Is the Bank of England on a road to another Bank Rate cut?

Yesterday was a rather extraordinary day at the Bank of England and in some respects lived up to the Super Thursday moniker although by no means in the way intended. The media dropped that phrase at exactly the wrong moment. The irony was that for once they may have done the right thing in not raising interest-rates but what this exposed was the ineptitude and failures of their past rhetoric promises and hints. The regime of Forward Guidance can not have been much more of a failure as it found itself being adjusted yet again.

the MPC judges that an ongoing, modest tightening of monetary policy over the forecast period will be
appropriate to return inflation sustainably to its target at a conventional horizon.

Let us mark the obvious problem with the use of ongoing when the Bank Rate is still at the emergency level of 0.5% the Term Funding Scheme is at circa £127 billion and we have £435 billion of QE Gilt holdings and look at what they said in February and the emphasis is mine.

The Committee judges that, were the economy to evolve broadly in line with the February Inflation Report projections, monetary policy would need to be tightened somewhat earlier and by a somewhat greater extent over the forecast period than anticipated at the time of the November Report,

So the timing element was wrong and so was the amount which doesn’t really leave much does it?

But things got worse at the press conference because in his attempt to explain this Governor Carney exposed Forward Guidance as an emperor with no clothes. In an exchange with Harry Daniels of LiveSquawk Governor Carney told us that his words were really only for financial markets and implied that they were big enough boys and girls to make their own views. He then contrasted with the ordinary person clearly implying they would not. Seeing as Forward Guidance was supposed to connect with the ordinary person and business Governor Carney torpedoed his own ship there. Also when he later tried to claim people and businesses do listen to him he unwittingly admitted he had misled them,

The people we speak to first and foremost are households and businesses across the country. [They] don’t trade short-sterling. They are not fixated on whether we raise rates on May 10 or at the end of June ( The Times).

They might reasonably have been fixated on his rate rise rhetoric back in June 2014 after all if they could have nearly taken out a couple of 2-year fixed-rate mortgages since then to protect themselves against the interest-rate rises which never happened.

A bizarre element was added on the issue of him talking at 6 pm to the BBC when many UK markets are closed as the Governor tried to claim it was okay because some markets such as the UK Pound £ were traded 24/7. This of course did not address at all the ones that are closed or the lack of liquidity at such times in the ones that are.

Weather or whether?

This got the blame.

The MPC’s central assessment is that it largely reflects the former, and that the underlying pace of growth remains more resilient than the headline data suggest.

The problem here is of course if they really believed that then they should have raised interest-rates! Also it directly contrasted with what our official statisticians had told us a few hours before.

Today’s figures support previous estimates showing the economy was very sluggish in the first quarter of 2018, with little impact overall from the bad weather.

Unreliable Boyfriend

This subject was raised several times and one of them got a rather bizarre response.

Shade from MC: “The only people who throw that term [unreliable boyfriend] at me are in this room” ( @birdyworld )

We do not even need to look beyond the boundaries of this website to know that such a statement is untrue and even the BBC uses the term. The Governor had opened the press conference by shiftily looking around the room before as several people rather amusingly suggested to me talking out of both sides of his mouth. Indeed the man formerly praised for his good looks and for being a rock star central banker seems to have lost the female vote too if this from Blonde Money is any guide.

Carney the ever unreliable boyfriend

There was an alternative view which I doubt the Governor will prefer.

The people outside the room say “who are you” ( @birdyworld )

Especially as it is from someone who thinks he has done a good job.

Wages

There was another odd turn here as Governor Carney went into full Ivory Tower mode and said that the Monetary Policy Committee only looked at regular wages. As it is not that frequent an event let me echo the words of Danny Blanchflower on this subject.

idiotic – workers only care about what is in their pay packet – so you take out the part of pay that varies and then tell us what is left doesn’t vary No other country in the world uses such a dumb measure.

Even worse the Governor tried to say that wages had progressed in line with the forecasts of the Bank of England but this is only if you cherry pick the data. For example the latest month for which we have figures is February and if you take the Governor’s line and look at private-sector regular pay the annual rate of increase was 3%. However if you look at pay across the economy ( and as it happens the private-sector)the annual rate of increase was 2.3%. Will people ignore what was once called “the pound in your pocket” and instead break up the notes and coins into separate piles?

The absent-minded professor

Ben Broadbent is called into play at the press conferences if the going gets tough. His role is twofold being partly to expound widely on minor details to waste time and in a related effort to make the viewers and attendees drowsy if not numb. Sadly I was not that to point out that his rhetoric on Asia ignored Japan where many fear a contraction in the first quarter GDP data due you guessed it to the weather.

He has also been on the Today programme this morning on BBC Radio Four. This seems unwise as people have just got up and do not want to be sent back to sleep but if we move on from that there is this.

BoE’s Broadbent: Message Is That Rate Hikes Will Be Gradual ( @LiveSquawk )

How long can you keep saying that when in net terms there have not been any?

It is entirely the sensible thing to do, to wait to see whether we are right that the economy will bounce back from here, and for me the decision was straightforward

So it was the weather or it wasn’t? Moving on from that is the contrast with August 2016 when Ben appeared somewhat panic-stricken and could not cut rates fast enough where was the waiting for a ” bounce back from here,” then Ben? He also wanted to cut further in November 2016 before of course even he was calmed by the actual data.

On a deeper level I would just like to point out that it was wrong to move Professor Broadbent from being an external member to an internal one. Otherwise external member of the MPC may be influenced by potential sinecures from the Governor which makes their existence pointless.

