Will the UK be raising or reducing taxes?

The UK Public Finances data we looked at on Friday has triggered something of a policy response. Or at least some proposals, although if we look at the Financial Times the messaging has got itself in a mess.

Rishi Sunak is planning to defer tax rises and cut public spending in his Autumn Budget after delivering a further stimulus for the UK economy.

That looks a little confused on its own with its message of a stimulus followed by what looks like a lagged version of what has become known as austerity. That leads us to something of a collision between economics 101 and likely human behaviour. Let me explain with reference to the suggested plans.

The Treasury is first considering a temporary cut to value added tax and specific reductions in the rate for some sectors, according to those close to the chancellor, following significant pressure from industry and Tory MPs. A lower VAT rate for the tourism sector — including pubs, restaurants and hotels — is one option being discussed.

Okay and when would it happen?

This could come as early as July as the government prepares to scrap the two-metre social distancing rule and replace it with “one metre plus” guidelines that are likely to include further use of masks and physical screens.

Okay so there is an Undertone(s) here.

Its going to happen – happen – till your change your mind
Its going to happen – happen – happens all the time
Its going to happen – happen – till your change your mind.

Economic Impact

We do have some recent evidence for the impact of what is a change in a consumption tax and it comes from Japan last autumn. So let us remind ourselves via the Japan Times.

Japan saw a 6.3 percent economic contraction in the last three months of 2019, fueling criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to carry out the tax increase at a vulnerable time for the economy. After factoring in the early signs of impact from the coronavirus, analysts now believe the economy is falling into recession.

That is in the American annualised style and as we note the further downward revision and convert we now see the economy shrank by 1.9% in that quarter, driven by factors like this.

Like many people in Japan, she isn’t planning to splash out again anytime soon, leaving the economy teetering on the edge of recession. And that was before the spreading coronavirus gave yet more cause for caution.

“These days, I really scrutinize the price tags,” Mitsui said.

The economic consequence of this change in behaviour is shown below.

Household spending fell for the third straight month in December on the continued impact of October’s consumption tax hike together with sluggish demand for winter items due to warm temperatures, government data showed Friday.

Spending by households with two or more people dropped 4.8 percent in real terms from a year earlier to ¥321,380 ($2,900), the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications said.

The collective impact on the quarter was for a 3% fall in private consumption on the quarter.

So we see that a consumption tax rise led to quite a drop in the economy thus we have some hope for the impact of the reverse. Indeed the impact looks really rather powerful. This reinforces the impact we saw of the VAT rise back in 2010. One area where we have less evidence is the impact of inflation which is harder to read. I would expect there to be a welcome disinflationary effect in the UK that is stronger that we would see in Japan. Why? Well price rises in Japan tend to not have secondary impacts on inflation and of course there were two other factors. The Japanese economy was slowing anyway as the consumption tax brake was applied and now we have the further impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Bank of Japan calculates various inflation indices to try to suggest its policies are working but the latest release excluding the effects of the consumption tax rises suggests inflation is er 0% ( actually slightly below), so if you like what is normal for Japan.

What next?

There is a possible worm in the apple of the UK plans, so let us return to the FT.

But any move to lower VAT — at considerable cost to the exchequer — would come with a sting in the tail, as Mr Sunak works up proposals for deferred tax rises and lower public spending as part of the autumn Budget.

The message switches from “Spend! Spend! Spend!” to tighten your belts which adds a layer of confusion. For younger and overseas readers the spend quote is from Viv Nicholson who won the (football) pools which was analagous to winning the lottery now and I think you have already figured her plan.

The response seems to have been influenced at least to some extent by mis-reporting like this, which I noted on social media over the weekend.

There has been some really rather poor reporting from the BBC today with analysis by @DharshiniDavid

“UK debt now larger than size of whole economy”

There were several factors at play such as the policies of the Bank of England inflating the recorded numbers by £195.6 billion whereas even in pessimistic scenario it might not be a tenth of that. Also the numbers were not only based on a forecast they were based on a forecast by the Office of Budget Responsibility which has lived down to its reputation by being wrong yet again. How much of an influence that was in this is hard to say.

Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough and a former Treasury adviser, said: “We simultaneously need a stimulus now to fight recession, but also need to roll the pitch so that we can deal with very high levels of debt.”

Neil seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it. An excellent idea in theory but one which crumbles in practice. However his lack of realism is typical of someone who has been involved at the Treasury. Next is an anonymous effort at sticking the boot in.

Another former Tory minister said the public finances were so stretched that a fiscal tightening would be necessary before long: “The public aren’t going to like it but it feels like either spending cuts or tax rises are going to be necessary soon.”

Comment

The situation is on one level quite simple. Will a VAT cut boost the economy? Yes it will both directly as people spend more and then via a secondary effect of lower inflation via some lower prices. The second bit is awkward for the inflationistas so we may not seem them for a day or two. The undercut is the impact on the public finances which will be added to the £8.6 billion fall in VAT receipts in the year so far. There will be some amelioration as for example people dash for a haircut or a pint of beer at their local pub, but overall receipts will be lower. The overall impact depends on the economic boost and how long it lasts and the evidence we have is positive.

Switching to the public finances the numbers are not as bad as some have claimed, partly because of a factor which should get more publicity. In the fiscal year so far (April and May) the cost of our debt fell by £1.1 billion to £8.4 billion due to lower inflation and the fact our ordinary debt is so cheap to finance. I would be switching as much debt as I could to the fifty-year maturity at a yield of around 0.5% and in fact would issue some 100 year Gilts. In the long run we will have to deal with the capital issue of the debt we are issuing at an express rate but as it is cheap the interest implications are relatively minor. What we need to squarer the circle is some economic growth. That will reduce the tax increases required.

Let me end by looking at the other side of the coin from the slice of humble pie i put in front of myself on Friday. So a slap on the back for this.

Regular readers will be aware that I wrote a piece in City-AM in September 2013 suggesting the Bank of England should let maturing Gilts do just that. So by now we would have trimmed the total down a fair bit which would be logical over a period where we have seen economic growth which back then was solid, hence my suggestion.

Because it seems to be on the radar of the present Governor.

#Monetary policy – significant change of approach suggested by #BOE governor #Bailey – says may be best for the bank to start reversing its asset purchases before raising interest rates on a sustained basis. Opposite view to that which has been held at BoE ( @HowardArcherUK )

 

 

 

 

UK monthly GDP is a poor guide to where the economy stands

Today has opened with the media having a bit of a party over the economic news from the UK and they have been in such a rush they have ignored points one and two and dashed to point 3.

Monthly gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 20.4% in April 2020, the biggest monthly fall since the series began in 1997. ( Office for National Statistics)

Actually our official statisticians seem to have got themselves in a spin here which is highlighted by this bit.

Record falls were also seen across all sectors:

    • services – largest monthly fall since series began in 1997
    • production – largest monthly fall since series began in 1968
    • manufacturing – largest monthly fall since series began in 1968
    • construction – largest monthly fall since series began in 2010

As you can see they have jumped into a quagmire as suddenly we have numbers back to 1968 rather than 1997! What they originally meant was the largest number since we began monthly GDP about 18 months ago. The rest is back calculated which did not go that well when they tried it with inflation. Oh and let me put you at rest if you are worried we did not measure construction before 2010 as we did. Actually we probably measured it better than we do now as frankly the new system has been rather poor as regular readers will be aware.

Now I can post my usual warning that the monthly GDP series in the UK has been very unreliable and at times misleading even in more normal scenarios. Or as it is put officially.

The monthly growth rate for GDP is volatile. It should therefore be used with caution and alongside other measures, such as the three-month growth rate, when looking for an indicator of the longer-term trend of the economy.

