The problems facing inflation targets

Today I wish to discuss something which if it was a plant we would call a hardy perennial. No I do not mean Greece although of course there has been another “deal” which extends the austerity that was originally supposed to end in 2020 to 2060 in a clear example along the lines of To Infinity! And Beyond! Nor do I mean the Bank of Japan which has announced it will continue to chomp away on Japanese assets. What I mean is central bankers and members of the establishment who conclude that an inflation target of 2% per annum is not enough and it needs to be raised. The latest example has come from the chair of the US Federal Reserve Janet Yellen. From Reuters.

Years of tepid economic recovery have Fed Chair Janet Yellen and other central bankers considering what was once unthinkable: abandoning decades-long efforts to hold inflation down and allowing price expectations to creep up.

I am not sure if the author has not been keeping up with current events or has been drinking the Kool Aid because since early 2012 the US Federal Reserve has been trying to get inflation up to its 2% per annum target. It managed it for the grand sum of one month earlier this year before it started slip sliding away again. Indeed for a while the inflation target was raised to 2.5% which achieved precisely nothing which is why the change has mostly been forgotten. From December 2012.

inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal,

Of course the Bank of Japan has been trying to raise inflation pretty much since the lost decade(s) began. Anyway here is Reuters again on the current thinking of Janet Yellen.

In remarks on Wednesday, Yellen called an emerging debate over raising global inflation targets “one of the most important questions facing monetary policy,” as central bankers grapple with an economic rut in which low growth, low interest rates and weak price and wage increases reinforce each other.

There is a clear problem with that paragraph as this week’s UK data has reminded us “weak price” increases boosted both retail sales and consumption via the way they boosted real wages. The rationale as expressed below is that we are expected to be none too bright.

The aim would be a change of households’ and businesses’ psychology, convincing them that prices would rise fast enough in the future that they would be better off borrowing and spending more today……..Raising that target to 3 or even 4 percent as some economists have suggested would shift the outlook of firms in particular, allowing them to charge more for goods and pay more for labor without the fear that a central bank would step on the brakes.

They are relying on us being unable to spot that the extra money buys less. Oh and after the utter failure of central bank Forward Guidance particularly in the UK you have my permission to laugh at the Ivory Tower style idea that before they do things consumers and businesses stop to wonder what Mark Carney or Janet Yellen might think or do next!

The theme here is along the lines set out by this speech from John Williams of the San Francisco Fed last September.

The most direct attack on low r-star would be for central banks to pursue a somewhat higher inflation target. This would imply a higher average level of interest rates and thereby give monetary policy more room to maneuver. The logic of this approach argues that a 1 percentage point increase in the inflation target would offset the deleterious effects of an equal-sized decline in r-star.

In John’s Ivory Tower there is a natural rate of interest called r-star.

Meanwhile in the real world

Whilst I am a big fan of Earth Wind and Fire I caution against using their lyrics too literally for policy action.

Take a ride in the sky
On our ship, fantasize
All your dreams will come true right away

You see if we actually look at the real world there is an issue that in spite of all the monetary easing of the credit crunch era we have not seen the consumer inflation that central bankers were both planning and hoping for. The Federal Reserve raised its inflation target as described above in December 2012 because it was expecting “More,More, More” but it never arrived. For today I will ignore the fact that inflation did appear in asset markets such as house prices because so many consumer inflation measures follow the advice “look away now” to that issue.

If we move to the current situation and ignore the currency conflicted UK we see that there is a danger for central bankers but hope for the rest of us that inflationary pressure is fading. A sign of that has come from Eurostat this morning.

Euro area annual inflation was 1.4% in May 2017, down from 1.9% in April.

Tucked away in the detail was the fact that energy costs fell by 1.2% on the month reducing the annual rise to 4.5% from the much higher levels seen so far in 2017. As we look at a price for Brent Crude Oil of US $47 per barrel we see that if that should remain there then more of this can be expected as 2017 progresses. That is of course an “if” but OPEC does seem to have lost at least some of its pricing power.

Actually today’s data posed yet another problem for the assumptions of central bankers and the inhabitants of Ivory Towers. We have been seeing am improvement in the Euro area economy as 2016 moved in 2017 so we should be seeing higher wage increases according to economics 101. From Eurostat.

In the euro area, wages & salaries per hour worked grew by 1.4%…., in the first quarter of 2017 compared with the same quarter of the previous year. In the fourth quarter of 2016, the annual change was +1.6%

What if our intrepid theorists managed to push inflation higher and wages did not rise? A bit like the calamity the Bank of England ignored back in 2010/11. As an aside a particular sign that the world has seen a shift in its axis is the number from Spain which for those unaware is seeing a burst of economic growth. Yet annual wage growth is the roundest number of all at 0%.

Comment

Much has changed in the credit crunch era but it would appear that central bankers are at best tone-deaf to the noise. We have seen rises in inflation target as one was hidden in the UK switch to CPI from RPI ( ~0.5% per annum) and the US had a temporary one as discussed above and a more permanent one when it switched from the CPI to PCE measure back in 2000 ( ~ 0.3% per annum). I do not see advocates of higher inflation target claiming these were a success so we can only assume there are hoping we will not spot them.

