Economic growth in Germany converged with that in Italy in the latter part of 2018

As we arrive in the UK at “meaningful vote” day which seems about as likely to be true as a Bank of England “Super Thursday” actually being super the real economic news comes from the heart of the Euro area. So here it is.

According to first calculations of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), the price adjusted gross domestic product (GDP) was 1.5% higher in 2018 than in the previous year. The German economy thus grew the ninth year in a row, although growth has lost momentum. In the previous two years, the price adjusted GDP had increased by 2.2% each. A longer-term view shows that German economic growth in 2018 exceeded the average growth rate of the last ten years (+1.2%)……….As the calendar effect in 2018 was weak, the calendar-adjusted GDP growth rate was 1.5%, too ( German statistics office )

A little care if needed as these numbers are not yet seasonally adjusted. But we do have price-adjusted numbers have gone 2.2% (2016) then 2.5% (2017) and now 1.5%. This immediately reminds me of the words of European Central Bank President Mario Draghi at his last press conference.

 I’ll be briefer than I would like to be, but certainly especially in some parts of this period of time, QE has been the only driver of this recovery. There are lots of numbers that we can give about how it did change financing conditions in a way that – in many ways. But let’s not forget that interest rates had dramatically declined even before QE but they continued to do so after QE…….. We view this as – but I don’t think I’m the only one to be the crucial driver of the recovery in the eurozone. At the time, by the way, when also other drivers were not really – especially in the first part, there was no other source of growth in the real economy.

This comes to mind because if you take that view and now factor in the reduction in the monthly QE purchases and then their cessation in 2018 then the decline in GDP growth in Germany was sung about by Radiohead.

With no alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
Silent, silent

In essence if we switch to the world of football then 2018 was a year of two halves for Germany because if we go back to half-time we were told this.

Compared with a year earlier, the price adjusted GDP rose 2.3% in the second quarter of 2018.

At that point economic growth seemed quite consistent at around 0.5% per quarter if we ignore the 1,1% surge in the first quarter of 2017. So Mario’s point is backed up by German economic growth heading south in the second half of 2018 which if we now look wider poses an implication for another part of his speech.

 Euro area real GDP increased by 0.2%, quarter on quarter, in the third quarter of 2018, following growth of 0.4% in the previous two quarters.

We do not have the final result for the second half of 2018 but the range seems set to be between -0.1% and 0.1%. Ironically it means that the quote below from the Italian economy minister is rather wrong.

*TRIA: EU TO FACE POTENTIAL COLLAPSE IF POLICIES FEED DIVERGENCE

As we stand the German economic performance has in fact converged with the Italian one.

Detail

There has been quite a slow down in domestic consumption because at the end of the second quarter we were told this.

Overall, domestic uses increased markedly by 0.9% compared with the first three months of the year.

Whereas now we are told this was the situation six months later.

Both household final consumption expenditure (+1.0%) and government final consumption expenditure (+1.1%) were up on the previous year. However, the growth rates were markedly lower than in the preceding three years.

That is not an exact comparison because investment is not in the latter and it has remained pretty strong but nonetheless there has been quite a fall in domestic consumption. Also investment has not turned out to be the golden weapon against an economic slowing.

Total price-adjusted gross fixed capital formation rose 4.8% year-on-year.

Also a usual strength for the economy was not on its best form.

German exports continued to increase on an annual average in 2018, though at a slower pace than in the previous years. Price-adjusted exports of goods and services were up 2.4% on 2017. There was a larger increase in imports (+3.4%) over the same period. Arithmetically, the balance of exports and imports had a slight downward effect on the German GDP growth (-0.2 percentage points).

In terms of the world economy that is a good thing as many have argued ( including me) that the German trade surplus is an imbalance if we look at the world economy. The catch is how you fix it and shrinking it in a period of economic weakness is far from ideal. Also another number went against the stereotype.

 For the first time in five years, short-term economic growth in industry was lower than in the services sector.

Lastly these are not precise numbers but output per head of productivity growth seems to have slowed to a crawl.

On an annual average in 2018, the economic performance in Germany was achieved by 44.8 million persons in employment whose place of employment was in Germany. According to first calculations, that was an increase of roughly 562,000 on the previous year. This 1.3% increase was mainly due to a rise in employment subject to social insurance.

1.5% is not much more than 1.3%.

Fiscal Policy

This is not getting much attention but you can argue that Germany has made the same mistake in 2017/18 that it made in 2010/11 in Greece albeit on a much smaller scale.

General government achieved a record surplus of 59.2 billion euros in 2018 (2017: 34.0 billion euros). At the end of the year, central, state and local government and social security funds recorded a surplus for the fifth time in a row, according to provisional calculations. Measured as a percentage of the gross domestic product at current prices, this was a 1.7% surplus ratio of general government for 2018.

It has contracted fiscal policy into an economic slow down and thereby added to it.

