The ECB and its Italian and Turkish problems

At the moment the European Central Bank (ECB) Governing Council is on its summer break and does not formally reconvene until the 13th of September. So I raised a wry smile when Bloomberg assured us ” The ECB is staying calm amid Turkey and Italy routs” this morning! The world does not stand still during summer and is showing more than a few signs of upset for the ECB so let us take a look.

Turkey

The very volatile nature of Turkish financial markets is an issue for the ECB and one signal of this is how such a nearby country can have such a different official interest-rate. The Turkish central bank after hints of a new 19.25% interest-rate in the melee of Monday has remained at 17.75% which is an alternative universe to the -0.4% deposit rate of the ECB. It is hard to believe Greece and Turkey are neighbours when you look at that gap.

Next comes the exchange rate where at the start of 2018 some 4.55 Turkish Lira were required to buy one Euro as opposed to the 6.72 required as I type this. Even that is a fair retracement of the surge which saw it just fail to make 8 only on Monday. Apart from being a dizzying whirl recently we can see that the fall this year must have made trade difficult. As to how much trade there is we need to switch to the European Union about which we were told this in April.

  • In 2017, among the EU’s trading partners, Turkey was the fifth largest partner for exports from the EU and the sixth largest partner for imports to the EU.
  • The EU’s trade surplus with Turkey has fallen from a peak of EUR 27 billion in 2013 to EUR 15 billion in 2017.
  • Manufactured goods make up 81 % of EU exports to Turkey and 89 % of EU imports from Turkey.
  • In 2017, Germany was the EU’s largest import (EUR 14 billion) and export (EUR 22 billion) partner with Turkey.
  • Germany also had the largest trade surplus (EUR 8 billion) with Turkey while Slovenia had the largest deficit (EUR 1.5 billion).

If we just switch to exports then we see the importance of Turkey.

Germany was also the largest exporter (EUR 21.8 billion) to Turkey followed by Italy (EUR 10.1 billion) and the United Kingdom (EUR 8.4 billion). Almost a quarter of Bulgaria’s extra-EU exports (23 %) were destined for Turkey. Greece (15 %) and Romania (14 %) also had high shares while all other Member States had shares below 9 %.

Of course some of those countries are not the responsibility of the ECB but we do get an idea of vulnerabilities such as the ability of Turkish consumers to buy German cars. Also Italy with its own economic issues that I will come on to later can do without any fall in exports. Even worse for Greece.

Right in the ECB’s orbit however was this from the Financial Times last week about risks to the “precious”.

The eurozone’s chief financial watchdog has become concerned about the exposure of some of the currency area’s biggest lenders to Turkey — chiefly BBVA, UniCredit and BNP Paribas — in light of the lira’s dramatic fall…….Spanish banks are owed $82.3bn by Turkish borrowers, French banks are owed $38.4bn and Italian lenders $17bn in a mix of local and foreign currencies. Banks’ Turkish subsidiaries tend to lend in local currency.

There have been arguments since then as to exactly the size of the risk but it is clear that there is an issue. Of course if we bring the exchange-rate back in it looks much less at 6.7 to the Euro than it did at 8 but to any proper analysis that move this week may well be as dangerous as the fall. Looked at through the eyes of an ex-option trader (me) you see that a short derivative position might have been hedged in the panic ( so towards 8) but the catch is that you would be long the Euro up there just in time for it to drop! So you lose both ways. We never really find out about this sort of thing until it has really badly gone wrong.

Italy

In a way much of the problem here has been exemplified by the dreadful Autostrada bridge collapse. For a start how does that happen in a first world country? Then even worse everyone seems to be blaming everyone else. If we move to the direct beat of th ECB there is the ongoing economic growth issue.

In the second quarter of 2018 Italian economy slowed down, as suggested in the previous months by the leading indicator. The GDP quarterly slightly decelerated (+0.2% compared to +0.3% Q1,)

That brings Italy back to my long running theme that it struggles to have economic growth above 1%. Indeed as this still represents a period where monetary policy was very expansionary there will be fears for what will happen as it gets wound back.

On the latter subject of reducing and then an end to the QE program there was this on Monday.

The economic spokesman of Italy’s ruling League party warned on Monday that unless the European Central Bank offers a guarantee to cap yield spreads in the euro zone, the euro will collapse………….Borghi said the ECB should guarantee that yield spreads between euro zone government bonds not exceed a certain level, suggesting 150 basis points between the yields of any two sovereign bonds as a reasonable maximum. ( Reuters)

That sort of statement opens more than one can of worms. The simplest is just to compare that with where we are which is 284 basis points or 2.84%. So he is looking for the ECB to back stop the Italian bond market and his own spending plans a subject which has arisen before. No doubt this is driven by the rise in the ten-year yield of Italy which is now 3.14% which is not historically high but since then Italy’s national debt and therefore borrowing needs has risen meaning that matters tighten at lower yields than they used to.

Next comes the fact that even the ECB which in spite of calling itself a “rules based organisation” has operated at least to some extent by making them up as it goes along. But a programme just to help Italy would be even nearer to overt monetary financing than what we have seen so far. Other nations taxpayers would wonder why it was being singled out for favourable treatment. This would be especially true in Greece which only a week ago found that a waiver for its collateral at the ECB had ended.

