What evidence is there for a bond market bubble?

There is a saying that even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut. I am left wondering about this as I note that the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan has posted a warning about bond markets. From Bloomberg.

Equity bears hunting for excess in the stock market might be better off worrying about bond prices, Alan Greenspan says. That’s where the actual bubble is, and when it pops, it’ll be bad for everyone.

Actually that is troubling on two counts. The simplest is the existence of extraordinarily high bond prices and low and in some cases negative yields. The next is that fact that his successors in charge of the various central banks may start pumping more monetary easing into this bubble to stop it deflating and it being “bad for everyone”. Indeed maybe this mornings ECB monthly bulletin is already on the case.

Looking ahead, the Governing Council confirmed that a very substantial degree of monetary accommodation is needed for euro area inflation pressures to gradually build up and support headline inflation developments in the medium term.

Let us look at what he actually said.

“By any measure, real long-term interest rates are much too low and therefore unsustainable,” the former Federal Reserve chairman, 91, said in an interview. “When they move higher they are likely to move reasonably fast. We are experiencing a bubble, not in stock prices but in bond prices. This is not discounted in the marketplace.”

I find it intriguing that he argues that there is no bubble in stock prices which are far higher than when he thought they were the result of “irrational exuberance” . After all low bond yields must be supporting the share prices of pretty much any stock with a solid dividend in a world where investors are so yield hungry that even index-linked Gilts have been used as such.

What is a bubble?

This is hard to define but involves extreme price rises which are then hard to justify with past metrics or measurement techniques. With convenient timing we have seen a clear demonstration of one only this week as something extraordinary develops. From Sky Sports News.

Sky sources: Neymar agrees 5-year-deal at PSG worth £450m, earning £515,000-a-week after tax. More on SSN.

One sign that we are in the “bubbilicious” zone is that no-one is sure of the exact price as I note others suggesting the deal is £576 million. You could drive the whole London bus fleet through the difference. The next sign is that people immediately assure you that everything is just fine as it is normal. From the BBC.

Mourinho said: “Expensive are the ones who get into a certain level without a certain quality. For £200m, I don’t think [Neymar] is expensive.

To be fair he pointed out that there would however be consequences.

“I think he’s expensive in the fact that now you are going to have more players at £100m, you are going have more players at £80m and more players at £60m. And I think that’s the problem.”

Of course Jose will be relieved that what was previously perceived as a large sum spent on Paul Pogba now looks relatively cheap. Oh and did I say that the numbers get confused?

PSG’s total outlay across the initial five-year deal will come to £400m.

If Sky are correct the high property prices we look at will be no problem as he will earn in a mere 8 months enough to buy the highest price flat they could find in Paris ( £18 million). The rub if there is one is that the price could easily rise if they know he is the buyer!

The comparison with the previous record does give us another clue because if we look at the Paul Pogba transfer it has taken only one year for the previous record to be doubled. That speed and indeed acceleration was seen in both the South Sea Bubble and the Tulip Mania.

Perhaps there was a prescient sign some years ago when the team who has fans who are especially keen on blowing bubbles was on the case. From SkyKaveh.

West Ham were close to signing Neymar from Santos in 2010. Offered £25m but move collapsed when Santos asked for more money

Back to bonds

If we look at market levels then the warning lights flash especially in places where investors are paying to get bonds. If we look at the Euro area then a brief check saw me note that for 2 years yields are negative in Germany, France, Belgium, Italy and Spain. For Germany especially investors can go further out in terms of maturity and get a negative yield. Does that define a bubble on its own as they are paying for something which is supposed to pay you?! There are two additional factors to throw in which is that the real yield situation is even worse as over the next two years inflation looks set to be positive at somewhere between 1% and 2%. Also if we look at Spain with economic growth having been ~3% or so a year for a bit why would you buy a bond at anything like these levels?

Another sign of a bubble that has worked pretty well over time is that you find the Japanese buying it. So I noted this earlier from @liukzilla.

“Japanese Almost Triple Foreign Bond Buying in July” exe: buy or + buy => like a double chocolate pie

Here we do get something of a catch as the issue of foreign investors buying involves the currency as well. Whether that is a sign of the Euro peaking I do not know but in a way it shows another form of looking for yield if you can call a profit a yield. Also there is an issue here of Japanese investors buying foreign bonds not only because there is little or no yield to be found at home but also because the Bank of Japan is soaking up the supply of what there is.

Comment

If we survey the situation we see that prices and yields especially in what we consider to be the first world do show “bubbilicious” signs. If we look at my home country of the UK it seemed extraordinary when the ten-year Gilt yield went below 2% and yet it is now around 1.2%. Of course the Bank of England with its “Sledgehammer” QE a year ago blew so much that it fell briefly to 0.5% in an effort which was a type of financial vandalism as we set yet again assets prioritised over the real economy. What we are not seeing is an acceleration unless perhaps we move to real yields which have dropped as inflation has picked up.

So far I have looked at sovereign bonds but this has also spilled over into corporate bonds especially with central banks buying them. We have seen them issued at negative yields as well which makes us wonder how that all works if one of the companies should ever go bust. Yet we also need to remind ourselves that there are geographical issues as we look around as Africa has double-digit yields in many places and according to Bloomberg buying short dated bonds in the Venezuelan state oil company yields 152% although the ride would not be good for your heart rate.

 

 

What next for the world of negative interest-rates?