Comment

As these matters can get very heated on social media let me be clear I take no pleasure in Germany’s economic slow down. For a start it would be illogical as it will be a downward influence on the UK. But it has been a success for the monetary analysis I presented in 2018 as the fall in the money supply was both an accurate and timely indicator of what was about to happen next.

Official policy has seen a dreadful run however. I have dealt with fiscal policy above which has been contracted in a slow down but we also see that the level of monetary stimulus was reduced. Apart from the obvious failure implied by this there are other issues. The most fundamental is a point I have made many times about Euro area economic growth being a “junkie” style culture depending on the next stimulus hit. That has meant it has arrived at the next slow down with the official deposit rate still negative ( -0.4%) as I have long feared. Still I suppose it could be worse as the Riksbank of Sweden managed to raise interest-rates in this environment after not doing so when the economy was doing well.

Let me post a warning to avoid the Financial Times article today about UK Index-Linked Gilts. No doubt this will later be redacted but in the version I read the author was apparently unaware that the RPI inflation measure not CPI is used for them.

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What will happen to Bank Carige of Italy?

One of the longest running themes of this site has been the ostrich like behaviour of Italy about its banks. The official view has been that a corner is just about to be turned on what keeps turning out to be a straight road. I still recall Prime Minster Renzi assuring investors that shares in the trouble Monte Paschi di Siena were a good purchase. Here is an example of this from him in Il Sole from January 2016 via Google Translate and the emphasis is mine.

“The recent turbulence around some Italian banks indicates that our credit system – solid and strong thanks to the extraordinarily high savings of Italian families – still needs consolidation, so that there are fewer but stronger banks (…) Today the bank it is healed, and investing is a bargain. On Mps has been knocked down speculation but it is a good deal, has gone through crazy vicissitudes but today is healed, it is a nice brand. Perhaps in this process that will last a few months must find partners because it must be with others “.

Since then the bank has seen the Italian state take a majority stake and the share price is a bit less than forty times lower than when Renzi made his statement. This has been a familiar theme of the crisis where investors have been encouraged to stump up more money for troubled banks with promises of a brighter future. But it kept turning out that the future was ever more troubled rather than bright as good money followed bad in being lost.

Even worse the whole sector was weakened by the way that other types of bailout were provided by the banking sector itself. For example via the Atlante or Atlas fund which saw banks investing to recapitalise other banks and to buy bad loans. Regular readers will recall that the establishment view was that the purchase of bad loans by this and other vehicles was something of a new dawn for the sector. The reality was that as things got worse there was Atlante 2 before the whole idea got forgotten. It is rude to point out that the subject of today Bank Carige was considered strong enough to put 20 million Euros into the first version of Atlante.

A deeper perspective can be provided by the fact that the Italian banking laws are called the “Draghi Laws” after the President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi. In his new role he has undertaken three policies which have helped the Italian banks. They have been particularly large beneficiaries of his liquidity operations called TLTROs which have provided cheap ( the deposit rate is -0.4%) for banks. Then the QE programme boosted the price of Italian government bonds benefiting the Italian banks large holdings. Then more opaquely at least in terms of media analysis it bought covered bonds ( mortgage bonds) in three phases and still holds around 271 billion Euros of them.

The catch of this from Mario’s point of view is that liquidity is only a short-term solution and soon falls short when the real questions are about solvency. Even worse the way this umbrella shielded the banks from the rain meant that the promised reforms never happened and the path was made worse rather than better. Also if we think of this from the point of Italy and its economy we see that we have part of the reason for its ongoing economic lost decade style troubles. The banks have helped suck it lower. Also and hat tip to Merryn Somerset Webb for this a letter to the FT today has on another topic covered the issue really rather well.

ECB can’t solve problems because to attempt to do so would be to admit that problems exist.

Carige

If we go back to 2017 we see that as well as a worrying departure of board directors and the beginning of an attempted asset sale which was to include bad loans there was this in December.

Italy’s Banca Carige said on Friday it had raised 544.4 million euros ($645 million) following its recently concluded new share issue, topping minimum regulatory demands. ( Reuters)

There were various features to this of which the first is that existing shareholders took a right caning or as the Italian regulator put it.

The Banca Carige capital increase has characteristics of hyperdilution.

In return there was the implication that the ECB had approved this and a corner had been turned. Less than a year later this all went sour as the ECB decided that Bank Carige needed yet another rights issue in yet another example of the themes described above. This time in spite of statements to the contrary no-one seemed silly enough to believe the official promises and this rumbled on until the New Year when the ECB decided that the first business day of 2019 was an opportune moment to do this.

The mass resignation of Carige directors that followed has given the ECB an opportunity to be creative. The central bank has used its powers of early intervention to step in to stabilise the bank’s governance. It has appointed three special administrators, including Innocenzi, tasked with restoring capital requirements. ( Reuters)

If you want some gallows humour this was described as “temporary” when it was pretty much certain to be anything but as a major shareholder ( Malaclaza) decided it had lost enough. It was hardly likely to believe the ECB again.