Greek banks borrow just over 8 billion from the ECB in longer-term refinancing operations and now need to post a new type of collateral to maintain their access. ( Reuters)

Meanwhile there is the ongoing issue of the Italian banks and the irony of the Turkish situation is the way that Unicredit which was supposed to be escaping the noose may have found a way of putting its neck back in it.

Comment

Having looked at particular issues it is time to bring the analysis back to the day job which is monetary policy. This morning brought troubling news for those who are in the “pump it up” camp.

The euro area annual inflation rate was 2.1% in July 2018, up from 2.0% in June 2018. A year earlier, the rate was
1.3%.

Thus it has for now achieved its inflation objective and in fact it is a little above the 1.97% indicated by the previous President Jean-Claude Trichet. So those wanting more only have the “core” or excluding energy number at 1.4% to support them. They can also throw in the fact that economic growth has slowed in 2018 but also have to face the issue that even Mario Draghi regards this as pretty much a normal level.

Seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.4% in both the euro area (EA19) and the EU28……..Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 2.2% in both the euro area and the EU28.

Thus the ECB moves forwards with its monetary policy locked on course. It has no intention of raising interest-rates and a cut would provoke questions as after all it has told us things are going well. The QE programme is being trimmed in flow terms and it will not be long before that stops. What it has now are the boring parts of central banking such as bank supervision but in the case of Euro area banks in Turkey that would look like closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted.

Of course it could intervene against the Turkish Lira to help provide some stability and to help Euro area exporters. But I think we all know it would only do that if it thought it would help the banks. Also if we take the example of right now and the fall to 6.91 versus the Euro whilst I have been typing this it would no doubt attract the attention of the Donald and his twitter feed plunging the ECB into a political morass.  Such thoughts will have Mario Draghi reaching for another glass of Chianti on his summer break.

 

 

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India is counting the cost of its crude oil dependency

Tucked away in the news stream of the past few days has been a developing situation in India. Whilst the headlines have been made by Turkey there have been currency issues in the largest part of the sub-continent as well. Here is DNA India on the subject.

Indian Rupee on Thursday had hit a fresh record low, the Rupee opened at 70.22 versus the US dollar. In wake of the Turkey crisis, the Indian currency started off the session on a weak note. Earlier on Tuesday, after opening at a marginal high of 69.85 against the US Dollar, the Indian rupee touched an all-time low of 70 per US dollar.

The Indian currency touched an all-time low of 70.08 against the US dollar, while marking depreciation of around 10 per cent in 2018.

The fall came majorly due to a drop in Turkish Lira, which helped the US dollar to gained strength on the back of fears that economic crisis in Turkey could spread to other global economies.

In fact it fell to 70.7 this morning versus the US Dollar which is an all time low. Some of the move may have been exacerbated by the issues facing Turkey but over the past couple of days the Turkish Lira has rallied strongly whereas the Rupee has continued to fall. A factor has been the strength of the US Dollar or what is being called King Dollar. This reminds me that themes and memes can change rather quickly in the currency world if we step back in time to the 25th of January.

“Obviously a weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities,” Mnuchin told reporters in Davos. The currency’s short term value is “not a concern of ours at all,” he said.

If pressed now I guess the US Treasury Secretary would emphasise this bit.

“Longer term, the strength of the dollar is a reflection of the strength of the U.S. economy and the fact that it is and will continue to be the primary currency in terms of the reserve currency,” he said.

Returning to the Rupee we see that it had started to fall before the turn in the US Dollar as conveniently it began at the turn of the year when it was at 63.3 versus it.

What are the consequences?

The first is simply inflation or as DNA India puts it.

Continuous downfall in Indian Rupee is worrisome for imported goods as the cost of imports will go up.  Currently, India imports around 80 per cent of its crude requirement. The rupee downfall will expand India’s import bill and will eventually be contributing to the inflation.

This will add to the situation below. From The Times of India.

Inflation based on consumer price index (CPI) for the month of July came at 4.17 per cent, government data ..

That was an improvement and as so often in India the swing factor was food prices.

The food inflation came at 1.37 per cent, driven by cooling of pulses, vegetable and sugar rates.

However a boost is on its way and as inflation is above the 4% target things could get especially awkward should food prices swing the other way.

Interest-Rates

One of the economics 101 assumptions is that higher interest-rates boost a currency but as I warned back on the 3rd of May the situation is more complex than that and Argentina reminded us again by raising to 45% earlier this week. As for India we see this.

increase the policy repo rate under the
liquidity adjustment facility (LAF) by 25
basis points to 6.5 per cent. ( Reserve Bank of India August Bulletin)

That was the second rise this year and these have reversed the previous downwards trend. Of course the problem is that the RBI is perhaps only holding station with the US Federal Reserve.

Intervention

India maintains a sizeable foreign currency reserve which was US $406 billion at the last formal update in March. However it will not be that now if this from Reuters on Tuesday is any guide.

Subhash Chandra Garg, secretary at the department of economic affairs…………said the RBI has spent about $23 billion so far to intervene ..