So let us move on noting that the reality with data in both March and April hard to collect due to the virus pandemic is more like -15% to -25%. The 0.4% in the headline is beyond even spurious accuracy and let me remind you that I have consistently argued that the production of monthly GDP is a mistake.

Mind you it did produce quite an eye-catching chart.

Context

As we switch to a more normal quarterly perspective we are told this.

>GDP fell by 10.4% in the three months to April, as government restrictions on movement dramatically reduced economic activity

This in itself was something of a story of two halves as we went from weakness to a plunge as restrictions on movement began on the 23rd of March. There is also something of a curiosity in the detail.

The services sector fell by 9.9%, production by 9.5% and construction by 18.2%.

The one sector that did carry on to some extent in my area was construction as work on the Royal School of Art and the Curzon cinema in the King’s Road in Chelsea continued. So let us delve deeper.

Services

If we look at the lockdown effect we can see that it crippled some industries.

The dominant negative driver to monthly growth, wholesale and retail trade and repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles, contributed negative 3.5 percentage points, though falls were large and widespread throughout the services industries; notable falls occurred in air transport, which fell 92.8%, and travel and tourism, which fell 89.2%.

The annual comparison is below.

Services output decreased by 9.1% between the three months to April 2019 and the three months to April 2020, the largest contraction in three months compared with the same three months of the previous year since records began in January 1997.

Actually we get very little extra data here.

Wholesale and retail trade and repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles was the main driver of three-monthly growth, contributing negative 1.95 percentage points.

This brings me to a theme I have been pursuing for some years now. That is the fact that our knowledge about the area which represents some four-fifths of our economy is basic and limited. I did make this point to the official review led by Sir Charles Bean. But all that seems to have done is boosted his already very large retirement income, based on his RPI linked pension from the Bank of England.

Production

We follow manufacturing production carefully and it is one area where the numbers should be pretty accurate as you either produce a car or not for example.

The monthly decrease of 24.3% in manufacturing output was led by transport equipment, which fell by a record 50.2%, with motor vehicles, trailers and semi-trailers falling by a record 90.3%; of the 13 subsectors, 12 displayed downward contributions.

The annual comparison is grim especially when we note that there were already problems for manufacturing due to the ongoing trade war.

For the three months to April 2020, production output decreased by 11.9%, compared with the three months to April 2019; this was led by a fall in manufacturing of 14.0% where 12 of the 13 subsectors displayed downward contributions.

Construction

According to the official series my local experience is not a good guide.

Construction output fell by 40.1% in the month-on-month all work series in April 2020; this was driven by a 41.2% decrease in new work and a 38.1% decrease in repair and maintenance; all of these decreases were the largest monthly falls on record since the monthly records began in January 2010.

This gives us an even more dramatic chart so for those who like that sort of thing here it is.

The problem is that this series has been especially troubled as we have noted over the years. For newer readers they tried to fix it bu switching a large business from services to construction but that mostly only raised questions about how they define the difference? There was also trouble with the measure of inflation.

Anyway here is a different perspective.

Construction output fell by record 18.2% in the three months to April 2020, compared with the previous three-month period; this was driven by a 19.4% fall in new work and a 15.8% fall in repair and maintenance.

Comment

As we break down the numbers we find that they are a lot more uncertain than the headlines proclaiming a 20.4% decline or if you prefer a £30 billion fall suggest. Let me add another factor which is the inflation measure or deflator which will not only be wrong but very wrong too. The issue of using annual fixed weights to calculate an impact will be wrong and in the case of say air transport for example it would be hard for it to be more wrong in April. On the other side of the coin production of hand sanitiser and face masks would be travelling in the opposite direction.

We can switch to trying to look ahead with measures like this.

There was an average of 319 daily ship visits during the period 1 June to 7 June 2020, a slight fall compared with the previous week.

The nadir for this series was 215 on the 13th of April so we have picked up but are still below the previous 400+. . There was also a pick-up using VAT returns in May but again well below what we had come to regard as normal.

 There has been a small increase in the number of new VAT reporters between April 2020 and May 2020 from 15,250 to 16,460.

But I think the Office for National Statistics deserves credit for looking to innovate and for trying new methods here.

Meanwhile I think the Bank of England may be trying some pre weekend humour.

 

The Italian Job covers unemployment.zombie banks and industrial production

Sometimes economic news makes you think of a country via its past history.

LONDON/FRANKFURT (Reuters) – European Central Bank officials are drawing up a scheme to cope with potentially hundreds of billions of euros of unpaid loans in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

After all the Italian banks have plenty of expertise, if I may put it like that, in this area. So perhaps a growth area for them in more ways than one.

The amount of debt in the euro zone that is considered unlikely to ever be fully repaid already stands at more than half a trillion euros, including credit cards, car loans and mortgages, according to official statistics.

There is a conceptual issue though as we mull why we always need “bad- banks” and whether the truth is that ordinary banks are bad? Also the Irish banking crisis taught us that the numbers are fed to us on a piece of string with notches and are driven by what they think we will accept rather than reality. So get ready for the half a trillion to expand and that may get a little awkward if this from Kathimerini proves true.

Enria said the ECB was studying how banks could cope were the crisis to worsen. He said banks had more than 600 billion euros ($680 billion) of capital and this would probably be enough, unless there were a second wave of infections.

If we focus now on the Italian banks there is of course the issue of the Veneto banks and Monte Paschi in particular. Let me take you back 3 days over 3 years.

Italian banks are considering assisting in a rescue of troubled lenders Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca by pumping 1.2 billion euros (1.1 billion pounds) of private capital into the two regional banks, sources familiar with the matter said.

Good money after bad?

Italian banks, which have already pumped 3.4 billion euros into the two ailing rivals, had said until now that they would not stump up more money.

Back then I also pointed out the problems for the bailout vehicle called variously Atlante and Atlas. Looking at Monte dei Paschi the share price is 1.4 Euros which if we allow for the many rights issues and the like compares to a pre credit crunch peak of around 8740 Euros according to my chart.. Some quite spectacular value destruction as we again mull what “bad bank” means and recall that in 2016 Prime Minister Renzi told people it was a good investment. That is before we get to this from January 2012 on Mindful Money.

In October, Shaun Richards outlined a 13-step timeline for the collapse of a bank . He appeared on Sky News yesterday suggesting that Unicredit, Italy’s had now reached stage 3 of that process – i.e. “The Bank tries to raise more private capital in spite of it having no need for it”.

It was worth 19 Euros then and as it is worth 8.24 Euros now my description of it as a zombie bank was right, especially if we allow for all the aid packages and subsidies in the meantime.

Oh and in case we had any doubts about the story I see this from ForexLive.

European Commission says no formal work is underway for an EU ‘bad bank’

So they are informally looking at it then….

The Economy

This morning’s official release was always likely to be bad news.

In April 2020 the seasonally adjusted industrial production index decreased by 19.1% compared with the
previous month. The change of the average of the last three months with respect to the previous three
months was -23.2%.

The theme was unsurprisingly continued by the annual picture.

The calendar adjusted industrial production index decreased by 42.5% compared with April 2019 (calendar
working days being 21 versus 20 days in April 2019).
The unadjusted industrial production index decreased by 40.7% compared with April 2019.

If we compare to 2015 we see that the calendar adjusted index was at 58.4. The breakdown shows that pharmaceuticals were affected least ( -6.7%) and clothing and textiles the most ( -80.5%). The latter was a slight surprise as I though the manufacture of masks and other PPE might help but in fact it did even worse than the transport sector ( -74%).

On Monday Italy’s statisticians reminded us of our Girlfriend in a Coma theme.

At the end of 2019, the Italian economy was in stagnation with few recovery signals coming from industrial production and external trade at the very beginning of 2020.

Which was followed by this.

