Will the US deploy negative interest-rates?

On Saturday economists  gathered to listen to the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke speak on monetary policy in San Diego. This is because those who used to run the Federal Reserve can say things the present incumbent cannot. So let me get straight to the crux of the matter.

The Fed should also consider maintaining constructive ambiguity about the future use of negative short-term rates, both because situations could arise in which negative short-term rates would provide useful policy space; and because entirely ruling out negative short rates, by creating an effective floor for long-term rates as well, could limit the Fed’s future ability to reduce longer-term rates by QE or other means.

It is no great surprise to see a central banker suggesting that the truth will be withheld. But let us note that he is talking about “policy space” in a situation described by the New York Times like this.

While the economy has recovered and unemployment has fallen to a 50-year low, interest rates have not returned to precrisis levels. Currently, the policy interest rate is set at 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent, leaving far less room to cut in the next crisis.

The apparent need for ever lower interest-rates looks ever more like an addiction of some sort for these central planners. Although as ever they are try to claim that it has in fact been forced upon them.

Since the 1980s, interest rates around the world have trended downward, reflecting lower inflation, demographic and technological forces that have increased desired global saving relative to desired investment, and other factors.

As we so often find the truth is merged with more dubious implications. Yes interest-rates and bond yields did trend lower and let me add something Ben did not say. There were economic gains from this period as for example I remember  mortgage rates in the UK being in double-digits. Also higher rates of inflation caused economic problems and it is easy to forget it caused a lot of problems back then. Younger readers probably find the concept of wage-price spirals as something almost unreal but they were very real back then. Yet Ben seems to want to put a smokescreen over this.

Another way to gain policy space is to increase the Fed’s inflation target, which would eventually raise the nominal neutral interest rate as well.

Curious as they used to tell us interest-rates drove inflation, now they are trying to claim it is the other way around! Are people allowed to get away with this sort of thing in other spheres?

Is there a neutral interest-rate?

Ben seems to think so.

The neutral interest rate is the interest rate consistent with full employment and inflation at target in the long run.  On average, at the neutral interest rate monetary policy is neither expansionary nor contractionary. Most current estimates of the nominal neutral rate for the United States are in the range of 2-3 percent.

The first sentence is ridden with more holes than a Swiss cheese which is quite an achievement considering its brevity. If we ever thought that we were sure what full employment is/was the credit crunch era has hit that for six ( for those who do not follow cricket to get 6 the ball is hit out of the playing area). For example the unemployment rate in Japan is a mere 2.2% so well below “full” but there is essentially no real wage growth rather than it surging as economics 101 text books would suggest. Putting it another way in spite of what is apparently more than full employment real wages may well have ended 2019 exactly where they were in 2015.

This is an important point as it was a foundation of economic theory as the “output gap” concept shifted from output (GDP) to the labour market when they did not get the answers they wanted. Only for the labour market to torpedo the concept and as you can see above it was not just one torpedo as it fired a full spread. Yet so many Ivory Towers persist with things accurately described by Ivan van Dahl.

Please tell me why
Do we build castles in the sky?
Oh tell me why
Are the castles way up high?

Quantitative Easing

Ben is rather keen on this but then as he did so much of it he has little choice in the matter.

Quantitative easing works through two principal channels: by reducing the net supply of longer-term assets, which increases their prices and lower their yields; and by signaling policymakers’ intention to keep short rates low for an extended period. Both channels helped ease financial conditions in the post-crisis era.

Could there be a more biased observer? I also note that there seems to be a titbit thrown in for politicians.

The risk of capital losses on the Fed’s portfolio was never high, but in the event, over the past decade the Fed has remitted more than $800 billion in profits to the Treasury, triple the pre-crisis rate.

A nice gift except and feel free to correct me if I am wrong there is still around US $4 trillion of QE out there. So how can the risk of losses be in the past tense with “was”? It is one of the confidence tricks of out era that establishments have been able to borrow off themselves and then declare a profit on it hasn’t it?

Ben seems to have an issue here though. So by buying trillions of something you increase the supply?

and increases the supply of safe, liquid assets.

Forward Guidance

I do sometimes wonder if this is some form of deep satire Monty Python style.

 Forward guidance helps the public understand how policymakers will respond to changes in the economic outlook and allows policymakers to commit to “lower-for-longer” rate policies. Such policies, by convincing market participants that policymakers will delay rate increases even as the economy strengthens, can help to ease financial conditions and provide economic stimulus today.