The reality is quite simple the logical response to where we are now would be to reduce inflation targets rather than raise them. Another route which would have mostly similar effects would be to put house prices in the various consumer inflation measures.

Oh and something I thought I would keep for the end. have you spotted how the US Federal Reserve sets its own targets? I wonder how that would work in the era of the Donald?!

Music for traders

My twitter feed has been quite busy with suggestions of songs for traders. All suggestions welcome.

 

Imputed Rents do their job of slowing rises in UK inflation

Today we find ourselves reviewing the data on the rise in inflation in the UK in 2017. This has been caused by a couple of factors. The first is something of a world-wide trend where the price of crude oil stopped falling and being a disinflationary influence. The second has been the fall in the value of the UK Pound which accelerated following the vote for the UK to leave the European Union just over a year ago. If we look back a year then the current US $1.269 has replaced the US $1.411 back then. So the inflation which was supposedly dead ( if you recall the Deflation hype and paranoia..) came back on the menu.

The UK establishment responds

If you do not want the public to realise that inflation is rising but do not wish to introduce any policies to stop it then the only option available to you is to change the way the numbers are measured. Last Autumn the UK statistical establishment began quite a rush to increase the use of rents in  a new headline UK inflation measure. There is of course a proper use for rents which is for those who do rent, however the extension was for those who own their house and do not actually rent it out. So yes imputed rents were required to fill the gap. Here is the official explanation.

However, it does not include the costs associated with owning a home, known as owner occupier housing costs. ONS decided that the best way to estimate these costs is a method known as ‘rental equivalence’. This estimates the cost of owning a home by calculating how much it would cost to rent an equivalent property. A new index based on CPI but including owner occupier housing costs – CPIH – was launched in 2013.

How has that gone?

This new index had some problems in 2014,

Also there is this.

We have still not yet addressed all of the necessary requirements for CPIH to become a national statistic.

So why the rush? Well last week’s numbers on rents from Homelet will have raised a wry smile for many.

UK rental price inflation fell for the first time in almost eight years in May, new data from HomeLet reveals. The average rent on a new tenancy commencing in May was £901, 0.3% lower than in the same month of 2016. New tenancies on rents in London were 3% lower than this time last year…..May’s decrease in average rental values marks a significant moment for the rented property sector. This is the first time since December 2009 the HomeLet Rental Index has reported a fall in rents on an annualised basis.

So rents were rushed in as part of the “most comprehensive measure” of UK inflation just in time for them to fall! Those who believe that rental inflation is related to wage growth will no doubt be thinking that wage growth and hence likely rental growth is lower these days. This is all rather different to house prices where lower mortgage rates can set off more price rises and inflation. I have met those responsible for this and pointed out that the word “comprehensive” is misleading as they do not actually measure the owner occupied housing market they simply impute from the rental one.

Today’s data

We see this.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 2.9% in May 2017, up from 2.7% in April………The Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH, not a National Statistic) 12-month inflation rate was 2.7% in May 2017, up from 2.6% in April.

So not only is the new measure again below the older one we see that the gap has now widened from 0.1% to 0.2%. As the difference must be the imputed rental section let us take a look.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in Great Britain rose by 1.8% in the 12 months to May 2017; this is unchanged from April 2017.

As you can see whilst the official data does not have the falls indicated by Homelet it is a drag on the overall inflation measure. Sir Humphrey Appleby would have a broad smile on his face right now. Oh and the reason why it is not showing falls is that the numbers are what might be called “smoothed”. The actual monthly  numbers are quite erratic ( which of course would lead to doubts if people saw them) so in fact the numbers are over a period of time and then weighted. The ONS has been unwilling to reveal the length of the period used but it used to be around 18 months. This is of course another reason why this methodology is flawed and a bad idea because rents from a year ago should be in last years indices not this months.

I have argued for a long time ( this debate began in 2012) that house prices should be used as they are of course actually paid rather than being imputed. Also they behave very differently to rents as a pattern and are more timely which is important. So what are they doing?

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 5.6% in the year to April 2017 (up from 4.5% in the year to March 2017).

As you can see house price inflation is currently treble that of rental inflation. Can anybody think why the UK establishment wanted rents rather than house prices used in the consumer inflation measure?

Our past measure

The Retail Price Index used to be used in the UK.

The all items RPI annual rate is 3.7%, up from 3.5% last month.

So the pattern of higher inflation measures being retired continues. Although it does at least serve two roles. The first is for indexation of things people pay such as mobile phone bills as my contract rises by it as of course do student loans. The second is for the indexation of Bank of England pensions where it seems strange that the establishment attack on RPI somehow got forgotten

Looking ahead

Fortunately we see that the main push is beginning to fade.

The annual rate of factory gate price inflation (output prices) remained at 3.6% for the third consecutive month and slowed on the month to 0.1%, from 0.4% in March and April……….The annual rate of inflation for materials and fuels (input prices) fell back to 11.6% in May, continuing its decline from 19.9% in January 2017 following the recent strength of sterling.

There is still momentum to push the annual rate of inflation higher which will not be helped if the post General Election dip in the value of the UK Pound persists. But the main push has now been seen. We should be grateful that the price of crude oil is around US $48 per barrel in Brent Crude terms.

