Much better UK public borrowing gives the Chancellor an extra Budget option

Sometime we find ourselves with the opportunity to look at things from a different perspective and learn from it and this morning is providing that. Let me illustrate with this tweet from @SunChartist.

Are 4.5 year high in Italian bond & 52 week high on Spanish bonds yields bullish Euro? Asking for a friend.

It did not need to draw my attention to the Italian bond market which has been falling again and set new lows for this phase today. In futures terms its BTP December contract is a bit over 118 which means the ten-year yield has reached 3.8%. I forget which investment bank said that between 3,5% and 4% was the point of no return. That is over dramatic in my opinion, but it is what Taylor Swift would call a sign of “trouble,trouble,trouble”.

There is now a hint of contagion as we note that the Spanish bond market is falling today and its equivalent yield is now 1.8%. Context is needed as it is less than half the Italian equivalent and rises were always likely as the ECB scaled back its purchases under its QE programme but a change none the less. However and this is my main opening thrust today there is a small or medium-sized island depending on your perspective which has seen its bonds doing well over the last week or so. It is the UK where the ten-year Gilt yield has fallen from above 1.71% to 1.53%. Again memes can be overdone but looked at in isolation there is a case for suggesting there has perhaps been what is called a flight to quality or a move towards a safe haven. Of course safer haven would be a better description for a market once described as being on a “bed of nitroglycerine” but however you spin it UK Gilts have been in demand.

I have looked at it this way because this week the media have been looking at it in a different way as this from the Financial Times highlights.

Even if Mr Hammond sticks to his current target of balancing the government’s books by the mid 2020s, government debt will fall only slowly as a proportion of GDP, because the long-term outlook for growth is so lacklustre.

Actually this misses out that the national debt to GDP ratio is falling which has been demonstrated by this morning’s official release.

Debt (Public sector net debt excluding public sector banks) at the end of September 2018 was £1,789.5 billion (or 84.3% of gross domestic product (GDP)); an increase of £3.4 billion (or a decrease of 2.4 percentage points) on September 2017.

As you can see we are seeing a fall and economic growth is lacklustre as the recent rally is not yet in the figures. In essence the outlook for the public finances is always poor if you have a weak economy. Anyone who did not know that has been taught it by the experience of Italy.

If we move onto the other parts of the FT quote there is the reference to the ongoing fantasy that the government has some plan to actually balance the books. Personally I think it has been surprised by the recent better figures as it was continuing the past philosophy of George Osborne where a balanced budget was perpetually 3/4 years away.

So in fact something which is being spun as unlikely is if we look at the facts above quite possible especially as we note that the UK Gilt market has not only ignore such reports it has rallied.

“Increasing borrowing is clearly the line of least resistance,” said Paul Johnson, the IFS’ director, noting that Conservative chancellors have historically been more likely to announce giveaways when the public finances were better than expected, than to raise taxes when finances were worse than expected.

Still there is something refreshing which is the acknowledgement of this, and the emphasis is mine.

debt could rise as a share of national income over the longer term, because periodic recessions would hit the public finances.

I do hope that this is not a one-off and that the IFS will continue on this road as I am reminded of a bit in the film Snatch which explains the economic consequences.

All bets are off!

Today’s Data

We had another month of improved figures.

Borrowing (Public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks) in September 2018 was £4.1 billion, £0.8 billion less than in September 2017; this was the lowest September borrowing for 11 years (since 2007).

This meant that the deeper perspective continues to look good as well.

Borrowing in the current financial year-to-date (YTD) was £19.9 billion: £10.7 billion less than in the same period in 2017; the lowest year-to-date for 16 years (since 2002).

This was due to the fact that tax receipts are solid and spending increases have been below the rate of inflation.

In the current financial YTD, central government received £352.4 billion in income, including £265.6 billion in taxes. This was around 4% more than in the same period in 2017.

Over the same period, central government spent £368.0 billion, around 2% more than in the same period in 2017.

If we look into the detail we see that VAT receipts are strong being up £4.4 billion at £74.7 billion. Also Income Tax is doing well as it is up £5.8 billion at £81 billion in the tax year so far. Given the state of the UK housing market you will not be surprised to see that Stamp Duty receipts have fallen by £0.5 billion to £6.5 billion.

On the other side of the coin you could argue that the fall in spending is flattered by lower debt costs of £3.1 billion as the impact of past inflation rises washes out of index-linked Gilts to some extent.

Comment

As you can see the UK Gilt market has been on the opposite path to the rhetoric of the mainstream media and those presented by them as authorities. One way of looking at this is to consider the phrase “put your money where you mouth is”. But it is also true that markets are not always right which has been highlighted this year best by those who bought Italian bonds at a negative yield. That is not going to be so easy at the next investors conference “Wait, you actually paid to hold Italian bonds?”. It is also perhaps revealing to note that the media seems to have taken Paul Simon’s advice about the Gilt market rally.

No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

It is, however also wrong to say it is plain sailing as whilst we have entered a better phase it could quickly change if the economy stopped ignoring the weakness in the monetary data. Actually some of the tax receipt data above hints the economy may have done better than we have been told. So on that note let me leave you with the words of Avril Lavigne.

Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?
I see the way you’re
Actin’ like you’re somebody else, gets me frustrated

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Higher bond yields and higher inflation mean higher national debt costs

The last week or so has brought a theme of this blog back to life and reminds me of the many years I spent working in bond markets. They have spent much of the credit crunch era being an economic version of the dog that did not bark. Much of that has been due to the enormous scale of the QE ( Quantitative Easing) sovereign bond buying policies of many of the major central banks. The politicians who came up with the idea of making central banks independent and then staffing them with people who were anything but should be warmly toasted by their successors. The successors would never have got away with a policy which has benefited them enormously in terms of ability to spend because of lower debt costs.

