The world of negative interest-rates now has negative economic growth too

It was not that long ago that many of us “experts” in the interest-rate market felt that negative interest-rates could not be sustained. Back then the past Swiss example could be considered a tax – which remains a way of considering negative interest-rates – and the flicker in Japan was covered by it being Japan. Yesterday brought some fascinating news from the front line which has been in danger of being ignored in the current news flow.

Sweden’s GDP decreased by 0.2 percent in the third quarter of 2018, seasonally adjusted, compared with the second quarter of 2018. GDP increased by 1.6 percent, working-day adjusted, compared with the third quarter of 2017. ( Sweden Statistics).

Firstly let me reassure you that Sweden has no Brexit style plans. What it does have is negative interest-rates as this from the Riksbank shows.

Consequently, in line with the previous forecast, the Executive Board has decided to hold the repo rate unchanged at -0.50 per cent.

I bet they now regret opening their latest forward guidance report like this.

Since the Monetary Policy Report in September, economic developments have been largely as expected, both in Sweden and abroad.

In fact the Riksbank was expecting this.

The most recently published National Accounts paint a picture of  slightly weaker GDP growth in recent years. Nevertheless, the Riksbank deems that economic activity in Sweden has been and continues to be strong.

In fact it has been so nonplussed that it has already reached for the central banking playbook and wondered what is Swedish for Johnny Foreigner?

Riksbank Floden: Sees Increased Uncertainty In World Economy ( @LiveSquawk )

Those who have followed my analysis that central banks will delay moving out of extraordinary monetary policy and negative interest-rates and thus are in danger of being trapped, will have a wry smile at this.

The forecast for the repo rate is unchanged since
the monetary policy meeting in September and indicates that the repo rate will be raised by 0.25
percentage points either in December or in February. As with the first raise, monetary policy will also
subsequently be adjusted according to the prospects for inflation.

That’s the spirit! You keep interest-rates negative through a strong phase of economic growth then you raise them when you have a quarterly decline. Oh hang on. I am not being clever after the event here because a month or so before the Riksbank report on the 6th of September I pointed out this.

This is also true of Sweden because if we look at the narrow measure or M1 we see that an annual rate of growth of 10.5% in July 2017 was replaced with 6.3% this July. …..A similar but less volatile pattern can be seen from the broad money measure M3. That was growing at an annual rate of 8.3% in July 2015 as opposed to the 5.1% of this July.

Since then M1 has stabilised but M3 has fallen further and was 4.5% in October. In fact if you were looking for an area it might effect then it would be domestic consumption so lets take a look.

Household consumption expenditures decreased by 1.0 percent and government consumption expenditures remained unchanged, seasonally adjusted, compared with the previous quarter ( Sweden Statistics).

Time for page 2 of the central banking play book.

Riksbank’s Floden: Recent Data Since Latest Policy Meeting Have Been Disappointing -But There Were Some Temporary Effects In 3Q GDP Data,

Something else caught my eye and it was this.

 Exports grew by 0.3 percent and imports declined by 0.6 percent.

So foreign demand flattered the numbers in a rebuttal to the central banking play book. But if we look at the overall pattern then economics 101 has yet more to think about.

J curve R.I.P. (?) – In Sweden, 2018 is heading for the worst trade year ever. The Oct deficit was SEK8.4bn. One observation: J curve effect does not work and thus the exchange rate channel (on real economy) is partially broken.   ( Stefan Mullin)

So let’s see you have negative interest-rates to boost domestic demand which is falling and you look to drive the currency lower which does not seem to be helping trade. Oh and you plan to raise interest-rates into a monetary decline. What could go wrong?

As it is the end of the week let us have some humour albeit of the gallows variety from Forex Crunch yesterday.

Analysts at TD Securities suggest that their nowcast models point to a 0.6% q/q gain to Sweden’s GDP (mkt: 0.2% q/q on a wide range of estimates), which if materialised would leave TD (and likely the Riksbank) comfortable with a December rate hike

Switzerland

Let us start with a response from Nikolay Markov of Pictet Asset Management.

GDP growth plunged to its lowest pace since the introduction of negative rates in Q1 2015. There is no reason to panic as this is a temporary drop:

There are few things more likely to cause a panic than being told there is no reason for it. I also note he was not so kind to the Swedes. Let us investigate using Swiss Statistics.

Switzerland’s GDP fell by 0.2% in the 3rd quarter of 2018, after climbing by 0.7% in the previous quarter. The strong, continuous growth phase enjoyed by the Swiss economy for one and a half years was suddenly interrupted.

The change has seen annual growth dip from 3.5% to 2.4% so different to Sweden although there has been a fall in the growth of domestic consumption. Quite what a central bank with an interest-rate of -0.75% can do about falling domestic consumption is a moot point. A driver of the decline is a familiar one.