So we see that the fall has come in spite of intervention which sits rather oddly with the claim from Subhash Chandra Garg that the currency fall does not matter. Also it is usually rather unwise to indicate a currency level as he did (80) as events have a way of making a fool of you.
Anyway using reserves can help for a while but care is needed as quickly markets switch to calculating how much you have left and how long they will last at the current rate of depletion. At that point intervening can make things worse.
Trade
Looking at India’s  domestic economy a clear factor in the currency debate is its trade position. The latest numbers were as highlighted above by DNA India heavily affected by the oil price.

 

Oil imports during July 2018 were valued at US $ 12.35 Billion (Rs. 84,828.57 crore) which was 57.41 percent higher in Dollar terms and 67.76 percent higher in Rupee terms compared to US $7.84 Billion (Rs. 50,565.29 crore) in July 2017.

Such a development feeds into the existing Indian trade problem.

Cumulative value of exports for the period April-July 2018-19 was US $ 108.24 Billion (Rs 7,29,823.08 crore)……….Cumulative value of imports for the period April-July 2018-19 was US $ 171.20 Billion (Rs. 11,54,881.70 crore).

Whilst a little care is needed as petroleum exports grew by 30% overall Indian export growth is on a tear at 14%. Many would love that, but the rub is that not only are imports much larger but due to India’s oil dependency they are rising at an annual rate of 17%. So as we stand things are getting worse and according to Business Standard there is trouble ahead.

India’s crude oil import bill is likely to jump by about $26 billion in 2018-19 as rupee dropping to a record low has made buying of oil from overseas costlier, government officials said today…….. If the rupee is to stay around 70 per dollar for the rest of the ongoing fiscal, the oil import bill will be $114 billion, he said.

Comment

The other side of the coin about the Indian economy was highlighted by the IMF only last week.

India’s economy is picking up and growth prospects look bright—partly thanks to the implementation of recent policies, such as the nationwide goods and services tax. As one of the world’s fastest-growing economies—accounting for about 15 percent of global growth—India’s economy has helped to lift millions out of poverty.

Although developments since the writing of the report may have more than a few wondering about this bit.

India can benefit from improving its integration with global markets.

Perhaps it is a case of Blood,Sweat and Tears.

What goes up must come down
Spinnin’ wheel got to go ’round

There was of course the domestic issue created by the demonetisation debacle not that long ago but the real achilles heel for India is oil. Something of a perfect storm has hit it where the oil price has risen by 40% over the past year and more recently that has been exacerbated by a stronger US Dollar.

So both the economic and Rupee issues seem as much to do with energy policy as conventional economics. Can India find a way of weaning itself off at least some of its oil dependency?

Me on CoreFinance TV

 

The UK inflation picture is shifting again

After disappointing news on wage growth yesterday for the Bank of England the day ended with some good news for it on this front. From the Financial Times.

The chief executives of the UK’s biggest listed companies received an 11 per cent raise last year pushing their median pay up to £3.93m, according to a report which found that full-time workers received a 2 per cent rise over the same period. The figures for FTSE 100 bosses include base salary, bonuses and other incentives and have been revealed at a time of growing shareholder activism over big payouts. Shareholders at companies including BT, Royal Mail and WPP have rebelled against chief executive pay at stormy annual investor meetings this year.

So some at least are getting above inflation pay rises Actually you can make the number look even larger if you switch to an average rather than the median as this from the original CIPD report shows.

 If we divide this amount equally among all the CEOs covered by our report, they would each receive a mean annual package worth £5.7 million, 23% higher than the 2016 mean figure of £4.6 million.

Why is this so? Well a lot of it is due to a couple of outliers as this from the FT shows.

The highest-paid chief executive in 2017 was Jeff Fairburn at housebuilder Persimmon who received £47.1m, or 22 times his 2016 pay. Ranking second, Simon Peckham of turnround specialist Melrose Industries banked £42.8m, equal to 43 times his 2016 pay, according to the analysis.

The case of Mr.Fairburn at Persimmon is an especially awkward one for the establishment as he has personally benefited on an enormous scale from the house price friendly policies of the Bank of England and the UK government. As so often we face the irony of the government supposedly being on the case of executive pay which it has helped to drive higher.  Indeed I note this seems to be a wider trend as Persimmon is not alone amongst house builders according to the CIPD report.

Berkeley Group Holding plc’s Rob Perrins, whose total pay package rose from £10.9 million in 2016 to £27.9 million.

Inflation

If we step back for a moment and look at the trends we see that they have shifted in favour of higher inflation. A factor in this has been the US Dollar strength we have seen since the spring which was not helped by the unreliable boyfriend behaviour of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney back in April. So now we face as I type this an exchange rate a bit over US $1.27 meaning we will have to pay more for many commodities and oil.

Moving onto the oil price itself care is needed as whilst we have dropped back from the near US $80 for a barrel of Brent Crude seen at the end of May to US $72 we are up around 42% on a year ago. This time around the OPEC manoeuvering has worked for them but of course not us.

There are various ways these feed into our system and perhaps the clearest is the price of fuel at the pump where a 5 pence rise raises inflation by ~0.1%. We are also experiencing another impact as we see domestic energy costs rise as NPower raised on the 17th of June, SSE on the 11th of July, E.ON will raise them tomorrow and EDF Energy will raise them at the end of the month. These are of course not only the result of higher worldwide energy prices but also a form of administered inflation via changes in energy policy for which we foot the bill. People will have different views on types of green energy which are expensive but much fewer will support the expensive white elephant which is the smart meter roll out and further ahead is the Hinkley Point nuclear plant.