Comment

The latest attempt by the UK establishment to “improve” the UK measurement of consumer inflation is being shown up for what it is, an attempt to manipulate the numbers lower. I guess things we receive will no longer be indexed to CPI they will be switched to CPIH! Also will the Bank of England switch its inflation target? If so it will complete a journey which has lowered the measure from 3.9% ( where what is called RPIX now is) to 2.7% or a 1.2% change when the target was only moved by 0.5%. In these times of lower wage rises, interest-rates and yields then 0.7% per annum matters quite a bit over time.

An answer to this would be to put the asset price which the Bank of England loves to inflate, house prices, in the inflation index. Let me leave you today with the price of a few basic goods if they had risen in line with them.

 

As I am off later to buy a chicken for dinner I am grateful it has not risen at such a rate.

UK Inflation continues its ascent in spite of the measurement “improvements”

Today we will find ourselves updated on the latest official data for UK inflation. Sadly we will see it move further above target and there have been two main drivers of this. Firstly it is the fact that the price of oil stopped falling. This will impact on April’s inflation data as the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil was around US $10 per barrel higher than in the same month last year. Here is the Office for National Statistics on the subject.

Oil rose further above $55 (44.22 pounds) a barrel, supported by another shutdown at Libya’s largest oilfield and heightened tension over Syria. Libya’s Sharara oilfield was shut after a group blocked a pipeline linking it to an oil terminal, a Libyan oil source said. The field had only just returned to production, after a week-long stoppage ending in early April. Brent crude LCOc1, the global benchmark, rose 48 cents to $55.72, not far from the one-month high of $56.08. U.S. crude CLc1 was up 37 cents at $52.61.

In addition the next factor then arrives which is the lower level of the UK Pound £ which spent much of last April in the mid US $1.40s compared to the mid US $1.20s this year. Actually later this April the UK Pound £ rose to the current level of around US $ 1.29 so the exact annual difference depends a fair bit on which day in the month is used  but the underlying issue is that the cost will have risen. For the price of crude oil there is a double whammy effect as the two changes combine. Also it impacts on domestic fuel costs although the two main rises in April ( SSE and E.ON ) were on the 26th and 28th of the month so are more likely to be in the May data.

The UK Budget will also give prices an upwards nudge.

The measures that will be implemented in the financial year ending 2017 are estimated to increase the CPIH 1-month rate by approximately 0.16 percentage points, the CPI 1-month rate by approximately 0.18 percentage points and the RPI 1-month rate by approximately 0.23 percentage points.

This compares to 0.04% last year for CPIH and 0.06% last year for RPI.

A Space Oddity

Remember the official campaign against the Retail Price Index measure of inflation saying it does not meet international best practice? It looks like someone has let their greed for higher rises to create a bit of amnesia on that subject.

The March 2017 Budget announced that from 1 April 2017 VED rates will increase in line with the RPI for cars, vans and motorcycles registered between 1 March 2001 and 1 April 2017.

A direct impact

The producer price or PPI inflation measure shows us the impact of the factors analysed above as we look at the impact on input prices.

Crude oil provided the largest contribution of 5.82 percentage points to the annual rate and on the month it provided a contribution of 0.32 percentage points.

The overall picture is as shown below.

The monthly rate of inflation for goods leaving the factory gate (output prices) was unchanged at 0.4% in April 2017, while input prices rose 0.1% following 2 months of no growth….The annual rate for factory gate price inflation was positive but unchanged at 3.6%, while the annual growth rate for input prices fell back to 16.6% from a peak of 19.9% in January 2017.

As you can see some of the input price effect is fading but output prices will continue to be affected and therefore will exert an upwards pull on the consumer inflation indices.

The headlines

These raised a wry smile and I will give you just one example which is from the Press Association which was repeated by many other media and news outlets.

#Breaking Rate of Consumer Price Index inflation rises to 2.7% in April, from 2.3% in March, the Office for National Statistics says

The wry smile was caused by the fact that the new official inflation series is now CPIH and as someone who has led a campaign against it then perhaps more people were listening than I realised. For newer readers the CPIH is where H= Housing Costs, and so far so good. But it all goes wrong when a number is calculated for what houses which are owner-occupied would be rented out for based on Imputed Rent methodology. So a theoretical construct or made up number is used as opposed to actual real world numbers such as mortgage rates and house prices. Oh and the RPI index was downgraded for not being a national statistic whereas CPIH was upgraded for being.

CPIH is not currently a National Statistic.

If we look at the numbers we see that there is another reason to raise a wry smile.

The Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH, not a National Statistic) 12-month inflation rate was 2.6% in April 2017, up from 2.3% in March.

Conspiracy theorists will have noted that it has become the headline measure just in time to give a lower inflation reading than its predecessor! I tend to downplay such thoughts although the rush to make it the new headline measure at the end of last year does give some support to them. After all I was pointing out back then that I expected rents to struggle this year as opposed with what I considered hype from the real estate industry. This is now being borne out by the official data.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in Great Britain rose by 1.8% in the 12 months to April 2017; this is down from 2.0% in March 2017.

So the housing market has arrived in the numbers just in time to lower them after all the years of ignoring it as it surged. Some perspective on this has been provided by the Resolution Foundation today.

Staying with rents the official data is catching up on what has been going on in London which as usual is in the van of any changes.

