The Italian Job covers unemployment.zombie banks and industrial production

Sometimes economic news makes you think of a country via its past history.

LONDON/FRANKFURT (Reuters) – European Central Bank officials are drawing up a scheme to cope with potentially hundreds of billions of euros of unpaid loans in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

After all the Italian banks have plenty of expertise, if I may put it like that, in this area. So perhaps a growth area for them in more ways than one.

The amount of debt in the euro zone that is considered unlikely to ever be fully repaid already stands at more than half a trillion euros, including credit cards, car loans and mortgages, according to official statistics.

There is a conceptual issue though as we mull why we always need “bad- banks” and whether the truth is that ordinary banks are bad? Also the Irish banking crisis taught us that the numbers are fed to us on a piece of string with notches and are driven by what they think we will accept rather than reality. So get ready for the half a trillion to expand and that may get a little awkward if this from Kathimerini proves true.

Enria said the ECB was studying how banks could cope were the crisis to worsen. He said banks had more than 600 billion euros ($680 billion) of capital and this would probably be enough, unless there were a second wave of infections.

If we focus now on the Italian banks there is of course the issue of the Veneto banks and Monte Paschi in particular. Let me take you back 3 days over 3 years.

Italian banks are considering assisting in a rescue of troubled lenders Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca by pumping 1.2 billion euros (1.1 billion pounds) of private capital into the two regional banks, sources familiar with the matter said.

Good money after bad?

Italian banks, which have already pumped 3.4 billion euros into the two ailing rivals, had said until now that they would not stump up more money.

Back then I also pointed out the problems for the bailout vehicle called variously Atlante and Atlas. Looking at Monte dei Paschi the share price is 1.4 Euros which if we allow for the many rights issues and the like compares to a pre credit crunch peak of around 8740 Euros according to my chart.. Some quite spectacular value destruction as we again mull what “bad bank” means and recall that in 2016 Prime Minister Renzi told people it was a good investment. That is before we get to this from January 2012 on Mindful Money.

In October, Shaun Richards outlined a 13-step timeline for the collapse of a bank . He appeared on Sky News yesterday suggesting that Unicredit, Italy’s had now reached stage 3 of that process – i.e. “The Bank tries to raise more private capital in spite of it having no need for it”.

It was worth 19 Euros then and as it is worth 8.24 Euros now my description of it as a zombie bank was right, especially if we allow for all the aid packages and subsidies in the meantime.

Oh and in case we had any doubts about the story I see this from ForexLive.

European Commission says no formal work is underway for an EU ‘bad bank’

So they are informally looking at it then….

The Economy

This morning’s official release was always likely to be bad news.

In April 2020 the seasonally adjusted industrial production index decreased by 19.1% compared with the
previous month. The change of the average of the last three months with respect to the previous three
months was -23.2%.

The theme was unsurprisingly continued by the annual picture.

The calendar adjusted industrial production index decreased by 42.5% compared with April 2019 (calendar
working days being 21 versus 20 days in April 2019).
The unadjusted industrial production index decreased by 40.7% compared with April 2019.

If we compare to 2015 we see that the calendar adjusted index was at 58.4. The breakdown shows that pharmaceuticals were affected least ( -6.7%) and clothing and textiles the most ( -80.5%). The latter was a slight surprise as I though the manufacture of masks and other PPE might help but in fact it did even worse than the transport sector ( -74%).

On Monday Italy’s statisticians reminded us of our Girlfriend in a Coma theme.

At the end of 2019, the Italian economy was in stagnation with few recovery signals coming from industrial production and external trade at the very beginning of 2020.

Which was followed by this.

Eventually, the conventional economic indicators assessing the dramatic fall of GDP in the first quarter 2020 (-5.3% q-o-q) were published.

They point out it is difficult to collect data right now but were willing to have a go at a forecast.

Under these assumptions, we forecast a strong GDP contraction in 2020 (-8.3%) followed by a recovery in 2021 (+4.6%, Table 1). This year, the fall of GDP will be determined mainly by domestic demand net of inventories (-7.2 p.p.) due to the contraction of household and NPISH consumption (-8.7%) and of investments (-12.5%). Net exports and inventories will also contribute negatively to GDP growth (respectively -0.3 p.p. and -0.8 p.p.).

I wonder how much of what is called domestic demand reflects the fall in tourism as the summer is already well underway and it is a delightful country to visit? Here is the OECD version from earlier this week that highights the tourism issue.

GDP is projected to fall by 14% in 2020 before recovering by 5.3% in 2021 if there is another virus outbreak
later this year (the double-hit scenario). If further outbreaks are avoided (the single-hit scenario), GDP is
projected to fall by 11.3% in 2020 and to recover by 7.7% in 2021. While Italy’s industrial production may
restart quickly as confinement measures are lifted, tourism and many consumer-related services are
projected to recover more gradually, weighing on demand

As we know so little about what is happening right now the forecasts for 2021 are about as much use as a chocolate teapot in my opinion.

Switching back to Italy’s statisticians they seem to have doubts about their own unemployment numbers. perhaps they read my post on the third of this month.

The trend of unemployment rate will be different because it reflects the ricomposition between unemployed and inactive people and the fall in hours worked.

Anyway they have reported the unemployment rate at 6.3% and I think it is more like 11%.

Comment

Now we need to switch tack to one of the consequences of all this which relates to the fact that Italy already had a large national debt in both relative and absolute terms. If we use the OECD data as a framework we see that the debt to GDP ratio will be of the order of 160 to 170% at the end of this year which looks rather Greek like, Now we see the real reason for the forecasted bounce back in 2021 which reduces the number to 150% to 165%. The establishment assumption that we will see a “V-shaped” recovery has nothing to do with believing in it,rather it is to make the debt metrics look better. Again there are echoes of Greece here when Christine Lagarde was talking about “Shock and Awe” back in the day. Remember when we were guided to a debt to GDP ratio of 120%? That was to protect Italy ironically ( as well as Portugal).

That was then and this is now. The game-changed in the meantime has been the fall in bond yields due mostly to the policies and buying of the ECB. So a benchmark yield that rose to 7% in the last crisis is now 1.45% as I type this. Thus the previous concept of debt vigilante’s has been neutered and debt costs are low. The catch is that the debt burden will soar and that does seem to have an impact if we think of the issue of Japanification. Italy has already had its “lost decade” since it joined the Euro and the lack of economic growth has been the real issue here. For it to change I think we need reform of its structure and especially its zombie banks but instead we are being guided towards yet another bailout in what feels like a never-ended stream. Let me leave you with some humour on the issue of bad banks from GreatLakesForex.

They should correct that statement to the actual fact that they are desperate to create a Good bank in the Eurozone.

Christine Lagarde and the ECB have switched from monetary to fiscal policy

The Corona Virus pandemic has really rather caught the European Central Bank (ECB) on the hop. You see it was not supposed to be like this on several counts. Firstly the “Euro Boom” was supposed to continue but we now know via various revisions that things had turned down in Germany in early 2018 and then the Trumpian trade war hit as well. So the claims of former ECB President Mario Draghi that a combination of negative interest-rates and QE bond buying had boosted both Gross Domestic Product ( GDP) and inflation by around 1.5% morphed into this.

First, as regards the key ECB interest rates, we decided to lower the interest rate on the deposit facility by 10 basis points to -0.50%……..Second, the Governing Council decided to restart net purchases under its asset purchase programme (APP) at a monthly pace of €20 billion as from 1 November. We expect them to run for as long as necessary to reinforce the accommodative impact of our policy rates, and to end shortly before we start raising the key ECB interest rates.

As you can see the situation was quite problematic. For all the rhetoric who really believed that a cut in interest-rates of 0.1% would make a difference when much larger ones had not? Next comes the issue of having to restart sovereign bond purchases and QE only 9 months or so after stopping it. As a collective then there is the issue of what all the monetary easing has achieved? That leads to my critique that it is always a case of “More! More! More” or if you prefer QE to Infinity.

