Italy continues to see features of an economic depression

Today gives us an opportunity to compare economic and financial market developments in Italy as this week has brought some which are really rather extraordinary. Let us start with the economics and look at the IMF ( International Monetary Fund ) mission statement yesterday.

Real GDP growth in 2019 is estimated at 0.2 percent, down from a 10-year high of 1.7 percent in 2017.

As you can see they are agreeing with my theme that Italy struggles to sustain any rate of economic growth above 1% per annum. Then they also agree with my “Girlfriend in a Coma” theme as well.

 Real personal incomes remain about 7 percent below the pre-crisis (2007) peak and continue to fall behind euro area peers. Despite record employment rates, unemployment is high at close to 10 percent, with much higher rates in the South and among the youth. Female workforce participation is the lowest in the EU.

The real income situation is particularly damning of the economic position especially if we note that unemployment has continued to be elevated. That brings us back to the economic growth not getting above 1% for long enough for unemployment to fall faster.

What about now?

The IMF has a go at saying things will get better but then lapses into the classic quote of a two-handed economist.

The economic situation is projected to improve modestly but is subject to downside risks.

So let us see if the detail does better than it might go up or down?

Real GDP growth is forecast at ½ percent in 2020 and 0.6-0.7 percent thereafter. These forecasts are the lowest in the EU, reflecting weak potential growth. Materialization of adverse shocks, such as escalating trade tensions, a slowdown in key trading partners or geopolitical events, could lead to a much weaker outlook.

As you can see there is not much growth which frankly in measurement terms would take several years even to cover any margin of error. I also note a rather grim ending as the IMF maybe gives us its true view “could lead to a much weaker outlook.” Another slow down or recession would be a real problem as we note again that real personal incomes are 7% lower than before. If that is/was the peak then how long will this economic depression go on?

The Euro zone

If we look wider for en economic influence the news is not that good either. For example the situation from the overall flash Markit PMI business survey was this.

The ‘flash’ IHS Markit Eurozone Composite PMI®
was unchanged at 50.9 in January, signalling a
further muted increase in activity across the euro
area economy. The rate of expansion has remained
broadly stable since the start of the final quarter of
2019, running at the weakest for around six-and-ahalf years.

If we now move to my signal for near-term economic developments the ECB told us this yesterday.

Annual growth rate of narrower monetary aggregate M1, comprising currency in circulation and overnight deposits, decreased to 8.0% in December from 8.3% in November.

The money supply situation had improved in 2019 but as you can dipped at the end. So the impetus is weaker than it was. In case you are wondering we have seen this before in phases of QE which is currently 20 billion Euros a month and thus boosting the numbers. There are other influences as well.

The broader money supply had a sharper fall and represents the outlook for 2021/22.

The annual growth rate of the broad monetary aggregate M3 decreased to 5.0% in December 2019 from 5.6% in November, averaging 5.4% in the three months up to December.

We will have to see if this is a new development or just a financial market glitch.

The annual growth rate of marketable instruments (M3-M2) was -7.2% in December, compared with -1.1% in November.

Back to Italy

The troubled area across much of the world is the industrial sector and the latest we have on that is this from the Italian statistics office.

The seasonally adjusted volume turnover index (only for the manufacturing sector) remained unchanged
compared to the previous month; the average of the last three months increased by 0.3% compared to
the previous three months. The calendar adjusted volume turnover index increased by 0.2% with respect
to the same month of the previous year. ( November )

This morning there was troubling news for those of us who have noted that employment has often been a leading ( as opposed to the economics 101 view of lagging) indicator in the credit crunch era.

The estimate of employed people decreased (-0.3%, -75 thousand); the employment rate went down to
59.2% (-0.1 percentage points).
The fall of employment concerned both men and women. A rise is observed among 15-24 aged people (+6
thousand), people aged 25-49 decreased (-79 thousand), while people over 50 remained stable.

This meant that if we look for some perspective progress seems to have stopped.

In the fourth quarter 2019, in comparison with the previous one, a slight increase of employment is registered (+0.1%, +13 thousand) and it concerned only women.

We will have to see if that continues as we worry about possible implications for this.

The number of unemployed persons slightly grew (+0.1%, +2 thousand in the last month); the increase
was the result of a growth among men (+2.2%, +28 thousand) and a decrease for women (-2.2%, -27
thousand), and involved people under 50. The unemployment rate remained stable at 9.8%, as also the
youth rate, unchanged at 28.9%.

Italian bond market

If we return to the IMF statement the story starts badly.

 Italy needs credible medium-term consolidation as fiscal space remains at risk.Debt is projected to remain high at close to 135 percent of GDP over the medium term and to increase in the longer term owing to pension spending. If adverse shocks were to materialize, debt would rise sooner and faster.

Somehow in the current economic environment the IMF seems to think that more austerity would be a good idea. Amazing really!

But this week has in fact seen this.

Massive, massive move in #Italy’s 10-year bond yield from 1.44% to 0.95% now. A 50 basis point move in a matter of days party driven by a #Salvini right-wing loss in regional elections. ( @jeroenblokland ) 

These days almost whatever the fiscal arithmetic we see that investors are so desperate for yield they will buy anything and hope the central bank will step up and buy it off them for a profit. Just as a reminder back around 2012 the yield went above 7% on fears the fiscal position suggested Italy was insolvent which of course were self-fulfilling as a yield of 7% made sure it was. But apart from QE what is really different now?

Comment

The depth of the problem is highlighted by this from the IMF.

