministers has analyzed the recent economic and monetary situation in the Union. To this end, he noted the increased dynamism of economic activity in the third quarter of 2019 as well as the favorable economic outlook in the WAEMU countries. Indeed, growth in real gross domestic product (GDP) came out at 6.6% year-on-year, after 6.4% the previous quarter, under the effect of renewed dynamism in the tertiary and secondary sectors. Economic growth in the Union would be, in real terms, at 6.6% in 2019 as in 2020.

After a year of reporting slowing economic growth that is a cheerful and refreshing report. Indeed whilst more than a few would be screaming DEFLATION looking at the numbers below I welcome them.

The Council also noted the decline in the general level of consumer prices, with an inflation rate, year-on-year, of -1.0% in the third quarter of 2019, after -0.7% in the previous quarter, in combination with falling food prices, favored by abundant cereal production.

Firstly in spite of the fast rate if economic growth these are countries with plenty of poor people who will not only welcome lower food prices they may be a matter of life and death. Also low and indeed negative inflation can be combined with a good economic run and not need the economics establishment to rev up REM on their turntables.

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it

Although there is a catch if the price falls are for products produced and exported.

Thus, price reductions were recorded for cashew nuts
(-23.5%), palm kernel oil (-17.2%), robusta coffee (-7.1%) and cotton (-4.2%). On the other hand,
increases were noted for petroleum (+ 8.8%), rubber (+ 6.5%) and cocoa
(+ 5.0%).  ( BCEAO 2nd Quarter)

There is however a de facto consequence of implicit Euro area membership.

To this end, they invited the member states to continue efforts aimed at bringing the budget deficit below the Community standard of 3.0% of GDP, in particular by widening the tax base and improving performance. as well as the efficiency of tax administrations.

In case you are wondering about the other component of the Stability and Growth Pact it doesn’t really apply at the moment.

Preliminary data point to an increase in total debt to
52.5 percent of GDP in 2018 from 50.1 percent in 2017. ( IMF)

However bond yields are much higher so there are debt servicing issues.

and in total debt service to 33 percent of
government revenue in 2018 from 26.4 percent in 2017. ( IMF)

 

Also the burden is rising.

It rose by 17½ percentage points of GDP over
the last 5 years to reach 52½ percent
at end-2018. ( IMF )

Trade Is A Problem

The IMF puts it like this.

The external current account deficit is estimated to have increased to 6.8 percent in 2018 from 6.6 percent of GDP in 2017. This increase was underpinned by strong public capital spending but also by worsening terms-of-trade
on the back of higher world oil prices.

This is an issue and points straight at the currency being too high which is a challenge for the CFA Franc because it is a fixed exchange rate.

Ch-Ch-Changes

Back to Reuters.

Under the deal, the Eco will remain pegged to the euro but the African countries in the bloc won’t have to keep 50% of their reserves in the French Treasury and there will no longer be a French representative on the currency union’s board.

Comment

In economic terms this is a case of meet the new boss same as the old boss. The switches above are more symbolic than real economic changes as the broad reality is that the Eco is pegged to the Euro. As we stand that is not going too badly with economic growth having been strong for some time.

Despite adverse terms-of-trade shocks and security concerns in some member-countries, real GDP growth is estimated to have exceeded 6 percent for the 7th consecutive year in 2018, fueled by strong domestic demand. ( IMF)

Inflation is also low,

But whilst it is an establishment fashion to look at the fiscal deficit and of course that is a Euro area obsession and some might argue fetish the real issue for me is elsewhere. It is the trade position where we see that whether you call the currency the CFA Franc or the Eco it is too high and as inflation is low maybe a devaluation is in order. Where have we heard that before concerning the Euro?

Podcast

 

 

 

What more can the ECB do for the Euro?

Yesterday in something of a set piece event the new ECB President Christine Lagarde got out her pen to sign some banknotes and in the midst of her soaring rhetoric there were some interesting numbers.

In the euro area, banknotes are used for retail transactions more than any other means of payment. Some 79% of all transactions are carried out using cash, amounting to more than half of the total value of all payments.

So cash may no longer be king but it is still an important part of the Euro area economy. Indeed the numbers below suggest it may be an increasingly important part, perhaps driven by the fact that 0% is indeed better than the -0.5% deposit rate of the ECB.