There were supposed to be two main general economic issues for 2017. The first was the return of inflation as the price of crude oil stopped being a strong disinflationary force. The second was that we would see a rise in interest-rates and bond yields as we saw an economic recovery combined with the aforementioned inflation. This was described as the “reflation” scenario and the financial trade based on it was to be short bonds. However we have seen a rise in inflation to above target in the UK and US and to just below it in the Euro area but the bond market and interest-rate move has been really rather different.

Negative Official Interest-Rates

Euro area

These are still around particularly in Europe where the main player is the European Central Bank. This plays out in three main areas as it has an official deposit rate of -0.4%, it also has its long-term refinancing operations where banks have been able to borrow out to the early 2020s at an interest-rate that can also be as low as -0.4% plus of course purchasing sovereign bonds at negative yields. So whilst the rate of monthly bond purchases has fallen to 60 billion Euros a month the envelope of negative interest-rates is still large in spite of the economic recovery described earlier this week by ECB President Draghi.

As a result, the euro area is now witnessing an increasingly solid recovery driven largely by a virtuous circle of employment and consumption, although underlying inflation pressures remain subdued. The convergence of credit conditions across countries has also contributed to the upswing becoming more broad-based across sectors and countries. Euro area GDP growth is currently 1.7%, and surveys point to continued resilience in the coming quarters.

Indeed the economic optimism was turned up another notch by the Markit PMI business surveys on Tuesday.

The PMI data indicate that eurozone growth remained impressively strong in May. Business activity is expanding at its fastest rate for six years so far in the second quarter, consistent with 0.6- 0.7% GDP growth. The consensus forecast of 0.4% second quarter growth could well prove overly pessimistic………

That is better than “resilience” I think.

Sweden

This is one of the high fortresses of negative interest-rates as you can see from the latest announcement.

The Executive Board decided to extend the purchases of government bonds by SEK 15 billion during the second half of 2017 and to hold the repo rate unchanged at −0.50 per cent. The repo rate is now not expected to be raised until mid-2018, which is slightly later than in the previous forecast.

As you can see a move away from the world of negative interest-rates seems to have moved further into the distance rather than get nearer. If you look at the economic situation then you may quite reasonably wonder what is going on here?

Swedish economic activity is good and is expected to strengthen further over the next few years. Confidence indicators show that households and companies are optimistic and demand for exports is strong. The economic upturn means that the demand for labour is still strong.

We do not have the numbers for the first quarter but we do know that GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) increased by 1% in the last quarter of 2016. If you read the statement below then it gets ever harder to justify the current official interest-rate.

Rising mortgage debt is a serious threat to Sweden’s economy while regulators need to introduce tougher measures to strengthen banks against future shocks, the central bank said in its semi-annual stability report, published on Wednesday………Swedish house prices have doubled over the last decade. Apartment prices have tripled. Household debt levels – in relation to disposable income – are among the highest in Europe.

Switzerland

The Swiss National Bank feels trapped by the pressure on the Swiss Franc.

The Swiss franc is still significantly overvalued. The negative interest rate and the SNB’s willingness to intervene in the foreign exchange market are necessary and appropriate to ease pressure on the Swiss franc. Negative interest has at least partially restored the traditional interest rate differential against other countries.

You may note that they are pointing the blame pretty much at the ECB and the Euro for the need to have an interest-rate of -0.75% ( strictly a range between -0.25% and -1.25%).

Denmark

As you can see Denmark’s Nationalbank has not moved this year either.

Effective from 8 January 2016, Danmarks Nationalbank’s interest rate on certificates of deposit is increased by 0.10 percentage point to -0.65 per cent.

The 2016 move left it a little exposed when the ECB cut again later than year but it remains firmly in negative interest-rate territory.

Japan

Until now we have been looking at issues surrounding the Euro both geographically and economically but we need to go a lot further east to see the -0.1% interest-rate of the Bank of Japan. Added to that is its policy of bond purchases where it aims to keep the ten-year yield at approximately 0%. So there is no great sign of a change here either.

 

The United States

Here of course we have seen an effort to move interest-rates to a move positive level but so far we have not seen that much and it has not been followed by any of the other major central banks. Indeed one central bank which is normally synchronised with it is the Bank of England but it cut interest-rates and expanded its balance sheet last August so it has headed in the opposite direction this time around.

This theme has been reflected in the US bond market where we saw a rise in yields when President Trump was elected but I note now that not much has happened since. The ten-year Treasury Note now yields around 2.25% which is pretty much where it was back then. We did see a rise to above 2.6% but that faded away as events moved on. Even the prospect of a beginning of an unwinding of all of the bond holdings of the Federal Reserve does not seem to have had much impact. That seems extraordinarily sanguine to me but there are two further factors which are at play. One is that investors do not believe this will happen on any great scale and also that there is no rule book or indeed much experience of how bond markets behave when a central bank looks for the exit.

How much?

There was a time when we were regularly updated on the size of the negative yielding bond universe whereas that has faded but there is this from Fitch Ratings in early March.

Rising long-term sovereign bond yields across the eurozone contributed to a decline in outstanding negative yielding sovereign debt to $8.6 trillion as of March 1 from $9.1 trillion near year-end 2016.

The fall such as it was seemed to be in longer dated maturities.

The total of negative-yielding sovereign debt with remaining maturities of greater than seven years fell significantly to $0.5 trillion as of Mar. 1 from over $2.6 trillion on June 27 2016.

Since then German bond yields have moved only a little so the general picture looks not to be much different.

Comment

I wanted to point out today the fact that whilst it feels like the economic world has moved on in 2017 in fact the negative interest-rate and yield story has changed a lot less than we might have thought. It has fallen out of the media spotlight and perceptions but it has remained as a large iceberg floating around.