Steadfast implementation of structural reforms would unlock Italy’s potential and durably improve outcomes. Reforms to liberalize markets and decentralize wage bargaining should be prioritized. They are estimated to yield real income gains of about 6-7 percent of GDP over a decade.

That’s a convenient number isn’t it? But the real issue is that this is a repetition of the remarks at the ECB press conference which are repeated every time. Why? Nothing ever happens.

The longer the economic depression goes on then the demographics become a bigger issue.

The number of births continues to decrease: in 2018, 439,747 children were registered in the General Register Office, over 18,000 less than the previous year and almost 140,000 less than 2008.

The persistent decline in the birthrate has an impact above all on the firstborn children, who decreased to 204,883, 79 thousand less than 2008.

Italy is a lovely country but the economics is an example of keep trying to apply the things that have consistently failed.

The Investing Channel

 

 

 

Japan gets paid to issue debt and yet it has just tightened its fiscal policy!

Today I am looking east to the country which is hosting the rugby world cup and let me congratulate them on their victory over Ireland. But there is another area where Japan is currently standing out and that is the arena of fiscal policy. The current establishment view is that it is time that fiscal policy took up the slack after years and indeed in Japan’s case decades of easy monetary policy. One feature of that type of thought is seen by the cheapness of public borrowing in Japan where the ten-year yield is -0.22% and the thirty-year is a mere 0.35%. So Japan is either paying very little or being paid to borrow right now.

Consumption Tax

Last week it did this.

After twice being postponed by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the consumption tax on Tuesday will rise to 10 percent from 8 percent, with the government maintaining that the increased burden on consumers is essential to boost social welfare programs and reduce the swelling national debt. ( The Japan Times )

This is an odd move when we note the current malaise in the world economy which just gets worse as we note the fact that the Pacific region in particular is suffering. We looked at one facet of this last week as Australia cut interest-rates for the third time since the beginning of the summer.

Things get complex as we note that there are offsetting measures.

The 2 percentage point boost is estimated to inflict about a ¥5.7 trillion burden on households. However, making preschool education free of charge, keeping the 8 percent rate for food and nonalcoholic beverages and beefing up social welfare are expected to lessen that burden to around ¥2 trillion — about a quarter of the ¥8 trillion cost of the 2014 hike, according to the government and the Bank of Japan. ( The Japan Times )

As you can see this takes away a lot of the point of making the change in the first place! According to the government the net effect will be a bit more than a third of the gross. Also it means the government interfering in more areas leafing to transfers of cash from one group to another. Now whilst free preschool education is welcome we have seen extraordinary transfers in the credit crunch era via policies such as negative interest-rates and QE bond buying.

As ever the numbers seem in doubt as NHK News thinks the impact will be larger.

Half the revenue will be spent on making preschool education and childcare free of charge, easing the financial burden of higher education, among other things. The rest will go to restoring the country’s fiscal health.

The economic impact

The very next day Japan’s Cabinet Office released this bombshell.

The Consumer Confidence Index (seasonally adjusted series) in September 2019 was 35.6, down 1.5 points from the previous month.

The Japan Times covered it like this.

A Cabinet Office survey showed earlier this week that consumer sentiment in Japan weakened for the 12th straight month in September, hitting its lowest since the survey started in April 2013……….The index was lower than the 37.1 marked during the first stage of the hike in April 2014.

The last sentence is especially ominous if we consider the impact of the 2014 Consumption Tax rise. If we return to the survey we see from the series that it has been falling since some readings above 44 in late 2017 and the fall has been accelerating. In terms of detail there is this.

Overall livelihood: 33.9 (down 0.9 from the previous month)
Income growth: 38.7 (down 0.8 from the previous month)
Employment: 41.5 (down 0.7 from the previous month)
Willingness to buy durable goods: 28.1 (down 3.6 from the previous month)

So all elements fell and the employment one is particularly significant when we note this.

 The number of unemployed persons in August 2019 was 1.57 million, a decrease of 130 thousand or 7.6% from the previous year…..  The unemployment rate, seasonally adjusted, was 2.2%. ( Japan Statistics Bureau )

As an aside this makes the various natural and equilibrium levels of unemployment look laughable. For newer readers that is demonstrated by the Bank of England thinking it is 4.25% when Japan has an unemployment rate around half that.

This morning has brought news that things have gone from bad to worse.

TOKYO (Reuters) – A key Japanese economic index fell in August and the government on Monday downgraded its view to “worsening”, indicating the export-reliant economy might face slipping into recession.

The outlook was mostly driven by this.

The separate index for leading economic indicators, a gauge of the economy a few months ahead that’s compiled using data such as job offers and consumer sentiment, dropped 2.0 points from July, the Cabinet Office said.

Fiscal Policy

The other side of this particular coin was illustrated by the response of Fitch Ratings to the Consumption Tax hike.

Japan’s consumption tax hike supports medium-term fiscal consolidation efforts, and the country’s sovereign credit profile, Fitch Ratings says. We estimate it will lower Japan’s debt ratio by about 8pp of GDP by 2028; however, very high public debt will remain a key credit weakness.

They further crunched the fiscal numbers here.

Total annual revenue from the tax hike is estimated by the government at about 1% of GDP, half of which is earmarked to reduce debt (the remainder will be used to permanently increase spending for education and long-term care). This would result in Japan’s gross general government debt-to-GDP ratio falling to just over 220% by 2028, from 232% at present.

It hardly seems worth it when it is put like that. Also perhaps unwittingly they let the cat out of the bag as to why Abenomics is so keen on raising the level of inflation.

