It is party time at The Tokyo Whale as the Japanese stock market surges

Sometimes you have to wait for things and be patient and this morning has seen an example of that. If we look east to the and of the rising sun we see that it has been a while since it was at the level below.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 stock index closed on Friday at its highest level since November 1991 as individual investors bought up the shares of blue-chip companies at the expense of smaller, more speculative groups. The benchmark, which has been described by some analysts as a “barbarous relic” but remains the favourite yardstick of Japanese retail investors, was propelled to its 29-year high by resurgent stocks like Sony, SoftBank and Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing.

That is from the Financial Times over the weekend and its Japanese owners will no doubt be pointing out that it should be covering this morning’s further rally.

Investing.com – Japan stocks were higher after the close on Monday, as gains in the Paper & PulpRailway & Bus and Real Estate sectors led shares higher.

At the close in Tokyo, the Nikkei 225 rose 2.12% to hit a new 5-year high.

Curiously Investing.com does not seem to have spotted that we have not been here for much longer than 5 years. The market even challenged 25,000 but did not quite make it.

There was something familiar about this but also something new as the FT explained.

Mizuho Securities chief equity strategist Masatoshi Kikuchi said that the Nikkei’s move was driven by individual investors using leverage to magnify their potential returns and losses — a much larger and more active group since the Covid-19 pandemic restricted millions to their homes and prompted many to open online trading accounts.

The Japanese are savers and investors hence the Mrs. Watanabe stereotype but the gearing here reminds us of the Robinhood style investors in the US as well.

The Tokyo Whale

As ever if we look below the surface there has been much more going on and we can start at the Bank of Japan which regular readers will be aware has been buying equities for a while now.Also it increased its purchases in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in two ways. It did not just buy on down days and it also increased its clip size.

For the time being, it would actively purchase ETFs and J-REITs so that their amounts outstanding would increase
at annual paces with the upper limit of about 12 trillion yen and about 180 billion yen, respectively. ( Bank of Japan Minutes)

In October it bought 70 billion Yen’s worth on six occasions and on three days in a row from the 28th. If we recall that world stock markets were falling back then we find ourselves noting the most extreme version of a central bank put option for equity markets we have seen so far. Indeed this is confirmed in the Minutes.

With a view to lowering risk premia of asset prices in an appropriate manner, the Bank might increase or
decrease the amount of purchases, depending on market conditions.

What is appropriate and how do they decide? This morning’s summary of opinions release suggests that some at the Bank of Japan are troubled by all of this. The emphasis is mine.

It is necessary to continue with active purchases of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and Japan real estate investment trusts (J-REITs) for the time being. However, given that monetary easing is expected to be prolonged, the Bank should further look for ways to enhance sustainability of the policy measure so that it will not face difficulty in conducting such purchases when a lowering of risk premia of asset prices is absolutely necessary.

As “monetary easing” has been going on for around 3 decades now it has already been very prolonged. I wonder on what grounds they would regard it as “absolutely necessary” to reduce the value of its large equity holdings. As of the end of October it had bought some 34,771,759,339,000 Yen of it.

Rather curiously the Bank of Japan share price has not responded to the rise in value of its equity holdings. Yes it was up 1.9% today to 26,780 but that is a long way short of the 220,000 or so of November 1991.

The Bank is a juridical person established based on the Bank of Japan Act. Its stated capital is 100 million yen. The issued share capital is owned by the government (55 percent) and the private sector (45 percent).

Abenomics

There is something of an irony in this landmark being reached after Prime Minister Abe has left office. Because as well as the explicit equity buying effort above there were a lot of implicit boosts for the equity market from what became called Abenomics. Back in November 2012 I put it like this.

Also the Japanese stock market has had a good couple of days in response to this and has got back above the 9000 level on the Nikkei 225 at a time when other stock markets have fallen.

As you can see the market has been singing along to Chic in the Abenomics era.

Good times, these are the good times
Leave your cares behind, these are the good times
Good times, these are the good times
Our new state of mind, these are the good times
Happy days are here again
The time is right for makin’ friends.

We have seen interest-rates reduced into negative territory and the Bank of Japan gorge itself on Japanese Government Bonds both of which make any equity dividends more attractive. Also there was the Abenomics “arrow” designed to reduce the value of the Japanese Yen and make Japan’s exporters more competitive. Often the Japanese stock market is the reverse of that day’s move in the Yen but in reverse so Yen down means stick market up.

The latter gave things quite a push at first as the exchange-rate to the US Dollar went from 78 into the mid 120s for a while. However in more recent times the Yen has been mimicking The Terminator by saying “I’ll be back” and is at 103.60 as I type this. There is a lot of food for thought here on the impact of QE on a currency but for our purposes today we see that the currency is weaker but by much less than one might have thought.

Comment

The Japanese stock market has recently received boost from other influences. For example what is becoming called the “Biden Bounce” has seen the Nikkei 225 rally by around 8% in a week. Also this morning’s data with the leading indicator for September rising to 92.9 will have helped. But also we have seen an extraordinary effort by the Japanese state to get the market up over the past 8 years. In itself it has been a success but it does raise problems.

The first is that Japan’s economic problems have not gone away as a result of this. Even if we out the Covid pandemic to one side the economy was struggling in response to the Consumption Tax rise of last autumn. The official objective of raising the inflation rate has got no nearer and the “lost decade” rumbles on. The 0.1% have got a lot wealthier though.

Then there is the issue of an exit strategy, because if The Tokyo Whale stops buying and the market drops there are two problems. First for the value of the Bank of Japan’s holdings and next for the economy itself. So as so often we find ourselves singing along with Elvis Presley.

We’re caught in a trap
I can’t walk out
Because I love you too much, baby

Meanwhile on a personal level I recall these days as I worked for Barings pre collapse.

Baring Nikkei options in the money now! ( @WildboyMarkets)

Indeed I had an indirect role as there were 4 of us on the futures and options desk and we feared trouble and left. So they promoted Nick Leeson from the back office and what happened next became famous even leading to a film.

Podcast

 

Another hint of negative interest-rates from the Bank of England

The weekend just gone has provided another step or two in the dance being played out by the Bank of England on negative interest-rates. It was provided by external member Silvana Tenreyro in an interview published by The Telegraph on Saturday night. Perhaps she was unaware she was giving an interview to a media organisation with a paywall but this continued a poor recent trend of Bank of England policymakers making some more equal than others. As a recipient of a public salary interviews like this should be available to all and not some but it is not on the Bank of England website.

As to her views they were really rather extraordinary so let us investigate.

LONDON (Reuters) – The Bank of England’s investigation into whether negative rates might help the British economy through its current downturn has found “encouraging” evidence, policymaker Silvana Tenreyro said in an interview published late on Saturday.

It is not the fact that she may well vote for negative interest-rates that is a surprise as after all she told us this back on the 15th of July.

In June I therefore voted with the majority of the MPC to increase our stock of asset purchases. Lower gilt
yields and higher asset prices induced by QE will lead to some aggregate demand stimulus, although the low
prevailing level of the yield curve may reduce the impact somewhat, relative to some of the MPC’s previous
asset purchase announcements. As with the rest of the committee, I remain ready to vote for further action
as necessary to support the economy and ensure inflation returns to target.

So she voted for more QE ( Quantitative Easing ) bond purchases in spite of the fact that she felt the extra £100 billion would have a weaker impact than previous tranches. This means that with UK bond or Gilt yields continuing to be low and in some cases negative ( out to around 6/7 years in terms of maturity) then in any downturn that only really leaves lower interest-rates. As they are already a mere 0.1% that means a standard move of 0.25% would leave us at -0.15%

Something Extraordinary

I am pocking this out as even from a central bank Ivory Tower it is quite something.

Tenreyro said evidence from the euro zone and Japan showed that cutting interest rates below zero had succeeded in reducing companies’ borrowing costs and did not make it unprofitable for banks to lend.