One of my themes has been that we will find out more about the economic effects of negative interest-rates as more time passes. Accordingly I noted this from VoxEU yesterday.

Banks throughout the Eurozone are reluctant to cut retail deposit rates below zero, wary of possible client reactions

That has remained true as time has passed and it seems ever clearer that the banking sector is afraid of a type of deposit flight should they offer less than 0% on ordinary retail savings. That distinguishes it from institutional or pension markets where as we have discussed before there have been lots of negative yields and interest-rates. Also if we look at average deposit rates there remain quite large differences in the circumstances.

For example, the average rate on Belgian deposits has dropped to 0.03%. If Belgians took their money across the border, they could get almost ten times that in the Netherlands (0.28%). In France even, rates average 0.43%.

If we move to household borrowing rates we see that there are much wider discrepancies as we wonder if at this level we can in fact call this one monetary policy?

The Finns borrow against 1.8%, the Irish pay 3.6%

Some of the differences are down to different preferences but as the Irish borrowing is more likely to be secured ( mortgages) you might reasonably expect them to be paying less. Oh and as a final point as we move to borrowing we note that rates are a fair distance from the official ones meaning that the banks yet again have a pretty solid margin in their favour, which is somewhat contrary to what we keep being told.

The ECB faces a growing policy dilemma

Today I want to look at what was one of the earliest themes of this blog which is that central banks will dither and delay before they reduce their policy easing and accommodation. Or to put it another way they will be too late because they are afraid of moving too soon and being given the blame should the economy hic-cup or turn downwards. Back in the day I did not realise how far central banks would go with the Bank of Japan seemingly only limited by how many assets there are in existence in Japan as it chomps on government bonds and acts as a Tokyo whale in equity markets. Actually it has made yet more announcements today including this from Governor Kuroda according to Marketwatch.

“There is not much likelihood that we will further lower the negative rate” from the current minus 0.1%, Kuroda said in parliament, citing Japan’s accelerating growth.

Last time he said something like that he cut them 8 days later if I recall correctly!

However the focus right now is on Europe and in particular on the ECB ( European Central Bank). as it faces the policy exit question I posed on the 19th of January.

If we look at the overall picture we see that 2017 poses quite a few issues for central banks as they approach the stage which the brightest always feared. If you come off it will the economy go “cold turkey” or merely have some withdrawal systems? What if the future they have borrowed from emerges and is worse than otherwise?

What has changed?

Yesterday brought news on economic prospects which will have simultaneously cheered and worried Mario Draghi and the ECB. It started with France.

The Markit Flash France Composite Output Index, based on around 85% of normal monthly survey replies, registered 56.2, compared to January’s reading of 54.1. The latest figure pointed to the sharpest rate of growth since May 2011.

Welcome news indeed and considering the ongoing unemployment issue that I looked it only a few days ago this was a welcome feature of the service sector boom.

Staffing numbers rose for the fourth consecutive month during February. The increase was underpinned by a solid rate of growth in the service sector,

Unusually for Markit it did not provide any forecast for expected GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth from this which is likely to have been caused by its clashes with the French establishment in the past. It has regularly reported private-sector growth slower than the official numbers so this is quite a change.

Next up was Germany and the good news theme continued.

The Markit Flash Germany Composite Output Index rose from January’s fourmonth low of 54.8 to 56.1, the highest since April 2014 and signalling strong growth in the eurozone’s largest economy. Output has risen continuously since May 2013.

The situation is different here because of course Germany has performed better than France in recent times illustrated by its very different unemployment rate. I note that manufacturing is doing well as it benefits from the much lower exchange rate the Euro provides compared to where any prospective German mark would be priced. Markit is much more willing to project forwards from this.

The latest PMI adds to our expectations that economic growth will strengthen in the first quarter to around 0.6% q-o-q, marking a strong start to 2017.

Whilst these are the two largest Eurozone economies there are others so let us add them into the mix.

“The eurozone economy moved up a gear in February. The rise in the flash PMI to its highest since April 2011 means that GDP growth of 0.6% could be seen in the first quarter if this pace of expansion is sustained into March.

There are actually two cautionary notes here. The first is that these indices rely on sentiment as well as numbers and as they point out March is yet to come. But the surveys indicate potential for a very good start to 2017 for the Eurozone.

As the objectives of central banks have moved towards economic growth there is an obvious issue when they look good and it is to coin a phrase “pumping up the volume”.

Also there was a hopeful sign for a chronic Euro area problem which is persistent unemployment in many countries.

February saw the largest monthly rise in employment since August 2007. Service sector jobs were created at a rate not seen for nine years and factory headcounts showed the second-largest rise in almost six years.

What about inflation?

Just like it fell more quickly and further than the ECB expected it has rather caught it on the hop with its rise. The move from 1.1% in December to 1.8% in January means it is just below 2% or where the “rules based” ECB wants it. There is an update later but even if it nudges the number slightly the song has the same drum and bass lines. Indeed yesterday’s surveys pointed to concerns that more inflation is coming over the horizon.

Inflationary pressures meanwhile continued to intensify. Firms’ average input costs rose at the steepest rate since May 2011, with rates accelerating in both services and manufacturing. The latter once again recorded the steeper rise, linked to higher global commodity prices, the weak euro and suppliers regaining some pricing power amid stronger demand.

In the past such news would have the ECB rushing to raise interest-rates which leaves it in an awkward position. The only leg it has left to stand on in this area is weak wage growth.