The Italian Government

This found itself in between a rock and a hard place as the Five-Star movement has consistently opposed both bailouts and bail-ins. Yet the government of which it is a member took I am told only 8 minutes to decide this last night.

The decree, signed off on Monday after a surprise cabinet meeting, will allow the bank to benefit from state-backed guarantees for new bond issues and funding from the Bank of Italy.

The lender, which last year failed to secure shareholder backing for a capital increase, will also be able to request access to state-backed precautionary recapitalization, if needed.

So yet again in a choice between the interests of the people and the interests of “the precious” we see that the same old status quo continues to play.

Whatever you want
Whatever you like
Whatever you say
You pay your money
You take your choice
Whatever you need
Whatever you use
Whatever you win
Whatever you lose

One of my longest-running themes of this website gets another tick in the box and we even get some Italian style humour.

EU rules permit such a scheme only if the bank is solvent.

So solvent in fact that they can no longer find anyone willing to put their own money into it. Also seeing as Bank Carige cannot even see its own nose I doubt this will be a barrier for long.

According to a financial source close to the matter, Carige would only consider a request for precautionary recapitalization if new and unforeseen problems arose.

Comment

The issue here is that on a generic basis the events described above are so familiar now that even the use of phrases like groundhog day does not do the situation justice. There are always going to be problems because regulators invariably end up being captured by the industry they regulate and banking is perhaps the worst example of this. But changes were promised so long ago and yet the Italian taxpayer will find him/herself on the hook in addition to the 320 million Euro hybrid bond that the deposit protection fund bought late last year. Even worse they may end up backing this enough for someone else to be willing to take it over and profit from. Oh and so much for hybrid!

Meanwhile in a land far, far, away I see that the Financial Times has interviewed the head of the Euro area banking resolution body.

Speaking to the FT to mark three years since the SRB became fully operational at the start of 2016, Ms König said a page had been turned in how the bloc handled bank failures — not least after its first intervention, at Spain’s Banco Popular in 2017 — but that the system remained a work in progress.

There is no mention of Italy at all which is really rather breathtaking, although there may be an implied hint.

Making sure that bank crises could be contained without resorting to taxpayer help was “an ongoing challenge”, she said.

Some claim the lack of contagion is progress, but you see there is a clear flaw in that as the problems here were evident as long ago as 2014 so what is called the “smart money” will have gone long ago. In some ways this makes things worse because in another shocking failure of regulation Italian retail depositors were encouraged to buy bank bonds.

 

Mario Draghi and the ECB prepare for a change of course next month

After a week where the UK has dominated the headlines it is time to switch to the Euro area.  This is for two reasons.  We receive the latest inflation data but also because a speech from European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has addressed an issue we have been watching as 2018 has developed. We have been waiting to see how he and it will respond to the economic slow down that is apparent. This is especially important as during the credit crunch era the ECB has not only been the first responder to any economic downturns it has also regularly found itself to be the only one. Thus it finds itself in a position whereby in terms of negative interest-rates ( deposit rate of -0.4%) and balance sheet ( still expanding at 15 billion Euros per month ) and credit easing still heavily deployed. Accordingly this sentence from Mario echoes what we have been discussing for quite a while.

The key issue at stake is as follows: are we witnessing a temporary “soft patch” or a more lasting deterioration in the growth outlook?

The latter would be somewhat devastating for the man who was ready to do “whatever it takes” to save the Euro as it would return us to discussions about its problems a major one of has been slow economic growth.

Some rhetoric

It seems to be a feature these days of official speeches that they open with what in basketball terms would be called a head fake. Prime Minister Theresa May did it yesterday with an opening sentence which could have been followed by a resignation and Mario opened with what could have been about “broad based” economic growth.

The euro area economy has now been growing for five years, and we expect the expansion to continue in the coming years.

Of course central bankers always expect the latter until there is no other choice. Indeed he confirms that line of thought later.

There is certainly no reason why the expansion in the euro area should abruptly come to an end.

As we move on we get an interesting perspective on the past as well as a comparison with the United States.

Since 1975 there have been five periods of rising GDP in the euro area. The average duration from trough to peak is 31 quarters, with GDP increasing by 21% over that period. The current expansion in the euro area, however, has lasted just 22 quarters and GDP is only around 10% above the trough. In contrast, the expansion in the United States has lasted 37 quarters, and GDP has risen by 21%.

The obvious point is whether you can use the Euro area as a concept before it even existed?! Added to that via the “convergence” promised by the Euro area founders economic growth should be better now than then, except of course we have seen plenty of divergence too. Also you might find it odd to be pointing out that the US has done better especially as the way it is put which reminds us that for all the extraordinary monetary action the Euro area has only grown by 10%. Even that relies on something of a swinging ball as of course he is comparing with the bottom of the dip rather than the past peak as otherwise the number would be a fair bit weaker. Mario is leaving a bit of a trap here, however, or to be more precise he thinks he is.