Next comes the issue of personnel. For all the talk about the ECB being independent the reclaiming of it by the political class was in process via the appointment of the former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde as President. This of course added to the fact that the Vice President Luis de Guindos had been the Spanish Finance Minister. Combined with this comes the issue of competence as I recall Mario Draghi pointing out he would give Luis de Guindos a specific job when he found one he could do, thereby clearly implying he lacked the required knowledge and skill set. It is hard to know where to start with Christine Lagarde on this subject after her failures involving Greece and Argentina ( which sadly is in the mire again) and her conviction for negligence. Of course she has added to that more recently with her statement about “bond spreads” which saw the ten-year yield in Italy impersonate a Space-X rocket until somebody persuaded her to issue a correction. Although as the last press conference highlighted you never really escape a faux pas like that.

Do you now believe that it is the ECB’s role to control the spreads on government debt?

The Present Situation

This was supposed to be one where monetary policy had been set for the next year or so and President Lagarde could get her Hermes slippers under the table before having to do anything. Life sometimes comes at you quite fast though as this morning has already highlighted. From Eurostat.

In April 2020, the COVID-19 containment measures widely introduced by Member States again had a significant
impact on retail trade, as the seasonally adjusted volume of retail trade decreased by 11.7% in the euro area and
by 11.1% in the EU, compared with March 2020, according to estimates from Eurostat, the statistical office of
the European Union. In March 2020, the retail trade volume decreased by 11.1% in the euro area and by 10.1%
in the EU.
In April 2020 compared with April 2019, the calendar adjusted retail sales index decreased by 19.6% in the euro
area and by 18.0% in the EU.

As you can see Retail Sales have fallen by a fifth as far as we can tell ( normal measuring will be impossible right now and the numbers are erratic in normal times). Also there were large structural shifts with clothing and footwear down 63.5% on a year ago and online up 20.9%. Much of this is due to shops being closed and will be reversed but there is a loss for taxes and GDP which is an issue for ECB policy. Other news points out that May has its troubles as well.

Germany May New Car Registrations Total 168,148 -49.5% Y/Y – KBA ( @LiveSquawk)

Policy Response

For all the claims and rhetoric is that the ECB has prioritised the banks and government’s. So let us start with The Precious! The Precious!

Accordingly, the Governing Council decided today to further ease the conditions on our targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO III)……. Moreover, for counterparties whose eligible net lending reaches the lending performance threshold, the interest rate over the period from June 2020 to June 2021 will now be 50 basis points below the average deposit facility rate prevailing over the same period.

For newer readers this means that the banks will be facing what is both the lowest interest-rate seen so far anywhere at -1% and also a fix for the problems they have dealing with a -0.5% interest-rate more generally. It also means that whilst the bit below is not an outright lie it is also not true.

In addition, we decided to keep the key ECB interest rates unchanged.

In fact for those who regard the interest-rate for banks as key it is an untruth. Estimates for the gains to the banking sector from this are of the order of 3 billion Euros. Yet another subsidy or if you prefer we are getting the Vapors.

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

Fiscal Policy

This is what monetary policy has now morphed into. There is an irony here because one of the reasons the ECB has pursued such expansionary policy is the nature of fiscal policy in the Euro area. That has been highlighted in three main ways. the surpluses of Germany, the Stability and Growth Pact and the depressive policy applied to Greece. But that was then and this is now.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that Germany was set to plow 130 billion euros ($146 billion) into rebooting an economy severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The measures include temporarily cutting value-added tax form 19% to 16%, providing families with an additional €300 per child and doubling a government-supported rebate on electric car purchases.

The package also establishes a €50 billion fund for addressing climate change, innovation and digitization within the German economy. ( dw.com )

Even Italy is being allowed to spend.

Fiat To Use State-Backed Loan To Pay Italy Staff, Suppliers ( @LiveSquawk)

This is the real reason for the QE and is highlighted below.

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The European Central Bank scooped up all of Italy’s new debt in April and May but merely managed to keep borrowing costs for the indebted, virus-stricken country from rising, data showed on Tuesday.

The ECB bought 51.1 billion euros worth of Italian government bonds in the last two months compared with a net supply, as calculated by analysts at UniCredit, of 49 billion euros.

Comment

Thus President Lagarde will be mulling the words of Boz Scaggs.

(What can I do?)
Ooh, show me that I care
(What can I say?)
Hmmm, got to have your number baby
(What can I do?)

Plainly the ECB needs the flexibility of being able to expand its QE bond buying so that Euro area governments can borrow cheaply as highlighted by Italy or be paid to borrow like Germany. We could see the PEPP plan which is the latest emergency one expanded as it will run out in late September on present trends, also the German Constitutional Court has conveniently given it a bye. But she could do that next time. So finally we have a decision appropriate for a politician!

As to interest-rates we see that the banks have as usual been taken care of. That only leaves the rest of us so it is unlikely. We will only see another cut if they decide that like a First World War general that a futile gesture is needed.

The problems posed by mass unemployment

A sad consequence of the lock downs and the effective closure of some parts of the economy is lower employment and higher unemployment. That type of theme was in evidence very early today as we learnt that even the land “down under” looks like it is in recession after recording a 0.3% decline in the opening quarter of 2020. The first for nearly 30 years as even the commodities boom seen has been unable to resist the effects of the pandemic. This brings me to what Australia Statistics told us last month.

Employment decreased by 594,300 people (-4.6%) between March and April 2020, with full-time employment decreasing by 220,500 people and part-time employment decreasing by 373,800 people.Compared to a year ago, there were 123,000 less people employed full-time and 272,000 less people employed part-time. Thischange led to a decrease in the part-time share of employment over the past 12 months, from 31.5% to 30.3%.

I have opened with the employment data as we get a better guide from it in such times although to be fair it seems to be making a fist of the unemployment position.

The unemployment rate increased 1.0 points to 6.2%and was 1.0 points higher than in April 2019. The number of unemployed people increased by 104,500 in April 2020 to 823,300 people, and increased by 117,700 people from April 2019.

The underemployment rate increased by 4.9 pts to 13.7%, the highest on record, and was 5.2 pts higher than in April 2019.The number of underemployed people increased by 603,300 in April 2020 to 1,816,100 people, an increase of almost 50% (49.7%), and increased by 666,100 people since April 2019.

As you can see they have picked up a fair bit of the changes and it is nice to see an underemployment measure albeit not nice to see it rise so much. The signal for the Australian economy in the quarter just gone is rather grim though especially if we note this.

Monthly hours worked in all jobs decreased by 163.9 million hours (-9.2%) to 1,625.8 million hours in April 2020, larger than the decrease in employed people.

Italy

In line with our “Girlfriend in a coma” theme one fears the worst for Italy now especially as we note how hard it was hit by the virus pandemic. Even worse a mere headline perusal is actively misleading as I note this from Istat, and the emphasis is mine.

In April 2020, in comparison with the previous month, employment significantly decreased and unemployment sharply fell together with a relevant increase of inactivity.

The full detail is below.

In the last month, also the remarkable fall of the unemployed people (-23.9%, -484 thousand) was recorded for both men (-17.4%, -179 thousand) and women (-30.6%, -305 thousand). The unemployment rate dropped to 6.3% (-1.7 percentage points) and the youth rate fell to 20.3% (-6.2 p.p.).

Yes a number which ordinarily would be perceived as a triumph after all the struggles Italy has had with its economy and elevated unemployment is at best a mirage and at worst a complete fail for the methodology below.

Unemployed persons: comprise persons aged 15-74 who:
were actively seeking work, i.e. had carried out activities in the four week period ending with the reference week
to seek paid employment or self-employment and were available to start working before the end of the two
weeks following the reference week;

Some would not have bothered to look for work thinking it was hopeless and many of course would simply have been unable to. We do find them elsewhere in the data set.