Another way of looking at it is that it has been and indeed is an ego trip. The  majority of the population will not know what it is and in the case of my country that is for the best as the Bank of England misled by promising interest-rate rises and then cutting them. Sadly some did seem to listen as more fixed-rate mortgages were incepted just before they got cheaper. So we see that if we return to the real world the track record of Forward Guidance makes people less and not more likely to listen to it. After all who expects and sustained rises in interest-rates anyway?

Comment

These speeches are useful as they give us a guide to what central bankers are really thinking. It does not matter if you consider them to be pack animals or like the large Amoeba that tries to eat the Starship Enterprise in an early episode of Star Trek as the result is the same. This will be what they in general think.

When the nominal neutral rate is in the range of 2-3 percent, then the simulations suggest that this combination of new policy tools can provide the equivalent of 3 percentage points of additional policy space; that is, with the help of QE and forward guidance, policy performs about as well as traditional policies would when the nominal neutral rate is 5-6 percent. In the simulations, the 3 percentage point increase in policy space largely offsets the effects of the zero lower bound on short-term rates.

Actually if we look at the middle-section “traditional policies” did not work but I guess he is hoping no-one will point that out. If they did we would not be where we are! Also you may not that as I have often found myself pointing out why do we always need more of the same!

Still if you believe the research of the Bank of England interest-rates have been falling for centuries. Does this mean that to coin a phrase they have been doing “God’s work” in the credit crunch era?

global real rates have shown a
persistent downward trend over the past five centuries, declining within a corridor of between -0.9 (safe
asset provider basis) and -1.59 basis points (global basis) per annum, with the former displaying a
continuous decline since the deep monetary crises of the late medieval “Bullion Famine”. This downward
trend has persisted throughout the historical gold, silver, mixed bullion, and fiat monetary regimes, is
visible across various asset classes, and long preceded the emergence of modern central banks.

The catch is that if you are saying events have driven things people might start to wonder what your purpose it at all?

Podcast

 

The ECB starts to face up to some of the problems of the Euro area banks

Today has brought the Euro area financial sector and banks in particular into focus as the ECB ( European Central Bank ) issues its latest financial stability report. More than a decade after the credit crunch hit one might reasonably think that this should be a story of success but it is not like that. Because the ECB is rather unlikely to put it like this a major problem is that the medicine to fix the banks ( lower interest-rates) turned out to be harmful to them if you not only continued but increased the dose. Or as Britney Spears would put it, the impact of negative interest-rates on banks is.

I’m addicted to you
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
And I love what you do
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?

Actually the FSR starts with another confession of trouble as it reviews the Euro area economy.

The euro area economic outlook has deteriorated, with growth expected to remain subdued for longer. Mirroring global growth patterns, information since the previous FSR indicates a more protracted weakness of the euro area economy, leading to a downward revision of real GDP growth forecasts for 2020-21.

There is the by traditional element of blaming Johnny Foreigner which has some credibility with the trade war issue. However if we look deeper we were reminded only yesterday about the told of the Euro area in its genesis.

In September 2019 the current account of the euro area recorded a surplus of €28 billion, compared with a surplus of €29 billion in August 2019. In the 12-month period to September 2019, the current account recorded a surplus of €321 billion (2.7% of euro area GDP), compared with a surplus of €378 billion (3.3% of euro area GDP) in the 12 months to September 2018.

It sometimes gets forgotten now that one of the factors in the build-up to the credit crunch was the Euro area ( essentially German ) trade surplus.

However the essential message here is that lower economic growth is providing a challenge to the Euro area financial sector and banks and tucked away at the bottom of this section is one of the reasons why.

At the same time, inflationary pressures in the euro area are forecast to remain muted over the next two years, translating into overall weaker nominal growth prospects.

Paying down debt can be achieved via inflation as well as real economic growth and is one of the reasons why the ECB keeps implementing policies to get inflation up towards its 2% per annum target. A sort of stealth tax.

Bond Markets

There is a warning here.

Asset valuations, reliant on low interest rates, could face future corrections.

If we start with sovereign bonds then there is am implied danger for Germany as it has the largest sector with negative yields. But if we switch to banking exposure then eyes turn to Italy because not only does it have a large relative national debt but its banks hold a relatively large proportion of it at 20%. They will have done rather well out of the ten-year yield falling by over 2% to 1.3% over the past year but is that the only way Italian banks make money these days? There is a reflection of this sort of thing below.

Very low interest rates, coupled with the large number of investors which have gradually increased the duration of their fixed income portfolios, could exacerbate potential losses if an abrupt repricing were to materialise in the medium-to-long run.

