With UK inflation heading above target why are we getting more Bank of England QE?

Today we arrive at the latest UK inflation data series and the Bank of England will be facing a situation it has not been in for a while. This is that consumer inflation is now quite near to its official target as the CPI ( Consumer Prices Index) gets near to 2%. This poses yet another question about its policy as we see that the Bank of England is buying another £775 million of UK Gilts today. Even worse these are longs and ultra longs as it will be making offers out into the 2060s. So it will be creating a problem for our children and grandchildren all in the name of boosting an economy which has so far down well and boosting inflation which is now pretty much on target.

Of course the Bank of England thinks that inflation will rise further in 2016 as it explained at its Inflation Report earlier this month.

Beyond that, inflation is expected to increase further, peaking around 2.8% at the start of 2018, before falling gradually back to 2.4% in three years’ time. This overshoot is entirely because of sterling’s fall, which itself is the product of the market’s view of the consequences of Brexit.

The Sterling fall was exacerbated by the policy easing from the Bank of England which drove it lower when the UK economy was already getting a substantial boost. To be specific it was expectations of easing which drove it lower after Governor Carney’s rhetoric promised it and ignored the fact that there are 8 other voting members.

As an aside I await the views of the inflationolholics who want a 4% inflation target such as Professor Tony Yates and Professor Wren-Lewis. No doubt their Ivory Tower models love the inflation rise as their economic models tell them that wages will rise in response although of course the real world is apt to remain so inconvenient and inconsiderate. Of course I suppose Professor Yates has a model which shows he was right when he and I debated monetary policy last September on BBC Radio 4’s Moneybox whereas of course the real world shows exactly the reverse.

Today’s data

Let me first open with an alternative universe.

The annual rate for RPIX, the all items RPI excluding mortgage interest payments (MIPs) index, is 2.9%, up from 2.7% last month.

So this has gone even further above its old target of 2.5% and would now be signalling that it was time for the Bank of England to consider reducing all its monetary stimulus rather than adding to it. No wonder it was scrapped! However we do learn something by looking at the new measure.

The all items CPI annual rate is 1.8%, up from 1.6% in December.

So we immediately learn two things the first is that there is a gap of 1.1% between two measures which are supposed to both measure UK inflation. You will no doubt not be surprised that the lower number has got the official nod or we have seen an “improvement”. But there is the secondary issue of the fact that the target was only changed by 0.5% or less than half. So there was a monetary policy easing that gets little publicity. Some of the difference is that in spite of the fact that mortgage costs are excluded RPIX still has an influence from owner occupied housing costs which the official CPI turns its blind eye to.

What are house prices doing?

Here are the numbers.

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 7.2% in the year to December 2016 (up from 6.1% in the year to November 2016), continuing the strong growth seen since the end of 2013.

Many of you will no doubt be having a wry smile at the way these were moved out of the headline inflation number (2003) just ahead of a boom in house prices. But the UK establishment is about to claim it is including them whilst not actually doing so. I explained in full detail on the 15th of November last year.

There is another issue which the National Statistician has attempted to fudge by writing “the inclusion of an element of owner occupiers’ housing costs”. How very Sir Humphey Appleby! I have noted that many people have reported that house prices are being included but you see they are not. Instead there is a statistical swerve based on the Imputed Rent methodology where they assume house owners receive a rent and then put growth in that in the numbers. The same rental growth measurement that according to their own missives  they need to “strengthen”.

Let us look at this month’s number.

The all items CPIH annual rate is 2.0%, up from 1.7% in December.

Lets is start with the good which is that when it becomes the first measure on the statistical bulletin next month it will give a higher number than the one it replaces. The bad is that if you look at  house prices it is still way behind them because the number it makes up or “imputes” tells us this about housing costs.

The OOH component annual rate is 2.5%, down from 2.6% last month.

Apologies to any first time buyers who are now choking on their coffee or tea. The ugly is that this made up number is not even a national statistic because of their failures in simply measuring rents. This has led to revisions and an abandonment of the past rental series.

I made these points to the UK National Statistician John Pullinger in late January as I reported on the 31st.

I was pleased to point out that his letter to the Guardian of a week ago made in my opinion a case for using real numbers for owner-occupied housing such as house prices and mortgage-rates as opposed to the intended use of an imputed number such as Rental Equivalence.

What drove things this month?

If we look at the detailed data then it was clothing and footwear which held inflation back.

Overall, prices fell by 4.2% between December 2016 and January 2017, compared with a smaller fall of 3.1% last year

That tugged it back by 0.1% on the annual rate and offset some of the 0.29% rise from transport costs.

What is coming over the hill?

I am sorry to say that our valiant professors will be pleased by this.

Factory gate prices (output prices) rose 3.5% on the year to January 2017, which is the seventh consecutive period of annual price increases and the highest they have been since December 2011.

So as you can see the heat is on and that is being pushed by prices further up the chain.

Prices for materials and fuels paid by UK manufacturers for processing (input prices) rose 20.5% on the year, which is the fastest rate of annual growth since September 2008.

These only impact on some of the numbers and so get filtered out as well as reaching consumer inflation but they will continue to nudge consumer inflation higher as we move into the spring of this year.

Comment

There is much to consider here as we note that under our old regime inflation would be above target rather than just below it. However where we are poses a serious question for the Bank of England as it is pushing inflation higher with its ongoing monetary easing which even the inflationistas must now question. Indeed even the CPIH measure which next month will be first in the statistical bulletin with its imputed rents would if it had a 2% annual target be on it. I do hope that Governor Carney and Chief Economist Andy Haldane will soon be available to explain why a solidly growing economy with inflation heading above target needs a “Sledgehammer” of monetary easing. Actually Andy has been quiet of late has he been put back in the cellar he has spent most of the last 28 years in? How can he build an Ivory Tower from there?

