2017 is seeing the return of the inflation monster

As we nearly reach the third month of 2017 we find ourselves observing a situation where an old friend is back although of course it is more accurate to describe it as an enemy. This is the return of consumer inflation which was dormant for a couple of years as it was pushed lower by falls particularly in the price of crude oil but also by other commodity prices. That windfall for western economies boosted real wages and led to gains in retail sales in the UK, Spain and Ireland in particular. Of course it was a bad period yet again for mainstream economists who listened to the chattering in the  Ivory Towers about “deflation” as they sung along to “the end of the world as we know it” by REM. Thus we found all sorts of downward spirals described for economies which ignored the fact that the oil price would eventually find a bottom and also the fact that it ignored the evidence from Japan which has seen 0% inflation for quite some time.

A quite different song was playing on here as I pointed out that in many places inflation had remained in the service-sector. Not many countries are as inflation prone as my own the UK but it rarely saw service-sector inflation dip below 2% but the Euro area for example had it at 1.2% a year ago in February 2016 when the headline was -0.2%, Looking into the detail there was confirmation of the energy price effect as it pulled the index down by 0.8%. Once the oil price stopped falling the whole picture changed and let us take a moment to mull how negative interest-rates and QE ( Quantitative Easing) bond buying influenced that? They simply did not. Now we were expecting the rise to come but quite what the ordinary person must think after all the deflation paranoia from the “deflation nutters” I do not know.

Spain

January saw quite a rise in consumer inflation in Spain if we look at the annual number and according to this morning’s release it carried on this month. Via Google Translate.

The leading indicator of the CPI puts its annual variation at 3.0% In February, the same as in January
The annual rate of the leading indicator of the HICP is 3.0%.

Just for clarity it is the HICP version which is the European standard which is called CPI in the UK. It can be like alphabetti spaghetti at times as the same letters get rearranged. We do not get a lot of detail but we have been told that the impact of the rise in electricity prices faded which means something else took its place in the annual rate. Also we got some hints as to what is coming over the horizon from last week’s producer price data.

The annual rate of the General Industrial Price Index (IPRI) for the month of January is 7.5%, more than four and a half points higher than in December and the highest since July 2011.

It would appear that the rises in energy prices affected businesses as much as they did domestic consumers.

Energy, whose annual variation stands at 26.6%, more than 18 points above that of December and the highest since July 2008. In this evolution, Prices of Production, transportation and distribution of electrical energy and Oil Refining,
Compared to the declines recorded in January 2016.

In fact the rise seen is mostly a result of rising commodity prices as we see below.

Behavior is a consequence of the rise in prices of Product Manufacturing Basic iron and steel and ferroalloys and the production of basic chemicals, Nitrogen compounds, fertilizers, plastics and synthetic rubber in primary forms.

The Euro will have had a small impact too as it is a little over 3% lower versus the US Dollar than it was a year ago.

Belgium

The land of beer and chocolate has also been seeing something of an inflationary episode.

Belgium’s inflation rate based on the European harmonised index of consumer prices was running at 3.1% in January compared to 2.2% in December.

The drivers were mostly rather familiar.

The sub-indices with the largest upward effect on inflation were domestic heating oil, motor fuels, electricity, telecommunication and tobacco.

These two are the inflation outliers at this stage but the chart below shows a more general trend in the major economies of the Euro area.

The United States

In the middle of this month the US Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed the trend.

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.6 percent in January on a seasonally adjusted basis, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index rose 2.5 percent before seasonal adjustment.

This poses some questions of its own in the way that it confirmed that the strong US Dollar had not in fact protected the US economy from inflation all that much. The detail was as you might expect.

The January increase was the largest seasonally adjusted all items increase since February 2013. A sharp rise in the gasoline index accounted for nearly half the increase,

Egypt

A currency plummet of the sort seen by the Egyptian Pound has led to this being reported by Arab News.

Inflation reached almost 30 percent in January, up 5 percent over the previous month, driven by the floatation of the Egyptian pound and slashing of fuel subsidies enacted by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in November.

Ouch although of course central bankers will say “move along now……nothing to see here” after observing that the major drivers are what they call non-core.

Food and drinks have seen some of the largest increases, costing nearly 40 percent more since the floatation, figures from the statistics agency show. Some meat prices have leaped nearly 50 percent.

Comment

There is much to consider here and inflation is indeed back in the style of Arnold Schwarzenegger. However some care is needed as it will be driven at first by the oil price and the annual effect of that will fade as 2017 progresses. What I mean by that is that if we look back to 2016 the price of Brent Crude oil fell below US $30 per barrel in mid-January and then rose so if the oil price remains around here then its inflationary impact will fade.