Today’s data

There was a small pick-up.

The all items CPI annual rate is 2.5%, up from 2.4% in June

Some of it was from the source described above.

Transport, with passenger transport fares seeing larger price rises between June and July 2018
compared with the same period a year ago. Motor fuels also made an upward contribution,

Another was from the area of computer games where we seem to have found another area that the statisticians are struggling with.

these are heavily dependent on the composition of bestseller charts, often resulting
in large overall price changes from month to month;

Let us hope that this clams down as we have plenty to deal with as it is! As to downwards influences we should say thank you ladies as we mull whether this is being driven by the problems in the bricks and mortar part of the retail sector.

Clothing and footwear, with prices falling by 3.7% between June and July 2018, compared with a smaller fall of 2.9% between the same two months a year ago. The effect came mainly from women’s clothing and footwear.

If we look further down the inflation food chain we see a hint of what seems set to come from the lower Pound £.

Prices for materials and fuels (input prices) rose 10.9% on the year to July 2018, up from 10.3% in June 2018.

In essence it was driven by this.

 The annual rate was driven by crude oil prices, which increased to 51.9% on the year in July 2018, up from 50.2% in June 2018.

However in a quirk of the data this did not feed into output producer price inflation which dipped from 3.3% to 3.1%. Whilst welcome I suspect that this is a quirk and it will be under upwards pressure in the months ahead if we see the Pound £ remain where it is and oil ditto.

House Prices

Here we saw what might be summarised as a continuation of the trend we have seen.

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 3.0% in the year to June 2018 (down from 3.5% in May 2018). This is its lowest annual rate since August 2013 when it was also 3.0%. The annual growth rate has slowed since mid-2016.

However there is a catch because even at this new lower level it is still considerably above what we are officially told is inflation in this area.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in Great Britain rose by 0.9% in the 12 months to July 2018, down from 1.0% in the 12 months to June 2018.

This is what feeds into what is the inflation measure that the Office for National Statistics has been pushing hard for the last 18 months or so. But there also is the nub of its problem. Actually they have problems measuring rents in the first place which affects the process of measuring inflation for those who do rent but then fantasising that someone who owns a property rents it to themselves has led to quite a mess.

Comment

As we look forwards we see the prospect of inflation nudging higher again. However there are two grounds for optimism. One is short-term in that the next two monthly increases for comparison are rises of 0.6 and then 0.3 in the underlying index for CPI .The other is that I do not think that the all the prices which rose back in late 2016 early 2017 went back down again so we may see a lesser impact this time around.

Meanwhile the issue around the RPI has arisen again. Some of it has been driven by Chris Grayling suggesting the use of CPI for rail fares. Ed Conway of Sky News has been joining in the campaign against the RPI this morning on Twitter.

Don’t let anyone tell you RPI is better/different because it includes housing. First, these days CPI does include a housing element.

To the first bit I will and to the second I am waiting for a reply to my point that CPI excludes owner-occupied housing. As it happens RPI moved downwards this month which will be welcomed by rail travellers as it is the number used to set many of the annual increases.

The all items RPI annual rate is 3.2%, down from 3.4% last month.

 

 

Has Abenomics in Japan found what it is looking for?

This morning has brought news from Nihon the land of the rising sun and no I do not mean that the summer has been especially hot this year peaking at above 40 degrees centigrade around Tokyo. I mean this from The Japan Times.

Separate data showed workers’ real wages rose 2.8 percent in June from a year earlier, accelerating from a 1.3 percent increase in May and marking the fastest pace of growth since January 1997.

We have been noting a change in the pattern and waiting for developments and the June numbers are good but come with a kicker. What I mean by this is that it is the month where around two thirds of the summer bonuses are paid so it is good for workers as the 2.8% is of a larger than normal amount as pay is 41% above average in the month. But the kicker is that the boost is mostly bonuses and therefore will fade.

Looking into the detail we see that nominal wage growth was 3.6% and was pulled higher by the manufacturing sector where the summer bonuses saw wage growth rise to 4.2%. It must have been party time in the wholesale and distribution sector as total wage growth rose at an annual rate of 10.7%. So there was an excellent bonus season as 3.6% growth replaced the 0.4% of this time last year.

What about base or regular pay?

This was by no means as good as contracted earnings rose at an annual rate of 1.5% and scheduled earnings at 1.3%. However these are better numbers than seen in 2017 or indeed in the Abenomics era. Just to give you the picture starting in 2014 annual growth has gone -0.1%, 0.2%,0.2% and 0.4% last year. When you consider that one of the Abenomics “arrows” was supposed to be higher wages that was quite a failure when you consider all the monetary easing.

Now the picture looks a little better as real wage rises have replaced falls albeit that they are small such that pressure is put on the accuracy of the data. They probably cannot take it but they are what we have.

Full employment

I get regularly asked what this concept is and if it is seen anywhere in practice Japan seems to be it. For example whilst the unemployment rate nudged higher to 2.4% in June it is extraordinarily low. The job applicant to vacancy ratio has been setting new highs at 2.47 according to Japan Macro Advisers. Thus economic theory would predict that wages would have been rising and frankly surging, after all the Bank of Japan estimated that the structural rate of unemployment was 3.5% as another Ivory Tower foundation bites the dust.