Meanwhile the rest of us face higher inflation and I fear we will see 3% inflation on the CPI measure and 4% on the RPI measure as 2017 develops. I can say that I will be having more contact with the UK statistics establishment on the subject of their planned changes and will express my views to the best of my ability.

Seer of the year

There are many candidates for this but to be so wrong in only 24 house deserves a special mention. So step forwards European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici only yesterday.

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

And the Greek statistics authority today.

The available seasonally adjusted data1 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,

To coin a phrase Pierre is a specialist in failure. Still he does have a famous song to sing.

Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.

 

Good news for the UK economy and GDP

Today we embark on a raft of UK economic data but before we even reach it the Financial Times has returned to the most familiar theme in UK economic life.

There is a very cool-looking apartment on sale across the street from Harrods in London. It has three bedrooms, beautiful high ceilings, striking contemporary art on the walls (not included in the sale) and a roomy kitchen done out in glossy white wood and chrome. It is not cheap at £7.25m, but it is an awful lot cheaper than it was last year.

The flat was first listed on March 1 2016 for £8.25m. In July, about three weeks after the EU referendum, its price was cut; then it was cut again in December. Today it is available for about 12 per cent — or a full £1m — less than the original asking price.

Actually that looks like a PR puff piece or indeed advertising dressed up as journalism. But we do move onto an area where the FT has caught up with us in here which is the fact that house prices have been seeing falls in central London.

A quick glance at the property website Zoopla reveals that reductions of 15 to 20 per cent for London homes priced above £1m are not uncommon. According to its research department, more than a third of homes on sale in Kensington and Chelsea have had their asking prices reduced by an average of 7.97 per cent.

The FT typically tries to blame Brexit but then finds someone who thinks it has provided a boost! That comes from this.

After the result was announced, and the pound fell to its lowest level against the dollar for 31 years, the spending power of those buyers with dollars in their pockets escalated wildly. Up about 11 per cent on the currency play alone.

Which means overall we see this.

However, once you factor in the decline in London house prices over the intervening six months, you are looking at some serious markdowns indeed. Knight Frank calculates an effective dollar discount of 22 per cent, between December 2015 and December 2016.

So there you have it the message from the Financial Times is to sing along with the band Middle of the Road about central London property.

Ooh-We, Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep
Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep, Chirp
Let’s go now

If we move on from what in some cases is the equivalent of specific property pimping there are issues here. One is simply the price as we mull if even if a one bedroom property is in Covent Garden it can be considered cheap. Also we need to compare the recent falls which estate agents emphasis with the previous rises which they do not. Next comes the issue that the flipside of a lower £ is that existing owners have lost money in their own currency. Also looking forwards the real issue for many is what you expect the UK Pound £ to do next as the future of course matters much more than the past in that regard.
There is much for me to mull on my next cycle ride into the City as once I pass Battersea Dogs Home then here I am.

Some units at Nine Elms, a new residential development in Battersea, are being marketed at about £1,300 per sq ft, after already being given sizeable reductions, according to Zoopla. For £1,300 per sq ft, you could buy a historic apartment overlooking the Duomo in Florence, or a glossy new-build apartment in Miami Beach.

Is that cheaply expensive or expensively cheap?

Boom Boom UK

It is nice to end the week with some really good news for the UK economy so let us get straight to it.

In December 2016, total production was estimated to have increased by 1.1% compared with November 2016; the only contribution to the increase came from manufacturing……manufacturing provided all the growth, increasing by 2.1%.

So an upwards push to production from manufacturing which did this.

The increase in total production was due to broad-based increases in manufacturing. Pharmaceuticals (which can be highly erratic) provided the largest contribution to the growth, increasing by 8.3%. Other large contributions to the increase came from basic metals and other manufacturing and repair not elsewhere classified, which increased by 4.5% and 3.7% respectively.

So in an, if I may put it this way Trumpton era we find that we are en vogue by boosting manufacturing? We need to dig a little deeper though as pharmaceuticals have had a good 2016 but via a volatile path.

in December 2016 compared with December 2015, total production output increased by 4.3%. All main sectors increased, with the largest contribution provided by manufacturing

They seem a little shy of telling us that manufacturing rose by 4% so let me help out. That was driven by pharmaceuticals being up by 19.1% which illustrates their volatility. This left us with positive numbers for 2016 for both production (1.2%) and manufacturing (0.7%).

If we continue with the good news theme then we have some hope of a further upwards revision to UK GDP for last year. This is the reply I received from our statisticians in what was an excellent service.

IOP and Construction combined have an impact of 0.04%. This is nearly all from IOP. ( @StatsKate )

For newer readers I have little or no faith in the official construction numbers which in the words of Taylor Swift have seen “trouble, trouble,trouble” but for completeness here they are.

Compared with December 2015, construction output increased by 0.6%, the main contribution to this growth came from new housing work.

Trade

Even these had a good news tinge to them this morning.

The UK’s deficit on trade in goods and services was £3.3 billion in December 2016, a narrowing of £0.3 billion, which is contributing to the narrowing in Quarter 4 2016.

So let us look further.

The UK trade deficit on goods and services narrowed to £8.6 billion in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2016, following a sharp widening of the deficit in Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2016; this narrowing was predominantly due to an increase in exports of goods to non-EU countries.