However even a burst of moderate inflation will pose problems as we look at real wages and real returns for savers. If we look at the Euro area with its -0.4% official ECB deposit rate and wide range of negative bond yields there is an obvious crunch coming. It poses a particular problem for those rushing to buy the German 2 year bond as with a yield of 0.94% then they are facing a real loss of around 5/6% if it is held to maturity. You must be pretty desperate and/or afraid to do that don’t you think?

Meanwhile so far Japan seems immune to this, of course there will eventually be an impact but it is a reminder of how different it really is from us.

UK National Statistician John Pullinger

Thank you to John and to the Royal Statistical Society for his speech on Friday on the planned changes to UK inflation measurement next month. Sadly it looks as if he intends to continue with the use of alternative facts in inflation measurement by the use of rents to measure owner-occupied housing costs. These rents have to be imputed because they do not actually  exist as opposed to house prices and mortgage costs which not only exist in the real world but are also widely understood.

Will the UK taxpayer ever get back the money invested in Royal Bank of Scotland?

Today we find ourselves arriving at what has become an annual event although sadly there is never any money for a party although we are invariably promised that there will be plenty of cash next year. This is of course the announcement of more bad figures from Royal Bank of Scotland as we look back over all the promises made on its behalf which stretch back now to the beginning of the credit crunch. Let us step back in time to the 13th of October 2008.and see what the then Chancellor Alistair Darling told us  in the Guardian.

There is every reason to be confident that, as we go through this, the British taxpayer will get his money back.

The UK taxpayer invested at around £5 per share and this morning’s price is £2.44 so it looks as though Alistair will have to remain confident for quite some time and maybe forever. Also we learn that so-called alternative facts come from official sources as well as unofficial. But as time has passed others have proclaimed triumph only to see disaster.

Here is The International Financing Review from 2012.

In some ways, however, RBS is well ahead of the pack…….RBS was forced to concentrate on what it was good at and should come out of its current (second) restructuring as one of the more efficient banks in the industry.

I am not sure how much more they could have been wrong! But they were not alone as this from a former employer of mine Union Bank of Switzerland proves.

However, with 2013 expected to be the last year of significant restructuring for RBS, it is likely to be one of the first European banks to have dealt with legacy issues.

We can put that as a clear fail as the 2017 figures will show us later as we mull whether RBS will ever be able to sing along with Taylor Swift regarding legacy issues.

Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

Along the way we have at least managed a little humour as this from Bluebullet on Twitter from 3 years ago shows.

Dear Dragons Den, I have 80% share. Losses this year are £8 billion. I am paying out £0.5 billion in bonuses. Would you like to invest? #RBS

Today’s data

Chief Executive Ross McEwan told us this only last year.

“I am determined to put the issues of the past behind us and make sure RBS is a stronger, safer bank,” chief executive Ross McEwan said.

 

“We will now continue to move further and faster in 2016 to clean up the bank and improve our core businesses.”

Does he think so? Well according to this in the Guardian he does although you may spot the bit that makes him think so.

“The bottom line loss we have reported today is, of course, disappointing but given the scale of the legacy issues we worked through in 2016, it should not come as a surprise,” said the RBS chief executive, Ross McEwan, who was paid £3.5m for 2016.

Okay so what was the loss declared?

Royal Bank of Scotland has reported losses of £7bn for 2016, taking its losses since its 2008 government bailout to more than £58bn.

 

The taxpayer-backed bank has also admitted that it will not return to profit until 2018, indicating that it will report 10 years of losses before it returns to the black.

There are a litany of issues here as we note yet another large loss. For Mr McEwan there is an awkward trend to explain as losses have gone £1.5 billion then £2 billion and now £7 billion as he has promised improvements. For the UK taxpayer there is the issue that the losses since the bailout are now larger than the funds invested. Next there is the fact that things are apparently so bad even these serial fakers cannot claim a profit is just around the corner!

If we switch to the Financial Times we see two of my themes being deployed as a defensive mechanism. Firstly losses are always described as a one-off which are nine years and rising of them is risible and secondly the way a bit like inflation measure we keep getting them until the “correct answer” is given.

In total, these one-off conduct and restructuring costs amount to £10bn. This pushed down the bank’s capital reserves, with the common equity tier one ratio dropping to 13.4 per cent, from 15.5 per cent a year ago. On a pre-tax basis, RBS reported an operating loss of £4.1bn, compared to a £2.7bn loss a year earlier. Its core business, comprising commercial and retail banking, delivered its eighth successive quarter of £1bn operating profit, stripping out one-off items.

So it made a profit right?

Reform

I have been critical of other countries on such matters so it is now time to apply similar methodology to the UK and the botched efforts with Williams & Glyns should lead to sackings of those involved. From the Financial Times.

This includes the £750m cost for the new Williams & Glyn plan unveiled last week. RBS has spent some £1.8bn over a number of years on attempting to divest Williams & Glyn.

They have splashed the cash and then given up after buying time with our money in a saga rather like Novo Banco in Portugal.

