Retail Sales continue to be a bright spot for the UK economy

Today brings us up to date on the UK retail sector but before we get to it there is something that will have the full attention of the Bank of England. Let me hand you over to City-AM.

The Royal Bank of Scotland was hit this morning on the news that two brokers had lowered their forecasts for the company’s shares.

Analysts at Macquarie downgraded the company from buy to neutral this morning, slashing its target price to 201p, from 246p.

Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs reiterated its buy rating on the stock, but lowered its target price to 325p from 360p.

Shares were trading down around eight per cent to 182.5p.

Firstly at least I warned you as those who read my post on the sixth of this month will be aware. The theme of the credit crunch era has been that RBS is always about to turn a corner ( as in a way highlighted by a 360p price target) but the path turns out to be this one.

We’re on a road to nowhere
We’re on a road to nowhere
We’re on a road to nowhere

If you believed Brewin Dolphin on the 6th you may be wondering what happened to the ” path to redemption”? Also those with longer memories may be wondering about the “nest egg”

City Minister Lord Myners yesterday claimed that the ownership of RBS and LBG – which were both rescued from collapse by the Treasury in the credit crisis – represented a “nice little nest egg” for the taxpayer. ( Evening Standard September 2009)

I have picked this out for a reason because the Ivory Tower of the Bank of England has trumpeted the “Wealth Effects” of its policies whereas RBS has been a spectacular case of wealth destruction. I can widen this out as Barclays is at a recent low at 138 pence reminding me that the chairman who promised to double the share price has gone I think, which is for best because it has halved. The Zombie Janbouree continues with HSBC below £6 and Lloyds at 59 pence.

This is way beyond just a UK issue as for example the European banks are in quite a mess headlined by Deutsche Bank falling back below 6 Euros this morning. Or in some ways more so by the Spanish banks as the economy is still doing well but they look troubled too. Here is Mike Bird of the Wall Street Journal.

Japanese regional bank share prices have now broken below their Feb 2016 lows. The sector is, to use the technical terminology, completely screwed.

This is quite a change of approach from Mike who is something of the order of my doppleganger on Japan. Anyway my point is that the them here is that there have been no wealth effects from the banks and more seriously they cannot be supporting the economy.

The official Bank of England view is that banks are “resilient” and it is “vigilant”

Bond Yields

On the other side of the coin support is being provided by another surge in the UK Gilt market. These are extraordinary times with the UK having a ten-year yield of 0.44% and a five-year yield of 0.35%. Those who have owned UK Gilts have seen extraordinary gains and this includes the ordinary person with pension savings. However this is no silver bullet as we would be in a better place than we are if it was, But it does support the economy.

Whilst I am looking at this area let me deal with all the inverted yield curve mania going on via a tweet that proved rather popular yesterday.

Some worry about the yield curve ( 2s/10s) being inverted but I am sanguine about that. This is because when it bought £435 billion of UK Gilts the Bank of England distorted the market giving us an example of Goodhart’s Law.

It does not buy two-year Gilts thereby distorting the market and making past signals unreliable.

The Bank (as agent for BEAPFF) purchases conventional gilts with a minimum residual maturity of greater than three years in the secondary market.

Retail Sales

This morning has brought another good set of retail sales figures for the UK.

The quantity bought in July 2019 increased by 0.2% when compared with the previous month, with strong growth of 6.9% in non-store retailing.

The duff note there is the implication for the high street but the numbers below confirm that the situation for the UK economy overall remains positive.

In the three months to July 2019, the quantity bought in retail sales increased by 0.5% when compared with the previous three months, with food stores and fuel stores seeing a decline…….Year-on-year growth in the quantity bought increased by 3.3% in July 2019, with food stores being the only main sector reporting a fall at negative 0.5%.

The positive spin in the decline of the high streets is provided by this.

In July 2019, online retailing accounted for 19.9% of total retailing compared with 18.9% in June 2019, with an overall growth of 12.7% when compared with the same month a year earlier.

The flipside is that less money flows through the high street and sadly I suspect this is not a new trend.

Department stores’ growth increased for the first time this year with a month-on-month growth of 1.6%; this was following six consecutive months of decline.

Comment

Let me shift now to why is this happening? The situation regarding the UK consumer is strong and has been supported by several factors. The first is in the numbers themselves and repeats a theme I first highlighted on the 29th of January 2015.

Both the amount spent and the quantity bought in the retail industry reported strong growth of 3.9% and 3.3% respectively when compared with a year earlier.