Italy

However the times are now a-changing and this morning has brought more bad news on this front from Italy. The BTP bond future for December has fallen to 120 which means it has lost a bit over 7 points over the last ten or eleven days. Putting that into yield terms it means that the ten-year yield has reached 3.5% which has a degree of symbolism. A factor in this is described by the Financial Times.

The commission issued its warning to the Five Star and League governing coalition after Rome deviated from the EU’s fiscal rules by proposing a budget deficit equivalent to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product instead of the 1.6 per cent previously mooted by the finance minister Giovanni Tria. Although the new plans keep Italy under the EU’s 3 per cent deficit threshold, the country’s high debt levels — the highest in the eurozone after Greece — means Rome is required to cut spending to bring debt levels gradually lower.

However the chart below tells us that in fact you can look at it from another point of view entirely.

Actually I think that the situation is more pronounced than that as the ECB has bought 356 billion Euros worth. But you get the idea. It is hard not to think that a major factor in the recent falls is the halving of ECB QE purchases since the beginning of this month and to worry about their end in the New Year. In case you were wondering why the share prices of Italian banks have been tumbling again recently? The fact they have been buying in size in 2018 when one of the trades of 2018 has been to sell Italian bonds gives quite a clue.

If we switch to the consequences for debt costs then a rough rule of thumb is to multiply the 3.5% by the national debt to GDP ratio of 1.33 which gives us 4.65%. In practice this takes time as there is a large stock of debt and the impact from new debt takes time. For example Italy issued 2 billion Euros of its ten-year on the 28th of last month at 2.9%. So a fair bit less than now although much more expensive that it had got used too. This below from the Italian Treasury forecasts gives an idea of how the higher yields impact over time.

The redemptions in 2018 are approximately €184 billion (excluding BOTs) including approximately
€3 billion in relation to the international programme……..the average life of the stock of
government securities, which was 6.9 years at the end of 2017.

Oh and the tipping point below has been reached. From the Wall Street Journal.

Harvinder Sian, a bond strategist at Citigroup, thinks a 10-year yield of 3.5%-4% is now the tipping point, after which yields jump toward the 7% reached at the height of the last euro crisis

Personally I am not so sure about tipping point as the “gentlemen of the spread” ( with apologies to female bond traders) have been selling it at quite a rate anyway.

 

The United States

Here bond yields have been rising recently and let us take the advice of President Trump and look at what has happened during his term of office. Whilst back then Newsweek was busy congratulating Madame President Hilary Clinton my attention was elsewhere.

There has been a clear market adjustment to this which is that the 30 year ( long bond) yield has risen by 0.12% to 2.75%.

We see that it has risen in the Trump era to 3.4% although maybe not by as much as might have been expected. However if we look to shorter maturities we see a much stronger impact.For example the two-year now yields some 2.9% and the five-year some 3.07%. So if you read about flat yield curves this is what is meant although it is not (yet) literally true as there is a 0.5% difference. Thus the US now faces a yield of circa 3% or so looking ahead. This does have an impact as the New York Times has pointed out.

The federal government could soon pay more in interest on its debt than it spends on the military, Medicaid or children’s programs.

In terms of numbers this is what they think.

Within a decade, more than $900 billion in interest payments will be due annually, easily outpacing spending on myriad other programs. Already the fastest-growing major government expense, the cost of interest is on track to hit $390 billion next year, nearly 50 percent more than in 2017, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

If we switch to the Congressional Budget Office it breaks down some of the influences at play here.From its September report.

Outlays for net interest on the public debt increased by $62 billion (or 20 percent), partly because of a higher rate of inflation.

The CBO points out a factor the New York Times missed which is that countries with index-linked debt are also hit by higher inflation. As the US has some US $1.38 trillion of these it is a considerable factor.

Also the US is borrowing more.

The federal budget deficit was $782 billion in fiscal year 2018, the Congressional Budget Office estimates,
$116 billion more than the shortfall recorded in fiscal year 2017………The 2018 deficit equaled an estimated 3.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), up from 3.5 percent in
2017. (If not for the timing shifts, the 2018 deficit would have equaled 4.1 percent of GDP.)

Higher bond yields combined with higher fiscal deficits mean more worries about this factor.

At 78 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), federal
debt held by the public is now at its highest level since
shortly after World War II. If current laws generally
remained unchanged, the Congressional Budget Office
projects, growing budget deficits would boost that
debt sharply over the next 30 years; it would approach
100 percent of GDP by the end of the next decade and
152 percent by 2048 . That amount would
be the highest in the nation’s history by far.

I counsel a lot of caution with this as 2048 will have all sorts of things we cannot think of right now. But the debt is heading higher in the period we can reasonably project and I note the CBO is omitting the debt held by the US Federal Reserve so that QE would make the figures look better but the current QT makes it look worse.

Comment

Debt costs and the associated concept of the mythical bond vigilantes have been in a QE driven hibernation but they seem to be showing signs of waking up. If we look at today’s two examples we see different roads to the destination. If we look at the road to Rome we see that the longer-term factor has been the lost decades involving a lack of economic growth. This has made it vulnerable to rising bond yields and which means that the straw currently breaking the camel’s back has been what is a very small fiscal shift. It is also a case of bad timing as it has taken place as the ECB departs the bond purchases scene.