We estimate that Japan’s public debt dynamics have stabilised due to the resumption of nominal GDP growth in recent years.

Nominal GDP growth includes inflation.

Comment

This is a story with several facets so let us open with the driving force of this which was the IMF or International Monetary Fund and the case it made in the earlier part of this decade for Japan to improve its national debt to GDP ratio. Here is the IMF Blog after the 2014 Consumption Tax rise.

Japan’s GDP declined by almost 7 percent in the second quarter, more than many had forecast including us here at the IMF.  Many cite the increase in the sales tax this April for this decline.  But that is not the full story.

That opening suggests there were other reasons for the fall but fails to state them as it then discusses general rather than specific issues. Oh and it does not day but it means annualised fall in GDP. The impact was so great that the 2015 rise was delayed to now rather ironically because of the recession risk. What it means is that Japan ends up doing this at a very risky time if we look at the world economic outlook.

We now find also that IMF fiscal conservatism is being applied just as it has switched to expansionism. That is quite a mess! No wonder Christine Lagarde shot out of the door. After all Japan can borrow quite cheaply mostly due to the fact that The Tokyo Whale ( Bank of Japan for newer readers ) owns so much of it. The IMF has just published a Working Paper on this so let me give you some numbers from 2017.

As shown in the Fiscal Monitor, Japan’s PSBS stands out as one of the largest PSBS in the world, with assets and liabilities of 533 percent of GDP in 2017. Japan’s
PSBS also includes cross-holdings of assets and liabilities within the public sector, exceeding 210 percent of GDP in 2017—the largest in the IMF’s PSBS database. Much of these come from public corporations’ financing of central government liabilities. ( PSBS = Public Sector Balance Sheet)

Next let me help the author out as the situation below is explained by world wide trends accompanied thsi decade by the enormous purchases of The Tokyo Whale.

Several previous studies considered it puzzling that the stock of Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) has been increasing but their yields have been declining
for the last three decades.

Next we get a higher estimate for the national debt.

However, these may not fully explain why Japan has been able to build up 288 percent of GDP in public sector borrowing.

Also it is not only The Tokyo Whale that has bought this.

In 2017, the public sector finances 150 percent of GDP of public sector borrowing,

In some ways it has been buying off other parts of the public-sector.

For example, the Post Bank
reduced allocations to public sector financing from 95 percent of its total assets at its peak in
1998 to 33 percent in 2017. The social security funds also reduced asset allocations to public
sector financing from 77 percent at its peak in 1998 to 34 percent in 2017.

Oh what a tangled web we weave……

Meanwhile it would appear that even extraordinary fiscal expansionism has not done much good.

Borrowing of general government ballooned in the 1990s and 2000s. It was 60 percent of GDP in 1990 and
increased to 226 percent of GDP in 2017.

The ordinary Japanese may have a job but real wages are falling again and fell at an annual rate of 1.7% in August.

Podcast

 

 

Christine Lagarde has left another economic disaster behind her in Argentina

One of the rules of modern life is that the higher up the chain you are or as Yes Prime Minster put it “the greasy pole” the less responsible you are for anything. A clear example of that is currently Christine Lagarde who is on here way to becoming the next President of the European Central Bank and found her competence being praised to the heavens in some quarters. Yet the largest ever IMF programme she left behind continues to fold like a deckchair. From the Argentina central bank or BCRA this morning via Google Translate.

Measures to protect exchange-rate stability and the saver

There are two immediate perspectives. The first is that we need to translate the announcement which suggests as a minimum a modicum of embarrassment. Next when central banks tell you that you are being protected it is time to think of the strap line of the film The Fly.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Let us look at the detail.

The measure establishes that exporters of goods and services must liquidate their foreign exchange earnings in the local market……Resident legal entities may purchase foreign currency without restrictions for the importation or payment of debts upon expiration, but they will need compliance from the Central Bank of the Argentine Republic to purchase foreign exchange for the formation of external assets, for the precancelation of debts, to turn abroad profits and dividends and make transfers abroad.

So some restrictions on businesses and here are the ones on the public.

Humans will not have any limitations to buy up to USD 10,000 per month and will need authorization to buy amounts greater than that amount. Transactions that exceed USD 1,000 must be made with a debit to an account in pesos, since they cannot be carried out in cash. Nor will it be allowed to transfer funds from accounts abroad of more than USD 10,000 per person per month. Except between accounts of the same owner: in this case there will be no limitations.

If you are not Argentinian then the noose is a fair bit tighter.

Non-resident human and legal persons may purchase up to USD 1,000 per month and may not transfer funds from dollar accounts abroad.

What about the debt?

We need a bit of reprogramming here after all it has been party-time for bondholders in most of the world. However as Reuters points out not in Argentina.

Standard & Poors announced on Thursday that it was slashing Argentina’s long-term credit rating another three notches into the deepest area of junk debt, saying the government’s plan to “unilaterally” extend maturities had triggered a brief default. The ratings agency said it would consider Argentina’s long-term foreign and local currency issue ratings as CCC- “vulnerable to nonpayment” – starting on Friday following the government’s Wednesday announcement that it wants to “re-profile” some $100 billion in debt.

That’s more than a bit awkward for those who bought the 100 year bond which was issued in 2017. It was also rather difficult for the IMF which seems to have found itself in quicksand.

By the time Treasury Minister Hernan Lacunza said on Wednesday that the government wanted to extend maturities of short-term debt, and would negotiate new time periods for loans to be paid back to the International Monetary Fund, a debt revamp was already widely expected.