Have UK industry and businesses got the new post EU leave vote vibe? I think that it is too pat a conclusion but we did see this.

there was a much higher quarter-on-quarter growth in exports to non-EU countries in Quarter 4 2016, following a fall in Quarter 3…….Exports of goods to non-EU countries rose by 17.3% to £43.8 billion between Quarter 3 2016 and Quarter 4 2016.

So some of it was a simple rebound.

Comment

Today has seen some rather good news for the UK economy as in spite of a drag from the continuing maintenance of the Buzzard oil field production was pushed higher by strong manufacturing data driven by the pharmaceutical industry. Added to this construction at least did not fall and on a quarterly basis the trade figures were better. So there is upwards pressure on the preliminary GDP report although we cannot say exactly how much yet.

There are two main clouds in our silver lining. These are simply  that we have yet another trade deficit in an extremely long series and some perspective on production.

Since then, both production and manufacturing output have steadily risen but remain well below their level reached in the pre-downturn gross domestic product (GDP) peak in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2008 by 7.6% and 4.2% respectively.

A Bank of England for the 0.0000000000000000000001%

Yesterday saw the announcement that Charlotte Hogg was to be promoted to Deputy Governor and it raised this issue.

Dear Mark Carney does promoting a daughter of a Viscount and a Baroness come under the Bank of England Diversity banner?

It certainly comes under the minority banner as I am no expect on Debretts but do wonder if she is in to coin a phrase, a class of one? Oh and it appears that Kristin Forbes is singing along to “We gotta get out of this place” by Blue Oyster Cult.

So if you hint at an interest-rate rise your current lifespan at the Bank of England appears to be 48 hours!

How many more times can the Bank of England pump up the housing market?

This morning the Monetary Policy Committee meets to make its policy decision although of course us plebs and mere mortals are not told until 12pm tomorrow. What could go wrong from this “improvement”. However what we have is an extraordinarily lax monetary policy driven by yet more forecasting errors by the Bank of England. In a post EU Leave vote panic it cut the official Bank Rate to 0.25% ( so below what Governor Mark Carney had told us was the 0.5% lower bound for it) announced £60 billion of extra UK Gilt buying QE and of course some £10 billion of Corporate Bond QE. The latter was particularly problematic as you see UK companies are often international and thereby issue in Euros and US Dollars meaning that as I pointed out at the time the Bank of England would be a big fish in a small pond. So it bent its criteria.

For example, a company headquartered outside of the UK but employing hundreds of people in the UK and generating sales of £20m in the UK would be considered to make a material contribution to the UK economy.

All of these moves were house price favourable but there was another subsidy provided for the banks that as ever was badged as being for small business lending but was in fact likely to find its way into the housing market. This is the Term Funding Scheme.

The Term Funding Scheme (TFS) is designed to reinforce the transmission of Bank Rate cuts to those interest rates actually faced by households and businesses by providing term funding to banks at rates close to Bank Rate

So far it has provided some £31.37 billion of cheap funding to UK banks, which no doubt will in a “surprise” find its way to the housing market.

Monetary Conditions

Yesterday’s money and credit report from the Bank of England kept us in touch with this.

Broad money, M4 excluding intermediate other financial corporations, increased by £10.9 billion in December (Table A) with positive flows across all sectors.

So the monetary taps remain open with the annual rate of growth of broad money or M4 at 7.2%. Although the amount for households slowed to an annual rate of 5.8% so as time goes by we seem set to see a reduction in the rate of retail sales growth and maybe funds for the housing market. However as we stand the flow continues.

Lending secured on dwellings rose by £3.8 billion in December, the highest flow since March 2016.

Also there seems to be something of a continuing pipeline.

Approvals of loans secured on dwellings for remortgaging continued to rise and at 47,721 were higher than the previous six-month average . Approvals for house purchase were 67,898, broadly in line with recent months.

I don’t blame people for taking advantage of current mortgage deals do you?

Unsecured credit

This continues to be at a high level although there was a dip in December.

Net flows of consumer credit slowed in December to £1.0 billion.

It is true that the monthly growth rate slowed to 0.5% but of course even that would have us with an annual growth rate above 6% but the annual growth rate in unsecured credit was 10.6%. Of this credit card borrowing rose at 8.7% and other unsecured credit rose at 11.6%. I posed a challenge to the Bank of England which I note has been picked up by the Best of Twitter in City-AM today.

Is Andy Haldane available to explain how his Sledgehammer QE has pushed the annual growth rate of UK unsecured credit to 10.6%?

Still I am sure that money flowed to UK businesses.

Loans to non-financial businesses decreased by £2.1 billion in December, compared to the previous six-month average increase of £1.2 billion

Oh well perhaps not then! The Bank of England has tucked away the numbers for smaller businesses after so many disappointments, excuse me “improvements” but it did rise by the grand sum of £200 million. Not a lot when you look at consumer credit is it?

Nationwide House Price Index

This morning’s update has told us this.

0.2% month-on-month rise in January……Annual house price growth broadly stable at 4.3%.

This represents a slight slowing in annual terms from the 4.5% recorded in 2016 overall which intriguingly was the same as for 2015. There was an interesting addendum to the 2016 numbers though.

Price growth in London ended the year below UK average for first time in 8 years.

Can foreign buyers rescue it one more time? I am not so sure as I have pointed out before although the fact that Bitcoin has been rallying again ( US $977 as I type this) means that money is back flowing out of China. The first time buyer house price to earnings ratio in London has dipped slightly but to a rather extraordinary 10.1. The number for the whole country at 5.3 is just below the all time high of 5.4 which came of course just before the credit crunch hit.

Stamp Duty Land Tax

As I have been pointing out regularly in my updates on the UK public finances tax revenues from the housing market have been on something of a tear. Oliver Knight puts it like this.

