Higher bond yields and higher inflation mean higher national debt costs

The last week or so has brought a theme of this blog back to life and reminds me of the many years I spent working in bond markets. They have spent much of the credit crunch era being an economic version of the dog that did not bark. Much of that has been due to the enormous scale of the QE ( Quantitative Easing) sovereign bond buying policies of many of the major central banks. The politicians who came up with the idea of making central banks independent and then staffing them with people who were anything but should be warmly toasted by their successors. The successors would never have got away with a policy which has benefited them enormously in terms of ability to spend because of lower debt costs.

Italy

However the times are now a-changing and this morning has brought more bad news on this front from Italy. The BTP bond future for December has fallen to 120 which means it has lost a bit over 7 points over the last ten or eleven days. Putting that into yield terms it means that the ten-year yield has reached 3.5% which has a degree of symbolism. A factor in this is described by the Financial Times.

The commission issued its warning to the Five Star and League governing coalition after Rome deviated from the EU’s fiscal rules by proposing a budget deficit equivalent to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product instead of the 1.6 per cent previously mooted by the finance minister Giovanni Tria. Although the new plans keep Italy under the EU’s 3 per cent deficit threshold, the country’s high debt levels — the highest in the eurozone after Greece — means Rome is required to cut spending to bring debt levels gradually lower.

However the chart below tells us that in fact you can look at it from another point of view entirely.

Actually I think that the situation is more pronounced than that as the ECB has bought 356 billion Euros worth. But you get the idea. It is hard not to think that a major factor in the recent falls is the halving of ECB QE purchases since the beginning of this month and to worry about their end in the New Year. In case you were wondering why the share prices of Italian banks have been tumbling again recently? The fact they have been buying in size in 2018 when one of the trades of 2018 has been to sell Italian bonds gives quite a clue.

If we switch to the consequences for debt costs then a rough rule of thumb is to multiply the 3.5% by the national debt to GDP ratio of 1.33 which gives us 4.65%. In practice this takes time as there is a large stock of debt and the impact from new debt takes time. For example Italy issued 2 billion Euros of its ten-year on the 28th of last month at 2.9%. So a fair bit less than now although much more expensive that it had got used too. This below from the Italian Treasury forecasts gives an idea of how the higher yields impact over time.

The redemptions in 2018 are approximately €184 billion (excluding BOTs) including approximately
€3 billion in relation to the international programme……..the average life of the stock of
government securities, which was 6.9 years at the end of 2017.

Oh and the tipping point below has been reached. From the Wall Street Journal.

Harvinder Sian, a bond strategist at Citigroup, thinks a 10-year yield of 3.5%-4% is now the tipping point, after which yields jump toward the 7% reached at the height of the last euro crisis

Personally I am not so sure about tipping point as the “gentlemen of the spread” ( with apologies to female bond traders) have been selling it at quite a rate anyway.

 

The United States

Here bond yields have been rising recently and let us take the advice of President Trump and look at what has happened during his term of office. Whilst back then Newsweek was busy congratulating Madame President Hilary Clinton my attention was elsewhere.

There has been a clear market adjustment to this which is that the 30 year ( long bond) yield has risen by 0.12% to 2.75%.

We see that it has risen in the Trump era to 3.4% although maybe not by as much as might have been expected. However if we look to shorter maturities we see a much stronger impact.For example the two-year now yields some 2.9% and the five-year some 3.07%. So if you read about flat yield curves this is what is meant although it is not (yet) literally true as there is a 0.5% difference. Thus the US now faces a yield of circa 3% or so looking ahead. This does have an impact as the New York Times has pointed out.

The federal government could soon pay more in interest on its debt than it spends on the military, Medicaid or children’s programs.

In terms of numbers this is what they think.

Within a decade, more than $900 billion in interest payments will be due annually, easily outpacing spending on myriad other programs. Already the fastest-growing major government expense, the cost of interest is on track to hit $390 billion next year, nearly 50 percent more than in 2017, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

If we switch to the Congressional Budget Office it breaks down some of the influences at play here.From its September report.

Outlays for net interest on the public debt increased by $62 billion (or 20 percent), partly because of a higher rate of inflation.

The CBO points out a factor the New York Times missed which is that countries with index-linked debt are also hit by higher inflation. As the US has some US $1.38 trillion of these it is a considerable factor.

Also the US is borrowing more.

The federal budget deficit was $782 billion in fiscal year 2018, the Congressional Budget Office estimates,
$116 billion more than the shortfall recorded in fiscal year 2017………The 2018 deficit equaled an estimated 3.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), up from 3.5 percent in
2017. (If not for the timing shifts, the 2018 deficit would have equaled 4.1 percent of GDP.)

