The Bank of England is not “paralysed” on interest-rates

From time to time we have the opportunity to observe the spinning efforts of the house journal of the Bank of England. So without further ado let me hand you over to the Financial Times.

Bank of England ‘paralysed’ on rates by Brexit uncertainty.

The first thought is which way?But then we get filled in.

Turmoil of EU departure constrains policymakers despite tight labour market.

So up it is then, but of course that brings us to territory which is rather well trodden. You see the Bank of England has raised Bank Rate a mere two times in the last eleven years! Thus the concept of it being paralysed by Brexit prospects is a little hard to take. Whereas on the other side of the coin it was able to cut interest-rates from the 5.75% of the summer of 2007 to the emergency rate of 0.5% very quickly including a reduction of 1.5%. That reduction was twice the current Bank Rate and six times the size of the 0.5% rises. Also we note that the panic rate cut of August 2016 not only happened quickly but means that the net interest-rate increase since the comment below has been a mere 0.25%.

This has implications for the timing, pace and degree of Bank Rate increases.
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 Governor Mark Carney at Mansion House in June 2014 and we now know that “sooner than markets expect” turned out to be more than four years before Bank Rate rose above the 0.5% it was then. But I do not recall the FT telling us about paralysis then about our “rock star” central banker.

The case for an interest-rate rise

There is one relief as we do not get a mention of the woefully wrong output gap concept. But we do get this.

Unless the UK’s sub-par productivity improves, the BoE has argued, unemployment cannot remain at current lows without wage growth feeding consumer prices. The latest data showed the labour market tightening again with employment at a record high and wage growth back to pre-crisis levels. “If they further home in on labour market trends, it will be a clear steer that they have a bias to tighten,” said David Owen, chief European economist at Jefferies, who thinks market pricing currently underestimates the likelihood of UK interest rates rising.

There are two main issues with the argument presented. The first is the productivity assumption where the Bank of England now assumes it has a cap based on a “speed limit” for the economy of an annual rate of growth of 1.5%. It’s assumptions are more likely to be wrong that right. Next is that wage growth is back to pre-crisis levels which is simply wrong. It is around 1% per annum short in nominal terms and simply nowhere near in real terms.

According to Kallum Pickering at Berenberg the Bank of England has really,really,really,really,really,really ( Carly Rae Jepsen)  wanted to raise interest-rates.

“The BoE would be close to the Fed on rate profile if it weren’t for Brexit . . . The Fed wants to pause, but the BoE has gone slower than otherwise,” he said, adding that barring a hard Brexit, the MPC would need to increase rates for a couple of years to catch up.

Sooner of later someone will turn up with the silliest example of all.

Although the BoE maintains it has plenty of firepower to fight any downturn, some outsiders believe one motive to raise interest rates is to gain space to inject stimulus if needed.

A type of Grand Old Duke of York strategy where you march interest-rates to the top of a hill just so that you can march them down again.

Some Reality

The water gets rather choppy as we find a mention of the inflation target.

Similarly, the BoE is likely to cut its near-term forecast for inflation — already close to target, at 2.1 per cent in December, and set to fall further after a drop in energy prices.

If you were serious about raising interest-rates then the period since February 2017 when inflation went over target would be an opportunity to do so except we only got a reversal of the August 2016 mistake and one other. If you go at that pace when inflation is above target it would be really rather odd to do much more when it is trending lower.

The next issue is the economic outlook where we have been recording economic slow downs in both China and Europe. Some of this is related to the automotive sector which has always affected the UK via Jaguar Land Rover and more recently Nissan. On its own that would make this an odd time to raise interest-rates. If we move to the UK outlook then this mornings Markit Purchasing Manager’s Index or PMI tells us this.

January data indicated a renewed loss of momentum for
the UK service sector, with a decline in incoming new work
reported for the first time since July 2016. Subdued demand
conditions meant that business activity was broadly flat
at the start of 2019, while concerns about the economic
outlook weighed more heavily on staff recruitment. Latest
data pointed to an overall reduction in payroll numbers for
the first time in just over six years.

Some care is needed here as the Markit PMI misfired in July 2016 but we need to recall that the Bank of England relied on it. We know this because that October Deputy Governor Broadbent went out of his way to deny it.

All that said, there’s little doubt that the economy has performed better than surveys suggested immediately
after the referendum and, although we aimed off those significantly, somewhat more strongly than our near term forecasts as well.

So in spite of it being an unreliable indicator at times of uncertainty like now I expect the Bank of England to be watching it like a hawk. If so they will be looking at this bit.

Adjusted for seasonal influences, the All Sector Output Index posted 50.3 in January, down from 51.5 in December. The index has posted above the crucial 50.0 no-change mark in each month since August 2016, but the latest reading signalled the slowest pace of expansion over this period and the second-lowest since December 2012.

If accurate that is in Bank Rate cut territory rather than a raise.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here so let us start with the “paralysis” point and let me use the words of the absent-minded professor Ben Broadbent from October 2016.

Before August, the UK’s official interest rate had been held at ½% for over seven years, the longest period of
unchanged rates since 1950. No-one on the current MPC was on the Committee when rates were previously
changed, in early 2009; indeed there are children now at primary school who weren’t even alive at the time.