In April the considerable growth of inactive people aged 15-64 (+5.4%, +746 thousand) was registered for
both men (+6.0%, +307 thousand) and women (+5.0%, +438 thousand), leading the inactivity rate to
38.1% (+2.0 percentage points).

If we look back we see that there was a similar issue with the March numbers so a published unemployment rate of 6.3% looks like one of over 11% if we make some sort of correction for the April and March issues.

We get a better guide to the state of play from the employment position which as we observe from time to time has become something of a leafing indicator.

On a monthly basis, the decline of employment (-1.2%, -274 thousand) concerned both men (-1.0%, -131 thousand) and women (-1.5%, -143 thousand), and brought the employment rate to 57.9% (-0.7 p. p.)…….With respect to the previous quarter, in the period February – April 2020, employment considerably decreased (-1.0%, -226 thousand) for both genders…….Compared to March 2019, employment showed a decrease in terms of figures (-2.1%, -497 thousand) and rate (-1.1 percentage points).

Oh and in the last sentence they mean April rather than March. But looking ahead we see a 1.2% fall for employment in April alone which has implications for GDP and of course it is before the furlough scheme.

 Italy has furloughed 7.2 million workers, equivalent to 31% of employment at end-2019; ( FitchRatings )

Germany

This morning has also brought news about the state of play in Germany.

WIESBADEN – Roughly 44.8 million persons resident in Germany (national concept) were in employment in April 2020 according to provisional calculations of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). Compared with April 2019, the number of persons in employment decreased by 0.5% (-210,000). This means that for the first time since March 2010 the number of persons in employment decreased year on year (-92,000; -0.2%). In March 2020, the year-on-year change rate had been +0.2%.

For our purposes we get a signal from this.

According to provisional results of the employment accounts, the number of persons in employment fell by 161,000 in April 2020 on the previous month. Normally, employment rises strongly in April as a result of the usual spring upturn, that is, by 143,000 in April on an average of the last five years.

Perhaps the headline read a lot better in German.

No spring upturn

Switching to unemployment the system seems less flawed than in Italy.

Results of the labour force survey show that 1.89 million people were unemployed in April 2020. That was an increase of 220,000, or 13.2%, on March 2020. Compared with April 2019, the number of unemployed persons increased by 515,000 or +38.0%. The unemployment rate was 4.3% in April 2020.

There is a clear conceptual issue here if we return to Fitch Ratings.

Germany has enrolled more than 10 million workers on its scheme, representing 22% of employment at the end-2019. This number ultimately may be lower because some firms that have registered employees as a precaution may decide not to participate.

Germany employed the Kurzarbeit to great effect during the global financial crisis when its implementation prevented the mass lay-offs that were seen elsewhere in Europe. While unemployment in Germany remained broadly unchanged in 2008-2009, other countries reported significant increases.

Comment

There are deep sociological and psychological impacts from these numbers and let me give my sympathies to those affected. Hopefully we can avoid what happened in the 1930s. Returning to the statistics there are a litany of issues some of which we have already looked at. Let me point out another via the German employment data.

After seasonal adjustment, that is, after the elimination of the usual seasonal fluctuations, the number of persons in employment decreased by 271,000 (-0.6%) in April 2020 compared with March 2020.

The usual pattern for seasonal fluctuations will be no guide this year and may even be worse than useless but it will still be used in the headline data. But there is more if we switch to Eurostat.

In April 2020, the second month after COVID-19 containment measures were implemented by most Member
States, the euro area seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate was 7.3%, up from 7.1% in March 2020. The EU
unemployment rate was 6.6% in April 2020, up from 6.4% in March 2020.

We have the issue of Italy recording a large rise as a fall but even in Germany there is an issue as I note an unemployment rate of 4.3%. Well after applying the usual rules Eurostat has published it at 3.5%. There is no great conspiracy here as the statisticians apply rules which are supposed to make things clearer but some extra thought is requited as we note they are in fact making the numbers pretty meaningless right now, or the opposite of their role.

The Investing Channel

 

 

 

 

The ECB hints at buying equities and replacing bank intermediation

A feature of this virus pandemic is the way that it seems to have infected central bankers with the impact of them becoming power mad as well as acting if they are on speed. Also they often seen lost in a land of confusion as this from yesterday from the Governor of the Bank of France highlights.

Naturally, there is a huge amount of uncertainty over how the economic environment will evolve, but this is probably less true for inflation.

Okay so the picture for inflation is clearer, how so?

 In the short term, the public health crisis is disinflationary, as exemplified by the drop in oil prices. Inflation is currently very low, at 0.3% in the euro area and 0.4% in France in April; granted, it is particularly tricky to measure prices in the wake of the lockdown, due to the low volume of data reporting and transactions, and the shift in consumer habits, temporary or otherwise.

This is not the best of starts as we see in fact that one price has fallen ( oil) but many others are much less clear due to the inability to measure them.Of course having applied so much monetary easing Francois Villeroy is desperate to justify it.

The medium-term consequences are more open to debate, due notably to uncertainties over production costs, linked for example to health and environmental standards and the potential onshoring of certain production lines; the differences between sectors could be significant, leading to variations in relative prices rather than a general upward path.

As you can see he moves from not being able to measure it to being very unsure although he later points out it is expected to be 1% next year which in his mind justifies his actions. There is the usual psychobabble about price stability being an inflation rate of 2% per annum which if course it isn’t.  #

Policy

It is probably best if you live in a glass house not to throw stones but nobody seems to have told Francois that.

Our choice at the ECB is more pragmatic: since March, we, like the Fed and the Bank of England, have greatly expanded and strengthened our armoury of instruments and in so doing refuted all those – and remember there were a lot of them only a few months ago – who feared that the central banks were “running out of ammunition”.

I will return to that later but let us move onto what Francois regards as longer-term policies.

First, in September 2019, we amended our use of negative rates with a tiering system to mitigate their adverse impacts on bank intermediation. I see no reason to change these rates now.

Actually it has not taken long for Francois to contradict himself on the ammunition point as “see no reason” means he feels he cannot go further into negative interest-rates for the general population. You may also note that he starts with “My Precious! My Precious!” which is revealing. Oh and he has cut the TLTRO interest-rate for banks to -1% more recently.

Plus.

Meanwhile, asset purchases, in operation since mid-2014, reached a total of EUR 2,800 billion in April 2020 and will continue at a monthly average pace of more than EUR 30 billion.

Make of this what you will.

We can also add forward guidance to this arsenal,….. This forward guidance provides considerable leeway to adapt to economic changes thanks to its self-stabilising endogenous component.

New Policy

Suddenly he did cut interest-rates and we are back to “My Precious! My Precious!”

The supply of liquidity to banks has been reinforced in terms of quantity and, above all, through an incentivising price structure. Interest rates on TLTROIII operations were cut dramatically on 12 March and again on 30 April and are now, at -1%

There is also this.

Above all, we have created the EUR 750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP)…….First, flexibility in terms of time. We are not bound by a monthly allocation…….Second, flexibility in terms of volume. Unlike the PSPP, we are not committed to a fixed amount – today, the PEPP can go “up to EUR 750 million”, and we stated on 30 April that we were prepared to go further if need be.

If we look at the weekly updates which have settled at around 30 billion Euros per week the original 750 billion will run out as September moves into October if that pace is maintained. So it looks likely that there will be more although as the summer progresses things will of course change quite a bit.

Then Francois displays even more of what we might call intellectual flexibility. You see he is not targeting spreads or “yield curve control” or a “spread control” but he is….

While there is a risk that the effects of the crisis may in some cases be asymmetric, we will not allow adverse market dynamics to lead to unwarranted interest rate hikes in some countries.

So he is trying to have his cake and eat it here.

Innovation

This word is a bit of a poisoned chalice as those have followed the Irish banking crisis will know. But let me switch to this subject and open with a big deal for the ECB especially since the sleeping giant known as the German Constitutional Court has shown signs of opening one eye, maybe.

And this brings me to my third point, flexibility in terms of allocation between countries.

He means Italy of course.