Higher bond yields combined with higher fiscal deficits mean more worries about this factor.

At 78 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), federal
debt held by the public is now at its highest level since
shortly after World War II. If current laws generally
remained unchanged, the Congressional Budget Office
projects, growing budget deficits would boost that
debt sharply over the next 30 years; it would approach
100 percent of GDP by the end of the next decade and
152 percent by 2048 . That amount would
be the highest in the nation’s history by far.

I counsel a lot of caution with this as 2048 will have all sorts of things we cannot think of right now. But the debt is heading higher in the period we can reasonably project and I note the CBO is omitting the debt held by the US Federal Reserve so that QE would make the figures look better but the current QT makes it look worse.

Comment

Debt costs and the associated concept of the mythical bond vigilantes have been in a QE driven hibernation but they seem to be showing signs of waking up. If we look at today’s two examples we see different roads to the destination. If we look at the road to Rome we see that the longer-term factor has been the lost decades involving a lack of economic growth. This has made it vulnerable to rising bond yields and which means that the straw currently breaking the camel’s back has been what is a very small fiscal shift. It is also a case of bad timing as it has taken place as the ECB departs the bond purchases scene.

The US is different in that it has a much better economic growth trajectory but has a President who has also primed the fiscal pumps. Should it grow strongly then the Donald will win “bigly” as he will no doubt let us know. However should economic growth weaken or the long overdue recession appear then the debt metrics will slip away quite quickly. That is a road to QE4.

Returning back home I note that UK Gilt yields are higher with the ten-year passing 1.7% last week for the first time for a few years.So the collar is a little tighter.The main impact on the UK came from the rise in inflation in 2017 leading to higher index-linked debt costs. This was the main factor in our annual debt costs rising by around £10 billion between 2015/16 and 2017/18.

 

 

 

 

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The Italian job just got a whole lot harder

The last few days have brought back memories of old times as an old stomping ground has returned to the forefront of financial news. This has been the Italian bond market which has been since Friday morning a real life example of the trading phrase “Don’t try to catch a falling piano”, or in some cases knife. If we look at the Italian bond future it has fallen 6 points since late on Thursday from a bit above 127 to a bit above 121. For these times a 2 point a day drop in a bond market is quite a bit especially when we consider that one large holder will not be selling. That is of course the European Central Bank or ECB which as of the 21st of September had bought some 356.4 billion Euros of them. So we note as an initial point that  falls of this magnitude, which has been on average the old price limit for US Treasury Bond futures ( a 2 point move led to a temporary trading stop back in the day) can happen even in the QE era.

Putting this another way the yield on the Italian ten-year benchmark bond has risen to 3.4%. This means that if we look at the deposit rate of the ECB which is -0.4% there is quite a yield curve here. It starts early with for those who have been invested here quite a chilling thought. You see as recently as mid may the Italian two-year yield was negative ( last December it was -0.36%) whereas at the time of typing this it is 1.56%. So those long have had a disaster although of course they can hold the bond to maturity and just lose the yield. Although of course we would not be here if there were not at least the beginnings of fears over the maturity itself such as perhaps you not being paid in Euros. From @DailyFXTeam.

EUR Borghi comments on the desirability of Italy having its own currency push Italian 10-yr yields to 3.4%, highest since March, 2014

Claudio Borghi is the chief adviser to Matteo Salvini who is Deputy Prime Minister and has been upping the rhetoric himself this morning. Via Twitters translation service.

In Italy No one is drinking the threats of Juncker, which now associates our country with Greece.

Madness they call it madness

There has been plenty of this including this curious statement yesterday from Matteo Salvini.

*ITALY’S SALVINI SAYS `GENTLEMEN OF THE SPREAD’ WILL UNDERSTAND

If we bypass the obvious sexism he is referring to the yield spread between Italian bonds and the benchmark for the Euro area which is of course Germany. A part of the Euro project is that these should converge over time as economies also converge. Except we have seen quite a divergence recently as if we look at the ten-year gap this morning it reached 3% per annum, which if you held to maturity would be a tidy sum especially if this fantasy came true.

Borghi advocating an ECB enforced max spread to Germany of 150bps. ( h/t @stewhampton )

In recent times it would appear that the ECB has been the main buyer of BTPs but it as of this week has reduced again its purchases and will buy around 1.7 billion Euros only in October. As we stand it seems unlikely to fire up its QE programme just for Italy. It did buy Italian bonds back at the peak of the Euro area crisis but bond yields were more than double what they are now.

The Deficit

In the grand scheme of things the change here has been quite minor. From Reuters.

Italy new eurosceptic government proposed on Thursday a budget that increases the deficit to 2.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2019, tripling it in comparison with the plans of its predecessors.