Residential SDLT receipts in Q4 2016 (c.£2.4bn) nearly matched the £2.8bn collected by HMRC in 2009 as a whole…

The boom continued according to the official HMRC data.

The estimated receipts from residential transactions in Quarter 4 of 2016 are 20% higher than Quarter 4 of 2015. Financial year-to-date for 2016-17, the estimated receipts are 17% higher than the same period in 2015-16.

The additional rate for second homes to capture buy to let lending has led to a revenue boomlet so far as well.

So far in 2016-17 there have been 149,400 transactions of additional properties accounting for £2,319m in total SDLT receipts, of which £1,190m is attributed to the additional 3% element.

Back in 2009 some £2.8 billion was collected from residential transactions whereas last year some £8.3 billion was collected. That is quite a windfall for HM Treasury and another reason for the UK establishment to want this to continue. Also non-residential stamp Duty has been rising too making the total last year some £11.44 billion.

Comment

The Bank of England has deployed pretty much every policy measure it could to help the UK housing market. However it is now at something of an impasse because the rise in inflation should block it for any further easing in 2017. Actually the debate should be around an exit from all the easing but of course it has too much of its thin thread of remaining credibility tied up in the “Sledgehammer” move of August 2016.

Thus it will be meeting today and trying to be positive. As to the housing market I expect the rate of house price growth to dip and soon it will be below consumer inflation. I expect it to go further and see some declines in 2017 especially as we see real wages dip. I noted this earlier which confirms my view, after all anyone who used to watch Stingray or Thunderbirds as a child knows what happens next after a description like this. From Russell Quirk.

Me on the @AskNationwide House Price Index via @ShareRadioUK : ‘A structurally sound market despite all that 2016 threw at it. Bullet proof’

 

 

Inflation is back!

Regular readers will be aware that as 2016 progressed and the price of crude oil did not fall like it did in the latter part of 2015 that a rise in consumer inflation was on the cards pretty much across the world. This would of course be exacerbated in countries with a weak currency against the US Dollar and ameliorated by those with a strong currency. This morning has brought an example of this from a country which I gave some praise to only on Monday so let us investigate.

An inflationary surge in Spain

This mornings data release from the statistics institute INE was eye-catching indeed. Via Google Translate

The estimated annual inflation of the CPI in January 2017 is 3.0%, according to the An advance indicator prepared by INE.This indicator provides an advance of the CPI which, if confirmed, would increase of 1.4 points in its annual rate, since in December this variation was of 1.6%.

Okay and the reason why was no great surprise to us on here.

This increase is mainly explained by the rise in the prices of electricity and The fuels (gasoil and gasoline) in front of the drop that they experienced last year.

So as David Bowie put it they have been putting out fire with gasoline. As we investigate further I note that El Pais labels it as an Ultimate Hora and gives us some more detail.

The agency blames the acceleration of inflation to the rise in electricity prices, which this month has exploded, affecting mainly consumers in the regulated market of light, 46.5% of households, Which pay according to the hourly evolution of electricity prices in the wholesale market.

Actually that sounds ominous in the UK as the National Grid was effectively promising no blackouts yesterday but at the cost of more volatile ( which of course means higher) domestic energy prices. The actual numbers for Spanish consumers are eye-watering.

The average price of the megawatt hour (MWh) in the wholesale electricity market was on January 1, 51.9 euros. This Tuesday, the last day of January, the average price stands at 73.27 euros, 43.4% more. On Wednesday 25, the average stood at 91.88 euros (78.9% more than January 1), with maximums of more than 100 euros for the time stretches with more demand. Consumers receiving the regulated tariff (Voluntary Price for the Small Consumer, PVPC) will see those increases already reflected in their next receipt of light and have already been noted in the CPI, which has registered the highest level for more than four Years,

I guess they must be grateful that this has not been a long cold winter as such prices would have appeared earlier and maybe gone higher. The push higher in the inflation measure was exacerbated by the fact that fuel prices fell this time last year.

Thus, in January 2016, electricity fell by 13% compared to the same month in 2015. The gas price fell at a rate of 15%, while other fuels (diesel for heating, butane …) went down To 19.9%. Finally, the fuel and lubricants registered a year-on-year decrease of 7.1%.

It would seem that El Pais has cottoned onto one of my themes.

 The evolution of oil prices largely explained the behavior of the CPI in Spain. In January of 2016, the oil marked minimums in less than 30 dollars. Now, with the price of a barrel of brent upwards (around 55 dollars), fuels are rising and expenses related to housing are rising: gas, of course, a byproduct, and electricity, which is generated Partly by burning gas.

So far we have looked at Spain’s own CPI but the situation was the same for the official Euro area measure called HICP ( which confusingly is called CPI in the UK) as it rose to an annual rate of 3% as well. This poses an issue for the ECB as El Pais points out.

In any case, inflation is already at levels above the ECB’s target of 2%

Also it points out that Spain will see a reduction in real purchasing power as wage growth is now much lower than inflation.

already at levels that imply a loss of purchasing power for pensioners – the government will only update pensions by 0.25 %, The minimum that marks the law, for officials, whose salaries will not rise above 1%, and the vast majority of wage earners, since the average wage increase agreed in the agreements remained at 1, 06%.

There are also other concerns as to how it may affect Spain’s economic recovery.

As Spanish inflation is above European, the Spanish economy may lose competitiveness, not only because it may affect exports, but also because it may lead to a rise in wages.

Germany

A little more prosaic and also for December and not January but we saw this from Germany yesterday.

