Current bond yields imply a depressing view of the world economy

Let me welcome you all to 2019 as we advance on another new year. I hope that it will be a good one for all of you. As I look at financial markets there has been a development which in isolation is good news. This is that the US ten-year Treasury Bond yield is now 2.67%. That is good news for US taxpayers as their government can borrow more cheaply in spite of the current shut down of part of it and good news for US mortgage borrowers as it feed into fixed-rate borrowing costs. It compares to this situation which I looked at back on the 6th of December.

Now let us look at the US ten-year yield which is 2.9% as I type this and we see that in basic terms it is predicting a couple more 0.25% interest-rate rises.

I will look at why in a moment but let us now shift to the Wall Street Journal for another comparison.

The yield closed Monday at 2.68%, up from the 2.41% where it ended 2017.

The pattern is described by the WSJ below.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note—which moves inversely to price and helps set borrowing costs for consumers and businesses around the world—climbed higher at the start of 2018 as stocks rose and the dollar weakened. Investors were content to look past geopolitical tensions, and bonds’ fixed rates, given expectations for a soaring profits and economic growth……..Now, the yield has retreated from multiyear highs hit in November, falling below 3%

The pattern was that the ten-year Treasury Bond rose to 3.26% and you may recall that there were forecasts of it going above 4% at that time. To be fair “bond king” ( CNBC) Jeffrey Gundlach was looking at the thirty-year yield but that has just dipped below 3% today in a different big figure move. Back in July the St. Louis Federal Reserve looked at why it thought US bond yields were rising.

The expected long-term inflation rate and the expected long-term real growth rate of the economy are the most important factors that influence long-term yields. If bond buyers expect higher inflation or higher real growth, they will expect higher interest rates in the future and thus will demand a higher yield on the bonds they buy today.

Central bankers love this sort of thing but I wish you the best of luck in figuring either out in reality! Especially after the past credit crunch driven decade. We can say that the US economy has performed better than its peers so there is a little light in the fog but the next bit to my mind is more important than we are told.

Bond yields also depend on the uncertainty about these factors, so the volatility of expected inflation and growth also influence long-bond yields, but these variables are harder to measure and have smaller effects.

Yes they are harder to measure but we should not use that as an excuse to say they have smaller effects just because that is all we can find. The period between when that was written in July and now shows us how powerful this can be if we look at the ch-ch-changes. Also this bit has not worn well.

The growth in expected future fiscal deficits is likely to have contributed to the rise in relative yields.

That was true but is even more true now an yet yields have fallen as I pointed out earlier. Financial markets pick and choose which factors are the most important at the time and I note the St.Louis Fed missed out the main driver of bond yields in the modern era which is the impact of the policy of the Federal Reserve itself.

The international picture

I do agree with the St.Louis Fed on this point.

The international yields usually, but not always, move together. (  the U.K., Canada, Germany, Japan, Switzerland)

The next bit is awkward for them to analyse as we are back to the impact of central banking policies again. So Germany for instance has seen its bond yields continue to be driven lower by purchases made by the European Central Bank or ECB which have just stopped. But we see that the ten-year German bund yields a mere 0.18% as I type this. Again in isolation that is a benefit for German taxpayers and borrowers but there is also a problem which is highlighted by this from the Markit PMI from this morning.

The headline IHS Markit/BME Germany Manufacturing
PMI – a single-figure snapshot of the performance of the
manufacturing economy – slipped to 51.5 in December,
down from 51.8 in November and its lowest reading since
March 2016. It marked the eleventh time that the index had
fallen in 2018, down from a record high in December 2017.

The German economy has hit a weak phase and this includes the 0.2% fall in GDP in the third quarter of 2018. But the problem is that long-term it has benefited from a lower currency via replacing the Deutschmark with the Euro and in more recent times it has benefited from low and then negative interest-rates. What else is there? Also regular readers who have followed my regular updates on the weakening money supply data in the Euro area may have a wry smile at this.

but the extent of the slowdown has been somewhat of a surprise.

Central banking policy

This has changed although as ever the rhetoric is in the wrong direction. From Reuters.

The most prominent hawk on the European Central Bank’s board still expects an interest rate hike in 2019 but concedes that this will depend on inflation data in the first half of the year………Sabine Lautenschlaeger, a German who has long called for the ECB to tighten its ultra-loose policy, still hopes for a move next year if data allows.