How have we got here?

First we open with two standard replies the first is that whilst any growth is permanent setbacks are temporary and the other fallback is to blame the weather.

The first is one-off factors, which have clearly played an important role in the underperformance of growth since the start of the year. In the first half of 2018, weather, sickness and industrial action affected output in a number of countries.

Actually that makes the third quarter look even worse as they had gone by then yet growth slowed. He is on safer ground here though.

Production slowed as carmakers tried to avoid building up inventory of untested models, which weighed heavily on economies with large automobile sectors, such as Germany. Indeed, the German economy actually contracted in the third quarter, removing at least 0.1 percentage points from quarterly euro area growth.

This is another marker being put down because it you are thinking that you might need to further expand monetary policy it is best to try to get the Germans onside and reminding them that they too have issues will help. Indeed for those who believe that ECB policy is essentially set for Germany it may be not far off a clincher.

There is something that may worry German car producers if they are followers of ECB euphemisms.

The latest data already show production normalising.

After all the ECB itself may not achieve that.

Trade

This paragraph is interesting on quite a few levels.

The second source of the slowdown has been weaker trade growth, which is broader-based. Net exports contributed 1.4 percentage points to euro area growth in 2017, while so far this year they have removed 0.2 percentage points. World trade growth decelerated from 5.2% in 2017 to 4.6% in the first half of this year.

Oddly Mario then converts a slow down in growth to this.

We are witnessing a long-term slowdown in world trade.

As we note the change in the impact of trade on the Euro area there are several factors in play. You could argue that 2017 was a victory for the “internal competitiveness” austerity model applied although when we get to the collective that is awkward as the Euro area runs a large surplus driven by Germany. From the point of view of the rest of the world they would like it to reduce although the preferable route would be for the Euro area ( Germany ) to import more.

Employment

Mario cheers rightly for this.

Over the past five years, employment has increased by 9.5 million people, rising by 2.6 million in Germany, 2.1 million in Spain, 1 million in France and 1 million in Italy.

I bet he enjoyed the last bit especially! But later there is a catch which provides food for thought.

 But since 2013 more than 70% of employment growth has come from those aged 55-74. This partly reflects the impact of past structural reforms, such as to pension systems.

Probably not the ECB pension though as we are reminded of “Us and Them” by Pink Floyd.

Forward he cried from the rear
And the front rank died
And the general sat
And the lines on the map
Moved from side to side.

Also whilst no doubt some of these women wanted to work there will be others who had no choice.

The share of women in work has also risen by more than 10 percentage points since the start of EMU to almost 60% – its highest level ever

Put another way this sentence below could fit into a section concerning the productivity crisis.

 In addition, countries that have implemented structural reforms have in general seen a rise in labour demand in recent years compared with the pre-crisis period. Germany, Portugal and Spain are all good examples.

There is a section on wages but Mario end up taking something of an each-way bet on this.

But in the light of the lags between wages and prices after a period of low inflation, patience and persistence in our monetary policy is still needed.

Money Supply and Credit

This is how central bankers report a sustained and considerable slow down in the money supply.

The cost of bank borrowing for firms fell to record lows in the first half of this year across all large euro area economies, while the growth of loans to firms stood at its highest rate since 2012. The growth rate of loans to households is also the strongest since 2012, with consumer credit now acting as the most dynamic component, reflecting the ongoing strength of consumption.

Also the emphasis below is mine and regular readers are permitted a wry smile.

Household net worth remains at solid levels on the back of rising house prices and is adding to continued consumption growth.

Comment

We are being warmed up for something of a change of course in case it is necessary.

When the Governing Council met in October, we confirmed our confidence in the economic outlook………….When the latest round of projections is available at our next meeting in December, we will be better placed to make a full assessment of the risks to growth and inflation.

As if they are not already thinking along those lines! The next bit is duo fold. It reminds us that the Euro area has abandoned fiscal policy but does have a kicker for the future.

To protect their households and firms from rising interest rates, high-debt countries should not increase their debt even further and all countries should respect the rules of the Union.

The kicker is perhaps a hint that there is a solution to that as well.

In conclusion, I want to emphasise how completing Economic and Monetary Union has become more urgent over time not less urgent – and not only for the economic reasoning that has always underpinned my remarks, but also to preserve our European construction………….more Europe is the answer.

There Mario leaps out of his apparent trap singing along to Luther Vandross.

I just don’t wanna stop
Oh my love, a million days in your arms
Is never too much (never too much, never too much, never too much)

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Can Mario Draghi and the ECB help Italy?

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

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

What could the ECB do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Securities Markets Programme

This was used in the Euro area crisis.