Actually the real change has been from 1.8% of GDP as rumoured just over a week ago, as we find that 0.6% of GDP has turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Actually the real switch in my opinion is not to be found here but rather in the implications for the national debt.

Under EU law Italy should reduce its public debt rather than increase borrowing. Rome’s total debt is worth 133 percent of GDP.

Just as a reminder the Euro area limit is supposed to be 60% of GDP. Thus Italy is supposed to be reducing its ratio but we know that it has been increasing it over the credit crunch era. Should the higher bond yields last then they will put further upwards pressure on it and in some respects Italy will start to look a little like Greece.

The economy

This is the crux of the matter as the most revealing point is that the budget forecast relies on Italy growing at 1.6% or 1.7% next year. The catch for those who have not followed its economic trajectory is that it only grows at about 1% in the good years and has had a dreadful credit crunch era. Those who were cheerleaders for the “Renzinomics” of around 2014 need to eat more than one slice of humble pie as it never happened. Yesterday brought another same as it ever was signal.

Manufacturing operating conditions in Italy stagnated during September as output and new orders both fell marginally. Job creation was sustained, but at a much slower rate as signs of spare capacity persisted………September’s data also marked the first time in just over two years that the sector has failed to expand.
Manufacturing output fell in September. Although negligible, the decline in production marked a second successive monthly contraction in line with a similar development for new orders.

If we switch to the official monthly economic report it too is downbeat.

In August, both consumer confidence and the composite business indicator declined, influenced respectively by the worsening of economic expectations and the climate in manufacturing sector, which is further affected by the
decline in book orders and expectations on production.

So we see that Italy which grew by 0.5% in the first half of the year will do well to repeat that in the second half especially if we note the slowing of the Euro area money supply we looked at last Thursday.

Much better news came from the labour market.

In August 2018, 23.369 million persons were employed, +0.3% over July. Unemployed were 2.522 million,
-4.5% over the previous month……..Employment rate was 59.0%, +0.2 percentage points over the previous month, unemployment rate was 9.7%, -0.4 percentage points over July 2018 and inactivity rate was 34.5%, +0.1 points over the previous month.

Let us hope that is true as Italy badly needs some good economic news, but it has developed a habit of declaring such numbers and then revising them higher later. Also it remains a bad time to be young in Italy.

Youth unemployment rate (aged 15-24) was 31.0%, +0.2 percentage points over the previous month

Comment

The situation here is something which has been changed by some rather small developments. Why? Well it is a consequence of my “Girlfriend in a Coma” theme which I have been running for some years now. When you grow by so little in the good times you are left vulnerable to changes, and hence apparently small ones can cause trouble. This has been added to by the frankly silly rhetoric on both sides.

Added to this is the issue of the consequences of the QE era which has been a subject over the past couple of weeks. Italy tucked itself under the “Whatever it takes” umbrella of President Draghi of the ECB but has not reformed much if at all so as the umbrella gets folded up and put away it is vulnerable again. Since that speech was given in the summer of 2012 the Italian economy has grown by a bit over 2% and is still some 4-5% smaller than it was a decade ago. This is the real Girlfriend in a coma issue which has led to the problems with the banks and the national debt and has given us the Italian version of a lost decade. As the population has been growing the individual experience has been even worse than that.

The other way that Italy is different to Greece is that in Euro terms it is indeed systemic due to its much larger size.

 

 

 

 

The Italian economy looks to be heading south again

Today has opened with what is more disappointing economic news for the land of la dolce vita. From the Italian Statistics Office or Istat.

In July 2018 the seasonally adjusted industrial production index decreased by 1.8% compared with the previous month. The percentage change of the average of the last three months with respect to the previous three months was -0.2.
The calendar adjusted industrial production index decreased by 1.3% compared with July 2017 (calendar working days being 22 versus 21 days in July 2017);

As you can see output was down both on the preceding month and on a year ago. This is especially disappointing as the year had started with some decent momentum as shown by the year to date numbers.

 in the period January-July 2018 the percentage change was +2.0 compared with the same period of 2017.

However if we look back we see that the push higher in output came in the last three months of 2017 and this year has seen more monthly declines on a seasonally adjusted basis ( 4) than rises (3). Looking ahead we see that things may even get worse as the Markit PMI business survey for manufacturing tells us this.

Italy’s manufacturing sector eased towards
stagnation during August. Both output and new
orders were lower, undermined by weak domestic
demand, whilst employment increased to the
weakest degree since September 2016……..Expectations were at their lowest for over five years.

This seems set to impact on the wider economic position.

At current levels, the PMI data suggest industry
may well provide a net negative contribution to
wider GDP levels in the third quarter of the year.