The US is different in that it has a much better economic growth trajectory but has a President who has also primed the fiscal pumps. Should it grow strongly then the Donald will win “bigly” as he will no doubt let us know. However should economic growth weaken or the long overdue recession appear then the debt metrics will slip away quite quickly. That is a road to QE4.

Returning back home I note that UK Gilt yields are higher with the ten-year passing 1.7% last week for the first time for a few years.So the collar is a little tighter.The main impact on the UK came from the rise in inflation in 2017 leading to higher index-linked debt costs. This was the main factor in our annual debt costs rising by around £10 billion between 2015/16 and 2017/18.

 

 

 

 

The UK Public Finances have an August stumble

Yesterday we looked at the plans of Lord Skidelsky for fiscal expansionism. Let me add to that the implication of his lines of thought is that he would boost government spending now. Whilst we are not in a 2008 style slump he was clear that he thinks we have not recovered from it and some metrics confirm that. For example if you look at Gross Domestic Product and employment we have, but the case is much weaker with GDP per head and invisible with real wages.

This brings us to a familiar issue which is whether we have had austerity or fiscal stimulus in the credit crunch era? The problem with the assertions of outright austerity is that we have run a fiscal deficit throughout the period. Language shifts over time and I can recall when that would have been called a fiscal stimulus. This does matter as I can easily name two countries who are running what might be called outright austerity in the sense of both having and planning for a fiscal surplus and they are Germany and Sweden. In the UK sense it has meant reducing the fiscal deficit and in overall terms there have been two phases as there was a change made around 2012 that softened the effort. In practice we have also seen something of a lagged response to the effort. What I mean by that is that the deficit numbers took a while to respond to the economic recovery but more recently have picked up the pace.

Putting the issue into two numbers you could say that the amount we are borrowing now offers some support for Lord Skidelsky as it was £39.4 billion in the last financial year. But the amount we have borrowed heads us in the other direction because if you take the collapse of Northern Rock as the start of the credit crunch we have added some £1.23 trillion to the UK National Debt since. For those of you wondering how we have possibly afforded this let me point you in the direction of Threadneedle Street as it is the £435 billion  QE Gilt purchases of the Bank of England which have allowed it via their impact on Gilt yields. In spite of the recent trend towards higher borrowing costs exemplified by the US ten-year Treasury Note yielding 3.09% the equivalent Gilt yields a mere 1.6%.

Borrowing Costs

Let me hand myself a slice of humble pie to eat. The reason for that is if you had asked me where Gilt yields would be a decade or so later when the credit crunch began the chances of me being right would have been slim to none ( and in line with the joke slim was out of town). In an area I was right ( long time readers will recall I was long of some UK index-linked Gilts anticipating correctly a rise in inflation), I did not envisage that one day conventional Gilt yields would be so low that the price of linkers would be driven higher because they offered some sort of coupon.Madness! Or rather the consequences of the Sledgehammer QE of August 2016 about which history will not be kind.

Today’s Data

National Debt

We can continue the Bank of England theme as it has had an impact here too and one can only imagine the panic back in July and August of 2016 when they managed to devise schemes to do this.

Since August 2017, the net debt associated with the Bank of England (BoE) increased by £44.6 billion to £193.2 billion. Nearly all of this growth was due to the activities of the Asset Purchase Facility Fund, of which the TFS is a part.

The TFS closed for drawdowns of further loans on 28 February 2018 with a loan liability of £127.0 billion. The TFS loan liability at the end of August 2018 was £126.5 billion.

Yet again we find ourselves at least in terms of the official statistics indebted to provide yet another subsidy to the banking sector. This is a shame as our performance on this metric has been improving.

Debt (Public sector net debt excluding public sector banks (PSND ex)) at the end of August 2018 was £1,781.9 billion (or 84.3% of gross domestic product (GDP)); an increase of £15.9 billion (or a decrease of 1.8 percentage points) on August 2017.

The debt has continued to increase but has done so more slowly than economic output or GDP so in relative terms it has declined.

The Fiscal Deficit

We have got used to a sequence of good numbers so I guess we were due something like this.

Borrowing (Public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks (PSNB ex)) in August 2018 was £6.8 billion, £2.4 billion more than in August 2017; this was the largest August borrowing for two years (since 2016).

It is hard not to have a wry smile as we investigate the reason for this because you may recall last month the UK had really crunched down on spending.

While current receipts in August have increased by 1.6%, to £55.6 billion compared with August 2017, total expenditure increased by 6.9% to £60.4 billion.

We are told that this was influenced by the “triple-lock” effect on the basic state pension (3%) but that seems weak to me as that has been in play since April. In fact every spending category was higher and after the excitement in Salzburg yesterday there is food for thought in this.

The UK contributions to the EU in August 2008 were £1.0 billion; a £0.6 billion increase on August 2017, seeing a return to a similar level as 2016 after a low 2017 due to an EU Budget surplus distributed to member states.

If we return to the underlying trend we see that in spite of this month we remain overall in a better phase for the deficit.

Borrowing (PSNB ex) in the current financial year-to-date (YTD) was £17.8 billion: £7.8 billion less than in the same period in 2017; the lowest year-to-date for 16 years (since 2002).

This is because the rate of growth of revenues at ~4% is higher than the rate of growth of spending at ~2%. The latest strong set of retail sales figures are backed up by the VAT data and income tax is doing pretty well too. Also the overall trend to lower inflation has reduced debt costs by £2.3 billion via the RPI.

