Where next for US monetary policy?

So much of the economic news in 2018 has related to developments in the US economy. In particular monetary policy as the world has found itself adjusting to what is called these days a “normalisation” of policy in the United States. To my mind that poses the immediate question of what is normal now? I am sure we can all agree that monetary policy has been abnormal over the past decade or so but along that path it has also begun to feel normal. People up to the age of ten will know no different and if we allow some time to be a child maybe even those at university regard what we have now as normal. After all they will have grown up in a world of low and then negative interest-rates. The media mostly copy and paste the official pronouncements that tell us it has been good for us and “saved” the economy.

I am thinking this because the US Federal Reserve last night gave a hint that it thinks something else may be the new normal.

The staff provided a briefing that summarized its analysis
of the extent to which some of the Committee’s monetary
policy tools could provide adequate policy accommodation
if, in future economic downturns, the policy
rate were again to become constrained by the effective
lower bound (ELB)

This begs various questions of which the first is simply as we have just been through the biggest trial ever of such policies surely they know them as well as they ever will? Next comes another troubling thought which is the rather odd theory that you need to raise interest-rates now so that you have room to cut them later. This is something which is not far off bizarre but seems to be believed by some. Personally I think you should raise interest-rates when you think there are good reasons for doing so as otherwise you are emulating the Grand Old Duke of York. Also there are costs to moving interest-rates so if you put them up to bring them down you have made things worse not better.

You may also note that the Zero Lower Bound or ZLB  has become the ELB with Effective replacing zero. Is there a hint here that the US would be prepared to move to negative interest-rates next time around? After all we exist in a world where in spite of the recorded recovery we still have negative interest-rates in parts of Europe and in Japan. Indeed the -0.4% deposit rate at the ECB has survived what the media have called the “Euroboom”.

Effective Lower Bound

There are some odd statements to note about all of this. For example.

Accordingly,in their view, spells at the ELB could become
more frequent and protracted than in the past, consistent
with the staff’s analysis.

Seeing as we have been there precisely once what does “more frequent” actually mean? Also considering how long we were there the concept of it being even more protracted is not a little chilling if we consider what that implies. Also this next bit is not a little breathtaking when we consider the scale of the application of the policy “toolkit”

They also emphasized that there was considerable uncertainty about the economic effects of these tools. Consistent with that view, a few participants noted that economic researchers had not yet reached a consensus about the effectiveness of unconventional policies.

I do not know about you but perhaps they might have given that a bit more thought before they expanded the Federal Reserve balance sheet to above 4 trillion dollars! As to possible consequences let me link two different parts of their analysis which would give me sleepless nights if I had implemented such policies.

A number of participants indicated that there might be significant costs associated with the use of unconventional policies……….. That decline was viewed as likely driven by various factors, including slower trend growth of the labor force and productivity as well as increased demand for safe assets.

Policy Now

This is the state of play for interest-rates.

The Committee expects that further gradual increases in the target range for the federal funds rate will be consistent with sustained expansion of economic activity,

How far? Well Robert Kaplan of the Dallas Fed gave a road map on Tuesday.

With the current fed funds rate at 1.75 to 2 percent, it would take approximately three or four more federal funds rate increases of a quarter of a percent to get into the range of this estimated neutral level.

At this stage, I believe the Federal Reserve should be gradually raising the fed funds rate until we reach this neutral level.

So circa 2.5% is the target and that seems to have been accepted by the bond market as we see the ten-year Treasury Note yield at 2.82% and the thirty-year Treasury Bond yield at 2.98%. When you read about the “yield curve” and in particular reports of it being flattish this is what they mean as we have a difference of a bit over 1% between the official interest-rate and the thirty-year bond.

There has been a lot of discussion about what this means but to my mind it simply means that the bond market has figured out where the US Federal Reserve intends to send interest-rates and has set prices in response. It will have noted the problems abroad that the interest-rate rises have contributed too and the discussions about possible future cuts and adjusted yields downwards. Whether that turns out to be right or wrong is a matter of opinion but to my mind whilst we have QT now ( the Federal Reserve balance sheet is being shrunk albeit relatively slowly) regular readers will be aware I think there are scenarios where interest-rates go up and the QE purchases begin again. Some such thoughts were perhaps on the mind of Robert Kaplan on Tuesday.

Despite the fact that the current economic expansion is the second longest in the postwar period, U.S. government debt held by the public now stands at 75.8 percent of GDP, and the present value of unfunded entitlements is estimated at approximately $54 trillion. The recent tax legislation and bipartisan budget compromise legislation are likely to exacerbate these issues. As a consequence of this level of debt, the U.S. is much less likely to have the fiscal capacity to fight the next recession.

Notice the reference to US debt held by the public which of course omits the holdings by the Fed itself.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here and so far I have left out two factors. The first is the Donald who has expressed a dislike for interest-rate rises but so far on a much more minor scale than say President Erdogan in Turkey. Next is the issue of the Dollar which is two-fold as in its exchange-rate and how many of them there are to go around. As to the dollar exchange rate then stormy times for the US President seem to have capped it for the short-term. But as to quantity the era of QT seems unsurprisingly to have reduced the supply around the world and therefore contributed to troubles in places which relied on there being plenty of them.