Tucked away is an arrow fired at Germany.

there is a strong case for governments with fiscal space to act in an effective and timely manner.

What about the banks?

Here we go.

Bank profitability concerns remain prominent. Bank profitability prospects have weakened against the backdrop of the deteriorating growth outlook  and the low interest rate environment, especially for banks also facing structural cost and income challenges (see Special Feature A).

Nobody seems to want to back them with their money.

Reflecting these concerns, euro area banks’ market valuations remain depressed with an average price-to-book ratio of around 0.6.

Although the ECB would not put it like this if this was a rock concert the headliner would be my old employer Deutsche Bank. It has a share price of 6.5 Euros which certainly must depress long-term shareholders who have consistently lost money. There have been rallies in this example of a bear market and well played if you have taken advantage but each time they have been followed by Alicia Keys on the stereo.

Oh, baby
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
Fall
I keep

This bit is both true and simply breathtaking!

Banks have made slow progress in addressing structural challenges to profitability.

If you have policies which are fertiliser for zombie banks then complaining about a march of the zombies is a bit much. In this area it is Halloween every day.

If you are wondering about Special Feature A so was I.

These banks all stand out in terms of elevated cost-to-income ratios. But there also appear to be three distinct groups: (i) banks struggling with legacy asset problems; (ii) banks with weak income-generation capacity; and (iii) banks suffering from a combination of cost and revenue-side problems.

We are told this is only for a “sub set” but point (iii) is plainly a generic issue in the Euro area banking sector. The proposed solution looks not a little desperate.

But in systems with many weak-performing small banks, consolidation within their domestic system could improve performance. Finally, a combination of bank-level restructuring and cross-border M&A activity could help reduce the costs and diversify the revenues of large banks that are performing poorly.

Consolidating the cajas in Spain and some of the smaller banks in Italy did reduce the number of banks in trouble but did not change the problem.There is a bit of shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic about this which turns to laughter as I consider “cross-border M&A activity”. Like RBS in the UK? That was one of the ways we got into this mess. One of the problems with banking right now is what do they diversify into?

On aggregate, euro area banks’ return on equity is expected to remain low, limiting the sector’s ability to increase resilience through retained earnings

Er well yes.

Should this all go wrong we will be told we were warned.

A banking system operating with significant overcapacity is also vulnerable to weak competitors driving down lending standards and an underpricing of risk.

Shadow Banking?

Some of the role of banks has moved elsewhere and of course there are plenty of issues for long-term savings in a negative interest-rate world.

After a slight decline in the last quarter of 2018, the total assets of investment funds (IFs), money market funds (MMFs), financial vehicle corporations, insurance corporations (ICs), pension funds (PFs) and other financial institutions gradually increased to almost €46 trillion in June 2019, and represented 56% of total financial sector assets.

Also what do you expect if you drive some corporate bond yields negative by buying so many of them?

But more recently, the low cost of market-based debt has supported a further increase in NFCs’ debt issuance – particularly of investment-grade bonds.

Can anybody remember a time when relying on bond ratings went wrong?

Negative interest-rates again.

As yields have fallen, non-bank financial intermediaries hold a growing share of low-yielding bonds, which decreases their investment income in the medium term and encourages risk-taking.

Comment

The press release is if we read between the lines quite damning.

Low interest rates support economic activity, but there can be side effects

Signs of excessive risk-taking in some sectors require monitoring and targeted macroprudential action in some countries

Banks have further increased resilience, but have made limited progress in improving profitability.

It is welcome that we are seeing some confession of central banking sins but it comes with something else I have noticed recently which is that ECB related accounts are taking the battle to social media.

Dear fellow German economists, if you are wondering what you can do for Europe: Please help to dispel the harmful & wrong narratives about the @ecb  ‘s monetary policy, floating around in political and media circles. These threaten the euro more than many other things.

That is from Isabel Schnabel who is the German government and Eurogroup approved candidate to be a new member on the ECB board. From the replies it is not going down too well but we can see clearly why she was appointed at least.

Me on The Investing Channel

The mad world of negative interest-rates is on the march

Yesterday as is his want the President of the United States Donald Trump focused attention on one of our credit crunch themes.

Just finished a very good & cordial meeting at the White House with Jay Powell of the Federal Reserve. Everything was discussed including interest rates, negative interest, low inflation, easing, Dollar strength & its effect on manufacturing, trade with China, E.U. & others, etc.