Asset prices

Mario Draghi’s espresso will taste better this morning as he notes this.

GERMANY’S DAX RISES ABOVE 12,000 FIRST TIME SINCE APRIL 2015 ( h/t Darlington_Dick)

Although even the espresso may provide food for thought.

Oh I don’t know…Robusta coffee futures creeping back towards 5-1/2 year highs

That pesky inflation again. Oh sorry I mean the temporary or transient phase!

As to house prices there is a wide variation but central bankers always want more don’t they?

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 3.4% in the euro area and by 4.3% in the EU in the third quarter of 2016 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

Of course should any boom turn to bust then the rhetoric switches to it was not possible to forecast this and therefore it was a “surprise” and nobody’s fault. The Bank of England was plugging that particular line for all it’s worth only yesterday.

The Euro

Much is going on here and it has been singing along to “Down, Down” by Status Quo again. For example it has moved very near to crossing 1.05 versus the US Dollar this morning which makes us wonder if economists might be right and it will reach parity. Such forecasts are rarely right so it would be its own type of Black Swan but more seriously we are seeing a weaker phase for the Euro as it has fallen from just over 96 in early November 2016 to 93.4 now. Here economists return to their usual form as this has seen the UK Pound £ nudge 1.19 this morning or further away from the parity so enthusiastically forecast by some.

A factor in this brings us back to QE and ECB action. A problem I have reported on has got worse and as ever it involves Germany. The two-year Schatz yield has fallen as low as -0.87% as investors continue to demand German paper even if they have to pay to get it. This is creating quite a differential ( for these times anyway) with US Dollar rates and thereby pushing the Euro lower.

Comment

There are obvious issues here for the ECB as it faces a period where economic growth could pick-up which is of course good but inflation will be doing the same which is not only far from good it is against its official mandate. It does plan to trim its monthly rate of bond buying to 60 billion Euros a month from 80 billion but of course it still has a deposit rate of -0.4%. Thus the accelerator is still being pressed hard. But as we note that the lags of monetary policy are around 18 months then it may well find itself doing that as both growth and inflation rise. Should that lead to trouble then a so-called stimulus will end up having exactly the reverse effect. Yet the consensus remains along the lines of this from Markit yesterday.

No change in policy
therefore looks likely until at least after the German
elections in September.

 

 

The impact of Bitcoin and negative bond yields

As we approach the end of 2016 the natural tendency is to look ahead to 2017. We will soon find ourselves afflicted by a litany of forecasts for the year ahead. I say afflicted because this has been an “annus horribilis” for establishment forecasters but those that I am in touch with seem to have learned little if anything at all. Accordingly the theme “same as it ever was” seems set to turn into a “road to nowhere” for them. However we will take a different tack as the holiday break has thrown up a couple of disturbing signals in the world monetary system.

Bitcoin surges

When I signed off before Christmas I ended with this.

The average price of Bitcoin across all exchanges is 910.16 USD

As you can take the boy out of the city but it is much harder to take the city out of the boy I had noted that it had been further on the move this week and now I note this.

Bid: $972.27 Ask: $972.28

So there has been a push higher and of course we are reminded of two things. The first is simply a factor of the way that we count in base ten meaning that the threshold of US $1000 is on the near horizon and the second is the Bitcoin surge of a bit more than a couple of years ago.

Actually for some I note that threshold city has already arrived. From BTC Manager.

Bitcoin has surpassed its all-time high in two major currencies, the Euro and the British Pound……With the largest weekly volume in almost 12 months, bitcoin looks to continue to soar against the Euro. With a break of the all-time high at €872.90, there are no previous fractal levels to gauge where the market will take us next. However, the best bet is through the use of simple psychology. Buyers will look to cash out once the price has hit a psychological resistance, a big, round number where profits will be locked in and buying interest starts to fade.

So it is interesting to note first that standard analysis ” it might go up or it might go down” applies as much to newer markets as it does to older ones! As ever the possibility it might stay the same is ignored though. But those of you who use the Euro as a currency have seen a considerable devaluation against Bitcoin in recent times which means those of us who use the UK Pound £ have had a particularly poor 2016 against it.

On the Coinfloor exchange, BTC-GBP was at £479.00 week ending June 26, 2016, following our open letter to Britons. Fast forward to the close of 2016, BTC-GBP is looking to break above the £800 mark and is taking aim at the psychological £1000 level. With a break above the all-time high, there is no precedent and £1000 could be a conservative estimate for the long-term, but we will see some exhaustion from bulls at this level.

Looking at the chart a past colleague of mine would be very upset if I did not point out that it looks very much like what he called a “bowl” formation. This means that it needs to continue to accelerate or otherwise it will then be like one of those cartoon characters which run over a cliff edge by mistake. Or to bring things up to date like the Toshiba share price this week as it has now eroded nearly all the gains of 2016.

There is another perspective we can find and StockTwits helps us out with this.

 Some care is needed with the word never as Botcoin was invented on the 31st of October 2008 and is thus a child of the credit crunch era. But the current situation does give us food for thought as the immediate knee-jerk response that it is replacing gold in some fashion does have issues. Let me point out the one which occurs to me which is that discoveries on other planets and moons apart the supply of gold is fixed whereas Bitcoin and especially cryptocurrencies in general is not. ( Just to add that the latter remains true but @BambouClub has pointed out that Bitcoin is limited to 21 million units).