This brings us to the Jackson Hole symposium which starts today where central bankers gather to discuss what to do next. For example back in 2012 Micheal Woodford gave a speech about Forward Guidance which has now become an accepted part of the “toolkit”. Central bankers seem to inhabit a world where it is not a laughing-stock and instead is avidly received and listened to by an expectant population. This time around the official story is of “normalisation” as even the unreliable boyfriend has raised interest-rates albeit only a nervous once. Also the Swedes are again promising to reduce their negativity although that has become something of a hardy perennial.

But in the backrooms I suspect the conversation will shift to “what do we do next time?” when the next recession hits and for the market aware that may be added to by the recent price behaviour of Dr,Copper. On such a road the normalisation debate may suddenly become an Outkast.

I’m sorry, Ms. Jackson, I am for real
Never meant to make your daughter cry
I apologize a trillion times

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Rising inflation trends are putting a squeeze on central banks

Sometimes events have their own natural flow and after noting yesterday that the winds of change in UK inflation are reversing we have been reminded twice already today that the heat is on. First from a land down under where inflation expectations have done this according to Trading Economics.

Inflation Expectations in Australia increased to 4.20 percent in June from 3.70 percent in May of 2018.

This is significant in several respects. Firstly the message is expect higher inflation and if we look at the Reserve Bank of Australia this is the highest number in the series ( since March 2013). Next  if we stay with the RBA it poses clear questions as inflation at 1.9% is below target ( 2.5%) but f these expectations are any guide then an interest-rate of 1.5% seems well behind the curve.

Indeed the RBA is between a rock and a hard place as we observe this from Reuters.

Australia’s central bank governor said on Wednesday the current slowdown in the housing market isn’t a cause for concern but flagged the need for policy to remain at record lows for the foreseeable future with wage growth and inflation still weak.

Home prices across Australia’s major cities have fallen for successive months since late last year as tighter lending standards at banks cooled demand in Sydney and Melbourne – the two biggest markets.

You know something is bad when we are told it is not a concern!

If we move to much cooler Sweden I note this from its statistics authority.

The inflation rate according to the CPI with a fixed interest rate (CPIF) was 2.1 percent in May 2018, up from 1.9 percent in April 2018. The CPIF increased by 0.3 percent from April to May.

So Mission Accomplished!

The Riksbank’s target is to hold inflation in terms of the CPIF around 2 per cent a year.

Yet we find that having hit it and via higher oil prices the pressure being upwards it is doing this.

The Executive Board has therefore decided to hold the repo rate unchanged at −0.50 per cent and assesses that the rate will begin to be raised towards the end of the year, which is somewhat later than previously forecast.

Care is needed here as you see the Riksbank has been forecasting an interest-rate rise for some years now but like the Unreliable Boyfriend somehow it keeps forgetting to actually do it.

I keep forgettin’ things will never be the same again
I keep forgettin’ how you made that so clear
I keep forgettin’ ( Michael McDonald )

Anyway it is a case of watch this space as even they have real food for thought right now as they face the situation below with negative interest-rates.

Economic activity in Sweden is still strong and inflation has been close to the target for the past year.

US Inflation

The situation here is part of an increasingly familiar trend.

The all items index rose 2.8 percent for the 12 months ending May, continuing its upward trend since the beginning of the year. The index for all items less food and
energy rose 2.2 percent for the 12 months ending May. The food index increased 1.2 percent, and the energy index rose 11.7 percent.

This was repeated at an earlier stage in the inflation cycle as we found out yesterday.

On an unadjusted basis, the final demand index moved up
3.1 percent for the 12 months ended in May, the largest 12-month increase since climbing 3.1 percent in January 2012.

In May, 60 percent of the rise in the index for final demand is attributable to a 1.0-percent advance in prices for final demand goods.

A little care is needed as the US Federal Reserve targets inflation based on PCE or Personal Consumption Expenditures which you may not be surprised to read is usually lower ( circa 0.4%) than CPI. We do not know what it was for May yet but using my rule of thumb it will be on its way from the 2% in April to maybe 2.4%.

What does the Federal Reserve make of this?

Well this best from yesterday evening is clear.

In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1-3/4 to 2 percent. The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting strong labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent inflation.

If we start with that let me give you a different definition of accommodative which is an interest-rate below the expected inflation rate. Of course that is off the scale in Sweden and perhaps Australia. Next we see a reference to “strong labo(u)r market conditions” which only adds to this. Putting it another way “strong” replaced “moderate” as its view on economic activity.

This is how the New York Times viewed matters.

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates on Wednesday and signaled that two additional increases were on the way this year, as officials expressed confidence that the United States economy was strong enough for borrowing costs to rise without choking off economic growth.

Care is needed about borrowing costs as bond yields ignored the move but of course some may pay more. Also we have seen a sort of lost decade in interest-rate terms.

The last time the rate topped 2 percent was in late summer 2008, when the economy was contracting and the Fed was cutting rates toward zero, where they would remain for years after the financial crisis.

Yet there is a clear gap between rhetoric and reality on one area at least as here is the Fed Chair.

The decision you see today is another sign that the U.S. economy is in great shape,” Mr. Powell said after the Fed’s two-day policy meeting. “Most people who want to find jobs are finding them.”

Yet I note this too.