We will have to see how the century ( now 98 year ) bond does but after being issued at 85 it traded at 38 last week. In a sign of the times even the benchmark bond which in theory pays back 100 in 2028 did this.

The January 2028 benchmark briefly dropped under 40 cents for the first time ever before edging up to trade at 40.3.

For perspective Austria also issued a century bond at a similar time and traded at 202 last week.

The Peso

Back on August 12th I pointed out that it took 48.5 Pesos to buy a single US Dollar ahead of the official opening. Things went from bad to worse after the official opening with the currency falling into the mid-50s in a volatile market. On Friday it closed at 59.5 and that was after this.

The central bank has burnt through nearly $1 billion in reserves since Wednesday in an effort to prop up the peso. But the intervention did not have the desired impact and risk spreads blew out to levels not seen since 2005, while the local peso currency extended its year-to-date swoon to 36%. ( Reuters ).

If we stay with the issue of reserves I note that the BCRA itself tells us that as of last Wednesday it had US $57 billion left as opposed to this from my post on August 12th.

But staying with the central bank maybe it will be needing the US $66.4 billion of foreign exchange reserves.

I was right and the nuance here is shown by how little of the reserves were actually deployable in a crisis. We know 14% were used and at most 20% have now been used yet policy has been forced to change. That is a common theme of a foreign exchange crisis you only end up being able to use if I an generous half of your reserves before either you press the panic button or someone does it for you.

Interest-Rates

Here we see another departure from the world-wide trend as rather than falls we are seeing some eye-watering levels. Back on August 12th I noted an interest-rate of 63.71% whereas now it is 83.26%. This provides another perspective on the currency fall because you get quite decent return for these times if you can merely stay in the Peso for a week or two.

As for the domestic economy such an interest-rate must be doing a lot of damage because of the length of time this has lasted for as well as the number now.

Comment

As recently as June 7th last year the IMF announced this.

The Argentine authorities and IMF staff have reached an agreement on a 36-month Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) amounting to US$50 billion (equivalent to about SDR 35.379 billion or about 1,110 percent of Argentina’s quota in the IMF).

The amount has been raised since presumably because of the rate of access of funds. If you look at the IMF website it has already loaned just short of 33 billion SDRs. Meanwhile here is some gallows humour from back then.

The authorities have indicated that they intend to draw on the first tranche of the arrangement but subsequently treat the loan as precautionary.

As Christine Lagarde was cheerleading for this she did get one thing right.

I congratulate the Argentine authorities on reaching this agreement

They kept themselves in power with the help of IMF funds. That has not gone so well for the Argentine people not the shareholders of the IMF. There are similarities here with the debacle in Greece where of course Christine Lagarde was heavily involved in the “shock and awe” bailout that contributed to an economic depression. For example as 2018 opened the IMF forecast 2.5% economic growth for it and 2.8% this year as opposed to the reality of the numbers for the first quarter being 5.8% lower than a year before.

Yet as recently as April she was telling us this.

When the IMF completed its third review of Argentina’s economy in early April, managing director Christine Lagarde boasted that the government policies linked to the country’s record $56bn bailout from the fund were “bearing fruit”.

It is not an entirely isolated event as we look at other IMF programmes.

Pakistan Rupee -4.83% seems IMF’s (Lagarde’s) lesser-known second success story. Eurozone you are next up ( @Sunchartist )

But the official view has been given by Justin Trudeau of Canada who has described Christine Lagarde as a “great global leader.”

Podcast

Is it time for a new world currency?

With so many financial markets in flux our central banking overlords are lost in a world of confusion right now. Also the slowing world economy has them in a tizzy as even the most credulous must realise that their Forward Guidance is an oxymoron and the less polite will drop the oxy bit. All this is symbolised in a way by the Italian ten-year yield falling below 1% this morning in a scenario that in the past would have led to a bond vigilante all-nighter.

There is also an individual element to the next bit as the author of the new currency plan is looking to enhance his own claims for the job as head of the IMF. Here is the editor of the Financial Times Lionel Barber.

A heavyweight last minute pitch for the IMF job from the Canadian-British-Irish candidate – well worth reading.

The most revealing bit I think is the journey from being according to the FT a “rock star” central banker to someone whose name apparently cannot be mentioned. Governor Carney will no doubt be furious that his long-planned coronation as head of the IMF seems to have been usurped even in terms of UK support by his former boss George Osborne.

The Problem

Learning nothing from his debacles with an equilibrium unemployment rate ( remember when he signposted 7%) and the lower bound for interest-rates ( stating 0.5% then cutting to 0.25% and promising 0.1% at one point) we have a new toy.

In an increasingly integrated world, global r* exerts a greater influence on domestic r*. As the global
equilibrium rate falls, it becomes more difficult for domestic monetary policy makers everywhere to provide
the stimulus necessary to achieve their objectives.

For newer readers r* is the idea of a normal or equilibrium interest-rate and until around last November was what the US Federal Reserve was searching for. However as their Ivory Tower fantasy got even vaguely close to reality they ended up singing along with U2.

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for

Under pressure from President Trump they gave up and decided that south was the new north and started to cut interest-rates.

Returning to the speech the ordinary person would not know the difference between an interest-rate of 1% caused by world or domestic r^. Why is he doing this? Having slashed interest-rates and it not working he and his cohorts want to shift the blame onto someone or something else. Also if you think this through logically he seems upset that he cannot reduce the value of the UK Pound £.