Also those of you who like me watched the BBC 4 documentary on Fleetwood Mac last night which of course featured the “Gold Dust Woman” Stevie Nicks will wonder about any impact on music and this is before the backing vocals she did for John Stewart?

There’s people out there turning music into gold

Somehow I don’t see “Bitcoin Dust Woman” quite cutting it do you?

Why is this happening?

If you follow the advice of go west young (wo)man then you have a long journey as the real pressure is to be found in the East. Let us first take a stop over in India where the Demonetisation debacle continues.  From LiveMint.

Mumbai: Demonetisation has boosted the digital platforms for payment, which has helped the National Payments Corporation’s (NPC) RuPay card usage at merchant terminals soar seven times since 8 November, taking the daily volumes to over 2.1 million.

As we look at the ongoing issue it is not hard to see the motivation for people wanting to escape the Indian monetary system entirely and thus moving towards currencies like Bitcoin. As I pointed out on November 11th.

We can expect the traditional Indian love of gold to be boosted by this and maybe also non-government electronic money like Bitcoin.

Although of course many were left out.

It has made it harder to buy vegetables and rice, and hire rickshaws. And, for hundreds of millions of Indians who work in the informal economy, it has brought commerce to a halt. If there is a well-laid plan to mitigate the impact of this surprise crackdown on “black money”, it has yet to reach rural parts, where few Indians have bank accounts or credit cards.

Here is a link to the details of Demonetisation.

https://notayesmanseconomics.wordpress.com/2016/11/11/the-war-on-cash-continues/

China

There have been signs of creaking from the Chinese monetary system as estimates of the actual outflow of funds from China seem to be around double the official one. Oops! If we move to this morning there are other signals to be found. From the Wall Street Journal.

The yuan dropped 7% against the dollar this year…….

Unlike other emerging markets that have mostly free-floating currencies such as Russia and Brazil, China hasn’t had a chance to find its bottom. Chinese investors, therefore, act as if more depreciation is coming, sending money overseas.

The People’s Bank of China is increasingly replacing deposits and indeed finance in the banking system in a move that has not gone so well for us western capitalist imperialists. But the fundamental point here is that with such a large flow of funds ongoing we see two clear effects. The first is the rise in the Bitcoin price as it would take only a minor proportion of the move to put it in a boom and the second is that the world financial system looks unstable one more time.

Negative Interest-Rates in the UK

One of the forecasts for 2017 will no doubt be for higher bond yields. After all it has to be right one year! But more seriously if we just look at the UK something else is in play and it covers a few areas. It started with this before Christmas. From Bloomberg on December 16th.

The U.K. Treasury sold one-month bills at an average negative yield for the first time ever on Friday, with investors bidding for more than seven times the amount on offer,

That got worse just before Christmas and today a former respondent on here Shireblogger who now contacts me on Twitter pointed out this.

UK gilts just hit a record low 2 year yield at 3.3 bps. ( @bondvigilantes )

What we find ourselves observing is a safe haven problem of sorts as @NelderMead points out.

a year end desperation for collateral. QE creates the priv deposits & takes away the collateral to back ’em

Another “side effect” of the “Sledgehammer” of Andy Haldane and Mark Carney. Are they available for comment and I do not mean a diversion onto green issues?

Comment

So there you have it. After all the central planning and “reform” what we see are yet more signs of stress in the financial system. So much for certainty about 2017 as we expect inflation yet again in the use of the words “unexpected” and “surprise”.

Share Radio

I will be on after the 1 o’clock news today with quite a bit to discuss I think.

The ECB drives Euro area short-dated yields even more negative

The recent trend for world bond yields has been for them to rise. This has been particularly evident at the longer maturities. The clearest example of this comes from the US Long Bond or thirty-year yield which spent late summer around 2.3% and is now 3%. There was a rise before the advent of President-Elect Trump which accelerated quickly afterwards. We will never know now what effect a President- Elect Clinton would have had but I suspect it would have been similar. As to the pre-Trump rise in US bond yields this was mostly driven by hints and promises or what is called Forward Guidance from the US Federal Reserve about a second interest-rate rise. Although of course it has been hinting that for all of 2016 so far without delivering it yet.

The international context

This new trend has had effects in places like Portugal where the ten-year yield is 3.6% and Italy where it is 2.1%. This is of course nothing like the levels seen at the peak of the Euro area crisis but there are two points to note. Firstly government’s tend to spend the gains from lower bond yields ( as the gains are not widely understood politicians can take the credit for their largesse) meaning any reversal can create fiscal issues. Secondly the ECB is of course buying considerable numbers of these bonds as it purchases around a billion Euros of Portuguese government bonds and 13 billion Euros of Italian government bonds each month. So we see a rise in spite of all this buying.

A similar situation has arisen in the UK where the “sledgehammer” QE bond buying of Chief Economist Andy Haldane has been swept aside in yield terms by the recent moves. So far an extra £38 billion of Gilts purchases have been made but whilst the ten-year yield is now at 1.37% below the level at which this started it is not be much and this particular phase is underwater overall. Some of the purchases are well underwater in price terms. Perhaps this is why Bank of England Governor seems to be finding the time to do this according to the Financial Times.

Mark Carney has urged the government to seek transitional arrangements with the 27 remaining members of the EU as it negotiates Brexit in an attempt to smooth the path of leaving the EU for companies and for financial stability.

I guess anything is better than discussing why he eased monetary policy into a currency decline and economic growth which one of his colleagues ( Kristin Forbes) admitted is faster than last year’s! I guess some will also be mulling how Mark Carney rejects politicians interfering in his work yet seems happy to interfere in theirs. I wonder how he would define independence. Still if monetary policy gets any worse I guess we can expect more speeches on climate change.