Comment

The road to a Bank Rate cut and possibly more QE Gilt purchases is simple and it merely involves the current weak patch for the economy persisting. As I have pointed out before the monetary growth numbers have been weakening which suggests the summer and early autumn may not be that good. It is also true that more than a few of our trading partners are seeing a weaker phase too as for example we saw this from France on Wednesday.

Manufacturing output fell sharply over the first
quarter of 2018 (−1.8%)

That leaves it with a similar position to the UK where a better phase seems to have ended at least for now. We know from August 2016 that it will not take much more of this for the Bank of England to look at easing policy in sharp contrast to the nearly four years of unfulfilled Forward Guidance about rises.

I don’t care if you never come home,
I don’t mind if you just keep on
Rowing away on a distant sea,
‘Cause I don’t love you and you don’t love me. ( Eric Clapton)

Meanwhile the consequences continue to build up.

Forty-somethings are now almost twice as likely to be renting from a private landlord than they were 10 years ago.

Rising UK house prices have left many middle-age workers unable to afford a first home,  ( BBC )

 

 

 

 

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What are the prospects for the US economy?

As we progress through 2018 we find eyes as ever turning regularly to the US economy. Not only to see what the world’s largest economy is up to but also to note any changes. The economic growth news for the first quarter was pretty solid. From the Bureau of Economic Analysis or BEA.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 2.3 percent in the first quarter of 2018
according to the “advance” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the
fourth quarter, real GDP increased 2.9 percent.

So whilst we see a slowing it is exacerbated in feel by the way the numbers are annualised and is much lower than that seen in the UK and much of Europe. Also the US has developed something of a pattern of weak first quarter numbers so we need to remind ourselves that the number is better than that seen in both 2016 and 2017. As to the detail the slowing was fairly general. If we were looking for an estimate of the recovery since the credit crunch hit then we get it from noting that if we use 2009 as out 100 benchmark then the latest quarter was at 120.58.

Let us move on with a reminder of the size of the US economy.

Current-dollar GDP increased 4.3 percent, or $211.2 billion, in the first quarter to a level of $19.97
trillion.

Looking ahead

There was something potentially rather positive tucked away in the Income report that was released with the GDP data.

Disposable personal income increased $222.1 billion, or 6.2 percent, in the first quarter, compared with
an increase of $136.3 billion, or 3.8 percent, in the fourth quarter. Real disposable personal income
increased 3.4 percent, compared with an increase of 1.1 percent.

At a time of weak wages growth considering the economic situation that was a strong reading which may feed forwards into future consumption numbers. I wondered what drove it but in fact it was pretty broad-based across the different sectors with the only fall being in farm income. As an aside the personal income from farming was surprisingly small considering the size of the US farming sector at US $27.9 billion.

Moving onto the Nowcasts of GDP the news has also been good. From the Atlanta Federal Reserve.

The GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the second quarter of 2018 is 4.0 percent on May 3, down from 4.1 percent on May 1.

They start the series in optimistic fashion so let us say that around 3% may well be where they end up unless something fundamental changes.

Moving onto the business surveys we saw this yesterday.

April survey data indicated a strong expansion in
business activity across the U.S. service sector.
However, although the rate of growth accelerated, it
remained below the series’ long-run average.
Meanwhile, the upturn in new business quickened
to a sharp rate that was the fastest since March
2015. ( Markit PMI ).

Which added to this from May Day.

April survey data signalled a steep improvement in
operating conditions across the U.S. manufacturing
sector. The latest PMI reading was the highest since
September 2014, supported by stronger expansions
in output and new orders. Moreover, new business
rose at the sharpest pace in over three-and-a-half
years. ( Markit PMI)

Thus the summary for the start of the second quarter is so far so good which again means the US is in better shape than elsewhere at least for now.

Inflation

Earlier this week I note that the US Federal Reserve was for once on target. What I mean by that was that the PCE ( Personal Consumption Expenditure) inflation rate rose by 2% in March compared to a year before. Expectations of this are what caused the addition of the word I have highlighted in Wednesday’s Fed statement.

The Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected inflation developments relative to its symmetric inflation goal.

There has been a lot of debate over this much of it misinformed. Firstly central bankers virtually never mean it and secondly they are hinting at a possible run higher after a long period when it has been below the 2% target.

Such a likelihood was reinforced by the Markit PMI surveys.

On the price front, input cost inflation picked up in
April. The rate of increase was strong overall and
the second-quickest since June 2015. (services)

Meanwhile, average prices charged rose at the
quickest pace since June 2011, with the rate of
inflation accelerating for the fourth successive
month. Survey respondents commonly noted that
higher charges were due to increased costs being
passed on to clients. (Manufacturing)

Of course having begun the process of raising interest-rates without the most common cause of it these days ( a currency collapse) the US Fed is not in that bad a place at least in its own mind should inflation overshoot the target in the summer. Although of course as I have pointed out before in terms of logic it should have been more decisive rather than dribbling out increases along the lines expected for the rest of 2018 by Reuters.

While the Fed left interest rates unchanged on Wednesday, it is possibly set to raise them by a total of 75 basis points this year.

King Dollar

This was summarised by Reuters thus.

In just two weeks the dollar has surged nearly four percent against a basket of the most traded currencies, erasing all the losses it had suffered since the start of 2018 .DXY.

Against a broader group of currencies, including those from emerging markets, the greenback is now in positive territory against half of them.