So if this was a game of chess he has had everything he wanted but now the results are embarrassing he wants to knock the board over like a child in a fit of pique

In the medium term, policymakers need to reshuffle the deck…….In the longer term, we need to change the game.

What to do

Those familiar with the track record of Governor Carney will not be surprised by this bit.

In these circumstances, the Committee can extend the horizon over which it returns inflation to target…… policymakers would do better to trade off inflation and output volatility,

A bit of inflation will fix it. Meanwhile back in the real world people are worse off. Whilst he is at it there is also time to make his dream job even more important. It is hard to know where to start with the moral hazard in this bit.

The deficiencies in the current IMFS mean that the IMF should play a central role in informing both domestic
and cross border policies. In particular, discussions at the Fund can identify those circumstances when
spillovers from the core are particularly acute.

Is this the same IMF that helped foster an economic depression in Greece and is currently in quite a quagmire with its programme in Argentina where there are 70% interest-rates in spite of it being the largest ever intervention or a fantasy one? Still there is some more time to make his dream job even better.

Pooling resources at the IMF, and thereby distributing the costs across all 189 member countries, is much
more efficient than individual countries self-insuring…….A better alternative would be to hold $3 trillion in pooled
resources, achieving the same level of insurance for a much lower cost. This would imply a tripling in the
IMF’s resources over the next decade, enough to maintain their current share of global external liabilities.

With responsibility and power comes accountability or at least it should. Still with that amount of pooled funding the IMF would be able to shuffle its Argentina problem into a dark corner.

The Plan

Here is the nub of it. As ever such things require an acronym and International Monetary Financial System is the new one. Perhaps International Rescue was too much even for them.

The main advantage of a multipolar IMFS is diversification. Multiple reserve currencies would increase the supply of safe assets, alleviating the downward pressures on the global equilibrium interest rate that an
asymmetric system can exert. And with many countries issuing global safe assets in competition with each
other, the safety premium they receive should fall.

Actually the main disadvantage of a multipolar IMFS is its diversification so we have nor started well. For example how would the move in recent times of the Euro from 7.5 Chinese Yuan to 7.9 then relate to “safe assets”? Also how would the flash rally of the Japanese Yen back in January? Whilst in theory a type of actual Special Drawing Right ( the present IMF currency unit) works there is no evidence it would work in practice and in fact would be a complete debacle if everyone wanted US Dollars.

Even if you issue assets in a new “SDR-IMFS” there is the problem that you would be paying for it in your own currency be it Pounds, Euros or Yen so there is a risk which can only be alleviated by fixed exchange rates. With the issues around the Euro I doubt even the most elevated Ivory Tower really believes a type of global Euro would work but of course with them you never really know.

As a consequence, it is an open question whether such a new Synthetic Hegemonic Currency (SHC) would
be best provided by the public sector, perhaps through a network of central bank digital currencies.

Comment

I thought that today I would provide my comment using the words of Governor Carney to explain what he really plans. He is where he is actively misleading listeners/readers.

A more diversified IMFS would also reduce spillovers from the core and by so doing lower the synchronisation of trade and financial cycles. That would in turn reduce the fragilities in the system, and increase the sustainability of capital flows, pushing up the equilibrium interest rate.

The truth is tucked away here.

While the likelihood of a multipolar IMFS might seem distant at present, technological developments provide
the potential for such a world to emerge. Such a platform would be based on the virtual rather than the
physical.

Ah a virtual currency! Here is the IMF on that from February.

One option to break through the zero lower bound would be to phase out cash. But that is not straightforward. Cash continues to play a significant role in payments in many countries. To get around this problem, in a recent IMF staff study and previous research, we examine a proposal for central banks to make cash as costly as bank deposits with negative interest rates, thereby making deeply negative interest rates feasible while preserving the role of cash.

By up he means down.

What never happens in these sort of reports is addressing the problem of why increasing the dose again will work after so many failures?

Me on The Investing Channel

Can the IMF hang on in Argentina?

There was a whiff of ch-ch-changes yesterday as we note the result of the elections held in Argentina.

Argentine voters soundly rejected President Mauricio Macri’s austere economic policies in primary elections on Sunday, casting serious doubt on his chances of re-election in October, early official results showed. ( Reuters)

As ever the politics is not my concern but the economics is and there is rather a binary choice here.

Voters were given a stark choice: stay the course of painful austerity measures under Macri or a return to interventionist economics.

This has more than a few consequences because we have a situation where the economy has nose dived as the Peso plunged and inflation soared. In response the present government negotiated the biggest IMF ( International Monetary Fund) bailout ever. Oh and the none too small matter of an official interest-rate which was 63.71% on Friday which sticks out like a sore thumb in a world which saw 6 central banks cut interest-rates last week alone.

Below is the Reuters view on the consequences for the financial world.

Argentine stock and bond prices were expected to slide when financial markets opened on Monday because Fernandez’s lead far exceeded the margin of 2 to 8% predicted in recent opinion polls.

The peso plunged 5.1% to 48.50 per U.S. dollar following early official results on the platform of digital brokerage firm Balanz, which operates the currency online non-stop.

Financial Markets

There has been a lot of rhetoric about the Peso plunging but we are still waiting for official trading to start as I type this. Balanz are wisely quoting a wide spread of 46.5 to 48.5 versus the US Dollar. I am often critical of wide foreign exchange spreads but in this instance I have some sympathy. Meanwhile I note that China.org.cn is on the case.

But the South African rand and Argentine peso have both fallen significantly against the yuan, with the rand down 9.36 percent year-on-year and the value of the peso falling 37.29 percent.