There are also more problems on the horizon as of course RBS was involved in so much miss selling and the issues with small businesses seem to just grow and grow. As to optimism well there does not seem to be much on display here in this from the Financial Times.

Mr McEwan is targeting £750m of cost savings this year, as part of a total £2bn of planned cuts over the four-year period, which is expected to involve hundreds of job losses and branch closures.

Comment

Actually the banking environment is really rather favourable. For example the UK economy returned to solid economic growth nearly four years ago and the Bank of England regularly rustles up a new bank subsidy plan. The latest one called the Term Funding Scheme  has now grown with little public attention to just under £42 billion. On that theme there was this from City AM yesterday.

Mortgage lending hit £18.9bn in January, new figures have shown – two per cent up on the same month last year, and the best January since 2008.

Enough to cheer both a banker’s and a central banker’s heart. Indeed the theme has been reinforced this morning by mortgage approvals rising to above 44,000 in January according to the British Bankers Association. The most similar bank to RBS is Lloyds Banking Group so how did it do this year?

Pre-tax profits increased by 158% to £4.24bn, a level last seen in 2006 before the financial crisis. ( BBC )

Next nearest is Barclays so what about it?

The bank reported a profit before tax of £3.2bn for 2016, up from £1.1bn the year before. ( BBC )

As you can see if they are from Venus RBS looks like it is from Mars. It needs a change and needs to go one way or another. What I mean by that is the taxpayer should fully own it and raise the current stake of around 72% to 100% or it should be sold-off and left to stand on its own. The current half-way house is doing no good at all. The fact that Lloyds is now nearly fully in the private sector ( ~96% of shares) is a guide but maybe not as much as we think as of course the shares were more easily sold off because it was already doing better than RBS.

 

The growing debt problem faced by Italy

Yesterday saw one of the themes of this website raised by a rather unusual source. The European Commission released this document yesterday.

Today’s 27 Country Reports (for all Member States except Greece, which is under a dedicated stability support programme) provide the annual analysis of Commission staff of the situation in the Member States’ economies, including where relevant an assessment of macroeconomic imbalances.

Greece is omitted presumably because it is all to painful and embarrassing although of course one of those presenting this report Commissioner Pierre Moscovici keeps telling us it is a triumph. Reality tells us a different story as this from Macropolis illustrates.

The employment balance stayed negative in January 2017, with net departures climbing to 29,817 from 9,954 a year ago, data from the Labour Ministry’s Ergani information system revealed on Tuesday.

But as we note that 13 countries in the European Union were investigated for imbalances or just under half with 12 found to have them ( oddly the troubled Finland was excluded) the Commission found itself in an awkward spot with regards to Italy. Here is the label it gave it.

excessive economic imbalances.

Which led to this.

a report analysing the debt situation in Italy

So let us investigate.

Italy’s National Debt

Firstly we get a confession of something regularly pointed out on here.

in particular low inflation, which made the respect of the debt rule particularly demanding;

No wonder the ECB is pressing on with its QE (Quantitative Easing) program and as I pointed out only yesterday seems set to push consumer inflation above target which will help the debtors. Also in that section was something awkward as you see it is a statement of Italy’s whole period of Euro membership.

the unfavourable economic conditions,

We have an old friend returning although of course pretty much everyone has ignored it even Germany.

namely: (a) whether the ratio of the planned or actual government deficit to gross domestic product (GDP) exceeds the reference value of 3%; and (b) whether the ratio of government debt to GDP exceeds the reference value of 60%, unless it is sufficiently diminishing and approaching the reference value at a satisfactory pace.

Yep the Stability and Growth Pact is back although these days in the same way as the leaky Windscale became the leak-free Sellafield it is mostly referred to as the Fiscal Compact. The real issue here for Italy though is the debt numbers are from a universe far,far away.

Italy’s general government deficit declined to 2.6 % of GDP in 2015 (from 3% in 2014), while the debt continued to rise to 132.3% of GDP (from 131.9 % in 2014), i.e. above the 60% of GDP reference value. For 2016, Italy’s 2017 Draft Budgetary Plan7 projects the debt-to-GDP ratio to peak at 132.8%, up by 0.5 percentage points from the 2015 level. In 2017, the Draft Budgetary Plan projects a small decline (of 0.2 percentage points) in the debt-to-GDP ratio to 132.6%.

We get pages of detail which skirt many of the salient points. So let me remind them. firstly a debt-to-GDP target of 120% was established back in 2010 for Greece to avoid embarrassing Italy (and Portugal). Since then both have cruised through it which poses a question to say the least for this.