This brings us back to the topic of yesterday where the US Dollar rebound has hit the weaker currencies such as the Turkish Lira and the Argentine Peso hard. Following on from the change of heart of the unreliable boyfriend in the UK it has seen the UK Pound £ dip below US $1.36 and the Euro is below US $1.20.

Is this a return to the interest-rate differentials that had up to then been ignored? Maybe a bit but perhaps the reality is more that the modern currency trade seems to be to follow the economic growth and as we have observed above at the moment the US economy looks relatively strong.

Comment

So in terms of conventional economic analysis things look pretty good for the US economy as we stand. The danger might be highlighted this afternoon from the wages data in the non farm payrolls release. This is because rising inflation will chip away at real wages if the rate of wages increase stays at 2.7%. Of course that reminds us of the issue of the fact that wages growth is only at that level with an unemployment rate at 4% leading many economists to scrabble through Google searches trying to redact references to full employment at a higher rate.

Elsewhere there are potential concerns of which one is debt. Should growth continue on its current path then it will help the national debt withstand the pressure placed on it by the Trump tax plan. On the private-sector side though familiar fears are on the scene.

 

Yahoo Finance helpfully updates us with this.

They’re also safer than junk bonds, at least in theory, with lenders getting repaid before creditors when firms get into trouble

What could go wrong?

Finally in spite of the recent dollar strength the Yen has pushed its way back to 109 leaving me with this from Carly Simon.

Why does your love hurt so much?
Don’t know why

 

 

 

How to deal with a foreign-exchange crisis

This week has seen at least a couple of examples of currencies that appear to have gone into free fall. Let us open with the Argentine Peso which was singing along to “Down,Down” by Status Quo yesterday. From the Argentine newspaper Clarin via Google Translate

On Wednesday, the US currency jumped again to reach $ 21.52 in the retail market and $ 21.18 in the wholesaler. It went up 5% in the week.

The abrupt movement of a variable as sensitive as the exchange rate alters the nerves of investors, the general public and -although they deny it- of the Government itself, the last thing it wants is that in the middle of the hard fight to lower the inflation, the price of the dollar occupies large spaces in the media and in public conversation.

What they do not tell us is that this was a new low for the Peso. Actually we get an unusual perspective in that the paper gives a link to exchange rates on the front page  of its website. The situation so far this year is shown later as is a major factor in it.

Is that almost all currencies -especially those of the emerging world- are being devalued against the dollar. And the Argentine peso is the currency that fell the most in the year against the dollar (12.5%) followed by the Russian ruble (9%).

How can a central bank respond?

Interest Rates

From the Argentine central bank or BCRA. You might like to sit down before you read it.

Buenos Aires, April 27, 2018. Given the dynamics acquired by the exchange market, the Monetary Policy Council of the Central Bank of the Argentine Republic met outside of its pre-established schedule and decided to increase its monetary policy rate, the center of the corridor of passes to 7 days, in 300 basis points to 30.25%. He made this decision with the aim of guaranteeing the disinflation process and is ready to act again if necessary.

This is perhaps the most common response and in my view it is the most flawed. The problem is twofold. Firstly you can end up chasing you own tail like a dog. What I mean by this is that markets can expect more interest-rate rises each time the currency falls and usually that is exactly what it does next. Why is this? Well if anticipating a 27,25%% return on your money is not doing the job is 30.25% going to do it? Unlikely in my view as we note that the currency has fallen 5% this week.

On the other side of the coin interest-rates in one place in particular are expected to have an effect. From a speech by BCRA Governor Federico Sturzenegger on the 23rd of April.

This week at the Fund meetings, for example, I saw scenarios with 9 hikes in the FED policy rate over this year and next. But most people did not believe that was the most likely scenario. Yet, whatever form monetary policy normalization takes, certainly such a move will have ample repercussions on the rest of world.

Next comes the way that markets discount this in terms of forward exchange rates which now will factor in the higher interest-rate by lowering the forward price of the Peso. So against the US Dollar it will be of the order of 28% lower in a year’s time so the expected return in each currency is equal. This should not matter but human psychology and nature intervene and it turns out often to matter and helps the currency lower which of course is exactly the wrong result.

So what should you do? Well respond to inflation changes are per your mandate as per this but then hold your nerve.

The Central Bank will continue using all the tools at its disposal and will conduct its monetary policy to reach its intermediate target of 15% in 2018.

Otherwise each currency fall you will be raising interest-rates and again a downwards spiral can result.

Foreign Exchange Reserves

This is often the first line of defence or can be combined with an interest-rate rise. From Clarin again.

plus the almost 5,000 million dollars of the reserves that sold in the last week of April and the start of May,

The catch is that it is not working although until the interest-rate rise last week it was not helped by the last move being a cut in interest-rates. Also if we return to the speech by the BCRA Governor Argentina was in a really bad place only a couple of years ago.

As we took over from the previous government, our international reserves were reaching very low levels. In fact, what we called net reserves, that is, our reserves net of our obligation in foreign currency, were negative.

In fact it was a real mess.

To make things worse, the previous government had sold USD futures for about the equivalent of a third of the monetary base at off market prices.

In fact it bought its new reserves from the Argentine government.

The combination of the need to accumulate reserves, plus the fact that the government had an excess supply of dollars, as it was financing abroad its gradual fiscal convergence, implied a natural agreement by which the Central Bank would buy these excess dollars to the Treasury, sterilizing afterwards the pesos issued by issuing short-term Central Bank debt.