Next up is one of the sillier ideas around.

Allow me to say a final word on another development under discussion: the possibility of “going direct” to finance businesses without going through the bank channel. The truth is that we do this already, and have done since 2016, by being among the first central banks to buy corporate bonds.

He is probably keen because of this.

The NEU-CP market in Paris is by far the most active in the euro area, with outstandings of EUR 72 billion in mid-May, and the Banque de France’s most recent involvement since the end of March has been very effective and widely acknowledged by industry professionals.

Ah even better he has been able to give himself a slap on the back as well.

He is eyeing even more.

With its new Main Street Lending Program, the Fed recently went a step further by giving itself the possibility to fund the purchases of bank loans to businesses, via a special-purpose vehicle created with a US Treasury Department guarantee

If banks are bad, why are we subsidising them so much? Also why would central banks full of banks be any better?

After sillier let us have silliest.

ECB’s Villeroy: Would Not Put At Forefront Likelihood Of Buying Up Equities ( @LiveSquawk )

Comment

There is a familiar feel to this as we observe central bankers twisting and turning to justify where they find themselves. Let me start with something which in their own terms has been a basic failure.

This sluggishness in prices comes after a decade of persistently below-target inflation, which has averaged 1.3%.

This provides a range of contexts as of course the inflation picture would look very different if they made any real effort to measure  the one third or so of expenditure that goes on housing costs. In other areas this would be a scandal as imagine how ignoring a third of Covid-19 cases would be received? Also you might think that such failure after negative interest-rates and 2.8 billion Euros of QE might lead to a deeper rethink. This policy effort has in fact ended up really being about what was denied in this speech which is reducing bond yields so governments can borrow more cheaply. The hints in it have helped the ten-year yield in Italy fall to 1.55% as I type this.

Oh the subject of the ECB buying equities I am reminded that I suggested on the 2nd of March it would be next to make that leap of faith. I still think it is in the running however the German Constitutional Court may have slowed it up. The hint has helped the Euro Stoxx 50 go above 3000 today as equity markets continue to be pumped up on liquidity and promises. But more deeply we see that if we look at Japan what has been achieved by the equity buying? The rich have got richer but the economy has not seen any boost and in fact pre this crisis was in fact doing worse. So he is singing along with Bonnie Tyler.

I was lost in France
In the fields the birds were singing
I was lost in France
And the day was just beginning
As I stood there in the morning rain
I had a feeling I can’t explain
I was lost in France in love

 

Eurobonds To be? Or not to be?

We find that some topics have a habit of recurring mostly because they never get quite settled, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction. At the time however triumph is declared as we enter a new era until reality intervenes, often quite quickly. So last night’s Franco-German announcement after a virtual summit caught the newswires.

France and Germany are proposing a €500bn ($545bn; £448bn) European recovery fund to be distributed to EU countries worst affected by Covid-19.

In talks on Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed that the funds should be provided as grants.

The proposal represents a significant shift in Mrs Merkel’s position.

Mr Macron said it was a major step forward and was “what the eurozone needs to remain united”. ( BBC)

Okay and there was also this reported by the BBC.

Mrs Merkel, who had previously rejected the idea of nations sharing debt, said the European Commission would raise money for the fund by borrowing on the markets, which would be repaid gradually from the EU’s overall budget.

There are a couple of familiar features here as we see politicians wanted to spend now and have future politicians ( i.e not them face the issues of paying for it). There is an undercut right now in that the choice of Frau Merkel reminds those of us who follow bond markets that Germany is being paid to borrow with even its thirty-year yield being -0.05%. So in essence the other countries want a slice of that pie as opposed to hearing this from Germany.

Money, it’s a crime
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a raise it’s no surprise that they’re
Giving none away, away, away ( Pink Floyd)

Actually France is often paid to borrow as well ( ten-year yield is -0.04%) but even it must be looking rather jealously at Germany.Here is how Katya Adler of the BBC summarised its significance.

Chancellor Merkel has conceded a lot. She openly agreed with the French that any money from this fund, allocated to a needy EU country, should be a grant, not a loan. Importantly, this means not increasing the debts of economies already weak before the pandemic.

President Macron gave ground, too. He had wanted a huge fund of a trillion or more euros. But a trillion euros of grants was probably too much for Mrs Merkel to swallow on behalf of fellow German taxpayers.

She has made a technical error, however, as Eurostat tends to allocate such borrowing to each country on the grounds of its ECB capital share. So lower borrowing for say Italy but not necessarily zero.

The ECB

Its President Christine Lagarde was quickly in the press.

So there is zero risk to the euro?

Yes. And I would remind you that the euro is irreversible, it’s written in the EU Treaty.

Of course history is a long list of treaties which have been reversed. Also there was the standard tactic when challenged on debt which is whataboutery.

Every country in the world is seeing its debt level increase – according to the IMF’s projections, the debt level of the United States will reach more than 130% of GDP by the end of this year, while the euro area’s debt will be below 100% of GDP.

Actually by trying to be clever there, she has stepped on something of a land mine. Let me hand you over to the French Finance Minister.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Tuesday, the European Union (EU) recovery fund probably will not be available until 2021.

The 500 bln euro recovery fund idea is a historic step because it finances budget spending through debt, he added. ( FXStreet )

So the height of the pandemic and the economic collapse will be over before it starts? That is an issue which has dogged the Euro area response to not only this crisis but the Greek and wider Euro area one too. It is very slow moving and in the case of Greece by the time it upped its game we had seen the claimed 2% per annum economic growth morph into around a 10% decline meaning the boat had sailed. In economic policy there is always the issue of timing and in this instance whatever you think of the details of US policy for instance it has got on with it quickly which matters in a crisis.

Speaking of shooting yourself in the foot there was also this.

Growth levels and prevailing interest rates should be taken into account, as these are the two key elements.

The latter is true and as I pointed out earlier is a strength for many Euro area countries but the former has been quite a problem. Unless we see a marked change we can only expect the same poor to average performance going ahead. Mind you we did see a hint that her predecessor had played something of a Jedi Mind Trick on financial markets.

Outright Monetary Transactions, or OMTs, are an important instrument in the European toolbox, but they were designed for the 2011-12 crisis, which was very different from this one. I don’t think it is the tool that would be best suited to tackling the economic consequences of the public health crisis created by COVID-19.

They had success without ever being used.

Market Response

Things have gone rather well so far. The Euro has rallied versus the US Dollar towards 1.10 although it has dipped against the UK Pound. Bond markets are more clear cut with the Italian bond future rising over a point and a half to above 140 reducing its ten-year yield to 1.62%. The ten-year yield in Spain has fallen to 0.7% as well. It seems a bit harsh to include Spain after the economic growth spurt we have seen but nonetheless maybe it did not reach escape velocity.

Comment

Actually there already are some Eurobonds in that the ESM ( European Stability Mechanism) has issued bonds in the assistance programmes for Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Although they were secondary market moves mostly allowing countries to borrow more cheaply rather than spend more. On that subject I guess life can sometimes come at you fast as how is this going?

Taking into account these measures, the
government remains committed to meeting the
primary fiscal surplus for 2020 and forecasts a
primary surplus at  3.6% of GDP ( Greece Debt Office)

On the other side of the coin it will be grateful for this.

81% of the debt stock is held by official sector creditors,
allowing for long term maturity profile and low interest
rates

On a Greek style scale the 500 billion Euros is significant but now we switch to Italy we see that suddenly the same sum of money shrinks a lot. I notice that Five Star ( political party not the band) have already been on the case.

It’s just too little, too late
A little too long
And I can’t wait ( JoJo)

This brings me to the two real issues here of which the first is generic. In its history fiscal policy finds that it can not respond quickly enough which is why the “first responder” is monetary policy. The problem is that the ECB has done this so much it is struggling to do much more and the European Union is always slow to use fiscal policy. Such as it has then the use has been in the other direction via the Stability and Growth Pact.