Let me start with the latter point which is about it being profitable for banks to lend in a time of negative interest-rates. This is news to ECB Vice-President De Guindos who told us this last November.

Let me start with euro area banks, which have been reporting persistently low profitability in recent years. The aggregate return on equity of the sector slightly declined to less than 6% in the 12 months to June 2019. This weak performance is broad-based, with around 75% of significant banks generating returns below the 8% benchmark return demanded by investors for holding bank equity.

He went further that day and the emphasis is mine

The recent softening of the macroeconomic growth outlook and the associated low-for-longer interest rate environment are likely to weigh further on their profitability prospects. Many market analysts are concerned about the drag on bank profitability that could result from the negative impact of monetary policy accommodation on net interest margins. And net interest margins are indeed under pressure.

If we fast forward to last week there is this from Peter Bookvar on Twitter.

A chart of the Euro STOXX bank stock index. Record low. Please stop calling central bank policy ‘stimulus.’ It is ‘restrictive’ if it kills off profitability of banks.

Or there was this.

PARIS (Reuters) – Societe Generale (PA:SOGN) is considering merging its two French retail networks in an attempt to boost profitability, after two consecutive quarterly losses due to poor trading results.

We do not often look at the French banks who have mostly moved under the radar but there is “trouble,trouble,trouble” ( h/t Taylor Swift) here too.

Shares in SocGen were up 1.2% to 11.9 euros at 0843 GMT, just above their lowest level in 27 years of 11.3 euros, after it said the review would be completed by the end of November.

So profitability is fine but share prices have collapsed? I guess Silvana must have an equity portfolio full of banks waiting for her triumph. Remember the ECB is presently throwing money at the banks by offering them money at -1% in an attempt to offset the problems created by negative interest-rates.

Another way of looking at bank stress was the surge in access to the US Federal Reserve Dollar liquidity swaps post March 19th. We saw the ECB and Bank of Japan leading the charge on behalf of banks in their jurisdictions. Intermediaries were unwilling to lend US Dollars to them as they feared they were in trouble which again contradicts our Silvana.

As to companies borrowing costs they have fallen although there have been other factors at play. For example the bond purchases of the ECB will have implictly helped bu lowering yields and making corporate bonds more attractive. Also it has bought 233 billion Euros of corporate bonds which in itself suggests more was felt to be needed. Actually some 289 billion Euros of bank covered bonds have been bought which returns us to The Precious! The Precious!

Tractor Production is rising

Apparently all of that means this.

“The evidence has been encouraging,” she said, adding that cuts in interest rates below zero had been almost fully reflected in reductions in interest rates charged to borrowers.

“Banks adapted well – their profitability increased with negative rates largely because impairments and loss provisions have decreased with the boost to activity and the increase in asset prices,” she said.

This really is the banking equivalent of Comical Ali or in football terms like saying Chelsea have a secure defence.

Comment

The picture here is getting ever more fuzzy. I have no issue with policymakers having different views and in fact welcome it. But I do have an issue with claims that are simply rubbish like the Silvana Tenreyro one that bank profitability has not been affected by negative interest-rates. Even one of her colleagues is correcting what is simply a matter of fact.

BOE’S RAMSDEN: ENGAGEMENT WITH BANKS ON NEGATIVE RATES WILL TAKE TIME……….BOE’S RAMSDEN: RATES ON RETAIL DEPOSITS TEND NOT TO FALL BELOW ZERO WHICH IS RELEVANT IN UK CONTEXT AFTER RING-FENCING…….BOE’S RAMSDEN: I SEE THE EFFECTIVE LOWER BOUND STILL AT 0.1%. ( @FinancialJuice)

However as is often the way with central banks he seems to be clinging to a theory that died over a decade ago.

BOE’S RAMSDEN: I STILL THINK THERE IS LIFE IN THE PHILLIPS CURVE, THE SLOPE MAY HAVE FLATTENED.

Later we will hear from Governor Bailey who only last week was trying to end the negative interest-rate rumours that he had begun. Oh Well!

Still there is one thing we can all agree on.

BOE’S RAMSDEN: THE BURDEN OF PROOF FOR ANY FUTURE RISE IN INTEREST RATES WILL BE HIGH.

Too high…..

Continuing a theme of agreement let me support one part of the Tenreyro interview.

“Flare-ups like we’re seeing may potentially lead to more localised lockdowns and will keep interrupting that V(-shaped recovery).”

Meanwhile these  days the main player are  bond yields making the official rate ever less important. Why? The vast majority of new mortgages are at fixed interest-rates and with fiscal policy being deployed on such a scale they matter directly.

Podcast

The rise and rise of negative interest-rates

The modern era has brought something that has been in motion all my career, although there have been spells which did not feel like that. I am discussing bond yields which have been in a secular decline since the 1980s. Regular readers will be aware that back when I was new to this arena I asked Legal and General why they were buying a UK Gilt that yielded 15%? Younger readers please feel free to delete such a number from your memories if it is all too much. But there is another shift as back then the benchmark was 20 years and not 10. However you look at it from that perspective a world in which both the 2 and 5 year UK bond or Gilt yields were around -0.13% would have been considered impossible it not unpossible.

Germany

These have been the leaders of the pack in terms of negative bond yields. Last week Germany sold a benchmark 10 year bond with no coupon at all. We should take a moment to consider this as a bond is in theory something with a yield or coupon so as it does not have one we are merely left with money being borrowed and then repaid. Except there was a catch there too as not all of it will be repaid. The price paid was 105.13 on average and you will only get 100 back. Or if you prefer a negative yield of the order of 0.5% per year.

This year has brought something that in the past would have ended the situation as this.

The German Federal Government intends to issue fixed income Government securities with an aggregate volume of € 210 billion in 2020 to finance
the Federal Government budget and its special funds.

Became this.

The auction volume in the first two quarters of the current year amounted to € 97 billion for nominal capital market instruments (planned at the beginning of the year: € 78 billion) and € 87.5 billion for money market instruments (planned at the beginning of the year: € 31 billion)…….Due to the adjustments, the third quarter auction volume for nominal capital market instruments will total € 74 billion (planned at the beginning of the year: € 41 billion).

As you can see there were considerably more bonds on offer but it has made little or no difference to investors willingness to accept a maturity loss or negative yield. Oh and maybe even more bonds are on the way.

In non-regular reopenings on 1 and 16 April, a total amount of € 142 billion of already existing Federal securities was issued directly into the Federal government’s own holdings. These transactions created the possibility to react flexibly to short-term liquidity requirements.

So we learn that the previous reality that Germany was benefiting from its austere approach to public finances was not much of an influence. Previously it has been running a fiscal surplus and repaying debt.

Switzerland

The benchmark yield is very similar here as the 10 year yield is -0.49%. There are many similarities in the situation between Germany and Switzerland but one crucial difference which is that Switzerland has its own currency. The Swiss Franc remains very strong in spite of an interest-rate of -0.75% that has begun to look ever more permanent which is an irony as the 1.20 exchange-rate barrier with the Euro was supposed to be that. The reality is that the exchange-rate over five years after the abandonment of that is stronger at just below 1.08.

So a factor in what we might call early mover status is a strong currency. This also includes the Euro to some extent as we note ECB President Lagarde was on the wires over the weekend.

ECB Lagarde Says Euro Gains Have Blunted Stimulus Boost to Inflation … BBG

This allows us to bring in Japan as well as the Yen has remained strong in spite of all the bond buying of the Bank of Japan.

Safe Haven

The ECB issued a working paper on this subject in January.

There is growing academic and policy interest in so called “safe assets”, that is assets that have stable nominal payoffs, are highly liquid and carry minimal credit risk.

Notice the two swerves which are the use of “stable nominal payoffs” and “minimal credit risk”. The latter is especially noticeable for a place like the ECB which insisted there was no credit risk for Greece, which was true for the ECB but not everyone else.

Anyway it continues.