Maybe there will now be more Chinese tourists.

Moving to bond markets I am reminded that in what seems like a parallel universe Argentina issued a century or 100 year bond in 2017. Now as it was denominated in US Dollars it is not as bad as you might think for holders. Mind you it is bad enough as the price has fallen by 3 points to just above 71. If you are a professional bond investor you are left having to explain to trustees and the like how you have managed to lose money in what has been the biggest bull market in history.You would be desperately hoping nobody turns up with a chart of the Austrian century bond where the price is more like 171. Maybe you could try some humour as show this from M&G Bond Vigilantes from when the bond was issued.

Given the unusual maturity of the bond, the model choked after 50 years. However, we can see that the implied probability of default given these assumptions is already at 97% for a bond maturing in 50 years. Given this, a century bond should not be seen as being much riskier.

If you have a 97% risk of default things cannot get much riskier can they?

The economic situation

The IMF tried to be optimistic at the end of last month but we can read between the lines.

In Argentina, the economy is gradually recovering from last year’s recession. GDP growth is projected to increase to -1.3 percent in 2019 and 1.1 percent in 2020 due to a recovery in agricultural production and a gradual rebuilding of consumer purchasing power, following the sharp compression of real wages last year. Inflation is expected to continue to fall. However, with inflation proving to be more persistent, real interest rates will need to remain higher for longer, resulting in a downward revision to GDP growth in 2020.

As you can see it tries to be optimistic as after all wouldn’t you if you has lent so much money? But the reality of the wider piece was of a slow down in Latin America.

If we go to the statistics office we are told this.

Progress report on the level of activity. Provisional estimates of GDP for the first quarter of 2019
The provisional estimate of the gross domestic product (GDP), in the first quarter of 2019, shows a 5.8% drop in relation to the same period of the previous year. The level of GDP in the first quarter is 2.0% lower than in the fourth quarter of 2018.

The seasonally adjusted GDP of the first quarter of 2019, compared to the fourth quarter of 2018, shows a variation of -0.2%, while the cycle trend shows a positive variation of 0.1%.

As to trade there is good and bad news. The good is that Argentina has a trade surplus so far in 2019 as opposed to a deficit which will be providing a boost to GDP via net exports. Indeed exports are up by around 2% overall although nearly all of this took place in May. But the good news ends there because the real shift in the trading position has been to what can only be called a collapse in import volumes. As of the June figures the accumulated drop was 27.9% for the year so far. That is ominous because it hints at quite a fall in domestic consumption especially if we note what Argentina exports and imports. From the European Commission.

The EU is Argentina’s second trading partner  (after Brazil), accounting for 15.7% of total Argentinean trade in 2016. In 2016 EU-Argentina bilateral trade in goods totalled EUR 16.7 billion.

Argentina exports to the EU primarily food and live animals (65%) and crude materials except fuel (16%) (2016 data).

The EU exports to Argentina mainly manufactured goods, such as machinery and transport equipment (50%) and chemical products (22.6%) (2016 data).

If we switch to inflation then the annual rate of inflation is a stellar 55.8%. However there are signs of a reduction as the monthly rate in June was 2.7%. Of course we get a perspective from the fact that many central banks are desperately trying to get an annual rate of 2.7%. But in Argentina is suggests an amelioration and the year ahead estimate is for 30%.

Comment

There are various perspectives here but let me start with the interest-rate one. At any time an interest-rate of over 60% is a red flag but right now it is more like a double or triple red flag. No wonder the unemployment rate rose to 10.1% in the first quarter of the year. But staying with the central bank maybe it will be needing the US $66.4 billion of foreign exchange reserves.

The next view must be one of terror from the headquarters of the IMF. Back on May 21st I pointed out this.

When the IMF completed its third review of Argentina’s economy in early April, managing director Christine Lagarde boasted that the government policies linked to the country’s record $56bn bailout from the fund were “bearing fruit”.

Oh and the forecast for economic growth in 2020 was 2.1% back then as opposed to the 1.1% of now. That has horrible echoes because there was a time that Christine Lagarde was involved in a big IMF programme for Greece and forecast 2.1% growth next year when in fact the economy collapsed. She of course has put on her presumably Loubotin running shoes and sped off to the ECB in Frankfurt but sadly the poor Argentines cannot afford to do this.

Researchers at two Argentine universities estimate that 35% of the population is living in poverty, up from the official government rate of 27.3% in the first half of 2018.

Should the IMF programme fold get ready for an army of apologists telling us that it was nothing at all to do with Madame Lagarde.

Podcast

 

The economic depression in Greece looks set to continue

A feature of the economic crisis that enfolded in Greece was the fantasy that economic growth would quickly recover. It seems hard to believe now that anyone could have expected the economy to grow at 2% ot so per annum from 2012 onwards but the fans of what Christine Lagarde amongst others called “shock and awe” did. I was reminded of that when I read this from the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday.

Greece has now entered a period of economic growth that puts it among the top performers in the eurozone.

That is to say the least somewhat economical with the truth as this from the Greek statistics office highlights.

The available seasonally adjusted data
indicate that in the 4th quarter of 2018 the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 0.1% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2018.

So actually it may well have left rather than entered a period of economic growth which is rather different. Over the past year it has done this.

in comparison with the 4th quarter of 2017, it increased by 1.6%.

What this showed was another signal of a slowing economy as 2018 overall was stronger.

GDP for 2018 in volume terms amounted to 190.8 billion euro compared with 187.2 billion euro for 2017 recording an increase of 1.9%.