Next comes the fact that there are 19 national treasuries to deal with for the Euro and 27 for the European Union as I note that last night’s deal was between only 2 of them. Perhaps the most important ones but only 2.

What to do when we do not know GDP,Inflation or even Unemployment levels?

Today has brought a whole raft of data for our attention and much of it is eye-catching. So let is begin with La Belle France a subject on my mind after watching the film Waterloo last night.

In Q1 2020, GDP in volume terms fell sharply: –5.8%, the biggest drop in the series’ record, since 1949. In particular, it is bigger than the ones recorded in Q1 2009 (–1.6%) or in Q2 1968 (–5.3%). ( Insee )

I have to confess I am a little in the dark as to 1968 and can only think it may have been related to the student riots of the era. The Covid-19 vibe is established by the way that domestic demand plunged.

Household consumption expenditures dropped (–6.1%), as did total gross fixed capital formation in a more pronounced manner (GFCF: –11.8%). Overall, final domestic demand excluding inventory changes fell sharply: it contributed to –6.6 points to GDP growth.

I guess no-one is going to be surprised by this either.

Overall production of goods and services declined sharply (–5.5%). It fell the hardest in construction (–12,6%), while output in goods declined –4.8% and output in manufactured goods dropped –5.6%. Output in market services declined by –5.7% overall.

Such production as there was seems to have piled up.

Conversely, changes in inventories contributed positively to GDP growth (+0.9 points).

At a time like this GDP really struggles to deal with trade so let me use France as an example on the way to explaining the issue.

Exports also fell this quarter (–6.5%) along with imports (–5.9%), in a less pronounced manner. All in all, the foreign trade balance contributed negatively to GDP growth: –0.2 points, after –0.1 points the previous quarter.

As you can see the net effect here is rather small especially in these circumstances. But there is a lot going on as we see large moves in both exports and imports. Another way of looking at this is provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the US.

Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, decreased

A lot less detail for a start. Let me help out as imports in the US fell heavily by US $140.1 billion in fact and exports only fell by US $56.9 billion. So net exports rose by US $83.3 billion and boosted the numbers. This is really awkward when a signal that the US is doing badly raises GDP by 2.32% on its own and in net terms by 1.3% ( care is needed with US numbers because they are annualised).

So here is a major caveat that the US may appear to be doing better but the trade breakdown hints strongly things are much worse than that.

Spain

Spain had been having a good run but sadly that is now over.

Spanish GDP registers a -5.2% variation in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the previous quarter in terms of volume. This rate is 5.6 points less than the Registered in the fourth quarter. ( INE)

The chart is quite extraordinary as the good run since around 2014 is replaced by quite a plummet. We see that it is essentially a domestic game as like France the international factor small.

For its part, external demand presents a contribution of 0.2 points, three tenths lower than that of the previous quarter.

We do get a hint of what is about to hit the labour market and indeed unemployment which had remained high in Spain.

The employment of the economy, in terms of hours worked, registers a variation of ,5.0% compared to the previous quarter.

Inflation

Let me return to France to illustrate the issues here.

Over a year, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) should rise by 0.4% in April 2020, after +0.7% in the previous month, according to the provisional estimate made at the end of the month. This drop in inflation should result from an accentuated fall in energy prices and a sharp slowdown in service prices.

A problem leaps off the page and ironically they have unintentionally described it

an accentuated fall in energy prices

That is because the weight for energy is too high as for example factories stopped work and there was much less commuting. Then there is this.

Food prices should rebound sharply, due to a strong rise in fresh food product prices.

Fresh food prices rose by 18.1% in March but are weighted at a mere 2.3% as opposed to the 8.1% of energy, when we know that there was heavy demand to stock up. I do not wish to demean their efforts but the claim that other food prices rose by 1.4% compared to 2.3% this time last year looks dodgy and may well be suffering from this

The price collection carried out by collectors on the field (about 40% in the CPI) has been suspended since 16 March:

Also it was a rough month for smokers as tobacco rose by 13.7%.

If we look at Spain we see the energy/fuel problem emerge again.

The preliminary data that is presented today through the leading indicator of the CPI, places its annual variation at –0.7% in April, seven tenths below that registered in March, influenced for the most part by the drop in fuel prices and fuels, compared to the increase registered in 2019.

Also with food prices albeit it on a lower scale.

It is remarkable the behavior of food prices, whose annual rate passes from 2.5% in March to 4.0% in April. Of these, fresh food reaches a rate of 6.9%, three points above that of the previous month, and packaged foods, place their annual rate at 2.2%, six tenths above that of March.

Although to be fair to INE in Spain they are trying to adapt to the new reality.

the prices of the products included in the goods special group COVID-19 increased 1.2% in April, compared to the previous month. While the services COVID-19 decreased 1.4% in April compared to March.

Unemployment

This may well be the biggest statistical fail I have seen in the world of economics.

In March 2020, in comparison with the previous month, employment slightly decreased and unemployment sharply fell together with a relevant increase of inactivity.

Yes you did read the latter part correctly.

In the last month, also the remarkable fall of the unemployed people (-11.1%, -267 thousand) was
recorded for both men (-13.4%, -169 thousand) and women (-8.6%, -98 thousand). The unemployment
rate dropped to 8.4% (-0.9 percentage points) and the youth rate fell to 28.0% (-1.2 p.p.).

They had two issues to contend with but tripped over a theoretical flaw. The issues were having to do the survey by telephone and a sample size some 20% lower. The flaw is that to be unemployed you have to be available for work and in this situation I am sure many reported that they were not. Indeed you can see this below.

In the last three months, also the number of unemployed persons decreased (-5.4%, -133 thousand), while
a growth among inactive people aged 15-64 years was registered (+1.5%, +192 thousand)……..On a yearly basis, the decrease of employed people was accompanied by a fall of unemployed persons
(-21.1%, -571 thousand) and a growth of inactive people aged 15-64 (+4.4%, +581 thousand).

Comment

I summarised the situation on social media yesterday.

Reasons not to trust the US GDP print

1. Advance estimates only have ~50% of the full data

2. Inflation estimates will be nearly hopeless at a time like this.

3. Output of say planes for no one to fly in them has obvious issues….

Let me add a fourth which is the impact of imports that I have described above.

Switching to the unemployment numbers from Italy I do not blame those compiling the numbers and find them helpful when I have an enquiry. But someone higher up the chain should at least have put a large warning on these numbers and maybe even stopped their publication as statistics are supposed to inform not mislead. They seem to have taken Talking Heads a little too literally.

Stop making sense
Quit talking
Stop making sense
Start falling
Stop making sense
Hold onto me
You’re always at your best
When you’re not making sense

Me on The Investing Channel

Is it the ECB which is the Euro area bad bank?

A feature of the credit crunch era is that some subjects have never gone away in spite of all the official denials. Another is that establishment’s use crises to try to introduce policies which they would not be able to get away with in ordinary times. As today we are looking at a central bank this is of course about the subject closest to their hearts which is “The Precious! The Precious!” which for newer readers is the banking sector. So let us get straight to the issue in the Financial Times which has taken a brief holiday from its role as the house journal of the Bank of England to bid for the same role for the ECB or European Central Bank.

European Central Bank officials have held high-level talks with counterparts in Brussels about creating a eurozone bad bank to remove billions of euros in toxic debts from lenders’ balance sheets.

After my reply I somehow doubt I will be getting the role.

But they already have Deutsche Bank?

Indeed this is quite a different message from the one given to the European Parliament by Mario Draghi in February 2016.

However, we have to acknowledge that the regulatory overhaul since the start of the crisis has laid the foundations for durably increasing the resilience not only of individual institutions but also of the financial system as a whole. Banks have built higher and better quality capital
buffers, have reduced leverage and improved their funding profiles.

I have emphasised the use of central banking language as I have picked out that word for some time. He emphasised the point later.

In the euro area, the situation in the banking sector now is very different from what it was in 2012……….making them more resilient to adverse shocks.

Indeed the non performing loans we are now supposed to be worried about were apparently fixed.