London private rental prices grew by 1.4% in the 12 months to April 2017, 0.4 percentage points below the Great Britain 12-month growth rate.

If we return to my theme which is that house prices give a much better guide to inflation than rents let me point out that they continue to send a different message. Yes the inflationary burst is fading (good) but compare the number with the one for rents.

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 4.1% in the year to March 2017 (down from 5.6% in the year to February 2017).

Comment

The drumbeat in today’s numbers is that UK inflation is on the rise as was expected on here and that it is not good news. Indeed the news is more disappointing if we look at our old inflation measure.

The all items RPI annual rate is 3.5%, up from 3.1% last month.

With wage and indeed economic growth around 2% per annum the difference  between our old and newer inflation measures becomes more material. It is of course something the Bank of England should be looking into but apart from putting their own pensions in instruments benefitting from the RPI they are shamefully silent on the matter. What we can see is that each “improvement” in consumer inflation methodology seems to result in a lower number whereas other prices surge. I have already looked at house prices but whilst some of it is growth we have to wonder if inflation is also at play in this asset price as well.

The FTSE 100’s recent record breaking run showed no sign of ending as the UK’s main share index hit another record intra-day high.

In morning trade,the index climbed to 42 points, or 0.5% to 7,495.68 – meaning it is up 5% this year.

Vodafone led the way, with the mobile giant’s shares rising 4.1% as investors ignored news of a hefty annual loss and focused on its upbeat outlook.

What are the latest trends for inflation?

It is time to review one of the themes of 2017 which is that we expected a pick-up in the annual rate of inflation around the world. This has been in play with the US CPI rising at an annual rate of 2.4% in March and the Euro area CPI rising at 1.9% in April for example. If we switch to the factor that has been the main player in this we see that energy prices were 10.9% higher in the US than a year before and that in the Euro area they had gone from an annual rate of -8.7% in April last year to 7.5% this April. If we look at my own country the UK then the new headline inflation measure called CPIH ( where H includes an Imputed Rent effort at housing costs) then inflation has risen from 0.2% in October 2015 to 2.3% in March. So we see that the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have inflation above target and the ECB on it which means two things. Firstly those who went on and on about deflation a couple of years ago were about as accurate as central banking Forward Guidance . Secondly that we can expect inflation in the use of the words “temporary” and “transitory”!

Crude Oil

There has been a change in trend here indicated this morning by this from @LiveSquawk.

Saudi OPEC Governor: Based On Today’s Data, There Is Growing Conviction That 6-Month Extension May Be Needed To Re-balance The Market

You may recall that what used to be the world’s most powerful cartel the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries or OPEC met last November to agree some output cuts. These achieved their objective for a time as the price of crude oil rose however this was undermined by a couple of factors. The first was that it was liable to be a victim of its own success as a higher oil price was always likely to encourage the shale oil wildcatters especially in the United States to increase production. This would not only dampen the price increase but also reduce the relative importance of OPEC. As you can see below that has happened.

U.S. crude production rose to 9.29 million barrels last week, the highest level since August 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration. (Bloomberg).

Also doubts rose as to whether OPEC was delivering the output cuts that it promised. For example they seem to be exporting more than implied by their proclaimed cuts. From the Financial Times.

Analysts at Energy Aspects say tanker tracking data suggests Opec’s exports have fallen by as little as 800,000 b/d so far in 2017 as some members have supplanted oil lost to production cutbacks with crude from storage, or have freed up barrels for export as they carry out maintenance at domestic refineries.

On the other side of the coin there is the fact that for a given level of output we need less oil these days and an example of this comes from the Financial Post in Canada today.

Canada substantially boosted its renewable electricity capacity over the past decade, and has now emerged as the second largest producer of hydroelectricty in the world, a new report said Wednesday.

So the trajectory for oil demand looks lower making the “balance” OPEC is looking for harder to achieve.

Other commodities

We get a guide to this if we look to a land down under as the Reserve Bank of Australia has updated us in its monetary policy today.

Beyond the next couple of quarters, prices of bulk commodities are expected to decline………Consistent with previous forecasts, iron ore prices have already fallen significantly in the past few weeks.

The RBA also produces an index of commodity prices.

Preliminary estimates for April indicate that the index decreased by 3.5 per cent (on a monthly average basis) in SDR terms, after decreasing by 1.7 per cent in March (revised). A decline in the iron ore price more than offset an increase in the coking coal price. Both the rural and base metals subindices decreased slightly in the month. In Australian dollar terms, the index decreased by 2.0 per cent in April.

So the rally seems to be over and the index above was inflated by supply problems for coal which drove its price higher. As to Iron Ore the Melbourne Age updates us on what has been going on.

Spot Asian iron ore prices have performed worse than Chinese steel rebar futures in recent weeks, dropping 31 per cent from a peak of US$94.86 a tonne on February 21 to US$65.20 on Thursday.

If we switch to Dr. Copper then the rally seems to be over there too although so far the price drops have been relatively minor.

What about food prices?

The United Nations updated us yesterday on this.

The FAO Food Price Index* (FFPI) averaged 168.0 points in April 2017, down 3.1 points (1.8 percent) from March, but still 15.2 points (10 percent) higher than in April 2016. As in March, all commodity indices used in the calculation of the FFPI subsided in April, with the exception of meat values.