There is a particular disappointment here as the Greek economy had expanded by 1% in the autumn of last year leading to hopes that it might be about the regain at least some of the ground lost in its depression. Now we find an annual rate of growth that is below the one that was supposed to start an up,up and away recovery in 2012. Nonetheless the IMF is playing what for it is the same old song.

We expect growth to accelerate to nearly 2½ percent this year from around 2 percent in 2018. This puts Greece in the upper tier of the eurozone growth table.

Money Supply

This has proved to be a good guide of economic trends in the Euro area so let us switch to the Bank of Greece data set so we can apply it to Greece alone. The recent peak for the narrow money measure M1 was an annual rate of growth of 7.3% in December 2017 and then mostly grew between 5% and 6% last year. But then the rate of growth slowed to 3.8% last December and further to 2.7% in January.

I am sorry to say that a measure which has worked well is now predicting an economic slow down in Greece and perhaps more contractions in the first half of this year. Looking further ahead broad money growth has slowed from above 6% in general in 2018 to 4.2% in December and 3.3% in January. This gives us a hint towards what economic growth and inflation will be in a couple of years time and the only good thing currently I can say is that Greece tends to have low inflation.

The numbers have been distorted to some extent by the developments mentioned by the IMF below but they are much smaller influences now.

 For example, customers are now free to move their cash to any bank in Greece, and the banks themselves have almost fully repaid emergency liquidity assistance provided by the European Central Bank.

The Greek banks

Even in the ouzo hazed world of the IMF these remain quite a problem.

Third, we are urging the government to do more to fix banks, which remain crippled by past-due loans. This will help households and businesses to once again be able to borrow at reasonable interest rates.

They have another go later.

Directors encouraged the authorities to take a more comprehensive, well-coordinated approach to strengthening bank balance sheets and reviving growth-enhancing lending.

There are two issues with this and let me start with how many times can the Greek banks be saved? Money has been poured again and again into what increasingly looks like a bottomless pit. Also considering they think bank lending is weak – hardly a surprise in the circumstances – on what grounds do they forecast a pick-up in economic growth?

Back on the 29th of January I pointed out that the Bank of Greece was already on the case.

An absolutely indicative example can assess the immediate impact of a transfer of about €40 billion of NPLs, namely all denounced loans and €7.4 billion of DTCs ( Deferred Tax Credits).

So the banks remain heavily impaired in spite of all the bailouts and are no doubt a major factor in this.

vulnerabilities remain significant and downside risks are rising……………. If selected fiscal risks materialize, the sovereign’s repayment capacity could become challenged over the medium term.

That would complete the cycle of disasters as about the only bit of good news for the Institutions in the Greek bailout saga is this.

The government exceeded its 2018 primary fiscal balance target of 3.5 percent of GDP,

Moving out of the specific area of public finances we see that money is being sucked out of the economy to achieve this which acts as a drag on economic growth.

The Eurogroup

It does not seem quite so sure that things are going well as it refrains for putting its money behind it at least for now. From Monday.

The finance ministers of the 19-member Eurozone have decided to postpone disbursing 1 billion euros ($1.12 billion) to Greece.

The reason for postponing the payment is that Greece has not yet changed the provisions of a law protecting debtors’ main housing property from creditors to the EU’s satisfaction. ( Kathimerini).

Euro area

The problem with saying you are doing better than the general Euro area is twofold. If we start with the specific then it was not true in the last quarter of last year and if we move to the general Greece should be doing far, far better as it rebounds from the deep recession/depression it has been in. That is not happening.

Also beating the Euro area average is not what it was as this from earlier highlights. From Howard Archer.

Muted news on as German Economy Ministry says economy likely grew moderately in Q1 & warns on industrial sector. Meanwhile, institute cuts 2019 growth forecast sharply to 0.6% from 1.1%, citing weaker foreign demand for industrial goods.

Some have been pointing out that this matches Italy although that does require you to believe that Italy will grow by 0.6% this year.

Comment

Let me shift tack and now look at this from the point of view of how the IMF used to operate. This was when it dealt with trade issues and problems rather than finding French managing directors shifting its focus to Euro area fiscal problems. If you do that you find that the current account did improve in the period 2011-13 substantially but never even got back to balance and then did this.

The current account (CA) deficit was wider than anticipated, reaching 3.4 percent of GDP (though in part due to methodological revisions). Higher export prices and strong external demand were more than offset
by rising imports due to the private consumption recovery, energy price hikes, and the large import share in exports and investment. The primary income deficit widened due to higher payments on foreign investments.

That is quite a failure for the internal competitiveness model ( lower real wages) especially as we noted on January 29th that times were changing there. So the old measure looks grim in fact so grim that I shall cross my fingers and hope for more of this.

The tourism and travel sector in Greece grew 6.9 percent last year, a rate that was three-and-a-half times higher than the growth rate of the entire Greek economy, a survey by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has noted.

The survey illustrated that tourism accounted for 20.6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, against a global rate of just 10.4 percent.

This means that one in every five euros spent in Greece last year came from the tourism and travel sector, whose turnover amounted to 37.5 billion euros. ( Kathimerini ).

The Investing Channel

 

 

Can we stop interest-rates falling and going negative?

This week has seen a development I have long-expected and forecast. That is that the establishment will respond to the next economic slow down with negative interest-rates. The rationale for that is in one sense simple as in most places interest-rates never went back up again and if they did by not much, Only yesterday I looked at my own country the UK where in the decade or so since the credit crunch the Bank of England has raised interest-rates by a net 0.25%. Not much is it? Last time around the only reason it did not cut interest-rates even lower it was because it feared that the creaking IT systems of the UK banks could not take it. As it was some mortgages ( mostly with Cheltenham & Gloucester if I recall correctly) went below 0% and were dealt with via capital repayments to stop a HAL 9000 style moment.