Oh well as Fleetwood Mac would put it. Next comes the issue of why the Bank of England is encouraging what is effectively false propaganda about raising interest-rates? Personally I believe it is a type of expectations management as they increasingly fear that they will have to cut them again. So we are being guided towards the view that events are out of their control. This is awkward as we note the scale of their interventions ( for example some £435 billion of QE) and the way that positive news is always presented as being the result of their actions. Yet they also claim when convenient that lower interest-rates are nothing to do with them at all.

As to my view I am still of the view that we need higher interest-rates but that now is not the time. The boat sailed in the period 2014-16 when the rhetoric of Forward Guidance was not matched by any action. It is hard not to have a wry smile at us being guided towards a 7% unemployment rate then 6.5% and so on to the current 4%.

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This looks like the end of the interest-rates rising cycle

This feels like one of those days where there has been an epoch shift or to be more specific the morning after the night before. It is not as if we have been caught by surprise, as unlike so many have been ahead of the curve about the world economic slow down, and hence the implications for interest-rates and monetary policy. But there will be much wider implications from this as we go forwards and let us start from the fact that the biggest economic decision of 2019 may have just been made by a technocrat.

What happened?

The US Federal Reserve is significant on several counts. There is the ordinary significance of it being responsible for monetary policy in the world’s largest economy and for its reserve currency. There has recently been an additional one as it has been the standard-bearer for voluntarily raising interest-rates. Yet last night we got a combination of this.

 the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 percent……… In light of global economic and financial developments and muted inflation pressures, the Committee will be patient as it determines what future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate may be appropriate to support these outcomes.

No great surprise in the lack of a move last night but the promises that peaked at 3-4 interest-rate increases in 2019 have morphed into “will be patient” or perhaps 0. Then there was an additional statement which copied a part of what has become the European Central Bank model.

The Committee is prepared to adjust any of the details for completing balance sheet normalization in light of economic and financial developments. Moreover, the Committee would be prepared to use its full range of tools, including altering the size and composition of its balance sheet, if future economic conditions were to warrant a more accommodative monetary policy than can be achieved solely by reducing the federal funds rate.

So what has been called Quantitative Tightening or QT where some of the bonds bought previously are allowed to run off has run out of steam or “economic and financial developments”. The use of the word financial is significant as frankly it only reinforces the view that past falls in equity markets have driven this and we do get a flicker of democratic involvement ( I will leave readers to decide if that is good or bad) as of course they upset President Trump.

Next comes something which regular readers will know is something I have long suspected which is that in any slow down QE4 will come down the slipway. Or to be more specific the Federal Reserve balance sheet will no longer be contracting but will be expanded again. A particular significance of this will be that it could start with the balance sheet already being over US $4 Trillion in size.

There are various consequences of all of this. Two of them are major themes of my work with one of them being the earliest. As central banks went “all in” in terms of monetary policy I feared they would delay any exit policy and thus end up in the wrong cycle. The Fed deserves some credit for at least trying ( unlike so many others) but if not too little it was too late. Next is the issue of “junkie culture” where I feared we would be unable to wean ourselves off cheap credit and yields well that looks like where we are at right now. Some of you deserve credit for pointing out that the “new normal” would mean interest-rates would not go above 3% as that is looking rather en vogue today. That is in spite of the annualised economic growth rate being reported as 3.4% and the unemployment rate being reported as 3.9%.

Along this road the concept of independence of the US Federal Reserve and Chair Jerome Powell has folded like a deck chair, although some ( often ex-central bankers) retain a touching faith in the concept.

The Consequences

Equity Markets

The issue here is summarised to some extent by this tweet from James Mackintosh of the Wall Street Journal.

The FTSE 100 dividend yield ended 2018 3.5 percentage points above the 10-year Gilt yield, the most ever. One possibility: Market pricing risk of dividends being slashed after Brexit. Another: UK stocks are cheap. Or Gilt yields far too low.

After last nights Powell U-Turn whilst Gilt yields are in my opinion too low the reality is that going forwards they look more likely to stay there than before. Therefore on that measure the equity market looks cheap. Or to express it in another form the Yellen put for equity markets which replaced the Bernanke put has not been replaced by the Powell put option. This does not mean that they cannot fall but it does mean that monetary policy will do its best to stop them falling.

This brings us to the concept of the Plunge Protection Team a phrase I do use and sometimes I am joking. But this monetary policy  U-Turn following the way that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin spoke to the largest banks just before Christmas looks like a concerted effort.

Fiscal Policy

That to my mind has just seen a shift too and it comes from bond yields. Pressure for them to rise has just ended at least from one source. If you take the view that bond yields are the sum of expected future interest-rates then the latter has been shifting lower. If we stay with the US forecasts of 4% bond yields now face a reality of a ten-year Treasury Note yield of 2.67% and a thirty-year yield of 3.02%.

Thus fiscal policy just got cheaper and in some places it is currently very cheap if we look at a 1.24% ten-year Gilt yield in my country the UK and ultra-cheap if we look at Germany with its ten-year Bund yield of 0.18%. Let me offer you some thoughts on this.