I guess he was at the 280 character limit so replaced negative interest-rates with just negative interest. In a way this is quite extraordinary as I recall debates in the earlier part of the credit crunch where people argued that it would be illegal for the US Federal Reserve to impose negative interest-rates. But the Donald does not seem bothered as we see him increasingly warm to a theme he established at the Economic Club of New York late last week.

“Remember we are actively competing with nations that openly cut interest rates so that many are now actually getting paid when they pay off their loan, known as negative interest. Who ever heard of such a thing?” He said. “Give me some of that. Give me some of that money. I want some of that money. Our Federal Reserve doesn’t let us do it.” ( Reuters )

That day the Chair of the US Federal Reserve Jerome Powell rejected the concept according to CNBC.

He also rejected the idea that the Fed might one day consider negative interest rates like those in place across Europe.

The problem is that over the past year the 3 interest-rate cuts look much more driven by Trump than Powell.

Of course, there are contradictions.Why does the “best economy ever” need negative interest-rates for example? Or why a stock market which keeps hitting all-time highs needs them? But the subject keeps returning as we note yesterday’s words from the President of the Cleveland Fed.

Asked her view on negative interest rates, Mester told the audience that Europe’s use of them “is perhaps working better than I might have anticipated” but added she is not supportive of such an approach in the United States should there be a downturn.

Why say “working better” then reject the idea?  We have seen that path before.

The Euro area

As to working better then a deposit-rate of -0.5% and of course many bond yields in negative territory has seen the annual rate of economic growth fall to 1.1%. Also with the last two quarterly growth readings being only 0.2% it looks set to fall further.

So the idea of an economic boost being provided by them is struggling and relying on the counterfactual. But the catch is that such arguments are mostly made by those who think that the last interest-rate cut of 0.1% made any material difference. After all the previous interest-rate cuts that is simply amazing. Actually the moves will have different impacts across the Euro area as this from an ECB working paper points out.

A striking feature of the credit market in the euro area is the very large heterogeneity across countries in the granting of fixed versus adjustable rate mortgages.
FRMs are dominant in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, while ARMs are prevailing in Austria, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain (ECB, 2009; Campbell,
2012)

Actually I would be looking for data from 2019 rather than 2009 but we do get some sort of idea.

Businesses and Savers in Germany are being affected

We have got another signal of the spread of the impact of negative interest-rates .From the Irish Times.

The Bundesbank surveyed 220 lenders at the end of September – two weeks after the ECB’s cut its deposit rate from minus 0.4 to a record low of minus 0.5 per cent. In response 58 per cent of the banks said they were levying negative rates on some corporate deposits, and 23 per cent said they were doing the same for retail depositors.

There was also a strong hint that legality is an issue in this area.

“This is more difficult in the private bank business than in corporate or institutional deposits, and we don’t see an ability to adjust legal terms and conditions of our accounts on a broad-based basis,” said Mr von Moltke, adding that Deutsche was instead approaching retail clients with large deposits on an individual basis.

So perhaps more than a few accounts have legal barriers to the imposition of negative interest-rates. That idea gets some more support here.

Stephan Engels, Commerzbank’s chief financial officer, said this month that Germany’s second largest listed lender had started to approach wealthy retail customers holding deposits of more than €1 million.

Japan

The Bank of Japan has dipped its toe in the water but has always seemed nervous about doing anymore. This has been illustrated overnight.

“There is plenty of scope to deepen negative rates from the current -0.1%,” Kuroda told a semi-annual parliament testimony on monetary policy. “But I’ve never said there are no limits to how much we can deepen negative rates, or that we have unlimited means to ease policy,” he said. ( Reuters )

This is really odd because Japan took its time imposing negative interest-rates as we had seen 2 lost decades by January 2016 but it has then remained at -0.1% or the minimum amount. Mind you there is much that is crazy about Bank of Japan policy as this next bit highlights.

Kuroda also said there was still enough Japanese government bonds (JGB) left in the market for the BOJ to buy, playing down concerns its huge purchases have drained market liquidity.

After years of heavy purchases to flood markets with cash, the BOJ now owns nearly half of the JGB market.

In some ways that fact that a monetary policy activist like Governor Kuroda has not cut below -0.1% is the most revealing thing of all about negative interest-rates.

Switzerland

The Swiss found themselves players in this game when the Swiss Franc soared and they tried to control it. Now they find themselves with a central bank that combines the role of being a hedge fund due to its large overseas equity investments and has a negative interest-rate of -0.75%.

Nearly five years after the fateful day when the SNB stopped capping the Swiss Franc we get ever more deja vu from its assessments.