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

As described it does seem to fit the bill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wider Moves

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

The Italian bond and bank crisis of May 2018

Oh what a difference a couple of days can make, especially in Italy right now. However we can see the cause of this quite easily and have done so more than a few times in the past. Back at the end of the last century when the Euro currency concept was being prepared its supporters argued that it would bring economic convergence to its member countries. The reality for Italy has been this if we look for an individual measure of economic performance.

The convergence issue has been a disaster for Italy. Ironically it seemed to be holding station with Germany before the Euro began but since it the German locomotive has powered ahead leaving the Italian carriage in a siding. If you had set out to diverge the two economies it would have been hard to do better ( worse?) than this. Also my theme that Italy struggles in the relatively good times was at play in the early part of the century. Then it was hit hard by the credit crunch and the Euro area crisis and sadly has still not fully sorted its banking problems.

Poverty

Another way of observing the Italian economic experience has been provided in a paper from the Universities of Modena and Rome which point out another reversal.

The paper explores the changing risk of poverty for older and younger generations of Italians throughout the republican period, 1948 to the present day. We show that
poverty rates have decreased steadily for all age groups, but that youth has been left behind. The risk of poverty for children aged 0-17, relative to adults over 65, has
increased steadily over time: in 1977, children faced a risk of poverty 30 percent lower than the elderly, but by 2016 they are 5 times likelier to be poor than someone in the age
range of their grandparents.

It is easy to always look at the bad side so let us take a moment of cheer as we note that in general poverty has fallen since the second world war and mankind has stepped forwards. However the rub as Shakespeare would put it is that the times may be a-changing and the poverty we see now in Italy is concentrated in younger age groups. This reminds me of another statistic.

Youth unemployment rate (aged 15-24) was 31.7%, -0.9 percentage points over the previous month.

So as the overall unemployment rate is 11% then the youth unemployment rate must be treble that of older age groups. Which means that they have gone back to the future.

As a matter of fact, young Italians today face approximately the same risk of poverty as their equals in age in the 1970s. No economic miracle has happened for them, and none is expected.

This seems to have been a deliberate policy as we note this.

 Our analysis points to the welfare state, which offers better protection for the elderly than it does for
the young and their families………More importantly, the
elderly continued their march towards a poverty-free existence, while the youth did not.

This leads to a rather chilling statement.

Overall, in the last seven decades, Italy has become no country for young people.

Some of this is an international issue as for example the UK had the triple-lock for the basic state pension but some is specifically Italy.

National Debt

This is an issue but not in the ordinary way. This is because what can be described as the third biggest national debt in the world has not be caused by fiscal recklessness. In recent times Italy has been restrained. The problem has been the one described above which is the lack of economic growth. On such a road to nowhere even small fiscal deficits see the national debt rise in relation to economic output or GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

Perhaps the new Prime Minister will live up to his “Mr. Scissors” nickname in this area but it will be hard for a man facing a confidence vote to do much I would think.

Italian bonds

As you can imagine this has felt just like old times for me and in spite of yesterday being a glorious bank holiday at least until the evening thunderstorm I was transfixed for a while by what was happening. Two old rules of mine worked as well.

I like the idea of applying something I was taught at the LSE albeit with a personal spin as so much has found its way into the recycling bin. Nobody seems to pick it up either which means it is set fair for the future. The other is that you buy an intraday fall of more than two points. That worked as well but with the caveat that it was a case of the “quick and the dead” and you would have been stopped out today.

Moving to the state of play as I type this we see what has become a bloodbath. The Italian BTP bond future has fallen 5 points to a low of 124 and this compares to a bit over 139 as recently as the 7th of this month. Putting it another way the ten-year yield has risen from 1.76% to 3.1%. This may not seem large moves so let me explain the issue in the QE ( Quantitative Easing) era.

  1. They are bigger than you think and an example of this is the way the US Treasury Bond market used to have a trading halt after two point moves. Annoying at the time but does give a breather.
  2. In the QE era there is the view that the central bank will bail things out and that to quote Flo “the dogs days are over”
  3. This may have tempted investors to increase position size to make a profit which of course would now be in trouble.
  4. As implied volatilities fall it is tempting not only to put on derivative positions but to increase their size as human nature is particularly vulnerable at such times.

We have two clear examples of such events. One I traded through which was the LTCM crisis of the late 90s which was a case of intellectual arrogance and of course we had the travails of the VIX index earlier this year.

Whatever It Takes

The famous saying from ECB President Draghi from the summer of 2012 of course had to save the Euro as an implication but some translated it as “to save the Italian banks”. We have followed over time the multitude of issues here but as we looked at last week another problem emerged on Thursday. From @YanniKouts.

The minute the markets will realize that Italy will restructure its debt, the Italian banks and eventually the economy will collapse. Corralito.