  1. I know people like to laugh at the Donald but his fiscal plan of tax cuts has coincided with an economic slow down and now has got less expensive via lower bond yields.
  2. The concept of us all turning at least partly Japanese gets another tick in the box as they have never fully escaped the easing cycle either.
  3. Was the original plan of central bank “independence” to allow policies the politicians could never get away with?
  4. Ironically the countries that can most afford a fiscal boost such as Germany are those most set against it. Of course an element of its lower yields is due to its fiscal surplus but to my mind only a small bit.
  5. Politicians seem to be more in favour of fiscal policy when it is more expensive (higher bond yields) rather than cheaper. I cannot fully explain that but it often happens, perhaps they are just slow on the uptake.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here and the truth is some of this we have been observing over the last month or two as markets have adjusted to a newer reality. I have developed a new theory in the credit crunch era which is that conventional thought once it believes something takes quite some time to change after the evidence has shifted or the complete opposite of the famous quote attributed to JM Keynes.

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?

In reality many have continued on with thoughts about interest-rate rises in 2019 perhaps most bizarrely in the case of the ECB. Whereas for now central bankers seem to have Taylor Swift on repeat to sooth away any such thoughts.

We are never ever ever getting back together,
We are never ever ever getting back together,
You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me
But we are never ever ever ever getting back together

 

 

 

Argentina is counting the cost of its 60% interest-rates

In these times of ultra low interest-rates in the western world anywhere with any sort of interest-rate sticks out. In the case of Argentina an official interest-rate of 60% sticks out like a sore thumb in these times and in economic terms there is a second factor in that it has been like that for a while now. So the impact of this punishing relative level of interest-rates will be building on the domestic economy. Also the International Monetary Fund is on hand as this statement from Christine Lagarde yesterday indicates.

“I commended Minister Dujovne and Governor Sandleris on decisive policy steps and progress thus far, which have helped stabilize the economy. Strong implementation of the authorities’ stabilization plan and policy continuity have served Argentina well, and will continue to be essential to enhance the economy’s resilience to external shocks, preserve macroeconomic stability and to bolster medium-term growth.

“I would like to reiterate the IMF’s strong support for Argentina and the authorities’ economic reform plan.”

The opening issue is that sounds awfully like the sort of thing the IMF was saying about Greece when it was predicting a quick return to economic growth and we then discovered that it had created an economic depression there. Of course Christine Lagarde was involved in that debacle too although back then as Finance Minster of France rather than head of the IMF. Also the last IMF press conference repeated a phrase which ended up having dreadful connotations in the Greek economic depression.

It’s on track as of our last mission which was, you know, in December.

As the track was from AC/DC.

I’m on the highway to hell
On the highway to hell
Highway to hell
I’m on the highway to hell
No stop signs, speed limit
Nobody’s gonna slow me down

So let us investigate further.

Monetary policy

The plan is to contract money supply growth so you could look at this as like one of those television programmes that take us back to the 1970s.

In particular, the BCRA undertakes not to raise the monetary base until June 2019. This target brings about a significant monetary contraction; while the monetary base increased by over 2% monthly in the past few months, it will stop rising from now onwards. Then, the monetary base will dramatically shrink in real terms in the following months.

So you can see that the central bank of Argentina is applying quite a squeeze and is doing it to the monetary base because it is a narrow measure, Actually it explains it well in a single sentence.

The BCRA has chosen the monetary base as it is the aggregate it holds a grip on.

It is doing it because it can. Although I am a little dubious about this bit.

The monetary base targeting will be seasonally adjusted in December and June, when demand for money is higher.

It is usually attempts to control broad money that end up targeting money demand rather than supply. It is being achieved with this.

the BCRA undertakes to keep the minimum rate on LELIQs at 60% until inflation deceleration becomes evident.

Also there will be foreign exchange intervention if necessary, or more realistically there has been a requirement for it.

The monetary target is supplemented with foreign exchange intervention and non-intervention measures. Initially, the BCRA would not intervene in the foreign exchange market if the exchange rate was between ARS34 and ARS44. This range is adjusted daily at a 3% monthly rate until the end of the year, and will be readjusted at the beginning of next year. The BCRA will allow free currency floating within this range, considering it to be adequate.

Finally for monetary policy then monetary financing of the government by the central bank is over.

As it has already been reported, the BCRA will no longer make transfers to the Treasury.

Fiscal Policy

Another squeeze is on here as the BCRA points out.

Finally, the new monetary policy is consistent with the targets of primary fiscal balance for 2019 and of surplus for 2020.

Yes in terms of IMF logic but the Greek experience told a different story. There a weaker economy made the fiscal targets further away and tightening them weakened the economy in a downwards spiral.

So where are we?

The squeeze is definitely as my calculations based on the daily monetary report show that the monetary base has shrunk by just under 4% in the last 30 days. If we move onto the consequences of this for the real economy then any central bankers reading this might need to take a seat as the typical mortgage rate in December was 48%. To give you an idea of other interest-rates then an overdraft cost 71% and credit card borrowing cost 61%.

If we look for the impact of such eye-watering levels we see that mortgage growth was on a tear because annually it is 54% up of which only 0.1% came in the last month. Moving to unsecured borrowing overdraft growth has been -1.2% over the past 30 days but credit card growth has been 3.5% so perhaps there has been some switching.

Economic growth

This has gone into reverse as you can see from this from the statistics office.