And since their introduction, the number of euro banknotes in circulation has risen steadily, reflecting both the importance of cash in our economy and the euro’s international appeal. There are now 23 billion euro banknotes in circulation with a value of €1.26 trillion – a third of which are being used outside the euro area.

The latter reflection on use outside the Euro area is a rise because if we look elsewhere on the ECB website we are told this.

It is estimated that, in terms of value, between 20% and 25% of the euro banknotes in circulation are held outside the euro area, mainly in the neighbouring countries. The demand for euro banknotes rose steeply particularly in non-EU countries in eastern Europe when the financial crisis erupted in 2008 and national currencies depreciated against the euro.

We can figure out what was going on there as we recall the carry trade leading to mortgages and business borrowing being undertaken in Euros ( and Swiss Francs) in Eastern Europe. I guess that left some with a taste for the adventures of Stevie V.

Money talks, mmm-hmm-hmm, money talks
Dirty cash I want you, dirty cash I need you, woh-oh
Money talks, money talks
Dirty cash I want you, dirty cash I need you, woh-oh

I am not sure as to why the foreign holdings have risen so much. Some will no doubt cheer lead saying it is a sign of Euro acceptance and strength but there is the issue of notes being potentially used by money launderers and drug smugglers. The ECB is supposed to be against such criminal activity and has used that reason in its ending of production of 500 Euro notes.The circulation of them is in a gentle decline and there are now 458 million of them. The numbers of 200 Euro notes has shot higher as there were 253 million a year ago as opposed to 366 million ( and rising) now.

I did ask the ECB and they pointed me towards this.

Euro cash holdings are widespread in Albania, Croatia, the Czech Republic, the Republic of North Macedonia and Serbia. In those five countries, an average of 36% of respondents reported holding euro cash……..

That still leaves a fair bit unanswered.

Money Supply

There was some good news for the Euro area economic outlook earlier from this.

Annual growth rate of narrower monetary aggregate M1, comprising currency in circulation and overnight deposits, increased to 8.4% in October from 7.9% in September.

Here we are adding some electronic money to the cash above and we can see that the upwards trend seen in 2019 has been reinstated after last month’s dip. Or if you prefer we have returned to August!

This gives an explanation of how the services sector has held up as the trade war has hit manufacturing. According to the Markit PMI surveys this is especially true in France.

Service sector growth continued to run at one of the highest
recorded over the past year.

The Euro area and the ECB should be grateful for this as according to Matkit even with the monetary growth things in this quarter are weak.

“The eurozone economy remained becalmed for a
third successive month in November, with the
lacklustre PMI indicative of GDP growing at a
quarterly rate of just 0.1%, down from 0.2% in the
third quarter.”

If we switch to the longer-term outlook we see this.

The annual growth rate of the broad monetary aggregate M3 stood at 5.6% in October 2019, unchanged from the previous month, averaging 5.6% in the three months up to October.

I think we get the idea that it is 5.6%! Anyway as we know M1 rose the wider sectors must have fallen.

The annual growth rate of short-term deposits other than overnight deposits (M2-M1) decreased to 0.6% in October from 1.2% in September. The annual growth rate of marketable instruments (M3-M2) was -2.4% in October, compared with -1.1% in September.

The growth rate of 5.6% suggests a better economic outlook for 2021 and head but there is a catch which is this.

 net external assets contributed 3.0 percentage points (up from 2.8 percentage points)

The external influence has been growing over the past year or so and if we subtract it then broad money growth is a mere 2.6% and flashing a warning.

Official Surveys

Today’s releases were upbeat.

In November 2019, the Economic Sentiment Indicator (ESI) increased slightly in both the euro area (by 0.5 points to
101.3) and the EU (by 0.9 points to 100.0)……Amongst the largest euro-area economies, the ESI increased in Spain (+0.7), France and Germany (both by +0.4), while it remained virtually unchanged in Italy (-0.1) and worsened in the Netherlands (−1.0).

However there was another sign of trouble,trouble,trouble for manufacturing.