Eventually, the conventional economic indicators assessing the dramatic fall of GDP in the first quarter 2020 (-5.3% q-o-q) were published.

They point out it is difficult to collect data right now but were willing to have a go at a forecast.

Under these assumptions, we forecast a strong GDP contraction in 2020 (-8.3%) followed by a recovery in 2021 (+4.6%, Table 1). This year, the fall of GDP will be determined mainly by domestic demand net of inventories (-7.2 p.p.) due to the contraction of household and NPISH consumption (-8.7%) and of investments (-12.5%). Net exports and inventories will also contribute negatively to GDP growth (respectively -0.3 p.p. and -0.8 p.p.).

I wonder how much of what is called domestic demand reflects the fall in tourism as the summer is already well underway and it is a delightful country to visit? Here is the OECD version from earlier this week that highights the tourism issue.

GDP is projected to fall by 14% in 2020 before recovering by 5.3% in 2021 if there is another virus outbreak
later this year (the double-hit scenario). If further outbreaks are avoided (the single-hit scenario), GDP is
projected to fall by 11.3% in 2020 and to recover by 7.7% in 2021. While Italy’s industrial production may
restart quickly as confinement measures are lifted, tourism and many consumer-related services are
projected to recover more gradually, weighing on demand

As we know so little about what is happening right now the forecasts for 2021 are about as much use as a chocolate teapot in my opinion.

Switching back to Italy’s statisticians they seem to have doubts about their own unemployment numbers. perhaps they read my post on the third of this month.

The trend of unemployment rate will be different because it reflects the ricomposition between unemployed and inactive people and the fall in hours worked.

Anyway they have reported the unemployment rate at 6.3% and I think it is more like 11%.

Comment

Now we need to switch tack to one of the consequences of all this which relates to the fact that Italy already had a large national debt in both relative and absolute terms. If we use the OECD data as a framework we see that the debt to GDP ratio will be of the order of 160 to 170% at the end of this year which looks rather Greek like, Now we see the real reason for the forecasted bounce back in 2021 which reduces the number to 150% to 165%. The establishment assumption that we will see a “V-shaped” recovery has nothing to do with believing in it,rather it is to make the debt metrics look better. Again there are echoes of Greece here when Christine Lagarde was talking about “Shock and Awe” back in the day. Remember when we were guided to a debt to GDP ratio of 120%? That was to protect Italy ironically ( as well as Portugal).

That was then and this is now. The game-changed in the meantime has been the fall in bond yields due mostly to the policies and buying of the ECB. So a benchmark yield that rose to 7% in the last crisis is now 1.45% as I type this. Thus the previous concept of debt vigilante’s has been neutered and debt costs are low. The catch is that the debt burden will soar and that does seem to have an impact if we think of the issue of Japanification. Italy has already had its “lost decade” since it joined the Euro and the lack of economic growth has been the real issue here. For it to change I think we need reform of its structure and especially its zombie banks but instead we are being guided towards yet another bailout in what feels like a never-ended stream. Let me leave you with some humour on the issue of bad banks from GreatLakesForex.

They should correct that statement to the actual fact that they are desperate to create a Good bank in the Eurozone.

Where will all the extra US Money Supply end up?

Today brings both the US economy and monetary policy centre stage. The OECD has already weighed in on the subject this morning.

The COVID-19 outbreak has brought the longest economic expansion on record to a juddering halt. GDP
contracted by 5% in the first quarter at an annualised rate, and the unemployment rate has risen
precipitously. If there is another virus outbreak later in the year, GDP is expected to fall by over 8% in 2020
(the double-hit scenario). If, on the other hand, the virus outbreak subsides by the summer and further
lockdowns are avoided (the single-hit scenario), the impact on annual growth is estimated to be a percentage
point less.

Actually that is less than its view of many other countries. But of course we need to remind ourselves that the OECD is not a particularly good forecaster. Also we find that the official data has its quirks.

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 2.5 million in May, and the unemployment rate
declined to 13.3 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today……In May, employment rose sharply in leisure and hospitality, construction, education and health services, and retail trade. By contrast, employment
in government continued to decline sharply……….The unemployment rate declined by 1.4 percentage points to 13.3 percent in May, and the number of unemployed persons fell by 2.1 million to 21.0 million.

Those figures not only completely wrong footed the forecasters they nutmegged them as well in one of the most spectacular examples of this genre I have seen. I forget now if they were expecting a rise in unemployment of eight or nine million but either way you get the gist. We do not know where we are let alone where we are going although the Bureau of Labor Statistics did try to add some clarity.

If the workers who were recorded as employed but absent from work due to “other  reasons” (over and above the number absent for other reasons in a typical May) had
been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, the overall unemployment rate  would have been about 3 percentage points higher than reported (on a not seasonally  adjusted basis).

We learn more about the state of play from the New York Federal Reserve.

The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at -25.5% for 2020:Q2 and -12.0% for 2020:Q3. News from this week’s data releases increased the nowcast for 2020:Q2 by 10 percentage points and increased the nowcast for 2020:Q3 by 24.5 percentage points. Positive surprises from labor, survey, and international trade data drove most of the increase.

As you can see the labo(u)r market data blew their forecasts like a gale and leave us essentially with the view that there has been a large contraction but also a wide possible and indeed probable error range.

The Inflation Problem

We get the latest inflation data later after I publish this piece. But there is a problem with the mantra we are being told which is that there is no inflation. Something similar to the April reading of 0.3% is expected. So if we switch to the measure used by the US Federal Reserve which is based on Personal Consumption Expenditures the annual rate if we use our rule of thumb would in fact be slightly negative right now. On this basis Chair Powell and much of the media can say that all the monetary easing is justified.

But there are more than a few catches which change the picture. Let me start with the issues I raised concerning the Euro area yesterday where the numbers will be pushed downwards by a combination of the weights being (very) wrong, many prices being unavailable and the switch to online prices. It would seem that the ordinary person has been figuring this out for themselves.

The May 2020 Survey of Consumer Expectations shows small signs of improvement in households’ expectations compared to April. Median inflation expectations increased by 0.4 percentage point at the one-year horizon to 3.0 percent, and were unchanged at the three-year horizon at 2.6 percent. ( NY Fed Research from Monday)

It is revealing that they describe an increase in inflation that is already above target as an “improvement” is it not? But we see a complete shift as we leave the Ivory Towers and media palaces as the ordinary person surveyed expects a very different picture. Still the Ivory Towers can take some solace from the fact that inflation is in what they consider to be non-core areas.

Expected year-ahead changes in both food and gasoline prices displayed sharp increases for the second consecutive month and recorded series’ highs in May at 8.7% and 7.8%, respectively, in May.

Just for the avoidance of doubt I have turned my Irony meter beyond even the “turn up to 11” of the film Spinal Tap.

Central bankers will derive some cheer from the apparent improvement in perceptions about the housing market.

Median home price change expectations recovered slightly from its series’ low of 0% reached in April to 0.6% in May. The slight increase was driven by respondents who live in the West and Northeast Census regions.

Credit

More food for thought is provided in this area. If we switch to US Federal Reserve policy Chair Jerome Powell will tell us later that the taps are open and credit is flowing. But those surveyed have different ideas it would seem.

Perceptions of credit access compared to a year ago deteriorated for the third consecutive month, with 49.6% of respondents reporting credit to be harder to get today than a year ago (versus 32.1% in March and 48.0% in April). Expectations for year-ahead credit availability also worsened, with fewer respondents expecting credit will become easier to obtain.

Comment

I now want to shift to a subject which is not getting the attention it deserves. This is the growth in the money supply where the three monthly average for the narrow measure M1 has increased in annualised terms by 67.2% in the three months to the 25th of May. Putting that another way it has gone from a bit over US $4 trillion to over US $5 trillion over the past 3 months. That gives the monetary system quite a short-term shove the size of which we can put into context with this.