At a comparable time of low unemployment, in 2000, “wages were growing at near 4 percent year over year and the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation was 2.5 percent,” both above today’s levels, Tara Sinclair, a senior fellow at the Indeed Hiring Lab, said in a research note.

So inflation is either there or near but can anyone realistically say that about wages?

Mr. Powell played down concerns about slow wage growth, acknowledging it is “a bit of a puzzle” but suggesting that it would normalize as the economy continued to strengthen.

What is normal now please Mr.Powell?

Comment

One of my earliest themes was that central banks would struggle when it comes to reducing all the stimulus because they would be terrified if it caused a slow down. A bit like the ECB moved around 2011 then did a U-Turn. What I did not know then was that the scale of their operations would increase dramatically exacerbating the problem. To be fair to the US Federal Reserve it is attempting the move albeit it would be better to take larger earlier steps in my opinion as opposed to this drip-feed of minor ones.

In some ways the US Federal Reserve is the worlds central bank ( via the role of the US Dollar as the reserve currency) and takes the world with it. But there have been changes here as for example the Bank of England used to move in concert with it in terms of trends if not exact amounts. But these days the Unreliable Boyfriend who is Governor of the Bank of England thinks he knows better than that and continues to dangle future rises like a carrot in front of the reality of a 0.5% Bank Rate.

This afternoon will maybe tell us a little more about Euro area monetary policy. Mario Draghi and the ECB have given Forward Guidance about the end of monthly QE via various hints. But that now faces the reality of a Euro area fading of economic growth. So Mario may be yet another central bank Governor who cannot wait for his term of office to end.

 

 

What are the prospects for the US economy?

As we progress through 2018 we find eyes as ever turning regularly to the US economy. Not only to see what the world’s largest economy is up to but also to note any changes. The economic growth news for the first quarter was pretty solid. From the Bureau of Economic Analysis or BEA.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 2.3 percent in the first quarter of 2018
according to the “advance” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the
fourth quarter, real GDP increased 2.9 percent.

So whilst we see a slowing it is exacerbated in feel by the way the numbers are annualised and is much lower than that seen in the UK and much of Europe. Also the US has developed something of a pattern of weak first quarter numbers so we need to remind ourselves that the number is better than that seen in both 2016 and 2017. As to the detail the slowing was fairly general. If we were looking for an estimate of the recovery since the credit crunch hit then we get it from noting that if we use 2009 as out 100 benchmark then the latest quarter was at 120.58.

Let us move on with a reminder of the size of the US economy.

Current-dollar GDP increased 4.3 percent, or $211.2 billion, in the first quarter to a level of $19.97
trillion.

Looking ahead

There was something potentially rather positive tucked away in the Income report that was released with the GDP data.

Disposable personal income increased $222.1 billion, or 6.2 percent, in the first quarter, compared with
an increase of $136.3 billion, or 3.8 percent, in the fourth quarter. Real disposable personal income
increased 3.4 percent, compared with an increase of 1.1 percent.

At a time of weak wages growth considering the economic situation that was a strong reading which may feed forwards into future consumption numbers. I wondered what drove it but in fact it was pretty broad-based across the different sectors with the only fall being in farm income. As an aside the personal income from farming was surprisingly small considering the size of the US farming sector at US $27.9 billion.

Moving onto the Nowcasts of GDP the news has also been good. From the Atlanta Federal Reserve.

The GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the second quarter of 2018 is 4.0 percent on May 3, down from 4.1 percent on May 1.

They start the series in optimistic fashion so let us say that around 3% may well be where they end up unless something fundamental changes.

Moving onto the business surveys we saw this yesterday.

April survey data indicated a strong expansion in
business activity across the U.S. service sector.
However, although the rate of growth accelerated, it
remained below the series’ long-run average.
Meanwhile, the upturn in new business quickened
to a sharp rate that was the fastest since March
2015. ( Markit PMI ).

Which added to this from May Day.

April survey data signalled a steep improvement in
operating conditions across the U.S. manufacturing
sector. The latest PMI reading was the highest since
September 2014, supported by stronger expansions
in output and new orders. Moreover, new business
rose at the sharpest pace in over three-and-a-half
years. ( Markit PMI)

Thus the summary for the start of the second quarter is so far so good which again means the US is in better shape than elsewhere at least for now.

Inflation

Earlier this week I note that the US Federal Reserve was for once on target. What I mean by that was that the PCE ( Personal Consumption Expenditure) inflation rate rose by 2% in March compared to a year before. Expectations of this are what caused the addition of the word I have highlighted in Wednesday’s Fed statement.

The Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected inflation developments relative to its symmetric inflation goal.

There has been a lot of debate over this much of it misinformed. Firstly central bankers virtually never mean it and secondly they are hinting at a possible run higher after a long period when it has been below the 2% target.

Such a likelihood was reinforced by the Markit PMI surveys.

On the price front, input cost inflation picked up in
April. The rate of increase was strong overall and
the second-quickest since June 2015. (services)

Meanwhile, average prices charged rose at the
quickest pace since June 2011, with the rate of
inflation accelerating for the fourth successive
month. Survey respondents commonly noted that
higher charges were due to increased costs being
passed on to clients. (Manufacturing)

Of course having begun the process of raising interest-rates without the most common cause of it these days ( a currency collapse) the US Fed is not in that bad a place at least in its own mind should inflation overshoot the target in the summer. Although of course as I have pointed out before in terms of logic it should have been more decisive rather than dribbling out increases along the lines expected for the rest of 2018 by Reuters.