Of course more than a few central banks continue to have negative interest-rates as we look at Denmark, the Euro area, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland. The ECB may pause this morning to mull whether it will get its deposit rate ( -0.4%) back even to zero as it note German factory orders some 7% lower than the previous year in December. This brings us to the driver of the current situation which is the economic slow down we have been following and indeed predicting via the decline in money supply growth. That remains as a slow down and has not yet signalled an overall recession but none the less it has produced quite a change.

The San Francisco Fed

It is far from a coincidence that the San Francisco Fed has produced a paper on negative interest-rates this week. After all the overall Federal Reserve has put up the white flag on interest-rate increases as we wait to hear what was discussed when Chair Powell had dinner with President Trump on Monday night.  Anyway the paper seems to open with a statement of regret.

Traditionally, it has been assumed that nominal interest rates cannot fall below zero, known as the “lower bound.” Ever since 2008, researchers have debated how much monetary policy was constrained by this lower bound and how much it affected economic outcomes. To work around this constraint, the Federal Reserve turned to unconventional monetary policy tools such as forward guidance and large-scale asset purchases.

Also an admission that QE was driven by the belief that interest-rates could not go below zero. I cannot be too churlish about that because there was a time when I did not think so either at least on a sustained basis although it was around 20 years ago and before the full impact of the Japanese lost decade! I do not know if one of the drivers of this thought was fear of what negative interest-rates would do to the US banks but history has seen a potential revision.

In this Economic Letter, I consider whether pushing rates below zero would have improved economic outcomes in the United States in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

For a central banker the answer is clearly yes.

Model estimates suggest that reducing the effective lower bound for the federal funds rate to –0.75% would have reduced economic slack by as much as one-half at the trough of the recession and sped up the ensuing recovery. While the boost to the economy would have been negligible after 2014, inflation would have been higher throughout the recovery by about half a percentage point on average.

There are various points here. First the central banker assumption that higher inflation is a good thing whereas in reality the ordinary person is likely to be worse off via lower real wages. Next the interesting observation that it is a temporary gain. Finally there is a later reference to Switzerland which took interest-rates to -0.75% so we are left with the view that this paper might recommend even more negative rates if only someone else had been brave/silly enough to try them. It omits to point out that Switzerland has not escaped from this as it is still at -0.75%.

How does this work?

An old friend appears.

In the model, the output gap falls with the interest rate.

Ah so it works because we assume it will. What could go wrong? Whilst we are at the Outer Limits of fantasy why not throw in the kitchen sink.

However, expectations about the future path of the fed funds rate matter, including any Federal Reserve announcements about its path—known as forward guidance—as well as expectations about being at the zero lower bound.

I am not sure if that is chutzpah, ignorance or just simple Ivory Tower non-thinking. After all we have just had a Forward Guidance U-Turn so are we following the old or new versions and if so what was the cost of the change? Those who have fixed their mortgage expecting higher interest-rates for example. Whereas now Men at Work are being played.

It’s a mistake, it’s a mistake
It’s a mistake, it’s a mistake

Rather oddly the paper says that the output gap is pushed higher when the author must mean lower, But there is a bigger space oddity which is this.

According to these simulations, the negative lower bound would have reached its maximum effect in the first quarter of 2011. Setting the lower bound at –0.25% would have increased the output gap by 1.5 percentage points, while pushing the lower bound down further to –0.75% would have contributed an additional 0.4 percentage point to the output gap. This means that a rate of –0.25% would have done most of the job, and allowing it to drop further would have accomplished fewer additional benefits.

Let us subject that to a sense check because we know that the US Federal Reserve did cut its official interest-rate to 0% ( technically 0% to 0.25%) but that going a mere extra 0.25% would make much of a difference? From the previous peak the US had cut by 5% so would an extra 0.25% make any difference at all?

The IMF goes further

Here we go.

One option to break through the zero lower bound would be to phase out cash.

It wants to go as Madonna would put it, deeper and deeper.

To illustrate, suppose your bank announced a negative 3 percent interest rate on your bank deposit of 100 dollars today.

They need a tax or fine or cash to achieve this.

Suppose also that the central bank announced that cash-dollars would now become a separate currency that would depreciate against e-dollars by 3 percent per year. The conversion rate of cash-dollars into e-dollars would hence change from 1 to 0.97 over the year.

Comment

There is quite a bit to consider here but let me start with the concept of arrogance. This is because monetary policymakers have had the freedom over the past decade to do pretty much what they liked and if it had worked we would not be here would we? Yet like Jose Mourinho in the football transfer market they always want more, more, more. Actually I am being a little unfair on Jose as there was a time his policies brought plenty of success.

Combined with this is an obsessive clinging onto failed past concepts. The output gap has had a dreadful credit crunch yet here it is again. Next the idea that higher inflation is good has ( thank God) had a bad run too but central bankers confuse what is good for the banks with what is good for the rest of us. The reality that no country or economic area has gone into negative interest-rates and then recovered is simply ignored whereas so far they have all sung along with Muse.

Glaciers melting in the dead of night
And the superstars sucked into the super massive
Super massive black hole
Super massive black hole
Super massive black hole
Finally is the idea that those who do not worship at this particular monetary altar need to be punished. Just like in the novel 1984……