The inflation rate in Germany as measured by the consumer price index is expected to be +1.9% in January 2017. A similarly high rate of inflation was last measured in July 2013 (+1.9%).

German consumers will be particularly disappointed to note that the inflation was in essential items such as energy (5.8%) and food (3.2%). Of course central bankers and their media acolytes will rush to call these non-core as we wonder if they sit in the cold and dark without food themselves?!

This poses another problem for the ECB as Germany is now pretty much on its inflation target ( just below 2%) and this morning has also posted good news on unemployment where the rate has fallen to 5.9%.

Euro area

This morning’s headline is this.

Euro area annual inflation is expected to be 1.8% in January 2017, up from 1.1% in December 2016, according to a flash estimate from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.

So a by now familiar surge as we note that it is now in the zone where the ECB can say it is achieving its inflation target. Of course it will look for excuses.

energy is expected to have the highest annual rate in January (8.1%, compared with 2.6% in December), followed by food, alcohol & tobacco (1.7%, compared with 1.2% in December),

Accordingly if you take out the things people really need ( energy and food) the “core” inflation rate falls to 0.9%. But the heat is on now as Glenn Frey would say.

Weetabix

The Financial Times reported this yesterday.

Giles Turrell, chief executive of Weetabix, said on Monday that the company was absorbing the higher cost of dollar denominated wheat but that Weetabix prices were likely to go up later this year by “mid-single digits”.

Sadly the decline of the FT continues as the “may” is reported in the headline as “Weetabix prices hiked” . The Guardian was much fairer although this bit raised a smile.

Although the company harvests wheat in Northamptonshire, it is sold in US dollars on global markets, meaning the cost in pounds to buy wheat in the UK has gone up.

Comment

It is hard not to have a wry smile as it was not that long ago in 2016 that the consensus was that inflation is dead and of course before that the “deflation nutters” were in full cry. Any news from them today? Of course the official mantra will be on the lines of this as reported by DailyFX.

ECB’s Villeroy says concerns about rising inflation are exaggerated.

What was that about never believing anything until it is officially denied? It was only yesterday that another ECB board member was informing us that there would be no change in monetary policy for 6 months when today’s inflation and GDP data suggests it is already behind the curve, as I pointed out on the 19th of this month. Although as ever Italy ( unemployment rising to 12%) is lagging behind. As Livesquawk points out not everyone has got the memo.

Spanish EconMin deGuindos: Inflationary Trend In Europe Could Lead To Tightening Of MonPol, Higher Interest Rates

So we see a problem and whilst some of the move in Spain is particular to one month it is also true that the pattern has changed now and so should the response of the ECB as it looks forwards.

UK National Statistician

Thank you to John Pullinger for meeting a group of inflation specialists including me at the Royal Statistical Society last Wednesday. I was pleased to point out that his letter to the Guardian of a week ago made in my opinion a case for using real numbers for owner-occupied housing such as house prices and mortgage-rates as opposed to the intended use of an imputed number such as Rental Equivalence. This will be more important when the UK makes the changes planned for March. Here is the section of his letter which I quoted.

And there is a real yearning for trustworthy analysis that deals with both the inherent biases in many data sources and also the vested interests of many who try to cloak their own opinions and prejudices as “killer facts”.

 

 

 

 

 

The recent economic success of Spain makes a refreshing change

Back in the days of the Euro area crisis Spain found itself being sucked into the whirlpool. The main driver here was its housing market and the way that it had seen an enormous boom which turned to dust. Pick your theme as to whether you prefer empty towns or an airport that was never used. If we look back to my post yesterday on GDP I immediately find myself thinking that developments which are never used should be counted in a separate category. Of course the housing problems also caused trouble for the Spanish banks.

GDP

We do not yet have the data for the latest quarter but in recent times short-term forecasts by the Bank of Spain have been pretty accurate.

In Spain, economic activity has continued to post a high rate of increase in recent months. Specifically, in Q4, GDP is expected to have grown by 0.7%, unchanged on the rate observed in Q3 (see Chart 1) and underpinned by the strength of domestic spending.

We do have a link in that Spain seems to follow the pattern of the UK economy more than many of its Euro area neighbours and hence there might be for once some logic in using the same currency. But the main point is that such growth would continue what has been a much better phase for Spain. This meant that the official data for the third quarter told us this.

 Growth in relation to the same quarter of the previous year stood at 3.2%,

If we look back we see that the Spanish economy was hit hard by the initial impact of the credit crunch with the peak quarterly contraction being of the order of 1.5% of GDP. Then the economy bounced back but was then sent into decline as the Euro area crisis raged and quarterly economic growth did not turn positive again until 2013 moved in to 2014. However since then economic growth has been strong. If the fourth quarter does turn out to be 0.7% then it will follow 0.7%, 0.8%,0.8%,0.8%,0.9%,0.8% and 1%. Maybe a minor fading but I think that would be harsh on a country which has put in a strong performance.

If we look back for some perspective then let us compare with what sadly is often the laggard which is Italy. From Spain’s Royal Institute.

the contrast between cumulative growths is significant: 50% since 1997 in Spain versus 10% in Italy. Moreover, according to EU forecasts, in 2018 Spain will surpass Italy in per capita GDP (in PPP terms) for the first time ever.

Employment

The Euro area crisis has been characterised by high levels of unemployment so it was nice to see this in the GDP report of Spain.

In annual terms, employment increases at a rate of 2.9%, one tenth more than in The second quarter, which represents an increase of 499 thousand jobs
Equivalent to full-time in one year.

Yesterday we got a further update on this front from Spain’s statistics agency.