Italy conducted a sizeable fiscal adjustment between 2010 and 2013, which allowed the country to exit the excessive deficit procedure in 2013

So as soon as it could Italy returned to what we might call normal although whilst it runs fiscal deficits they are lower than the UK for example. Whilst the EU peers at them they are not really the causal vehicle here. Regular readers of my work will not be surprised to see my eyes alight on this bit.

the expected slow recovery in real GDP growth

This is the driving factor here as we note that even in better times the Italian economy only grows by around 1% a year ( 1.1% last year for example) yet in the bad times it does shrink faster than that as the -3.2% annual growth rate of the middle of 2012 illustrates. The Commission describes it like this.

Italy’s GDP has not grown compared to 15 years ago, as against average annual growth of 1.2% in the rest of the euro area.

Putting it another way the economy seems set to get back to where it was at the opening of 2012 maybe this spring but more likely this summer. In such an environment any level of borrowing will raise not only the debt level but also its ratio to GDP. Thus the pages and pages of detail on expenditure would be much better spent on looking at and then implementing economic reform.

A fiscal boost

This has come form the policies of Mario Draghi and the ECB.

taking advantage of the fiscal space created by lower interest expenditure, which declined steadily from the peak of 5.2% of GDP in 2012 to 3.9% in 2016.

Of course debt costs have lowered across the world but the ECB has contributed a fair bit to this gain of over 1% per annum in economic output. I doubt Italy’s politicians admit this as they rush to spend it and bathe themselves in the good will.

Monte dei Paschi

Another old friend so to speak but it does illustrate issues building for Italy as the Commission admits. Firstly to the debt numbers explicitly.

For instance, in 2017, both the deficit and debt figures could be revised upwards following the EUR 20 billion (or 1.2 % of GDP) banking support package earmarked by the
government in December 2016.

But also implicitly as we mull current and future economic performance.

At the current juncture, following the protracted crisis, banks are burdened by a large stock of non-performing loans and may not be able to fully support the
recovery.

We left MPS itself on the 30th of December as it was socialised and in state ownership. You might reasonably think it would have been solved over the New Year break. Er no as this from the Financial Times today highlights.

Rome’s proposal to recapitalise MPS has been in limbo since December because the ECB, the bank’s supervisor, and the European Commission, which polices state aid, have different views on their responsibilities and the merits of taxpayer bailouts.

There was always going to be trouble over whether this turned out to be a bailout, a bailin or a hybrid of the two. Has any progress at all been made?

The two-month stand-off leaves fundamental questions over the rescue proposals, including the level of state support allowed, the amount of losses that creditors will suffer and the depth of restructuring needed to make the bank viable.

The creditor issue is one that resonates because ordinary Italian depositors were persuaded to buy the banks bonds in a about as clear a case of miss selling as there has been. The trouble is that the guilty party the bank’s management cannot pay on the scale required and nor can the bank inspite of it being in “optimal condition” according to Finance Minister Padoan.

Indeed some may be having nightmares about the return of a phrase that described so much economic destruction in Greece.

An Italian official said talks were on track.

Comment

This is a situation which continues to go round in circles. Europe concentrates on fiscal deficits and now apparently the national debt but ignores the main cause which is the long-term lack of economic growth. There is a particular irony that at every ECB policy press conference the Italian Mario Draghi reads out a paragraph asking for more economic reform and the place where it happens so little is his home country.

The implementation of structural reforms needs to be substantially stepped up to increase resilience, reduce structural unemployment and boost investment, productivity and potential output growth in the euro area.

Yet when the European authorities get involved we see as in the MPS saga that they “dilly and dally” as Claudio Ranieri might say. Exactly the reverse of what they expect from the Italian government and people. The next issue for the banking sector is that for all its faults the UK for example began dealing with them in 2008 whereas Italy has looked the other way and let it drag on. That poor battered can is having to be picked up.

My suggestion would be an investigation into what is now called the unregulated economy to see how much has escaped the net. Maybe people do not want to do so because they fear that it has increased but what is there to be afraid of in the truth?

Tip TV Finance

http://tiptv.co.uk/boes-deflection-strategy-not-yes-man-economics/

The ECB faces a growing policy dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

What has changed?

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

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

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

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

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

Next up was Germany and the good news theme continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about inflation?

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

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

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

Asset prices

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

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

Although even the espresso may provide food for thought.

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

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

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

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

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

The Euro

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

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

Comment

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

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

 

 

The UK Public Finances are another source of embarrassment for Mark Carney

Today sees the latest data on the UK Public Finances which so far have meandered on in the same not entirely merry way as before the EU leave vote. This is in stark contrast to the modeling provided by HM Treasury.

In the ‘shock scenario’ presented in the short-term analysis, in 2017-18, real GDP would be 2.9% lower than baseline, but potential GDP would have declined by 2.1% compared to the baseline.

Believe it or not this was the more moderate scenario and as we have not entered that fiscal year it could of course happen but so far we have seen nothing like that.Of course we should have done as the UK economy was supposed to immediately shrink by up to 1%. The consequence was that the fiscal or budget deficit would rise by £24 billion in 2017/18 and the more extreme “severe shock” would see it rise by £39 billion.