Value added in manufacturing dipped slightly (−0.6%);  Total exports of goods (−4.2%) also contracted substantially.

The official view is that is just a blip but it does require watching as I note this area still seems to be troubled as this from earlier shows.

How cold is ‘s auto market? Passenger car sales down 28% in first 3 weeks of Nov. Whole year drop “inevitable”. Car dealers’ inventory climbing and many of them making losses. Authority said bringing back purchase tax cut will not help much. ( @YuanTalks )

Just as a reminder the Swiss National Bank holds some 778.05 billion Swiss Francs of foreign currency investments as a result of its interventions to reduce the exchange-rate of the Swissy.

Comment

These developments add to those at some other members of the negative interest-rates club or what is called NIRP.

German economic growth has stalled. As the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) already reported in its first release of 14 November 2018, the gross domestic product (GDP) in the third quarter of 2018 was by 0.2% lower – upon price, seasonal and calendar adjustment – than in the second quarter of 2018.

And another part of discovering Japan.

Japan’s economy shrank in the third quarter as natural disasters hit spending and disrupted exports.

The economy contracted by an annualised 1.2% between July and September, preliminary figures showed. ( BBC )

As you can see we go to part three of the play book as the poor old weather takes another pounding. Quite what this has done to IMF News I am not sure as imagine how it would report such numbers for the UK?

has had an extended period of strong economic growth—GDP expected to rise by 1.1% in 2018.

 

Perhaps it has been discombobulated by a period when expansionary monetary policy has not only crunched to a halt but gone into reverse at least for a bit. But imagine you are a central banker right now wondering of this may go on and you will be starting it with interest-rates already negative. Or to use the old City phrase, how are you left?

Oh and hot off this morning’s press there is also this.

In the third quarter of 2018 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decreased by 0.1 per cent to the previous quarter and increased by 0.7 per cent in comparison with the third quarter of 2017. ( Italy Statistics)

Japan

There as been a development in something predicted by us on here quite some time ago. So without further ado let me hand you over to The Japan Times.

Japan is considering transforming a helicopter destroyer into an aircraft carrier that can accommodate fighter jets, a government source said Tuesday,

 

 

 

 

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The challenge for the ECB remains Italy and its banks

This week has seen something of an expected shifting of the sands from the European Central Bank ( ECB) about the economic prospects for the Euro area. On Monday its President Mario Draghi told the European Parliament this.

The data that have become available since my last visit in September have been somewhat weaker than expected. Euro area GDP grew by 0.2% in the third quarter. This follows growth of 0.4% in both the first and second quarter of 2018. The loss in growth momentum mainly reflects weaker trade growth, but also some country and sector-specific factors.

What he did not say was that back in 2017 quarterly growth had risen to 0.7% for a time. Back then the situation was a happy one for Mario and his colleagues as their extraordinary monetary policies looked like they were bearing some fruit. However the challenge was always what happens when they begin to close the tap? Let me illustrate things by looking again at his speech.

The unemployment rate declined to 8.1% in September 2018, which is the lowest level observed since late 2008, and employment continued to increase in the third quarter…….. Wages are rising as labour markets continue to improve and labour supply shortages become increasingly binding in some countries.

There is a ying and yang here because whilst we should all welcome the improvement in the unemployment rate, we would expect the falls to slow and maybe stop in line with the reduced economic growth rate. So is around 8% it for the unemployment rate even after negative interest-rates ( still -0.4%) and a balance sheet now over 4.6 trillion Euros? That seems implied to some extent in talk of “labour supply shortages” when the unemployment rate is around double that of the US and UK and treble that of Japan. This returns us to the fear that the long-term unemployment in some of the Euro area is effectively permanent something we looked at during the crisis. In another form another ECB policymaker has suggested that.

I will focus my remarks today on the economies of central, eastern and south-eastern Europe (CESEE), covering both those that are already part of the European Union (EU) and those that are EU candidate countries or potential candidates………..Clearly, for most countries, convergence towards the EU-28 average has practically stalled since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008

Care is needed as only some of these countries are in the Euro but of course some of the others should be converging due to the application process. Even Benoit Coeure admits this.

And if there is no credible prospect of lower-income countries catching up soon, there is a risk that people living in those countries begin questioning the very benefits of membership of the EU or the currency union.

I have a couple of thoughts for you. Firstly Lithuania has done relatively well but the fact I have friends from there highlights how many are in London leading to the thought that how much has that development aided its economy? You may need to probe a little as due to the fact it was part of Russia back in the day some prefer to say they are Russian. Also the data reminds us of how poor that area that was once called Yugoslavia remains. It is hardly going to be helped by the development described below by Balkan Insight.