Okay so now it has some reserves but there is a catch which is that whilst they are getting more valuable in Peso terms of course that is only for the amount left as they are being used up. This is the problem here as people focus on the amounts used and the rate of attrition. Even Russia suffered from this if you recall and it had and has ready sources of foreign exchange from its oil and commodity exports. The IMF estimated at the end of last year that Argentina would have US $50.7 billion of foreign exchange reserves this year and that they would grow in subsequent years. Mind you they also forecast a rising Peso so it was far from their finest hour.

Capital Controls

Argentina did have these but scrapped them. From the Governor’s speech.

The third change occurred at the beginning of 2017, when the government released the remaining capital controls

They can help but problems do arise of which the worst is the development of an official and unofficial exchange-rate. I am sure you can figure out which will be higher than the other. Or the US Dollar becomes the currency most used.

Comment

So a central bank can fight a currency decline but the truth is that it can only do so on a temporary basis. The Swiss Franc has taught us that this is true in the case of currency strength where the central bank in theory at least is in a much stronger position. Oh and by temporary I mean the definition used by the ordinary person not the perversion used by central bankers.

However some of the moves can make things worse as for example knee-jerk interest-rate rises. Imagine you had a variable-rate mortgage in Buenos Aires! You crunch your domestic economy when the target is the overseas one. As to building up foreign exchange reserves by borrowing it is hard not to think of this. From City-AM last June.

About a year after emerging from default, Argentina has surprised investors by offering a 100-year bond.

The US-dollar-denominated bond is offered with a potential 8.25 per cent yield.

Actually it feels like everyone lost there which cannot be true. Argentina has to pay the interest with increasingly devalued Pesos and the price of the bond has to give you a clue been described like this.

Of course Argentina did gain on the initial transaction.

Moving onto Turkey which this morning has joined the club with a new low for the Lira I note this from the editor of the Financial Times Lionel Barber.

Good market spot: Turks are buying gold to hedge against booming inflation and a falling currency

Which got this reply from Henry Pryor.

Anecdotally central London agents tell me they are seeing an increase in Turkish buyers this year…

Which gives me another question. Is London property considered to be the worlds safe asset and please note I typed considered to be?

Oh and helping with this sort of thing was the original role of the IMF as opposed to the way it intervened in the fiscal crisis in part of southern Europe.

This article came to late for the BCRA it would appear as just before 5 pm UK time they raised interest-rates to 33.25%. I would place a link bit nobody seems to have told the English version of their website yet.

 

How much will interest-rates rise?

The issue of interest-rate rises has suddenly become something of a hot topic and let me open with the words of Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan. From the Financial Times.

Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase, has warned that the US economy is at risk of overheating, raising the prospect that the Federal Reserve may soon need to slam on the brakes to prevent wages and prices from rising too quickly.

There are more than a few begged questions here but let us park them for now and carry on.

“Many people underestimate the possibility of higher inflation and wages, which means they might be underestimating the chance that the Federal Reserve may have to raise rates faster than we all think,” he wrote. “We have to deal with the possibility that, at one point, the Federal Reserve and other central banks may have to take more drastic action than they currently anticipate.”

Okay let us break this down. Firstly we are back to output gap theory again which of course has been wrong,wrong and wrong again in the credit crunch era. If there are signs of overheating then they are to be found in asset markets where we have seen booming bond prices and house prices and until recently all-time highs for equity markets. Only on Tuesday we looked at US house price growth of 6% or 7% depending which data you use.

Wages

I have picked this out because there has been quite a swerve from Jamie Dimon as for so long nearly everyone has been hoping for higher wages. Now suddenly apparently a rise is a bad thing? The Financial Times article implicitly parrots this line.

The prospect of an overheating economy has spooked the financial markets as recently as February, when stronger-than-expected US wage growth sparked the worst Wall Street sell-off in six years.

In terms of numbers a rise in average earnings growth per hour to 2.9% was hardly groundbreaking and of course it has since faded away showing the unreliable nature of one month’s data. In reality to return to old era trends we would need wages growth of 3.5%+ for a while. But in Jamie’s world that seems to be a bad thing although apparently not always. From Bloomberg.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon received $29.5 million in total compensation for his work in 2017, an increase of 5.4 percent from a year earlier.

So we are left mulling a view where what was supposed to be good would now be bad! Although those of you who in the comments section have argued we will not see major interest-rate rises until wage rises for the ordinary person picks up are permitted a wry smile at this point.

What is expected?

From the FT article.

Prices of Fed funds futures suggest few expect the Fed to raise rates by more than three times this year, as policymakers have indicated. Longer-term market measures also indicate that investors expect inflation and bond yields to remain subdued for years to come.

I put the second sentence in because it is positively misleading. What those measures are provide a balancing of markets now and usually have very little to do with what will happen. Returning to interest-rates we got a view this week from former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.

At Monday’s larger forum for Jefferies clients, she expressed the view that three or four rate rises were likely this year, and that recent U.S. tax cuts and a boost in government spending posed at least some risk of running the economy hot, according to the first source, who requested anonymity. ( CNBC)

This is the awkward bit about the Jamie Dimon claim which is that the existing and likely moves in US interest-rates are a response to expected higher inflation anyway as of course as we have looked at many times it is still below the target. Back to Janet.

Later, over dinner at the Manhattan penthouse of Jefferies’ chief executive, Yellen told executives from hedge funds, private equity firms and other companies that she considered inflation to be in check and unlikely to spike, so rates would stay relatively low, according to a second person familiar with the discussion.