The provisional estimate of the gross domestic product (GDP), in the third quarter of 2018, had a fall of 3.5% in relation to the same period of the previous year.
The seasonally adjusted GDP of the third quarter of 2018, with respect to the second quarter of 2018, showed a variation of -0.7%.

So a weaker quarter following on from a 4.1% dip in the second quarter of 2018 which was mostly driven by the impact of a drought on the agricultural sector. Looking back the Argentine economy did recover from the credit crunch pretty well but the recorded dip so far takes us back to 2011 or eight years backwards.

The IMF points out this year should get the agricultural production back which is welcome.

However,
in the second quarter, a rebound in agricultural
production (expected to fully recover the 30 percent
production lost in 2018 because of the drought)
should lead to a gradual pickup in economic activity.

But if we put that to one side there has to be an impact from the credit crunch. Also whilst this is good.

The recession and peso depreciation are quickly lowering the trade deficit.

It does come with something which has a very ominous sign for domestic consumption.

The adjustment mainly reflects
lower imports, reflecting a contraction in
consumption and investment.

Moving to inflation then here it is.

The general level of the consumer price index (CPI) representative of the total number of households in the country registered in December a variation of 2.6% in relation to the previous month.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here as we see a monetary squeeze imposed on an economy suffering from a drought driven economic contraction. Also I have form in that I warned about the dangers of raising interest-rates to protect a currency on May 3rd.

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.

Interest-rates were half then what they are now and I have already pointed out what mortgage rates now are. As to what sort of a economic crunch is coming the latest from the statistics office looks rather ominous.

The statistics office’s monthly economic activity index fell 7.5% y/y in November after dropping 4.2% in the previous month.

As to the business experience this from Reuters gives us a taste of reality.

Like many small businessmen, Meloni has found himself caught in a vice. Sales from his plant in the town of Quilmes, 30 km (19 miles) outside the capital Buenos Aires, shrank by just over one third last year as Argentina’s economy sank deep into recession…..

 

Meloni said the plant, which makes fabrics, used to operate 24 hours a day from Monday to Saturday but now just operates 16 hours a day, five days a week. Like many other businesses, Meloni advanced the holidays to his roughly 100 employees with the hope that once summer ends in March, demand will pick up.

It is very expensive to make people in Argentina which keeps people in a job (good) but with lower pay from less work (bad) and if it keeps going will collapse the company (ugly).

Back in the financial world I also wonder how this is going?

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.

Podcast

Here are my answers to questions asked about the Euro area economy

The shift towards lower rather than higher interest-rates is beginning again

Yesterday was another poor day for the Forward Guidance provided by central bankers as we note developments in the US and UK. There was a flurry of media activity around the statement from Bank of England Governor that the Chinese Yuan could challenge the US Dollar as the world’s reserve currency, but really he was saying that it is a very long way away. So let us start with the US Federal Reserve and look back to September for its Forward Guidance. From Reuters.

Fed policymakers did not jack up their expectations for rate hikes in coming years, as some analysts had thought, instead sticking closely to rate hike path forecasts outlined in June that envision short-term rates, now at 2.0 percent to 2.25 percent, to be at 3.1 percent by the end of next year.

This suggested a couple of rate hikes in 2019 and at the beginning of December Bill Conerly stepped up the pace in Forbes Magazine.

My forecast for interest rates remains higher than the Fed’s September 2018 forecast. I expect the Fed Funds rate to end 2019 at 3.9%, and to end 2020 at 4.5%.

Bill seemingly had not got the memo about a slowing word and hence US economy as he reflected views which in my opinion were several months out of date as well as being extreme for even then. But what we were seeing was a reining back of forecasts of interest-rate rises. Putting that in theoretical terms the so-called neutral rate of interest showed all the flexibility of the natural rate of unemployment in that it means whatever the central bankers want it to mean.

Last Night events took another turn with the publication of the US Federal Reserve Minutes from December.

With regard to the post meeting statement, members agreed to modify the phrase “the Committee expects that further gradual increases” to read “the Committee judges that some further gradual increases.” The use of the word “judges” in the revised phrase was intended to better convey the data-dependency of the Committee’s decisions regarding the future stance of policy; the reference to “some” further gradual increases was viewed as helping indicate that, based on current information, the Committee judged that a relatively limited amount of additional tightening likely would be appropriate.

As you can see they have chosen the words “judges” and “some” carefully and the prospect of interest-rate increases this year has gone from a peak of 4 with maybe more in 2020 to perhaps none. Or for fans of Carly Rae Jepson it has gone from ” I really,really,really,really” will increase interest-rates to “Call Me Maybe”

Why? Well some may mull the idea of there being a form of Jerome Powell put option for the stock market.

Against this backdrop, U.S. stock prices were down nearly 8 percent on the period.

Widening that out it also reflected an economic weakening which has mostly got worse since.

Forward Guidance

This is supposed to help the ordinary consumer and business(wo)man but letting them know what the central bank plans to do. But to my mind this is of no use at all if they keep getting it wrong as the US Federal Reserve just has. In fact in terms of fixed-rate mortgages and loans they have been given exactly the wrong advice. Whereas we had reflected the changing outlook as I quote from my opening post for this year.