That gives us an ersatz inflation measure of the order of 0.6% which made me look it up and the official deflator is 0.8%. That is very different to the ordinary inflation measures we see which are 2%-3%. So in a sense your money goes further ( strictly declines in value more slowly) and is compared to this.

Estimated annual growth in average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain increased to 3.7% for total pay (including bonuses) and 3.9% for regular pay (excluding bonuses).

So in real terms there are gains in this sector. Thus it is no great surprise it has done well.

Also there is the fact that whilst the annual rate of growth has slowed we are still on something of an unsecured credit orgy.

The additional amount borrowed by consumers to buy goods and services was £1.0 billion in June, compared with £0.9 billion in May…….The annual growth rate of consumer credit continued to slow in June, falling to 5.5%

Is anything else growing at an annual rate of 5.5%.

Cauliflowers

There seems to be something of a media mania here as this from BBC Essex illustrates.

“Customers I’ve never seen before are coming in just for cauliflowers” Great Baddow greengrocers Martin and George Dobson are selling imported cauliflowers at cost price as Britain experiences a shortage. Prices have reached £2.50

I checked in two local supermarkets and they were selling then for £1 albeit they were from Holland. Then I went to Lidl and they were selling UK cauliflowers for 75 pence. Maybe a bit smaller than usual but otherwise normal so I bought one.

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The campaign against the UK Retail Price Index carries on

This week brought some disappointing news for the Bank of England. If we go back to Monday we were told this.

LONDON (Reuters) – British households’ expectations for inflation over the next 12 months rose to 2.8% in July from 2.6% in June, according to a survey from U.S. investment bank Citi and pollsters YouGov.

Longer-term inflation expectations rose to 3.4% from 3.3% in June, the Citi/YouGov survey of 2,011 adults showed.

“Rising inflation expectations should … support hawks at the (Bank of England),” Citi economists Christian Schulz and Ann O’Kelly said.

There are two problems there for the Bank of England. The first is that expectations imply that people think that inflation is above the 2% target and has been so. This is an implied defeat for the enormous effort that it and other parts of the UK establishment have put it getting our official statisticians have put into getting the Imputed Rent driven CPIH as the headline inflation measure.

Even worse the measure of future expectations has risen. This shows two factors at play. One is rhetoric as we are subjected to a media barrage about future falls in the UK Pound £ exchange rate. The other is the reality that the UK Pound £ has been in a weak phase and in inflation terms this is best represented by the rate against the US Dollar because it is the currency in which nearly all commodities are priced. Whilst it is relatively stable this morning at US $1.2060. Whereas if we go back a bit over 3 months to the early part of May we see that it was some 11 cents higher. Over the past year it is some 5.5% lower so we can see that there is some commodity price pressure on the cards so well done to the ordinary person surveyed for inflation expectations.

Producer Price Inflation

We can find out what is coming down the inflation pipeline from these numbers.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 1.8% on the year to July 2019, up from 1.6% in June 2019…….The growth rate of prices for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process was 1.3% on the year to July 2019, up from 0.3% in June 2019.

This is a change as the previous overall trend was for both input and output inflation to be falling. The main area is a little awkward so let us look at it.

On the month, crude oil provided the largest positive contribution of 0.30 percentage points with monthly growth of 1.8%. This is a 9.3 percentage points increase following negative growth of 7.5% in June 2019.

This is because the lower UK Pound has been a constant influence but the oil price has been ebbing and flowing to some extent mirroring the tweets of President Trump on the trade war. For example yesterday it rose 3/4% as he announced delays in planned tariffs on China. So the outlook with Brent Crude around US $61 per barrel is for it to have a small disinflationary impact looking ahead but the trend may change with one tweet.

Also do any of you have thoughts on this? The subject is on my mind anyway after last Friday’s power cut in Battersea.

This growth was mainly driven by electricity production and distribution, which increased 20.1% on the year to July 2019, the highest the rate has been since records began in 2009.

Consumer Inflation

Here the situation looks calm on the surface but there are two serious problems below it.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 2.1% in July 2019, increasing from 2.0% in June 2019.

In a world where US President Trump describes a 0.3% monthly and 1.8% annual increase like this I am not sure where this puts us!

Prices not up, no inflation.

Anyway if we return to the UK we see that a problem I have warned about before is back.

The largest upward contribution (of 0.08 percentage points) to change in the CPIH 12-month rate came from recreation and culture. Within this group, the largest effect came from games, toys and hobbies (in particular from computer games and consoles) where prices overall rose by 8.4% between June and July 2019 compared with a rise of 4.1% between the same two months a year ago.

Here is the confession that we are blundering in the dark here.