At the fifth joint meeting of the governments of Albania and Kosovo in Peja, in Kosovo, the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama backed the decision of the Kosovo government to raise the tax on imports from Serbia and Bosnia from 10 to 100 per cent.

Banks

Here the ECB is conflicted. Like all central banks its priority is “the precious” otherwise known as the banks. Yet it is part of the operation to apply pressure on Italy and take a look at this development.

As this is very significant let us break it down and yes in the world of negative interest-rates and expanded central bank balance sheets Unicredit has just paid an eye-watering 7.83% on some bonds. Just the 6.83% higher than at the opening of 2018 and imagine if you held similar bonds with it. Ouch! Of that there is an element driven by changes in Italy’s situation but the additional part added by Unicredit seems to be around 3.5%.

If we look back I recall describing Unicredit as a zombie bank on Sky News around 7 years ago. The official view in more recent times is that it has been a success story in the way it has dealt with non performing loans and the like. Although of course success is a relative term with a share price of 11.5 Euros as opposed to the previous peak of more like 370 Euros. Now it is paying nearly 8% for its debt we need not only to question even that heavily depreciated share price and it gives a pretty dreadful implied view for the weaker Italian banks such as Monte Paschi which Johannes mentions. Also those non-performing loans which were packaged up and sold at what we were told “great deals” whereas now they look dreadful, well on the long side anyway.

Perhaps this was what the Bank of Italy meant by this.

The fall in prices for Italian government securities has caused a reduction in capital reserves and
liquidity and an increase in the cost of wholesale funding. The sharp decline in bank share prices has resulted
in a marked increase in the cost of equity. Should the tensions on the sovereign debt market be protracted, the
repercussions for banks could be significant, especially for some small and medium-sized banks.

Comment

We can bring things right up to date with this morning’s money supply data.

Annual growth rate of narrower monetary aggregate M1, comprising currency in circulation and overnight deposits, stood at 6.8% in October, unchanged from previous month.

So we are holding station to some extent although in real terms we are slightly lower as inflation has picked up to 2.2%. Thus the near-term outlook remains weak and we can expect a similar fourth quarter to the third. Actually I would not be surprised if it was slightly better but still weak..

Looking around a couple of years ahead the position is slightly better although we do not know yet how much of this well be inflation as opposed to growth.

Annual growth rate of broad monetary aggregate M3 increased to 3.9% in October 2018 from 3.6% in September (revised from 3.5%).

On the other side of the coin credit flows to businesses seem to have tightened.

Annual growth rate of adjusted loans to non-financial corporations decreased to 3.9% in October from 4.3% in September

Personally I think that the latter number is a lagging indicator but the ECB has trumpeted it as more of a leading one so let’s see.

The external factor which is currently in play is the lower oil price which will soon begin to give a boost and will reduce inflation if it remains near US $60 for the Brent Crude benchmark. But none the less the midnight oil will be burning at the ECB as it mulls the possibility that all that balance sheet expansion and negative interest-rates gave economic activity such a welcome but relatively small boost. Also it will be on action stations about the Italian banking sector. For myself I fear what this new squeeze on Italian banks will do to the lending to the wider economy which of course had ground to a halt as it is.

 

The Italian crisis continues to deepen

Sometimes financial life comes at your quickly and at others it feels like it takes an age. The current Italian crisis has managed in typically Italian style to have covered nearly all bases as we note the main driver simply being lack of economic growth meaning on a per head basis economic output is lower than when the Euro began, But if we move to the current there was a development yesterday, and context can be provided by statements from the new government that economic growth of 3% per annum is possible. From Italian statistics.

In 2018, GDP is expected to increase by 1.1 percent in real terms.The domestic demand will provide a contribution of 1.3 percentage points while foreign demand will account for a negative 0.2 percentage point and inventories will provide a null contribution. In 2019, GDP is estimated to increase by 1.3 percent in real terms driven by the contribution of domestic demand (1.3 percentage points)
associated to a null contribution of the foreign demand and inventories.

The initial response was surprise that Istat had held the previous forecast at 1.4% for so long. After all the Italian economy had been slowing for a while in quarterly terms from the peak of 0.5% and as it had been following a Noah’s Ark two-by-two style policy might have been expected to be 0.2% this time around, Except of course it was 0% reducing the annual rate to 0.8% which is below the current forecast.

If we look at the detail we see that such as it is there seems to be a reliance on consumption.

In 2018, exports will increase by 1.6 percent and imports will grow by 2.6 percent, both are expected
to accelerate in 2019 (3.2% and 3.5% respectively). Residential households consumption expenditure
is expected to grow by 0.9 percent in 2018 accelerating in 2019 (1.2%). The stabilisation in employment and the wages increase will support households purchasing power. Investment are expected to progressively decelerate both in 2018 (+3.9) and in 2019 (+3.2%).