The blame game

At the end of last month the Bank of Japan published some new research on this issue. First we get something of a criticism of what is called Japan Inc.

Basically, the reason for this is that, under Japan’s
labor market structure, which is characterized by
different wage-setting mechanisms for regular and
non-regular employees, the increase in wages of
regular employees has been remarkably
sluggish.

This is pretty standard analysis world-wide of course except the degree of tightness of the labour market is exceptional in Japan. But the theme of employers being willing to do almost anything other than raising basic pay we have seen pretty much all over the world. However the next bit of research has more than a few implications.

With labor shortage intensifying recently, the pace
of increase in the labor force participation rate,
especially among women and seniors, is
accelerating.

Encouraging women to work has been a government objective and you can see the rise in older people working in two ways. One as a sign of good health in that they can but the second is not so positive as I have noted before some are forced to work because times are hard. A while back I noted the issue of retired women in Japan sometimes being very poor which is against its culture. Well if you throw all of these factors into the pot look what the Bank of Japan thinks you get.

In other words, among these groups,
there will be greater labor supply for the same rate
of increase in wages . As a result, as
labor demand increases (represented by a shift of
the labor demand curve to the right in the chart),
women and seniors will supply more labor, which
in turn suppresses wage increases.

So this has been a boost for Japan Inc which has increased its labour supply cheaply but not good for existing workers.

If the labor supply of women and seniors were not elastic,
wage increases likely would have been larger.

So it was them that done it if we look at it in tabloid terms but where the Bank of Japan does not go I will. You see if we go back to the critiques of the likely behaviour of Prime Minister Abe before he was elected there was the case that he would favour Japanese businesses and Japan Inc. Just like he had in his first term. Well is there anything they would like more than a cheap labour supply? Especially in a country which due to a shrinking population has a clear issue with labour supply.

Next comes the impact of a supply of cheap labour. This makes me think of the UK where the Ivory Towers tell us again and again that the increase in labour supply from net immigration did not affect wage growth. Now there are various factors to put in this particular melting pot but this research from the Bank of Japan is clearly heading in the opposite direction.

Productivity

Here is something you may not expect but I mention it from time to time so let me hand over to the Bank of Japan and the emphasis is mine.

One reason is that the productivity of
Japanese firms is relatively low and there is large
room to raise productivity, mainly in the
nonmanufacturing sector. In fact, Japan’s labor productivity remains at only 60 to 70 percent of the U.S. level.

Japan has been doing well in terms of growth recently but there are two issues. Firstly even 1.2% per annum is not great and secondly it has been forced on it as it looks to a future of labour shortages.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here. The rise in wages in June is welcome and the Yen in the workers pocket does not know whether it is a result of regular or bonus pay. But for now it looks like some icing on a similar cake. Combining this with the news on inflation that I discussed last time means that one area of Abenomics failure will in fact  be a positive here.

Another factor is that households are reluctant to
accept rises in housing rent and administered
prices given the low actual inflation rate and
inflation expectations ( Bank of Japan)

If we throw in imputed rent as well that is half the inflation measure. The Japanese do not know have lucky they are to have this and for all the Turning Japanese themes the Bank of Japan wants them to turn British in this respect. But if we move on from the detail we see that low inflation means this looks like a better year for real wages. Accordingly if we look back to my last update on this issue from a fortnight or so ago this from Gavyn Davies in the Financial Times looks even worse than it did then.

Even with very careful communication and forward guidance, monetary policy may not be sufficient, on its own, to reach the inflation target. Eventually, unconventional fiscal easing may also be needed, though this is not remotely on the horizon at present.

As ever the picture remains complex as so far the wages growth has yet to filter through.

Household spending fell 1.2 percent in June from a year earlier, government data showed on Tuesday, marking the fifth straight month of declines.

 

 

 

What can we expect next from the ECB?

Today the European Central Bank starts its latest policy meeting and tomorrow lunchtime we will be told the outcome. To my mind there are three certainties. The first is that ECB President Mario Draghi will call for more economic reforms in his introductory statement. The next is that he will wish everyone a happy holiday season at the end. The third is that he will find a way to point out that in its own terms the ECB has had a Eureka moment.From Eurostat.

Euro area annual inflation rate was 2.0% in June 2018, up from 1.9% in May 2018. A year earlier, the rate was
1.3%

So the 2% target has been hit and if you take the average of those 2 months you end up pretty near to the 1.97% specified back in the day in the valedictory speech of Mario’s predecessor Jean-Claude Trichet. Next comes this.

Seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.4% in the euro area (EA19) (and the EU28 during the first quarter of 2018),
compared with the previous quarter……..Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 2.5% in the euro area.

So economic growth and inflation on target as Mario readies us for the last leg of his triple play.

The number of persons employed increased by 0.4% in both the euro area (EA19) and the EU28 in the first
quarter of 2018 compared with the previous quarter…….Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, employment increased by 1.4% in both the euro area and the EU28 in the first quarter of 2018……Eurostat estimates that, in the first quarter of 2018, 237.9 million men and women were employed in the EU28, of which 157.2 million were in the euro area. These are the highest levels ever recorded in both areas.