There is a particularly worrying postscript to this in that it was personally signed off by former Bank of England Deputy Governor Professor Sir Charles Bean who of course made a right charlie of himself. Well he is now at the Office of Budget Responsibility producing more growth and borrowing forecasts. There is a particular irony in the lack of responsibility and indeed the rewards for failure on display here.

The Financial Times brings up forecasts of a dire future almost as quickly as it has to offer mea culpae for the previous ones being wrong.

The EU’s Brexit negotiators expect to spend until Christmas solely discussing Britain’s divorce from the bloc, denying London any trade talks until progress is made on a €60bn exit bill and the rights of expatriate citizens.

The Bank of England

The Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney is of course familiar with the concept of providing “alternative facts” and he was on that road at this month’s Inflation Report.

First, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement eased fiscal policy over the coming years. This explains about half of our forecast upgrade.

Actually there was an announced change but of course that relies on you believing the forecasts of George Osborne. For example the UK budget was originally supposed to be in surplus right now which of course faded not to the grey of Visage but remained solidly in red ink. So it was the sort of claimed change which probably ends up at the same destination. The flight boards may say a diversion Helsinki but somehow the flight lands at the original destination Copenhagen. At the time of typing this Andrew Tyrie of the Treasury Select Committee is really skewering the Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane on this subject by pointing out that this stimulus is apparently much more stimulative than others of the same size and asking why?

Of course Governor Carney is on the road to changing the UK public finances for the worse in two respects. As we move forwards the inflation he is so keen on “looking through” will raise the cost of financing index-linked bonds. As these are linked to the Retail Price Index which is rising at an annual rate of 2.6% the bill is on its way. Also part of the “Sledgehammer” of policy action last August was the Term Funding Scheme which has raised the national debt which shows a clear lack of forethought. You need to make your way to Appendix 9 but there it is some £31.37 billion of additional debt so that the Bank of England can subsidise the banks yet again.

Today’s data

We open with the traditional January surplus.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) was in surplus by £9.4 billion in January 2017, a £0.3 billion larger surplus than in January 2016; this is the highest January surplus since 2000.

There was some good news in the receipts column.

Self-assessed Income Tax and Capital Gains Tax receipts increased by £2.0 billion to £19.8 billion in January 2017 compared with January 2016; this is the highest January on record (monthly recording of self-assessed tax receipts began in April 1999).

Of course it should be the best on record as it is inflated by economic growth and of course inflation over time. However the rises in the tax-free Personal Allowance over the past 2 government’s will have dampened this somewhat.

Something familiar

This is the ongoing issue of ch-ch-changes to the methodology stirring up all the grit from the bottom of the pot so that the water goes from clear to murky.

In this month’s bulletin we have introduced a new methodology for the recording of Corporation Tax and Bank Corporation Tax Surcharge receipts.

It is hard not to groan a little although of course it is badged as an improvement.

Previously, we have used cash receipts for these taxes as a proxy for accrued revenue. An improved methodology derives accrued revenue figures by adjusting cash receipts to more accurately reflect the time at which the economic activity relating to the tax receipts took place.

It is in fact a type of seasonal adjustment.

The impact of introducing the new methodology is to distribute the tax revenue more evenly over individual months in the year.

Actually it also makes the amount in recent years higher. Do they not know how much was collected?

A deeper perspective

This is provided by the financial year so far.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £13.6 billion to £49.3 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2016 to January 2017), compared with the same period in the previous financial year;

This is essentially because of a good performance on the revenue front.

In the current financial year-to-date, central government received £553.7 billion in income; including £416.8 billion in taxes. This was around 5% more than in the previous financial year-to-date.

Also contrary to the hints of a fiscal boost we received last autumn and still be trumpeted by the Bank of England this morning there has been some restraint in public expenditure.

Over the same period, central government spent £581.2 billion; around 2% more than in the previous financial year-to-date.

Care is needed here but this is quite close to the current official inflation measure ( CPI 1.8%), the same as what next month will be the new measure at the top of the release ( CPIH 2%), and below the number used for index-linking for that sector of the UK Gilt market ( RPI 2.6%). Of course much of the period here was  where inflation was lower but its rise may well tighten policy in real terms. This would be consistent with what we are hearing from the NHS and councils although the former always needs more money.

The National Debt

If he was still Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne would be shouting this from the rooftops.

Public sector net debt (excluding both public sector banks and Bank of England) was £1,589.2 billion at the end of January 2017, equivalent to 80.5% of gross domestic product (GDP); an increase of £43.6 billion (or a decrease of 0.6 % points as a ratio of GDP) since January 2016.

He was so keen to be able to declare the latter part of that quote but sadly for him he was the past before it arrived. Poor George, although if we look at his fees for speeches maybe not so poor George. The more eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted the “improvement” which helped.

Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) was £1,682.8 billion at the end of January 2017, equivalent to 85.3% of gross domestic product (GDP); an increase of £91.7 billion (or 1.9 % points as a ratio of GDP) since January 2016.

Actually the internationally comparable figure was 87.6% of GDP as of last March.

Comment

As ever much is going on. If we start with the Bank of England then it has not so much moved the goalposts as built its Ivory Tower on the wrong pitch. As the Ivory Tower is fixed in the ground then reality has to change so it has spent so much of this morning talking about a theoretical concept called U* unemployment which does some of the trick. They were discomfited trouble when Andrew Tyrie simply asked them when this had happened before? I did not expect Mark Carney to know as of course the UK did not exist before June 2013 but the blank embarrassed faces of the others were a sight to behold. Sadly nobody asked about why so many female members were leaving the Monetary Policy Committee this year?

The public finances continue to improve albeit more slowly than we would have hoped. There are dangers ahead from the cost of index-linked Gilts as inflation continues to rise and the impact of this inflation on the wider economy. But there are other issues as for example an area near to me in Battersea Park often becomes a trailer park in the search for more revenue, although sadly I understand that the benefit goes more to a private company ( Enable ) than the council itself.

 

 

 

 

 

Greece meets its final countdown one more time

A constant sad theme of this website has been the way that Greece got into economic trouble and then had a so-called “shock and awe” rescue which made everything worse and plunged it into what can now be called a great depression. Last week’s official national accounts detail just continued the gloom.

The available seasonally adjusted data indicate that in the 4 th quarter of 2016 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 0.4% in comparison with the 3 rd quarter of 2016, while it increased by 0.3% in comparison with the 4 th quarter of 2015.

I pointed out last week that the trumpeting of European Commissioner Moscovici only a day before was in very bad taste.

After returning to growth in 2016, economic activity in is expected to expand strongly in 2017-18.

You see Monsieur Moscovici and his colleagues have a serial record of saying a recovery is just around the corner. For example the 0.3% annual increase in GDP compares with 2.9% forecast in the spring of 2015.  There is a familiar theme here because if we look at the forecasts from the spring of 2016 they forecast more or less the same ( 2.7%) for 2017. This repeated failure where an optimistic forecast bears no relationship to reality has gone on since 2012 which was when the original 2010 bailout forecasts told us Greece would return to economic growth and from 2013 onwards would grow by you’ve guessed it by 2%+ per annum. As PM Dawn told us.

Reality used to be a friend of mine
Reality used to be a friend of mine
Maybe “why?” is the question that’s on you mind
But reality used to be a friend of mine.

The truth was that Greece had to be forecast as growing as otherwise the national debt numbers would look out of control and could not be forecast to be 120% of GDP in 2020. That was a farcical benchmark which exploded as it was chosen so as not to embarrass Portugal and Italy who cruised through it anyway. Greece of course blasted through it and the major reason was the economic depression.

The Great Depression

I will keep this simple so GDP in the third quarter of 2008 was the peak for Greece at 60.8 billion Euros and at the end of 2016 it was 44.1 billion Euros. So a decline of 27.5% which certainly qualifies as a Great Depression.

Austerity

Macropolis has pointed out the scale of the austerity applied to Greece and let us start with taxes.

The Greek economy has been burdened with 35.6 billion euros in all sorts of taxes on income, consumption, duties, stamps, corporate taxation and increases in social security contributions. When totting all this up, it is remarkable that the economy still manages to function.

Of course you could easily argue that in more than a few respects it does not function as we switch to the expenditure or spending ledger.

During the same period, the state has also found savings of 37.4 billion euros from cutting salaries, pensions, benefits and operational expenses.

So 5 months worth of economic output at current levels. Also like a dog chasing its tail they cry has gone up for what can be called “Moar, moar”.

The IMF’s Thomsen, now the director of its European Department, recently argued that Greece doesn’t need any more austerity but brave policy implementation. Somehow, though, the discussion has ended up being about finding another 3.5 billion euros in taxes and cuts to pension spending.

Of course dog’s have the intelligence to eventually tire of chasing their tale whereas the Euro area establishment continue with the same old song.

The official view

The ESM or European Stability Mechanism is the main supplier of finance to Greece these days and its head Klaus Regling has this on repeat.

Then, public creditors eased lending conditions significantly. This reduced the economic value of the country’s debt by around 40 per cent. As a result, Greece enjoys budgetary savings of about €8 billion annually — the equivalent of about 4.5 per cent of gross domestic product — and will continue to do so for years to come.

Sometimes what is true can be misleading. You see it is summed up in the word timing. Greece had an austerity program front loaded onto it and it was hit hard by it as I have described. Later the Euro area changed tack and made the loans much cheaper but by then it was too late as Greece was plunging into an economic depression at a rate exceeding 8% per annum in 2011 and much of 2012.