Take that as you will as of course we discovered in her time that she does not really understand inflation.

The Bank of England

So how will it respond as traditionally it follows the US Federal Reserve?

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Oh sorry not that one. Let us move onto its favourite publication the Financial Times.

Policymakers at the Bank of England are debating whether to be more forthcoming about their future plans for interest rates, as they gear up for a crunch vote on the cost of borrowing next month.

This is fascinating stuff because it both implies and suggests they know what their forecasts are! Let me give you an example reviewed favourably by Chris Giles the economics editor of the FT.

But last month Gertjan Vlieghe, an external MPC member, broke ranks with his colleagues on the nine-member committee when he said that rates could rise above 2 per cent over the same period.

Actually if we remove the rose-tintin ( sorry but he is Belgian) he seems an excitable chap as this from the Evening Standard in April 2016 reveals.

Vlieghe’s answer is intriguing: “Theoretically, I think interest rates could go a little bit negative.”

The long discussion on negative interest-rates that took place was clearly a hint of expected policy and means that Gertjan was wrong which poses a question over why we should listen this time? Although Chris Giles has a very different view.

Not sure it matters if people believe them.

I think it matters a lot. Oh and as the Swedish Riksbank has found it.

The Riksbank has had some difficulties with its predictions.

But to be fair Chris Giles does have a sense of humour ( I think).

But there remains concern that the BoE could undermine trust in it as an institution running an important public policy if it makes predictions about interest rates that do not come to pass.

Comment

Let me open with a rather good reply to this from GreaterFool.

Any shreds of credibility that the BoE once had disappeared into smoke after the forward guidance experiment. Telling people that you’ll raise rates after unemployment falls below 7% and then dropping them again when unemployment is below 5% will do that.

In fact the hits keep coming as though in this instance from Felix2012

There are quite a few commenters here who still take MPC seriously, unfortunately.

As to clarity well we did get that from Governor Carney back in June 2014.

There’s already great speculation about the exact timing of the first rate hike and this decision is becoming more balanced….“It could happen sooner than markets currently expect.

That was taken as a clear signal back then and the next day saw a lot of market adjustments which later led to losses as it never happened. Of course the road to a Bank Rate cut after Governor Carney hinted at it was both real and fast as we discovered 3 years later.

So what can we expect? The Bank of England has rather committed itself to a May Bank Rate rise which if you look at falling inflation and some weaker economic news looks out of touch. We have seen signs of slowing in Europe too as German industrial production has shown already today. The US Federal Reserve will no doubt carry on course unless there is a shock stateside although not everyone even thinks we need any tightening. BoI is the Bank of Italy.

 

What is happening to US house prices?

If you are a believer that the extraordinarily stimulatory monetary policies of the credit crunch era have boosted house prices via their impact on asset prices then the United States currently provides food for thought. This is because of this.

In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 percent.

For younger readers the US Federal Reserve has raised official interest-rates to extraordinary heights and for older ones it has barely got into the foothills. Either way The Fed-Home as Google now describes us thinks this.

 The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative,

In addition to the series of increases in interest-rates we have seen and continue to expect we are now in what I guess we need to call the QT or Quantitative Tightening era or as Marketwatch described it last month.

Last fall, the Fed announced plans to slowly reduce its balance sheet on auto-pilot, allowing holdings to shrink by $20 billion each month this quarter and moving up to a maximum of $50 billion per month by the end of the year.

From the peak of US $4.5 trillion the balance sheet has shrunk from US $4.5 trillion at its peak to US $.4.4 trillion as of the latest update. So QT has had an impact in terms of a small flow reduction which has led to a small stock reduction. Thus we have gone from small up to small down if we look at it like that although of course in other terms US $100 billion or so was a lot of money.

If we look ahead then Marketwatch point out that we were given a hint of a possible future late last year.

The Fed has not announced how low it wants to shrink its balance sheet. New Fed Chairman Jerome Powell discussed a target range of $2.5 trillion to $2.9 trillion in his confirmation hearing last fall.

Okay what does this impact?

A central bankers heart will gladden when they see these numbers from Money Magnify.

In the second quarter of 2017, real estate values in the United States surpassed their pre- housing crisis levels. The total value of real estate owned by individuals in the United States is $24 trillion, and total mortgages clock in at $9.9 trillion. This means that Americans have $13.9 trillion in homeowners equity.12 This is the highest value of home equity Americans have ever seen.

As they do not let me point out that such value calculations have the flaw of using a marginal price for an average concept which looks great when prices rise but not to great when they fall. If we move on we also see a consequence of the credit crunch era.

Current homeowners have mortgage payments that make up an average of just 16.5% of their annual household income.

That will be changing but not in the way that you think as the US market is mostly one of fixed-rate mortgages. So whilst both the policy changes above may affect it we see that over time QT is likely to have the largest impact. This is because the main player is the 30 year fixed rate mortgage which means that the 30 year Treasury yield is more of a factor that short-term interest-rates. When you look at what it has done you see that in a broad sweep the US Fed helped reduce it by around 1% from 2013 to late 2016 and it then rose by 1% to the current 4.44%. Actually if you look at the chart it is hard not to have a wry smile as for all the rhetoric and talk about QT the main player seems to have been the Donald as most of the rise was around the election of President Trump. Humbling for central bankers and their dreams of ruling the world! If you want to know how this took place I looked at it on the 9th of November 2016.