According to the bi-annual investment survey carried out in October/November this year, real investment in the
manufacturing industry in 2019 is expected to decrease by 2% in both the euro area and the EU. Compared to the
previous survey conducted in March/April this year, this represents a downward revision by 6 and 5 percentage
points for the euro area and the EU, respectively. For 2020, managers expect an increase in real investment by 1%
in both regions.

Care is needed with this series though because if you believed it wholesale Germany would be having a good year economically.

Comment

The ECB finds itself at something of a crossroads.Some elements here are simple as with a weak economy and blow target inflation then its policy easing looks justified.It does not seem to have many monetarists on board but it could easily argue that monetary growth is supporting the economy.

The more difficult elements come from how quickly it had to ease policy again as the ceasefire only lasted around ten months. This then brings into focus the question of why economic growth has been so weak? One way it is trying to answer this is provided by the way it has replaced someone who sometimes behaved like a politician with an actual one which suggests a bigger effort in this area.

“Countries with fiscal space should use it quickly, even more so when they suffer an asymmetric shock like Germany,” Villeroy told the Europlace international forum in Tokyo. “Those with high public debt should make their public finances more growth-friendly. ( Reuters)

Some of this is more French trolling of Germany but France has been more in favour of fiscal policy all along. As a side-effect by providing more bunds for the ECB to buy more fiscal policy from Germany would allow another expansion of monetary policy.

That leaves us with a curiosity that may become the equivalent of a singularity. Central banks have failed in the credit crunch era yet their importance rises and especially in the Euro area they seem to feel it is their role to dictate to politicians,

 

 

 

Christine Lagarde trolls Germany and asks for more fiscal stimulus

This morning has seen the first set piece speech of the new ECB President Christine Lagarde and it would not be her without some empty rhetoric.

The idea of European renewal may, for some, elicit feelings of cynicism. We have heard it many times before: “Europe is at a crossroads”; “now is Europe’s moment”. Often that has not proven to be the case. But this time does in fact seem different.

To her perhaps, just like the Greek bailout was “shock and awe” which I suppose in the end it was just as a doppelganger of what she meant.

We also got some trolling of Germany.

Ongoing trade tensions and geopolitical uncertainties are contributing to a slowdown in world trade growth, which has more than halved since last year. This has in turn depressed global growth to its lowest level since the great financial crisis.

These uncertainties have proven to be more persistent than expected, and this is clearly impacting on the euro area. Growth is expected to be 1.1% this year, i.e. 0.7 percentage points lower than we projected a year ago

A lot of the reduction and impact has been on Germany but what Christine does not say is that this has become a regular Euro area issue where economic growth has been downgraded or poor or both. Briefly around 2017 we had the Euro boom but that required the monetary taps to be wide open. Missing here in the analysis is the fact that the stimulus was withdrawn into a growth slowdown.

Did I say there was some trolling of Germany?

At the same time, there are also changes of a more structural nature. We are starting to see a global shift – driven mainly by emerging markets – from external demand to domestic demand, from investment to consumption and from manufacturing to services.

Then we move onto rhetoric that is simply misleading.

The answer lies in converting the world’s second largest economy into one that is open to the world but confident in itself – an economy that makes full use of Europe’s potential to unleash higher rates of domestic demand and long-term growth.

She is setting policy for the Euro area and not Europe and the ECB itself tells us this about the Euro area.

Compared with its individual member countries, the euro area is a large and much more closed economy. In terms of its share of global GDP, it is the world’s third-largest economy, after the United States and China.

Economics

It is revealing that the next section was titled “resilience and rebalancing” words which these days send a bit of a chill down the spine. This chill continues as we see a call for this.

And when global growth falls, stronger internal demand can help protect jobs, too. This is because domestic demand is linked more to services – which are more labour-intensive – while external demand is linked more to manufacturing, which is less labour-intensive.

We are seeing that shield in action in the euro area today: the resilience of services is the key reason why employment has not yet been affected by the global manufacturing slowdown.

The word “yet” may turn out to be rather important. Also there is a catch which is sugar coated..

In the euro area, domestic demand has contributed to the recovery, helping to create 11.4 million new jobs since mid-2013.

But then reality intervenes.

But over the past ten years, domestic demand growth has been almost 2 percentage points lower on average than it was in the decade before the crisis, and it has been slower than that of our main trading partners.

In addition there is a problem.

The ECB’s accommodative policy stance has been a key driver of domestic demand during the recovery, and that stance remains in place.