Employment has grown in 413,900 people in the last 12 months. The annual rate is 2.29%……….In the last year employment has risen in all sectors: in the Services there are 240,400 more occupied, in Industry 115,700, in Agriculture 37,000 and in Construction 20,800.

Not everything was perfect as the numbers dipped by 19,400 on a quarterly basis but overall the performance has been such that we can report this.

The number of unemployed falls this quarter in 83,000 people (-1.92%) and is in 4,237,800. In seasonally adjusted terms, the quarterly variation is -3.78%. In The last 12 months unemployment has decreased by 541,700 people (-11.33%).

Or if you prefer.

The unemployment rate stands at 18.63%, which is 28 cents lower than in The previous quarter. In the last year this rate has fallen by 2.26 points.

So we have a ying of lower unemployment combined with a yang of the fact that it is still high. If we return to the comparison with Italy then according to the Royal Institute the situation is better than it first appears to be.

From 1990 to 2014 female participation has risen from 34% to 53% in Spain and from 35% to only 40% in Italy (seeWorld Bank data). Hence, although there is a much lower unemployment rate in Italy, the latter’s inactivity rate is much higher than Spain’s.

The other point I would make is that whilst it is pleasing that Spain is creating more jobs the fact that the growth rate in them is similar to the economic growth means that it too will have its productivity worries.

Looking ahead

The Bank of Spain is reasonably optimistic in its latest Bulletin.

Hence, after standing in 2016 at 3.2% (the same rate as that observed a year earlier), average GDP growth is expected to ease to 2.5% in 2017 (see Table 1). In 2018 and 2019, the estimated increase in output would stand at 2.1% and 2%, respectively.

As to the private-sector business surveys Markit tells us this about services.

Rate of expansion in activity remains marked in December

And this about manufacturing.

The Spanish manufacturing PMI signalled that the sector ended 2016 on a high, with growth back at the levels seen at the start of the year.

Fiscal Position

The situation here has been summed up by El Pais this morning like this.

After missing its deficit targets for five straight years, Spain on Thursday made a commitment in Brussels to make additional adjustments “if necessary.”

If you look at its economic performance you might be wondering if Spain got it right although of course that is far from the only issue at hand. The current state of play is shown below.

Spain believes that the tax hikes slapped on companies, alcohol, tobacco and sugary drinks, as well as rises in a range of green taxes – together with strong economic growth – will be enough to keep the deficit at 3.1% of GDP. But Brussels is forecasting 3.3% instead.

If we move to the national debt it is in the awkward situation it has breached the 100% of GDP barrier. The reason this is awkward is that as described Spain has seen good levels of economic growth and the ECB has bought a lot of Spanish government debt keeping debt costs relatively low. It has bought some 150.3 billion Euros worth so far as of the end of last week and the ten-year yield is at 1.6% meaning that in spite of recent rises debt costs are very low. Thus the ratio has risen at a time when two favourable winds have been blowing in Spain.

House Prices

As this was a signal last time I can report that as of the end of the third quarter they were rising at an annual rate of 4% so relatively moderate by past standards. However as the last quarter of 2015 saw a quarterly 0% this seems set to rise. Price rises may also be capped by the fact that the bad bank Sareb is selling off some of the stock that it inherited ( believed to be around 105,000 homes). Mind you there does appear to be considerable rental inflation if this from The Spanish Brick is any guide.

The price of rental dwellings has increased in Spain by 5.8% during the second quarter of 2016, being the price of the square meter 7.8 euros per month. On an inter-annual rate, it is an 8.5% increase, according to the main property portal in Spain. ( BankInter)

Comment

There has been plenty of good economic news for Spain in recent times and we should welcome that. After all it makes a nice change from the many down beat stories that are around. But if we use the phrase “escape velocity” so beloved of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney we see that work remains to be done. If we look back and set 2010 at 100 then GDP peaked at 104.4 in the second quarter of 2008 but only reached 102.4 in the third quarter of 2016 so another just under 2% is required to scale the previous peak. Spain will need to do that relatively quickly to prevent a type of “lost decade” but even as it does so, which I expect it to do it then looks back on a decade which overall has been a road to nowhere overall.

Should Spain continue to follow the British economic pattern then worries for the UK of rising inflation affecting the economy may have a knock-on effect. As to literal links the UK Office for National Statistics has helped out a little today.

Spain is host to the largest number of British citizens living in the EU (308,805); just over a third (101,045) of British citizens living in Spain are aged 65 years and over.

Of China, Bitcoin, football and innovative finance

This week was one when those who consider themselves to be the world’s elite wanted us to concentrate on events at the World Economic Forum in Davos. However this has gone rather wrong for them as the main news items this week turned out to be the Brexit speech given by Prime Minister May in the UK and of course the inauguration of Donald Trump as the new US President later today. These matters were referred to in Davos as George Soros explained how his profit and loss account would have been so much better except for those pesky voters in the UK and US. Bow down mortals, was the message there. The “open society” he proclaims seems to mean being open to agreeing with him.

China

We have found ourselves looking East quite a few times in 2017 and this morning we saw another instance of a thought-provoking action. From Ioan Smith.

| has cut RRR 1% at Big 5 banks HAS CUT RRR BY 1% temporarily to ease “seasonal liquidity pressure” – source

So the People’s Bank of China has eased pressure in the monetary system by reducing the amount of reserves the big banks need to hold. Reuters has given us more detail on this.

The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has cut the reserve requirement ratio (RRR) for the banks by one percentage point, taking the ratio down to 16 percent.It will restore their RRR to the normal level at an appropriate time after the holiday, according to sources……….The five biggest lenders are Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd (ICBC), China Construction Bank Corp (CCB), Bank of China, Bank of Communications Co (BoCom) and Agricultural Bank of China.