After the global financial crisis, the demand for safe assets has increased well beyond its supply, leading to an increase in the convenience yield and therefore to the interest that these assets pay. High demand for safe assets has important macroeconomic consequences. The equilibrium safe real interest rate may in fact decline well below zero.

They also note a feature we have been looking at for the best part of a decade now.

In this situation, one of the adjustment mechanisms is the appreciation of the currency of issuance of the safe asset, the so called paradox of the reserve currency.

Quantitative Easing

The problem for the theory above is that the central banks who love to push such theories ( as it absolves them of blame) are of course chomping on safe assets like they are their favourite sweets. Indeed there is a new entrant only this morning, or more accurately an expansion from an existing player.

The Executive Board of the Riksbank has decided to initiate purchases of corporate bonds in the week beginning 14 September 2020. The purchases will keep
companies’ funding costs down and reinforce the Riksbank’s capacity to act if the credit supply to companies were to deteriorate further as a result of the corona pandemic. On 30 June 2020, the Executive Board decided that, within its programme for bond purchases, the Riksbank would offer to purchase corporate bonds to a
nominal amount of SEK 10 billion between 1 September 2020 and 30 June 2021.

There are all sorts of issues with that but for today’s purpose it is simply that the push towards negative interest-rates will be added to. Or more specifically it will increasingly spread to higher risk assets. We can be sure however that should some of these implode it will be nobody’s fault as it could not possibly have been predicted.

Meanwhile ordinary purchases around the world continue including in my home country as the Bank of England buys another £1.45 billion of UK bonds or Gilts.

Comment

There are other factors in play. The first is that we need to try to look beyond the present situation as we note this from The Market Ear.

the feedback loop…”the more governments borrow, the less it seems to cost – giving rise to calls for still more borrowing and spending”. ( Citibank)

That misses out the scale of all the central bank buying which has been enormous and gets even larger if we factor in expected purchases. The US Federal Reserve is buying US $80 billion per month of US Treasuries but with its announcement of average inflation targeting seems likely to buy many more

Also the same Market Ear piece notes this.

The scalability of modern technology means that stimulus is going into asset price inflation, not CPI

Just no. What it means is that consumer inflation measures have been manipulated to avoid showing inflation in certain areas. Thus via Goodhart’s Law and/or the Lucas Critique we get economic policy based on boosting prices in these areas and claiming they are Wealth Effects when for many they are inflation.

We get another shift because if we introduce the issue of capital we see that up to know bond holders will not care much about negative yields as they have been having quite a party. Prices have soared beyond many’s wildest dreams. The rub as Shakespeare would put it is that going forwards we face existing high prices and low or negative yields. It used to be the job of central banks to take the punch bowl away when the party gets going but these days they pour more alcohol in the bowl.

Meanwhile from Friday.

UK SELLS 6-MONTH TREASURY BILL WITH NEGATIVE YIELD AT TENDER, FIRST TIME 6-MONTH BILL SOLD AT NEGATIVE YIELD ( @fiquant )

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Wages growth looks an increasing problem

Today gives us an opportunity to take a look at an issue which has dogged the credit crunch era. It is the (lack of) growth in wages and in particular real wages which has meant that even before the Covid-19 pandemic they had not regained the previous peak. That is one of the definitions of an economic depression which may well be taking a further turn for the worse. It has been a feature also of the lost decade(s) in Japan so we have another Turning Japanese flavour to this.

Japan

The Ministry of Labor released the July data earlier and here is how NHK News reported it.

New figures from the Japanese government show that both wages and household spending fell in July from a year earlier amid a resurgence in the coronavirus pandemic.

Labor ministry data show that average total wages were down 1.3 percent in yen terms from a year ago, to 3,480 dollars. It was the fourth straight monthly drop.

Overtime and other non-regular pay dropped nearly 17 percent, as workers put in shorter hours.

A ministry official says that despite some improvements, the situation remains serious because of the pandemic.

I find it curious that NHK switches from Yen to US Dollars but I suppose it has not been that volatile in broad terns in recent times. That is awkward for the Abenomics policy of Prime Minister Abe which of course may be on the way out. It was supposed to produce a falling Yen. Also it was supposed to produce higher wages which as you can see are falling.

The issue here is summarised by Japan Macro Advisers.

Wages in Japan have been decreasing relatively steadily since 1998. Between 1997-2019, wages have declined by 10.9%, or by 0.5% per year on average (based on the data before the revision).

The Abenomics push was another disappointment as summarised by this from The Japan Times in May 2019.

Japan’s labor market has achieved full employment over the past two years. Unemployment has declined over the past two years to below 3 percent—close to the levels of the 1980s and early 1990s—after peaking at 5.4 percent in 2012…………..The puzzling thing is why wage growth has been so sluggish despite the apparent labor shortage. It is true that average wages turned positive in 2014 and increased 1.4 percent in 2018. Nonetheless, regular pay, or permanent income, rose a paltry 0.8 percent in 2018. In real terms, average wage growth has failed to take off and recorded just 0.2 percent in 2018.

That is in fact a rather optimistic view of it all because if we switch to real wages we see that the index set at 100 in 2015 was 99.9 last year. So rather than the triumph which many financial news services have regularly anticipated it has turned out to be something of a road to nowhere. Any believers in “output gap” theories have to ignore the real world one more time.

The Japanese owned Financial Times has put its own spin on it.

“Buy my Abenomics!” urged Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2013. And we did.

No we did not. Anyway their story of triumph which unsurprisingly has quite a list of failures also notes this about wages.

Nor was this the only way Abenomics undermined its own credibility. For example, the government never raised public sector wages in line with the 2 per cent inflation target. Why, then, should the private sector have heeded Mr Abe’s demand for wage increases?

If only places like the FT had reported that along the way. But the real issue here for our purposes is that even in what were supposed to be good times real wages went nowhere. So now we are in much rougher times we see a year where they fall and we note that this adds to a fall last year. Indeed partly by fluke the fall for July is very similar to last year, but we look ahead nervously because if wages had already turned down we seem set for falls again.

Detail

In terms of numbers average pay was 369.551 Yen in July and a fair bit or 106.608 Yen is bonuses ( special cash earnings). The highest paid is the professional and technical one at 542,571 and the lowest is hotels and restaurants at 124,707 Yen. Sadly for the latter not only do they get relatively little it is also falling ( 7.3%)

Somewhat chilling is that not only is the real estare sector well paid at 481.373 Yen it is up 12.3% driven by bonuses some 30% higher. So maybe they are turning British. Also any improvement in the numbers relies on real estate bonuses.

The UK

The latest real wage numbers pose a question.

For June 2020, average regular pay, before tax and other deductions, for employees in Great Britain was estimated at £504 per week in nominal terms. The figure in real terms (constant 2015 prices) fell to £465 per week in June, after reaching £473 per week in December 2019, with pay in real terms back at the same level as it was in December 2018.

The real pay number started this century at £403 per week but the pattern is revealing as we made £473 per week on occasion in 2007 and 2008. So we were doing well and that ended.

Actually if we switch from the Office for National Statistics presentation we have lost ground since 2008. This is because the have flattered the numbers in two respects. One if the choice of regular pay rather than total pay and the other is the choice of the imputed rent driven CPIH inflation measure that is so widely ignored.

The US

There was something of a curiosity here on Friday.

In August, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 11
cents to $29.47. Average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory
employees increased by 18 cents to $24.81, following a decrease of 10 cents in the prior month.

If you do not believe tat then you are in good company as neither does the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The large employment fluctuations over the past several months–especially in industries with
lower-paid workers–complicate the analysis of recent trends in average hourly earnings.

If we look back this from the World Economic Forum speaks for itself.

today’s wages in the United States are at a historically high level with average hourly earnings in March 2019 amounting to $23.24 in 2019 dollars. Coincidentally that matches the longtime peak of March 1974, when hourly wages adjusted to 2019 dollars amounted to exactly the same sum.