With Italy’s ongoing struggle concerning economic growth that is yet another problem to face. But it is something with which it has become increasingly familiar as the industrial production sector is still in a severe depression. What I mean by that is the peak for this series was 133.3 in August of 2007 and the benchmarking at 100 for eight years later (2015) shows what Taylor Swift would call “trouble,trouble,trouble” . The initial fall was sharp and peaked at an annual rate of 26% but there was a recovery however, in that lies the rub. In 2011 Italy saw a bounce back in production to 111.9 at the peak but then the Euro area crisis saw it plunge the depths again. It did respond to the “Euroboom” in 2016 and 17 but looks like it is falling again and an index of 105.2 in July tells its own story.

So all these years later it is still 21% lower than the previous peak. We worry in the UK about a production number which is 6.1% lower but as you can see we at least have some hope of regaining it unlike Italy.

The wider outlook

Italy’s economy is heavily influenced by its Euro area colleagues and they seem to be noting a slow down as well. From @stewhampton

The ECB committee that oversees the compilation of the forecasts now sees the risks to economic growth as tilted to the downside.

Perhaps they have suddenly noted their own money supply data! At which point they are some time behind us.  Also in the language of central bankers this is significant as they do not switch from “broadly balanced” to “tilted to the downside” lightly, and especially not when they are winding down a stimulus program.

So we see that the Italian economy will not be getting much of a boost from its neighbours and colleagues into the end of 2018.

Employment

Yet again this morning’s official release poses a question about the economic situation in July?

In the most recent monthly data (July 2018), net of seasonality, the number of employees showed a slight decrease compared to June 2018 (-0.1%) and the employment rate remained stable.

This modifies the previous picture which had been good.

The year-on-year trend showed a growth of 387 thousand employees (+1.7% in one year), concentrated among temporary employees against the decline of those permanent (+390 thousand and -33 thousand, respectively) and the growth of the self-employed (+30 thousand).

So more people were in work which is very welcome in a country where a high level of unemployment has persisted. We keep being told that the unemployment rate in Italy has fallen below 11% ( in this instance to 10.7%) but then later it gets revised back up again. Of course even 10.7% is high. I would imagine many of you have already spotted that the employment growth is entirely one of temporary jobs which does not augur well if things continue to slow down.

Some better news

Italy is a delightful country so let us note what some might regard as a triumph for the “internal competitivesness” policies of the Euro area.

Italy’s current account position is one of the country’s most improved economic fundamentals since the financial crisis. As the above chart shows, it improved by 6.2 percentage points to a sizable surplus of 2.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) last year—the highest level since 1997—from a deficit of 3.4% of GDP in 2010.

That is from DBRS research who in this section will have the champagne glasses clinking at the European Commission/

external cost competitiveness gains related to relatively slower domestic wage growth.

The Italian worker who has been forced to shoulder this will not be anything like as pleased as we note that some of the gain comes directly from this.

In response to the recession, nominal imports of goods declined significantly by around 5% a year between 2012 and
2013.

Also Italy has benefited from lower oil prices.

Since then, lower energy prices further contributed to the improvement in the current account, and Italy’s imported energy bill bottomed out at 1.6% of GDP in 2016, down from a peak of 3.9% of GDP in 2012.

Not quite the export-led growth of the economics textbooks is it? Still maybe there will be a boost from tourism.

Why everyone is suddenly going to Milan on vacation ( Wall Street Journal)

According to the WSJ Milan has  “been hiding in plain sight for decades ” which must be news to all of those who have been there which include yours truly.

Comment

The downbeat economic news has arrived just as things seemed to have got calmer regarding the new coalition government. Or as DBRS research puts it.

More recently, the leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to adhere to the European Union (EU) framework. In DBRS’s view, this is a positive development.

This has meant that the ten-year bond yield which had risen above 3.2% is now 2.75%. So congratulations to anyone who has been long Italian bonds over the past ten days or so and should you choose you will be able to afford to join the WSJ in Milan as a reward. However bond yields have shifted higher if we return to the bigger picture so this will continue to be a factor.

In DBRS’s view, total interest expenditure as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) may slightly narrow this year compared with the 3.8% of GDP recorded in
2017.

As new issuance has got more expensive than in 2017 I am not sure about the narrowing point.

Also there is the ongoing sage about the Italian banks which has become something of a never-ending story. Officially Unicredit has been the success story here and yet if it is such a success why were rumours like these circulating yesterday?

The other rumour was a merger with Societe Generale of France. Anyway the current share price of around 13 Euros is a long way short of the previous peak of 370 or so. This reminds us of the news stories surrounding the fall of Lehman Bros. a decade ago as it has been a dreadful decade for both Unicredit and Italy as we note the economy is still 5% smaller than the previous peak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ECB and its Italian and Turkish problems

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

Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The economy of Italy returns to its former coma status

We are in a spell where there has been a burst of economic news about Italy and the headline brings back memories of my main theme. So let us take a look at why the idea of it being like a “girlfriend in a coma” is back.