The situation on the foreign exchange market is still fragile, and the Swiss franc has appreciated in trade-weighted terms. It remains highly valued.

Comment

I have consistently argued that the situation regarding negative interest-rates has two factors. The first is how deep they go? The second is how long they last? I have pointed out that the latter seems to be getting ever longer and may be heading along the lines of “Too Infinity! And Beyond!”. It seems that the Swiss National Bank now agrees with me. The emphasis is mine.

This adjustment to the calculation basis takes account of the fact that the low interest rate environment around the world has recently become more entrenched and could persist for some time yet.

We have seen another signal of that recently because the main priority of the central banks is of course the precious and we see move after move to exempt the banks as far as possible from negative interest-rates. The ECB for example has introduced tiering to bring it into line with the Swiss and the Japanese although the Swiss moved again in September.

The SNB is adjusting the basis for calculating negative interest as follows. Negative interest will continue to be charged on the portion of banks’ sight deposits which exceeds a certain exemption threshold. However, this exemption threshold will now be updated monthly and
thereby reflect developments in banks’ balance sheets over time.

If only the real economy got the same consideration and courtesy. That is the crux of the matter here because so far no-one has actually exited the black hole which is negative interest-rates. The Riksbank of Sweden says that it will next month but this would be a really odd time to raise interest-rates. Also I note that the Danish central bank has its worries about pension funds if interest-rates rise.

A scenario in which interest rates go up
by 1 percentage point over a couple of days is not
implausible. Therefore, pension companies should
be prepared to manage margin requirements at
all times. If the sector is unable to obtain adequate
access to liquidity, it may be necessary to reduce the
use of derivatives.

Personally I am more bothered about the pension funds which have invested in bonds with negative yields.After all, what could go wrong?

 

 

Was that the bond market tantrum of 2019?

Sometimes economics and financial markets provoke a wry smile. This morning has already provided an example of that as Germany’s statistics office tells us Germany exported 4.6% more in September than a year ago, so booming. Yes the same statistics office that told us yesterday that production was down by 4.3% in September so busting if there is such a word. The last couple of months have given us another example of this do let me start by looking at one side of what has taken place.

QE expansion

We have seen two of the world’s major central banks take steps to expand their QE bond buying one explicitly and the other more implicitly. We looked at the European Central Bank or ECB only on Wednesday.

The Governing Council decided to restart net purchases under each constituent programme of the asset purchase programme (APP)……….. at a monthly pace of €20 billion as from 1 November 2019.

More implicitly have been the actions of the US Federal Reserve as it continues to struggle with the Repo crisis.

Based on these considerations, last Friday the FOMC announced that the Fed will be purchasing U.S. Treasury bills at least into the second quarter of next year.7 Specifically, the Desk announced an initial monthly pace of purchases of $60 billion.

That was John Williams of the New York Fed who added this interesting bit.

These permanent purchases

Also there is this.

In concert with these purchases, the FOMC announced that the Desk will continue temporary overnight and term open market operations at least through January of next year.

Maybe a hint that they think dome of this is year end US Dollar demand. But we find that the daily operations continue and at US $80.14 billion as of yesterday they continue on a grand scale. So the Treasury Bill purchases and fortnightly Repo’s have achieved what exactly?

If we move from the official denials that this is QE to looking at the balance sheet we see that it is back above 4 trillions dollars and rising. In fact it was US $4.02 trillion at the end of last month or around US $250 billion higher in this phase.

Bond Markets

You might think and indeed economics 101 would predict that bond markets would be surging and yields falling right now. But we have learnt that things are much more complex than that. Let me illustrate with the US ten-year Treasury Note. You might expect some sort of boost from the expansion of the balance sheet and the purchases of Treasury Bills. But no, the futures contact which nearly made 132 early last month is at 128 and a half now. At one point yesterday the yield looked like it might make 2% as there was quite a rout but some calm returned and it is 1.91% as I type this.

As an aside this is another reminder of the relative impotence of interest-rate cuts these days as if anything a trigger for yields rising was the US interest-rate cut last week. The Ivory Towers will be lost in the clouds yest again.

The situation is even more pronounced in the Euro area where actual purchases have been ongoing for a week now. However in line with our buy the rumour and sell the fact theme we see that the German bond market has fallen a fair bit. In mid-August the benchmark ten-year yield went below -0.7% whereas now it is -0.26%. So Germany is still being paid to borrow at that maturity but considerably less. Indeed at the thirty-year maturity they do have to pay something albeit not very much ( 0.24%).