Actually as we have looked at above the data would be considered grounds for considering an interest-rate cut if the ECB deposit rate was not already -0.4%. In my opinion we cannot completely rule out a rise because just like we saw in Sweden before Christmas there could be an attempt to get back to 0% before things get any worse. But it would be an example of what in itself being a good idea being done with bad timing which means it should not happen.

If we move back to the US the simple fact is that the interest-rate rise of a couple of weeks ago may be the last one. Also due to technical reasons ( the amount of Quantitative Tightening or QT depends on maturing bonds) the bond sales will slow in 2019 anyway, but in a slow down there will be pressure for QE4 to head down the slipway.

Comment

What started as good news leads to a more uncomfortable picture as we note that the real shift has been in economic data. This as we looked at last year got worse as we saw a slow down in monetary data lead to weaker economies around the world. This morning has seen another sign of this. From CNBC.

The moves in pre-market trade come after a private sector survey showed manufacturing activity in the world’s second-largest economy contracted for the first time in 19 months. China’s Markit Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for December dipped to 49.7 from 50.2 in November.

This added to the news that auto sales had fallen by 16% in November in China. We have also seen this from Chris Williamson on the Markit PMI data.

manufacturing indicates that last 3 months of 2018 saw the worst factory output growth since the Q2 2013, with firms having to eat into backorders to sustain production levels. Some temporary factors evident but trend looks worryingly weak

Stock markets have led this and I note that they are lower today although we need to note the extraordinary ups and downs of the holiday period. Also there is the role of the price of crude oil which also was volatile but overall has been falling. It supports bond prices and reduces bond yields but affecting inflation projections and also signalling a potentially weaker economy.

So there you have it as we find that what looks like good news is a signal for bad economic trends. It does show markets responding in the way that they should. The problem is their starting point and for that all eyes turn to the central banks who have driven them there. Get ready for the claims that “it could not possibly have been expected” and “Surprise!Surprise!” We already start with trillions of bonds with a negative yield so what can be gained?

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What is happening to house prices and rents in Ireland?

Yesterday brought us up to date with house price changes in the Euro area at least for the start of 2018. From Eurostat.

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 4.5% in the euro area and by 4.7% in the EU in the
first quarter of 2018 compared with the same quarter of the previous year…….Compared with the fourth quarter of 2017, house prices rose by 0.6% in the euro area and by 0.7% in the EU in the first quarter of 2018.

As you might expect there are some swings from country to country but before we get there we see some interpretation of history.

House prices in the EU up 11 % since 2010

Actually they fell for a while due to the Euro area crisis and then responded to the “Whatever It Takes” measures.

Prices started growing again in 2014.

A particular disappointment to Mario Draghi must be that his home country Italy has ignored all his efforts to pump up house prices as they fell there by 0.4% over the last year and are down 15% since 2010. Meanwhile my attention was drawn to Ireland with its 12.3% rise in the latest year.

This is because the boom and then bust in Irish house prices took much of the banking system with it.  This meant via the usual privatisation of profits but socialisation of losses with respect to the banking system the Irish taxpayer found themselves in this situation described by its national debt agency NTMA.

That may bring Ireland’s high stock of debt – which at €213bn is more than four times its 2007 level – into sharp focus. Whilst our debt ratios are improving, our total nominal debt is still rising as we continue to borrow to pay interest.

This means that whilst the interest-rate or yield on Ireland’s bonds has fallen a lot mostly due to the bond buying or QE of the ECB (European Central Bank) there is a tidy bill to pay each year.

Almost irrespective of the external interest rate environment, we still expect Ireland’s annual interest bill to fall towards €5bn in the near term, from €6.1bn in 2017 and a peak of €7.5bn in 2014.

Ireland now only has an interest-rate of 0.81% on its ten-year benchmark bond so a fair bit lower than the UK which represents quite a change when we borrowed money to lend to theme to help them out.

House prices

The Irish statistics office or CSO brings us more up to date.

In the year to April, residential property prices at national level increased by 13.0%. This compares with an increase of 12.6% in the year to March and an increase of 9.5% in the twelve months to April 2017.