In itself the trade decline is not a big deal as Italy has a strong trade position but it does subtract from GDP. It also poses a question for the Euro area “internal devaluation” model. Also it is hard not to question where that investment is going? After all in collective terms the economy is not growing. So we are left with domestic consumption relying on this.

Labour market conditions will improve over the forecasting period. Employment growth is expected to stabilise at 0,9 percent in 2018 and in 2019. At the same time, the rate of unemployment will decrease at 10.5 percent in the current year and at 10.2 percent in 2019.

Will the labour market continue to improve with economic growth slowing and maybe stopping completely? Frankly the only reason to forecast a better 2019 is the planned fiscal stimulus which of course is where the whole issue comes in.

Along the way we can get a new perspective from the fact that if we put 2010 at 100 the Italian economy peaked above 102 in early 2008 and has now recovered to just above 97.

Excessive Deficit Procedure

In essence the Euro area is stalling on the application of the EDP as it is hoping there might be a change of tack. Also I would imagine that it does not want to prod the Italian crisis with Brexit also up in the air. But there is something quite revealing in yesterday’s documentation from the European Commission.

Italy made a sizeable fiscal effort between 2010 and 2013, raising the primary surplus to over 2% of GDP and exiting the excessive deficit procedure in 2013 by keeping its headline deficit at a level not above 3% of GDP as of 2012 (down from more than 5% in 2009).

The reality if we look at the pattern of GDP was that returning to 2010 as our benchmark Italian GDP which was recovering from the initial credit crunch shock and rallying from ~94 to ~97 turned south from early 2011 and fell to below 93. Back then the EC and its acolytes were claiming that this was an expansionary fiscal contraction whereas if we allow for the lags it hit the Italian economy hard. There have been various mea culpas ( IMF mostly) and redactions of history since. But not only did Italy struggle to recover as even now we are only back to the 97 level where in GDP terms it started from of course it was then benefiting from both fiscal and monetary policy. Or as Mario Draghi likes to put it.

an ongoing broad-based economic expansion

If we look back to my article from the 26th of October Italy is now being told that fiscal policy cannot help and may make things worse too. So Italians may reasonably be annoyed and sing along with All Time Low.

‘Cause I’m damned if I do ya, damned if I don’t

Things that will not improve their humour is that it is the same Olivier Blanchard pushing this who was in the van of arguing that a fiscal contraction would boost the economy. Also that Euro area rhetoric is making the situation of their bond market worse.

Bond Market

Back on the 2nd of October I noted that the benchmark ten-year yield for Italy had risen to 3.4% but that such things took time to have an impact on the real as opposed to financial economy. Well it is 3.47% as I type this and I note that @liukzilla calculated that this phase of higher yields will cost Italy around 6.6 billion Euros in higher debt costs. Care is needed as it is not something to pay now but say over the next ten years as interest is paid. But a rising problem.

The new government suggested that retail investors might surge into the market but they have bought less than one billion Euro’s of this week’s offer which is at best a damp squib. Of course there are the banks…

Italian banks

Did somebody mention the banks? They are of course stuffed full of Italian government bonds and you can see the state of play courtesy of @LiveSquawk.

Italy’s 5 Star Movement Has Proposed Measures To Allow Unlisted Banks And Insurers Not To Mark To Market Gvt Bonds – RTRS Sources.

Yes that bad. But the circus for banks carries on regardless it would appear as we move to Reuters.

Carige said Italian banks had guaranteed they would buy bonds worth 320 million euros, with a further 80 million euros earmarked for private investors, possibly including existing shareholders.

So the tin can gets another kick as we note that this weakens the other banks which participate.

Comment

Let me add another dimension provided courtesy of the Financial Times Magazine and let us first set the scene.

Mafia syndicates in Italy have an estimated annual turnover of €150bn, according to a report by the anti-Mafia parliamentary committee in 2017.

They have moved into agriculture as it seems like easy money and the economic crisis gave them an opportunity as whilst conventional business struggled they had cash.

With margins as high as 700 per cent, profits from olive oil, for example, can be higher than those from cocaine — and with far less risk.

Also it gives you clean money to which Michael Corleone would nod approvingly. Here is one route.

A Mafia family could claim about €1m a year in EU subsidies on 1,000 hectares, while leasing it for as little as €37,000. “With profit margins as high as 2,000 per cent, with no risk, why sell drugs or carry out robberies when you can just wait for the cheque to arrive in the post?” he says by telephone from his home.

Here is an even more unpleasant one.

In February last year, 42 members of the Piromalli clan in Calabria were arrested and 40 farms seized in connection with the export of counterfeit oil to the US, sold as extra virgin, which retails for at least €7 a litre. A number of those arrested are now in prison awaiting trial. According to police, about 50 per cent of all extra-virgin olive oil sold in Italy is adulterated with cheap, poor-quality oil. Globally the proportion is even higher.