While the Fed left interest rates unchanged on Wednesday, it is possibly set to raise them by a total of 75 basis points this year.

King Dollar

This was summarised by Reuters thus.

In just two weeks the dollar has surged nearly four percent against a basket of the most traded currencies, erasing all the losses it had suffered since the start of 2018 .DXY.

Against a broader group of currencies, including those from emerging markets, the greenback is now in positive territory against half of them.

This brings us back to the topic of yesterday where the US Dollar rebound has hit the weaker currencies such as the Turkish Lira and the Argentine Peso hard. Following on from the change of heart of the unreliable boyfriend in the UK it has seen the UK Pound £ dip below US $1.36 and the Euro is below US $1.20.

Is this a return to the interest-rate differentials that had up to then been ignored? Maybe a bit but perhaps the reality is more that the modern currency trade seems to be to follow the economic growth and as we have observed above at the moment the US economy looks relatively strong.

Comment

So in terms of conventional economic analysis things look pretty good for the US economy as we stand. The danger might be highlighted this afternoon from the wages data in the non farm payrolls release. This is because rising inflation will chip away at real wages if the rate of wages increase stays at 2.7%. Of course that reminds us of the issue of the fact that wages growth is only at that level with an unemployment rate at 4% leading many economists to scrabble through Google searches trying to redact references to full employment at a higher rate.

Elsewhere there are potential concerns of which one is debt. Should growth continue on its current path then it will help the national debt withstand the pressure placed on it by the Trump tax plan. On the private-sector side though familiar fears are on the scene.

 

Yahoo Finance helpfully updates us with this.

They’re also safer than junk bonds, at least in theory, with lenders getting repaid before creditors when firms get into trouble

What could go wrong?

Finally in spite of the recent dollar strength the Yen has pushed its way back to 109 leaving me with this from Carly Simon.

Why does your love hurt so much?
Don’t know why

 

 

 

How much will interest-rates rise?

The issue of interest-rate rises has suddenly become something of a hot topic and let me open with the words of Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan. From the Financial Times.

Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase, has warned that the US economy is at risk of overheating, raising the prospect that the Federal Reserve may soon need to slam on the brakes to prevent wages and prices from rising too quickly.

There are more than a few begged questions here but let us park them for now and carry on.

“Many people underestimate the possibility of higher inflation and wages, which means they might be underestimating the chance that the Federal Reserve may have to raise rates faster than we all think,” he wrote. “We have to deal with the possibility that, at one point, the Federal Reserve and other central banks may have to take more drastic action than they currently anticipate.”

Okay let us break this down. Firstly we are back to output gap theory again which of course has been wrong,wrong and wrong again in the credit crunch era. If there are signs of overheating then they are to be found in asset markets where we have seen booming bond prices and house prices and until recently all-time highs for equity markets. Only on Tuesday we looked at US house price growth of 6% or 7% depending which data you use.

Wages

I have picked this out because there has been quite a swerve from Jamie Dimon as for so long nearly everyone has been hoping for higher wages. Now suddenly apparently a rise is a bad thing? The Financial Times article implicitly parrots this line.

The prospect of an overheating economy has spooked the financial markets as recently as February, when stronger-than-expected US wage growth sparked the worst Wall Street sell-off in six years.

In terms of numbers a rise in average earnings growth per hour to 2.9% was hardly groundbreaking and of course it has since faded away showing the unreliable nature of one month’s data. In reality to return to old era trends we would need wages growth of 3.5%+ for a while. But in Jamie’s world that seems to be a bad thing although apparently not always. From Bloomberg.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon received $29.5 million in total compensation for his work in 2017, an increase of 5.4 percent from a year earlier.

So we are left mulling a view where what was supposed to be good would now be bad! Although those of you who in the comments section have argued we will not see major interest-rate rises until wage rises for the ordinary person picks up are permitted a wry smile at this point.

What is expected?

From the FT article.

Prices of Fed funds futures suggest few expect the Fed to raise rates by more than three times this year, as policymakers have indicated. Longer-term market measures also indicate that investors expect inflation and bond yields to remain subdued for years to come.

I put the second sentence in because it is positively misleading. What those measures are provide a balancing of markets now and usually have very little to do with what will happen. Returning to interest-rates we got a view this week from former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.

At Monday’s larger forum for Jefferies clients, she expressed the view that three or four rate rises were likely this year, and that recent U.S. tax cuts and a boost in government spending posed at least some risk of running the economy hot, according to the first source, who requested anonymity. ( CNBC)

This is the awkward bit about the Jamie Dimon claim which is that the existing and likely moves in US interest-rates are a response to expected higher inflation anyway as of course as we have looked at many times it is still below the target. Back to Janet.

Later, over dinner at the Manhattan penthouse of Jefferies’ chief executive, Yellen told executives from hedge funds, private equity firms and other companies that she considered inflation to be in check and unlikely to spike, so rates would stay relatively low, according to a second person familiar with the discussion.

Take that as you will as of course we discovered in her time that she does not really understand inflation.