The problem is their starting point and for that all eyes turn to the central banks who have driven them there. Get ready for the claims that “it could not possibly have been expected” and “Surprise!Surprise!”

I find myself debating this on social media with supporters of central bank policy who mostly but not always are central banking alumni. They manage to simultaneously claim that Forward Guidance is useful but it does not matter if it is wrong, which not even the best contortionist could match.

Bank of England

The memo saying “the times they are a-changing” had not reached Bank of England Governor Mark Carney as he posted on the Future Forum yesterday afternoon.

 That’s why the MPC expect that any future increases in Bank Rate are likely to be at a gradual pace and to a limited extent.

He is still hammering away with his hints at higher interest-rates although he was also trying to claim that movements in interest-rates are nothing to do with him at all.

So in other words, low policy interest rates are not the caprice of central bankers, but rather the consequence of powerful global forces.

Makes you wonder why he and his 8 interest-rate setting colleagues are paid  some much if the main events are nothing to do with them doesn’t it? I somehow doubt that when a Bank of England footman handed a copy of Mark Carney’s Gilt-Edged CV to the World Bank that it was claiming that.

Governor Carney was in typical form in other ways too as he answered this question.

In your opinion, how likely is a large spike in Inflation in the near future?

For example in a lengthy answer he used the word inflation once but the word unemployment five times and did not mention inflation prospects/trends ( the question) at all! Better still the things which were apparently “the consequence of powerful global forces.” suddenly became due to his ilk.

Simulations using the Bank’s main forecasting model suggest that the Bank’s monetary policy measures raised the level of GDP by around 8% relative to trend and lowered unemployment by 4 percentage points at their peak. Without this action, real wages would have been 8% lower, or around £2,000 per worker per year, and 1.5 million more people would have been out of work.

As we note his slapping of his own back whilst blowing his own trumpet I zeroed in on the wage growth claim which appeared in another form much later.

Although it’s true that QE helped support asset prices, it also boosted job creation and wage growth.

There is a lot in that sentence but let us start with the wage growth issue. The reality is that real wage growth has been negative in the UK and worse than our economic peers. By propping up zombie banks and companies for example there are reasons to argue that the QE era has made things worse. But apparently in a stroke of magic it has made everything better! Now whilst correlation does not prove causation it is hard to argue you have made things better in a period where you have had a major impact and things have got worse.  Indeed  the more recent trend as the QE flow has slowed has been for wages to pick up.

Also there was the “helped support asset prices” point. This is welcome in its honesty but there have been times that the Bank of England ( in spite of its own research on the subject) has tried to deny this.

What about debt?

Back in 2016 Governor Carney told us.

This is not a debt-fuelled recovery.

Yesterday he changed his tune slightly.

 Recent growth in aggregate credit in the UK has been modest, growing a little faster than nominal GDP.

Notice the shift from real GDP to the invariably higher nominal GDP. Missing in action was any mention of unsecured credit which surged into double-digit annual growth in response to the Sledgehammer QE action of the Bank of England in the autumn of 2016 and is still growing at over 7%. Nor did the surge in student loans merit a mention unlike in this from Geoff Tily of the TUC last week.

Total unsecured debt has risen to £428 billion. At 30.4 per cent of household income, this is higher than before the financial crisis:

Comment

There is a fair bit to sweep up here but the main point is that we have developed bodies called independent that do the establishments bidding on a scale politicians themselves would never have got away with. Can you imagine politicians being able to buy trillions of their own debt?! Next we are told that they can help us with the future via Forward Guidance but that when it goes wrong it does not matter. The elastic of credibility just snapped.

In my own country the UK this was added to on LBC Radio where we were grandly told yesterday that someone who used to set UK interest-rates would be on air. When Ian McCafferty came on he seemed confused by the statement that the UK economy grew by 0.6% in the third quarter and sounded out of touch with events. For example in the early part of 2018 it was true that Germany and France were growing more quickly than the UK but as this morning has reminded us to say they are doing so now makes you look out of touch at best.

In November 2018, output slipped back sharply in the manufacturing industry (−1.4% after +1.4% in October) as well as in the whole industry (−1.3% after +1.3%). ( France-Insee ).

Perhaps he will offer a retraction like he had to do when he was on LBC last August. Meanwhile you know I often tell you never to believe anything until it is officially denied don’t you? From Governor Carney yesterday.

We have also made clear that we wouldn’t set negative interest rates – the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee, which is responsible for setting Bank Rate, has said that the effective lower bound on Bank Rate is close to, but a little above, zero.

As a hint the lower bound was 0.5% until they cut to 0.25% ( and promised a cut to 0.1% in another Forward Guidance failure).

 

 

 

 

 

Did the Riksbank of Sweden just panic?

This morning has brought news of an event that had been promised so many times but turned out to be a false dawn. Indeed on their way to apparently making sense of this world Rosa & Roubini Associates told us this.

Riksbank Likely to Wait Longer Before Lift-Off

I guess you are now all expecting this.

Economic activity is strong and the conditions are good for inflation to remain close to the inflation target in the period ahead. As inflation and inflation expectations have become established at around 2 per cent, the need for a highly expansionary monetary policy has decreased slightly. The Executive Board has therefore decided to raise the repo rate from −0.50 per cent to −0.25 per cent.