Before I depart the economic situation let me point out that we may well end up discussing as so often two different markets.

Today, half of all borrowers put down 5% or less. More than 10% of borrowers put 0% down. As a result, the average loan-to-value ratio at origination has climbed to 87%

Manhattan

Is this a case of a perfect storm? We have the effect of the factors above although of course they affect the 0.1% much less than the rest of us. But the winds of change as we have seen in central London have been blowing against capital city ( in which category New York is unofficially if not officially) property prices after many years of plenty. Also there has been this according to the Financial Times.

Some buyers held off buying real estate as they grappled with the impact of President Donald Trump’s changes to the federal tax code, which introduced a cap on the deduction of state and local taxes, including property taxes, from federal tax bills. It also reduced the size of mortgages eligible for interest deductions. The change is expected to hit high earners in high-tax states including New York, particularly in New York City.

This has led to this.

The number of co-op and condominium sales in Manhattan fell nearly 25 per cent during the first quarter compared to the same period last year………..It was the largest annual decline in sales in nine years, according to the report.

Okay so what about prices?

The average sale price across Manhattan fell by 8.1 per cent from the year-earlier quarter, and the average price per square foot also recorded a sharp decline, falling by 18.5 per cent to $1,697.

Perhaps fearing a lack of sympathy amongst even its readers the FT takes its time to point out what this means.

The average sales price of a luxury apartment fell 15.1 per cent, down from $9.36m in the first quarter of 2017 to $7.94m in the first quarter of this year, and the number of sales was down 24.1 per cent. The number of newly built apartments that went into contract fell 54 per cent.

As to lack of sympathy that was at play in the comments.

So now the average luxury apartment in Manhattan costs only $8 million? Not yet a bargain then? ( Genghis)

As was some perspective.

1600 usd per sqf for prime ? Still a bargain compared to London (JP1)……..I know. And positively a steal compared to Hong Kong !! (observer).

Looking wider

You might from the above expect lower prices but in fact at the end of last week we were told this. From Zillow Research.

The continuing inventory pinch helped boost the U.S. national Case Shiller index 6.2 percent in January from a year earlier, down from a 6.3 percent gain in December. Case-Shiller’s 10-City Composite rose 6 percent, while the 20-City Composite climbed 6.4 percent year-over-year.

Some places are in fact red hot.

Home prices in Seattle, Las Vegas, and San Francisco posted the highest annual gains among the 20 cities, rising 12.9 percent, 11.1 percent and 10.2 percent, respectively.

Zillow remain of the view that house prices will continue to rise as I note that rather like us in the UK there is a perception that too few houses have and indeed are being built. For perspective I note that a different piece of research tells us this.

Home values rose 7.6 percent year-over-year to a median of $210,200, with the San Jose, Calif., metro posting astonishing annual home value growth of 26.4 percent, reaching a median of $1.25 million.

Comment

We find ourselves reflecting on the words of Glenn Frey again.

The heat is on

Except not in the way that economics 101 would have predicted as we continue to see house price rises if we ignore the “international effect”. According to the Brookings Institute there may be a deeper factor as human behaviour returns to what it was.

The Census Bureau’s annual county and metropolitan area estimates through 2017 reveal a revival of suburbanization and movement to rural areas along with Snow Belt-to-Sun Belt population shifts. In addition, the data show a new dispersal to large- and moderate-sized metro areas in the middle of the country—especially in the Northeast and Midwest. If these shifts continue, they could call into question the sharp clustering of the nation’s population—in large metropolitan areas and their cities—that characterized the first half of the 2010s.

So the suburbs are back in favour so let me leave you with the thoughts of Arcade Fire on the subject.

And all of the walls that they built in the seventies finally fall
And all of the houses they built in the seventies finally fall

Maybe they got onto the consumer society as well in a different song.

(Everything now!) I need it
(Everything now!) I want it
(Everything now!) I can’t live without
(Everything now!) I can’t live without
(Everything now!) I can’t live
(Everything now!)

Is the US economy at a turning point?

Yesterday brought us some significant news from the US economy. One segment of this was the testimony given by the new Chair of the US Federal Reserve Jerome Powell as everyone combs his words looking for any signs of a change in policy. The sentence from the written testimony that has drawn most attention is below.

In gauging the appropriate path for monetary policy over the next few years, the FOMC will continue to strike a balance between avoiding an overheated economy and bringing PCE price inflation to 2 percent on a sustained basis. ( PCE is Personal Consumption Expenditure )

The reason for that is the use of the word “overheated” which brings with it all sorts of value judgements and implications. This was added to by the phrase he added to this.

My personal outlook for the economy has strengthened since December.

We also got an explanation of what was driving such thoughts.

 In particular, fiscal policy has become more stimulative and foreign demand for U.S. exports is on a firmer trajectory. Despite the recent volatility, financial conditions remain accommodative.

The nod to fiscal policy was a change of emphasis from his predecessor Janet Yellen as I am reminded of the analysis of the US Congress on the subject we looked at on February the 8th.

The Joint Committee staff estimates that this proposal would increase the average level of output (as measured by Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) by about 0.7 percent relative to average level of output in the present law baseline over the 10-year budget window.

The underlying position

The thoughts above added to the existing situation which Chair Powell described thus.

Turning from the labor market to production, inflation-adjusted gross domestic product rose at an annual rate of about 3 percent in the second half of 2017, 1 percentage point faster than its pace in the first half of the year.

So the fiscal policy will add to an already strengthening situation and the emphasis is mine.