The Bank of England

So how will it respond as traditionally it follows the US Federal Reserve?

We’re pleased to announce that singer-songwriter will be joining us for a event on 19 April, delivering his talk ‘The Struggle for Accountability in the Digital Age’ followed by a Q&A. Find out more and apply for free tickets.

Oh sorry not that one. Let us move onto its favourite publication the Financial Times.

Policymakers at the Bank of England are debating whether to be more forthcoming about their future plans for interest rates, as they gear up for a crunch vote on the cost of borrowing next month.

This is fascinating stuff because it both implies and suggests they know what their forecasts are! Let me give you an example reviewed favourably by Chris Giles the economics editor of the FT.

But last month Gertjan Vlieghe, an external MPC member, broke ranks with his colleagues on the nine-member committee when he said that rates could rise above 2 per cent over the same period.

Actually if we remove the rose-tintin ( sorry but he is Belgian) he seems an excitable chap as this from the Evening Standard in April 2016 reveals.

Vlieghe’s answer is intriguing: “Theoretically, I think interest rates could go a little bit negative.”

The long discussion on negative interest-rates that took place was clearly a hint of expected policy and means that Gertjan was wrong which poses a question over why we should listen this time? Although Chris Giles has a very different view.

Not sure it matters if people believe them.

I think it matters a lot. Oh and as the Swedish Riksbank has found it.

The Riksbank has had some difficulties with its predictions.

But to be fair Chris Giles does have a sense of humour ( I think).

But there remains concern that the BoE could undermine trust in it as an institution running an important public policy if it makes predictions about interest rates that do not come to pass.

Comment

Let me open with a rather good reply to this from GreaterFool.

Any shreds of credibility that the BoE once had disappeared into smoke after the forward guidance experiment. Telling people that you’ll raise rates after unemployment falls below 7% and then dropping them again when unemployment is below 5% will do that.

In fact the hits keep coming as though in this instance from Felix2012

There are quite a few commenters here who still take MPC seriously, unfortunately.

As to clarity well we did get that from Governor Carney back in June 2014.

There’s already great speculation about the exact timing of the first rate hike and this decision is becoming more balanced….“It could happen sooner than markets currently expect.

That was taken as a clear signal back then and the next day saw a lot of market adjustments which later led to losses as it never happened. Of course the road to a Bank Rate cut after Governor Carney hinted at it was both real and fast as we discovered 3 years later.

So what can we expect? The Bank of England has rather committed itself to a May Bank Rate rise which if you look at falling inflation and some weaker economic news looks out of touch. We have seen signs of slowing in Europe too as German industrial production has shown already today. The US Federal Reserve will no doubt carry on course unless there is a shock stateside although not everyone even thinks we need any tightening. BoI is the Bank of Italy.

 

What is happening to US house prices?

If you are a believer that the extraordinarily stimulatory monetary policies of the credit crunch era have boosted house prices via their impact on asset prices then the United States currently provides food for thought. This is because of this.

In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 percent.

For younger readers the US Federal Reserve has raised official interest-rates to extraordinary heights and for older ones it has barely got into the foothills. Either way The Fed-Home as Google now describes us thinks this.

 The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative,

In addition to the series of increases in interest-rates we have seen and continue to expect we are now in what I guess we need to call the QT or Quantitative Tightening era or as Marketwatch described it last month.

Last fall, the Fed announced plans to slowly reduce its balance sheet on auto-pilot, allowing holdings to shrink by $20 billion each month this quarter and moving up to a maximum of $50 billion per month by the end of the year.

From the peak of US $4.5 trillion the balance sheet has shrunk from US $4.5 trillion at its peak to US $.4.4 trillion as of the latest update. So QT has had an impact in terms of a small flow reduction which has led to a small stock reduction. Thus we have gone from small up to small down if we look at it like that although of course in other terms US $100 billion or so was a lot of money.

If we look ahead then Marketwatch point out that we were given a hint of a possible future late last year.

The Fed has not announced how low it wants to shrink its balance sheet. New Fed Chairman Jerome Powell discussed a target range of $2.5 trillion to $2.9 trillion in his confirmation hearing last fall.

Okay what does this impact?

A central bankers heart will gladden when they see these numbers from Money Magnify.

In the second quarter of 2017, real estate values in the United States surpassed their pre- housing crisis levels. The total value of real estate owned by individuals in the United States is $24 trillion, and total mortgages clock in at $9.9 trillion. This means that Americans have $13.9 trillion in homeowners equity.12 This is the highest value of home equity Americans have ever seen.

As they do not let me point out that such value calculations have the flaw of using a marginal price for an average concept which looks great when prices rise but not to great when they fall. If we move on we also see a consequence of the credit crunch era.

Current homeowners have mortgage payments that make up an average of just 16.5% of their annual household income.

That will be changing but not in the way that you think as the US market is mostly one of fixed-rate mortgages. So whilst both the policy changes above may affect it we see that over time QT is likely to have the largest impact. This is because the main player is the 30 year fixed rate mortgage which means that the 30 year Treasury yield is more of a factor that short-term interest-rates. When you look at what it has done you see that in a broad sweep the US Fed helped reduce it by around 1% from 2013 to late 2016 and it then rose by 1% to the current 4.44%. Actually if you look at the chart it is hard not to have a wry smile as for all the rhetoric and talk about QT the main player seems to have been the Donald as most of the rise was around the election of President Trump. Humbling for central bankers and their dreams of ruling the world! If you want to know how this took place I looked at it on the 9th of November 2016.