In April 2008, M1 was approximately $1.4 trillion, more than half of which consisted of currency.  ( NY Fed)

Contrary to what we keep being told about the decline of cash it has grown quite a bit over this period as there is presently a bit over US $1.8 trillion in circulation.

Moving to the wider measure M2 we see a similar picture where the most recent three months measured grew by 40.6% compared to its predecessor in annualised terms. Or if you prefer it has risen from US $15.6 billion to US $18.1 billion. Again here is the historical perspective from April 2008.

 M2 was approximately $7.7 trillion and largely consisted of savings deposits.

So here is a question for readers, where do you think all this money will go? Whilst you do so you might like to note this from the 2008 report I have quoted.

While as much as two-thirds of U.S. currency in circulation may be held outside the United States….

The Investing Channel

 

The Euro area has an inflation problem that the ECB ignores

Yesterday brought us up to date with the thoughts of ECB President Christine Lagarde as she gave evidence to the European Parliament, and grim reading and listening it made.

After a contraction in GDP of 3.8% in the first quarter of the year, our new staff projections see it shrinking by 13% in the second quarter. Despite being expected to bounce back later in the year and recover some of its lost ground, euro area real GDP is now projected to fall by 8.7% over the whole of 2020, followed by growth of 5.2% in 2021 and 3.3% in 2022.

The numbers for 2021 and 22 are pure fantasy of course an area where President Lagarde has quite a track record after her claims about Greece and Argentina. But the fundamental polnt here is of a large and in many ways unprecedented fall in this quarter.

Germany

We have received some hints this morning via the April trade figures for the Euro areas largest economy Germany.

WIESBADEN – Germany exported goods to the value of 75.7 billion euros and imported goods to the value of 72.2 billion euros in April 2020. Based on provisional data, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that exports decreased by 31.1% and imports by 21.6% in April 2020 year on year.

In a pandemic it is no surprise that trade is hit harder than economic output or GDP and the impact was severe.

That was the largest decline of exports in a month compared with the same month a year earlier since the introduction of foreign trade statistics in 1950. The last time German imports went down that much was in July 2009 during the financial crisis (-23.6%).

This meant that the German trade surplus which is essentially the Euro area one faded quite a bit.

The foreign trade balance showed a surplus of 3.5 billion euros in April 2020. That was the lowest export surplus shown for Germany since December 2000 (+1.7 billion euros). In April 2019, the surplus was 17.8 billion euros. In calendar and seasonally adjusted terms, the foreign trade balance recorded a surplus of 3.2 billion euros in April 2020.

In itself that is far from a crisis as both Germany and the Euro area have had plenty of surpluses in this area. But it will be a subtraction to GDP although some will be found elsewhere.

exports to the countries hit particularly hard by the corona virus pandemic dropped sharply from April 2019: France (-48.3%), Italy (-40.1%) and the United States (-35.8%).

So for the first 2 countries the falls will be gains although of course they will have their own losses.

There was a considerable decline in German imports from France (-37.3% to 3.5 billion euros) and Italy (-32.5% to 3.2 billion euros).

So we have a sharp impact on the economy although we need the caveat that these compete with retail sales to be the least reliable numbers we have.

Inflation

If we return to President Lagarde there was also this.

The sharp drop in economic activity is also leaving its mark on euro area inflation. Year-on-year HICP inflation declined further to 0.1% in May, mainly due to falling oil prices. Looking ahead, the inflation outlook has been revised downwards substantially over the entire projection horizon. In the baseline scenario, inflation is projected to average 0.3% in 2020, before rising slightly to 0.8% in 2021, and further to 1.3% in 2022.

There are serious problems with inflation measurement right now and let me explain them.

The HICP sub-indices are aggregated using weights reflecting the household consumption expenditure patterns of the previous year.

This is clearly an issue when expenditure patterns have changed so much. This is illustrated by the area highlighted by President Lagarde oil prices as we note automotive fuel demand was down 46.9% on a year ago. So she is being very misleading. Also I am regularly asked about imputed rent well it has plenty of company right now.

The second principle means that all sub-indices for the full ECOICOP structure will be compiled even when for some categories no products are available on the market. In such cases prices do not exist and they should be replaced with imputed prices.

So if you cannot get a price you make it up. You really could not er make it up…..

Also online quotes are used if necessary. That reflects reality but there is a catch as the prices are likely to be lower than store prices in more than a few cases.

What you might think are minor issues can turn into big ones as we saw last year from a rethink of the state of play concerning package holidays in Germany.

In the following years, the impact of the revision is smaller, between -0.2 and +0.3 p.p. Consequently, the euro area all-items annual rates are revised between 0.0 and +0.3 p.p. in 2015 and between -0.1 and +0.1 p.p. after.

Yes it did change the overall number for the Euro area which is I suppose a case f the mouse scaring and moving the elephant. This really matters when we are told this.

 the deteriorating inflation outlook threatening our medium-term price stability objective.

So we got this in response to a number which is dodgy to say the least.

The Governing Council last Thursday decided to increase the amount of the pandemic emergency purchase programme (PEPP) by an additional €600 billion to a total of €1,350 billion, to extend the net purchase horizon until at least the end of June 2021, and to reinvest maturing assets acquired under the programme until at least the end of 2022.

In context there is also this from Peter Schiff which raises a wry smile.

ECB Pres. Christine Lagarde claims that emergency action is necessary to protect Europeans from a mere 1.3% rise in their cost of living in the year 2022. Lagarde said such a small rise is inconsistent with the ECB’s goal of price stability. Prices must rise more to be stable.

George Orwell must wish he had put that in 1984, although to be fair his themes were spot on. He would have enjoyed how Christine Lagarde sets as her objective making people worse off.

The ECB measures will continue to be crucial in supporting the return of inflation towards our medium-term inflation aim after the worst of the crisis has passed and the euro area economy begins its journey to economic recovery.

Let’s face it even the (wo)man on Mars will probably be aware that these days wages do not necessarily grow faster than prices.

Comment

Let me now spin around to the real game in town for central bankers which is financial markets. Once they had helped the banks by letting them benefit from a -1% interest-rate which of course will in the end be paid by everyone else then boosting asset markets is the next game in town. I have already mentioned the large sums being invested to help governments borrow more cheaply with the 1.35 trillion. As a former finance minister Christine Lagarde can look forwards to being warmly welcomed at meetings with present finance ministers. After all Germany is being paid to borrow and even Italy only has a ten-year yield of 1.42% in spite of having debt metrics which are beginning to spiral.

Next comes equity markets where the Euro Stoxx 50 index was at one point yesterday some 1000 points higher than the 2386 of the 19th of March. The link from all the QE is of portfolio shifts as for example bonds providing less ( and in many cases negative income) make dividends from shares more attractive. As an aside this poses all sorts of risks from pensions investing in wrong areas.

But my main drive is that central banks can push asset prices higher but the problem is that the asset rich benefit but for everyone else there is them inflation. The inflation is conveniently ignored as those responsible for putting housing inflation in the numbers have been on a 20 year holiday. As even the ECB confesses that sector makes up a third of consumer spending you can see again how the numbers are misleading. Or to put it another way how the ordinary person is made worse off whilst the better off gain.

Is Hong Kong really over as a financial centre?

Today I thought I would take a slightly different tack and look at a potential shift in world financial markets. It concerns a place that for many years has had an economic party based on “location, location, location” as Hong Kong has been a sort of add-on to China. We have previously looked at the economic consequences of the unrest there and now the ante is being upped by China. This poses the question can it survive as one of the world’s major financial centres?

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s parliament on Thursday overwhelmingly approved directly imposing national security legislation on Hong Kong to tackle secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in a city roiled last year by months of anti-government protests.