Makes me wonder about the bottle of olive oil in my kitchen and the “made in Italy” spaghetti. It is all nearly as bad as the video of Patrice Evra and the chicken or perhaps we should say salmonella.

 

 

 

 

Slowing growth and higher inflation is a toxic combination for the Euro area

Sometimes life comes at you fast and the last week will have come at the European Central Bank with an element of ground rush. It was only on the 30th of last month we were looking at this development.

Seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.2% in the euro area (EA19) and by 0.3% in the EU28 during the third quarter
of 2018,

Which brought to mind this description from the preceding ECB press conference.

Incoming information, while somewhat weaker than expected, remains overall consistent with an ongoing broad-based expansion of the euro area economy and gradually rising inflation pressures. The underlying strength of the economy continues to support our confidence ……..

There was an issue with broad-based as the Italian economy registered no growth at all and the idea of “underlying strength” did not really go with quarterly growth of a mere 0.2%. But of course one should not place too much emphasis on one GDP reading.

Business Surveys

However this morning has brought us to this from the Markit Purchasing Managers Indices.

Eurozone growth weakens to lowest in over two years

The immediate thought is, lower than 0.2% quarterly growth? Let us look deeper.

Both the manufacturing and service sectors
recorded slower rates of growth during October.
Following on from September, manufacturing
registered the weaker increase in output, posting its
lowest growth in nearly four years. Despite
remaining at a solid level, the service sector saw its
slowest expansion since the start of 2017.

There is a certain sense of irony in the reported slow down being broad-based. The issue with manufacturing is no doubt driven by the automotive sector which has the trade issues to add to the ongoing diesel scandal. That slow down has spread to the services sector. Geographically we see that Germany is in a soft patch and I will come to Italy in a moment. This also stuck out.

France and Spain, in contrast, have
seen more resilient business conditions, though both
are registering much slower growth than earlier in
the year.

Fair enough for Spain as we looked at only last Wednesday, but France had a bad start of 2018 so that is something of a confused message.

Italy

The situation continues to deteriorate here.

Italy’s service sector suffered a drop in
performance during October, with business activity
falling for the first time in over two years. This was
partly due to the weakest expansion in new
business in 44 months.

Although I am not so sure about the perspective?

After a period of solid growth in activity

The reality is that fears of a “triple-dip” for Italy will only be raised by this. Also the issue over the proposed Budget has not gone away as this from @LiveSquawk makes clear.

EU’s Moscovici: Sanctions Can Be Applied If There Is No Compromise On Italy Budget -Policy In Italy That Entails Higher Public Debt Is Not Favourable To Growth.

Commissioner Moscovici is however being trolled by people pointing out that France broke the Euro area fiscal rules when he was finance minister. He ran deficits of 4.8% of GDP, followed by 4.1% and 3,9% which were above the 3% limit and in one instance double what Italy plans. This is of course awkward but not probably for Pierre as his other worldly pronouncements on Greece have indicated a somewhat loose relationship with reality.

Actually the Italian situation has thrown up another challenge to the Euro area orthodoxy.

 

Regular readers will be aware I am no fan of simply projecting the pre credit crunch period forwards but I do think that the Brad Setser point that Italy is nowhere near regaining where it was is relevant. If you think that such a situation is “above potential” then you have a fair bit of explaining to do. Some of this is unfair on the ECB in that it has to look at the whole Euro area as if it was a sovereign nation it would be a situation crying out for some regional policy transfers. Like say from Germany with its fiscal surplus. Anyway I will leave that there and move on.

Ch-ch-changes

This did the rounds on Friday afternoon.

ECB Said To Be Considering Fresh TLTRO – MNI ( @LiveSquawk )

Targeted Long-Term Refinancing Operation in case you were wondering and as to new targets well Reuters gives a nod and a wink.

Euro zone banks took up 739 billion euros at the ECB’s latest round of TLTRO, in March 2017. Of this, so far 14.6 has been repaid, with the rest falling due in 2020 and 2021.

This may prove painful in countries such as Italy, where banks have to repay some 250 billion euros worth of TLTRO money amid rising market rates and an unfavorable political situation.

So the targets of a type of maturity extension would be 2020/1 in terms of time and Italy in terms of geography. More generally we have the issue of oiling the banking wheels. Oh and whilst the Italian amount is rather similar to some measures of how much they have put into Italian bonds there is no direct link in my view.

Housing market

If you give a bank cheap liquidity then this morning’s ECB Publication makes it clear where it tends to go.

The upturn in the euro area housing market is in its fourth year. Measured in terms of annual growth rates, house prices started to pick up at the end of 2013, while the pick-up in residential investment started somewhat later, at the end of 2014. The latest available data (first quarter of 2018) indicate annual growth rates above their long-term averages, for both indicators.