Actually there is quite a bit that is odd about this as indeed there has been, in my opinion, about the monetary policy of the world’s oldest central bank for some time. Let me give you two clear reasons to be doubtful. Firstly GDP growth plummeted from the 1% of the second quarter of this year to -0.2% in the third. Or as the Riksbank puts it.

As expected, Swedish GDP growth has slowed down during
the second half of this year. However, the downturn in the third  quarter was greater than expected.

So if we step back we immediately wonder why you raise rates when economic growth is slowing when you could have done so when it was rising? The excuse provided looks weak especially as we note the automobile industry has continued to struggle.

One contributory cause of  this was that household consumption fell by a surprisingly large  degree, but this can partly be explained by temporarily weak car sales.

Also inconvenient numbers are regularly described as temporary even when they are nothing of the sort.

Moving onto inflation the outlook has also changed as we have moved towards the end of 2018.

The inflation rate according to the CPI with a fixed interest rate (CPIF) was 2.1 percent in November 2018 (2.4 percent in October). The CPIF decreased by 0.1 percent from October to November.  ( Sweden Statistics)

Here is FXStreet from last week when these numbers came out.

Nordea Markets 1/2: : CPIF inflation stood at 2.1% in November, below consensus and 0.3% point below the ’s forecast. Core inflation, i.e. CPIF ex energy, came out at 1.4%, as much as 0.3% point below the Riksbank’s call.

To be fair to Nordea they were expecting a hike so perhaps they had received an official nod because there is now another factor at play. That is of course the lower trajectory of the oil price which looks set to depress headline inflation numbers in the weeks and months ahead. If we take a broad sweep the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil has fallen some US $30 since the Riksbank balked at raising Swedish interest-rates. I think you can spot the problem here. Apparently the wages fairy will turn up which of course is yet another central banking standard view in spite of reality not being that helpful.

Wage growth has certainly become a little lower than
the Riksbank’s forecast over recent months and the forecast has been revised downwards slightly.

The Riksbank’s own view

Let me know switch to some sections of their monetary report which frankly would fit better with an interest-rate cut.

The global economy, which has grown rapidly in recent years, is now entering a phase of more subdued GDP growth, which is in line with the Riksbank’s earlier forecasts.

So Sweden is swimming against the trend?

Economic activity in Sweden is still strong, although GDP growth and inflation have been weaker than expected.

So definitely maybe. What about inflation prospects?

Even though inflation has been lower than expected, the conditions remain good for inflation to stay close to the inflation target going forward.

Then we get quite a swerve because you might think that with the claimed view of the Riksbank more interest-rate hikes will be on the way. It would be logical assuming there is anyone who believes the growth path remains strong and inflation will be ~2% per annum. But apparently not.

The forecast for the repo rate has therefore been revised downwards to indicate that the next repo rate rise will probably occur during the second half of 2019 . After this, the forecast indicates approximately two rate rises per year by 0.25 percentage points each time.

If we skip the last sentence on the grounds that this has been not far off the promised pattern since the Riksbank last raised back in 2011 we see that what is now called a “dovish hike” has just taken place. What that means is that whilst there has been a rise the future expected path falls. Thus if you follow central banking forward guidance interest-rates as 2019 develops may now be lower than you were expecting.

Operation Twist and QE

The other factors in Sweden’s monetary policy are described below.

At the end of November, the Riksbank’s government bond
holdings amounted to just under SEK 350 billion, expressed as a nominal amount.

But they are giving Operation Twist an extra squeeze.

In December 2017, the Executive Board also decided that reinvestments of the large principal payments due in the first six months of 2019 should be allocated evenly across the period from January 2018 to June 2019 . This means that the Riksbank’s holdings of government bonds will increase temporarily in 2018 and the beginning of 2019.

If you wished to tighten monetary policy then you could simply let these bonds mature and not replace them.

US Federal Reserve

As we were expecting it did this last night.

Today, we raised our target range for short-term interest
rates by another quarter of a percentage point. ( Chair Powell)

Not everyone was on board however as there was a nearly 800 point swing in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in response to it. This also meant it ignored the advice from President Trump not to do so and to cut the amount of Quantitative Tightening. The issue was summed up by the Wall Street Journal but not in the way the author thought it meant.

The data says the economy is doing great; the markets say it could be headed for a recession.

At turning points the data is always too late by definition which means that some sort of judgement call is required. Central banks have about a 0% success rate in predicting recessions.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider in the latest central banking moves but the major point is one of timing. Monetary policy is supposed to lead events and not to lag them which is why “data dependency” is not only flawed it is illogical. To be fair to the US Federal Reserve it has at least tried to get ahead of events whereas the Riksbank has not.

Meanwhile there is a country with a central bank meeting today which has just had some strong economic news.

The quantity bought in November 2018 when compared with October 2018 increased by 1.4%, with a strong monthly growth of 5.3% in household goods stores….The strongest growth can be seen in comparison with the same period a year earlier where the amount spent increased by 5.0% and the quantity bought increased by 3.6%.

Is anybody expecting Mark Carney and the Bankof England to have raised interest-rates in response to the strong retail sales data? I am using the past tense as the vote was last night.

Number Crunching

 

 

 

 

The US economy is slowing but how quickly?