This higher yield trend has also seen some bond yields depart the negative zone. For example the ten-year bund yield of Germany has risen to the not so giddy heights of 0.22% pulling other Euro area yields out of negative territory as well. Even Japan has seen its ten-year yield nudge above zero albeit marginally and ended at 0.016% today. This is a bit awkward for the Bank of Japan as yields have risen in spite of its rhetoric about “unlimited purchases” as I discussed only last Monday.

A problem for the ECB

This arises at the shorter maturities and is especially evident in Germany. As you review the chart below please remind yourselves that under its rules the ECB QE bond buying cannot buy at yields below its own deposit rate which is currently -0.4%.

This is what are called Schatz bonds in Germany and they have pulled prices on other Euro area bonds higher and yields lower as well. For example the two-years in both Belgium and France yield -0.68%. Perhaps the Italian two-year is a clearer example because in spite of the risks around the upcoming referendum the yield is a mere 0.22%. There was a time yields shot higher in response to such risks!

A Technical Issue

The essential problem here comes from something I have pointed out before which is that central bank bond buying tends to freeze up bond markets. Of course it also destroys the price discovery mechanism but volumes and liquidity dry up. This was quite noticeable in the early days of the Greek crisis where buying by the Securities Markets Programme saw volumes drop to a tenth of what they were. That remains an issue which has recurred in Japan but the current phase is being driven by the repo market. Reuters looked at this last Wednesday.

The European Central Bank is looking for ways to lend out more of its huge pile of government debt to avert a freeze in the 5.5 trillion-euro short-term funding market that underpins the financial system, central bank sources told Reuters.

Why should it care about this?

it has taken away the key ingredient for repurchase agreements, or repos, whereby financial firms lend to each other against collateral, typically high-rated government bonds such as Germany’s.

So it has inadvertently damaged the “precious” which is the banking system. Also it has shot itself in the foot as regards its own objectives.

Repo is used by investment funds to finance trading and is regarded by the ECB as a key avenue to transmit its own monetary stimulus to the economy.

A freeze in repo activity risks undoing some of the ECB’s stimulus by hampering lending between financial companies and leaving bond markets vulnerable to sharp sell offs.

The situation was so bad we even got an official denial that anything was wrong!

“The ECB’s securities lending is proving valuable for smooth market functioning, and it is being reviewed on an ongoing basis,” an ECB spokesman said.

The situation is driven by the way that derivative portfolios now need more collateral to be held against them whilst there is less top-notch collateral to be had.

With the ECB now owning more than a quarter of all outstanding German bonds, funds pay up to 1.5 percent to borrow a 10-year Bund, up from some 0.40 percent a year ago, according to Icap data.

Another problem on the list for pension funds and hence in time pensioners.

Comment

As you can see the side-effects from the ever-growing amounts of central bank QE are growing. This was met with an official denial which sat oddly with the recent changes made by both the Bundesbank and the ECB to try to ameliorate things. It sat even more oddly with the market reversal on the 23rd in response to hopes/hints of a change of policy as shown in the chart about . Since then those hopes have been extinguished, until the next set of rumours anyway. So we get a bond market where the battle between central banks ( price highs) and inflation trends leading to price falls continues.

Meanwhile thank you to @sallycopper C for highlighting an issue which I think may lead to problems for the game of paper, scissors,stone. From Bloomberg.

Paper made from rock tempts Japan’s biggest printer to invest.

Meanwhile I pointed out earlier to the Financial Times that for an article telling us this “the cost of Christmas dinners is almost unchanged from a year ago ” the headline on Twitter from its commodities editor gave a rather different impression.

Christmas pudding pricier after Brexit hits pound

As a Christmas pudding fan I in fact have already bought two rather nice ones for £3 but  one has already gone, after all I had to find out how good it was!

 

 

How many more times will we be told a ban on cash is good for us?

A regular theme of these times is the argument that cash as in paper note and metal coins is bad for us. There are regular efforts to get such theories into the media mostly by establishment figures who somehow present a non-cash world as something of a nirvana for our economic prospects. The latest move on this front has come from the former International Monetary Fund Chief Economist Ken Rogoff who has written a book on the subject and has recently been on the BBC World Service proclaiming such a view. The program called The Inquiry though did not live up to its name as the presenter Linda Yueh only presented the views of Kenneth Rogoff and supported him. He was even allowed to claim unchallenged that arguing for a ban on large denomination bank notes was like “arguing for gun control” or “banning semi-automatic weapons” which was really rather poor unless of course such notes are killing loads of people each year in the United States.

One intriguing statistic presented was that the amount of cash is equivalent to each American or European carrying around US $4000 or 4000 Euros but did not specify the numbers.

Helicopter Money

One misfire here is that the number of establishment views in favour of Helicopter Money would be shot down by such a plan! Perhaps our Ken did not think that through. The transport section of the US Air Force would find that lifting one million dollars in US $100 bills weighs 22 pounds but doing so in the US $10 bills that our Ken would have as a maximum denomination would weigh 220 pounds. With all the Zeroes required (sorry) in Japan its air force would have a job for life!

What are the arguments for banning large denomination notes?

The one pressed hard by Ken Rogoff is shown below.

My argument centers around the fact that all the advanced countries have collectively pumped out trillions of dollars in paper currency, the vast bulk in large denomination notes that are increasingly unimportant for ordinary retail transactions, but are highly valued by those engaged in tax evasion and crime.