Before I depart the economic situation let me point out that we may well end up discussing as so often two different markets.

Today, half of all borrowers put down 5% or less. More than 10% of borrowers put 0% down. As a result, the average loan-to-value ratio at origination has climbed to 87%

Manhattan

Is this a case of a perfect storm? We have the effect of the factors above although of course they affect the 0.1% much less than the rest of us. But the winds of change as we have seen in central London have been blowing against capital city ( in which category New York is unofficially if not officially) property prices after many years of plenty. Also there has been this according to the Financial Times.

Some buyers held off buying real estate as they grappled with the impact of President Donald Trump’s changes to the federal tax code, which introduced a cap on the deduction of state and local taxes, including property taxes, from federal tax bills. It also reduced the size of mortgages eligible for interest deductions. The change is expected to hit high earners in high-tax states including New York, particularly in New York City.

This has led to this.

The number of co-op and condominium sales in Manhattan fell nearly 25 per cent during the first quarter compared to the same period last year………..It was the largest annual decline in sales in nine years, according to the report.

Okay so what about prices?

The average sale price across Manhattan fell by 8.1 per cent from the year-earlier quarter, and the average price per square foot also recorded a sharp decline, falling by 18.5 per cent to $1,697.

Perhaps fearing a lack of sympathy amongst even its readers the FT takes its time to point out what this means.

The average sales price of a luxury apartment fell 15.1 per cent, down from $9.36m in the first quarter of 2017 to $7.94m in the first quarter of this year, and the number of sales was down 24.1 per cent. The number of newly built apartments that went into contract fell 54 per cent.

As to lack of sympathy that was at play in the comments.

So now the average luxury apartment in Manhattan costs only $8 million? Not yet a bargain then? ( Genghis)

As was some perspective.

1600 usd per sqf for prime ? Still a bargain compared to London (JP1)……..I know. And positively a steal compared to Hong Kong !! (observer).

Looking wider

You might from the above expect lower prices but in fact at the end of last week we were told this. From Zillow Research.

The continuing inventory pinch helped boost the U.S. national Case Shiller index 6.2 percent in January from a year earlier, down from a 6.3 percent gain in December. Case-Shiller’s 10-City Composite rose 6 percent, while the 20-City Composite climbed 6.4 percent year-over-year.

Some places are in fact red hot.

Home prices in Seattle, Las Vegas, and San Francisco posted the highest annual gains among the 20 cities, rising 12.9 percent, 11.1 percent and 10.2 percent, respectively.

Zillow remain of the view that house prices will continue to rise as I note that rather like us in the UK there is a perception that too few houses have and indeed are being built. For perspective I note that a different piece of research tells us this.

Home values rose 7.6 percent year-over-year to a median of $210,200, with the San Jose, Calif., metro posting astonishing annual home value growth of 26.4 percent, reaching a median of $1.25 million.

Comment

We find ourselves reflecting on the words of Glenn Frey again.

The heat is on

Except not in the way that economics 101 would have predicted as we continue to see house price rises if we ignore the “international effect”. According to the Brookings Institute there may be a deeper factor as human behaviour returns to what it was.

The Census Bureau’s annual county and metropolitan area estimates through 2017 reveal a revival of suburbanization and movement to rural areas along with Snow Belt-to-Sun Belt population shifts. In addition, the data show a new dispersal to large- and moderate-sized metro areas in the middle of the country—especially in the Northeast and Midwest. If these shifts continue, they could call into question the sharp clustering of the nation’s population—in large metropolitan areas and their cities—that characterized the first half of the 2010s.

So the suburbs are back in favour so let me leave you with the thoughts of Arcade Fire on the subject.

And all of the walls that they built in the seventies finally fall
And all of the houses they built in the seventies finally fall

Maybe they got onto the consumer society as well in a different song.

(Everything now!) I need it
(Everything now!) I want it
(Everything now!) I can’t live without
(Everything now!) I can’t live without
(Everything now!) I can’t live
(Everything now!)

The Libor problem is also a US Dollar problem

There is much to consider today as we consider the actions of our lords (ladies) and masters or rather our central bankers. Last night brought something which as we have noted before was in the category of “no surprises” sung about by Radiohead.

In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 percent. The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative,

That was of course the US Federal Reserve and I added the last bit because in a few words it tells us that they are not finished yet. Regular readers will be aware that I think it would be much better to simply raise rates to 2% and take a break as moving at at snail’s pace gives more time for something to go wrong. This brings me to two consequences of what is happening.

Libor

No not the scandals at least not yet! this time we are looking for the first time in a while at sustained increases. From Bloomberg yesterday.

The three-month London interbank funding rate rose to 2.27 percent Wednesday, the highest since 2008. The concern is that the Libor blowout may have more room to run, a prospect that borrowers and policy makers in various markets are just beginning to grapple with.

One way of looking at this is that as we expect more rises that seems reasonable and if we look at the past rather small fry.

Of course not all of us can remember 1994 and the financial world is of course to coin a phrase “resilient” at least according to the central bankers. This has led people to mull this.