Comment

There has been an issue with real wages for a while as the US, UK and Japanese data illustrate.The US data aims right at the end of the Gold Standard and Bretton Woods doesn’t it? That begs more than a few questions. But with economies lurching lower as we see Japanese GDP growth being confirmed at around 8% in the second quarter and the Euro area at around 12%. Also forecasts of pick-ups are colliding with new Covid-19 issues such as travel bans and quarantines. So real wages look set to decline again.

The next issue is how we measure this? The numbers have been shown to be flawed as they do not provide context. What I mean by this is that we need numbers for if you stay in the same job and ones for those switching. If we look at the US we see recorded wage growth because those already having the disadvantage of lower wages not have none at all as they have lost their job. That is worse and not better. This opens out a wider issue where switches to lower paid jobs and lower real wages are like a double-edged sword. People have a job giving us pre pandemic low unemployment rates and high employment rates. But I would want a breakdown as many have done well but new entrants have not.

There has been a contrary move which has not been well measured which are services in the modern era which get heavy use but do not get counted in this because they are free. Some money may get picked up by advertising spend but to add to the problem we have we are also guilty of measuring it badly

Meet the new Inflation era same as the old inflation era….

Yesterday brought news about inflation targeting but before we get to what you might think is the headline act, it has been trumped by Prime Minister Abe of Japan. Before I get to that let me wish him well with his health issues. But he also said this in his resignation speech.

JAPAN PM ABE ON ECONOMIC POLICY: WE HAVE SUCCEEDED IN BOOSTING JOBS, ENDING 20 YEARS OF DEFLATION WITH THREE ARROWS OF ABENOMICS. ( @FinancialJuice)

You might think that this is almost at a comical Ali level of denial at this point. For those unaware this was the Iraqi information minister who denied Amercan soldiers were in Baghdad when well I think you have figured the rest. Even the BBC is providing an opposite view to that of Abe san.

The Japanese economy has shrunk at its fastest rate on record as it battles the coronavirus pandemic.

The world’s third largest economy saw gross domestic product fall 7.8% in April-June from the previous quarter, or 27.8% on an annualised basis.

Japan was already struggling with low economic growth before the crisis.

The current situation is bad enough but even if we give him a pass on that there is that rather damning last sentence. Let me give you some context on that. You could argue the 0.6% contraction in the Japanese economy was also Covid related but you cannot argue that the 1.8% contraction at the end of last year was. Indeed the quarter before that was 0%.

So Japan had not escaped deflation and in fact the problems at the end of last year were created by an Abenomics arrow missing the target. People forget now but the economic growth that Abenomics was supposedly going to create was badged as a cure for the chronic fiscal problem faced by Japan. In fact the lack of growth and hence revenue was a factor in the Consumption Tax being raised to 10%. Which of course gave growth another knock.

Inflation

Another arrow was supposed to lead to inflation magically rising to 2% per annum. How is that going? From the Statistics Bureau this morning.

 The consumer price index for Ku-area of Tokyo in August 2020 (preliminary) was 102.1 (2015=100), up 0.3% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and down 0.4% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

So it has taken five years and not one to hit 2%. For newer readers that was also the pre pandemic picture in Japan and it has mostly been possible to argue that there is effectively no inflation because the low levels are within any margin for error.

Also as a point of detail there is even more bad news for inflationistas which is that something which they clain cannot happen with zero inflation has. If you look in the detail food prices have risen by 7% and the cost of education has fallen by 7%, so you can have relative price changes. Looking at the national numbers it has been a rough run for fans of Salmon and carrots as prices have risen by more than 50% over the past 5 years.

The US Federal Reserve

The speech by Chair Powell opened with what may turn out to be an unfortunate historical reference.

Forty years ago, the biggest problem our economy faced was high and rising inflation. The Great Inflation demanded a clear focus on restoring the credibility of the FOMC’s commitment to price stability.

It is hard to know where to start with this bit.

Many find it counterintuitive that the Fed would want to push up inflation. After all, low and stable inflation is essential for a well-functioning economy. And we are certainly mindful that higher prices for essential items, such as food, gasoline, and shelter, add to the burdens faced by many families, especially those struggling with lost jobs and incomes.

I will simply point out that I am pleased to see a recognition that what are usually described by central bankers as “non-core” such as food and energy are suddenly essential. Perhaps the threats ( from The Donald) about him losing his job have focused his mind, although he would remain an extremely wealthy man.

He then got himself into quite a mess.

 Our statement emphasizes that our actions to achieve both sides of our dual mandate will be most effective if longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored at 2 percent. However, if inflation runs below 2 percent following economic downturns but never moves above 2 percent even when the economy is strong, then, over time, inflation will average less than 2 percent. Households and businesses will come to expect this result, meaning that inflation expectations would tend to move below our inflation goal and pull realized inflation down.

This really does come from the highest of Ivory Towers where the air is thinnest. Many households and businesses will not even know who he and his colleagues are! Let alone plan ahead on the basis of what they might do especially after the flip-flopping of the last couple of years. Even worse the 2% per annum target which was pretty much pulled out of thin air has become a Holy Grail.

This next bit was frankly not a little embarrassing.

In seeking to achieve inflation that averages 2 percent over time, we are not tying ourselves to a particular mathematical formula that defines the average. Thus, our approach could be viewed as a flexible form of average inflation targeting.

So it is an average but without the average bit?

Canada

This week the Bank of Canada inadvertently highlighted a major problem. It starts with this.

Deputy Governor Lawrence Schembri discusses the difference between how Canadians perceive inflation and the actual measured rate.

You see we are back to you ( and I mean us by this) do not know what you are paying and we ( central bankers know better). Except it all went wrong in a predictable area.

Over the last two decades, the price of houses has risen on average more than twice as fast as the price of housing, at a rate of 6 percent versus 2.5 percent.

There is the issue in a nutshell. Your average Canadian has to shell out an extra 6% each year for a house but according to Lawrence and his calculations it is only 2.5%. Someone should give him a pot of money based on his calculations and tell him to go and buy one.

The Euro area

We looked at variations in the price of Nutella recently well according to The Economist there are other issues.

 Three enormous boxes of Pampers come to €168 ($198) on Amazon’s Spanish website. By contrast, the same order from Amazon’s British website costs only €74. (Even after an exorbitant delivery fee is added, the saving is still €42.)

This happens even inside the Euro area.

The swankiest Nespresso model will set them back €460 on Amazon’s French website, but can be snapped up for €301 on the German version. They could then boast about their canny shopping on Samsung’s newest phone, which varies in price by up to €300 depending on which domain is used.

I point this out because official inflation measurement relies on “substitution” where if the price rises you switch to something similar which is cheaper. But if people do not do this for the same thing inn the real world we are back in our Ivory Towers again.

Comment

Firstly we can award ourselves a small slap on the back as we were expecting this. From the movements in the Gold price ( down) and bond yields (up) far from everybody was. If we note the latter there are two serious problems for Chair Powell. The first is that if there is a body of people on this earth who follow his every word it is bond traders and they were to some extent off the pace. Thus all exposition about expectations above is exposed as this.

Every man has a place, in his heart there’s a space,
And the world can’t erase his fantasies
Take a ride in the sky, on our ship fantasii
All your dreams will come true, right away ( Earth,Wind & Fire )

Next is that if you take the policy at face value bond yields should have risen by far more than the 0.1% the long bond did. They did not rise by the 0.5% to 1% you might expect for two possible reasons.

  1. Nobody expected the Fed to raise interest-rates for years anyway so what is the difference?
  2. If there is a policy change it is mostly likely to be more QE treasury bond purchases which will depress bond yields.

So back to the expectations we see that the Fed is responding to expectations it has created. What could go wrong? Putting it another way it is living a combination of Goodhart’s Law and the Lucas Critique.

I brought in the Japanese experience because it has made an extraordinary effort in monetary policy terms but the economy was shrinking before Covid-19 and there was essentially no inflation.