Price movements for these items can often be relatively large depending on the composition of bestseller charts and the upward contribution between the latest two months follows a downward contribution, from computer games purchased online and games consoles, between May and June 2019.

This matters because it highlights a systemic problem. A similar problem is in play with fashion clothing. Rather than doing something about it the UK establishment has been using the latter problem as a tool for beating the Retail Price Index with. Rather than research and reflection we get rhetoric.

Retail Price Index

Speaking of the RPI the annual rate fell to 2.8% which is partially good news for rail passengers because the rate at which regulated fares rise will be that. At east it is below the rate of wages increases. But there is a problem here too.

An error has been identified in the Retail Prices Index (RPI) in 2019, caused by an issue with the 2017 to 2018 Living Costs and Food Survey (LCF)dataset, which is used to produce the weights underpinning the RPI.

Indicative estimates show that if the corrected LCF dataset had been used to calculate the 2019 RPI weights, it would have led to an upward revision of 0.1 percentage points to the published RPI annual growth rate in March 2019, from 2.4% as currently published to 2.5% and a downward revision of 0.1 percentage points to the June 2019 rate, from 2.9% as currently published to 2.8%. No other month’s annual growth rates have been affected.

It is a good job that large amounts of financial contracts do not depend on this, Oh wait! But these numbers also matter in themselves.

House Prices

There was some excellent news here.

Average house prices in the UK increased by 0.9% in the year to June 2019, unchanged from May 2019 . Over the past three years, there has been a general slowdown in UK house price growth, driven mainly by a slowdown in the south and east of England.

The lowest annual growth was in London, where prices fell by 2.7% over the year to June 2019, less than the 3.1% fall in May 2019. Average house prices in London have now been falling over the year each month since March 2018.

With wage growth at 3.7% finally houses are on average becoming more affordable. As the London numbers highlight there are regional disparities though. On the other side of the coin house prices in Wales rose by 4.4%.

Comment

I have a couple of serious points to make so let me start with some humour courtesy of The Guardian.

City economists had forecast CPI to fall to 1.9% – instead, it’s now over the Bank’s target of 2%.

The unexpected rise could pile pressure on Threadneedle Street to raise interest rates, even as economic growth falters…

Meanwhile the problems with how we measure inflation in the UK pile up as computer game are added to the problems with fashion clothing. Yet the UK Statistics Authority and the ONS have instead spent their time joining the establishment campaign against the RPI. Please do not misunderstand me as I have a lot of sympathy with the ordinary statisticians who in my experience are doing their best, but it was hard not to have a wry smile this morning at us getting the numbers wrong and creating their worst nightmare a “discontinuity”.

If we look wider we see that there are problems elsewhere as the changes to package holiday prices showed in Germany and in the wider Euro area inflation data. That will impact the GDP numbers via the deflator. Ironically with an RPI style inflation measure or perhaps based on the new HII/HCI the UK could be in good shape here.

Let me give another perspective by quoting Paul Johnson of the IFS in Prospect Magazine from February.

A version of it, CPIH, takes account of owner occupiers’ housing costs and is the one that the statisticians would like us to use. But it is of relatively recent vintage and hasn’t really caught on yet.

He seems to have forgotten that it was the Johnson Review ( yes him) that recommended this in 2016.

ONS should move towards making CPIH its main measure of inflation. In the meantime, the CPI should continue to be the main measure of inflation.

 

 

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 Times They Are A-Changing For Inflation Targeting

The concept of inflation targeting had its roots in the abandonment of the gold standard in 1971. The world of fiat money requires some sort of anchor and we have seen various ways of providing this such as fixed exchange-rates and controlling the money supply. None of those were entirely satisfactory and some were complete failures so in the 1990’s we saw the concept of inflation targeting begin and a combination of Canada and New Zealand saw us end up with one of 2 per cent per annum. It is important to note that 2% per annum was chosen because it seemed right not that there was any particular logical thought process. Also it is important to note that the definition of inflation varies much more than you might think and in some cases quite widely. So for example 2% per annum in the United States is very different to 2% per annum in the Euro area as the former has owner-occupied housing costs ( albeit via the Imputed Rent route) and the latter does not.

Price Stability

Central bankers have tried to push the line that 2% per annum is price stability. For example Mario Draghi of the ECB told us this only yesterday at the ECB press conference.

Our mandate is price stability

This is quite an Orwellian style abuse of language and let me illustrate this with Mario’s own words.