This is highlighted if we think what Euro area domestic demand would have been without all the ECB stimulus. Her predecessor Mario Draghi suggested that this was in the area of a 2% boost to both GDP and inflation. I guess Christine left that out as it would be too revealing, or it could be that she is simply unaware of it.

A Double Play

The space for monetary policy is limited as Mario Draghi in what I think was a revealing move tied the new ECB President’s hands for a bit by resuming QE ( 20 billion Euros a month) and cutting the deposit rate to -0.5%. So we are left with what some might call interference in politics.

One key element here is euro area fiscal policy, which is not just about the aggregate stance of public spending, but also its composition. Investment is a particularly important part of the response to today’s challenges, because it is both today’s demand and tomorrow’s supply.

The problem is defining what investment is and which bits are  genuinely useful. For example I recall in the Euro area crisis the example of new toll roads in Portugal which were empty because people could not afford them.

However as with some many central bankers these days Christine firmly presses the climate change klaxon.

While investment needs are of course country-specific, there is today a cross-cutting case for investment in a common future that is more productive, more digital and greener.

There is a clear problem below if we look at growth prospects in the light of this speech alone.

But a stronger domestic economy also rests on higher business investment, and for that raising productivity is equally important. Firms need to be confident in future growth if they are to commit long-range capital.

Because as even Christine is forced to admit the US has done better in this area.

Though all advanced economies are facing a growth challenge, the euro area has been slower to embrace innovation and capitalise on the digital age than others such as the United States. This is also reflected in differences in total factor productivity growth, which has risen by only half as much in the euro area as it has in the United States since 2000.

How do we deal with this? Well she is a politician so bring out some large numbers that most will immediately forget.

And the projected gains are significant: new studies find that the full implementation of the Services Directive would lead to gains in the order of €380 billion], while completing the digital single market would yield annual benefits of more than €170 billion.

Comment

The most revealing part of all this is below as you know you are in trouble when politicians start talking about opportunities.

We have a unique possibility to respond to a changing and challenging world by investing in our future, strengthening our common institutions and empowering the world’s second largest economy.

Maybe by the next speech someone will have told her it is the third largest. Also what growth and why has it not be tried over the past 20 years?

In this way, we could tap into new sources of growth that would otherwise be suppressed.

Let me switch tack and welcome a new female head of a central bank but if we look at the other main example we see yet another problem. Here is Janet Yellen on CNBC.

“Some of the most disturbing notes came from people who said, ’I work and I played by the rules and I save for retirement and I have money in the bank, and you know, I’m getting absolutely nothing,” Yellen recalled. “Savers are getting penalized. It’s true.”

This is even more true in the Euro area as we looked at on Tuesday but Lagarde  just skates by.

fewer side effects

The problem has been highlighted this morning by the Markit PMI business surveys.

The eurozone economy remained becalmed for a
third successive month in November, with the
lacklustre PMI indicative of GDP growing at a
quarterly rate of just 0.1%, down from 0.2% in the
third quarter.

Another nuance is that you can read the speech as in essence the French trolling Germany which seems to be a theme these days and a source of Euro area friction.

Also if we look at money markets there may be trouble ahead.

SPIKE IN ECB’S NEW OVERNIGHT RATE ESTR THIS WEEK SPARKED BY REGULAR CONTINGENCY PLANNING BY FRENCH BANKS – TRADERS  ( @PriapusIQ )

Why the 20th of the month?

We end by returning to an all too familiar theme, why do we always need stimulus?

 

 

 

The ECB starts to face up to some of the problems of the Euro area banks

Today has brought the Euro area financial sector and banks in particular into focus as the ECB ( European Central Bank ) issues its latest financial stability report. More than a decade after the credit crunch hit one might reasonably think that this should be a story of success but it is not like that. Because the ECB is rather unlikely to put it like this a major problem is that the medicine to fix the banks ( lower interest-rates) turned out to be harmful to them if you not only continued but increased the dose. Or as Britney Spears would put it, the impact of negative interest-rates on banks is.

I’m addicted to you
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
And I love what you do
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?

Actually the FSR starts with another confession of trouble as it reviews the Euro area economy.