Economic growth in the second half was led by solid gains in consumer spending, supported by rising household incomes and wealth, and upbeat sentiment. In addition, growth in business investment stepped up sharply last year, which should support higher productivity growth in time.

The reason I have highlighted that bit is because Chair Powell had explicitly linked it to wage growth.

Wages have continued to grow moderately, with a modest acceleration in some measures, although the extent of the pickup likely has been damped in part by the weak pace of productivity growth in recent years.

If we switch to the section on employment we see a continuing theme.

Monthly job gains averaged 179,000 from July through December, and payrolls rose an additional 200,000 in January. This pace of job growth was sufficient to push the unemployment rate down to 4.1 percent, about 3/4 percentage point lower than a year earlier and the lowest level since December 2000.

Are we seeing a hint of Phillips Curve style analysis which would predict wage growth acceleration? We did get told he likes policy rules.

Personally, I find these rule prescriptions helpful

Also you may note that he hinted at a pick-up in jobs growth in January which comes when the unemployment rate tells us that according to old policy rules we have what would have been considered to be full employment. It was also interesting that he skirted what we might call the missing eleven million or so via the drop in the participation rate.

the labor force participation rate remained roughly unchanged, on net, as it has for the past several years

I am not sure that it all be blamed on retiring “baby boomers” as we were told.

So we are told that the economy is strong and got a pretty strong hint that higher wage growth is expected and of course that follows the 2.9% growth seen in January in average hourly earnings.

Wages should increase at a faster pace as well.

What about inflation?

That is supposed to pick-up as well as we continue our journey on a type of virtual Phillips Curve.

 we anticipate that inflation on a 12-month basis will move up this year and stabilize around the FOMC’s 2 percent objective over the medium term.

These days it is something of a residual item in speeches by central bankers. This is for two main reasons. The first is that they have really been targeting output and the labour market. The second is that even after an extraordinary amount of QE they failed to generate the ( consumer) inflation they promised and so they are de-emphasising it.

Overheating?

This subject flickered onto some radar screens yesterday as they observed this from the Census Bureau.

The international trade deficit was $74.4 billion in January, up $2.1 billion from $72.3 billion in December.
Exports of goods for January were $133.9 billion, $3.1 billion less than December exports. Imports of goods
for January were $208.3 billion, $0.9 billion less than December imports.

This is something which has been rising as we note this from the Bureau of Economic Analysis or BEA earlier this month.

For 2017, the goods and services deficit increased $61.2 billion, or 12.1 percent, from 2016. Exports
increased $121.2 billion or 5.5 percent. Imports increased $182.5 billion or 6.7 percent.

So we may well be seeing economic growth sucking in imports yet again or a different form of overheating. Thus the words of Chairman Powell above on exports were both true ( they are up) and to some extent misleading as imports have risen faster. This is reinforced with my usual caution about monthly trade data by  the size of the January  goods deficit which is the largest for ten years. If we allow for the fact that the shale oil and gas boom flatters the figures the numbers take a further turn for the worse.

Consumer Confidence

We return to the same theme as we note this.

The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index® increased in February, following a modest increase in January. The Index now stands at 130.8 (1985=100), up from 124.3 in January. The Present Situation Index increased from 154.7 to 162.4, while the Expectations Index improved from 104.0 last month to 109.7 this month.

So another signal looks strong.

Comment

If we start with the analysis of Chair Powell we see that the US Federal Reserve plans to continue interest-rate rises this year and that it means to do so either 3 or more likely 4 times. This is based on the view that otherwise the economy will overheat as discussed above. Let me add a personal view to this which is the current madness of going along at 0.25%, why not raise by 0.5% in March and then sit back for a while and see what develops? Monetary policy has long lags and if you take ages to act you are at an ever greater risk of being proved wrong.

Another factor in this is the data I have looked at above as I have held something back until now which is troubling. Here is the extra bit from the consumer confidence figures.

Consumer confidence improved to its highest level since 2000 (Nov. 2000, 132.6).

Now if we look at the trade in goods figures the deficit was last higher in January 2008 a time when consumer confidence was high in many places too. What happened next in both instances?

If we continue with that line of thought we find that the oil market may be giving a hint as well.

https://twitter.com/a_coops1/status/968783142717919233

Another reason I think to act more decisively now as after all interest-rates will only be 1.75% to 2% after a 0.5% rise a level I have long argued for and then wait and see. After all we could be seeing a flicker of a road to QE4.

The problems of the Private Finance Initiative mount

The crossover and interrelationship between the private and public-sectors is a big economic issue. I was reminded of it on Saturday evening as I watched the excellent fireworks display in Battersea Park but from outside the park itself. The reason for this is that it used to be council run and free albeit partly funded by sponsors such as Heart Radio if I recall correctly. But these days like so much in Battersea Park it is run by a company called Enable who charge between £6 and £10 depending on how early you pay. You may note that GDP or Gross Domestic Product will be boosted but the event is the same. However there is a difference as the charge means that extra security is required and the park is fenced in with barriers. I often wonder how much of the charges collected pays for the staff and infrastructure to collect the charge?! There is definitely a loss to public utility as the park sees more and more fences go up in the run-up to the event and I often wonder about how the blind gentlemen who I see regularly in the park with his stick copes.

Private Finance Initiative

Elements of the fireworks changes apply here as PFI is a way of reducing both the current fiscal deficit and the national debt as HM Parliament explains here.