In an essay entitled The Sinister Side to Cash in the Wall Street Journal he really piled in.

There is little debate among law-enforcement agencies that paper currency, especially large notes such as the U.S. $100 bill, facilitates crime: racketeering, extortion, money laundering, drug and human trafficking, the corruption of public officials, not to mention terrorism………Cash is also deeply implicated in tax evasion, which costs the federal government some $500 billion a year in revenue. According to the Internal Revenue Service, a lot of the action is concentrated in small cash-intensive businesses, where it is difficult to verify sales and the self-reporting of income.

This poses more than a few questions. No-one would doubt that organised crime uses large denomination notes and that they are used in tax evasion. But one of the largest amounts of organised crime in recent years has come from the banking sector which has not used cash for this. The proposed US $14 billion fine by the US authorities on Deutsche Bank is an example of this and it joins a list which is both long and large. When the German Bundesbank did some research into the issue it found that it was in fact very hard to find any proof that cash did in fact help crime.

There is scant concrete information on the extent to which cash is being used to facilitate illicit activity……… the volume of notes devoted to such transactions is unknown and would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to estimate.

Mind you perhaps in Ken Rogoff’s world Sam Allardyce would still be England’s football manager!

Negative Interest-Rates

This is of course the main course to the publicity friendly aperitif and starter discussed above. Ken sings along to

Secondarily, the book also talks about how phasing out large bills would be a major step towards more effective negative interest rate policy, although a number of fairly straightforward tax, legal and institutional changes would also have to be made. Negative interest rate policy is not for everyday use, but for dealing with very deep recessions and financial crises; the book argues that if negative rate policy were done right, it would be rare and short-lived, and vastly preferable to a decade of near zero interest rates.

Actually negative interest-rates have not been “short-lived”. It was only yesterday I was looking at Denmark which tried to escape them and then found itself sucked back into them as if the gravity of a black hole was at play, meaning that over 4 years later no escape is in sight. Also the IMF that Ken used to be Chief Economist of has just suggested that Switzerland should plunged deeper and deeper into negative interest-rate territory. Also should the ECB want to help its QE problem with German bonds one way of doing so would be to reduce its deposit rate below -0.4%.

There is another problem for our Ken if we look at this from him in the Wall Street Journal.

In principle, cutting interest rates below zero ought to stimulate consumption and investment in the same way as normal monetary policy, by encouraging borrowing.

You see if normal monetary policy had worked in the way he is trying to imply we would simply not even be discussing negative interest-rates now because the economic situation would be much better than it is. Indeed Ken seems rather like a snake-oil salesperson at this point.

Take cash away, however, or make the cost of hoarding high enough, and central banks would be free to drive rates as deep into negative territory as they needed in a severe recession.

How many times would you keep taking the same medicine when it is not working? Ken would have both more and larger bottles.

If we look at the experience of negative interest-rates so far then this below is a combination of wishful-thinking and ignorance.

But if a strong dose of negative rates can power an economy out of a downturn, it could bring inflation and interest rates back to positive levels relatively quickly, arguably reducing vulnerability to bubbles rather than increasing it.

If you look at house prices in the countries which have negative interest-rates you would see that with West Ham fans currently being mostly silent that it is the central bankers who are taking up the chorus of “I’m forever blowing bubbles”.

Comment

We find ourselves in a world where negative interest-rates and bond yields are on the march. The tantrum which pushed bond yields higher for a while has faded as indicated by reports that the 10 year yield in Finland went negative yesterday and this morning investors have paid Germany 0.7% per annum to buy a two-year bond.

Meanwhile up in his Ivory Tower Ken Rogoff has plans to take control freakery to its maximum. He ignores the fact that his plans so far have not worked and wants to push the pedal even beyond the metal. Along the way such concepts as privacy and legitimate use of currency are ignored. Also if we banned everything used by terrorists and organised crime we would end up at food,shelter,water and oxygen. Back in February I was disappointed to see Gillian Tett offer support for such plans which were supported by this gentleman.

John Cryan, co-head of Deutsche Bank, is not a man given to hyperbole. A couple of weeks ago, however, he made a comment about money that might make ordinary mortals blink.

Speaking on a financial technology panel at Davos, he cheerfully predicted that in a decade’s time cash probably won’t exist.

Er organised crime anyone?

Meanwhile here is a song for our Ken to help pass the time in his Ivory Tower. From David Bowie

This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating
in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

 

 

 

 

The impact of negative interest-rates on the economy of Denmark

Whilst so much of the media and indeed the world were focusing on the travails of my old employer Deutsche Bank yesterday something else significant sneaked under many radars. This was the International Monetary Fund lecturing Switzerland on the subject of negative interest-rates as you can see below.

Calibrating the negative interest rate differential so as to discourage persistent inflows that can cause prolonged deflation and weaken activity is appropriate.

A rather flowery way of suggesting an interest-rate cut from the present -0.75% which is reinforced here.

Some widening of the current effective interest rate differential—either by lowering the exemption threshold or the marginal policy rate—could therefore be considered to reduce the frequency of small-scale interventions.

So the IMF would prefer that Switzerland cut its interest-rates again further into negative territory rather than intervene in foreign exchange markets. That is intriguing on two fronts and the first is the fact that it is tempting it to test where the lower bound is which I shall define as the point at which bank depositors switch to cash. The second is that it is setting interest-rate for foreigners and foreign investors rather than the domestic economy. Indeed for the domestic economy there is potentially trouble ahead according to the IMF.