So as you can see even the perennial bugbear which is the employment situation in the Euro area has improved. This brings me to another certainty these days which is that Mario will run rings around the journalists at the press conference. The only danger to that is overconfidence as he sings along to Flo and her Machine.

The dog days are over
The dog days are done

A nagging problem

The catch to the scenario above is that the punch bowl at this particular party is still pretty full. No longer right up to the brim but there is still a -0.4% deposit rate and this.

would reduce the monthly pace of net asset purchases to €15 billion until the end of December 2018 and then end net asset purchases.

Lest we forget it will be twisting by the pool this summer and beyond.

Third, it intended to maintain its policy of reinvesting the principal payments from maturing securities purchased under the APP for an extended period of time after ending net purchases, and in any case for as long as necessary to maintain favourable liquidity conditions and an ample degree of monetary accommodation.

One of the biggest beneficiaries does not seem to merit a mention so let me help out. The various Euro area governments will be grateful for the help to fiscal policy via lower borrowing costs especially Mario’s home country because after the election result the bond market there has looked more vulnerable ( 10 year yield 2.65%). Some may think that the new Vice President the ex Spanish Finance Minister was appointed to keep the ECB reminded about this but whatever it does pose questions about the claimed independence. After all it was only at the last press conference that we were told the ECB was struggling to find him a specific role implying he lacked the skills required.

But looking ahead the sovereign bond book will head towards 2.1 trillion Euros and then stay there. So we move on with the nagging worry that people are still drinking from the punch bowl with the band at full volume.

What happens next?

This morning’s monetary data provided some food for thought.

The annual growth rate of the broad monetary aggregate M3 increased to 4.4% in June 2018 from 4.0% in
May, averaging 4.1% in the three months up to June. The components of M3 showed the following
developments. The annual growth rate of the narrower aggregate M1, which comprises currency in
circulation and overnight deposits, stood at 7.4% in June, compared with 7.5% in May

In terms of economic outlook we see that the narrow money supply has stabilised overall at a lower level confirming a weaker economic trajectory. Looking further ahead broad money growth has improved but against that inflation has risen.

The ECB will be pleased to see an improvement in credit provided to businesses but I think that is more of a lagging ( from the period of growth seen last year) than a leading indicator.

A Space Oddity

Strangely perhaps the biggest challenge to the shiny happy people economic view in the Euro area has come from the ECB itself.

The view was also reiterated that the observed slowdown could, to some extent, be seen as a natural development in a maturing expansion after many years of growth above potential.  ( ECB July Minutes )

Er haven’t we just seen many years of growth below potential? I know recently things improved but have the credit crunch and the Euro area crisis just been redacted? Also as so often for central bankers we see such thoughts are driven by a rather downbeat outlook.

An increasing number of countries and sectors were starting to run into capacity constraints and labour shortages, implying a “structural” levelling-off of growth,

If true that is a bit grim.

Banks

Problems here never really go away and claiming “many years of growth above potential” trims the list of possible excuses quite drastically. There is the ongoing issue of money laundering and corruption in the Baltic nations and of course there is the Italian version.

The ECB appears to have lost patience with Carige, which although worth a mere 500 million euros is one of Italy’s top 10 biggest lenders by assets. It has rejected the Genoa-based bank’s current capital plan, and given it until year end to raise its total capital ratio to 13.1 percent, almost 90 basis points above the current level.  ( Reuters )

Comment

As you can see the picture on the surface looks good for the ECB and it is true there have been improvements. I expect Mario to defend the ongoing QE and negative interest-rates by pointing out that what he considers to be core inflation is at 1.2% below target. But the old punch bowl argument does pose questions especially as the man who made the original case could not have been aware of how large a modern punch bowl actually is. The vulnerability is to any combination of a further slowing in the economy and pick up in inflation. That will be there for a while as the ECB intends to maintain the size of its stock of QE  as well as having no plans to raise interest-rates.

This entailed the expectation that policy rates would remain at their present levels at least through the summer of 2019 and in any case for as long as necessary to ensure that the evolution of inflation remained aligned with the Governing Council’s current expectations of a sustained adjustment path. ( ECB July Minutes)

Putting this another way I note that the Taylor Rule would according to the Wall Street Journal have interest-rates at 2.5%. I am no great fan of automatic rules but that is quite a gap and widens if you note the -0.4% deposit rate rather than the 0% rate some like to emphasise. Which returns to the question of why if things are so good we remain enmeshed in zero and indeed negative interest-rates?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Japan is the land with no inflation

The concept of the “lost decade” in Japan which of course now encompasses at least two of them has many features but one of them is the lack of inflation. This has continued in spite of the enormous effort to create some driven by the Abenomics economic policy of the current government and the Bank of Japan. Or as James Mackintosh put it yesterday.

Japanese consumer prices are now at the same level as in October 1998. Not inflation, but the *level* of CPI.

So not quite two lost decades although care is needed because as regular readers will be aware my view is that the inflation obsession of the world’s central banks is misguided. After all the 2% annual target was something that seemed right rather than being a considered thought out plan.