 

This adds to other moves on the monetary system as I explained on the 5th of this month.

China’s efforts to choke capital outflows are beginning to pay off, with the offshore yuan surging the most on record as traders scrambled for a currency that’s becoming increasingly scarce outside the nation’s borders.

We have seen signs of this in two areas since. The first was the collapse in the price of Bitcoin as China applied capital controls. There has been more news about this in the last 24 hours. From the Wall Street Journal.

Chinese banking regulators said two bitcoin exchanges in Beijing improperly engaged in margin financing and failed to impose controls to prevent money laundering, a development that could hurt trading of the virtual currency in its biggest market.

The action by China’s central bank signals heightened government scrutiny of bitcoin trading on the mainland, which has been allowed to expand largely unfettered since 2013.

This chart of Bitcoin volumes is quite something.

As ever there is debate about the exact numbers but I think we get the idea.

Also we have seen it in the world of football where after two extraordinary trades where £60 million was supposedly paid for Oscar and Carlos Tevez is being paid around £1 per second. Yet suddenly limits on foreign players suddenly were tightened and as a Chelsea fan I was very grateful for that! Plenty of food for thought there for Roman Abramovich as in essence football was how he got plenty of money outside Russia.

GDP

This morning the Financial Times tells us this.

China’s gross domestic product, the world’s second-largest in nominal terms but already the largest at purchasing power parity, grew 6.7 per cent for the full year and at an annual rate of 6.8 per cent in the fourth quarter in real terms, down from 6.9 per cent in 2015. It was the slowest full-year growth figure since 1990 but comfortably within the government’s target range of 6.5-7 per cent. The fourth-quarter performance topped economists’ expectations of 6.7 per cent, according to a Reuters poll.

It is extraordinary how quickly they come up with their GDP numbers, it is almost as if they make them up. This of course is a counterpoint to headlines of the number being a “beat”. I also note that China seems to have learned something from the western capitalist imperialists.

But housing was a bright spot. Property sales grew 22.5 per cent in floor-area terms, the fastest pace in seven-years, while prices in major cities soared, prompting warnings of a bubble. Analysts expect the housing market to slow in 2016, as the government moves to cap runaway house prices that are a source of popular anger.

That is an issue that has caused plenty of trouble in western countries. Also I see one economist has had a bad day.

“The excess money supply in 2016 created problems with bubbles. Going forward, more deleveraging will be necessary. Monetary policy can’t be loosened further,” said Zhang Yiping, economist at China Merchants Securities in Beijing.

Industrial Production and Retail Sales

The first was extraordinary and yet also represents a slow down. From Investing.com.

In a report, National Bureau of Statistics of China said that Chinese Industrial Production fell to 6.0%, from 6.2% in the preceding month.

Many countries would give their right arm for industrial production growth like that but for China the noticeable fact is that it is now less than GDP growth. Meanwhile the economy seems to have shifted towards consumption

In a report, National Bureau of Statistics of China said that Chinese Retail Sales rose to an annual rate of 10.9%, from 10.8% in the preceding month.

The rest of the world would quite like China to make such a switch as it would reduce its trade surplus but can it manage it?

Financial Innovation

We have come to be very nervous of the word innovation after its use by Irish financiers. But take a look at this from the South China Morning Post last week.

Step one: Pledge a mainland asset with a mainland bank for a standby letter of credit (SBLC) which is a promise by the bank to pay. Use the SBLC to get a HK$8.8 billion loan in Hong Kong.

Since it’s a deal to pay off a piece of land publicly auctioned by the Hong Kong government, approval from the mainland regulators will be easy.

Step two: Pledge the Kai Tak land with the banks in Hong Kong. Many may find the bid – 70 per cent above market estimate – rather risky. Yet, it won’t be too difficult to find banks to provide a HK$3 billion loan which is only 40 per cent of the land cost.

Step three: Pledge the HK$3 billion cash with a bank in Hong Kong for a SBLC.

Step four: Use the second SBLC as security at a mainland financial institution to purchase debentures and bonds with annual returns of over 6 per cent or above.

Step five: Pledge the HK$3 billion worth of debentures with mainland banks for another SBLC. Given a routine discount of 30 per cent for financial products, the bank will issue a promise to pay HK$2 billion.

Step six: Use the third SBLC as collateral and get a HK$2 billion loan in Hong Kong. Repeat step three to five and so on so forth.

These steps may sound a bit complicated. But in many cases, these steps are all done among the mainland and Hong Kong branches of the same bank, though occasionally several banks are involved to dodge regulatory hurdles.

By the end of it you can “have” up to 25 billion Hong Kong Dollars of which 14 billion have left China.

Comment

As you can see there is much to mull about China as for example we have a wry smile at this week’s claim at Davos that it is all for free trade. On the surface we are told that everything is fine yet beneath it there is ever more debt and a rush to send money abroad. Later this year the Yuan is likely to fall again and the whole cycle will begin again.

Later we will find out a little of what President Trump plans so it could be quite a day. We already seem to have moved from fiscal stimulus to cuts as we await some concrete policies.

 

UK real wage growth is even worse if you factor in house price growth

After yesterday’s higher inflation data and it was across the board as the annual rate of hose price inflation increased as well we move to the labour market today and in particular wages. Unless we see a surge in wage growth in the UK real wages are set to fade and then go into decline this year but before we get to them we have another source of comparison. Something which immediately has us on alert as it will cheer the Bank of England.

Wealth

This is what the Bank of England would call this from the Financial Times today.