The UK

There have been a couple of consequences in the UK. The first I spotted in yesterday’s output from the Bank of England.

Mortgage rates and personal loan rates remain near
historical lows, with the rates on some fixed-rate mortgages continuing to fall over the past few months (Table 2.B).
Interest rates on credit cards have increased, although the effective rate paid by the average borrower has remained
stable, in part because of the past lengthening of interest-free periods.

Whilst this is true, if you are going to parade the knowledge of the absent-minded professor Ben Broadbent about foreign exchange options then you should be aware that as Todd Terry put it.

Something’s goin’ on

The five-year Gilt yield has risen from a nadir of 0.22% to 0.52% so the ultra-low period of mortgage rates is on its way out should we stay here.

If we move to the fiscal policy space in the UK then we see that the message that we can borrow cheaply has arrived in the general election campaign.

Although debt stocks are high in many developed countries, debt service ratios are very low. The UK gross debt stock has doubled from 42 per cent of GDP in 1985 to 84 per cent of GDP today, yet debt interest service has halved, from 4 per cent of GDP to below 2 per cent over the same period. It has rarely been lower. A rule using the debt stock would argue for fiscal consolidation, whereas a debt service metric suggests there is ample room for fiscal expansion. Especially as market interest rates are extraordinarily low. (  FT Alphaville)

https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2019/11/06/1573068343000/Is-it-time-for-a-shift-in-fiscal-rules–/

I have avoided the political promises which peak I think with the Greens suggestion of an extra £100 billion a year. But the Toby Nangle and Neville Hill proposal above has strengths and has similarities to what I have suggested here for some time. But I think it needs to come with some way of locking the debt costs in, so if you borrow more because it is cheap you borrow for fifty years and not five. It reinforces my suggestion of the 27th of June that the UK should issue some 100 year Gilts.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here and let me start with the borrow whilst it is still cheap theme. There are issues as highlighted by this from Francine Lacqua of Bloomberg.

London’s Elizabeth line has been delayed by a year, and will require extra funding, according to TfL

For those unaware this was called Crossrail ( renaming is often a warning sign) which will be a welcome addition to the London transport infrastructure combing elements of The Tube with the railways. But it gets ever later and more expensive.

There was also some irony as regards the Bank of England as in response to the sole decent question at its presser yesterday (from Joumanna Bercetche of CNBC) Governor Carney effectively suggested the next rate move would be down not up. Yet Gilt yields rose.

Next comes the issue of whether this is a sea-change or just part of the normal ebb and flow of financial markets? We will find out more this afternoon as we wait to see if there were more than just singed fingers in the German bond market for example or whether some were stopped out? After all reporting you had taken negative yield and a capital loss poses more than a few questions about your competence. Even the most credulous will now know it is not a one-way bet but on the other hand if you are expecting QE4 to come down the New York slipway then you can place your bets at much better levels than before.

Trouble is brewing at the ECB

Sometimes what are presented as events in the news cycle that are unrelated are in fact significant. So let me draw to your attention some tweets from Bloomberg yesterday evening.

BREAKING: Sabine Lautenschlaeger resigned from the ECB Executive Board more than 2 years before the official end of her term.

This is a significant event in several ways. Firstly why leave such a prestigious job? Also in the structure of the ECB an executive board member is more powerful than a central bank governor. This is because they vote at every policy meeting whereas central bank governors now rotate For example I quoted from a speech yesterday from the Governor of the Bank of France Francois Villeroy where he declared his views on the recent policy change at the ECB. But whilst he was present at the meeting he did not have a vote. One of the quirks of the 2019 calendar is that the President of the Bundesbank will not be voting at three meetings but the Governor of the Bank of Malta will vote at all but one.

If you think about it the power of the President of the ECB was raised by the rotation of voting rights of central bank Governors as he or as it will soon be she can choose when to bring a vote.

Moving back to Sabine Bloomberg carried on.

MORE: The shock move that comes amid the biggest dissent over monetary policy in Mario Draghi’s tenure. The German policymaker is stepping down on Oct. 31 and the ECB gave no reason for her decision.

Then they tried to put some more meat on that particular bone.

Latest: Sabine Lautenschlaeger’s surprise exit from the ECB follows a trend of early exits by German policy makers. Her move echos the frustrations of the savings-oriented nation with loose policies by the central bank.