There is a subset of banks with elevated levels of non-performing loans (NPLs). However, these NPLs were identified during the Comprehensive Assessment, using for the first time a common definition, and have since been adequately provisioned for. Therefore, we are in a
good position to bring down NPLs in an orderly manner over the next few years.

Er, well we have had a few years since so…..

Geography

The article gives us a good idea of one of the countries pressing for this.

“The lesson from the crisis is that only with a bad bank can you quickly get rid of the NPLs,” Yannis Stournaras, governor of the Bank of Greece and member of the ECB governing council, told the Financial Times. “It could be a European one or a national one. But it needs to happen quickly.”

I have no idea how you could form a Greek bad bank but anyway that would have even less of a life than a May Fly so let’s not worry too much. If we switch to the state of play it does not seem to have progressed as Mario Draghi told us four years ago.

Greek banks have by far the highest level of soured loans on their balance sheets of any eurozone country, making up 35 per cent of their total loan books — a legacy of the 2010-15 debt crisis that pushed the country to the brink of exiting the eurozone.

Yes the numbers are down but the crisis started in 2010 so we are a decade on now. When will it ever go away?

But plans by Greece’s big four lenders to sell more than €32bn of NPLs — almost half the total in the country — are likely to be disrupted by the coronavirus crisis,

We could have a quiz as we wonder how much would be paid for that and whether it would help much? Regular readers will recall that we were told it was a triumph when some of the NPLs of the Italian banks were sold. Would you want them now? I rather suspect the problem has been kicked like a can elsewhere. I note the Bank of Italy reporting this in its latest Economic Bulletin.

approving a debt moratorium on outstanding bank loans, and increasing public guarantees on new loans to firms.

The latest Financial Stability Report was somewhat upbeat on the subject.

At the end of June, the stock of NPLs net of
provisions fell to €84 billion (€177 billion gross
of provisions), 7 per cent less than at the end
of 2018.

Although even by then ( November) the Bank of Italy was troubled by the slow down in the Italian economy and of course now we know that essentially 2019 saw no economic growth at all.

In the fourth quarter of 2019 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decreased by 0.3 per cent over the previous quarter and increased by 0.1 per cent in comparison with the fourth quarter of 2018. ( Istat)

So we can see why Italy would be keen especially as we note this development.

In June, Italian banks’ exposure to emerging economies was €165 billion (about 5 per cent of assets),
6.4 per cent higher than at the end of 2018.

They got into trouble with this last time around.

Returning to the FT there is also a mention of a couple of places which the official and FT lines had been ones of recovery.

Total NPLs in the biggest 121 eurozone banks almost halved in four years to €506bn, or 3.2 per cent of their loan books, by the end of last year. But Greek, Cypriot, Portuguese and Italian banks still have NPL ratios above 6 per cent.

Portugal had been in a better economic run but those who followed the debacle at Novo Banco will be aware of the banking system problems.

Comment

There are quite a few issues for us to pick our way through. For example with the expansion of its role is the ECB already a bad bank itself? Let me hand you over the the present ECB President Christine Lagarde.

Second, we are buying public and private sector bonds in large volume to ensure that all sectors of the economy can benefit from easy financing conditions…….We have also extended our asset purchases to commercial paper, which is an important source of liquidity for firms.

It is also lending but with wider ( aka weaker) collateral requirements. I raise this issue because back at the height of the credit crunch issue the Bank of England ended one of its schemes early because of “Phantom Securities”. I am sure you get the drift.

A reply to the FT from Italicus raises another issue.

So the idea is to remove NPL from the balance sheets of banks so that they can keep on lending to people and businesses who can keep on not repaying their debts?

As Pink Floyd so aptly put it.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

Next comes the issue that rules for banks are only applied when the seas are calm which is the reverse of what should happen.

The European Central Bank (ECB) today announced a temporary reduction in capital requirements for market risk, by allowing banks to adjust the supervisory component of these requirements.

Next comes the issue of what are Special Purpose Vehicles. The Italian versions for bad loans called variously Atlas and Atlante have rather faded from view. Not before some rather spectacular write downs though which weakened the banking sector they were supposed to support.

Also there is Deutsche Bank with its share price of 5.88 Euros.

Podcast

 

What is happening to the economy of Italy right now?

Today has brought the economy of Italy back into focus and before I look at the economics let me express my deepest sympathy for also those affected by the Corona Virus there.

Like a soul without a mind
In a body without a heart
I’m missing every part, ( Massive Attack)

Returning to the economics there were hopes from Italy of some financial and economic relief from the overnight Eurogroup meeting so let me hand you over to its President Mario Centeno.

After 16h of discussions we came close to a deal but we are not there yet. I suspended the #Eurogroup & continue tomorrow, thu. My goal remains: A strong EU safety net against fallout of #covid19 (to shield workers, firms &countries)& commit/ to a sizeable recovery plan

Let us consider what it could do? There are essentially four topics at play. Firstly there is the issue of extra spending.

Diplomatic sources and officials said a feud between Italy and the Netherlands over what conditions should be attached to euro zone credit for governments fighting the pandemic was blocking progress on half a trillion euros worth of aid. ( Reuters)

Although actually in a copying of the Juncker Plan that regular readers will recall a lot of this is borrowing and money from Special Purpose Vehicles.

Further proposals under discussions include credit lines from the euro zone bailout fund that would be worth up to 2% of a country’s economic output, or 240 billion euros in total. The conditions for gaining access to this money remain a sticking point.

Granting the European Investment Bank 25 billion euros of extra guarantees so it can step up lending to companies by a further 200 billion euros is another option.

The third is support for the EU executive’s plan to raise 100 billion euros on the market against 25 billion euros of guarantees from all governments in the bloc to subsidise wages so that firms can cut working hours rather than sack people. ( Reuters).

Actually there were apparently requests for even more money to be deployed.

ECB urges measures worth 1.5 trillion euros this year to tackle virus crisis . ( @TradingFloorAudio )

The next issue is how this will be paid for? We have already tip-toed onto that subject because the reference to the Euro bailout fund refers to the European Stability Mechanism or ESM. The catch with it is the issue of conditionality or if you prefer terms. This is awkward on two counts as the two main bits are that a country has to have lost access to market financing which is not true and that it is supposed to present a macroeconomic adjustment programme of austerity when in fact the plan would be to “Spend! Spend!Spend!”

The use of the European Investment Bank is complicated by the UK still being a 14% shareholder.

Finally in this sweep we have the elephant in the room which is the issuing of joint Euro area bonds or as they have been rebranded Corona Bonds. This has collided with a regular problem which is that the countries which would in effect be financing this are not keen at all whereas those that would benefit are very keen but cannot persuade the former. We have been down this road so many times now and have always ended up singing along with Talking Heads.

We’re on a road to nowhere
Come on inside
Taking that ride to nowhere
We’ll take that ride

Italy GDP

Before I look at the impact of the above on Italy we need to see where it stands in economic terms. The opening salvo was fired by the IHS Markit survey from only five days ago which now feels a bit like forever.

The Composite Output Index* dropped from 50.7 in February to 20.2 in March, falling a record 30.5 points and signalling the sharpest contraction in Italian private sector output since the series began in January 1998.
The downturn was most marked in the service sector,
although both services providers and manufactures reported record reductions in output during March.

This came with the lowest PMI number I can recall which was 17.4 for the services sector. We have learnt over time to take these surveys with several pinches of salt but it was clear we were seeing a large fall in economic output which in the case of Italy comes on the back of at best stagnation.

Yesterday the Italian Statistics Office produced its Monthly Report.

First signals of COVID -19 economic effects are displayed by March consumer and business surveys -which deteriorated sharply- and February extra EU trade and retail trade.

Okay let’s look back to February.

Extra Eu trade preliminary figures were influenced by the sharp fall of exports towards China (-21.6% with respect to
the same month of the previous year) were the epidemic originated. Retail trade improved possibly due to the
increase of precautionary expenditure for food in the first phases of the health emergency.