As ever there are different swings here and of course the swings remind us of the film Trading Places. There was a time that these looked like the most rigged markets but of course there is so much more competition for such a title these days including from those who are supposed to provide fair markets ( central banks ).

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here as we look forwards. There is always a danger in using financial markets too precisely as of course sharp falls like we have seen this week are often followed by a rebound. But it does look as if the commodity price trajectory has shifted lower which is good for inflation trends which is likely to boost economic growth compared to otherwise. Of course there are losers as well as winners here as commodity producers lose and importers win. But overall we seem set to see a bit less inflation than previously predicted and over time a little more economic growth.

As to the impact of a falling crude oil price on inflation the UK calculates it like this and I would imagine that many nations are in a similar position.

A 1 pence change on average in the cost of a litre of motor fuel contributes approximately 0.02 percentage points to the 1-month change in the CPIH.

There are of course also indirect effects on inflation from lower energy prices as well as other direct effects such as on domestic fuel bills. For the UK itself I estimated that inflation would be around 1.5% higher due to the EU leave due to the lower level of the Pound £ and for that to weaken economic growth. So for us in particular any dip in worldwide inflation is welcome as of course is the rise in the UK Pound £ to US $1.29.

A (space) oddity

We are using electronic methods of payment far more something which I can vouch for. However according to the Bank of England we are also demanding more cash.

Despite speculation to the contrary, the number of banknotes in circulation is increasing. During 2016, growth in the value of Bank of England notes was 10%, double its average growth rate over the past decade.

Who is stocking up and why? Pink Floyd of course famously provided some advice.

Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four star daydream,
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Share Radio

Sadly it comes to an end today and in truth it has been winding down in 2017. As someone who gave up his time to support it let me say that it is a shame and wish all those associated with it the best for the future.

 

The 0% problem of Japan’s economy

Today I intend to look east to the land of the rising sun or Nihon where the ongoing economic struggles have been a forerunner to what is now happening to western economies. Also of course Japan is intimately tied up with the ongoing issue and indeed problem that is North Korea. And its navy or rather maritime self-defence force is being reinforced as this from Reuters only last month points out.

Japan’s second big helicopter carrier, the Kaga, entered service on Wednesday, giving the nation’s military greater ability to deploy beyond its shores………..Japan’s two biggest warships since World War Two are potent symbols of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to give the military a bigger international role. They are designated as helicopter destroyers to keep within the bounds of a war-renouncing constitution that forbids possession of offensive weapons.

We cannot be to critical of the name misrepresentation as of course the Royal Navy badged its previous aircraft carriers as through deck cruisers! There are of course issues though with Japan possessing such ships as the name alone indicates as the last one was involved in the attack on Pearl Habour before being sunk at Midway.

Demographics

This is a crucial issue as this from Bloomberg today indicates.

Japan Needs More People

The crux of the problem will be familiar to regular readers of my work.

Japanese companies already report they can’t find people to hire, and the future isn’t likely to get better — government researchers expect the country’s population to fall by nearly a third by 2065, at which point nearly 40 percent will be senior citizens. There’ll be 1.3 workers for every person over the age of 65, compared to 2.3 in 2015.

So the population is both ageing and shrinking which of course are interrelated issues. The solution proposed by Bloomberg is rather familiar.

It’s plain, however, that he needs to try harder still, especially when it comes to immigration……..Researchers say that to maintain the current population, Japan would have to let in more than half a million immigrants a year. (It took in 72,000 in 2015.)……..He now needs to persuade Japan that substantially higher immigration is a vital necessity.

There are various issues here as for example the Bloomberg theme that the policies of  Prime Minister Abe are working seems not to be applying to population. But as they admit below such a change is the equivalent of asking fans of Arsenal football club to support Tottenham Hotspur.

In a society as insular and homogeneous as Japan, any such increase would be a very tall order.

The question always begged in this is if the new immigrants boost the Japanese economy surely there must be a negative effect on the countries they leave?

The 0% Problem in Japan

I thought today I would look at the economy in different ways and partly as a reflection of the culture and partly due to the effect above a lot of economic and financial market indicators are near to 0%. This is something which upsets both establishments and central bankers.

Real Wages

Let me start with an issue I have been writing about for some years from Japan Macro Advisers.

The real wage growth, after offsetting the inflation in the consumer price, was 0% YoY in February.

The official real wage data has gone 0%,0%,0.1%, -0.1% and now 0% so in essence 0% and is appears on a road to nowhere. This is very different to what you may have read in places like Bloomberg and the Financial Times which have regularly trumpeted real wage growth in their headlines. There is a reason why this is even more significant than you might think because let me skip to a genuine example of economic success in Japan.

Given the prevalent labor shortage situation in Japan, there should be an economic force encouraging wages to rise. At 2.8%, the current unemployment rate is the lowest since 1993. (Japan Macro Advisers )

Actually in another rebuttal to Ivory Tower economics we see that unemployment is above what was “full employment”.

One could argue it is a matter of time, but it has already been 2.5 years since the unemployment rate reached 3.5%, the level economists considered as full-employment equivalent. (Japan Macro Advisers )

Inflation

The latest official data hammers out an increasingly familiar beat.