Missing from that description is the fact that Sabine will be resigning just as Christine Lagarde starts. I do not know about you but that seems rather significant. Whilst it seems likely that Sabine has not agreed with some and maybe many of the policies of Mario Draghi it is noticeable that she is serving his full term and departing before the arrival of Lagarde. Something that those who have been accusing her of flouncing out of the ECB might do well to consider.

A German Issue

There is of course a long-running one which bond vigilantes on Twitter have highlighted this morning.

Headlines in Munich this morning: German savings banks (Sparkassen) are closing client accounts as they can’t afford to pay interest on them with negative @ecb  rates.

 

Money Supply

These numbers should be welcomed at the Frankfurt towers of the ECB but I suspect it may well follow the phrase used on BBC TV of “look away now”.

Annual growth rate of narrower monetary aggregate M1, comprising currency in circulation and overnight deposits, increased to 8.4% in August from 7.8% in July.

So my signal for short-term monetary trends is looking stronger which continues the pattern we have seen this year so far. For newer readers narrow money changes tend to impact the economy some 3-6 months ahead. Putting it another way we have gone back to February 2018 as that is when annual growth was last at this level.

If we look back to the “Euro boom” we see that M1 growth peaked at 11.7% in July 2015 as the impacts of large-scale QE and negative interest-rates arrived and then faded away to single digits of 8% and 9%. So we are at the bottom of that range. This of course poses a real question for the change of ECB policy and makes me wonder again about the resignation above.

Broad Money

We saw a similar drumbeat from these numbers earlier.

Annual growth rate of broad monetary aggregate M3, increased to 5.7% in August 2019 from 5.1% in July (revised from 5.2%).

There is a similar pattern here of improving numbers in 2019 and we are quite some distance away from the recent low which was 3.5% in August 2018. But there is a further twist as we note that the number is now higher than at any phase in the “Euro boom” phase.

As to the detail it is M1 dominated as you might expect.

The annual growth rate of the broad monetary aggregate M3 increased to 5.7% in August 2019 from 5.1% in July, averaging 5.1% in the three months up to August. The components of M3 showed the following developments. The annual growth rate of the narrower aggregate M1, which comprises currency in circulation and overnight deposits, increased to 8.4% in August from 7.8% in July. The annual growth rate of short-term deposits other than overnight deposits (M2-M1) increased to 1.0% in August from 0.1% in July. The annual growth rate of marketable instruments (M3-M2) was -2.9% in August, compared with -1.6% in July.

We have some growth as we move broader but not much and we see that the widest part fell. So there is a fly in the ointment but it is also true that there was a large wadge of ointment this month.

There is another way of looking at the numbers and let me first state that using such analysis in the UK went dreadfully wrong a couple of decades or so ago.

 the annual growth rate of M3 in August 2019 can be broken down as follows: credit to the private sector contributed 3.4 percentage points (up from 3.2 percentage points in July), net external assets contributed 3.0 percentage points (up from 2.9 percentage points), credit to general government contributed -0.2 percentage point (as in the previous month), longer-term financial liabilities contributed -1.0 percentage point (up from -1.1 percentage points), and the remaining counterparts of M3 contributed 0.5 percentage point (up from 0.3 percentage point).

The concern in this area is the contribution of money flows from abroad to the growth seen.

The Euro

This is drifting lower at the moment and is 1.093 versus the US Dollar as I type this. Much of this is a phase of “Holla Dolla(r)” because it has been rising generally but that suits the ECB, Putting it another way there has been very little movement this week versus the UK Pound as I set a benchmark at 1.131 before the Supreme Court decision in the UK as opposed to the 1.126 as I type this.

Comment

When I see the monetary numbers today and think of the recent move by the ECB I am reminded of this from Cypress Hill.

Insane in the membrane
Insane in the brain!
Insane in the membrane
Insane in the brain!

There is a perfectly valid question which goes as follows. Why with money supply growth like this do prospects look so weak? The first part of the answer is that narrow money looks around 6 months ahead and broad 18/24 months ahead so ot is yet to come. The next is that no measure tells us everything and good monetary prospects tell us about domestic inputs and impetus in the Euro area but very little about exports of cars to China for example.Then there is another catch. It is a choice how much notice you take of money supply data but to my mind a central bank must follow it and if it things it is misleading explain why it thinks so? Because we have just seen policies to improve money supply growth when in the case of broad money it is in fact stronger than in the “Euro boom”. The August numbers may be a one month fluke but the trend is not. But as we stand the polices just implemented are pretty much irrelevant for a trade war driven slow down signalled by this from Markit earlier this week.

Flash Eurozone Manufacturing PMI Output
Index(4) at 46.0 (47.9 in August). 81-month low.