How has this been driven?

 In addition, financing conditions remained favourable, as reflected in composite bank lending rates for house purchase that have declined by more than 130 basis points since 2013 and by easing credit standards. This has given rise to a higher demand for loans for house purchase and a substantial strengthening in new mortgage lending.

Indeed even QE gets a slap on the back.

Private and institutional investors, both domestically and globally based, searching for yield may thus have contributed to additional housing demand.

It is at least something the central planners can influence and watch.

Housing market developments affect investment and consumption decisions and can thus be a major determinant of the broader business cycle. They also have wealth and collateral effects and can thus play a key role in shaping the broader financial cycle. The housing market’s pivotal role in the business and financial cycles makes it a regular subject of monitoring and assessment for monetary policy and financial stability considerations.

 

Comment

The ECB now finds itself between something of a rock and a hard place. If we start with the rock then the question is whether the shift is just a slow down for a bit or something more? The latter would have the ECB shifting very uncomfortably around its board room table as it would be facing it with interest-rates already negative and QE just stopping in flow terms. Let me now bring in the hard place from today’s Markit PMI survey.

Meanwhile, prices data signalled another sharp
increase in company operating expenses. Rising
energy and fuel prices were widely reported to have
underpinned inflation, whilst there was some
evidence of higher labour costs (especially in
Germany).

Whilst there may be some hopeful news for wages tucked in there the main message is of inflationary pressure. Of course central bankers like to ignore energy costs but the ECB will be hoping for further falls in the oil price, otherwise it might find itself in rather a cleft stick. It is easy to forget that its “pumping it up” stage was oiled by falling energy prices.

Yet an alternative would be fiscal policy which hits the problem of it being a bad idea according to the Euro area’s pronouncements on Italy.

 

The Euro area GDP slow down puts the ECB in a pickle

Some days several economic themes come at us at once and this morning is an example of that. Only yesterday I was pointing out the problems of establishment Ivory Tower economic forecasting via the continued failures of the Office for Budget Responsibility or OBR. For many in the media it was a case of carry on regardless in spite of the fact that it was a Budget essentially based on past OBR errors. Perhaps they did not realise as they gave credibility to the GDP forecasts that they were based on the new establishment Ivory Tower theory that the economy cannot grow at an annual rate of more than 1.5%. A few decimal points were added and taken away at random to give a veneer of ch-ch-changes but that is the basis of it. Let me give you an example of this sort of Ivory Tower thinking from the OBR Report yesterday and the emphasis is mine.

In March 2017 and then again in November 2017, we reduced our estimate of the equilibrium rate of unemployment, in both cases reflecting the fact that unemployment had fallen below our previous estimate with little apparent impact on wage growth.

Actually those who recall the Bank of England using its Forward Guidance, which of course turned out to be anything but, pointing us towards a 7% unemployment rate will understand the intellectual bankruptcy of all this. But on this “output gap” rubbish goes mostly unchallenged.

Also what is not explained is why the future is so dim after so many extraordinary monetary policies that we keep being told were to boost growth.

The Italian Job

Those themes come to mind as yet another one has been demonstrated yet again by Italy this morning. From its statistics office.

In the third quarter of 2018 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume estimate of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was unchanged with respect to the previous quarter and increased by 0.8 per cent over the same quarter of previous year.

This brings us back sadly to the “Girlfriend in a coma theme” where Italy cannot grow at more than 1% per annum on any sustained basis.

The carry-over annual GDP growth for 2018 is equal to 1.0%.

There was even a sort of a back to the future element if you take a look at the breakdown.

The quarter on quarter change is the result of an increase of value added in agriculture, forestry and
fishing and in services and a decrease in industry. From the demand side, there is a null contribution by
both the domestic component (gross of change in inventories) and the net export component.

If we now switch to forecasting it was only last Thursday lunchtime that Mario Draghi told us this at the ECB press conference.

Incoming information, while somewhat weaker than expected, remains overall consistent with an ongoing broad-based expansion of the euro area economy and gradually rising inflation pressures. The underlying strength of the economy continues to support our confidence that the sustained convergence of inflation to our aim will proceed……remains overall consistent with our baseline scenario of an ongoing broad-based economic expansion, supported by domestic demand and continued improvements in the labour market.

Just like in the song New York, New York it was apparently so good he told us twice. As to looking at Italy specifically we got a sort of official denial.

On Italy, you have to remember that Italy is a fiscal discussion, so there wasn’t much discussion about Italy.

An interesting reply as we note that no doubt they did have an estimate of the number and without the third-largest economy can you call an expansion broad-based? Actually the latest Eurostat release challenges that statement much more generally.

Seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.2% in the euro area (EA19) and by 0.3% in the EU28 during the third quarter
of 2018…. In the second quarter of 2018, GDP had grown by 0.4% in the euro area and by 0.5% the EU28. Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 1.7% in the euro area and
by 1.9% in the EU28 in the third quarter of 2018, after +2.2% and +2.1% respectively in the previous quarter.

As you can see the annual economic growth rate in the Euro area has been falling throughout 2018 as we recall that in the last quarter of 2017 it was 2.7% as opposed to the current 1.7%. This poses a question for a central bank doing this.

Regarding non-standard monetary policy measures, we will continue to make net purchases under the asset purchase programme (APP) at the new monthly pace of €15 billion until the end of December 2018. We anticipate that, subject to incoming data confirming our medium-term inflation outlook, we will then end net purchases.

The simple fact is that if we allow for monetary lags then the reduction in monthly asset purchases from the peak of 80 billion Euros a month has been followed by a fall in economic growth. If we switch to the quarterly numbers we see a fall from 0.7% to 0.2% and there must be further worries for the last quarter of 2018.

Eurozone GDP growth continues to ease in line with PMI data, according to initial Q3 estimate. Flash October data signals further loss of momentum at the start of Q4. ( Markit PMI)

Back to Italy

Returning to an Italian theme there are genuine concerns of further trouble combined with some perspective from @fwred on twitter.

Italian GDP misses: stagnation in Q3 (+0.02% QoQ) and still 5% below pre-crisis levels. Material risk of a ‘triple dip’. Economic reality comes at you fast.

Let us hope that Italy has the same luck with a “triple dip” that the UK had back in 2012. But the real perspective and indeed measure of this part of the Euro area crisis is the fact that the economy is still some 5% smaller than a decade ago. No wonder voters wanted change.

A catch comes if we switch back to looking at forecasts again as we note that the new government has veered between optimistic ( 1.5%) on economic growth and what Cypress Hill described as “Insane in the membrane” with 3%. Politicians like a 3% growth rate as for example it was used by both sides in the UK 2010 general election. Why? It makes their plans look affordable and if (when) it goes wrong they simply sing along with Temptation(s).

But it was Just my imagination,
once again runnin’ away with me.
It was just my imagination runnin’ away with me.

If it goes really badly then they deploy Lily Allen.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

Meanwhile the tweet below describes the consequences.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here so let me start with the ECB. It now staring down a future like the one I have feared and written about for some time where the Euro area economy behaves in a junkie economics manner. Once the honey is withdrawn so is the growth. As ever that is not the only factor in play as economics does not have any test tubes but governing council members must be thinking this as they close their eyes at night. Well the brighter ones anyway.

What does it do then? It may still end monthly QE but that is mostly because it has been running out of German bonds to buy. My view that Mario Draghi intends to leave without ever raising interest-rates gets another tick. Maybe we will see the so far mythical OMTs or Outright Monetary Transactions deployed and Italy would be an obvious test case.

Also let me offer you one more morsel as food for thought. We keep being told about the OBR and ECB being “independent”. Have you spotted how “independent” bodies so regularly do the will of the establishment and sometimes manage to do more than the establishment itself could get away with?

 

 

What if Italy slips back into an economic recession?

A feature of bond market and debt crises is not only how far the market falls but how long it lasts. This is because as the majority and sometimes vast majority of debt issued has a coupon ( interest) fixed for its term and so fluctuations in the meantime do not matter for them. The catch is that new deficits need to be financed and existing debt needs to be rolled over and it does matter for them. An example of that is provided by Italy which will issue 2 billion Euros of 5 year bond and 2.5 billion of a ten-year one next week and these will be much more expensive than would have been predicted not so long ago. According to the Italian Treasury or Tesoro some 200 billion Euros of maturities are due next year if we ignored the rolling over of Treasury Bills.

Thus you can see how it takes a while for the costs of a bond market decline to build but build they do. The exact amount varies as for example last Friday we were looking at the nadir for the market so far with a ten-year yield of 3.8% and as I type this it is 3.5%, but both spell trouble. We see regular examples of why this may be bad but let us move to an area where contagion is possible.

The Italian banking system holds €350 billion of government bonds. If 10-year government-bond yields hit 4%, banks’ equity capital will just about equal their nonperforming loans. ( Felix Zulauf in Barrons)

Did anybody mention the Italian banks?

You may not be surprised to read that the ECB press conference yesterday was pretty much a Q&A session on Italy and during it President Draghi told us this.

However we have now the bank lending survey of this quarter. It does say that basically, terms and conditions applied by Italian banks on new loans to enterprises and households for house purchases, tightened. Terms and conditions – so not standards – terms and conditions tightened in the third quarter of 2018, driven by a higher cost of funds and balance sheet constraints.