As you can see the pace has been picking up although it is no longer being quite so led by Dublin.

In Dublin, residential property prices increased by 12.5% in the year to April. Dublin house prices increased 11.7%. Apartments in Dublin increased 15.9% in the same period.

The reason why I raise the Dublin issue is that it has seen the widest swings as it had the biggest bubble then fell the most and then for a while picked back up more quickly. Or as it is put here.

From the trough in early 2013, prices nationally have increased by 76.0%. Dublin residential property prices have increased 90.1% from their February 2012 low, whilst residential property prices in the Rest of Ireland are 69.9% higher than the trough, which was in May 2013.

That is quite a surge is it not? Whilst the Dublin recovery started earlier nearly all of this fits with the “Whatever It Takes” policies and timing of the ECB, Of course it raises old fears as well although we are not back to where the bubble burst.

Overall, the national index is 21.1% lower than its highest level in 2007. Dublin residential property prices are 23.3% lower than their February 2007 peak, while residential property prices in the Rest of Ireland are 26.1% lower than their May 2007 peak.

Oh and maybe another issue is having an impact.

The Border region showed the least price growth, with house prices increasing 9.3%.

Rents

We can track these down via the consumer inflation numbers and we get a hint here.

Housing, Water, Electricity, Gas & Other Fuels rose mainly due to higher rents and an increase in the price of home heating oil and electricity.

Looking into the detail we see that rents have risen by 7.4% over the past year and by 0.5% in May. The larger private-sector market is currently seeing a faster rate of rise but there must have been quite a chunky rise in public-sector rents at some point in the last year as they are up by 10.6% over that period.

Mortgage Interest-Rates

I found these hard to track down as the Central Bank of Ireland changed its reporting system but the Irish Consumer Price Index gives us a guide. It must have been designed in a similar way to the UK RPI as it includes mortgage interest-rates. The index for this was 143 when Mario Draghi was giving his “Whatever It Takes” ( to reduce mortgage rates) speech whereas in May it was 99.1.

Although rather curiously the Irish Independent reports that many have not bothered to switch to lower mortgage-rates.

KBC Bank is due to tell the Oireachtas Finance Committee it has 36,000 residential customers paying variable rates, which are its most expensive home-loan option, when they could get a lower priced deal from a bank.

It comes after it emerged that more than 100,000 homeowners at Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB are paying up to €3,000 more a year on their mortgages than they need to at the two banks.

Perhaps they do not realise they can get them as I recall Ireland having a situation where many could not switch due to the house price falls.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here and let me open by agreeing to some extent with Mario Draghi.

European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi has linked the current spike in Irish property prices to “the search for yield by international investors”.

Mr Draghi said the real estate market in the Republic and several other EU states was “overstretched” and vulnerable to “repricing”. ( Irish Times yesterday).

He cannot bring himself to say falls nor to acknowledge his own role in them being overstretched but he does have time to bring up the fall guy which is of course financial terrorists.

 being fuelled by cross-border financing and non-banks, and that it would be important to investigate whether new macro-prudential instruments should be introduced for non-banks, especially in relation to their commercial real estate exposures.

We can’t have banks losing profitable business can we? Speaking of macro-prudential so the 2015 measures did not work then which is not a surprise here but perhaps a suggestion from the UK might help.

Under such a target the Bank of England should aim to keep nominal house price inflation at (say)
zero per cent for an initial period – perhaps five years – to reset expectations, ( IPPR)

So the organisation which has pumped them up has the job of controlling them? Whilst the central planners would love this sadly it would not work and I say that as someone who thinks we badly need lower house prices and switching back to Ireland because of this sort of thing. From the Irish Examiner.

The scramble to find a home in the crisis-hit rental sector has led to people queuing to view a €900-a-month one-bedroom apartment on Cork’s Tuckey Street……..

Piet said last week they were the first people in a 50-person queue on MacCurtain Street and were refused the apartment because they did not have a reference letter with them.

Piet said the rental sector is a lot more expensive than it was a few years ago.

The average rental property in Cork has soared to above €1,210 a month — up almost 10% on last year.

“We pushed the boat out to €900 a month just to get somewhere nice. That is the very end of our budget,” said Piet.

Or to put it another way with both house prices and rents soaring the rentiers are quids ( Euros) in.