However the stock market ( Nikkei 225) has nearly trebled since Abenomics was seen as likely. Oh and the Bank of Japan has essentially financed the government borrowing.

Podcast

 

GDP in Japan goes back to 2010 in another lost decade

Today we get to look East to the land of the rising sun or Nihon as we note its latest economic output figures. According to the Japanese owned Financial Times we should look at them like this.

Japan’s GDP decline less severe than US and Europe

Of course as we are looking at a country where the concept of the “Lost Decade” began in 1990 and is now heading into number 4 of them we need to be careful about which period we are looking at.

Japan’s economy shrank by a record 7.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2020 as it outperformed the US and Europe but lagged behind neighbouring South Korea and Taiwan in its response to coronavirus.

Okay so better than us in the West but not as good as its eastern competitors. Also I note that it relies quite a bit on seasonal adjustment when we have just had an economic season unlike any other as without it GDP fell by 9.9%.

Returning to the seasonally adjusted data we see a consequence of being an exporter at a time like this.

A fall in private consumption accounted for 4.8 percentage points of the decline in Japan’s GDP as the state of emergency reduced spending in shops and restaurants, while a large drop in exports accounted for the remaining 3 percentage points.

This is because exports fell by 18.5% with imports barely affected ( -0.5%) so there was a plunge in exports on a scale large enough to reduce GDP by 3%. Actually let me correct the FT here as it was domestic demand which fell by 4.8% with private consumption accounting for 4.5% and investment for 0.2% and the government sector not doing much at all. You may be pleased to read that Imputed Rent had only a minor impact on the quarterly change.

A cautionary note is that Japanese GDP data is particularly prone to revision or as the FT puts it.

Business investment was surprisingly strong, however, and contributed just 0.2 percentage points to the overall decline in output. That figure is often revised in updates to the data, but if confirmed, it would suggest resilience in the underlying economy and potential for a strong rebound.

International Comparison

Regular readers will know that due to the extraordinary move in the UK GDP Deflator ( the inflation measure for this area) of 6.2% in a single quarter our GDP fall may well have been more like 15%. Somehow the FT which is often very enthusiatic about combing through UK data has missed this.

The second-quarter decline in Japan’s GDP was comparable to a 9.5 per cent fall in the US during the same period, or a 10.1 per cent drop in Germany. It was less severe than the drop of more than 20 per cent in the UK, which was late to act but then imposed a severe lockdown. However, Japan did worse than neighbouring South Korea, where output fell 3.3 per cent in the second quarter, or Taiwan, where GDP was down just 0.7 per cent. Both countries managed to control the virus without extensive lockdowns, allowing their economies to function more normally.

It is typical of a Japanese owned publication to trumpet a form of national superiority though.

Japan’s performance relative to other advanced countries highlights how the effectiveness of a country’s coronavirus response affects the economy, with Japan forced to close schools but able to avoid the strict lockdowns used in Europe.

However, only time will tell whether that was more of a tactical than a strategic success.

Japan is suffering an increase in infections, with new cases running at more than 1,000 a day, but it has not imposed a fresh state of emergency.

Let me wish anyone who is ill a speedy recovery.

Context

The initial one is the economic output has now fallen in the last 3 quarters. Following the rise in Consumption Tax from 8% to 10% a decline was expected but now.of course, it looks really badly timed. Although in the period of the Lost Decade there is a bit of a shortage of good times to do such a thing.

Japan has if we look at the seasonally adjusted series gone back the beginning of 2010 and the middle of 2011 which was the same level.It has never achieved the “escape velocity” talked about by former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney.

Bank of Japan

The problem for it is that it was already doing so much or as the Red Queen put it.

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”

I noted Bloomberg reporting that it owns so 44% of the Japanese Government Bond market these days. Although there is an element of Alice In Wonderland here as via its stimulus programmes the Japanese government will be issuing ever more of them.

In May, the Japanese government approved a second large-scale ¥117tn ($1.1n or 21% of Japan’s GDP) economic rescue package, matching the size of the first stimulus introduced in April. ( OMFIF).

So there will be plenty more to buy so we can expect full employment to be maintained for the bond buyers at the Bank of Japan.

On a gross basis, the government plans to issue close to ¥253tn ($2.3tn) in government bonds and treasury bills in fiscal year 2020 (ending March 2021). This amount combines issues under all three budgetary plans. Excluding refinancing bonds, the net issuance of government bonds is reduced to almost ¥145tn (about 27% of GDP). This includes close to 4% of front-loaded bond issues from future fiscal years and is the largest net issuance in the post-world war II era.

Next there is its role as The Tokyo Whale to consider.

This phase saw the Bank of Japan buy on up as well as down days and the index it looks to match is the Nikkei 400.

There is also the negative interest-rate of -0.1% which I do not think the Bank of Japan has ever been especially keen on which is why it is only -0.1%. After all the years of propping up the banks we can’t have them failing again can we.

The latest move as is so often the case has echoes of the past so let me hand you over to Governor Kuroda.

The first is the Special Program to support corporate financing. The total size of this program is about 120 trillion yen. It consists of purchases of CP and corporate bonds with the upper limit of about 20 trillion yen and the Special Funds-Supplying Operations, which can amount to 100 trillion yen. Through this operation, the Bank provides funds on favorable terms to financial institutions that make loans in response to COVID-19. This operation also includes a scheme in which the government takes the credit risk while the Bank provides liquidity, thereby supporting financing together.

Comment

Japan is a mass of contradictions as we note that annual GDP was higher in the mid 1990s than it is now. The first switch is that the position per head is much better although that is partly because the population is in decline. Of course in terms of demand for resources that is a good thing for a country which has so few of them. That is not so hot when you have an enormous national debt which will be getting a lot larger via the stimulus effort. There are roads where it will reach 300% of GDP quite soon.

So why have things not collapsed under the weight of debt? One reason is the size of the Bank of Japan purchases in what is mostly (90% or so) a domestic market. Then we also need to note that in spite of it being official policy to weaken the Yen ( one of the arrows of Abenomics) it is at 106.4 versus the US Dollar looking strong in spite of all of the above. This is because even if the foreign investors started to leave the Japanese have large savings abroad and large reserves. As we stand they have had little success in pushing the Yen lower even with all the efforts of the Bank of Japan.

What is needed is some sustained economic growth but if Japan could do that the concept of the Lost Decade would have been consigned to the history books and it hasn’t. So we left with this thought by Graham Parker.

And there’s nothing to hold on to when gravity betrays you ( Discovering Japan)

Podcast on GDP measures

Is Japan the future for all of us?

A regular feature of these times is to compare our economic performance with that of Japan. That has propped up pretty regularly in this crisis mostly about the Euro area but with sub-plots for the US and UK. One group that will be happy about this with be The Vapors and I wonder how much they have made out of it?

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.

The two basic concepts here are interrelated and are of Deflation and what was called The Lost Decade but now are The Lost Decades. These matters are more nuanced that usually presented so let me start with Deflation which is a fall in aggregate demand in an economy. According to the latest Bank of Japan Minutes this is happening again.

This is because aggregate demand is
highly likely to be pushed down by deterioration in the labor market and the utilization rate of conventional types of services could decline given a new lifestyle that takes into
consideration the risk of COVID-19.

The latter point echoes a discussion from the comments section yesterday about an extension to the railway to the Scottish Borders. Before COVID-19 anything like that would come with a round of applause but now there are genuine questions about public transport for the future. There is an irony close to me as I have lived in Battersea for nearly 3 decades and a tube line there has been promised for most of that. Now it is on its way will it get much use?

This is a difficult conceptual issue because if we build “White Elephants” they will be counted in GDP ( it is both output and income), but if they are not used the money is to some extent wasted. I differ to that extent from the view of John Maynard Keynes that you can dig and hole and fill it in. If that worked we would not be where we are now. In the credit crunch we saw facets of this with the empty hotels in Ireland, the unused airport in Spain and roads to nowhere in Portugal. That was before China built empty cities.