On the inflation side, we basically saw inflation which is below our aim and we see projected inflation that says that convergence is further out in time, though as I’ve said on another occasion, the informational content of market-based inflation expectations has to be assessed, taking into account certain technical conditions of these markets. However also in the SPF, the Survey of Professional Forecasters, inflation expectations have gone down so that’s what led the Governing Council to these proposals, to the various proposals.

As you can see “inflation which is below our aim” would give Euro area workers and consumers more price stability but Mario and the ECB do not want it. This is why he was hinting so strongly at policy action in September although there is a catch in that. After all he only stopped QE in December and we still have negative interest-rates in the Euro area yet inflation is doing this.

Euro area annual HICP inflation increased to 1.3% in June 2019, from 1.2 % in May…….Looking through the recent volatility due to temporary factors, measures of underlying inflation remain generally muted. Indicators of inflation expectations have declined.

So here are a couple of thoughts for you. We are being told price stability is the objective when they are doing the opposite and they are using methods which in spite of extraordinary sums ( 2.6 trillion Euros of QE) have not had much impact. Care is needed with the latter conclusion because we know so many asset prices have surged but the Euro area in particular has gone to a lot of effort to keep them out of the consumer inflation numbers. They spent the last 2/3 years promising to put house prices in the numbers and then in December did a handbrake turn, which was so transparent as being what they planned all along. Or if you prefer another version of kicking that poor battered can into the future.

As an aside I have regularly warned about these over time and am pleased that the ECB is finally admitting this.

the informational content of market-based inflation expectations has to be assessed,

It is somewhere between slim and none which is very different to the impression the ECB has previously created.

The Times They Are A-Changing

The ECB interest-rate announcement told us this and the emphasis is mine.

Accordingly, if the medium-term inflation outlook continues to fall short of its aim, the Governing Council is determined to act, in line with its commitment to symmetry in the inflation aim.

That was brand new off the blocks so to speak and as you can imagine led to speculation about what the ECB planned next. For example, as it has been below its 2% per annum target for some time would it plan some “catch-up” in the manner suggested in the past by some members of the US Federal Reserve? So a type of average inflation targeting.

Yet a bit more than 45 minutes later ( Mario was late) there has been some ch-ch-changes.

the continued sustained convergence of inflation to levels that are below, but close to, 2% over the medium term.

As one cannot be symmetrically below there is a problem here. Unusually for Mario Draghi he got into quite a mess explaining this.

On the other point: no, there isn’t any change really.

Yet he then confessed there was one.

In fact, it’s true it’s not there in the first page; it’s in the fourth page, it’s just what it is.

The idea that the change just appeared there is laughable and we then found out more about the state of play.

But we had a discussion about symmetry and there is a sense in the Governing Council that there should be a reflection on the objective: namely is it is close to but below 2%, or, should we move to another objective?

There you have it as they had for a while created the impression they had changed it. For clarity the ECB target is unusual in that it sets it for itself. The more common procedure is that the relevant government sets it for the central bank in the way that the Chancellor of the Exchequer does for the Bank of England. The present ECB target has been in place since 2003 and perhaps the advent of Christine Lagarde has Mario wanting to restrict how much damage she can do. After all it was apparent that the gushing praise she received, somehow in an inexplicable oversight omitted her competence for the role,

Whatever the rationale Mario was somewhat discombobulated.

 In the meantime, however, the main thing in this introductory statement is that the Governing Council – I think I have said this many times, but now it’s in the introductory statement – reaffirmed its commitment to symmetry around the inflation aim, which in a sense is 1.9 – it’s close to, but below, 2%.

So he was trying somewhat unconvincingly to sing along with Maxine Nightingale.

Ooh, and it’s alright and it’s coming along
We gotta get right back to where we started from

 

Comment

So we see that the ECB is joining an increasingly global trend to change its inflation target and typically for Ivory Tower thinkers they are missing the main point. After all the advent of the credit crunch which is still causing economic after-effects posed serious questions for the whole concept. Yet the main driver we are seeing is heading towards even easier monetary policy as opposed to a revision of the concepts involved. The same monetary policy that has failed to create much consumer inflation at all and may even have weakened it, although this comes with the caveat that much of this comes from the way inflation is measured.

The establishment remains determined to ram this home. Let me hand you over to the Wall Street Journal.

A higher Federal Reserve inflation target ahead of the 2007-09 recession likely would have given the central bank more room to lower interest rates and resulted in a “substantially” faster economic recovery, a group of economists has found.

If the Fed had set its inflation target above its current 2% level, that would have led to higher inflation over time, which would have caused interest rates to climb higher than they did before the recession, according to a paper by economists Janice Eberly, James Stock and Jonathan Wright.