In the second quarter of 2018 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume measure of Gross
Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 0.2 per cent with respect to the first quarter of 2018 and by 1.1 per
cent in comparison with the second quarter of 2017. ( ISTAT)

Along the way I note that the statement below from only last week of European Central Bank President Mario Draghi does not seem to apply that well to his home country.

 the euro area economy is proceeding along a solid and broad-based growth path.

For newer readers my “girlfriend in a coma” theme comes from the fact that for quite some time now Italy has struggled to grow its economy at more than 1% per annum. So a fall to 1.1% reminds us of that especially as we note that annual growth only got as high as 1.7% in the “Euroboom” and since then has gone 1.6%,1.4% and now 1.1%. If we switch to the quarterly numbers then the trend is clearly not our friend as the peak of 0.5% at the end of 2016 was held in the opening quarter of 2017 but has since gone 0.4%, 0.3%,0.3%,0.3% and now 0.2%. Indeed there has also been a downgrade of the past as we had two 0.4% previously.

Perspective

The tweet below sums up the overall theme where Italy is not only still well below its pre credit crunch peak but has grown so little this century or if you prefer in the Euro era.

Also Italy has seen a fair bit of population growth meaning that the numbers on an individual or per capita basis are even worse and I have been waiting for them to rise back to where they were at the beginning of this century. Unfortunately growth has slowed to a crawl but they should be somewhere around them now.

Labour Market

We have seen in the credit crunch era that employment trends can be a leading indicator for an economy but get little solace here either.

In June 2018, 23.320 million persons were employed, -0.2% over May

The picture had been improving as the 330000 jobs gain over the past year illustrates but now the picture is not so clear. If we switch to unemployment we see that the sense of unease increases.

Unemployed were 2.866 million, +2.1% over the previous month.

This meant that the annual picture here was of only a fall of 8000 in the ranks of the unemployed. Also I have pointed out before that the unemployment rate falls below 11% to media cheers and then climbs back up to it as if it is on repeat. Well it has not yet gone back to 11% but not far off it.

unemployment rate was 10.9%, +0.2 percentage points over May 2018

The disappointing picture continues when we look at the bugbear which is youth unemployment.

Youth unemployment rate (aged 15-24) was 32.6%, +0.5 percentage points over the previous month and
youth unemployment ratio in the same age group was 8.6%, +0.2 percentage points over May 2018.

Inflation

If we switch to the other component of what used to be called the Misery Index ( where the annual rate of inflation was added to the unemployment rate) we see this.

In July 2018, according to preliminary estimates, the Italian harmonised index of consumer prices (HICP) decreased by 1.4% compared with the previous month and increased by 1.9% with respect to July 2017 (from +1.4% in June).

So the Misery Index rose to 12.8% if we use the latest figures albeit that unemployment is for June and not July. Just for clarity the HICP above is the measure we use in the UK as Italy kept the CPI moniker for its own measure. Some of the inflation rise was due to the summer sales starting a week later than in 2017.

Wages

There was better news here but it comes with a bit of a kicker. So let us start with the good news.

In June 2018 the hourly index and the per employee index increased by 0.9 per cent from last month.

Compared with June 2017 both indices increased by 2.0 per cent.

That was something of a burst and meant that there was some real wage growth and the numbers cover a lot of the economy.

At the end of June 2018 the coverage rate (share of national collective agreements in force for the wage setting aspects) was 86.8 per cent in terms of employees and 87.4 per cent in terms of the total amount of wages.

In fact wage growth for most changed very little but it rose to an annual rate of 4% in the public administration sector driven by a 6.4% rise for the military and 6.1% for the police. Well I suppose that is one way of boosting defence spending to please President Trump! But returning to the economics we see that whilst higher wages in that sector should boost areas such as retail sales the ordinary Italian taxpayer may be nervous of higher taxes to pay for it. Also is it ominous that the government is seemingly getting the police and military onside?

Looking Ahead

This mornings private-sector survey or PMI for the manufacturing sector did not start well.

Manufacturing growth eases in July to lowest since October 2016

The detail in fact questioned whether there was any growth at all.

Growth rates of both output and new orders
weakened during July to near standstills amid
reports of an ongoing slowdown in underlying
market activity. There were reports that both
domestic and external market conditions were
faltering. Indeed, new export orders rose to the
weakest degree since August 2016 according to the
latest data.

Indeed the conclusion was downbeat when we try to add this report to the overall picture.