One area which is of note is a confirmation of a slowing of the housing market as Stamp Duty revenues have dipped by £400 million to £5.5 billion.

Comment

The UK has made considerable progress in reducing its fiscal deficit and as ever a time like this brings us to something of a crossroads. Some will want to press on with this and others will be sympathetic to a Lord Skidelsky expansion. The latter are supported by the reality that austerity such as it is has in some cases hit the weaker members of our society. The former may note that whilst the cost of our debt remains low a continuation of the recent rise in Gilt yields will begin to get expensive. The simple truth is that we have so much more of it these days as if we return to the Northern Rock collapse we owed £0.54 trillion as opposed to the £1.77 trillion now (year to July). Putting it another way that is why some of you have replied on here saying we cannot afford interest-rates and yields of more than 3%.

In terms of the underlying economy our present trajectory continues to be one of bumbling along so it should support the fiscal position and mean that the Office for Budget Responsibility is wrong again.The OBR’s only hope is that the weak monetary data acts as a stronger drag on the economy which is an irony as I don’t think it has a monetarist on it. Meanwhile the boost provided by the booming housing market is fading away.

As some Friday humour I present this to you from the Washington Post.

I wanted to understand Europe’s populism. So I talked to Bono.

Me on Core Finance

 

 

The UK public finances are seeing outright austerity

The UK Public Finances are something that have been quietly improving over the past year or two. This has been taking place mostly outside the news headlines partly because the numbers are much smaller than they were. From the Office of National Statistics or ONS.

Over the next 12 months (April 2018 to March 2019), the Office for Budget Responsibility, which produces the official government forecasts, expects the public sector to borrow £37.1 billion; around one-quarter of what it borrowed in the financial year ending March 2010 (April 2009 to March 2010), at the peak of the financial crisis.

Another reason why this has been in the shade rather than daylight is that it has to some extent come in spite of our economic performance. If we look back regular readers will recall times when UK economic growth was a fair bit stronger than now but the public finances were slow to respond whereas now we are seeing some catch-up. Of course an alternative view is that maybe we were not doing quite so well back then and perhaps are doing better now than we are told.

In terms of economic growth the position looks as though it has improved slightly with the NIESR suggesting this.

Building on the official data, our monthly GDP Tracker suggests that growth is set to nudge higher to 0.5 per cent in the third quarter.Recent survey evidence suggests that the manufacturing and construction sectors are recovering after a particularly weak start to the year and the dominant services sector is set to maintain a similar rate of growth in the third quarter.

Should this turn out to be true it will provide a more favourable back drop for the public finances than the first half of this year. Tucked away in the detail was something else which in terms of economic theory and to some extent practice was hopeful.

Growth is now close to our estimate of potential.

They think the economy can grow at 0.6% per quarter which is a fair bit higher than the 1.5% per annum “speed limit” produced by the Bank of England Ivory Tower. It would be helped considerably if any of this came true. From the BBC.

Britain can be a “21st Century exporting superpower”, Liam Fox is expected to say in a speech detailing the government’s post-Brexit ambitions.

The international trade secretary will say he wants exports as a proportion of UK GDP to rise from 30% to 35%.

Of course we all want lots of things and the real issue is what plan there is to achieve this.

A Helping Hand

I have pointed out before how the policies of the Bank of England and QE (Quantitative Easing) in particular have been very government friendly. This issue was taken up by Toby Nangle yesterday.

Back in 2010 it was thought that UK debt service costs would soar, but lower rate rates (Gilt & BoE) have meant massive undershoot while debt level overshot big time.

It will come as no surprise that it was the Office for Budget Responsibility was completely wrong but the difference in the numbers is stunning. Using Toby’s projections we can estimate debt costs per annum at around £80 billion whereas in reality it is in the low forty billions. Also per unit the move has been even larger because we have borrowed much more than the OBR projected.

So we have two factors here the first is the impact of lower Gilt yields due to the low official interest-rates and QE sovereign bond purchases and the second is the fact that the Bank of England owns around 22% of the Gilt market and refunds the money ( minus costs) to the government.

Whilst we looking at Gilt yields they have been falling again recently with the ten-year yield down from 1.4% when the Bank of England raised Bank Rate to 1.24% now. This seems set to reduce debt costs further as well as meaning that Governor Carney’s bazooka looks reduced to one of those potato guns I used to play with as a child.

Today’s data

The good news keeps on coming to coin a phrase. From the ONS.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) was in surplus by £2.0 billion in July 2018, a £1.0 billion greater surplus than in July 2017; this is the largest July surplus for 18 years (2000).

For those wondering about the surplus this is because July is a month for Self Assessment payments and therefore has a favourable wind behind it. But if we move to the financial year so far the picture remains good.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) in the current financial year-to-date (April 2018 to July 2018) was £12.8 billion; that is, £8.5 billion less than in the same period in 2017; this is the lowest year-to-date (April to July) net borrowing for 16 years (2002).

As you can see this is quite a drop and moves us into a zone where we can for once dream ( or for some as I will discuss later have nightmares) about an actual surplus. If we look into what is driving this we see that revenues are strong rising by 5% and in particular income tax is up by 6.1% perhaps hinting the economy has been stronger than we thought. On the other side of the coin we get an insight into cooling in the housing market in the way that Stamp Duty receipts are down by just under £400 million to £4.3 billion.

Austerity

We have often debated how much of this we have seen but the year to date figures show one of the clearest signals of it we have had.

Over the same period, central government spent £246.9 billion, around 1% less than in the same period in 2017.