Also I do not know about you but the 6 were brave and the 1 was courageous.

The National People’s Congress voted 2,878 to 1 in favour of the decision to empower its standing committee to draft the legislation, with six abstentions. The legislators gathered in the Great Hall of the People burst into sustained applause when the vote tally was projected onto screens.

If we switch to Hong Kong itself there is plainly trouble ahead.

Earlier on Thursday, angry exchanges in the city’s assembly, the Legislative Council, during debate on the anthem bill saw some lawmakers removed in chaotic scenes and the session adjourned.

If we look wider there is of course The Donald to consider.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday the United States was working on a strong response to China’s planned national security legislation for Hong Kong and it would be announced before the end of the week.

So quite a bit of realpolitik and this adds to the Trade Wars issue. Not exactly what you want when you are a hub for financial trade.

Rich Chinese are expected to park fewer funds in Hong Kong on worries that the security law could allow mainland authorities to seize their wealth, bankers and other industry sources said.

That is quite damning for Hong Kong’s future on its own. So many things have rolled out of this and I remember Rolex watches being bought as collateral and then sold as well as if course the Bitcoin purchases. So there are more questions than answers before we even leave China.

The Equity Market

There is of course a Trump Tweet for this now the market is rallying.

Stock Market up BIG, DOW crosses 25,000. S&P 500 over 3000. States should open up ASAP. The Transition to Greatness has started, ahead of schedule. There will be ups and downs, but next year will be one of the best ever!

They are of course a bit thinner on the ground in declines but there is an issue here if we switch to the Hang Seng Index. This is from rthk on the 22nd of this month.

Hong Kong stocks dropped 5 percent in the noon session after Beijing said it plans to push through a national security law for the city, adding to tensions with the US and fuelling fears of fresh civil unrest.

The Hang Seng Index sank 5 percent, or 1,204 points, to 23,075, midway into the second session.

Although it slipped a little today it has not done much overall since then as it closed at 23,132. That is a relative loss at a time other markets have rallied. If we move on from the cheerleading of The Donald I note that the Nikkei 225 has over the past week gone from below the Hang Seng at circa 20500 to above it at this morning’s 21,916.

Exchange-Rates

Let me briefly hand you over to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority.

The Linked Exchange Rate System (LERS) has been implemented in Hong Kong since 17 October 1983. Through a rigorous, robust and transparent Currency Board system, the LERS ensures that the Hong Kong dollar exchange rate remains stable within a band of HK$7.75-7.85 to one US dollar.

The LERS is the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s monetary and financial stability.  It has weathered many economic cycles and has proved highly resilient in the face of regional and global financial crises over the years.

Oh dear “resilient” looks like being as applicable as it is to the banks! Anyway we have a currency peg in action which seems to be news to some. That means they follow US interest-rates too athough you can pick-up a bit more than 0.5% a year.

The Federal Open Market Committee of the US Fed announced last night to adjust downward the target range for the US federal funds rate by 100 basis points to 0-0.25%. In light of the Fed’s decision, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) also adjusted downward the Base Rate today. The Base Rate is set at 0.86% today according to a pre-set formula ( 16th of March)

Actually it has been edging higher and is now 1.11% so maybe a little heat is on.

In terms of any response to pressure the HKMA would intervene first and at 3.6 trillion Hong Kong Dollars worth it has quite a war chest. Trouble is reserves never seem to be quite enough however large and in a panic interest-rate rises do not achieve much either. Well apart from applying a brake in the economy.

It could use the liquidity swaps system of the US Federal Reserve to get US Dollars and sell them but the lifespan of that would presumably be until The Donald spotted it.

Moving onto the Yuan and its offshore variant there has been a lot of talk about it but it has been remarkably stable considering the times ( that is a translation of the Chinese ave obviously been intervening) and is at 7.15 versus the US Dollar.

The Economy

This was in a bad way and things have got worse.

Hong Kong’s coronavirus-ravaged economy has suffered its worst decline on record, shrinking 8.9 per cent year on year in the first quarter and sparking an appeal from the city’s finance chief for unity to face the grim months ahead…….Hong Kong’s coronavirus-ravaged economy has suffered its worst decline on record, shrinking 8.9 per cent year on year in the first quarter and sparking an appeal from the city’s finance chief for unity to face the grim months ahead. ( South China Morning Post )

In case any central bankers are reading here is their priority.

Hong Kong SAR (China)’s Real Residential Property Price Index was reported at 189.610 2010=100 in Sep 2019. This records a decrease from the previous number of 194.800 2010=100 for Jun 2019 ( CEIC)

It will be lower now as I note this from the HKMA.

The Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation Limited (HKMC) announces that, the pilot scheme for fixed-rate mortgages will start receiving applications from 7 May (Thursday). In response to the change in market interest rates, mortgage interest rates under the pilot scheme are lowered, as compared to the levels previously announced in the 2020-21 Budget (Budget). The interest rates per annum for 10, 15 and 20 years of the Fixed-Rate Mortgage Pilot Scheme are as follows:

2.55%, 2.65% and 2.75% respectively in case you were wondering.

Comment

The situation is a bit like a dam which invariably looks perfectly secure until it bursts. Indeed there are some bouncing bombs in play.

TRUMP ADMN TO EXPEL CHINESE STUDENTS WITH TIES TO MILITARY SCHOOLS: NYT ( @FirstSquawk )

Financial markets are more likely to be troubled by this from Secretary Pompeo.

Today, I reported to Congress that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China, given facts on the ground. The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong.

This is the real question will they be able to operate freely? Next comes the issue of where will the business go? This begs lots of question as I have a friend who works there.

Looking at Hong Kong itself the currency peg looks vulnerable in spite of the large foreign exchange reserves. It so often turns out that Newt from the film Aliens was right.

It wont make any difference

The real ray of hope is that the Chinese may adapt their bill which lacks detail.

Harmful elements in the air
Symbols clashing everywhere
Reaps the fields of rice and reeds
While the population feeds
Junk floats on polluted water
An old custom to sell your daughter
Would you like number twenty three?
Leave your yens on the counter please
Ho-oh, ho-oh-oh-oh
Hong Kong Garden
Ho-oh, ho-oh-oh-oh
Hong Kong Garden ( Siouxsie and the Banshees )

As to the housing market is this how Nine Elms ( confession my part of London) finds some new buyers?

Economic growth German style has hit the buffers

Today gives us the opportunity to look at the conventional and the unconventional so let us crack on via the German statistics office.

WIESBADEN – The corona pandemic hits the German economy hard. Although the spread of the coronavirus did not have a major effect on the economic performance in January and February, the impact of the pandemic is serious for the 1st quarter of 2020. The gross domestic product (GDP) was down by 2.2% on the 4th quarter of 2019 upon price, seasonal and calendar adjustment. That was the largest decrease since the global financial and economic crisis of 2008/2009 and the second largest decrease since German unification. A larger quarter-on-quarter decline was recorded only for the 1st quarter of 2009 (-4.7%).

So we start with a similar pattern to the UK as frankly a 0.2% difference at this time does not mean a lot. Also we see that this is essentially what we might call an Ides of March thing as that is when things headed south fast. However some care is needed because of this.

The recalculation for the 4th quarter of 2019 has resulted in a price-, seasonally and calendar-adjusted GDP decrease of 0.1% on the previous quarter (previous result: 0.0%).

For newer readers this brings two of my themes into play. The first is that I struggled to see how Germany came up with a 0% number at the time ( and this has implications for the Euro area GDP numbers too). If they were trying to dodge the recession definition things have rather backfired. The second is that Germany saw its economy turn down in early 2018 which is quite different to how many have presented it. Some of the news came from later downwards revisions which is obviously awkward if you only read page one, but also should bring a tinge of humility as even in more stable times we know less than we might think we do.