In spite of the calamitous situation Klaus told the Financial Times in late January  that the future was bright.

Greek debt levels are no longer cause for alarm

Of course Klaus has to churn out such a line in an attempt to distract attention from this.

The European Financial Stability Facility and the European Stability Mechanism, the eurozone’s rescue funds, have disbursed €174 billion to Greece.

This brings me to a point where Bloomberg are to some extent peddling what might be labelled fake news today.

The 2-year yield is now 180 basis points higher than the 10-year yield

You see Greek bond yield twitter if I may put it like that refers to something which exists but is not the source of funding for Greece any more a reflects a market which as I have pointed out many times barely trades. Even Bloomberg points this out.

volumes are low, with just 26 million euros trading during January on the inter-dealer platform.

With volumes so low it is easy for those with vested interests to manipulate such a market.

Trouble ahead

Where a crunch can come is when a bond needs redeeming. This is where all the proclamations to triumph and success met a hard reality of a lack of cash or another form of credit crunch. Eyes are already turning to July on that front.

Greece faces a few maturities in the coming months, but the heavy lifting is in July, when 6.2 billion euros of debt matures.

This is the capital issue I highlighted on the 30th of January.

We can bring in that poor battered can now because the Euro area and the IMF thought they had kicked it far enough into the future not to matter whereas the IMF is now having second thoughts.

The Euro area can talk all it likes about interest repayments but this ignores the fact that it cannot repay the capital which might make Euro area taxpayers mull another of the promises of Klaus Regling.

We would not have lent this amount if we did not think we would get our money back.

In a couple of months time another 1.4 billion Euros is due. This is owed to the ECB and we know that the first rule of it’s debt fight club is that every last cent must be repaid.

The IMF

My theme about the IMF has been that it has been twisted by politicians so that it no longer is an institution dealing with trade balance problems. The Greek data for 2016 bear this out as with all the improvements Greece should be exporting more especially as many of its economic partners had a better economic year.

The total value of exports-dispatches, for the 12-month period from January to December 2016 amounted to 25,411.4 million euros (28,198.4 million dollars) in comparison with 25,879.3 million euros (28,776.8 million dollars) for the corresponding period of the year 2015, recording a drop, in euros, of 1.8%

So simply no as we mull again the lack of economic reform in Greece and note that the trade issue got worse and not better.

The deficit of the Trade Balance, for the 12-month period from January to December 2016 amounted to 18,551.2 million euros (20,310.3 million dollars) in comparison with 17,745.3 million euros (19,439.6 million dollars) for the corresponding period of the year 2015, recording an increase, in euros, of 4.5%.

Comment

Today’s Eurogroup meeting in Greece is being badged as a “last chance saloon” which of course is a phrase that long ago went into my financial lexicon for these times as it occurs so regularly. Still did the band Europe know how much free publicity the future would provide for their biggest hit?

It’s the final countdown.
The final countdown

Meanwhile as its economic prospects are kicked around like a football Greece itself is pretty much a bystander. If only it was a final countdown to a default and devaluation meaning it would leave the Euro. Meanwhile some reports are bizarre as this from the fast FT twitter feed last week proves.

Greece made a stunning exit from three years of deflation and low price growth in January

Greek workers and consumers however will be rueing any rises in prices as we wonder how higher prices in the UK can be a disaster according to the FT but higher prices in Greece are “stunning”?

Podcasts

I have been running a private trial of putting these updates out as podcasts as the world continues to change and move on. I thought I would ask how many of you use podcasts?

Of UK Retail Sales and a 5% cut in real interest-rates

A feature of my career and time working with and analysing finance and economics has been the fall in interest-rates and yields. This of course has ended up with us now facing a period where more than a few interest-rates and bond yields are in fact in negative territory. My subject of yesterday France has a central bank ( ECB) with a deposit and current account of -0.4% and its 2 year bond yield is -0.5%. But let me give you some perspective from the Bank Underground blog of the Bank of England.

Real interest rates have fallen by around 5 percentage points since the 1980s.

Eye-catching is it not? Just to break this down they were 0% in the 1970s, 4.7% in the 1980s, then 1.9% up to the credit crunch and since 2009 have been -1.3%, Oh and that is 6% and not 5% by the way. For clarity this is for the United States one year yield minus how inflation turned out to be in that year.

So in the period since the 1980s we have seen, as I have pointed out quite a few times before quite a stimulus applied to the world economy and of course a fair bit of this has come in the credit crunch era. We then face a rather awkward conundrum because the supposed cure of lower interest-rates and yields is in response at least in part to the problems created by lower interest-rates and yields! A sort of doubling the dose response to an addiction. How does that usually work out?

Of course some want ever more as I note individuals like Kenneth Rogoff who want to ban as much cash as they can as they fear that they will not be able to repeat the “cure” next time around. This plainly means interest-rates going even more negative and more places seeing them. For example the UK now has a Bank Rate of 0.25% after over 3 years of pretty solid economic growth so what happens when the next recession turns up? Such thoughts have the problem of why a cure needs to be repeated so often at ever higher dosages and with ever more side-effects?