“There has been sort of the perfect storm of factors tightening financial conditions,” said Russ Certo, head of rates at Brean Capital in New York. “Banks do have tremendous liquidity still, but it’s at a higher price.”

You may recall a few years back when worries about bank liquidity in US Dollars were all the rage. This was the era of central banks making agreements for foreign exchange swaps which were mostly ways of making sure they could get US Dollars for their banks from the original source ( the place that can print them at will….) if needed. Here is a refresher on the subject.

In November 2011, the Federal Reserve announced that it had authorized temporary foreign-currency liquidity swap lines with the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, and the Swiss National Bank. These arrangements were established to provide the Federal Reserve with the capacity to offer liquidity to U.S. institutions in currencies of the counterparty central banks (that is, in Canadian dollars, sterling, yen, euros, and Swiss francs). The Federal Reserve lines constitute a part of a network of bilateral swap lines among the six central banks, which allow for the provision of liquidity in each jurisdiction in any of the six currencies should central banks judge that market conditions warrant.

These exist for the opposite purpose as whilst the US Fed is describing things from its point of view and it may one day need some £’s Yen or Euros it is vastly more likely that the counterparty central bank will want US Dollars. After all if the world has a reserve currency in spite of some changes it is it and the likely song is from Aloe Blacc.

I need a dollar, dollar
Dollar that’s what I need
Well I need a dollar, dollar
Dollar that’s what I need
Said I said I need dollar, dollar
Dollar that’s what I need
And if I share with you my story would you share your dollar with me?

Oh and you may like to know that the US Federal Reserve eventually fell into line with the definition of temporary to be found in my financial lexicon for these times.

 In October 2013, the Federal Reserve and these central banks announced that their liquidity swap arrangements would be converted to standing arrangements that will remain in place until further notice.

The banks

In the end it all comes down to the “precious” of course and food for thought has been provided by what might be called the central bankers central bank choosing this morning to put this out on social media. From the Bank for International Settlements.

Non-US banks collectively hold $12.6 trillion of dollar-denominated assets – almost as much as US banks…….Dollar funding stress of non-US banks was at the center of the GFC. ( GFC= Global Financial Crisis).

They seem to be pointing the finger in one direction.

We find that Japanese banks pay a premium in their repurchase agreements (“repos”) with US MMFs. We show that the bargaining power of MMFs fund families, together with the particular demand for long term funding of Japanese banks, help explain this premium. ( MMF = Money Market Funds).

This has been a theme of my career which is that in terms of overseas buying ( UK Gilts, Australian property etc…) the Japanese overpay. Care is needed though as the stereotypical response of assuming stupidity ignores the possibility of a longer game being in play. In this instance they have responded.

 We provide evidence for European banks intermediating repos to Japanese banks, with economically significant estimated spreads from maturity transformation.

So any issues with the Japanese banks would also affect European ones? The mind boggles as of course contagion was supposed to be off the menu these days due to all the regulation and reform. As we look back I am reminded that it was European and on a smaller scale Japanese banks which dipped into these lines back in the day.

Would it be considered rude to point out that shares in my old employer Deutsche Bank are down another 2% as I type this? More significantly the 11.8 Euros is a fair bit lower than the 17.1 of mid-December.

Libor-OIS

As a consequence of the factors above this is also taking place. From Bloomberg reporting on some analysis from Citibank.

Strategists at the U.S. lender predict that the gap between the London interbank offered rate for dollars and the overnight indexed swap rate will continue to widen, potentially leading to a sharper tightening of financial conditions than central bankers have been anticipating. The differential between three-month rates has already more than doubled since the end of January to 55 basis points, a level unseen since 2009.

Now 55 basis points sounds much more grand that 0.55% but there is a flicker here as we try to price risk.

Comment

As you can see there are stresses in the financial system right now. Some of this was always going to take place when interest-rates went back up. But for me the real issue comes when we look at another market. This is because whichever way you look at the analysis here you would think that the US Dollar would be rising. You can arrive at that route by observing the apparent demand for US Dollars or by the higher interest-rates being paid in it or both. Yet it has been singing along to Alicia Keys.

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

I keep on
Fallin’

You can represent this by the UK Pound £ being in the US $1.41s or the Japanese Yen being in the 105s take your pick. The latter is off though because if Japanese banks are so keen for US Dollars why is the Yen so strong? To my mind that is much more worrying than Libor on its own as we switch to Carly Simon.

Why?……Don´t know why

Meanwhile returning to the shores of the UK I expect Royal Bank of Scotland to be along. After all it has been in everything else.

Is the US economy at a turning point?

Yesterday brought us some significant news from the US economy. One segment of this was the testimony given by the new Chair of the US Federal Reserve Jerome Powell as everyone combs his words looking for any signs of a change in policy. The sentence from the written testimony that has drawn most attention is below.

In gauging the appropriate path for monetary policy over the next few years, the FOMC will continue to strike a balance between avoiding an overheated economy and bringing PCE price inflation to 2 percent on a sustained basis. ( PCE is Personal Consumption Expenditure )

The reason for that is the use of the word “overheated” which brings with it all sorts of value judgements and implications. This was added to by the phrase he added to this.

My personal outlook for the economy has strengthened since December.

We also got an explanation of what was driving such thoughts.