So things have got tighter for the Italian banks and they have passed it the higher costs to both personal and corporate borrowers. The subject did not go away.

On Italy, I don’t have a crystal ball; I don’t have any idea whether it’s 300 or 400 or whatever. So it’s difficult. But certainly these bonds are in the banks’ portfolios. If they lose value, they are denting into the capital position of the banks; that’s obvious, so that’s what it is.

This was in response to a (poor) question about at what level of the yield spread would the Italian banks hit trouble and the suggestion it might be 400? A better question would be based on Italian yields alone. Also central bankers are hardly likely to tell you a banking crisis is in its way! But you may note that Mario mentioned 3% as opposed to 4% to perhaps cover himself. Also as a former Governor of the Bank of Italy and the Draghi in the Draghi Laws which cover Italian banking his “crystal ball” should be one of the best around.

This brings me to the issue of the Atlante Fund where Italian banks essentially bailed out other Italian banks. We do not seem to get any updates on it now. Can anybody think what might be happening to a portfolio of non-performing Italian bank loans right now? I recall being told that the deals to take such loans were really good value and that my fears were over done. Now I note that the same Unicredit that I called a Zombie bank around 7 years ago on Sky News looks rather like a Zombie bank to me if you look at all the cash piled in since then and the current share price. This whole issue has been a banking crisis in slow motion so let me remind you of the latter parts of my timeline for a banking collapse.

9. Debt costs of the relevant sovereign nation or nations rise.

10. Consequently that nation finds that its credit rating is downgraded.

11. It is announced that due to difficult financial times public spending needs to be trimmed and taxes such as Value Added Tax need to be raised. It is also announced that nobody could possibly have forseen this and that nobody is to blame apart from some irresponsible rumour mongers who are the equivalent of terrorists. A new law is mooted to help stop such financial terrorism from ever happening again.

12. Some members of the press inform us that bank directors were both “able and skilled” and that none of the blame can possibly be put down to them as they get a new highly paid job elsewhere.

13. Former bank directors often leave the new job due to “unforseen difficulties”.

The Budget Plan

If we move on from the “doom loop” that exists between the Italian economy and its banks we get the current fiscal plan which is to run a deficit of 2.4% of GDP ( Gross Domestic Product). Some number-crunching has been undertaken on this by Olivier Blanchard at the Peterson Institute with some intriguing results.

So, take 0.8 percent of GDP to be the relevant measure of expansion………..To give the government the benefit of the doubt, take a multiplier of 1.5. Then, one would expect an increase in output of 1.5 * 0.8 = 1.2 percent on account of the fiscal stimulus.

So we are in the world, or at least what is left of it, of economics 101 where the extra fiscal stimulus will increase GDP by 1.2%. However there is a catch.

Turn to the other half of the story, the increase in interest rates. Since mid-April, Italian bond yields have risen by about 160 basis points……….Recent estimates of the effects of the OMT suggest slightly lower numbers for Italy, in the region of a 0.8 percent output contraction for a 100-basis-point increase in bond rates.

Some of you may have already completed the mathematical implication of this.

Putting fiscal multiplier effects and contractionary interest rate effects together—and being generous about the size of the multiplier and conservative about the effect of the interest rate increase—arithmetic suggests that the total effect on growth will be 0.8 * 1.5 – 0.8 * 1.6 ≈ –0.1. While this number comes with a large uncertainty band, the risks are skewed to the downside.

So via his methodology up is the new down. Or more formally the fiscal expansion seems set to weaken and not boost GDP.

One cautionary note is Olivier’s own record in this area as he was Chief Economist at the IMF when it was involved in the disastrous fiscal experiment in Greece which he sweeps up in this paper as “many politicians and economists argued”. This is of course one of the longest running feature of the credit crunch era as encapsulated by point 12 of my banking crisis time line above.

Comment

The issues above are brought into sharper focus if we note this Mario Draghi and the ECB yesterday.

while somewhat weaker than expected

That rather contradicted the by now usual “broad-based expansion” line which was backed up by some misleading analysis of the monetary situation. The minor swerve was the claim that M3 growth had risen by 0.1% which is true but only because August had been revised lower. The more major omission was the absence of a reference to it being 5.1% last September,

So if we add the expected slow down to the already troubled Italian situation we get a clearer idea of the scale of the problem. If we look back we see that GDP growth has been on a quarterly basis 0.3% and then 0.2% so far this year and the Monthly Economic Report tells us this.

The leading indicator is going down slightly suggesting a moderate pace for the next months.

They mean moderate for Italy.So we could easily see 0% growth or even a contraction looking ahead as opposed some of the latest rhetoric suggesting 3%  per year is possible. Perhaps they meant in the next decade as you see that would be an improvement.

 

 

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.