After all we have found ourselves mostly discussing austerity allowing for inflation whereas at the moment we have outright austerity. Also those looking at the problems various councils are facing ( e.g Northamptonshire) will find their eyes alighting on this.

 while local government borrowing was in surplus by £4.9 billion.

National Debt

We can expect an aggressive headline today from the London Evening Standard once its editor spots that the current Chancellor is achieving one of his great hopes. The emphasis is mine.

Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) was £1,777.5 billion at the end of July 2018, equivalent to 84.3% of gross domestic product (GDP), an increase of £17.5 billion (or a decrease of 1.7 percentage points as a ratio of GDP) on July 2017.

Comment

The situation we find ourselves in is one which we were promised for 2015/16 so it has come Network Rail style. Also there is a space oddity element about it as the previous chancellor was supposed to be the man for austerity and Phillip Hammond was one for a more relaxed view yet reality looks the opposite. An alternative view is that the numbers are much less under their control than they would like us to think. But such as they are and judging them on their own basis they now look pretty good. As ever they depend a lot on economic growth but should that continue the trajectory is for a surplus and a declining debt to GDP ratio and maybe even some falls in the national debt.

There are three challenges to this. The first is the most basic which is the inability of politicians to keep their hands out of the cookie jar. That brings us to the second which is to some extent related which is that some areas such as local councils seem to have an especially tight noose around their neck at the moment highlighted by the fact they are in surplus so far this year by £4.9 billion. Something odd is going on there. We can take this forward more generally as to whether tight now we want or need outright austerity? Even without the impact of lower inflation on debt interest we would be spending the same as last year.

Next comes the issue of the reliability of official statistics which has been raised recently by the Resolution Foundation.

When we first looked at the data, back in 2012, we came up with a clear answer: the corporate sector had been sitting on too much cash for too long……..By June 2017, a series of data revisions had lowered the scale of the corporate surplus across the entirety of the period, by a relatively uniform average of 2.4 per cent of GDP per year.

That is quite a lot but it was not the end of the story.

But a change of 4 per cent of GDP in both 2015 and 2016 – worth roughly £80 billion a year – is huge. At the very least, it might better be considered a correction rather than a revision.

Impacts on the public finances are usually from a different route in terms of how you define things but for example if you added up the impact of the Housing Associations and the Term Funding Scheme of the Bank of England you end up debating around £190 billion in national debt terms.

 

Greece still faces a long hard road to end its economic depression

This morning has brought a development that many of you warned about in the comments section and it relates to Greece. So with a warning that I hope you have not just eaten let us begin.

You did it! Congratulations to Greece and its people on ending the programme of financial assistance. With huge efforts and European solidarity you seized the day. ( President Donald Tusk)

There was also this from the European Union Council.

“Greece has regained the control it fought for”, says Eurogroup President as today exits its financial assistance programme. 

There is an element of triumphalism here and that is what some of you warned about with the only caveat being that the first inkling of good news was supposed to be the cause whereas that is still in the mix. So there is an element of desperation about all of this. This is highlighted by the words of the largest creditor to Greece as the European Stability President Klaus Regling has said this and the emphasis is mine.

 We want Greece to be another success story, to be prosperous and a country trusted by investors. This can happen, provided Greece builds upon the progress achieved by continuing the reforms launched under the ESM programme.

What is the state of play?

It is important to remind ourselves as to what has happened in Greece because it is missing in the statements above and sadly the media seem to be mostly copying and pasting it. As you can imagine it made my blood boil as the business section of BBC Breakfast glibly assured us that a Grexit would have been a disaster. Meanwhile the reality is of an economy that has shrunk by around a quarter and an unemployment rate that even now is much more reminiscent of an economic disaster than a recovery.

 The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in May 2018 was 19.5%…..

The youth (15-24)  unemployment rate is 39.7% which means that not only will many young Greeks had never had a job but they still face a future with little or no prospect of one. Yesterday the New York Times put a human face on this.

When Dimitris Zafiriou landed a coveted full-time job two months ago, the salary was only half what he earned before Greece’s debt crisis. Yet after years of struggling, it was a step up.

“Now, our family has zero money left over at the end of the month,” Mr. Zafiriou, 47, a specialist in metal building infrastructure, said with a grim laugh. “But zero is better than what we had before, when we couldn’t pay the bills at all.”

The consequence of grinding and persistent unemployment and real wage cuts for even the relatively fortunate has been this.

A wrenching downturn, combined with nearly a decade of sharp spending cuts and tax increases to repair the nation’s finances, has left over a third of the population of 10 million near poverty, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Household incomes fell by over 30 percent, and more than a fifth of people are unable to pay basic expenses like rent, electricity and bank loans. A third of families have at least one unemployed member. And among those who do have a job, in-work poverty has climbed to one of the highest levels in Europe.

The concept of in work poverty is sadly not unique to Greece but some have been hit very hard.

Mrs. Pavlioti, a former supervisor at a Greek polling company, never dreamed she would need social assistance…….The longer she stays out of the formal job market, the harder it is to get back in. Recently she took a job as a babysitter with flexible hours, earning €450 a month — enough to pay the rent and bills, though not much else.

She provided quite a harsh critique of the triumphalism above.

“The end of the bailout makes no difference in our lives,” Mrs. Pavlioti said. “We are just surviving, not living.”

The end of the bailout

The ESM puts it like this.

Greece officially concludes its three-year ESM financial assistance programme today with a successful exit.