If we move to more recent developments we see a familiar tale of not much going on as the annual inflation rate was 0.7% in June. The index based at 2015 levels is at 100.9. Even in an area where you would expect inflation which is medical services ( for an aging population) there is not much as it is 2% and 103.3 respectively. This is a world where the 100 Yen machine still exists and you get the same drink or chocolate bar you got years ago. The feature that sticks in my mind from when I worked in Tokyo was the gloriously named “Pocari Sweat” which tasted better than in sounds. Another feature that is different to the UK in particular is the housing sector where there is little or no inflation either as it registers a 0.1% fall in the last year and the index is at 99.6. That’s where it was in 1996!

The Bank of Japan

There have been developments here this week as it once again faces the prospect of failing with regards to it inflation target. This is analagous to Mario Draghi calling for reform in the Euro area which is also in every policy statement. This morning saw the release of its latest research into underlying inflation which of course central bankers love when the headline isn’t behaving. But if anything it makes things worse as we plough through the trimmed mean, the weighted median and the mode. If I was Governor I would be rather pleased to see the weighted median at 0% but Governor Kuroda of course is not.

Here is yesterday’s response described by NHK News.

The Bank of Japan has made a move to curb the recent rise in long-term interest rates.

BOJ officials said on Monday that they are offering to buy an unlimited amount of Japanese government bonds at a fixed rate.

There is a bit of hype in the use of “unlimited amount” as whilst Japan issues plenty of bonds the Tokyo Whale has gobbled quite a few up already. Also the yield movements are very Japanese.

On Monday morning, the yield on the benchmark 10-year government bond briefly hit 0.090 percent on speculation the central bank may review its bond-buying program at next week’s meeting. The BOJ’s target for the yield is around zero percent.

After the officials made the suggestion, the yield fell to 0.065 percent.

Firstly let us note the small difference here before we look at the  Reuters perspective

The country’s government bond yields rose sharply on Monday, the first chance Asian traders had to react to a Reuters report that the central bank was debating whether to scale back monetary stimulus………Yields on the benchmark 10-year Japanese government bonds, or JGBs, shot up nearly six basis points on Monday before the central bank offered to buy unlimited amounts at a yield of 0.11 percent.

So returning to the yield issue it is not much but is better in real terms than in many places especially if you take a broad sweep of Japanese inflation. You may also note that the Bank of Japan more threatened to buy rather than actually buying. This is the new yield curve control programme which has seen its purchases slow. The hint it might step back has the problem that for so long it has pretty much centrally planned the Japanese Government Bond market which otherwise has withered on the vine.

 

The economy

There have been problems here too as we remind ourselves of what happened in the first quarter.

The economy shrank by an annual rate of 0.6 percent in the first quarter of 2018 as consumers kept their purse strings tight despite signs that paychecks are finally beginning to rise after decades of flat wages. ( Japan Times).

This morning’s PMI business survey for manufacturing has done little to improve the mood.

Japan Flash Manufacturing PMI falls to 20-month
low of 51.6 in July, from 53.0 in June…….New business grew at a much weaker rate and was broadly flat,
while export demand, despite further yen depreciation,
deteriorated for a second month running ( Markit ).

Actually these developments bring things more into line with the Bank of Japan in the sense that it felt the Japanese economy had outperformed in the previous 2 years.

However the labour market remains strong.

The unemployment rate fell to the lowest level in more than 25 years in May as companies ramped up hiring amid solidifying economic conditions, government data showed Friday……..The rate fell to 2.2 percent, against an estimated 2.5 percent, the lowest since 1992, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said. Separate data released the same day by the labor ministry showed the job-to-applicant ratio was 1.6, the highest since 1974.

There was also a flicker from wage growth in May as bonuses boosted the numbers meaning that real wages were 1.3% higher than a year before. It has led t the usual flurry of excitement from the media desperate to justify all their past pro Abenomics headlines who presumably follow the advice of “look away now” at the previous months as 3 out of 4 showed negative annual growth. Still for fans of “output gap” style analysis it is an improvement from complete disaster to mere failure assuming it lasts. They would be expecting the equivalent of the 41 degrees celsius recorded near to Tokyo yesterday.

Comment

Actually the twenty years of being an inflation free zone has not gone that badly for Japan. Collectively the economic growth rate has been weak but individually it has done better as we see a positive spin on the falling population level. Personally I think that pumping up inflation to 2% per annum would be likely to inflict economic danger on Japan because if we look across to the west we see that the Ivory Tower assumption that wages would automatically rise in response is another error.

But as so often the cry for “More! More! More!” goes up as I note this from Gavyn Davies in the Financial Times.

Even with very careful communication and forward guidance, monetary policy may not be sufficient, on its own, to reach the inflation target. Eventually, unconventional fiscal easing may also be needed, though this is not remotely on the horizon at present.

So the monetary policy which apparently could not fail has so lets pump up fiscal policy. That starts from an interesting level of the national debt and from a curious view of where inflation has been.

Bank of Japan faces the return of very low inflation

How can you return if you never went away?

Lower house price inflation adds to the headache at the Bank of England

Today is inflation day in the UK where we receive the latest data but before we get to that there were some developments on the issue of how we measure it. This took place at the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords where its ongoing enquiry into the Retail Price Index  or RPI continued and took evidence from the National Statistician John Pullinger. Regular readers will be aware that I have been making the case for the RPI for more than six years now as the UK establishment set a plan to try to get rid of it and more recently attempting to let it wither under a policy of neglect where they do not update it even if the changes required are ones which are easy to do because the data is already collected for other indices. Actually they have not even been consistent in that policy as they did make a change last year to bring in a new house price index as the previous one had been discovered to be incorrect.