Inflation Deflation

There is something of a double swerve applied here which I will illustrate from the Bank of Japan Minutes again.

Next, the three arrows of Abenomics should continue to be carried out to the fullest extent until the economy returns to a growth path in which the annual inflation
rate is maintained sustainably at around 2 percent.

A 2% inflation target has nothing at all to do with deflation and this should be challenged more, especially when it has this Orwellian element.

It is assumed that achievement of the price stability target will be delayed due to COVID-19
and that monetary easing will be prolonged further

It is not a price stability target it is an inflation rate target. This is of particular relevance in Japan as it has had stable prices pretty much throughout the lost decade period. It is up by 0.1% in the past year and at 101.8 if we take 2015 as 100, so marginal at most. The undercut to this is that you need inflation for relative price changes. But this is also untrue as the essentially inflation-free Japan has a food price index at 105.8 and an education one of 92.7.

Policy Failure

The issue here is that as you can see above there has been a complete failure but that has not stopped other central banks from speeding down the failure road. It is what is missing from the statement below that is revealing.

: the Special Program to Support Financing in Response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19); an ample provision of
yen and foreign currency funds without setting upper limits; and active purchases of assets such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

No mention of negative interest-rates? Also the large-scale purchases of Japanese Government Bonds only get an implicit mention. Whereas by contrast the purchase of equities as in this coded language that is what “active purchases of assets such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs)” means gets highlighted. The 0.1% will be happy but as any asset price rise is omitted from the inflation indices it is entirely pointless according to their stated objective. No wonder they keep failing…

This matters because pretty much every central bank has put on their running shoes and set off in pursuit of the Bank of Japan. Ever more interest-rate cuts and ever more QE bond buying. Perhaps the most extreme case is the ECB (European Central Bank) with its -0.5% Deposit Rate and large-scale QE. On the latter subject it seems to be actively mirroring Japan.

The ECB may not need to use the full size of its recently expanded pandemic purchase program, Executive Board member Isabel Schnabel says ( Bloomberg)

This is a regular tactic of hinting at reductions whereas the reality invariably ends up on the Andrea True Connection road.

More! More! More!

Staying with the Euro area the ECB has unveiled all sorts of policies and has a balance sheet of 6.2 trillion Euros but keeps missing its stated target. We noted recently that over the past decade or so they have been around 0.7% per year below it and that is not getting any better.

In June 2020, a month in which many COVID-19 containment measures have been gradually lifted, Euro area annual inflation is expected to be 0.3%, up from 0.1% in May ( Eurostat )

Real Wage Deflation

This to my mind is the bigger issue. It used to be the case ( in what was called the NICE era by former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King) that wages grew faster than wages by 1-2% per annum. That was fading out before the credit crunch and since there have been real problems. The state of play for the leader of the pack here has been highlighted by Nippon.com.

Wage growth in Japan is also slow compared with other major economies. According to statistics published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average Japanese annual wage in 2018 was the equivalent of $46,000—a mere 0.2% increase on the figure for 2000 ($45,000).

They mean 2% and everyone else seems to be heading that way.

This increase is significantly smaller than those recorded in the same period in the United States ($53,900 to 63,100), Germany ($43,300 to 49,800), and France ($37,100 to 44,500).

The UK has gone from around $39,000 to the same as France at $44.500.

There is an obvious issue in using another currency but we have the general picture and right now it is getting worse everywhere.

Comment

The answers to the question in my title unfold as follows. In terms of central bank action we have an unequivocal yes. They have copied Japan as much as they can showing they have learnt nothing. We could replace them with an AI version ( with the hope that the I of Intelligence might apply). Related to this is the inflation issue where all the evidence is that they will continue to fail. We have here an example of failure squared where they pursue policies that do not work in pursuit of an objective which would make people worse rather than better off.

That last point feeds into the wages issue which in my opinion is the key one of our times. The Ivory Towers of the central banks still pursue policies where wages growth exceeds inflation and their models assume it. Perhaps because for them it is true. But for the rest of us it is not as real wages have struggled at best and fallen at worst. This is in spite of the increasingly desperate manipulation of inflation numbers that has been going on.

So we see different elements in different places. The Euro area is heading down the same road as Japan in terms of inflation and apart from Germany wages too. The UK is an inflation nation so that part we are if not immune a step or two away from, but that means our real wage performance is looking rather Japanese.

There is also another sub-plot.

30y gilt yield < 30y JGB yield ( Divyang Shah )

The Investing Channel

 

The Tokyo Whale is hungry again!

A new week has started with something which we will find awfully familiar although not everyone will as I will explain. But first let me give you something of a counterpoint and indeed irony to the news.

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Oil prices fell on Monday on signs that worldwide oil storage is filling rapidly, raising concerns that production cuts will not come fast enough to fully offset the collapse in demand from the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. oil futures led losses, falling by more than $2 a barrel on fears that storage at Cushing, Oklahoma, could reach full capacity soon. U.S. crude inventories rose to 518.6 million barrels in the week to April 17, near an all-time record of 535 million barrels set in 2017. [EIA/S]

In ordinary times this would be a case of let’s get this party started in Japan. This is because it is a large energy importer and thus it would be getting both and balance of payments and manufacturing boost. In itself it would have been extremely welcome because you may recall that its economy had seen a reverse before the present pandemic.

The contraction of Japan’s 4Q 2019 GDP was worse than expected, coming in at -1.8% q/q (- 7.1% annualized rate) versus the first estimate of -1.6% q/q (-6.3% annualized rate) as the contraction in business spending was deeper than what was first reported in February, ( FXStreet )

So the land of the rising sun or Nihon was already in what Taylor Swift would call “trouble, trouble,trouble”, The raising of the Consumption Tax ( what we call VAT) had in an unfortunate coincidence combined with the 2019 trade war. The former was rather like 2014 as we mull all the promises it would not be. Also let me give you a real undercut, Japan acted to improve its fiscal position just in time for it to be considered much less important.

The Tokyo Whale

Let me open with something which for newer readers may come as a shock.

The Bank will actively purchase ETFs and J-REITs for the time being so that their amounts outstanding will increase at annual paces with the upper limit of about 12 trillion
yen and about 180 billion yen, respectively.

Yes the Bank of Japan is buying equities and has just suggested it will double its annual purchases of them. Those who follow me will be aware it has been buying more as for example it is now buying around 120 billion Yen on the days it buys ( nine so far in April) as opposed to the previous 70 billion or so having bought over 200 billion when equity markets were hit hard. The detail is that it buys via Exchange Traded Funds ( ETFs) to avoid the embarrassment of having to vote at AGMs and the like.

Oh and in another familiar theme upper limits are not always upper limits.

With a view to lowering risk premia of asset prices in an appropriate manner, the Bank may increase or decrease the amount of purchases depending on market conditions.

Also the ,you may note that the limit for commercial property purchases has been doubled too. I do sometimes wonder why they bother with the commercial property buys although now we have an extra factor which is that in so many places around the world commercial property looks under a lot of pressure. For example if there is more working from home as seems likely.

The Precious! The Precious!

Japan has an official interest-rate of -0.1% but not for quite everybody.

(3) apply a positive interest rate of 0.1 percent to the outstanding balances of current accounts held by financial institutions at the Bank that correspond to the amounts outstanding of loans provided through this
operation.

For whom?

Twice as much as the amounts outstanding of the loans will continue to be included in the Macro Add-on Balances in current accounts held by financial institutions at the Bank.

Yes the banks and as you can see they will be a “double-bubble” gain from lending under the new Bank of Japan scheme. I wonder if the Japanese taxpayer has noted that extension of operations to the private debt sphere as well?

expand the range of eligible collateral to private debt in general, including household debt (from about 8
trillion yen to about 23 trillion yen as of end-March 2020),

Corporate Bonds and Commercial Paper

I have highlighted another risk being taken on behalf of the Japanese taxpayer.