Switching now to the context there are various ways of looking at this and I have chosen to omit the seasonal adjustment as right now it will have failed which gives us this.

a calendar-adjusted 2.3%, on a year earlier.

No big change but it means in context that the economy of Germany has grown by 4% since 2015 or if you prefer returned to early 2017.

In terms of detail we start with a familiar pattern.

Household final consumption expenditure fell sharply in the 1st quarter of 2020. Gross fixed capital formation in machinery and equipment decreased considerably, too.

But then get something more unfamiliar when we not we are looking at Germany.

However, final consumption expenditure of general government and gross fixed capital formation in construction had a stabilising effect and prevented a larger GDP decrease.

So the German government was already spending more although yesterday brought some context into this.

GERMAN FINANCE MIN. SCHOLZ: OUR FISCAL STIMULUS MEASURES WILL BE TIMELY, TARGETED, TEMPORARY AND TRANSFORMATIVE. ( @FinancialJuice )

As he was talking about June I added this bit.

and late…….he forgot late….

Actually they have already agreed this or we were told that.

Germany has approved an initial rescue package worth over 750 billion euros to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, with the government taking on new debt for the first time since 2013.

The first package agreed in March comprises a debt-financed supplementary budget of 156 billion euros and a stabilisation fund worth 600 billion euros for loans to struggling businesses and direct stakes in companies. ( Reuters )

Warnings

There is this about which we get very little detail.

Both exports and imports saw a strong decline on the 4th quarter of 2019.

If we switch to the trade figures it looks as though they were a drag on the numbers.

WIESBADEN – Germany exported goods to the value of 108.9 billion euros and imported goods to the value of 91.6 billion euros in March 2020. Based on provisional data, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that exports declined by 7.9% and imports by 4.5% in March 2020 year on year.

Ironically this gives us something many wanted which is a lower German trade surplus but of course not in a good way. A factor in this will be the numbers below which Google Translate has allowed me to take from the German version.

Passenger car production (including motorhomes) was compared to March 2019
by more than a third (-37%) and compared to February 2020 by more than a quarter (-27%)
around 285,000 pieces back.

The caveats I pointed out for the UK about seasonality, inflation and the (in)ability to collect many of the numbers will be at play here.

Looking Ahead

The Federal Statistics Office has been trying to innovate and has been looking at private-sector loan deals.

The preliminary low was the week after Easter (16th calendar week from April 13th to 19th) with 36.7% fewer new personal loan contracts than achieved in the previous week. Since then, the new loan agreements have ranged from around 30% to 35% below the same period in the previous year.

That provides food for thought for the ECB and Christine Lagarde to say the least.

Also in an era of dissatisfaction with conventional GDP and the rise of nowcasting we have been noting this.

KÖLN/WIESBADEN – The Federal Office for Goods Transport (BAG) and the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) report that the mileage covered by trucks with four or more axles, which are subject to toll charges, on German motorways decreased a seasonally adjusted 10.9% in April 2020 compared with March 2020. This was an even stronger decline on the previous month than in March 2020, when a decrease of -5.8% on February 2020 had been recorded, until then the largest month-on-month decline since truck toll was introduced in 2005.

That is quite a drop and leaves us expecting a 10%+ drop for GDP in Germany this quarter especially as we note that many service industries have been hit even harder.

Comment

I promised you something unconventional so let me start with this.

Covid-19 has uncovered weaknesses in France’s pharmaceutical sector. With 80 percent of medicines manufactured in Asia, France remains highly dependent on China and India. Entrepreneurs are now determined to bring France’s laboratories back to Europe. ( France24 )

I expect this to be a trend now and will be true in much of the western world. But this ball bounces around like Federer versus Nadal. Why? Well I immediately thought of Ireland which via its tax regime has ended up with a large pharmaceutical sector which others may now be noting. Regular readers will recall the times we have looked at the “pharmaceutical cliff” there when a drug has lost its patent and gone full generic so to speak. That might seem odd but remember there were issues about things like paracetamol in the UK for a bit.

That is before we get to China and the obvious issues in may things have effectively been outsourced to it. Some will be brought within national borders which for Germany will be a gain. But the idea of trade having a reversal is not good for an exporter like Germany as the ball continues to be hit. Perhaps it realises this hence the German Constitutional Court decision but that risks upsetting a world where Germany is paid to borrow and of course a new Mark would surge against any past Euro value.

 

Negative GDP growth and negative interest-rates arrive in the UK

Sometimes things are inevitable although what we are seeing now is a subplot of that. What I mean is that with the people in charge some trends have been established that I have warned about for most if not all of the credit crunch era. Let us start with something announced this morning which is more of a symptom than a cause.

UK gross domestic product (GDP) in volume terms was estimated to have fallen by 2.0% in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2020, the largest fall since Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2008.

When compared with the same quarter a year ago, UK GDP decreased by 1.6% in Quarter 1 2020; the biggest fall since Quarter 4 2009, when it also fell by 1.6%.

This was in fact a story essentially about the Ides of March.

The decline in the first quarter largely reflects the 5.8% fall in output in March 2020, with widespread monthly declines in output across the services, production and construction industries.

Let us look deeper into that month starting with what usually is a UK economic strength.

There was a drop of 6.2% in the Index of Services (IoS) between February 2020 and March 2020. The biggest negative driver to monthly growth, wholesale and retail trade; repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles, contributed negative 1.27 percentage points; public administration and defence was the largest positive driver, contributing 0.01 percentage points.

Well there you have it as the biggest upwards move was 0.01%! There were other factors which should be under the category that Radiohead would describe as No Surprises.

In services, travel and tourism fell the most, decreasing by 50.1%, while accommodation fell by 45.7% and air transport by 44%.

By the entirely unscientific method of looking up in the air in Battersea and noting the lack of planes it will be worse in April. Next up was this.

Construction output fell by 5.9% in the month-on-month all work series in March 2020; this was driven by a 6.2% decrease in new work and a 5.1% decrease in repair and maintenance; all of these decreases were the largest monthly falls on record since the monthly records began in January 2010.

Then this.

Production output fell by 4.2% between February 2020 and March 2020, with manufacturing providing the largest downward contribution, falling by 4.6%……….The monthly decrease of 4.6% in manufacturing output was led by transport equipment, which fell by 20.5%, with the motor vehicles, trailers and semi-trailers industry falling by a record 34.3%

So the vehicle sector which was already seeing hard times got a punch to the solar plexus.

The Problems Here

There are a whole multitude of issues with this. I regularly highlight the problems with the monthly GDP data and this time we see it is that month ( March) which is material. So we have a drop based on numbers which are unreliable even in ordinary times and let me give you a couple of clear examples of what Taylor Swift would call “Trouble,Trouble,Trouble”.

However, non-market output has long been recognised as a measurement challenge and is one that is likely to be impacted considerably by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

What do they mean? Let me look at what right now is the crucial sector.

The volume of healthcare output in the UK is estimated using available information on the number of different kinds of activities and procedures that are carried out in a period and weighting these by the cost of each activity.

In other words they do not really know. Regular readers will recall I covered this when I looked at a book I had helped a bit with which was when Pete Comley wrote a book on inflation. This pointed out that the measurement in the government sector was a combination of sometimes not very educated guesses. Some areas have surged.

The rise in the number of critical care cases is likely to increase healthcare output, as this is among some of the most high-cost care provided by the health service.

Some have not far off collapsed.

For example, the suspension of dental and ophthalmic activities (almost 6% of healthcare output), the cancellation and postponement of outpatient activities (13% of healthcare output), and elective procedures (19% of healthcare output) will likely weigh heavily on our activity figures.

So the numbers will be not far off hopeless. I mean what could go wrong?

 Further, our estimates may be affected by the suspension of some data collections by the NHS in England, which include patient volumes in critical care in England.