So the only good news was some precautionary buying of food and other essentials.

Now March and as BBC children’s TV used to say, are you sitting comfortably?

In March, the consumer confidence climate slumped. The heavy deterioration affected all index components. More
specifically, the economic climate current and future and the expectation on unemployment plummeted. These
negative signals suggest that there might be in the coming months a deterioration in income, consumption and labour
market figures.

They have modelled what they think the impact will be from this.

We provide two different scenarios, the first in which the lockdown will be concentrated in March and April and
the second in which the lockdown will last until June. In the first case consumption will be reduced by 4.1% on
yearly basis in the second case by 9.9% . The consumption fall would determine a value added contraction by 1.9% and 4.5% respectively.

If we now add in the other sectors we get an even larger GDP fall for example there is this.

More precisely, for sectors in lockdown or for which we assume that the turnover is near zero
(i.e. tourism) we evaluate the overall reduction of production and its impact on consumption.

If we factor in tourism as being virtually zero then the fall in GDP implied above doubles at least as it would be seen in the exports numbers rather than consumption.

Comment

If we look at the Italian situation we see that its own spending plans dwarf the Euro area ones. Here is Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte from Monday via Google Translate.

Today’s decree brings 400 billion of liquidity for businesses, with the #CuraItalia we had freed 350. We are talking about 750 billion, almost half of our GDP. The state is there and immediately puts its firepower into the engine of the economy. When Italy gets up it runs.

The next context is that this is way beyond the ability of the ESM to deal with alone.

 The ESM, with its unused financial firepower of €410 billion, could provide credit lines at low interest rates. ( Klaus Regling)

Actually that is more than we have been told in the past but as you can see the numbers are so large here even 10 billion is not especially material. As there would be calls from countries other than Italy the ESM presently needs more ammo.

If we look at the public debt of Italy it was 2.44 trillion Euros at the end of the third quarter of last year. So if the spending plans above come to fruition we will see it rise to more like 3.2 trillion. With the economy shrinking we could see a debt to GDP figure of the order of 200% for a time. The real issue is for how long a time?

As to the bond vigilantes then they have mostly been anaesthetised by the QE buying of the ECB which is likely to be around 15 billion Euros or so per month. Whilst the Eurogroup indecison has raised the benchmark ten-year yield by 0.08% today ( and I am assuming the ECB is buying more today to resist this) it is at 1.67% under control. But as you can see even the powered up Pac-Man of the ECB is in danger of being swamped by the size of the bond issuance.

Oh and as to Eurobonds well actually they do exist.

When both the EIB and the ESM increase their actions, they need to issue bonds to finance their lending. The EIB – and to a smaller extent the European Commission – issue such debt for all 27 EU Member States, and the ESM for the 19 euro area countries. These three institutions have issued mutualised debt, i.e. European debt, for many years already. Today, these institutions have around €800 billion in outstanding European debt. ( Klaus Regling)

Let me finish with something more optimistic Italy has a large grey economy estimated at over 200 billion Euros and it is a nation of savers.

The saving rate of consumer households was 8.2%, 0.1 percentage points lower than in the previous quarter. ( Istat)

Let us cross our fingers and hope that it can mobilise both.

 

 

The spectre of mass unemployment is starting to haunt us

Today’s topic is one that I hoped never to have to write. If we look back to the last century then mass unemployment scarred the economic landscape on several occasions and particularly so in the Great Depression. The credit crunch era initially brought higher unemployment but fortunately we managed to reduce that over time. Indeed from around 2013 we saw considerable improvements on that front in mnay countries. The leader of the pack in this regard has been Japan where the unemployment rate has fallen as low as 2.2%. The UK and US saw strong improvements too with the unemployment rate falling below 4%. More latterly the Euro area has seen unemployment fall too although its progress has been slower leading to its unemployment rate being more like 7%

That was the good news section of the labour market as employment rose and unemployment fell. Although there always was the issue of under employment as a cloud in the sky as we wondered what jobs were being taken and how employment is defined? The waters also had something of a shark in them as the strong quantity numbers were accompanied by at best weak real wage growth something my country the UK has been particularly affected by. Especially troubling is the way the establishment has responded which is to impose poorer measures of inflation  ( the Imputed Rent driven CPIH ) to flatter the figures and mislead the unwary. Along the way the economic Ivory Towers had plenty of troubles too as the unemployment rate fell below their definitions of “full employment ” and made their “output gap” theories crumble. I am sure many of you still remember when Governor Carney of the Bank of England signposted a 7% unemployment rate as significant before exhibiting the sort of behaviour that led to him being called the “Unreliable Boyfriend ”

The US

Last week this provided something of a forerunner of what we can now expect.As Politico points out below even that shock may have been an understatement.

Last week’s headline number of 3.28 million claims — itself a more than 1,000 percent increase — is also expected to be revised upward, in part because of stark discrepancies between data that states reported at the ground level and what the Department of Labor recorded.

Florida’s initial claims hit a record for the week ended March 21, and then tripled to 222,054 for the week ended March 28, according to the state Department of Economic Opportunity.Florida’s initial claims hit a record for the week ended March 21, and then tripled to 222,054 for the week ended March 28, according to the state Department of Economic Opportunity…..Florida’s initial claims hit a record for the week ended March 21, and then tripled to 222,054 for the week ended March 28, according to the state Department of Economic Opportunity.

So as you can see the situation in the United States looks as though it may be even worse than we feared even last week. The old saying that a week is a long time in politics is being outdone by economics at the moment.

The UK

Yesterday brought a moment to the UK which we had feared was about to arrive.

Nearly a million people have successfully applied for universal credit in the last fortnight, in a rush to welfare support that reveals the depth of the jobs crisis caused by the UK’s lockdown.

Despite the government’s job support schemes offering 80% of earnings to employees and the self-employed who cannot work, 950,000 people applied for the main income support benefit between 16 and 31 March. There are normally about 100,000 applicants for the benefit in any given two-week period.

Applications started flooding in as soon as Boris Johnson told the nation to stop non-essential contact with others and cease all unnecessary travel. ( The Guardian)

Care is needed here as these are social security payments rather than a labour force measure or indeed a claimant count but we do get a very string hint from the data here.Out of it there is at least a small positive.

The DWP said it had moved more than 10,000 staff to deal with claims and was recruiting more.

The numbers above compare to a situation only a couple of weeks ago when we were told this by our official statisticians.

For November 2019 to January 2020, an estimated 1.34 million people were unemployed. This is 5,000 more than a year earlier but 515,000 fewer than five years earlier. The small increase on the year is the first annual increase in unemployment since May to July 2012, and it was caused by a 20,000 increase for men.

Sadly we seem set to go through 2 million fairly quickly and maybe 3 million. However the numbers will need some interpreting because it looks as though those who are “furloughed” will continue to be counted as in employment. Personally I think it would be better if a new category was created.

Let me welcome the effort by the Office of National Statistics to produce some new data although sadly even the new weekly measures are of course now well behind the times.

Over a quarter (27%) of responding businesses said they were reducing staff levels in the short term in the period 9 March to 22 March 2020, while 5% reported that they were recruiting staff in the short term.

Spain

This mornings news from Spain was grim too.

MADRID (Reuters) – The rise in Spanish jobless numbers in March is the highest monthly increase ever recorded, Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz said at a news conference on Thursday.

The number of jobless jumped 9.3% from the previous month bringing the total number of unemployed people to around 3.5 million. That total number was still below record highs of 2013.

The recent better phase of economic growth for Spain had played its part in bringing unemployment down from a bit over 5 million to just over 3 million last summer. But sadly the mood music had changed and is now dark.

Comment

This is a grim phase with echoes of the 1920s and 30s. I fear for the unemployment numbers that will come from Italy which had its own economic problems ( the essentially 0% economic growth of our “Good Italy: Bad Italy” theme ) before the pandemic started. Some yesterday were promoting this as good news.