Missing is anybody pointing out that the higher inflation would have made us all poorer. No doubt in the Ivory Tower scenario the wages fairy would have rescued us but we know in the real world that he or she is always hard and sometimes impossible to find these days.

That is before we get to the point I started with which never quite seems to be received in the thin air at the top of the Ivory Towers that the inflation measures used are at best an approximation and at worst simply wrong.

 

 

 

 

Good to see UK wages rising faster than house prices

After yesterday’s employment and wages data we advance on the latest UK inflation and house price data today. If that seems the wrong way around then yes it did used to be the other way around. But it was decided that getting the wages numbers at 9:30 on a Wednesday did not give our parliamentarians time to use them at Prime Ministers Questions later in the day.

Moving on from that let me set the scene by pointing out that with a few exceptions inflation seems to be in retreat. When we consider the world of low and negative interest-rates in which we live then this is another fail for economics 101. Inflation should have been higher as we observe another gap between theory and reality. Mostly the issue comes from putting the world consumer in front of inflation as those are the numbers used whereas the monetary easing went into asset prices. I noted someone pointing out that Germany had very little house price inflation before 2010 yesterday and had a wry smile. But with the US S&P 500 index above 3000 it is also true that money went into equity prices although of course some of that is genuine growth. Also bond markets have been pumped up to extraordinary levels making final salary pensions and annuities eye-wateringly expensive.

So as we note that it is a narrow measure of inflation we are pointed towards we also note that it looks like it has been trending lower.

The US looks to be below target, the Euro area has got further away from it in spite of all the actions and the line for Japan shows complete failure in the main Abenomics objective. Oh and they should have put the Europe line in the middle as they mean 0.9% not -0.9%.

The UK Pound £

There is some currency driven inflation in play for the UK however as we are in the midst of a weak run. The recent decline started on the 3rd of May when the effective or trade-weighted index was at 79.8 as opposed to the latest 75.6. The main player here is the US Dollar due to the vast majority of commodities being price in it. The fall here over the same time period is from US $1.317 to US $1.24 as I type this. So slightly worse.

If we switch to the oil price we see that things have changed since last month. Here are our official statisticians from back then.

Brent futures were down to $61.33 a barrel and U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were down to
$51.93.

Since then the decreases they were looking at have been increases with Brent Crude at US $64.60 and even more so with WTI at US $57.70. That will not feed into the  consumer inflation numbers today but will do so over time. So whilst there is not much inflation in the offing the UK is likely to see more mostly via a weak currency.

Today’s data

This was something to put a smile on the face of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney as he whiles away the time waiting for a phone call from the IMF.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 2.0% in June 2019, unchanged from May 2019.

So dead on target although the superficial theme of a type of summer lull ignores a fair bit of action under the surface.

The largest downward contributions to change in the 12-month rate between May and June 2019 came from motor fuels, accommodation services and electricity, gas and other fuels, with prices in each category falling between May and June 2019 compared with price rises between the same two months a year ago………The largest offsetting upward contributions to change came from clothing and food.

Just for clarity utility prices were unchanged as opposed to last year when gas and electricity prices were raised. The clothing picture is also more complex than presented as prices there still hint at trouble on the high street.

Clothing and footwear was the only broad group producing a downward contribution in June 2019, reflecting a fall in prices of 0.4% on the year.

Prices fell by less than earlier in the year.

Prospects

The immediate prospects are downwards.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 1.6% on the year to June 2019, down from 1.9% in May 2019.

So goods inflation should trend lower and that may hold sway for a bit.

The growth rate of prices for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process fell 0.3% on the year to June 2019, down from 1.4% in May 2019…….The annual rate of input inflation was negative for the first time since June 2016, driven by a large downward contribution from crude oil.

Thus we see the broad sweep of lower inflation that we looked at earlier via lower inflation expectations. The cautionary note is that due to the lower UK Pound we will see more inflation than elsewhere and in this instance also a higher oil price will affect us. We have a rough rule of thumb for how this is playing out if we look at the Euro area.

The euro area annual inflation rate was 1.3% in June 2019, up from 1.2% in May.

So 0.7% it is then…..

House Prices

Here is something that on national emoji day should be represented with a thumbs up and a smile.

Average house prices in the UK increased by 1.2% in the year to May 2019, down from 1.5% in April 2019 . Over the past three years, there has been a general slowdown in UK house price growth, driven mainly by a slowdown in the south and east of England.

The lowest annual growth was in London, where prices fell by 4.4% over the year to May 2019, down from a fall of 1.7% in April 2019 and the lowest annual rate in London since August 2009 when it was negative 7.0%.