Based on the latest set of PMI survey data, and
with worries mounting over any escalation of global
trade tensions on export trade, Italy’s industrial
base may well struggle to meaningfully contribute to
wider economic growth in the second half of 2018

Comment

There is a familiar drumbeat about all of this as we see Italy slipping back into what is normal for it. For a start there is the still very expansionary monetary policy of the ECB with its -0.4% deposit rate although the monthly QE purchases are reducing which drives the thought that even at its height Italy gained only a little. Economic growth since the beginning of 2014 totals a mere 4.5%.

Next comes the issue of Italy’s high national debt which has risen above 2.3 trillion Euros and of course now faces higher bond yields  (ten-year is 2.76%) as it looks to refinance maturing debt and raise new finance. The essential issue here has not been one of overspending but much more one of lack of economic growth.

Italy is in many ways a delightful country so let us end with something more positive which I note from the purchase of Ronaldo by the grand old club Juventus. Like all football transfers it starts not so well as it the fee is an import and subtracts from GDP but more positively the hope is that he provides a boost via Champions League success. But I spotted something else. From CNBC.

Ronaldo fans can purchase children’s jerseys with his name for €84.95 ($98.90), women’s jerseys for €94.95 ($110.60), men’s jerseys for €104.95 ($122.20) and an authentic replica of the gear worn by Juventus playersfor €137.45 ($160.10).

There is a lot of poor analysis on this sort of thing as much of the money goes nowhere near Juve but my point is there must be money in Italy if Juve can charge that much for a football shirt. Of course there will be international fans buying but also plenty of Italian ones.

 

 

 

 

Italy faces another bond market crisis

The situation in Italy has returned to what we now consider as a bond market danger zone although this time around the mainstream media seems much less interested in a subject which it was all over only a fortnight ago. Before we get to that as ever we will prioritise the real economy and perhaps in a type of cry for help the Italian statistics office has GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) per capita at the top of its page. This shows that the post Second World War surge was replaced by such a decline since the 28,699 Euros of 2007 that the 26,338 of last year took Italy back to 1999. The lack of any growth this century is at the root cause of the current political maelstrom as it is the opposite of what the founders of the Euro promised.

Retail Sales

These attracted my attention on release yesterday and you will quickly see why.

In April 2018, both the value and volume of retail trade show a fall respectively of -4.6% and -5.4%
comparing to April 2017, following strong growth in March 2018.

Imagine if that had been the UK Twitter would have imploded! As we look further we see that there seems to be an Italian spin on the definition of a recession.

In April 2018, the indices of retail trade saw a monthly recession, with value falling by 0.7% and volume
dropping by 0.9%.

Taking a deeper perspective calms the situation somewhat but leaves us noting a quarterly decline.

Notwithstanding the monthly volatility, looking at the underlying pattern, the 3 months to April picture
reports a slight decline as value decreased by 0.5% and volume contracted by 0.2%.

This is significant as this is supposed to be a better period for the Italian economy which has been reporting economic growth for a couple of years now. It does not have the UK problem of inflation impacting on real wages because inflation is quite subdued.

In May 2018, according to preliminary estimates, the Italian harmonised index of consumer prices (HICP) increased by 0.4% compared with April and by 1.1% with respect to May 2017 (it was +0.6% in the previous month).

Actually the rise in inflation there may further impact on retail sales via real wages. Indeed the general picture here sees retail sales in April at 98.6 compared to 2015 being 100. Seeing as that is supposed to have been a better period for the Italian economy I think it speaks for itself.

The economy overall

This is consistent with the general European theme we have been both observing and expecting. From yesterday’s official monthly report.

The downturn in the leading indicator continues, suggesting a deceleration in economic activity for the coming months.

This would continue the decline as in terms of GDP growth we have seen 0.5% twice then 0.4% twice and then 0.3% twice. Ironically that had shifted Italy up the pecking order after the 0.1% for the UK and the 0,2% for France after its downwards revision. But the detail is not optimistic.

Italian growth has been fostered by change in inventories (+0.7 percentage points) and by domestic consumption expenditures (+0.3 percentage points).

The inventory position seems to be a case of “what goes up must come down” from the aptly named Blood Sweat & Tears and we have already seen that retail sales will not be helping consumption.

The trade position is in general a strong one for Italy but the first quarter showed a weakening which seems to have continued in April.

In April, exports toward non-EU countries recorded a contraction (-0.9% compared to the previous month) less marked than in the previous months (- 3.1% over the last three months February-April). In the same quarter, total
imports excluding energy showed a negative change (-0.7%).

So lower exports are not good and lower imports may be a further sign of weakening domestic demand as well. As ever the monthly data is unreliable but as you can see below Italy’s vert strong trade position with non EU countries has weakened so far this year as we mull the stronger Euro.