The word successful grates more than a little in the circumstances but it was possible that Greece could have been thrown out of the programme. It was never that likely along the lines of the aphorism that if you owe a bank one Euro it owns you but if you owe it a million you own it.

 As the ESM and EFSF are Greece’s largest creditors, holding 55% of total Greek government debt, our interests are aligned with those of Greece……..From 2010 to 2012, Greece received € 52.9 billion in bilateral loans under the so-called Greek Loan Facility from euro area Member States.

That is quite a lot of skin in the game to say the least. Because of that Greece is not as free as some might try to persuade you.

The ESM will continue to cooperate with the Greek authorities under the ESM’s Early Warning System, designed to ensure that beneficiary countries are able to repay the ESM as agreed. For that purpose, the ESM will receive regular reporting from Greece and will join the European Commission for its regular missions under the Enhanced Surveillance framework.

Back on February 12th I pointed out this.

 It is no coincidence that the “increased post-bailout monitoring” is expected to end in 2022, when the obligation for high primary surpluses of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product expires.

As you can see whilst the explicit bailout may be over the consequences of it remain and one of these is the continued “monitoring”. This is a confirmation of my point that whilst there has been crowing about the cheap cost of the loans in the end the size or capital burden of them will come into play.

Borrowing costs will rise

After an initial disastrous period when the objective was to punish Greece ( something from which Greece has yet to recover) the loans to Greece were made ever cheaper.

Thanks to the ESM’s and EFSF’s extremely advantageous loan conditions with long maturities and low-interest rates, Greece saves around €12 billion in debt servicing annually, 6.7% of GDP every year.  ( ESM)

So Greece is now turning down very cheap money as it borrows from the ESM at an average interest-rate of 1.62%. As I type this the ten-year yield for Greece is 4.34% which is not only much more it is a favourable comparison as the ESM has been lending very long-term to Greece. This was simultaneously good for Greece ( cheap borrowing) and for both ( otherwise everything looked completely unaffordable).

For now this may not be a big deal as with its fiscal surpluses Greece will not be in borrowing markets that much unless of course we see another economic downturn. There is a bond which matures on the 17th of April next year for example. Also the ECB did not help by ending its waiver for Greek government bonds which made it more expensive to use them as collateral with it and no doubt is a factor in the recent rise in Greek bond yields. Not a good portent for hopes of some QE purchases which of course are on the decline anyway.

Comment

The whole Greek saga was well encapsulated by Elton John back in the day.

It’s sad, so sad (so sad)
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd.

The big picture is that it should not have been allowed into the Euro in 2001. The boom which followed led to vanity projects like the 2004 Olympics and then was shown up by the global financial crash from which Greece received a fatal blow in economic terms. The peak was a quarterly economic output of 63.6 billion Euros in the second quarter of 2007 (2010 prices) and a claimed economic growth rate of over 5% (numbers from back then remain under a cloud). As the economy shrank doubts emerged and the Euro area debt crisis began meaning that the “shock and awe” bailout so lauded by Christine Lagarde who back then was the French Finance Minister backfired spectacularly. The promised 2.1% annual growth rate of 2012 morphed into actual annual growth rates of between -4.1% and -8.7%. Combined with the initial interest-rates applied the game was up via compound interest in spite of the private sector initiative or default.

Any claim of recovery needs to have as context that the latest quarterly GDP figure was 47.4 billion Euros. This means that even the present 2.3% annual rate of economic growth will take years and years to get back to the starting point. One way of putting this is that the promised land of 2012 looks like it may have turned up in 2018. Also after an economic collapse like this economies usually bounce back strongly in what is called a V-shaped recovery. There has been none of this here. Usually we have establishments giving us projections of how much growth has been lost by projecting 2007 forwards but not here. The reforms that were promised have at best turned up piecemeal highlighted to some extent by the dreadful fires this summer and the fear that these are deliberately started each year.

Yet the people who have created a Great Depression with all its human cost still persist in rubbishing the alternative which as regular readers know I suggested which was to default and devalue. Or what used to be IMF policy before this phase where it is led by European politicians. A lower currency has consequences but it would have helped overall.

 

 

 

 

 

Austerity is improving the UK Public Finances

As we head towards the weekend we have the opportunity to not only look at an area  where there has been good news but also inject a little humour. The latter was unintentionally provided by the OBR or Office for Budget Responsibility earlier this week.

second, we look at the potential fiscal impact of future government activity, by making 50-year projections of all public spending, revenues and significant financial
transactions, such as government loans to students.

No your eyes do not deceive you it really has forecast our fiscal future out towards 2068. This is from an organisation that in its eight years of existence has shown amazing consistency in being wrong. Sometimes it has been wrong pretty much immediately and at other times we have has to wait but usually not for too long. If we look back to its early days then let me give you two examples of its forecasting arrows not only missing the target but soaring out of the stadium with the crowd ducking for cover. Wage growth was forecast to be around 4.5% now and that is being nice to them as you see they got unemployment wrong too and so if we apply their “output gap” style analysis they would have wage growth at 5% or more. Also they would have Gilt yields up towards 5% as well whereas all are below 2% and the ten-year yield is 1.24%.

For newer readers that is the road which led to this.

The first rule of OBR Club is that the OBR is always wrong.

Putting it another way here is how something which is very good what is called the Whole of Government Accounts which as you can see below is sadly converted into laughing-stock status.

The net present value of future public service pension payments arising from past employment was £1,835 billion or 92 per cent of GDP. This is £410 billion higher than a year earlier, with the rise more than explained by the use of a lower discount rate to convert the projected flow of future payments into a one-off net present value and by other changes to assumptions underpinning the value of the liabilities.