We see that real wages are increasing by around 2% per annum compared to house prices which is very different to the general picture in the credit crunch era as Rupert Seggins reminds us.

The longer term picture. Average London house prices up 53% on January 2008 vs a UK average of 24%.

Also the house price falls in London which seem to be creating quite a scare on social media amongst the journalist fraternity are welcome. Prices in London are too high for the vast majority.

There is an irony in that for once, by fluke the woeful use of imputed rents does not affect the situation too much.

The OOH component annual rate is 1.2%, unchanged from last month.

Although we have another conceptual problem with it. That is the issue of rents usually rising with wages as the rise in both nominal and real wages are not impacting. This may be because the rent numbers are heavily lagged, I suspect that any impact takes around nine months and the full impact 18 but that is my opinion as we are not told.

Comment

We have had a couple of days of good data from the UK economy giving us a summer tinge. A fall in inflation would have been better but actually RPI fans did get one.

The all items RPI annual rate is 2.9%, down from 3.0% last month.

The gap between it and the other measures may trim a little over the next few months as the house price measure it uses ( depreciation) is lagged too. One clear improvement that could be made to it would be to put house prices in directly and I would look to increase the weight of it in the basket. Why? Well if we take the broad sweep using rent has owner occupied housing with a weight of around 17% in the basket whereas house prices in the two versions of it are weighted at 7-8%. So your average brick or window has twice the impact using rents which have lower inflation than house prices which generally have higher inflation.

 

 

 

The Bank of Japan begins to face its failures

The last couple of weeks have seen two of the world’s main central banks strongly hint that the path for interest-rates is now lower, or perhaps I should say even lower. So as we open this week my thoughts turn eastwards to what the Shangri-Las would call the leader of the pack in this respect, Nihon or Japan. If we look at the Nikkei newspaper we see that Governor Kuroda of the Bank of Japan has also been conducting some open mouth operations.

TOKYO — Bank of Japan Governor Haruko Kuroda said extra stimulus would be an option if prices refuse to keep rising toward the central bank’s 2% inflation target.

The BOJ “will consider extra easing measures without hesitation” if the economy runs into a situation where momentum toward reaching stable inflation is lost, Kuroda said at a news conference on Thursday in Tokyo after keeping monetary policy unchanged.

There are various problems with this which start with the issue of inflation which has simply not responded to all the stimulus that the Bank of Japan has provided.

  The consumer price index for Japan in May 2019 was 101.8 (2015=100), up 0.7% over the year before seasonal adjustment,   and the same level as the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis. ( Statistics Bureau).

This has been pretty much a constant in his term ( the only real change was caused by the rise in the Consumption Tax rate in 2014) and as I have pointed out many times over the years challenges Abenomics at its most basic point. If we stick to the monthly report above the situation is even worse than the overall number implies. This is because utility bills are rising at an annual rate of 3.2% but this is offset by other lower influences such as housing where the annual rate of (rental) inflation is a mere 0.1%. Also the services sector basically has virtually no inflation as the annual rate of change is 0.3%. Even the Bank of Japan does not think there is much going on here.

On the price front, the year-on-year rate of change in the
consumer price index (CPI, all items less fresh food) is in the range of 0.5-1.0 percent. Inflation expectations have been more or less unchanged.

Wages

On Friday we got the latest wages data which showed that real wages fell at an annual rate of 1.4% in April, This meant that so far every month in Japan has seen real wages lower than the year before. If we look back we see that an index set at 100 in 2015 was at 100.8 in 2018 so now may well be back where it started.

This matters because this was the index that Abenomics was aimed at. Back in 2012/13 it was assumed by its advocates that pushing inflation higher would push wages even faster. Whereas that relationship was struggling before the credit crunch and it made it worse. Indeed so strong was the assumed relationship here that much of financial media has regularly reported this it has been happening in a version of fake news for economics. The truth is that there has been an occassional rally such as last summer’s bonus payments but no clear upwards trend and the numbers have trod water especially after Japan’s statisticians discovered mistakes in their calculations.

Problems for economics

Back when QE style policies began there was an assumption that they would automatically lead to inflation whereas the situation has turned out to be much more nuanced. As well as an interest-rate of -0.1% the Bank of Japan is doing this.

With regard to the amount of JGBs to be purchased, the Bank will conduct purchases in a flexible manner so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual
pace of about 80 trillion yen……….The Bank will purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and Japan real estate
investment trusts (J-REITs) so that their amounts outstanding will increase at annual
paces of about 6 trillion yen and about 90 billion yen, respectively…….As for CP and corporate bonds, the Bank will maintain their amounts outstanding at
about 2.2 trillion yen and about 3.2 trillion yen, respectively.