The consumer price index for Japan in February 2017 was 99.8 (2015=100), up 0.3% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and down 0.1% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

If you compare 99.8 now with 100 in 2015 you see that inflation has been in essence 0%. This is quite a reverse for the policy of Abenomics where the “Three Arrows” were supposed to lead to inflation rising at 2% per annum. An enormous amount of financial market Quantitative Easing has achieved what exactly? Here is an idea of the scale comparing Japan to the US and Euro area.

As we stand this has been a colossal failure in achieving its objective as for example inflation is effectively 0% and the Japanese Yen has been reinforcing this by strengthening recently into the 108s versus the US Dollar. it has however achieved something according to The Japan Times.

Tokyo’s skyline is set to welcome 45 new skyscrapers by the time the city hosts the Olympics in 2020, as a surge of buildings planned in the early years of Abenomics near completion.

Although in something of an irony this seems to cut inflation prospects.

“This could heat up competition for tenants in other areas of the city”

A cultural issue

From The Japan Times.

Naruhito Nogami, a 37-year-old systems engineer in Tokyo, drives to discount stores on weekends to buy cheap groceries in bulk, even though he earns enough to make ends meet and the prospects for Japan’s economic recovery are brighter.

“I do have money, but I’m frugal anyway. Everyone is like that. That’s just the way it is,” he says.

Jaoanese businesses have responded in a way that will be sending shudders through the office of Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda.

Top retailer Aeon Co. is cutting prices for over 250 grocery items this month to lure cost-savvy shoppers, and Seiyu, operated by Wal-Mart Stores, cut prices on more than 200 products in February.

More of the same?

It would seem that some doubling down is about to take place.

The Abe government on Tuesday nominated banker Hitoshi Suzuki and economist Goshi Kataoka to the Bank of Japan Policy Board to replace two members who have frequently dissented against the direction set by Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda. ( Bloomberg)

Also Japan seems ever more committed to a type of centrally planned economic culture.

Japanese government-backed fund eyes Toshiba’s chip unit (Financial Times )

With the Bank of Japan buying so many Japanese shares it has been named the Tokyo Whale there more questions than answers here.

Comment

There is much to consider here but let me propose something regularly ignored. Why does Japan simply not embrace its strengths of for example full employment and relatively good economic growth per capita figures and abandon the collective growth and inflation chasing? After all lower prices can provide better living-standards and as  wages seem unable to rise even with very low unemployment may be a road forwards.

The catch is the fact that Japan continues to not only have a high national debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio of 231% according to Bank of Japan data but is borrowing ever more each year. It is in effect reflating but not getting inflation and on a collective level not getting much economic growth either. Let is hope that Japan follows the lead of many of its citizens and avoids what happened last time after a period of economic troubles.

For us however we are left to mull the words of the band The Vapors.

Turning Japanese
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so

Let me finish with one clear difference we in the UK have much more of an inflation culture than Japan.

UK Inflation is hitting the poorest hardest

As we advance on a raft of UK inflation data there has already been a reminder of one of the themes of this website which is that the UK is an “inflation nation” where the institutional bias is invariably one way. From the BBC.

Drivers saw their car insurance premiums rise by an average of £110 in the last year, a comparison site says.

More expensive repairs and recent government changes to injury payouts pushed up annual insurance costs by 16%, according to Confused.com.

It found drivers paid on average £781 on comparison sites for a comprehensive policy in the year to March 2017.

Average premiums are set to rise to a record high and could pass £1,000 next year, it added.

Up,up and away! I guess those pushing for driverless cars will be happy with this but few others. Some of this is that cars are more complex and thereby more expensive to repair but little or nothing was done about the rise in “whiplash” claims and there has been something of a stealth tax campaign.

IPT went up from 6% to 9.5% in 2015, to 10% in 2016, and will rise to 12% in June 2017. ( IPT = Insurance Premium Tax)

Inflation outlook

We get much of this from commodity prices and in particular the price of crude oil. If we start with crude oil it has returned to where it has mostly been for the last few months which is around US $55/6 for a barrel of Brent Crude Oil where the OPEC production cuts seem to be met by the shale oil producers. However today’s data will be based on March where the oil price was around US $5 lower so this is for next month.

Speaking of the price of oil and noting yesterday’s topic of a rigged price ( Libor) there was this on Twitter.

In 2 years oil price/bbl gyrated from $80->$147->$35->$80 while physical demand for consumption varied by less than 3%……..I recommended to Treasury Select Committee in July 2008 a transatlantic commission of inquiry into the completely manipulated Brent market…..I blew the whistle on LIBOR-type oil futures market manipulation in 2000 & lost everything I had. Treasury/FSA were complicit in a whitewash

I have speculated before about banks manipulating the oil price but how about the oil price rise exacerbating the initial credit crunch effect?

One area of interest to chocoholics in particular is cocoa prices as I pointed out last week. If we look at them in detail we see that London Cocoa has fallen from 2546 last July to 1579 with 2% of that fall coming this morning. How many chocolate producers have raised prices claiming increasing costs over the past few months? Even allowing for a lower UK Pound £ costs have plainly fallen here as we wait to see if Toblerone will give us a triangle back! Or will we discover that the road is rather one-way……

We get little of a signal from Dr. Copper who has been mostly stable but Iron Ore prices have moved downwards. From Bloomberg.