Sustained low interest-rates could raise financial stability risks……..Elevated household debt and banks’ concentrated exposure to mortgages could be key amplifiers in the event of macroeconomic shocks .

Reality for Denmark

This made me think of the country which has had negative interest-rates for the longest as Denmark plunged into that icy cold world in early July 2012 when it cut to -0.2%. They have been there since apart from a brief foray to the not so giddy heights of 0.05% in late spring and summer 2014. Also if the IMF view extends to other countries which set their interest-rate more for the foreign exchanges than domestic demand there might be another reverse ferret on its way.

Effective from 8 January 2016, Danmarks Nationalbank’s interest rate on certificates of deposit is increased by 0.10 percentage point to -0.65 per cent.

As it was nobody was expecting an end to negative interest-rates anytime soon according to the Nationalbanken or DNB.

The implied overnight interest rate does not reach 0 per cent until in four years

The ordinary experience

This is for borrowers as follows according to the DNB.

Viewed over a longer period, there has generally been close to full pass-through from the rate of interest on certificates of deposit to the banks’ lending rates.

We note they took their time and wonder about how we define close but okay. However the experience for the ordinary depositor remains different.

The banks have been hesitant to pass on the negative rate of interest at Danmarks Nationalbank to small enterprises and especially to households. The latter have been completely exempt from negative deposit rates.

I have wondered along the line of the lyrics below about this.

How long has this been going on?
How long has this been going on?

As far as we can tell banks will continue to resist passing on negative deposit rates to the ordinary investor. However businesses are not exempt as some 30% of deposits are and I have pointed out the dangers to long-term business models from them.

Negative deposit rates are in widespread use for insurance and pension companies, for which the alternatives to bank deposits are placement on money market-like terms, e.g. in short-term securities, likewise at negative rates of interest.

Actually it would now appear that the pension industry likes very few potential futures.

Some pension companies have reported to the Danish Financial Supervisory Authority that substantial interest rate hikes would be the worst scenario imaginable for them.

Mortgage Rates

The Danish Mortgage Bank data is delayed but in week 22 of 2016 then the average short-term rate was -0.23% in Danish Kroner and -0.13% in Euros. The long-term rate was 2.65%.

Any signs of trouble?

If we were to find any they would be found in asset markets of which the likeliest is house prices. On that I noticed this in the DNB Monetary Review.

Since March, the yield on mortgage bonds has fallen more sharply than the yield on government bonds,

Rather awkwardly the rally was driven by foreign investors noting that the ECB (European Central Bank ) is buying such bonds ( covered bonds) in the Euro area making the Danish variety look more attractive. So what about the housing market.

Let me hand you over to a report earlier this month from the DNB which opens with an official denial of what Taylor Swift would define as “Trouble,Trouble,Trouble”.

Although house prices have risen considerably over the last 3-4 years, there are no indications that the Danish market overall is experiencing a speculative house price bubble.

Ah so over the period of negative interest-rates! In case you are wondering about the overall state of play here it is.

But today’s annual increases of 4-5 per cent do not indicate a bubble.

However it has been ” Wonderful! Wonderful! Copenhagen” for those who have invested in property there.

However, price increases in Copenhagen have been so persistent and strong that the development could be consistent with a bubble according to the test, just as in the mid-2000s……. So Danmarks Nationalbank finds that there is reason to monitor developments in Copenhagen closely.

So we learn that monitoring closely is one step up from being “vigilant” in central banker speak. Also those who want to buy in Copenhagen must feel excluded in many cases.

The Real Economy

This has been troubled during this period but has so far in 2016 seen a better phase recording quarterly GDP growth of 0.7% and then 0.5%. But considering the monetary stimulus the forecasts are hardly stellar.

Danmarks Nationalbank expects the gross domestic product (GDP) to grow by 0.9 per cent this year, rising to 1.5 and 1.8 per cent, respectively, in the next two years.

However according to the Governor there may well be trouble ahead.

“We expect the economy to reach its normal capacity level as early as 2018. Conducting expansionary fiscal policy well beyond that point is risky, especially if interest rates continue to be very low. There is a risk of overheating and economic imbalances, which it may be necessary to take measures to prevent,” says Lars Rohde.

He also thinks that fiscal policy needs tightening which means that the current establishment memo seems to have forgotten to be sent to Denmark.

Comment

There is much to consider here. Firstly I think that advocates of monetary stimulus have to conclude that the effect on economic growth has disappointed. Denmark has simply not had much and if you factor in the lower oil price it has not done well at all. As to specific news we have reports in the Copenhagen Post of businesses bring production home but also the problems of world shipping are affecting Maersk on the other side of the coin.

Meanwhile we are seeing another move higher in house prices which has even the central bank getting out its slide rule for bubbles! I also note it seems to be hinting/asking for higher taxes on property. On that front well as we see yet another record low for the 2 year bond yield of Germany as it get safe haven flows because of the problems of Deutsche Bank  we may yet see more downwards pressure on interest-rates and yields. Oh and as Elton John put it “Please don’t shoot the piano player” about the last sentence.

Something rather familiar to UK and US readers is found in Denmark which is that employment has done better than GDP growth which raises a familiar concern and theme.

Productivity growth in the Danish economy has been weak in the wake of the financial crisis. This is especially the case from the 2nd half of 2015 and onwards when the decoupling of output and the labour market situation calls into question future productivity growth and the actual sustainability of the growth in employment seen during the last year or so.

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I was interviewed on the evening show by Simon Rose yesterday.