Yet we have neither price nor wage inflation. If we look for a sign of inflation then it comes from the equity market where the Nikkei 225 equity index was around 8000 when Abenomics was proposed as opposed to the 21,286 of this morning. Maybe it is also true of Japanese Government Bonds but you see selling those has been something of a financial widow maker since around 1990.

Misfire on bond yields

2019 has seen yet another phase of the bond bull market which if we look back has been in play since before the turn of the century. But Japan has not participated as much as you might think due to something of a central planning failure.

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that 10-year JGB yields will remain at around zero percent. While doing so, the yields may move upward
and downward to some extent mainly depending on developments in economic activity and prices.

That was designed to keep JGB yields down but is currently keeping them up. Ooops! We see that bond yields in Germany and Switzerland have gone deeper into negative territory than in Japan. If we compared benchmark yields they go -0.31% and -0.51% respectively whereas in Japan the ten-year yield is -0.15%.

Economic Growth

On the face of it the first quarter of this year showed an improvement as it raised the annual rate of economic or GDP growth to 0.9%. That in itself showed an ongoing problem if 0.9% is better and that is before we get to the fact that the main feature was ominous. You see the quarterly growth rate of 0.6% was mostly ( two-thirds) driven by imports falling faster then exports, which is rather unauspicious for a trading nation.

If we look ahead Friday’s manufacturing PMI report from Markit posted a warning.

June survey data reveals a further loss of momentum
across the manufacturing sector, as signalled by the
headline PMI dropping to a three-month low. Softer
demand in both domestic and international markets
contributed to the sharpest fall in total new orders for
three years. A soft patch for automotive demand…..

The last few words are of course no great surprise but the main point here is the weaker order book. So Japan will be relying on its services sector for any growth. Also there is the issue of the proposed October Consumption Tax hike from 8% to 10% which would weaken the economy further. So we have to suspect it will be delayed yet again.

Comment

To my mind the Abenomics experiment never really addressed the main issue for Japan which is one of demographics. The population is both ageing and shrinking as this from the Yomiuri Shimbun earlier this month highlights.

The government on Friday released a rough calculation of vital statistics for 2018, revealing that the number of deaths minus births totaled 444,085, exceeding 400,000 for the first time.

The latest numbers on Thursday showed yet another fall in children (0-15) to 12.1% of the population and yet another rise in those over 85 to 4.7%. In many ways the latter is a good thing which is why economics gets called the dismal science. The demographics are weakening as Japan continues to borrow more with a national debt of 238% of GDP.

The size of the national debt is affordable at the moment for two reasons. The first is the low and at times negative level of bond yields. Next Japan has a large amount of private savings to offset the debt. The rub is that those savings are a buffer against the demographic issue and there is another problem with Abenomics which I have feared all along. Let me hand you over to a new research paper from the Bank of Japan.

The reversal interest rate is the rate at which accommodative monetary policy
reverses and becomes contractionary for lending. Its determinants are 1) banks’
fixed-income holdings, 2) the strictness of capital constraints, 3) the degree of passthrough to deposit rates, and 4) the initial capitalization of banks.

So it looks like they are beginning to agree with me that so-called stimulus can turn out to be contractionary and there is more.

The reversal interest rate creeps up over time, making steep but short rate cuts preferable to “low for long” interest rate environments.

Exactly the reverse of what Japan has employed and we seem set to copy.

Podcast

The Bank of England reveals it is an inflation creator rather than targeter

Yesterday Bank of England Governor Mark Carney spoke at the ECB summer conference in sunny Sintra Portugal. Tucked away in a speech mostly about the Euro was a reference to the problems the Bank of England has had with inflation as you can see below.

While the euro area has continued to experience ‘divine
coincidence’ the UK has not (Chart 1). In the euro area, inflation has averaged half a point below target,
reflecting in part the drag from persistent slack in the labour market. In contrast, UK inflation has been above
target, averaging 2.3%, during a period where the economy was operating well below potential.

Over such a period that is quite a difference and for the moment I will simply point out that he has no idea about the “potential” of the UK economy as his speech later inadvertently reveals. But let us move on to his explanation.

That reflects the inflationary impacts of two large exchange rate depreciations and weak productivity that have
offset a major positive shock to labour supply. This has created tensions between short-term output and
inflation stabilisation in the UK that have not been evident in other major economic regions.