National Accounts use the European System of accounts (ESA) to distinguish between on and off balance sheet debt. If the risks and reward of a project is believed to be passed to the private sector, it is not recorded in the government borrowing figures, and remains off balance sheet. Approximately 90% of all PFI investment is off balance sheet, and is not recorded in National Accounts. Public
spending statistics, such as the Public Sector Net Debt, also follow ESA.

I like the phrase “believed to be” about risk being passed to the private-sector as we mull how much risk there actually is in building a hospital for the NHS which will then pay you a fee for 25/30 years? However we see why governments like this as what would otherwise be state spending on a new hospital or prison that would add to that year’s expenditure and fiscal deficit/national debt suddenly disappears from the national accounts. Perfect for a politician who can take the credit with no apparent cost.

Problems

The magic trick for the public finances does not last however as each year a lease payment is made. So there is a switch from current spending to future spending which of course is the main reason why politician’s like the scheme. However the claim that the scheme’s offer value for money gets rather hard when you see numbers like this from a Freedom of Information reply last month.

The Calderdale and Huddersfield Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust entered into a PFI with a company called Calderdale Hospitals SPC Ltd. Prior to May 2002, the all in interest rate in respect of bank loans that the company had
taken from its bankers was 7.955% per annum. After May 2002, when the PFI Company refinanced its loan, it was 6.700% per annum.

As you can see the politicians at that time in effect took a large interest-rate or more specifically Gilt yield punt and got is spectacularly wrong. Even with the refinancing the 6.7% looks dreadful especially as we note that we are now a bit beyond the average term for a UK Gilt. So if a Gilt had been issued back then on average it would be being refinanced now at say 1.5%. Care is needed as of course politicians back then had no idea about what was going to happen in the credit crunch but on the other hand I suspect some would be around saying how clever they were is yields were now 15%! On that note let me apologise to younger readers who in many cases will simply not understand such an interest-rate, unless of course they venture into the world of sub-prime finance or get a student loan.

In terms of pounds,shillings and pence here is the data as of 2015.

The total annual unitary charge across all PFI projects active in 2013/14 was £10bn. The cumulative unitary charge payments sum to £310bn: of this £88 billion has been paid (up to and including 2014/15) and £222 billion is outstanding. The unitary charge figures will peak at
0.5% of GDP in 2017/18.

Inflexibility

This is not only an issue on the finance side it is often difficult for the contracts to be changed as the world moves on. Or as HM Parliament puts it.

It can be difficult to make alterations to projects, and take into account changes in the public sector’s service requirements.

Are supporters losing faith?

Today the Financial Times is reporting this.

Olivier Brousse, chief executive of John Laing, which invests in and manages PFI hospitals, schools, and prisons, said PFI had lost “public goodwill” and needs “reinventing” with providers subject to a “payment by results” mechanism where money is clawed back for missed targets.

That is true although he then moves onto what looks like special pleading.

“The market in the UK is going away so we need to get back around the table and agree something acceptable,” said Mr Brousse. “The UK’s need for new infrastructure is significant and urgent. The private sector stands ready to deliver this . . . If the current PFI framework isn’t fit for purpose — then let’s completely rethink it to make it work.”

Indeed we then seem to move onto the rather bizarre.

“The problem with PFI isn’t transparency. It is outcomes,” he said. “I’m a citizen and if a school is built under PFI I also want it to commit to reducing bullying and violence.”

Surely the school should be run by the Governors rather than the company that built it? Perhaps he is trying to sneak in an increase in his company’s role.

There were also mentions of this which as I note the comments to the article seems set to be an ongoing problem whether it s in the public or private sectors.

In August John Laing agreed to hand back a lossmaking £3.8bn 25-year PFI waste project in Greater Manchester for an undisclosed sum. One of Britain’s biggest PFIs, the Greater Manchester waste disposal authority bin clearance, recycling, incinerator and green power station project had struggled to remain profitable. Manchester council said it would save £20m a year immediately from access to cheaper loans and £37m a year from April 2019.

Comment

To my mind the concept of PFI conflated two different things. The fact that private businesses can run things more efficiently than the public-sector which is often but not always true. For that to be true you need a clear objective which is something which is difficult in more than a few areas. The two main dangers are of missing things which turn out to be important as time passes and over regulation and complexity which may arrive together. Then we had the issue that whilst it was convenient for the political class to kick expenditure like a can into the future this meant a larger bill would eventually be paid by taxpayers. Even worse they have ended up trapping taxpayers into deals at what now seem usurious rates of interest.

Pretty much all big contracts with the private-sector seem to hit trouble as this from the National Audit Office on the Hinkley Point nuclear power project points out.

The Department has committed electricity consumers and taxpayers to a high cost and risky deal in a changing energy marketplace. We cannot say the Department has maximised the chances that it will achieve value for money.

There is of course the ever more expensive HS2 railway plan to add to the mix.

Thus we see that some of the trouble faced by UK PFI is true of many infrastructure projects. Yet some of it is specific to them and frankly it is hard to make a case for it right now because of some of the consequences of the credit crunch era. Firstly governments are able to borrow very cheaply by historical standards and secondly because adding to the national debt bothers debt investors much less than it once did especially if it is also simply a different form of accounting for an unaltered reality.

One of the arguments of my late father was that the UK needed an infrastructure plan set for obvious reasons a long way ahead. In many ways now would be a good time because the finance would be cheap but sadly we just seem to play a game of tennis as the ball gets hit from the private side of the net to the public side and back again.