 In particular, fiscal policy has become more stimulative and foreign demand for U.S. exports is on a firmer trajectory. Despite the recent volatility, financial conditions remain accommodative.

The nod to fiscal policy was a change of emphasis from his predecessor Janet Yellen as I am reminded of the analysis of the US Congress on the subject we looked at on February the 8th.

The Joint Committee staff estimates that this proposal would increase the average level of output (as measured by Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) by about 0.7 percent relative to average level of output in the present law baseline over the 10-year budget window.

The underlying position

The thoughts above added to the existing situation which Chair Powell described thus.

Turning from the labor market to production, inflation-adjusted gross domestic product rose at an annual rate of about 3 percent in the second half of 2017, 1 percentage point faster than its pace in the first half of the year.

So the fiscal policy will add to an already strengthening situation and the emphasis is mine.

Economic growth in the second half was led by solid gains in consumer spending, supported by rising household incomes and wealth, and upbeat sentiment. In addition, growth in business investment stepped up sharply last year, which should support higher productivity growth in time.

The reason I have highlighted that bit is because Chair Powell had explicitly linked it to wage growth.

Wages have continued to grow moderately, with a modest acceleration in some measures, although the extent of the pickup likely has been damped in part by the weak pace of productivity growth in recent years.

If we switch to the section on employment we see a continuing theme.

Monthly job gains averaged 179,000 from July through December, and payrolls rose an additional 200,000 in January. This pace of job growth was sufficient to push the unemployment rate down to 4.1 percent, about 3/4 percentage point lower than a year earlier and the lowest level since December 2000.

Are we seeing a hint of Phillips Curve style analysis which would predict wage growth acceleration? We did get told he likes policy rules.

Personally, I find these rule prescriptions helpful

Also you may note that he hinted at a pick-up in jobs growth in January which comes when the unemployment rate tells us that according to old policy rules we have what would have been considered to be full employment. It was also interesting that he skirted what we might call the missing eleven million or so via the drop in the participation rate.

the labor force participation rate remained roughly unchanged, on net, as it has for the past several years

I am not sure that it all be blamed on retiring “baby boomers” as we were told.

So we are told that the economy is strong and got a pretty strong hint that higher wage growth is expected and of course that follows the 2.9% growth seen in January in average hourly earnings.

Wages should increase at a faster pace as well.

What about inflation?

That is supposed to pick-up as well as we continue our journey on a type of virtual Phillips Curve.

 we anticipate that inflation on a 12-month basis will move up this year and stabilize around the FOMC’s 2 percent objective over the medium term.

These days it is something of a residual item in speeches by central bankers. This is for two main reasons. The first is that they have really been targeting output and the labour market. The second is that even after an extraordinary amount of QE they failed to generate the ( consumer) inflation they promised and so they are de-emphasising it.

Overheating?

This subject flickered onto some radar screens yesterday as they observed this from the Census Bureau.

The international trade deficit was $74.4 billion in January, up $2.1 billion from $72.3 billion in December.
Exports of goods for January were $133.9 billion, $3.1 billion less than December exports. Imports of goods
for January were $208.3 billion, $0.9 billion less than December imports.

This is something which has been rising as we note this from the Bureau of Economic Analysis or BEA earlier this month.

For 2017, the goods and services deficit increased $61.2 billion, or 12.1 percent, from 2016. Exports
increased $121.2 billion or 5.5 percent. Imports increased $182.5 billion or 6.7 percent.

So we may well be seeing economic growth sucking in imports yet again or a different form of overheating. Thus the words of Chairman Powell above on exports were both true ( they are up) and to some extent misleading as imports have risen faster. This is reinforced with my usual caution about monthly trade data by  the size of the January  goods deficit which is the largest for ten years. If we allow for the fact that the shale oil and gas boom flatters the figures the numbers take a further turn for the worse.

Consumer Confidence

We return to the same theme as we note this.

The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index® increased in February, following a modest increase in January. The Index now stands at 130.8 (1985=100), up from 124.3 in January. The Present Situation Index increased from 154.7 to 162.4, while the Expectations Index improved from 104.0 last month to 109.7 this month.

So another signal looks strong.

Comment

If we start with the analysis of Chair Powell we see that the US Federal Reserve plans to continue interest-rate rises this year and that it means to do so either 3 or more likely 4 times. This is based on the view that otherwise the economy will overheat as discussed above. Let me add a personal view to this which is the current madness of going along at 0.25%, why not raise by 0.5% in March and then sit back for a while and see what develops? Monetary policy has long lags and if you take ages to act you are at an ever greater risk of being proved wrong.

Another factor in this is the data I have looked at above as I have held something back until now which is troubling. Here is the extra bit from the consumer confidence figures.

Consumer confidence improved to its highest level since 2000 (Nov. 2000, 132.6).

Now if we look at the trade in goods figures the deficit was last higher in January 2008 a time when consumer confidence was high in many places too. What happened next in both instances?

If we continue with that line of thought we find that the oil market may be giving a hint as well.

https://twitter.com/a_coops1/status/968783142717919233

Another reason I think to act more decisively now as after all interest-rates will only be 1.75% to 2% after a 0.5% rise a level I have long argued for and then wait and see. After all we could be seeing a flicker of a road to QE4.