The trade balance registered a surplus of 7,141 million euro compared to the surplus of 7,547 million euro in the same period of 2017.

An ominous hint of trouble ahead comes if we note the likely impact of a higher oil price on Italy’s energy trade balance deficit of 12.4 billion Euros for the first four months of 2018.

Bond Markets

These are being impacted by two main factors. Via @liukzilla we are able to award today’s prize for stating the obvious to an official at the Bank of Italy.

ROSSI SAYS YIELD SPREAD WIDER DUE TO -EXIT RISK: ANSA || brilliant…

It seems to have been a day where the Bank of Italy is indeed in crisis mode as we have also had a case of never believe anything until it is officially denied.

A GRADUAL RISE IN INTEREST RATES TO PRE-CRISIS LEVELS IS NOT A CAUSE FOR CONCERN FOR ITALY -BANK OF ITALY OFFICIAL ( @DeltaOne )

The other factor is the likelihood that the new Italian government will loosen the fiscal purse strings and spend more. It is already asking the European Union for more funds which of course will come from a budget that will ( May?) lose the net contribution from the UK.

Thus the bond market has been sold off quite substantially again this week. If we look at it in terms of the bond future ( BTP) we see that the 139 and a bit of early May has been replaced by just under 123 as I type this. Whilst there are implications for those holding such instruments such as pension funds the main consequence is that Italy seems to be now facing a future where the ten-year benchmark yields and costs a bit over 3%. This is a slow acting factor especially after a period where the ECB bond purchases under QE have made this cheap for Italy. But there has already been one issue at 3% as the new drumbeat strikes a rhythm.

There has also been considerable action in the two-year maturity. Now this is something that is ordinarily of concern to specialists like me but the sharp movements mean that something is going on and it is not good. It is only a few short week’s ago that this was negative before it then surged over 2% in a dizzying rise before dropping back to sighs of relief from the establishment. But today it is back at 1.68% as I type this. In my opinion something like a big trading position and/or a derivative has blown up here which no doubt will be presented as a surprise at some future date.

Meanwhile here is the Governor of the Bank of Italy describing the scene at the end of last month.

Having widened considerably during the sovereign debt crisis, the spread between the average cost of the debt and GDP growth narrowed to around
1 per cent. It could narrow further over the next few years so long as the economic situation remains positive. If the tensions of the last few days subside, the cost of debt will also fall, if only slightly, when the securities
that were placed at higher rates than newly issued ones come to maturity.

Comment

So to add to the other issues it looks like the Italian economy is now slowing and of course it was not growing very much in the first place. This makes me think of the banks who are of course central to this so let us return to Governor Visco’s speech.

Italian banks strengthened capital in 2017. Common equity increased by €23 billion, of which €4 billion was provided by the Government for the recapitalization of Monte dei Paschi di Siena.

Those who paid up will now be mulling losses yet again as even more good money seems to be turning bad and speaking of bad.

NPLs, net of loan loss provisions, have
diminished by about a third with respect to the end of 2015, to €135 billion. The coverage ratio, i.e. the ratio of the stock of loan loss provisions to gross NPLs, has reached 53 per cent, a much higher level than the average for the
leading European banks.

On and on this particular saga goes which will only really ever be fixed by some economic growth which of course is where we came in. Also whoever has done this has no doubt been suffering from a sleepless night or two recently.

The decrease in the stock of NPLs is partly due to the sharp rise in sales on the secondary market, facilitated by the favourable economic situation
(€35 billion in 2017 against a yearly average of €5 billion in the previous four years). This year sales are expected to reach €65 billion for the banking
system as a whole.

 

 

 

Can Mario Draghi and the ECB help Italy?

Yesterday was quite an extraordinary day especially in Italian markets. However I wish to move on to consider things from the new tower of the European Central Bank. So as we move geographically to the Grossmarkthalle in Frankfurt we would have seen concern and probably not a little panic. The phone lines would have been burning between Frankfurt and the Bank of Italy as they discussed how to respond. At first this would have been on a tactical level about the ongoing QE ( Quantitative Easing) bond buying programme but of course the higher echelons and strategy would pretty quickly have been in play. However you spin it the billion Euros or so a week of buying of Italian bonds might have lasted all of thirty minutes if that if it was spent all in one go! I do not know if the weather was the same as in London but the storms were appropriate.

There was no formal Governing Council Meeting but I am sure that President Draghi and the Executive Board would have been in contact and others would have taken an interest. Some may have had a wry smile as up to this week the main issue would have been the location of the meeting next month in Riga Latvia. There the issues would be corruption, money-laundering and in some respects the ECB trying to put itself outside the legal system. Now the question on everyone’s minds would be Italy and the political crisis triggered there and in particular the impact on debt markets

What could the ECB do?