The euro area economic outlook has deteriorated, with growth expected to remain subdued for longer. Mirroring global growth patterns, information since the previous FSR indicates a more protracted weakness of the euro area economy, leading to a downward revision of real GDP growth forecasts for 2020-21.

There is the by traditional element of blaming Johnny Foreigner which has some credibility with the trade war issue. However if we look deeper we were reminded only yesterday about the told of the Euro area in its genesis.

In September 2019 the current account of the euro area recorded a surplus of €28 billion, compared with a surplus of €29 billion in August 2019. In the 12-month period to September 2019, the current account recorded a surplus of €321 billion (2.7% of euro area GDP), compared with a surplus of €378 billion (3.3% of euro area GDP) in the 12 months to September 2018.

It sometimes gets forgotten now that one of the factors in the build-up to the credit crunch was the Euro area ( essentially German ) trade surplus.

However the essential message here is that lower economic growth is providing a challenge to the Euro area financial sector and banks and tucked away at the bottom of this section is one of the reasons why.

At the same time, inflationary pressures in the euro area are forecast to remain muted over the next two years, translating into overall weaker nominal growth prospects.

Paying down debt can be achieved via inflation as well as real economic growth and is one of the reasons why the ECB keeps implementing policies to get inflation up towards its 2% per annum target. A sort of stealth tax.

Bond Markets

There is a warning here.

Asset valuations, reliant on low interest rates, could face future corrections.

If we start with sovereign bonds then there is am implied danger for Germany as it has the largest sector with negative yields. But if we switch to banking exposure then eyes turn to Italy because not only does it have a large relative national debt but its banks hold a relatively large proportion of it at 20%. They will have done rather well out of the ten-year yield falling by over 2% to 1.3% over the past year but is that the only way Italian banks make money these days? There is a reflection of this sort of thing below.

Very low interest rates, coupled with the large number of investors which have gradually increased the duration of their fixed income portfolios, could exacerbate potential losses if an abrupt repricing were to materialise in the medium-to-long run.

Tucked away is an arrow fired at Germany.

there is a strong case for governments with fiscal space to act in an effective and timely manner.

What about the banks?

Here we go.

Bank profitability concerns remain prominent. Bank profitability prospects have weakened against the backdrop of the deteriorating growth outlook  and the low interest rate environment, especially for banks also facing structural cost and income challenges (see Special Feature A).

Nobody seems to want to back them with their money.

Reflecting these concerns, euro area banks’ market valuations remain depressed with an average price-to-book ratio of around 0.6.

Although the ECB would not put it like this if this was a rock concert the headliner would be my old employer Deutsche Bank. It has a share price of 6.5 Euros which certainly must depress long-term shareholders who have consistently lost money. There have been rallies in this example of a bear market and well played if you have taken advantage but each time they have been followed by Alicia Keys on the stereo.

Oh, baby
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
Fall
I keep

This bit is both true and simply breathtaking!

Banks have made slow progress in addressing structural challenges to profitability.

If you have policies which are fertiliser for zombie banks then complaining about a march of the zombies is a bit much. In this area it is Halloween every day.

If you are wondering about Special Feature A so was I.

These banks all stand out in terms of elevated cost-to-income ratios. But there also appear to be three distinct groups: (i) banks struggling with legacy asset problems; (ii) banks with weak income-generation capacity; and (iii) banks suffering from a combination of cost and revenue-side problems.

We are told this is only for a “sub set” but point (iii) is plainly a generic issue in the Euro area banking sector. The proposed solution looks not a little desperate.

But in systems with many weak-performing small banks, consolidation within their domestic system could improve performance. Finally, a combination of bank-level restructuring and cross-border M&A activity could help reduce the costs and diversify the revenues of large banks that are performing poorly.

Consolidating the cajas in Spain and some of the smaller banks in Italy did reduce the number of banks in trouble but did not change the problem.There is a bit of shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic about this which turns to laughter as I consider “cross-border M&A activity”. Like RBS in the UK? That was one of the ways we got into this mess. One of the problems with banking right now is what do they diversify into?

On aggregate, euro area banks’ return on equity is expected to remain low, limiting the sector’s ability to increase resilience through retained earnings

Er well yes.

Should this all go wrong we will be told we were warned.