Inadvertently our official statisticians show what a shambles the measurement of education is at the best of times.

The volume of education output is produced by weighting the number of full-time equivalent students in different educational settings by the costs of educating the students in that setting.

They miss out another factor which is people doing stuff for themselves. For example my neighbour who fixed his washing machine. I have joined that club but more incompetently as I have a machine that now works but with a leak. Another example is parents now doing their own childcare rather than using nurseries or nanny’s which make be better but reduces GDP.

Oh and it would not be me if I did not point out that the inflation estimates used may be of the Comical Ali variety.

Comment

Now let me switch to the trends which the pandemic has given a shove to but were already on play. Let me return to my subject of yesterday and apologies for quoting my own twitter feed but it is thin pickings for mentions.

Negative Interest-Rates in the UK Klaxon! The two-year UK Gilt yield has fallen to -0.04% this morning

Not entirely bereft though as this from Moyeen Islam notes.

GBP 50yr OIS swap now negative for the first time

This matters if you are a newer reader because once this starts it spreads and sometimes like wildfire. A factor in this was the fact that one of the Bank of England’s loose cannons was on the airwaves yesterday.

“The committee are certainly prepared to do what is necessary to meet our remit with risks still to the downside,” Broadbent told CNBC on Tuesday.

“Yes, it is quite possible that more monetary easing will be needed over time.”

The absent-minded professor needs a minder or two as he can do a lot of damage.

“That is not to say that we stop thinking about this question, but that for the time being is where rates have gone,” he added.

So we have a level of layers here. How did he ever get promoted for example? In some ways even worse how he was switched from being an external member to being a Deputy Governor which opens a Pandora’s Box of moral hazard straight out of the television series Yes Prime Minister. The one clear example of him standing out from the crowd was in the late summer of 2016 when he got things completely wrong.

Moving on “My Precious! My Precious!” is rarely far away.

Broadbent said the potential to stimulate demand would have to be weighed against the impact on banks’ ability to lend, adding that “this is a question that has been thought about on and off since the financial crisis.”

Today we see action on that front.

Britain’s housing market set for comeback ( Financial Times)

I hardly know where to start with that but if we clear the room from the champagne corks fired by the FT I have two thoughts for you. I did warn that all the promised small business lending would end up in the mortgage market just like last time and indeed the time before ( please feel free to add a few more examples). Next whilst some prices may look the same for a while the champagne corks will be replaced by a sense of panic as prices sing along to Tom Perry and his ( Bank of England ) Heartbreakers.

And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows
And the good girls are home with broken hearts
And I’m free
Free fallin’, fallin’
Now I’m free
Free fallin’, fallin’

The Investing Channel

 

 

The Output Gap Problem

The new pandemic economic era has brought some new features to our lives but some things have remained the same or as The Four Tops put it.

Now it’s the same old song
But with a different meaning
Since you been gone

It is also an example of how once some people get wedded to a concept no amount if reality can shake them from it. Or if you prefer a type of institutional group think where they are so busy telling each other that they are clever and intelligent they are then unable to accept that they have been consistently wrong. That is usually associated with people who via their circumstances are insulated from the effects of the error.

Let me see if you can guess it from this reference in the Financial Times?

One reason the measure often gets overlooked in mainstream headlines is because it doesn’t sound all that consequential. Yet it is. Arguably more so than ever. Encumbering its popularity, however, is the fact it’s not always universally considered to be a thing. Saltwater-type economists (a.k.a the stimulus inclined) are far more partial to backing its theoretical existence than fresh water austerity types because it helps them justify more government spending. Added to that, it’s also notoriously difficult to measure in real time.

Some might think that not being able to measure something is quite a hurdle! In some circumstances like a pandemic we are still learning because it is new but this issue has been round for decades. Another warning klaxon is fired as we note that some consider it is not a thing as surely it should be clear. We see a potential angle for the FT as one impact of its Japanese ownership is that it has become a strong supporter of stimulus.

Anyway as I am sure some and maybe many of you have guessed here it is.

In its simplest terms, the output gap measures the difference between actual output (or GDP) and potential output (or potential GDP). Since this gap illustrates how much better the economy could be faring at any given time had whatever demand shock which slowed growth not occurred, it indicates the theoretical excess supply capacity in the system. Whenever output is running under potential output, there is said to be economic slack, which supposedly justifies additional stimulus as the slack is the factor that is likely to keep price inflation at bay. Or so the theory goes.

As you can see they are unable to resist loading a factual statement with value judgements. This is especially disappointing from two of its better journalists ( Izabella Kaminska and Claire Jones) which reminds me that the better ones are usually women. The confusion continues here.

However, if lockdown-type measures are to persist for up to two years — as is increasingly thought — the impact would be not only an upper double-digit trillion bill in terms of overall economic losses, but could also destroy supply capacity and potential GDP. The longer the lockdowns last, the graver the supply-side impact is likely to be.

Again they are merging two concepts which highlights the confusion. Has supply capacity been destroyed? Yes for example if we think of the airline industry in the UK we may be shifting to us going forwards with Heathrow but Gatwick being closed for example. That would be quite a change and may not be that literal but also some examples of that are already happening. On a personal level I guess it is bad for me ( noisy planes overhead) but good for the aunt I spoke to yesterday as she lives near Gatwick as there wont be any over her. Although of course the economic effects will be the opposite of that.

However “potential GDP” means what exactly? In the end that is always the problem as supporters end up echoing Alice In Wonderland.

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

Let me however agree with the authors on this point as frankly some of the analysis suggesting this has been laughable.

This is important because so much private and public policy is now being determined by the notion that the economy can be easily stop-started without any real long-term negative consequences. It’s this sort of thinking that is backing the V-shaped recovery argument, which in turn is justifying putting the economy’s needs second to the needs of saving lives (whether rightly or wrongly, we won’t and don’t want to speculate).

The idea that we would rebound like Zebedee from the Magic Roundabout always was silly as this morning in the UK has demonstrated. From the BBC.

Business groups have called for clarity on what will need to change in the workplace as Boris Johnson unveils a “conditional plan” to reopen society.

“Businesses need their practical questions answered so they can plan to restart, rebuild and renew,” said the British Chambers of Commerce.

The prime minister said those who could not work from home should be “actively encouraged to go to work” in England.

Those that can return are trying to figure out how they can? It will take a while and perhaps places will begin with half production.

Comment

Let me give you an example of a policy error from my home country as it tried to implement output gap theory. So if we jump into Doctor Who’s TARDIS and go back to the summer of 2013 here is the Bank of England.

In essence, the MPC judges that, until the margin of slack within the economy has narrowed significantly.

The choice of words “margin of slack” is/are significant but please park that for a moment as we check what that meant in practice.

At its meeting on 1 August 2013, the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) agreed its intention not to
raise Bank Rate from its current level of 0.5% at least until the Labour Force Survey (LFS) headline
measure of the unemployment rate had fallen to a ‘threshold’ of 7%, subject to the conditions below.

They used “margin of slack” as explicitly using the phrase “output gap” had failed. The UK had one in theory but inflation had surged over target so it was a bit of a laughing stock. As they are slow learners they kept the policy and changed the language used instead. Next they used the employment rate because using GDP had failed.

The problem was that the “unemployment rate” was an even worse measure than GDP! There is some good news here as the UK labour market improved quickly but the Bank of England was left with a whole pack of eggs on its face. This matters as people made real decisions on Forward Guidance like this. You see whether how much you regarded 7% as a threshold there was also this.

Bank staff estimate that the medium-term equilibrium unemployment rate is presently in the region of 6.5%.

So when it went below 4% as it later did in the UK you might have expected Bank Rate to have been raised several times to say 2.5%. I will just leave that there….