A feature of recent times has been the way that economic growth forecasts have been trimmed somewhat. This morning has already seen two examples of that as the Swiss National Bank has suggested it will fall from 2.5% this year to 1.5% next, must be awkward that when your official interest-rate is already -0.75%. Next came the IFO Institute in Germany which did a little pruning to 1.5% this year and more of a short-back and sides to 1.1% in 2019. That provides some food for thought for the European Central Bank today as its largest economy slows.

The situation in the United States has been somewhat different, however, at least according to the official data. From the Bureau for Economic Analysis.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2018 , according to the “second” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the second quarter, real GDP increased 4.2 percent.

Yes it has slowed but to a rate most first world countries would currently give their right arm for. We can use the Atlanta Fed now cast to see where we stand this quarter.

The GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the fourth quarter of 2018 is 2.4 percent on December 7, down from 2.7 percent on December 6.

They updated it on the basis of this new information.

The nowcast of fourth-quarter real final sales of domestic product growth decreased from 2.9 percent to 2.7 percent after this morning’s employment report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The nowcast of the contribution of inventory investment to fourth-quarter real GDP growth decreased from -0.23 percentage points to -0.33 percentage points after the employment report and this morning’s wholesale trade release from the U.S. Census Bureau.

So we see that whilst the level of economic growth remains relatively good the US has not escaped the cooling winds blowing.

Money Supply

This has proved to be a good guide to economic trends in 2018 and even better it remains widely ignored. Shorter-term trends are usually best encapsulated by narrow money so let us investigate last week’s monetary base data from the Federal Reserve which incorporates this.

The release also provides data on the monetary base, which includes currency in circulation and total balances maintained.

On the 5th of this month it was US $3.444 trillion but we immediately know that as Alicia Keys would say it has been Fallin’ as it was US $3.508 trillion on the 7th of November. We need to switch to the monthly numbers for an annual comparison and when we do so we see that in November it was 11% lower than a year before. If the phrase was not in use elsewhere this would be a credit crunch or to be more specific a type of cash crunch. Not a pure cash crunch as the currency in circulation has risen to US $1.705 trillion but reserve balances at the banks.

The fall has been driven by this.

For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from maturing Treasury securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $6 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $6 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $30 billion per month…….For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from its holdings of agency debt and mortgage-backed securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $4 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $4 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $20 billion per month.

As you can see it is the central bank which is sucking reserve balances out of the system as indeed it was it who pumped them up. In a broad sweep we see that the QE era took the monetary base from a bit under US $0.9 trillion to US $4.1 trillion and now is pulling it back down.

Personally I think the main effect is coming from the reductions in holdings of mortgage-backed securities so if we pro rata that we get a monetary base reduction of say 5% but that is still a crunch.

Interest-Rates

These have been rising in the US another 0.25% still seems likely next week. An intriguing way of putting the international perspective on this has been provided by the Bond Vigilantes website.

 the de facto global discount rate, the 2-year US Treasury bond yield, has risen by almost 100 basis points (bps) over the year, and thus repriced global assets.

Higher US interest-rates effect the world economy and thus have a second order effect on the US economy via trade. Then there are the domestic effects.

the US 30-year mortgage rate hit 4.8% recently, up from 3.3% in 2016. Whilst most existing homeowners, like corporates, will have locked in those cheap rates, new borrowers face costlier loans, and this is already having an impact: US housing and real estate data is surprising to the downside at a rate that exceeds that seen even in 2008 and 2009:

So there has been something of a squeeze on the real economy from this source as well, although it will have weakened recently as US Treasury Bond yields have fallen back from their peaks.

Fiscal Policy

As we mull the developments above it seems that the fiscal stimulus provided by President Trump was not as ill-conceived as some have claimed. Of course views vary about fiscal stimuli as for example they are apparently good for France but bad for Italy. But the Donald has provided one into a slow down which has at least some of the textbook rationale. Where matters get more complex is the fact that the US has so far only really seen its boom slow and other countries such as Germany make a stronger case. But if we skip the absolute level argument the Donald does appear to have spotted the direction of travel.

Comment

We see that the US has not in fact escaped the economic changes in 2018 but it has had an advantage from starting at a higher level of economic growth. But the monetary data is applying a squeeze as are higher interest-rates and as ever we find it impacting in familiar places.

Whenever you saw the supply of unsold homes reach 7 months, a recession followed. It certainly did in 2008, despite the consensus of economic forecasters believing that economic growth would be 2.4% – it was actually negative. Why should we worry now? Well, the supply of unsold new homes is… 7.4 months (blue line).  (BondVigilantes )

That will trouble the US Federal Reserve as will this development.

BKX not far from yesterday’s low. There’s a real problem with the banks. And I don’t think I’m being an alarmist by simply saying something might be going on here that we don’t know about. ( @selling_theta )

Worries about the housing market and the banks? We know how central banks usually respond to those so no wonder the US Fed has cooled on future interest-rate rises. QE4 anyone?

 

 

 

 

The problematic nature of current bond yields

One of the features of the credit crunch era has been the falls in first world interest-rates and bond yields. The first phase saw the slashing of official short-term interest-rates and once that was seen to be inadequate, central banks directly purchased bonds to reduce yields further. It is seldom put like this but there was already an implied failure as according to the models back then the interest-rate cuts should have done the trick. Back then I was already looking ahead to when there would have to be ch-ch-changes and posted the view that central banks would delay what has become called policy normalisation.