The value of all the homes in the UK has reached a record £6.8tn, nearly one-and-a-half times the value of all the companies on the London Stock Exchange. A rapid rise in the value of the housing stock, which has increased by £1.5tn in the past three years, has created an unprecedented store of wealth for Londoners, over-50s and landlords, according to an analysis by Savills, the estate agency group.

It will be slapping itself on the back for the success of its Funding for (Mortgage) Lending Scheme or FLS which officially was supposed to boost bank lending to smaller businesses but of course was in reality to subsidise bank property lending.  The FLS does not get much publicity now but there is still some £61 billion of it around as of the last quarterly update, since when some has no doubt been rolled into the new Term Funding Scheme. Oh yes there is always a new bank subsidy scheme on the cards.

Whilst the Bank of England will continue to like the next bit those with any sort of independent mind will start to think “hang on”.

As well as rising sharply in nominal terms, housing wealth has grown in relation to the size of the economy: it was equivalent to 1.6 times Britain’s gross domestic product in 2001, rising to 3.3 times in 2007 and 3.7 times in 2016.

Only on Tuesday night Governor Carney was lauded for his work on “distributional issues” but here is a case of something he and the Bank of England have contributed to which is a transfer from first time buyers and those climbing the property ladder to those who own property.

If we move to wages then the UK average is still around 6% below the previous peak which poses a question immediately for the wealth gains claimed above. Indeed last November the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested this.

Britons face more than a decade of lost wage growth and will earn no more by 2021 than they did in 2008 ( Financial Times).

There has been an enormous divergence here where claimed housing wealth has soared whilst real wages have in fact fallen. That is not healthy especially as the main age group which has gained has benefited in other areas as well.

The income of those aged 60 and over was 11 per cent higher in 2014 than in 2007. In contrast, the income of households aged 22-30 in 2014 was still 7 per cent below its 2007 level. The average income of households aged 31-59 was the same in 2014 as in 2007.

As an aside some of the property numbers are really rather extraordinary.

The value of homes in London and south-east England has topped £3tn for the first time, meaning almost half the total is accounted for by a quarter of UK dwellings. This concentration of wealth is most evident in the richest London boroughs, Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea, where housing stock adds up to £232bn, more than all of the homes in Wales, according to analysis based on official data.

Another shift was something I noted yesterday which was the fall in house prices seen in Northern Ireland where wealth under this measure has declined sharply. Has that influenced its political problems? However you look at it there has been a regional switch with London and the South-East gaining. Also there is a worrying sign for UK cricketer Jimmy Anderson or the “Burnley Lara”.

Likewise, homes in Burnley, Lancashire, declined in value over five years, even as most of the UK market boomed.

One area where care is needed with these wealth numbers is that a marginal price ( the last sale for example) is used to value a whole stock which is unrealistic.Before I move on there is another distributional effect at play although the effect here is on incomes rather than wages as Paul Lewis reminds us.

As inflation rises to 1.6%/2.5% the policy of freezing working age benefits for four years becomes less and less sustainable.

Before we move on the Resolution Foundation has provided us with a chart of the nominal as in not adjusted for inflation figures.

 

Today’s Data

The crucial number showed a welcome sign of improvement.

Average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain in nominal terms (that is, not adjusted for price inflation) increased by 2.8% including bonuses and by 2.7% excluding bonuses compared with a year earlier……average total pay (including bonuses) for employees in Great Britain was £509 per week before tax and other deductions from pay, up from £495 per week for a year earlier

So a pick-up on the period before of 0.2% and at we retain some real wage growth which helps to explain the persistently strong retail sales data.

Comparing the 3 months to November 2016 with the same period in 2015, real AWE (total pay) grew by 1.8%, which was 0.1 percentage points larger than the growth seen in the 3 months to October. Nominal AWE (total pay) grew by 2.8% in the 3 months to November 2016, while the CPI increased by 1.2% in the year to November.

There is obviously some rounding in the numbers above and the inflation measure used is around 1% lower than the RPI these days.

If we move to the detail we see that average earning also rose by 2.8% annually in the year to the month of November alone and the areas driving it were construction (5%) and wholesale and retail (4.2%). Sadly the construction numbers look like they might be fading as they were 8.8% but the UK overall has just seen tow strong months with 2.9% overall wage growth in October being followed by 2.8% in November.

Employment and Unemployment

The quantity numbers continue their strong trend.

There were 31.80 million people in work, little changed compared with June to August 2016 but 294,000 more than for a year earlier…….There were 1.60 million unemployed people (people not in work but seeking and available to work), 52,000 fewer than for June to August 2016 and 81,000 fewer than for a year earlier.

The next number might be good or bad.

Total hours worked per week were 1.02 billion for September to November 2016. This was 1.2 million fewer than for June to August 2016 but 4.8 million more than for a year earlier.

The fall may be troubling but as the economy grew over this period ( if the signals we have are accurate) might represent an improvement in productivity.

It is nice that the claimant count fell in December “10,100 fewer than for November 2016” but I am unsure as to what that really tells us.

Comment

We have seen today some good news which is a pick-up in the UK official wages data. This will help real wages although sadly seems likely to be small relative to the inflation rise which is on its way. However if we widen our definition of real wages we see that the credit crunch era has brought quite a problem. This is that the claimed “wealth effects” from much higher house prices make them look ever higher in real terms as we return to the argument as to how much of the rise is economic growth and how much inflation.

My view is that much of this is inflationary and that once we allow for this then we start to wonder how much of an economic recovery we have seen in reality as opposed to the official pronouncements.

Also we have my regular monthly reminder that the wages figures exclude the self-employed and indeed smaller businesses.