As to the causes of this the Bank Underground tries to dismiss fears over secular stagnation by pointing out this.

In the late 1930s, Alvin Hansen developed the term “secular stagnation” to describe his concerns that structural factors such as stagnant technological development and weaker population growth prospects would weigh on growth permanently.  We know now that these concerns over secular trends proved misplaced, and played little role in weaker growth.

Rather ominously that was really only changed by the second world war which is hardly a hopeful precedent! The author hopes that things will get better so lets join him in that but the truth is we are much less sure and there is a sort of unmentioned sword of Damocles hanging all over this which is Japan where the lost decade has become the lost decades.

Although the author would not put it like this there is quite a critique of current Bank of England policy tucked away in the blog.

When agents assign a low probability to the central bank remaining hawkish towards inflation, real rates must rise by a significantly larger amount in response to a given shock to stabilise inflation.  The required response decreases as credibility improves.

So as the credibility of Forward Guidance is only for the credulous now and the Bank of England plans to “look through” rising inflation then the logic applied there suggests real rates will have to rise substantially. Awkward.

Retail Sales

Speaking of rising inflation there was this in the data released this morning.

Average store prices (including fuel) increased by 1.9% on the year, the largest contribution to this increase came from petrol stations, where year-on-year average prices were estimated to have risen by 16.1%.

Regular readers will be aware that I was ahead of the pick-up in retail sales in the UK and quite a few other places by explaining that the lower inflation driven mostly be lower crude oil prices would raise consumption via a boost to real wages. So we are now beginning to see the mirror image of that relationship. It was only on Wednesday that I pointed out the real wage growth was fading and on some inflation measures had now gone negative. The price rise was just not from fuel as this from the food sector shows.

In January 2017, prices increased by 0.5% compared with December 2016, the largest month-on-month rise since April 2013, while the year-on-year increase of 0.2% is the highest since June 2014,

Thus the numbers today are not the surprise they have been presented as.

Month-on-month the quantity bought is estimated to have fallen by 0.3%.

If we look for more perspective we see this.

The underlying pattern as suggested by the 3 month on 3 month movement decreased by 0.4%; the first fall since December 2013.

In annual terms there is still growth but it has faded substantially for the heady days of late 2016.

In January 2017, the quantity bought in the retail industry is estimated to have increased by 1.5% compared with January 2016, the lowest growth since November 2013.

Actually so much of the change can be found in the sector where prices have risen the most.

The year-on-year increase in fuel stores is the largest rise since September 2011, contributing to the strong growth seen in the amount spent in fuel stores on the year. However, the quantity bought has decreased following the rise in fuel prices, suggesting that consumers are more cautious with spending in this sector.

Have readers noticed less traffic on the roads?

Tourism

There was some good news here albeit with an odd kicker.

Overseas residents made 9.2 million visits to the UK in the 3 months to December 2016. This was 6% higher than the same 3 months in 2015. The amount spent on these visits was unchanged at £5.3 billion.

It is no great surprise that the lower UK Pound £ has led to more visitors but I am curious that they spent no more. For a start how do we know? Does someone follow them into every shop? Also this goes against the argument made by some that past retail sales growth in the UK was added to by foreign purchasers using lower price for them.

Whatever the state of play there we do seem to be seeing more US tourists as we wonder if Trump fears are higher than Brexit ones?

Visits from North America increased by 15% in the 3 months to December 2016, when compared with the same 3 months in 2015.

Comment

We see that we have been living our lives in an extraordinarily favourable interest-rate environment. Many reading this will have lived their whole lives in it. The catch is that it has ended up being associated with trouble on two fronts. Firstly it did not avert a credit crunch and in fact ended up contributing to it and secondly if it was a cure we would not be where we are. Although care is needed as there were plenty of economic gains back in the day. As for now well some old fears have reappeared.

More Americans fell behind on their car loan payments in the fourth quarter, bringing auto delinquencies to their highest since the height of the financial crisis, Federal Reserve Bank of New York data released on Thursday showed…….

In the fourth quarter, $142 billion in car loans were generated, giving 2016 the most auto loan originations in the 18-year history of the data, the New York Fed said.

Auto debt hit $1.16 trillion, with a $93 billion rise over the year.

Sub-prime car loans anyone?

If we move to the UK then the consumer surge is fading. The numbers are erratic and influenced by the rise in the price of fuel but even taking that out annual growth fell to 2.6%. It remains a shame that the Bank of England last summer contributed to the inflation rise via the way that their rhetoric and Bank Rate cut and QE pushed the UK Pound £ lower. Before this is over I expect what was badged as a stimulus to turn out to be the reverse via its impact on real wages.