The Bank decided, by a unanimous vote, to significantly increase the maximum amount
of additional purchases of CP and corporate bonds and conduct purchases with the upper
limit of the amount outstanding of about 20 trillion yen in total. In addition, the maximum amounts outstanding of a single issuer’s CP and corporate bonds to be purchased will be raised substantially.

Should there be a default there might be trouble.

The Bank will increase the maximum share of the Bank’s holdings of CP and corporate
bonds within the total amount outstanding of issuance by a single issuer from the current
25 percent to 50 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

Surely at any sign of trouble everyone will simply sell to the Bank of Japan which will then be a buyer of more like first than last resort.

Who will provide the grand design?
What is yours and what is mine?
‘Cause there is no more new frontier
We have got to make it here ( The Eagles )

Japanese Government Bonds

This is something we have been expecting and just as a reminder the previous target was between 70 and 80 trillion Yen a year.

The Bank will purchase a necessary amount of JGBs without setting an upper limit so that 10-year JGB yields will remain at around zero percent.

It is hard to get too worked up about that as we have been expecting it to be along. In theory the plan remains the same, although there is a slight shuffle as in the past they have indicated a range between 0% and -0.1%.

Comment

The first issue is that the Japanese economy is doing extremely badly. It already had problems and the PMI business survey suggested a GDP decline of the order of 10%. With its “face” culture that is likely to be an underestimate. In response there has been this.

The Japanese government has outlined details of its plan to hand out 100,000 yen, or more than 900 dollars, in cash to all residents as part of its economic response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The cash handouts will go to every person listed on Japan’s Basic Resident Register, regardless of nationality. ( NHK)

They tried something like this back in the 90s and I remember calculating it as £142 as compared to £752 this time. As to adjusting for inflation well in the Lost Decade era Japan has seen so little of that.

So we see that the Bank of Japan is underwriting the spending plans of the Japanese government which of course is the same Japanese government which underwrites the bond buying of the Bank of Japan! It seems set to make sure that the Japanese government can borrow for free in terms of yield as I note this.

In case of a rapid increase in the yields, the Bank will purchase JGBs promptly and appropriately.

In fact just like a parent speaking to a child you can indulge in the JGB market but only if you play nicely.

While doing so, the yields may move upward and downward to some extent mainly depending on developments in economic activity and prices.

You will find many cheering “Yield Curve Control” although more than a few of those will be hoping that there claims that the Bank of Japan will need to intervene less have been forgotten. Actually there have been phases where it has kept yields up rather than down.

In the future will the Bank of Japan own everything?

The Express

I have done some interviews for it recently and here is one on the benefits of lower oil prices

https://www.express.co.uk/finance/city/1272278/coronavirus-news-oil-prices-negative-inflation-uk-wages-spt

Podcast on central bank equity purchases

 

The first business surveys about this economic depression appear

This morning has seen the first actual signals of the scale of the economic slow down going on. One of the problems with official economic data is the  time lag before we get it and this has been exacerbated by the fact that this has been an economic contraction on speed ( LSD). By the time they tell us how bad it has been we may be in quite a different world! It is always a battle between accuracy and timeliness for economic data. Thus eyes will have turned to the business surveys released this morning.

Do ya do ya do ya do ya
Ooh I’m looking for clues
Ooh I’m looking for clues
Ooh I’m looking for clues ( Robert Palmer)

Japan

The main series began in Japan earlier and brace yourselves.

#Japan‘s economic downturn deepens drastically in March, dragged down by a sharp contraction in the service sector, according to #PMI data as #coronavirus outbreak led to plummeting tourism, event cancellations and supply chain disruptions. ( IHS Markit )

The composite output index was at 35.8 which indicates an annualised fall in GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) approaching 8% should it continue. There was a split between manufacturing ( 44.8) and services ( 32.7) but not the way we have got used to. The manufacturing number was the worst since April 2009 and the services one was the worst since the series began in 2007.

France

Next in the series came La Belle France and we needed to brace ourselves even more.

March Flash France PMI suggest GDP is collapsing at an annualised rate approaching double digits, with the Composite Output PMI at an all-time low of 30.2 (51.9 – Feb). Both services and manufacturers recorded extreme drops in output on the month.

There was more to come.

French private sector activity contracted at the
sharpest rate in nearly 22 years of data collection
during March, amid widespread business closures
due to the coronavirus outbreak.

There are obvious fears about employment and hence unemployment.

Amid falling new orders, private sector firms cut
their staff numbers for the first time in nearly threeand-a-half years during March. Moreover, the rate
of reduction was the quickest since April 2013.

I also noted this as I have my concerns about inflation as the Ivory Towers work themselves into deflation mode one more time.

Despite weaker demand conditions, supply
shortages drove input prices higher in March…….with
manufacturers raising output prices for the first time
in three months

We could see disinflation in some areas with sharp inflation in others.

Germany

Next up was Germany and by now investors were in the brace position.

The headline Flash Germany
Composite PMI Output Index plunged from 50.7 in
February to 37.2, its lowest since February 2009.
The preliminary data were based on responses
collected between March 12-23.

This led to this analysis.

“The unprecedented collapse in the PMI
underscores how Germany is headed for recession,
and a steep one at that. The March data are
indicative of GDP falling at a quarterly rate of
around 2%, and the escalation of measures to
contain the virus outbreak mean we should be
braced for the downturn to further intensify in the
second quarter.”

You may be thinking that this is better than the ones above but there is a catch. Regular readers will recall that due to a problem in the way it looks at supply this series has inflated the German manufacturing data. This has happened again.

The headline Flash Germany
Manufacturing PMI sank to 45.7, though it was
supported somewhat by a further increase in
supplier delivery times – the most marked since
July 2018 – and a noticeably slower fall in stocks of
purchases, both linked to supply-side disruption

So the truth is that the German numbers are closer to France once we allow for this. We also see the first signals of trouble in the labour markets.

After increasing – albeit marginally – in each of the
previous four months, employment across
Germany’s private sector returned to contraction in
March. The decline was the steepest since May
2009 and was underpinned by similarly sharp drops
in workforce numbers across both manufacturing
and services.

Also we note a continuing pattern where services are being hit much harder than manufacturing, Of course manufacturing had seen a rough 2019 but services have essentially plunged at a rapid rate.

The Euro Area

We do not get much individual detail but you can see that the other Euro area nations are doing even worse.

The rest of the euro area reported an even
steeper decline than seen in both France and
Germany, led by comfortably the sharpest fall in
service sector activity ever recorded, though
manufacturing output also shrank at the steepest
rate for almost 11 years.

I am trying hard to think of PMI numbers in the 20s I have seen before.

Flash Eurozone Services PMI Activity Index(2)
at 28.4 (52.6 in February). Record low (since
July 1998)

Putting it all together we get this.

The March PMI is indicative of GDP slumping at a
quarterly rate of around 2%,

The UK

Our numbers turned up to a similar drum beat and bass line.

At 37.1 in March, down from 53.0 in February, the seasonally adjusted IHS Markit / CIPS Flash UK Composite Output Index – which is based on approximately 85% of usual monthly replies – signalled the fastest downturn in private sector business activity since the series began in January 1998. The prior low of 38.1 was seen in November 2008.

This was supported by the manufacturing PMI being at 48 but it looks as though we have at least some of the issues at play in the German number too.

Longer suppliers’ delivery times are typically seen as an
advance indicator of rising demand for raw materials and
therefore have a positive influence on the Manufacturing PMI index.

The numbers added to the household finances one from IHS Markit yesterday.

UK consumers are already feeling the financial pinch of
coronavirus, according to the IHS Markit UK Household Finance Index. With the country on the brink of lockdown during the survey collection dates (12-17 March), surveyed households reported the largest degree of pessimism towards job security in over eight years,
with those employed in entertainment and manufacturing sectors deeming their jobs to be at the most risk.