For newer readers this matters because put simply it is the indices that give the higher readings for inflation which seem to come under official challenge. The pensioners index went about five years ago and the RPI has been under fire for most of this decade. The measure they would like to replace it with called CPIH has in its relatively short life consistently given the lowest reading. The latest numbers go RPI ( 3.4%) which of course was replaced by the CPI ( 2.4%) and then CPI (2.3%). I am sure you can see the trend for yourself but in case you think this is arcane it mattered a lot yesterday as with total wage growth being 2.5% then we get quite different answers for real wage growth. Another impact is on GDP growth where the statistician Mark Courtney has estimated that the use of CPI rather than RPI has raised recorded growth by something of the order of 0.5%. At times of low growth like now that gets even more significant.

Moving to yesterday John Pullinger said this.

The RPI is not a good measure of inflation ( slight delay) as captured by prices that capture the impact on the consumption of goods and services, it is not a good measure of inflation if you look at the impact of prices on households.

Even this opening salvo represents a change as the previous position was the bit before the slight delay whereas now room for manoeuvre is being created. As the meeting developed there was a shift to this as reported by the Financial Times.

Mr Pullinger had previously refused to consider reforms to the RPI, saying it was a legacy index that could not be changed.But in response to insistent questions by committee members, he said the statistics agency had now changed its mind, but needed to get the Treasury and the Bank of England on board before it would act.

So just like the Financial Times itself where the economics editor Chris Giles argued for some years against the RPI before mellowing recently. Let me cut to the two main issues here which are owner-occupied housing costs and the formula effect. The UK establishment have campaigned in favour of inflation measures which exclude owner occupied housing costs ( CPI) or use fantasy rents which are never paid in reality to do so ( CPIH). In some ways I think the latter is worse as it flies under a false flag as cursory readers may only read the headlines which say it covers housing costs. In reality it has been an embarrassment which I have covered many times.

The “formula effect” is more complex and many of you will have read the eloquent arguments in  favour of what was called RPIJ  by Andrew Baldwin in the comments section here which in essence is RPI without it. The UK establishment took that line for a few years then dropped it as you have to calculate it yourself now ( or wait for Andrew to do it for you). The bone of contention here is that some of it at least is due to changes in the way clothing prices were measured in 2010 which caused as Taylor Swift would put it “trouble,trouble,trouble”. You see until then there were arguments CPI under measured inflation not RPI being over. If I was in charge there would be a major project into investigating and reforming this area as before then the formula effect was smaller. It is a matter for the UK authorities as to why such work began but then stopped. Research was replaced by rhetoric.

Today’s numbers

We dodged a little bit of a bullet I think.

The all items CPI annual rate is 2.4%, unchanged from last month

What I mean by that is that there were upwards pressure as three utilities raised domestic energy costs and the comparison for petrol prices was with 115.3 pence last year. Having written what I have above it was hard not to have a wry smile at what held inflation down.

where prices of clothing fell by 2.3% between May and June this year compared with a fall of 1.1% between the same two months a year ago. Prices usually fall between May and June as the summer sales season begins but the fall in 2018 is the largest since 2012.

Fortunately in some ways this was not the reason why the RPI went the other way.

The all items RPI annual rate is 3.4%, up from 3.3% last month.

Looking Ahead

There continues to be a tug higher from the producer price numbers.

The headline rate of inflation for goods leaving the factory gate (output prices) was 3.1% on the year to June 2018, up from 3.0% in May 2018. Prices for materials and fuels (input prices) rose 10.2% on the year to June 2018, up from 9.6% in May 2018.

These do not impact on a one for one basis by any means as the effect weakens from input prices to output prices and even more so to consumer inflation. The input number is mostly ( ~70%) the impact of the oil price and changes in the value of the UK pound £.

House Prices

Finally the official data series is catching up with the other measures that we look at.

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 3.0% in the year to May 2018 (down from 3.5% in April 2018). This is its lowest annual rate since August 2013 when it was also 3.0%.

This means that the other measures seem to be working well as a leading indicator although it is also true that there remain challenges to the new series ( there is still some debate about its treatment of new builds)

Comment

There is good news today in that inflation at least on the official measures did not rise and there is hope for something of an official rethink on how it is measured. Let me give some credit to the Economic Affairs Committee which did challenge the National Statistician yesterday. For purposes of transparency I did contact them last month to point out they should widen their evidence base and to invite them to the Royal Statistical Society meeting on the RPI at which I was one of the speakers. Sadly their Lordships were otherwise engaged but staff members did attend I am told. I note that they were also willing to reflect evidence that the CPI measure has under recorded inflation ( housing costs for a start).

Moving to today’s numbers we see that upwards pressure remains on consumer inflation but that there is plenty for the Bank of England to consider. We saw yesterday that wage growth has dipped albeit only by a small amount and now inflation has remained static. Some may consider that its eyes will be on the fall in house price inflation especially should its mood be of behaving like an unreliable boyfriend.

But even so let me compare house price growth’s 3% with this which is a basis of the CPIH housing costs section.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in Great Britain rose by 1.0% in the 12 months to June 2018; unchanged since April 2018.