A banking system operating with significant overcapacity is also vulnerable to weak competitors driving down lending standards and an underpricing of risk.

Shadow Banking?

Some of the role of banks has moved elsewhere and of course there are plenty of issues for long-term savings in a negative interest-rate world.

After a slight decline in the last quarter of 2018, the total assets of investment funds (IFs), money market funds (MMFs), financial vehicle corporations, insurance corporations (ICs), pension funds (PFs) and other financial institutions gradually increased to almost €46 trillion in June 2019, and represented 56% of total financial sector assets.

Also what do you expect if you drive some corporate bond yields negative by buying so many of them?

But more recently, the low cost of market-based debt has supported a further increase in NFCs’ debt issuance – particularly of investment-grade bonds.

Can anybody remember a time when relying on bond ratings went wrong?

Negative interest-rates again.

As yields have fallen, non-bank financial intermediaries hold a growing share of low-yielding bonds, which decreases their investment income in the medium term and encourages risk-taking.

Comment

The press release is if we read between the lines quite damning.

Low interest rates support economic activity, but there can be side effects

Signs of excessive risk-taking in some sectors require monitoring and targeted macroprudential action in some countries

Banks have further increased resilience, but have made limited progress in improving profitability.

It is welcome that we are seeing some confession of central banking sins but it comes with something else I have noticed recently which is that ECB related accounts are taking the battle to social media.

Dear fellow German economists, if you are wondering what you can do for Europe: Please help to dispel the harmful & wrong narratives about the @ecb  ‘s monetary policy, floating around in political and media circles. These threaten the euro more than many other things.

That is from Isabel Schnabel who is the German government and Eurogroup approved candidate to be a new member on the ECB board. From the replies it is not going down too well but we can see clearly why she was appointed at least.

Me on The Investing Channel

The mad world of negative interest-rates is on the march

Yesterday as is his want the President of the United States Donald Trump focused attention on one of our credit crunch themes.

Just finished a very good & cordial meeting at the White House with Jay Powell of the Federal Reserve. Everything was discussed including interest rates, negative interest, low inflation, easing, Dollar strength & its effect on manufacturing, trade with China, E.U. & others, etc.

I guess he was at the 280 character limit so replaced negative interest-rates with just negative interest. In a way this is quite extraordinary as I recall debates in the earlier part of the credit crunch where people argued that it would be illegal for the US Federal Reserve to impose negative interest-rates. But the Donald does not seem bothered as we see him increasingly warm to a theme he established at the Economic Club of New York late last week.

“Remember we are actively competing with nations that openly cut interest rates so that many are now actually getting paid when they pay off their loan, known as negative interest. Who ever heard of such a thing?” He said. “Give me some of that. Give me some of that money. I want some of that money. Our Federal Reserve doesn’t let us do it.” ( Reuters )

That day the Chair of the US Federal Reserve Jerome Powell rejected the concept according to CNBC.

He also rejected the idea that the Fed might one day consider negative interest rates like those in place across Europe.

The problem is that over the past year the 3 interest-rate cuts look much more driven by Trump than Powell.

Of course, there are contradictions.Why does the “best economy ever” need negative interest-rates for example? Or why a stock market which keeps hitting all-time highs needs them? But the subject keeps returning as we note yesterday’s words from the President of the Cleveland Fed.

Asked her view on negative interest rates, Mester told the audience that Europe’s use of them “is perhaps working better than I might have anticipated” but added she is not supportive of such an approach in the United States should there be a downturn.

Why say “working better” then reject the idea?  We have seen that path before.

The Euro area

As to working better then a deposit-rate of -0.5% and of course many bond yields in negative territory has seen the annual rate of economic growth fall to 1.1%. Also with the last two quarterly growth readings being only 0.2% it looks set to fall further.

So the idea of an economic boost being provided by them is struggling and relying on the counterfactual. But the catch is that such arguments are mostly made by those who think that the last interest-rate cut of 0.1% made any material difference. After all the previous interest-rate cuts that is simply amazing. Actually the moves will have different impacts across the Euro area as this from an ECB working paper points out.

A striking feature of the credit market in the euro area is the very large heterogeneity across countries in the granting of fixed versus adjustable rate mortgages.
FRMs are dominant in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, while ARMs are prevailing in Austria, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain (ECB, 2009; Campbell,
2012)

Actually I would be looking for data from 2019 rather than 2009 but we do get some sort of idea.