The saga starts really well as I regularly get asked for an estimate of the UK’s pension liabilities but as you can see an enormous change has happened due to “a lower discount rate” . So the interest-rate or more specifically yield has been changed by an establishment that has consistently got yields not only wrong but very wrong. This also happened in the insurance world where this sort of blundering in the dark caused a lot of changes and costs.

The NHS

The OBR weighed in on this subject earlier this week and as a reminder this is the issue as described by the BBC.

Last month, the Prime Minister announced that the NHS in England would get an extra £20bn a year by 2023.

The £114bn budget will rise by an average of 3.4% annually.

In itself this is simple as government’s plan to spend more all the time and actually the OBR feels it needs to do so as the demographics of an ageing population bites. Yet we ended up with more heat than light and I could write a whole post on the “Brexit Dividend” so let us instead look at the overall position. There are three ways this can be paid for.

The easiest is that the economy grows by enough to finance it via higher taxes and lower social spending. After all we live in an era of Black Swan events but even in these days they happen only from time to time so the other choices are higher taxes or borrowing more. As you are about to see the public finances data have been pretty good over the past 18 months or so ( something else the OBR got wrong as it predicted a pretty substantial rise for the fiscal year just gone). So as we stand we could borrow the money quite easily and as I explained earlier we can do so cheaply in fact extremely cheaply in historical terms. Just for clarity as these issues get heated I am not advocating such a move simply saying that as we stand we could and probably quite easily. That seems to have got lost as at least some of the media looks for examples of higher taxes in response to the extra spending.

This whole issue makes me look back over the last issue and something stands out so let me put it in italics.

Over the credit crunch era we have borrowed a lot when it has been (relatively) expensive and not it is cheaper we are borrowing much less.

Some of that was forced on us but not all of it.

Today’s data

This continues to be good.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £0.8 billion to £5.4 billion in June 2018, compared with June 2017;

As is the picture with a little more perspective

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) in the current financial year-to-date (April 2018 to June 2018) was £16.8 billion; that is, £5.4 billion less than in the same period in 2017; this is the lowest year-to-date (April to June) net borrowing since 2007.

So we are back to pre credit crunch levels in this regard and the trajectory is lower. If we look into the detail then we see this about revenues.

In the current financial year-to-date, central government received £169.4 billion in income, including £125.0 billion in taxes. This was around 3% more than in the same period in 2017.

Looked at like that we get a confirmation of the slowing of the housing market as Stamp Duty revenues have fallen by £300 million to £3.1 billion and the QE operations of the Bank of England contributed £600 million less.

But on the other side of the ledger we do for once see some outright austerity.

Over the same period, central government spent £184.2 billion, around 1% less than in the same period in 2017.

Before we get too excited debt interest fell by £2.2 billion which will be mostly if not entirely the impact of lower ( RPI ) inflation on index-linked Gilts. Also the numbers for local councils have swung too so allowing for that we do not have outright austerity but we do on the measure compared with inflation.

National Debt

There is good news here too at least in relative terms.

Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) was £1,792.3 billion at the end of June 2018, equivalent to 85.2% of gross domestic product (GDP), an increase of £33.0 billion (or a decrease of 1.0 percentage points as a ratio of GDP) on June 2017.

There are also numbers excluding the Bank of England but sadly the numbers published are inconsistent. This happened a few months ago as well, There are also wider numbers for what previously I would have said was something of a gold standard but after the pension revision we looked at above I will merely say they are worth a look.

The overall net liability in the WGA was £2,421 billion or 122 per cent of GDP at the end of March 2017, up £435 billion on the previous year’s restated results ( OBR)

Comment

We have been on quite a journey with the UK public finances and to some extent it has been this sort of Journey.

It goes on and on and on and on

We have also seen that

Some will win some will lose

Because until this phase a lot of the austerity has been from one group to another as for example comparing the Triple Lock for the Basic State Pension with its 2.5% minimum with the 1% per annum for other social benefits and pay rises. But with the better news can we say this?

Don’t stop believing
Hold on to that feeling

We can to some extent but that does not mean the sky is pure blue. The clouds come from all the efforts to manipulate the numbers which would take an article in their own right and also the way the national debt has risen. Which allows me one more example of OBR Club unless of course we find an alternative universe where the national debt peaked at below 70% of GDP and then fell primarily due to us being in surplus for the last couple of years……

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greece is still in an economic depression meaning the debt remains

This morning the Greek Prime Minister flies to the UK for an official visit so let us welcome him, According to Alexis Tsipras it comes at a significant time.

After eight years, we managed to solve the problem of Greek debt. A debt that we did not create. A debt we inherited from the forces of the old regime. From the old Greece of oligarchy, corruption, interdependence, and offsets of power.

The debt is solved? But wait there is more.

With an honest and prudent fiscal policy that will respect our commitments, but at the same time put an end to the austerity and to all that we have experienced, to the injustices we have experienced in the past.

Austerity is over? Well that lasts two short paragraphs.

the fact that the primary surplus will remain at 3.5% for those years, ie from 2019 to 2022.

There is one more issue at hand.

With his Eurogroup decision yesterday, he creates new data for the day after, as Greek debt, Greek public debt, is at last sustainable.

As to the issue of austerity that does not appear to be going so well according to developments this morning.

Members of the union of Greek hospital workers, POEDIN, on Monday morning blocked the entrance to the Finance Ministry on Nikis Street near Syntagma Square, protesting austerity with a black banner bedecked with ties. ( Kathimerini)

What about the debt?