Returning to GDP as the authors of the FT piece have there are other problems. The first is that it was abandoned as a signal for this sort of thing because it failed and indeed sailed utterly. But it gets worse because there are plenty of grounds to argue it will do even worse now. A lot of the issues come around the fact that it only counts things that are paid for. If people work from home more they are likely to use the commuting time gained to do more for themselves. An example of this sort of thing is one of my neighbours who due to the situation did not get a repair(wo)man in when his washing machine broke he ordered a new motor and fitted it himself. That is the same effect but lower GDP. Some might be able to do more of their own childcare and so on.

But we seem to keep finding supporters of the output gap no matter how often it fails or as The Eagles put it.

“Relax”, said the night man
“We are programmed to receive
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave”

 

The Bank of England sets interest-rates for the banks and QE to keep debt costs low

This morning has seen a change to Bank of England practice which is a welcome one. It announced its policy decisions at 7 am rather than the usual midday. Why is that better? It is because it voted last night so cutting the time between voting and announcing the result reduces the risk of it leaking and creating an Early Wire. The previous Governor Mark Carney preferred to have plenty of time to dot his i’s and cross his t’s at the expense of a clear market risk. If it was left to me I would dully go back to the old system where the vote was a mere 45 minutes before the announcement to reduce the risk of it leaking. After all the Bank of England has proved to be a much more leaky vessel than it should be.

Actions

We got further confirmation that the Bank of England considers 0.1% to be the Lower Bound for official UK interest-rates.

At its meeting ending on 6 May 2020, the MPC voted unanimously to maintain Bank Rate at 0.1%.

That is in their terms quite a critique of the UK banking system as I note the Norges Bank of Norway has cut to 0% this morning and denied it will cut to negative interest-rates ( we know what that means) and of course the ECB has a deposit rate of -0.5% although to keep that it has had to offer Euro area banks a bung ( TLTRO) at -1%

Next comes an area where action was more likely and as I will explain we did get a hint of some.

The Committee voted by a majority of 7-2
for the Bank of England to continue with the programme of £200 billion of UK government bond and sterling
non-financial investment-grade corporate bond purchases, financed by the issuance of central bank reserves, to
take the total stock of these purchases to £645 billion. Two members preferred to increase the target for the
stock of asset purchases by an additional £100 billion at this meeting.

The two who voted for “More! More! More!” were Jonathan Haskel and Michael Saunders. The latter was calling for higher interest-rates not so long ago so he has established himself as the swing voter who rushes to vote for whatever is right in front of his nose. Anyway I suspect it is moot as I expect them all to sing along with Andrea True Connection in the end.

(More, more, more) how do you like it, how do you like it
(More, more, more) how do you like it, how do you like it

What do they expect?

The opening salvo is both grim and relatively good.

The 2020 Q1 estimate of a fall in GDP of around 3% had been informed by a wide range of high-frequency indicators, as set out in the May Monetary Policy Report.

A factor in that will be that the UK went into its version of lockdown later than many others. But then the hammer falls.

The illustrative scenario in the May Report incorporated a very sharp fall in UK GDP in 2020 H1 and a
substantial increase in unemployment in addition to those workers who were furloughed currently. UK GDP was
expected to fall by around 25% in Q2, and the unemployment rate was expected to rise to around 9%. There were large uncertainty bands around these estimates.

As you can see GDP dived faster than any submarine But fear not as according to the Bank of England it will bounce like Zebedee.

UK GDP in the scenario falls by 14% in 2020 as a whole. Activity picks up materially in the latter part of 2020 and into 2021 after social distancing measures are relaxed, although it does not reach its pre‑Covid level until the second half of 2021 . In 2022, GDP growth is around 3%. Annual household consumption growth follows a similar
pattern.

Is it rude to point out that it has been some time since we grew by 3% in a year? If so it is perhaps even ruder to point out that it is double the speed limit for economic growth that the Bank of England keeps telling us now exists. I guess they are hoping nobody spots that.

Anyway to be fair they call this an illustrative scenario although they must be aware it will be reported like this.

NEW: UK GDP set for ‘dramatic’ 14% drop in 2020 amid coronavirus shutdown, Bank of England predicts ( @politicshome )

Inflation Problems

In a way this is both simple and complicated. Let us start with the simple.

CPI inflation had declined to 1.5% in March and was likely to fall below 1% in the next few months, in large
part reflecting developments in energy prices. This would require an exchange of letters between the Governor
and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

So for an inflation targeting central bank ( please stay with me on this one for the moment) things are simple. Should the Governor have to write to the Chancellor he can say he has cut interest-rates to record lows and pumped up the volume of QE. The Chancellor will offer a sigh of relief that the Bank of England is implicitly funding his spending and try to write a letter avoiding mentioning that.

However things are more complex as this sentence hints.

Measurement challenges would temporarily increase the noise in the inflation data, and affect the nature and behaviour of the index relative to a normal period.

It is doing some heavy lifting as I note this from the Office for National Statistics.

There are 92 items in our basket of goods and services that we have identified as unavailable for the April 2020 index (see Annex B), which accounts for 16.3% of the CPIH basket by weight. The list of unavailable items will be reviewed on a monthly basis.

There is their usual obsession with the otherwise widely ignored CPIH, But as you can see there are issues for the targeted measure CPI as well and they will be larger as it does not have imputed rents in it. A rough and ready calculation suggests it will be of the order of 20%. Also a downwards bias will be introduced by the way prices will be checked online which will mean that more expensive places such as corner shops will be excluded.

Also I am not surprised the Bank of England does not think this is material as the absent-minded professor Ben Broadbent is the Deputy Governor is in charge of this area but I do.

The ONS and the joint producers have taken the decision to temporarily suspend the UK House Price Index (HPI) publication from the April 2020 index (due to be released 17 June 2020) until further notice……..The UK HPI is used to calculate several of the owner occupiers’ housing costs components of the RPI. The procedures described in this plan apply to those components of the RPI that are based on the suspended UK HPI data.

Perhaps they will introduce imputed rents via the back door which is a bit sooner than 2030! Also the point below is rather technical but is a theme where things turn out to be different from what we are told ( it is annual) so I will look into it.

 

Unfortunately, since weights are lagged by two years, we would see no effect until we calculate the 2022 weights1. This means that the current weights are not likely to be reflective of current expenditure and that the 2022 weights are unlikely to be reflective of 2022 expenditure.

That sort of thing popped up on the debate about imputed rents when it turned out that they are (roughly) last year’s rather than the ones for now.

Comment

There are three clear issues here. Firstly as we are struggling to even measure inflation the idea of inflation-targeting is pretty much a farce. That poses its own problems for GDP measurement. Such as we have is far from ideal.

The all HDP items index show a stable increase over time, with an increase of 1.1% between Week 1 and Week 7. The index of all food has seen no price change from Week 5 to Week 7, resulting in a 1.2% price increase since Week 1.

As to Bank of England activity let me remind you of a scheme which favours larger businesses as usual.

As of 6 May, the Covid Corporate Financing Facility
(CCFF), for which the Bank was acting as HM Treasury’s agent, had purchased £17.7 billion of commercial
paper from companies who were making a material contribution to the UK economy.

I wonder if Apple and Maersk are on the list like they are for Corporate Bonds?

Within that increase, £81 billion of UK government bonds,
and £2.5 billion of investment-grade corporate bonds, had been purchased over recent weeks.

By the way that means that their running totals have been wrong. As to conventional QE that is plainly targeted at keeping Gilt yields very low ( the fifty-year is 0.37%)

Let me finish by pointing out we have a 0.1% interest-rate because it is all the banks can stand rather than it being good for you,me or indeed the wider business sector. Oh did I mention the banks?

As of 6 May, participants had drawn £11 billion from the TFSME

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