The unemployment rate slightly decreased to 9.7% (-0.1 percentage points) while the youth rate stayed stable to 29.6%.

Sadly they did not seem to have read this bit.

This press release is referred to February 2020, therefore it is related to the pre-COVID-19 health emergency phase.

Italy and many other countries are about to see a tsunami of unemployment and our best hope is that it will be brief.

Meanwhile maybe attitudes will change as the other day I looked up at a residential care home where a worker was assisting an elderly lady on her balcony. As she had no protective clothing I could see she put herself at risk. I was thinking of that as I read this from Sarah O’Connor in the Financial Times.

This precarious army labours around the clock. On Monday I spoke to a domiciliary care worker who visits bed-bound clients in their homes (she did not want to be named for fear of punishment by her employer). She was in the middle of a 10-hour shift, having worked 14 hours on Saturday and 14 on Sunday. “We’re all putting the effort in,” she said. She is paid £9.75 an hour at weekends and £8.75 in the week, which amounts to about £1,700 a month.

It got worse.

Unison, the union for many care staff, has been raising concerns about the lack of personal protective equipment. The care worker I spoke to had gloves but no mask; she had purchased her own hand sanitiser. Her company, which employs her on a zero-hours contract, would only pay statutory sick pay of £94.25 a week if she developed symptoms and had to self-isolate. “Before, I would have gone into work with a cold or a cough — now I’d have to stay off but then I don’t know how I would pay the bills.”

Let me say welcome back from maternity leave to Sarah who is easily the FT’s best journalist.

The Investing Channel

Can the ECB save the Euro again?

A feature of the credit crunch and the Euro area crisis has been the behaviour of the European Central Bank or ECB. It’s role has massively expanded from the official one of aiming for an inflation rate ( CPI and thereby ignoring owner-occupied housing) of close to but just below 2%. In fact in his valedictory speech the former ECB President Jean Claude Trichet defined it as 1.97%. However times have changed and the next President upped the ante with his “Whatever it takes ( to save the Euro) speech giving the ECB roles beyond inflation targeting. But Mario Draghi also regularly told us that the ECB was a “rules-based organisation.”

On 18 March 2020, the Governing Council also decided that to the extent some self-imposed limits might hamper
action that the Eurosystem is required to take in order to fulfil its mandate, the Governing Council will consider
revising them to the extent necessary to make its action proportionate to the risks faced. ( ECB )

Well not those rules anyway which limited purchases to 33% of a bond. Oh and the rules against monetary financing seem to be getting more shall we say flexible too.

The residual maturity of public sector securities purchased under the PEPP ranges from 70 days up to 30 years and 364 days. For private securities eligible under the CSPP, the maturity range is from 28 days up to 30 years and 364 days. For ABSPP and CBPP3-eligible securities, no maturity restrictions apply. ( ECB)

There were rules which meant that Greece would not qualify for QE too but as we noted before they have gone.

 In addition, the PEPP includes a waiver of the eligibility requirements for securities issued by the Greek Government.

So as you can see the rules are only there until they become inconvenient. What we do not so far have unlike as has been claimed by some if that this policy is unlimited, although of course after all the ch-ch-changes it would hardly be a surprise if the new 750 billion Euro programme ended up being larger. Oh and they join their central banking cousins with this.

The additional temporary envelope of €750 billion under the PEPP is separate from and in addition to the net purchases under the APP.

Ah Temporary we know what that means…..

Bond Markets

These will be regarded as a success by the ECB as for example the ten-year yield in Germany is -0.44%. So in spite of the announcement of an extra 350 billion in debt to be issued Germany continues to be paid to borrow. So the ECB will regard itself as essentially financing the new German fiscal policy.

At the other end of the spectrum is Italy where the public finances are much worse. But the ten-year yield is 1.3% which is far below the nearly 3% it rose to after ECB President Lagarde stated that it was not its role to deal with “bond spreads” managing in one sentence to undo the main aim of her predecessor. As you can see the bond yield is under control in fact very strict control and I will return to this later.

Fiscal Policy

The ECB will be happy to see individual countries loosen the purse strings and especially Germany. The latter is something it has been keen on as the credit crunch develops. It is after all the largest economy and has had the most flexibility to do so. It would also help with the imbalances in both the Euro and world economies. However the collective response will have disappointed it.

We take note of the progress made by the Eurogroup. At this stage, we invite the Eurogroup to present proposals to us within two weeks.

At a time like this that seems a lot more than just leisurely. From the US Department of Labor.

In the week ending March 21, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 3,283,000, an increase of 3,001,000 from the previous week’s revised level. This marks the highest level of seasonally adjusted initial claims in the history of the seasonally adjusted series. The previous high was 695,000 in October of 1982.

That is for the US and not the Euro area but it does give us a handle on the size of the economic shock reverberating around the world. If it was a drum beat then it would require Keith Moon to play it.

Italy

We have some economic news from Italy but before I get to it we were updated this month by the IMF.

Compared to the staff report, staff have revised the growth forecast for 2020 down from about ½ percent to about ‒½ percent.

Actually that’s what we thought before all this. Please fell free to laugh at the next bit.

Altogether, staff projects an overall deficit of 2.6 percent of GDP in 2020

At some point they do seem to get a grip but then lose it in the medium-term.

Given the escalated lockdown measures and the wider
outbreak across Europe, there is a high risk of a notably weaker outturn. Growth over the medium term is projected at around 0.7 percent, although this too is subject to uncertainty about the duration and extent of the crisis.

I have long been critical of these long-term forecasts which frankly do more to reflect the author’s own personal biases than any likely reality.

If we switch to the Statistics Office we were told this earlier.

In March 2020, the consumer confidence climate slumped from 110.9 to 101.0. The heavy deterioration affected all index components. More specifically, the economic climate plummeted from 121.9 to 96.2, the personal one deteriorated from 107.8 to 102.4, the current one went down from 110.6 to 104.8 and, finally, the future one collapsed from 112.0 to 94.8.

Grim numbers indeed and as they only went up to the 13th of this month we would expect them to be even worse now.

Also there was something of a critique of the Markit IHS manufacturing numbers from earlier this week as this is much worse than indicated there.

The confidence index in manufacturing drastically reduced passing from 98.8 to 89.5. The assessments on order books fell from -15.6 to -23.9 and the expectations on production dropped from 0.7 to -17.1.

Retail too was hit hard.

The retail trade confidence index plummeted from 106.9 to 97.4. The drastic worsening affected in particular the expectations on future business whose balance tumbled from 28.0 to -9.4.

Comment

I have so far avoided the issue of Eurobonds or as they have been rebranded Corona Bonds. Mario Draghi wrote a piece in the Financial Times essentially arguing for them but there are clear issues. One is the grip on reality being displayed.

In some respects, Europe is well equipped to deal with this extraordinary shock. It has a granular financial structure able to channel funds to every part of the economy that needs it. It has a strong public sector able to co-ordinate a rapid policy response. Speed is absolutely essential for effectiveness.

Can we really see the Italian banking sector for example doing this?

And it has to be done immediately, avoiding bureaucratic delays. Banks in particular extend across the entire economy and can create money instantly by allowing overdrafts or opening credit facilities.  Banks must rapidly lend funds at zero cost to companies prepared to save jobs.

As to the general precept I agree that people and businesses need help but Mario is rather hoist by his own petard here. After all he and his colleagues wrote out a prescription of negative interest-rates and wide scale QE. There was some boasting about a Euroboom which quickly faded. Now the Euro area faces the consequences as for example the Euro exchange rate is boosted as carry trades ( to take advantage of negative interest-rates) get reversed.

Meanwhile according to his former colleague Vitor Constancio negative interest-rates are nothing to do with those who voted for them apparently.

You have certainly noticed that market interest rates have been going down for 40 years, well long before CBs were doing QE and buying investment grade bonds.

If so should they hand their salary back?

Let me express my sympathy for those suffering in Italy and elsewhere at this time.