Since then the share prices of the Italian banks have moved into yet another bear market. Our old friend Monte Paschi the world’s oldest bank is at 2.32 Euros down 5% today or 1 Euro lower than a fortnight ago. Those of a nervous disposition might like to look away now as I point out that compares to a pre credit crunch peak of more like 7700 Euros. In a way the Italian financial crisis can be summed up by Prime Minister Renzi saying it was a good investment. Oh and as Polemic Paine reminds us a past theme is in play right now.

Waiting for second round effects from all the private hands that clamoured to buy the Italian banks’ dodgy debt.

These days the role of the ECB has increased as of course it is also the banking supervisor which I think is a bit like being Liverpool’s goalkeeping coach.

Comment

There is much to consider here and let me throw in something from this morning’s data which will not help. From the ECB.

The annual growth rate of the narrower aggregate M1, which includes currency in circulation
and overnight deposits, decreased to 7.0% in April, from 7.5% in March.

Another hint of an economic slow down albeit broad money was a little better. Moving to the financial crisis this will be felt by individual Italians as they are savers and for example around 64% of Italian debt is held by domestic hands. So they are losing and whilst overseas investors are in a minority that is still some 685 billion Euros due to the size of the market. Thanks to the Bruegel group for the data. This is of course before we get to the stock market and those holding bank debt. Remember when we were told what great deals the bank debt was? Also the “protecting savers” part from President Mattarella not only goes into my financial lexicon for these times but will be part of what historians will call the Mattarella Error.

As a final though this has answered a question we have been asking for a while. What would get the Euro to fall? This has been answered as we note it has dropped to 1.15 and a bit versus the US Dollar and even the UK Pound £ has nudged a little higher to the nearly the same number.

 

 

 

An expansion of fiscal policy in the Euro area might help to keep Italy in it

After the action or in many ways inaction at the Bank of England last week there was a shift of attention to the ECB or European Central Bank. Or if you prefer from Governor Mark Carney to President Mario Draghi. This is because tucked away in a rather familiar tale from him in a speech in Florence was what you might call parking your tanks on somebody else’s lawn. It started with this.

One is the ECB’s OMTs, which can be used when there is a threat to euro area price stability and comes with an ESM programme. The other is the ESM itself.

Actually rather contrary to what Mario implies Outright Monetary Transactions or OMTs were never required as the ECB instead expanded its bond puchases via the Quantitative Easing programme which is ongoing currently at a flow of 30 billion Euros a month. One might also argue the European Stability Mechanism has caused anything but in Greece however the fundamental point is that via such mechanisms monetary policy has slipped under and over and around the border into fiscal policy. For example after the progress in the coalition talks in Italy the financial media has moved onto articles about the Italian national debt being un affordable when in fact the factor that has made it affordable is/are the 342 billion Euros of it that the ECB has purchased. The Italy of 7% bond yields at the time of the Euro area crisis would not have reached now in the same form whereas the current Italy of around 2% yields has.

But there is more than tip-toeing onto the fiscal lawn below.

So, we need an additional fiscal instrument to maintain convergence during large shocks, without having to over-burden monetary policy. Its aim would be to provide an extra layer of stabilisation, thereby reinforcing confidence in national policies.

As no doubt you have already recognised that particular lawn has been mined with economic IEDs as Mario then implicitly acknowledges.

And, as we have seen from our longstanding discussions, it is certainly not politically simple, regardless of the shape that such an instrument could take: from the provision of supranational public goods – like security, defence or migration – to a fully-fledged fiscal capacity.

The only one of those that is pretty non contentious these days is the security issue and that of course is because of the grim nature of events in that area. However the movement of ECB tanks onto the fiscal lawn continued.

But the argument whereby risk-sharing may help to greatly reduce risk, or whereby solidarity, in some specific circumstances, contributes to efficient risk-reduction, is compelling in this case as well, and our work on the design and proper timeframe for such an instrument should continue.

All of that is true and just in case people missed it then the ECB broadcasted it from its social media feeds as well.

Why has Mario done this?

One view might be that as he approaches the end of his term he feels that he can do this in a way he could not before. Another ties in with a theme of this website which is to use the words of Governor Carney that monetary policy may not be “maxxed out” but there are clear signs of fatigue and side-effects. Mario may well have had a sleepless night or two as he thinks of his own recent words about the Euro area economy.

When we look at the indicators that showed significant, sharp declines, we see that, first of all, the fact that all countries reported means that this loss of momentum is pretty broad across countries. It’s also broad across sectors because when we look at the indicators, it’s both hard and soft survey-based indicators.

Where this fits in with my theme is that this is happening with an official deposit rate of -0.4% and not only an enormously expanded balance sheet but ongoing QE. Thus the sleepless nights will be when Mario wonders what  to do if this also turns out to be ongoing? The two obvious monetary responses have problems as whilst what economists call the “lower bound” has proved to be yet another mirage that is so far and plunging further into the icy cold world of negative interest-rates increases the risk of a dash to cash. The second response which ties in with the issue of policy in Germany is that the ECB is running out of German bunds to buy so firing up the QE operation again is also problematic.