My long-running theme that this will be a case of “To Infinity! And Beyond” can take a bow as it gets ten years nearer. From the Eurogroup.

Further extension of the grace period for the loans of the European Financial Stability Facility (some 100 billion euros) by 10 years and an extension of the average maturing period by a decade.

This is more significant than it might seem as this particular can had already taken quite a bit kicking. But even that has turned out not to be enough. Let us remind ourselves that back at the time of the original “Shock and Awe” bailout the target for this was 120% of GDP ( Gross Domestic Product). Whereas now the latest public debt bulletin tells us the debt is not only 343.7 billion Euros but it rose by 15 billion Euros in the first quarter of this year. That being so we are looking at 187% now.

Next there was some good news but you may note it is being handed out in packets presumably in return for the correct behaviour.

Return to the Greek coffers of the profits that national central banks in the eurozone have from Greek bonds (ANFAs and SMPs), currently amounting to some 4 billion euros. This money will be returned to Athens in two equal tranches every year, starting in December 2018 up to June 2022

Whilst I am no great fan of these bailouts the paragraph above does allow me to point out some Fake News championed by former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis earlier this month.

It is now official: The only euro area country that will NOT benefit even by a single euro from the ECB’s 2.4tr QE program designed to defeat deflation will be the one country that suffered the worst deflation by far: Greece! The waterboarding never ends!

He was so incompetent that it is not impossible he is unaware that the ECB holds quite a bit Greek debt still and much of the rest of it is owned by the ESM/EFSF. So Greece had its own earlier equivalent of QE which regular readers will know was called the Securities Markets Programme or SMP. As of the end of last year it still held some 9.5 billion Euros of Greek debt. Then there are the two SPVs which sadly are not Spectrum Pursuit Vehicles from Captain Scarlet.

We have seen disbursements of €245 billion, when I add up the Greek Loan Facility, EFSF and ESM loans.

I am amazed that Yanis still gets so much airtime.

One way that this particular show is managing to stay on the road is this.

The ESM is prepared to disburse €15 billion to Greece after national procedures have been completed. €9.5 billion will go into a dedicated account for the cash buffer, and this will cover post-programme financing needs, until the year 2020. The remaining €5.5 billion will go to the segregated account to cover immediate debt servicing needs.

As you can see the wheels are being oiled so that the show can stay on the road for the next couple of years which is about how it goes, Triumph is proclaimed and then we go through it all again a couple of years later which of course is another triumph. Sadly that cycle has yet to end.

Meanwhile there is always European Commisioner Pierre Moscovici.

But I am also proud to have always been with the Greek people over the years, against austerity and Grexit.

He of course missed the soup kitchens bit and does he mean breath-taking rather than breathe below?

Like Ulysses back to Ithaca, Greece is finally reaching its destination today, ten years after the beginning of a long recession. She can finally breathe, look at the path she has traveled and contemplate again the future with confidence.

Of course it wouldn’t be Pierre without this.

The greatest danger of this odyssey has been the monster called Grexit!

Comment

Let me now introduce the most damning statistic of the so-called triumphs and it is provided by the Greek statistical agency. The pre credit crunch peak for Greece was the exactly 65 billion Euros of GDP ( 2010 prices) produced in the third quarter of 2007. This was replaced by just under 50 billion Euros a decade later and the third quarter last year remains the best since in total unadjusted GDP.  So a lost decade where there has been a great depression wiping out some 23% of output which of course has been the real “monster” which is why Commisioner Moscovici is so keen to create fake ones.

The consequences of this can be seen in many areas.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in March 2018 was 20.1% compared to the 22.1% in March 2017 and the downward revised 20.6% in February 2018.

This compares with between 8% and 10% pre credit crunch. The youth (15-24) unemployment rate is 43.2% reminding us of how many must reach 24 having never had a job and even worse never had any hope of one. Another consequence is this.

According to the results of the 2017 Survey on Income and Living Conditions, persons at risk of poverty or social exclusion represent 34.8% of the total population (3,701,800 persons), recording a decrease compared to the previous year (3,789,300 persons representing 35,6% of
the total population).

Even worse that survey looks as though it is looking a relative poverty and of course the situation has shifted lower. In fact last week was a grim week at the statistics office.

Material deprivation for children aged up to 17 years, in 2017 amounts to 23.8%, in comparison with 11.9% in
2009.

The minor improvement needs to be set against the 11% for the measure below in 2009.

In 2017, 22.1% of the population aged 18-64 years was in severe material deprivation with
a decrease of 1.6 percentage points compared to 2016

Looking ahead even the rose-tinted spectacles of the European Commission are not especially upbeat.

Real GDP is now forecast to grow by 1.9% in
2018 and 2.3% in 2019, revised down compared to
the 2018 winter forecast.

This is a bigger issue than you might immediately think as following such a depression Greece should be having a “V” shaped recovery but instead has an “L” shaped one. The next bit really is from an Ivory Tower high in the clouds.

suggests that households may be more financially
stretched than previously assumed

For what it is worth ( they are in a bad run) the Markit PMI thinks that manufacturing is in a bad run. Next we have the issue of how much the ongoing Euro area slow down will affect things in Greece. We have seen the numbers fall apart before.

Let me finish by wishing Greece well and some ying and yang. First the extraordinary from Vicky Pryce.

Long-suffering Greek friends here in Athens puzzled by UK complacency about brexit economic hit

But next a reminder of the glorious beauty to be found there.

https://twitter.com/search?q=greece&src=typd