For example back on the 24th of February 2011 I pointed out this about a speech from David Miles of the Bank of England.

 My problem with this is that when you act as they have and you have in effect used what weapons the Bank of England has virtually to the maximum by cutting interest-rates by 4.75%% and spending some £200 billion on asset purchases then you have been extraordinarily interventionist. Accordingly it is then hard for you to blame events because some of them are the consequence of your own actions……

What that illustrates is that already the truth was being manipulated and also I am glad I wrote “virtually to the maximum” as of course the amount of asset purchases has more than doubled. In addition we have seen credit easing in the UK via such policies as the Term Funding Scheme and the start of full-scale QE from the European Central Bank as well as negative interest-rates.

But the point about delaying proved to be very accurate as the Euro area is still actively pursuing QE and in net terms the UK has managed to raise interest-rates by a measly 0.25%. The opportunity in 2014/15 was meant with promises via Forward Guidance but no action.

The US

This is the one country which has taken clear action on the path to normalisation. Here is the current state of play.

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

That is currently working out be be around 2.2% and more rises are promised. Also there is some reversing of the QE or Qualitative Tightening.

The Committee directs the Desk to continue
rolling over at auction the amount of principal
payments from the Federal Reserve’s holdings
of Treasury securities maturing during each
calendar month that exceeds $30 billion, and to
continue reinvesting in agency mortgage-backed
securities the amount of principal
payments from the Federal Reserve’s holdings
of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed
securities received during each calendar month
that exceeds $20 billion.

That combined with forecasts of another interest-rate rise in a fortnight and at least a couple next year seemed to put pressure on bond markets. However this sentence in a speech from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell shook things up on the 28th of last month and the emphasis is mine.

We therefore began to raise our policy rate gradually toward levels that are more normal in a healthy economy. Interest rates are still low by historical standards, and they remain just below the broad range of estimates of the level that would be neutral for the economy‑‑that is, neither speeding up nor slowing down growth.

You may note we seem to have travelled from “policy normalisation” to neutral. But what the neutral interest-rate represents is an attempt to figure out what interest-rate would neither stimulate or contract the economy. Or a sort of measure of what we might aim for as a new normal. When they are trying to put a pseudo scientific gloss on things economist and central bankers call it r-squared.

However the “just below” dropped the expected path for US interest-rates by 0.5%.

Bond Markets

Let me take you to the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

This quarter, yields on longer-dated bonds have dropped and those on two-year Treasurys are flat. The gap between two and 10-year Treasury yields is now around 0.11 percentage point, compared with around 0.55 percentage point at the beginning of the year.

This is attracting a lot of attention in the financial media but the change of 0.44% is pretty much my 0.5% suggestion above. Now let us look at the US ten-year yield which is 2.9% as I type this and we see that in basic terms it is predicting a couple more 0.25% interest-rate rises. This will come in the next year or so if true so it is not very different to the two-year yield of 2.76%.

If we look beyond Federal Reserve policy we have seen a fall in the price of oil over the past month or two. If we look at it in Brent Crude terms then just above US $86 of early October has been replaced by below US $59 this morning as oil follows equity markets lower. The exact amount of the change varies but the path for inflation now seems set to be lower as it has been rare in 2018 for the oil price to be below where it was this time last year. That is another reason for lower bond yields.

Is this a signal of a recession? Here is the St.Louis Fed from last week.

Does the recent flattening of the yield curve portend recession? Not necessarily. The flattening of the real yield curve may simply reflect the fact that real consumption growth is not expected to accelerate or decelerate from the present growth rate of about 1 percent year over year. On the other hand, a 1 percent growth rate is substantially lower than the U.S. historical average of 2 percent. Because of this, the risk that a negative shock (of comparable magnitude to past shocks) sends the economy into technical recession is increased.

That is a fascinating way of looking at it and in my experience precisely zero bond market participants will look at it like that. It is also revealing that we seem to just assume growth will now be lower. Didn’t they save us?

Comment

I wanted to look at this subject today because of the clear changes which are happening. Now it looks much less likely that US interest-rates will pass 3% and if they do not by much. So “normalisation” will be at best about two-thirds of what it might have been considered to be pre credit crunch ( 4.5%). Some of you have suggested that we can no longer afford interest-rates and yields above 3% so well done at least if we stay where we are! If Italy folds you may get a second tick in that box.

But as we look wider we see even more extraordinary developments. Let me take a look at my own country the UK which is in political disarray yet the ten-year Gilt yield is below 1.3%. So those predicting a surge in Gilt yields are slipping back into the bushes whilst I note the extraordinary absolute level and the persistence of negative real yields which bust past metrics. Germany has a ten-year yield of 0.26% and a five-year one of -0.3% as we note again more metrics which are busted.

So my view is that we cannot rely on old recession metrics because another cause of all of this is that QE4 from the US Fed has got closer. I have worried all along that interest-rate rises might run into more QE and if they do we will be singing along to Coldplay.

Oh no I see
A spider web and it’s me in the middle
So I twist and turn
Here am I in my little bubble