Iron ore dropped into bear-market territory, with Barclays analysts pinning the blame on lower demand from China……Ore with 62 percent content in Qingdao fell 1 percent to $74.71 a dry ton on Monday, according to Metal Bulletin Ltd., following a 6.8 percent drop on Friday.

So as we wait to see what the price of crude oil does next some of the other pressure for higher inflation has abated for now. This was picked up on the forward radar for the official UK data today.

Input prices for producers increased at a slower rate in the 12 months to March compared to the beginning of 2017………PPI input price increased by 17.9% in 12 months to March 2017, down from 19.4% in February, as prices remained fairly flat on the month and prices increased in the previous year.

There was also a slight fading of output price inflation.

Factory gate prices (output prices) rose 3.6% on the year to March 2017, from 3.7% in February 2017, which is the ninth consecutive period of annual price growth.

Our official statisticians point us to higher food prices which has been a broad trend.

In the 12 months to February 2017, vegetable prices in the EU 28 countries increased by 12.4% and in Germany they increased by 22.5%.

However whilst this was true this may well be fading a little as well. We had the issues with broccoli from Spain earlier this year but more recently I note there are cheaper prices for strawberries from er Spain. So whilst there was an impact from the lower Pound £ we wait to see the next move.

CPIH 

This is the new headline measure of inflation for the UK although those who remember the official attacks on the Retail Price Index for being “not a National Statistic” will wonder how a measure which isn’t one either got promoted?! Or why it was done with such a rush?

Some may wonder if this news was a factor? From the London Evening Standard a few days ago.

In London, where rents are by far the most expensive in the country, prospective tenants saw prices fall 4.2 per cent year on year………The average cost of renting a home in the UK remained almost the same as at the start of 2016, rising just 1.8 per cent, compared to the 3.9 per cent annual growth recorded a year ago, thanks to a significant increase in the number of properties available.

It does make you wonder if they thought the buy-to let rush of early 2016 might depress rents? Anyway even the official numbers published today are seeing a fading.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in Great Britain rose by 2.0% in the 12 months to March 2017; this is down from 2.1% in February 2017………London private rental prices grew by 1.6% in the 12 months to March 2017, which is 0.4 percentage points below the Great Britain 12-month growth rate.

If London leads like it usually does…

Oh and Scotland is seeing rent disinflation albeit only marginal.

Scotland saw rental prices decrease (negative 0.1%) in the 12 months to March 2017.

So we see that rents are currently a downwards pull on the annual inflation rate.

The all items CPIH annual rate is 2.3%, unchanged from last month.

Whereas if we look at house prices we see this.

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 5.8% in the year to February 2017 (up from 5.3% in the year to January 2017).

The weasel words here are “owner occupied housing costs” which give the impression that house prices will be used without actually saying it. For newer readers this inflation measure assumes the home is rented out when it isn’t and then estimates the rent and uses that.

Comment

Whilst the headline number is unchanged there is a lot going on under the surface. For example the apparent fading of rents means that the new promoted measure called CPIH seems likely to drop below its predecessor or CPI in 2017. However under the surface there are different effects in different groups. Take a look at this from Asda.

The strongest decrease in spending power has been felt by the poorest households, whose weekly discretionary income in February was 18% lower than in the same month before, falling from -£20 to -£23. This implies that the basket of essential products and services is even less affordable than previous year for the bottom income group.

The clue here is the term essential products and services which of course is pretty much what central bankers look away from as for them essential means non core. You could not make it up! But what we are seeing here is the impact of higher fuel and food prices on the poorest of our society. Those economists who call for higher inflation should be sent to explain to these people how it is benefiting them as we wonder if there will be another of these moments?

I cannot eat an I-Pad!

Meanwhile the UK establishment continues its project to obfuscate over housing costs. The whole area is an utter mess as I note that @resi_analyst ( Neal Hudson) has been pointing out inconsistencies in the official price series for new houses. Back months are being quietly revised sometimes substantially.

A challenge to our statisticians

With the modern GDP methodology we see that the explosion in Airbnb activity has had a consequence.

Colin (not his real name) contacted the BBC when he discovered the flat he rents out on Airbnb had been turned into a pop-up brothel.

You see the ladies concerned were no doubt determined to make sure the UK does not go into recession.

Looking at both their ads, some of the rates were about £1,300 a night. So if they were fully booked for the two nights that’s £2,600 each – £5,200 in total.

But as we mull the issue and wonder how our statisticians measure this? There is a link to today’s topic as the inflation numbers ignore this. Meanwhile if there was evidence of drug use as well would they be regarded as a modern version of Stakhanovite workers by the Bank of England? As Coldplay so aptly put it.

Confusion never stops

 

 

Are the currency wars still raging?

One of the features of the post credit crunch era is that economies are less able to take further economic stress. This leads us straight into today’s topic which is the movements in exchange rates and the economic effects from that. Apart from dramatic headlines which mostly concentrate on falls ( rises are less headline grabbing I guess…) the media tends to step back from this. However the central banks have been playing the game for some time as so many want the “cheap hit” of a lower currency which is an implicit reason for so much monetary easing. The ( President ) Donald was on the case a couple of months ago. From the Financial Times.