The obvious first move concerns the QE bond buying. This is something of a new situation as it is the first case of a major bond market facing a price rout with both flow QE as in ongoing purchases and a stock of it as the ECB has bought around 342 billion Euros of Italian government bonds so far. Thus the latter would not be sold and it would have been bought mostly from those who might have done in the situation unfolding. Yet it was not enough and the ECB has tied its own hands.

What I mean by this is that in order to get its 19 constituent nations to agree to the QE plan it buys according to their Capital Key. This is the effective shareholding of each country and reflects factors such as their relative GDP and Italy is approximately 17.5% so that is what it gets. There is scope to vary this but not a lot as Mario Draghi explained in January.

 The ECB doesn’t favour certain countries over others in its PSPP purchase programme implementation. As you know, purchases are guided by the ECB’s capital key, which takes into account GDP and population. Now, focusing excessively on any particular purchase period, for example on 2017 only, could result and yield wrong interpretations. The overall stock of Eurosystem PSPP holdings is the relevant metric for any assessment of the programme and not the recent purchase flows.

Back then too much German debt was held and too little Portuguese.

These flows can differ as the design of the programme is flexible and the distribution of actual purchases often deviates from the ECB capital key.

So whilst there is flexibility there is nowhere near enough especially as the numbers would be released next Monday and everyone would see. Actually I think the flexibility was used up last Wednesday when the ECB in baseball terms stepped up to the plate and then withdrew. No doubt there were discussions about modifying the programme but I doubt they got far and the word nein would not have been needed.

Some have been suggesting the ECB could buy more but at the moment that is a non-starter. Of course we have seen such things change but persuading German and other taxpayers to potentially bankroll a new coalition government in Italy hoping to “spend spend spend” will not be easy.

Securities Markets Programme

This was used in the Euro area crisis.

About e220 billion (bn) of bonds (par
value, excluding redemptions) were acquired from 2010 to early 2012. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and
Italy.

As described it does seem to fit the bill.

First, purchases within the SMP occurred during a severe sovereign debt crisis, when sovereign yields in several euro area countries were high, rising, and volatile.

Of course you could argue that in spite of yesterday’s surge in Italian bond yields with the ten-year around 3% as I type this that is not high compared to the 7% of the Euro area crisis. Also the programme is shown as terminated on the ECB website although 84 billion Euros of bonds are still held.

However it is worth noting because the replacement called OMTs or Outright Monetary Transactions have never been used.

Outright Monetary Transactions will be considered for future cases of EFSF/ESM macroeconomic adjustment programmes or precautionary programmes as specified above.

That is an issue because Italy is not in one and you could hardly see Mr. Sissors persuading the Italian parliament of much at all right now let alone this. That is unfortunate from the point of view of the ECB because like the SMP it operates like this.

Transactions will be focused on the shorter part of the yield curve, and in particular on sovereign bonds with a maturity of between one and three years.

This matters because there have been some extraordinary events in short dated Italain government bonds. As recently as the fifteenth of this month the two-year yield was negative reflecting the easy ECB monetary policy and the -0.4% Deposit Rate. Yesterday it rose as high as 2.8% and today it is 2%. So some extraordinary moves with t hose who bought a fortnight ago feeling rather silly I guess.

Wider Moves

The issue here for the ECB is that not only has it been tapering its QE programme but it has been hinting at its end. That makes it awkward to fire it back up. Of course should the current weaker patch for the economy persist then it might provide an excuse/reason but it is just as true that the effect on inflation from the higher oil price is pushing in the opposite direction.

Comment

The ECB finds itself between a rock and a hard place in two respects. The first is that additional bond purchases might turn out to be an own goal if the likely governing coalition returns to its proposal involving the ECB writing off 250 billion Euros of it.Next comes the issue of Greece which does not qualify for QE in spite of enormous efforts and it might reasonably ask how a fiscally expansionary government in Italy qualifies?

There could be specific efforts to help the Italian banks although of course they have received an extraordinary amount of help as it is! Most still seem to be troubled and burdened with bad and sour loans. Mario Draghi was always very keen on buying Asset Backed Securities which I always thought was a way of helping the Italian banks in particular but as we look we see a barrier.

At the time of inclusion in the securitisation, a loan should not be in dispute, default, or unlikely to pay. The borrower associated with the loan should not be deemed credit-impaired (as defined in IAS 36).

Here is my suggestion for the ECB loudspeakers from The Sweet.

Does anyone know the way, did we hear someone say
(We just haven’t got a clue what to do)
Does anyone know the way, there’s got to be a way
To blockbuster

 

Meanwhile the Euro has recovered a bit today and is above 1.16 versus the US Dollar.