Fiscal Policy

The problem puts Mario on an Odyssey.

And if you’re looking for a way out
I won’t stand here in your way.

In terms of economic theory there is a glittering prize in view here but sadly it only shows an example of what might be called simple minds. This is because at the “lower bound” for interest-rates in a liquidity trap  fiscal policy will be at its most effective according to that theory. So far go good until we note that the “lower bound” has got er lower and lower. There was of course the Governor Carney faux pas of saying it was at 0.5% and then not only cutting to 0.25% but planning to cut to 0.1% before the latter was abandoned but also some argued it was at 0% and of course quite a bit of the world is currently below that.

So Mario is calling for some fiscal policy and as so often all eyes turn to Germany which as I have pointed out before is operating fiscal policy but one heading in the opposite direction as I pointed out on the 20th of November.

Germany’s federal budget  surplus hit a record 18.3 billion euros ($21.6 billion) for the first half of 2017.

This poses various problems as I then pointed out.

With its role in the Euro area should a country with its trade surpluses be aiming at a fiscal surplus too or should it be more expansionary to help reduce both and thus help others?

As you can see Mario is leaving the conceptual issue behind and simply concentrating on his worries for 2018. This of course is standard Euro area policy where changes come in for an emergency and then find themselves becoming permanent. Although to be fair they are far from alone from this as I note that Income Tax in the UK was supposed to be a temporary way of helping to finance the Napoleonic wars.

Comment

This speech may well turn out to be as famous as the “Whatever it takes ( to save the Euro) one. In terms of his own operations Mario has proved to be a steadfast supporter of it but the monetary policy ammunition locker has been emptied. It is also true that it means he has been something of a one-club golfer because the Euro area political class has in essence embraced austerity and left Mario rather lonely. Now his time is running out he is in effect pointing that out and asking for help. Perhaps he is envious of what President Trump has just enacted in the United States.

There are clear problems though. We have been on this road before and it has turned out to be a road to nowhere in spite of many talking heads supporting it. In essence it relies in the backing of Germany and it has been unwilling to allow supranational Eurobonds where for example Italy and Greece could borrow with the German taxpayer potentially on the hook. If anything Germany seems to be heading in the direction of being even more fiscally conservative.

If we look wider we see that at the heart of this is something which has dogged the credit crunch era. If you believe one of the causes of it was imbalances well the German trade surplus has if anything swelled and now it is adding fiscal surpluses to that. Next if we look more narrowly there are the ongoing ch-ch-changes in Mario’s home country Italy. From the Wall Street Journal.

Both parties vowed to scrap or dilute an unpopular pension overhaul from 2011 that steadily raises the retirement age. Economists say the parties’ fiscal promises, if enacted in full, would greatly add to Italy’s budget shortfall, likely breaking EU rules that cap deficits at 3% of gross domestic product. Italy’s public debt, at 132% of GDP, is the EU’s highest after Greece.

So is it to save the Euro or to keep Italy in it?

Euro area monetary policy heads for a new frontier

The issue of monetary policy in the Euro area is of significance on several levels. Obviously it affects the Euro area itself but also it affects many countries around it as in a nod to the sad departure of Stephen Hawking overnight it is time to sing along with Muse.

Into the supermassive
Supermassive black hole
Supermassive black hole
Supermassive black hole
Supermassive black hole

This has been demonstrated by the way that zero and then negative interest-rates ( a deposit rate of -0.4%) in the Euro has forced others in the locale to follow suit. It was and is a factor in the -0.5% of Sweden the -0.65% certificate of deposit rate in Denmark and the -0.75% of Switzerland amongst others. It is also a factor in the UK still remaining with a Bank Rate of 0.5% after so many years have passed and not following the more traditional route of aping the moves of the US Federal Reserve.

What next?

This is the question on many lips both inside for obvious reasons but also outside the Euro area for the reasons above. Why? Well the President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi explained this earlier today in Frankfurt.

The economy has been growing consistently above current estimates of potential growth, by more than a percentage point last year. All euro area confidence indicators are close to their highest levels since the start of monetary union, even if the latest readings came in slightly below expectations.

This as I regularly point out means that monetary policy is facing a new frontier. This is because it is procyclical where it is expansionary in an existing expansion. Mario has in fact gone further than me in one area as in his view it is even more procyclical leading to output being more than 1% above potential. If that sounds a little mad I will return to it in a moment.  But another factor in this new frontier is the way that both negative interest-rates and QE have been deployed.

We’ll open up the doors and climb into the dawn
Confess your passion your secret fear
Prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier ( Donald Fagen)

Potential Output?

Looking at what output has been allows us to figure it out.