“Every other country lives on devaluation,” said Mr Trump after meeting with US motor industry executives. “You look at what China’s doing, you look at what Japan has done over the years. They play the money market, they play the devaluation market and we sit there like a bunch of dummies.”

Actually the FT was on good form here as it pointed out that perhaps there were better examples elsewhere.

South Korea has a current account surplus of nearly 8 per cent of gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund, compared with just 3 per cent for China and Japan. Taiwan, meanwhile, has a colossal surplus of 15 per cent of GDP while Singapore is even higher at 19 per cent.

Care is needed here as a balance of payments surplus on its own is not the only metric and we do know that both Japan and China have had policies to weaken their currencies in recent years. So the picture is complex but I note there seems to be a lot of it in the Far East.

Japan

Ironically in a way the Japanese yen has been strengthening again and has done so by 1% over the weekend as it as headed towards 110 versus the US Dollar. So the Abenomics push from 76 was initially successful as the Yen plunged but now it is back to where it was in September 2014. Also for perspective the Yen was so strong partly as a consequence of US monetary easing. Oh what a tangled web and that.

The Bank of Japan will be ruing the rise ( in Yen terms) from 115 in the middle of this month to 110.25 as I type this because it is already struggling with this from this morning’s minutes.

The year-on-year rate of change in the consumer price index (CPI) for all items less fresh food is around 0 percent, and is expected to gradually increase toward 2 percent, due in part to the upward pressure on general prices stemming from developments in commodity prices such as crude oil prices.

Even worse for the Bank of Japan and Abenomics – but not the Japanese worker and consumer – the price of crude oil has also been falling since these minutes were composed. Time for more of what is called “bold action”?

Germany

It is not that often on these lists because the currency manipulation move by Germany came via its membership of the Euro where it added itself to weaker currencies. But its record high trade surpluses provide a strong hint and the European Central Bank has provided both negative interest-rates and a massive expansion of its balance sheet as it has tried to weaken the Euro. So we see that an exchange-rate that strengthened as the the credit crunch hit to 1.56 versus the US Dollar is now at 1.086.

So the recent bounce may annoy both the ECB and Germany but it is quite small compared to what happened before this. Putting it another way if we compare to Japan then a Euro bought 148 year in November 2014 but only 120 now.

The UK

In different circumstances the UK might recently have been labelled a currency manipulator as the Pound £ fell. As ever Baron King of Lothbury seems keen on the idea as he hopes that one day his “rebalancing” mighty actually happen outside his own personal Ivory Tower. There is food for thought for our valiant Knight of the Garter in the fact that we were at US $2.08 when her bailed out Northern Rock and correct me if I am wrong but we have indeed rebalanced since, even more towards our services sector.

However it too has seen a bounce against the US Dollar in the last fortnight or so and at US £1.256 as I type this there are various consequences from this. Firstly the edge is taken off the inflationary burst should this continue especially of we allow for the lower oil price ( down 11.2% so far this quarter according to Amanda Cooper of Reuters). That is indeed welcome or rather will be if these conditions persist. A small hint of this came at the weekend. From the BBC.

Motorists will see an acceleration in fuel price cuts over the weekend as supermarkets take up to 2p off a litre of petrol and diesel.

Not everybody welcomes this as I note my sparring partner on BBC 4’s MoneyBox Tony Yates is again calling for higher inflation (targets). He will then “rescue” you from the lower living-standards he has just created….

The overall picture for the UK remains a lower currency post EU vote and it is equivalent to a 2.5% reduction in Bank Rate for those considering the economic effect. Meanwhile if I allow for today’s rise it is pretty much unchanged in 2017 in effective or trade-weighted terms. Not something in line with the media analysis is it?

South Africa

This has featured in the currency falling zone for a while now, if you recall I looked at how cheap property had become in foreign currencies. There had been a bounce but if we bring things right up to date there has been a hiccup this morning. From the FT.

The rand plunged almost 2 per cent in less than half an hour on Monday morning after the latest row between president Jacob Zuma and his finance minister Pravin Gordhan, only moments after it had risen to its highest level since July 2015.

Perhaps the air got a bit thin up there.

The rand has been the best-performing currency in the world over the last 12 months, strengthening more than 23 per cent against the dollar, but it has suffered a number of knock backs prompted by the president and finance minister’s battles.

Back to where it was in the late summer of 2015.

Bitcoin

If we look at the crypto-currency then there has been a lot of instability of late. At the start of this month it pushed towards US $1300 but this morning it fell to below US $940 and is US $991 as I type this. Not for widows and orphans…

Comment

There is much to consider here as we wonder if the US Dollar is merely catching its breath or whether it is perhaps a case of “buy the rumour and sell the fact”. Or perhaps facts as you can choose the election of the Donald and or a promised acceleration in the tightening of monetary policy by the US Federal Reserve. But we see an amelioration in world inflation should this persist which of course combines as it happens with a lower oil price.

So workers and consumers in many countries will welcome this new phase but the Bank of Japan will not. Maybe both Euro area workers and consumers and the ECB can as the former benefit whilst the latter can extend its monetary easing in 2017 and, ahem, over the elections. Whilst few currencies are stable these days the crypto one seems out of control right now.