Businesses and Savers in Germany are being affected

We have got another signal of the spread of the impact of negative interest-rates .From the Irish Times.

The Bundesbank surveyed 220 lenders at the end of September – two weeks after the ECB’s cut its deposit rate from minus 0.4 to a record low of minus 0.5 per cent. In response 58 per cent of the banks said they were levying negative rates on some corporate deposits, and 23 per cent said they were doing the same for retail depositors.

There was also a strong hint that legality is an issue in this area.

“This is more difficult in the private bank business than in corporate or institutional deposits, and we don’t see an ability to adjust legal terms and conditions of our accounts on a broad-based basis,” said Mr von Moltke, adding that Deutsche was instead approaching retail clients with large deposits on an individual basis.

So perhaps more than a few accounts have legal barriers to the imposition of negative interest-rates. That idea gets some more support here.

Stephan Engels, Commerzbank’s chief financial officer, said this month that Germany’s second largest listed lender had started to approach wealthy retail customers holding deposits of more than €1 million.

Japan

The Bank of Japan has dipped its toe in the water but has always seemed nervous about doing anymore. This has been illustrated overnight.

“There is plenty of scope to deepen negative rates from the current -0.1%,” Kuroda told a semi-annual parliament testimony on monetary policy. “But I’ve never said there are no limits to how much we can deepen negative rates, or that we have unlimited means to ease policy,” he said. ( Reuters )

This is really odd because Japan took its time imposing negative interest-rates as we had seen 2 lost decades by January 2016 but it has then remained at -0.1% or the minimum amount. Mind you there is much that is crazy about Bank of Japan policy as this next bit highlights.

Kuroda also said there was still enough Japanese government bonds (JGB) left in the market for the BOJ to buy, playing down concerns its huge purchases have drained market liquidity.

After years of heavy purchases to flood markets with cash, the BOJ now owns nearly half of the JGB market.

In some ways that fact that a monetary policy activist like Governor Kuroda has not cut below -0.1% is the most revealing thing of all about negative interest-rates.

Switzerland

The Swiss found themselves players in this game when the Swiss Franc soared and they tried to control it. Now they find themselves with a central bank that combines the role of being a hedge fund due to its large overseas equity investments and has a negative interest-rate of -0.75%.

Nearly five years after the fateful day when the SNB stopped capping the Swiss Franc we get ever more deja vu from its assessments.

The situation on the foreign exchange market is still fragile, and the Swiss franc has appreciated in trade-weighted terms. It remains highly valued.

Comment

I have consistently argued that the situation regarding negative interest-rates has two factors. The first is how deep they go? The second is how long they last? I have pointed out that the latter seems to be getting ever longer and may be heading along the lines of “Too Infinity! And Beyond!”. It seems that the Swiss National Bank now agrees with me. The emphasis is mine.

This adjustment to the calculation basis takes account of the fact that the low interest rate environment around the world has recently become more entrenched and could persist for some time yet.

We have seen another signal of that recently because the main priority of the central banks is of course the precious and we see move after move to exempt the banks as far as possible from negative interest-rates. The ECB for example has introduced tiering to bring it into line with the Swiss and the Japanese although the Swiss moved again in September.

The SNB is adjusting the basis for calculating negative interest as follows. Negative interest will continue to be charged on the portion of banks’ sight deposits which exceeds a certain exemption threshold. However, this exemption threshold will now be updated monthly and
thereby reflect developments in banks’ balance sheets over time.

If only the real economy got the same consideration and courtesy. That is the crux of the matter here because so far no-one has actually exited the black hole which is negative interest-rates. The Riksbank of Sweden says that it will next month but this would be a really odd time to raise interest-rates. Also I note that the Danish central bank has its worries about pension funds if interest-rates rise.

A scenario in which interest rates go up
by 1 percentage point over a couple of days is not
implausible. Therefore, pension companies should
be prepared to manage margin requirements at
all times. If the sector is unable to obtain adequate
access to liquidity, it may be necessary to reduce the
use of derivatives.

Personally I am more bothered about the pension funds which have invested in bonds with negative yields.After all, what could go wrong?