Over the whole year 2017, GDP rose by 2.3% in the euro area ( Eurostat)

That would mean that potential output is only 1% per annum but I suspect Mario really means the 2.7% if you compare the last quarter of 2017 with a year before so 1.5%. That is rather downbeat which is very common amongst central bankers these days as for example Governor Carney and the Bank of England used different language “speed limit” for the UK but also came to 1.5%. Due to demographic pressures the Bank of Japan is even more downbeat for Nihon at 1%.

We will see how the media treat that as they make a big deal of the UK situation but let is move onto what causes them to think this? We come to something which is genuinely troubling.

Second, the degree of slack itself is uncertain. Even if slack is now receding, estimates of the size of the output gap have to be made with caution. Strong growth may be leading to higher potential output, as crisis-induced hysteresis may be reversed in conditions of stronger demand. And the effects of past structural reforms, especially in the labour market, may now be showing up in potential output.

As you can see the certainty of earlier has gone as this clearly points out they do not know. We are back to imposing theory on reality again and even worse a failed theory as later we get this.

Phillips curve decompositions find that past low inflation dragged down wage growth from its long-term average by around 0.2 percentage points each year between 2014 and 2017.

If we step back we see that according to the Phillips Curve wages should be soaring as we are above potential output whereas in fact they are doing this.

 The unexplained residuals in the model – which in the past were sizeable – are diminishing, suggesting the link between unemployment and wages should improve.

As in there is no link visible yet but if you inhale enough hopium it will be along at some point! Also I hope you enjoyed the reference to labour market reforms from Mario as we mull the contrast between that and his policy press conferences which every time without fail have a section calling for economic reform.

More! More! More!

It is somewhat awkward when you are telling people the economy is running hot and implying it is overheating if you also say it may be about to run faster.

Non-essential purchases – which make up around 50% of household spending in the euro area – tend to be postponed during recessions and then to catch up as the business cycle advances. Such purchases are currently only 2% above their pre-crisis level, compared with 9% for essential ones. This implies that discretionary household spending still has scope to support the expansion.

So it is below potential Mario? Also an area central bankers love to see boom also seems to be below potential.

Moreover, housing investment is still 17% below its pre-crisis level and is only now starting to pick up, which will likely add an extra impulse to the recovery dynamic.

What about inflation?

This if you look at a Phillips Curve world should be on the march in both senses as wages and prices should be heading upwards and yet.

Wage growth has been trending upwards for the euro area as a whole, rising by 0.5 percentage points from the trough in mid-2016.

Not much is it? As to be fair Mario points out.

But consistent with the weakening of the relationship between slack and inflation, the adjustment of wages during the recovery has so far been atypically slow.

The trouble is the analysis seems to be based on pure hopium.

That said, our analysis suggests that, as the cycle advances, the standard wage Phillips curve should hold better for the euro area on average. The unexplained residuals in the model – which in the past were sizeable – are diminishing, suggesting the link between unemployment and wages should improve.

So when you really want it to work ( in a crisis) it fails and in calmer times it does not seem to work either. But they will continue with it anyway like someone who s stuck in the mud.

Comment

Actually I think that Mario Draghi is more intelligent than this as we see several themes come together. Back in the dim and distant days when I began Notayesmanseconomics I offered the opinion that central bankers would dither when it became time to reverse course on their stimuli. This became a bigger factor as the stimuli grew. Now we see a central banker telling us.

But we still need to see further evidence that inflation dynamics are moving in the right direction. So monetary policy will remain patient, persistent and prudent.

This works nicely for Mario as the inflation forecasts remain below the 1.97% inflation target defined by a predecessor of his ( Monsieur JC Trichet).

The latest ECB projections foresee a pickup in headline inflation from an average rate of 1.4% this year to 1.7% in 2020.

Thus as he has hinted at in past speeches which more than a few seem to have forgotten Mario Draghi may depart as ECB President without ever raising interest-rates. In fact it seems to be his plan and it is something he will leave as a “present” for whoever follows him. Another form of stimulus may have slowed but is still around as well.

The cumulative redemptions under the asset purchase programme between March 2018 and February 2019 are expected to be around EUR 167 billion. And reinvestment amounts will remain sizeable thereafter.

So now we see that policy has been decided and a theory ( Phillips Curve ) has been chosen which is convenient. Mario may not believe it either but it suits his purpose as does claiming their has been labour market reform. This is the same way that we have switched from the economic growth of the “Whatever it takes” speech to inflation now both suggest the same policy which allows Mario to give himself a round of applause.

 Considering all of the monetary measures taken between mid-2014 and October 2017, the overall impact on euro area growth and inflation is estimated, in both cases, to be around 1.9 percentage points cumulatively for the period between 2016 and 2019.

So another masterly performance from Mario Draghi but it should not cover up the many risks from advancing onto a new frontier of procyclical monetary policy.