Missing from his explanation is the way that expectations of easier policy from the Bank of England helped drive both “large exchange rate depreciations”. The 2007/08 one pre dates his tenure at the Bank of England but the post EU Leave vote one was on his watch. I still come across people who think he pumped £500 billion into the UK economy on the following morning rather than getting the ammunition locker ready. But he did cut interest-rates ( after promising to raise them) and pour money into the UK Gilt Market with £60 billion of Sledgehammer QE purchases.

So rather than something which just happened he and the Bank of England gave it a good shove and that is before we add in that he planned even more including a cut to a Bank Rate of 0.1% that November. That did not happen because it rapidly became apparent that the Bank of England had completely misread the UK economic situation. But by then the damage had been done to the UK Pound which was pushed lower than it would otherwise have done.

We get an implicit confirmation of that from this.

Since 2013, the MPC’s remit has explicitly recognised that there are circumstances in which bringing inflation
back to target too quickly could cause undesirable volatility in output and employment.

In other words in a world where inflation is lower than before  it is no longer an inflation targeter and instead mostly targets GDP. Actually we get a confession of this and a confirmation of a point I have made many times on here as we note this bit.

Indeed, on the basis of this past behaviour in the great moderation, the MPC would have raised interest rates by 2 to 3 percentage points between August 2013 and the end of 2014.

Due to the international environment with the Euro area heading for negative interest-rates that would have been to much, But we could have say moved from 0.5% to 1.5% as I have regularly argued and would have put ourselves on a better path. Oh and I did say that Governor Carney has no idea of the potential of the UK economy, so here that is in his own words.

What we – and others – learnt as the recovery progressed was that the UK economy had substantially more
spare capacity than previously thought.

UK Inflation

It is hard not to have a wry smile at UK inflation being bang on target after noting the above.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 2.0% in May 2019, down from 2.1% in April 2019.

Tucked away in the detail was something which should be no surprise if we note the state of play in the car industry.

there were also smaller downward contributions from the purchase of vehicles (second-hand and new cars).

The other factor was lower transport costs as air fares fell mostly due to the Easter timing effect and the cost of diesel in particular rose more slowly than last year. On the other side of the coin was something which has become very volatile and thus a problem for our statisticians.

Price movements for computer games can often be relatively large depending on the composition of bestseller charts.

Looking for future trend we see what looks like a relatively benign situation.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 1.8% on the year to May 2019, down from 2.1% in April 2019.

There had been worries about the input inflation rate which picked up last time around but the oil price seems to have come to the rescue for now at least.

Petroleum provided the largest downward contribution to the change in the annual rate of output inflation. The annual rate of input inflation fell 3.2 percentage points in May 2019, driven by a large downward contribution to the change in the rate from crude oil.

Welcome news from house prices

If we switch to this area we see that the slow down in the annual rate of growth continues.

Average house prices in the UK increased by 1.4% in the year to April 2019, down from 1.6% in March 2019 . Over the past three years, there has been a general slowdown in UK house price growth, driven mainly by a slowdown in the south and east of England.

The lowest annual growth was in London, where prices fell by 1.2% over the year to April 2019, up from a fall of 2.5% in March 2019.

I am pleased to see that as the best form of help for prospective buyers is for wage growth ( currently around 3%) to exceed house price growth. There is a lot of ground to be gained but at least we are making a start.

There is an irony here as I note that for once this will be similar to the number for rents that are being imputed as the inflation measure for owner-occupiers. Yes for newer readers you do have that right as the official CPIH inflation measure assumes that those who by definition do not pay rent rush out and act as if they do.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in the UK rose by 1.3% in the 12 months to May 2019, up from 1.2% in April 2019.

The problem for CPIH is that we have had an extraordinary house price boom without it picking anything up, so this is an anomaly and is unlikely to last.

Comment

There is a sort of irony in UK inflation being on target in spite of the fact that the Bank of England has mostly lost interest in it. The credit crunch era has seen other examples of this sort of thing which echoes when the Belgian economy did rather well when it had no government. We might well be better off if we sent the Monetary Policy Committee on a long holiday.

At the moment there have been quite a few welcome developments in this area. Because wage growth is positive compared to both CPI inflation and house prices after sustained periods of falls. Some caution is required as the RPI is still running at an annual rate of growth of 3% but we are in sunnier climes.There are troubles in other areas as the lower car prices highlight so we need to grab what we can.

Let me finish with a thank you to the Guardian for quoting me in their business live blog and for providing some humour.

Today’s drop in inflation means there’s no chance of the Bank of England raising interest rates on Thursday, say City economists.

Where have those people been in the credit crunch era?