Comment

So we have the first inklings of what is taking place in the world economy and we can add it to the 40.7 released by Australia yesterday. However we need a note of caution as these numbers have had troubles before and the issue over the treatment of suppliers delivery times is an issue right now. Also it does not appear to matter if your PMI is 30 or 37 we seem to get told this.

The March PMI is indicative of GDP slumping at a
quarterly rate of around 2%,

Now I am slightly exaggerating because they have said 1.5% to 2% for the UK but if we are there then France and the Euro area must be more like 3% and maybe worse if the series is to be consistent.

Next I thought I would give you some number-crunching from Japan.

TOKYO (Reuters) – The Bank of Japan on Tuesday acknowledged unrealized losses of 2-3 trillion yen ($18-$27 billion) on its holdings of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) after a rout in Japanese stock prices, raising the prospect it could post an annual loss this year.

Our To Infinity! And Beyond! Theme has been in play for The Tokyo Whale and the emphasis is mine.

Its stock purchase started at a pace of one trillion yen per year in 2013 when the Nikkei was around 12,000. The buying expanded to 3 trillion yen in 2014 and to 6 trillion yen in 2016, ostensibly to boost economic growth and lift inflation, but many investors view the policy as direct intervention to prop up share prices.

Surely not! But the taxpayer may be about to get a warning of sorts.

The unrealized loss of 2-3 trillion yen would wipe out about 1.7 trillion yen of recurring profits the BOJ is estimated to make this year from interest payments on its massive bond holdings, said Hiroshi Ugai, senior economist at J.P. Morgan.

For today that will be on the back burner as the Nikkei 225 equity index rose 7% to just above 18,000 which means that its purchases of over 200 billion Yen yesterday will be onside at least as we note the “clip size” has nearly trebled for The Tokyo Whale.

 

 

Can QE defeat the economic impact of the Corona Virus?

The weekend just passed has seen more than a few bits of evidence of the spread of the Corona Virus especially in Japan, South Korea, Italy and Iran. It has been a curious phase in Japan where on that quarantined cruise ship they have seemed determined to follow as closely as they can to the plot of the film Alien. Even China has been forced to admit things are not going well. This is President Xi Jinping in Xinhua News.

The epidemic situation remains grim and complex and it is now a most crucial moment to curb the spread, he noted.

Yet later in the same speech we are told this.

Stressing orderly resumption of work and production, Xi made specific requirements to that end.

Back on February 3rd we looked at the potential impact on the economy of China but today we can look wider. Let us open by seeing the consequences of some of the rhetoric being deployed.

Bond Markets

UST 30-Year yield falls to an all-time low 1.83 ( @fullcarry )

So we see an all-time low for the long bond in the worlds largest sovereign bond market. Rallies in bond markets are a knee-jerk response to signs of financial turmoil except it is supposed to be for the certainty of yield or if you prefer  interest. The catch is that there is not much to be found even in the US now and if we look wider afield we see that in one of the extreme cases of these times there is none to be found at all. This is because even the thirty-year yield in Germany is now -0.04% so in fact it is being paid to borrow all along its maturity spectrum.

It was only on Friday that I pointed out some were suggesting that the “bond vigilantes” might return to the UK whereas the UK Gilt market has surged also today with the 50 year Gilt at a mere 0.76%.

These are extraordinary numbers which come on the back of all the interest-rate cuts and all the central bank QE bond buying. Of course the latter is ongoing in the Euro area and in Japan. So let us look at them in particular.

The ECB has already hinted in the past that a reduction in its deposit rate to -0.6% could be deployed but frankly their situation is highlighted by talking about a 0.1% move. After all if full percentage points have not helped then how will 0.1%? Even they are tilling the ground on this front as they join the central banking rush to claim lower interest-rates are nothing to do with them at all.

Interest rates in advanced economies have been on a broad downward path for more than three decades
and remain close to historical lows.[5]
As has been highlighted in many studies, the drivers of this long-term pattern largely boil down to
demographics, productivity and the elevated net demand for safe assets. ( ECB Chief Economist Lane on Friday )

Next comes the issue that an extension of QE is limited by that fact that there are not so many bonds to buy on Germany and the Netherlands. But the reality is that under pressure this “rules based organisation” has a habit of changing the rules.

Switching to Japan we see that Governor Kuroda has been speaking too.

RIYADH (Reuters) – The Bank of Japan will be fully prepared to take necessary action to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on the world’s third-largest economy, its Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said.

Okay what?

He also repeated the view that, while the central bank stands ready to ease monetary policy further “without hesitation”, it saw no immediate need to act.

That reminds me of the time he denied any plans to move to negative interest-rates and a mere eight days later he did. The next bit seems to be from a place far,far,away.

Kuroda said there was no major change to the BOJ’s projection that Japan’s economy would keep recovering moderately thanks to an expected rebound in global growth around mid-year.

Perhaps he was hoping that people would forget that GDP fell by 1.6% in the last quarter of 2018 meaning that the economy was 0.4% smaller than a year before.Or that Japanese plans for this year involved an Olympics in Tokyo that is now in doubt, after all the Tokyo Marathon has been dramatically downsized. I write that sadly as there are a couple of people who train at Battersea Park running track with hopes of competing in the Olympics.

But the grand master of expectations here was this from the G 20 conference over the weekend.

“I’m not going to comment on monetary policy, but obviously central bankers will look at various different options as this has an impact on the economy,” Mnuchin said.

Gold

There have been various false dawns for the price of gold and of course enough conspiracy theories about this for anyone. But gold bugs will be singing along with Spandau Ballet as they note a price of US $1688 is up over 23% on a year ago.

Gold
(Gold)
Always believe in your soul
You’ve got the power to know
You’re indestructible, always believe in, ‘cos you are ( Spandau Ballet )

Equity Markets

This have faced something of a conundrum as fears of a slowing world economy have been been by the hopium of even more central bank easing. Last week the Dax 30 of Germany hit an all-time high and today it is down 3.6% at 13,070 as I type this. So for all the media panic today it remains close to its highest ever.

Currencies

There are two main trends here I want to mark. The first is that we seem to be again in a period of what might be called King Dollar. Also there is this.

SNB propping up 1.0600 in $EURCHF ( @RANSquawk )

Trying that at 1.20 imploded rather spectacularly in January 2015. For newer readers the Swiss Franc (CHF) has been strong as the reversal of the pre credit crunch carry trade has been added to by the perceived strength of Switzerland. This was exacerbated as its neighbour the Euro area kept cutting interest-rates and went negative. So the Swiss National Bank are presently intervening against a safe haven flow towards the Swissy.

I have suggested for a while now I could see the Swiss National Bank cutting interest-rates to -1% and expect not to be “so lonely” as The Police put it. Also I would remind you that 20% of the intervention will be reinvested in the US equity market.

Comment

Who knew that interest-rate cuts and QE could be effective cures for the Corona Virus? Especially as they have not worked for much else. Although there are also whispers that it can cure climate change too. This highlights the moral and intellectual bankruptcy at play as central bankers try to offer more central planning to fix the problems of past central planning. The Corona Virus is of course not their fault but anything unexpected was always going to be a problem for a group determined not to allow a recession and thus any reform under creative destruction.

Meanwhile the rest of us wait to see the full economic impact as we mull the flickers of knowledge we get. For example Jaguar Land Rover saying it only has 2 weeks supply of some parts or reports that for some US pharmaceuticals 80% of the basic ingredients come from China. So the latter could see large demand they cannot supply and higher prices just as we see lower demand and inflation elsewhere. More conventionally there is this for France which must send a chill down the spine of Italy to its boot.

The drop off in tourist numbers is an “important impact” on France’s economy, Bruno Le Maire, the country’s finance minister, said…….France is one of the most visited countries in the world, and tourism accounts for nearly 8% of its GDP.

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