So a manufacturer can maybe borrow a bit cheaper which is good in itself but if they still cannot export to China then it is of not much use.

Me on The Investing Channel

Inside the world of negative interest-rates

A feature of modern economic life is that interest-rates were first cut as close to zero as central banks thought they could and then in more than few cases they went below zero giving us the acronym NIRP for Negative Interest-Rate Policy. There was the implication that such a state of affairs would be temporary in that the medicine would work and that interest-rates would then be raised. For example I have put on here before the charts that show that the Riksbank of Sweden has been forecasting interest-rate increases for years whereas the reality was that it either cut or did nothing. Ironically it changed tack a little last December just in time for the world economy to turn down!

As to all this being temporary let me hand you over to ECB President Mario Draghi on the day he cut the Deposit Rate to -0.1% back in June 2014.

Draghi: On the first question, I would say that for all the practical purposes, we have reached the lower bound. However, this doesn’t exclude some little technical adjustments and which could lead to some lower interest rates in one or the other or both parts of the corridor. But from all practical purposes, I would consider having reached the lower bound today.

This has been a feature of central banker speak where they discuss a “lower bound” as if this type of economics is a science. The reality is that the nearest the “lower bound” has got to being a status quo has been this.

Get down
Get down deeper and down
Down down deeper and down
Down down deeper and down

If we let him have the move to -0.2% as a technical adjustment we have to face up to the fact that it is now -0.4% and about to go to -0.5/6%. This has consequences as for example over the past month or so the amount deposited at the ECB at such a rate is 1.86 trillion Euros. So this is a drain on the banking system and therefore wider economic life as well as being a nice little earner for the ECB.

The “lower bound” theme has been the same in the UK as Bank of England Governor Carney asserted it was 0.5% but later decided it was 0.1%. Or you could look at the US Federal Reserve defined “normal” interest-rates as being somewhere above 3% then changed its mind and started cutting them. The truth is that the new normal is that when a central bank raises interest-rates it soon turns tail and starts cutting them.

Switzerland

The Swiss are at the cutting edge of negative interest-rates and it was ECB policy which was the supermassive black hole that sucked them into it. In terms of timing the June 2014 move by the ECB was followed by this in January 2015.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is discontinuing the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro. At the same time, it is lowering the interest rate on sight deposit account balances that exceed a given exemption threshold by 0.5 percentage points, to −0.75%.

For those who have not followed this saga there was an enormous amount of borrowing in Swiss Francs pre credit crunch because interest-rates were there. When the credit crunch hit institutional investors raced to reverse such positions which made the Swiss Franc soar which had the side-effect of crippling those who in eastern Europe who had taken out such mortgages. The SNB found itself like General Custer at Little Big Horn as the ECB version of Indians arrived and gave events another push.

Again there was an implication that this would be temporary until matters calmed down but the reality has been very different. Or to put it another way in central banker speak the word temporary now means permanent.

The signal we now have has been provided by two developments this morning. Let me start with the Swiss one.

Domestic sight deposits CHF 475.3 bn vs CHF 469.0 bn prior…………. Once again, a notable rise in the sight deposits data and that continues to suggest that the SNB is stepping in to smooth the appreciation in the franc over the past few weeks.

In case you are wondering why those numbers are looked at the SNB only occassionally declares it has intervened in foreign exchange markets and does so via other central banks and the BIS. So to find out we have to look at other numbers and thank you to Bank Pictet for this estimate.

In total, sight deposits have increased by CHF 9.8bn in the last 4 weeks, and CHF 10.3bn in the last 5 weeks.

So like The Terminator the SNB is back. Why? The Swiss Franc has been strengthening again and went through 1.09 versus the Euro. Whereas on the 23rd of April last year I noted that Reuters were reporting this.

The Swiss franc fell to a three-year low of 1.20 against the euro on Thursday as a revival in risk appetite encouraged investors to use it to buy higher yielding assets elsewhere, betting on loose monetary policy keeping the currency weak.

There were still problems though as I pointed out to a background elsewhere of something of a chorus saying the SNB had triumphed..

Any economic slow down would start currently with interest-rates at -0.75% posing the question of what would happen next?

Well we have an economic slow down and we expect the ECB to cut again which according to Bank Pictet will have this consequence.

SNB officials have emphasized the importance of the interest rate differential (mainly versus the euro area) for the exchange rate and thus the policy outlook. The SNB’s policy rate differential with the ECB’s deposit facility rate now stands at 35bp, below the 50bp in 2015 when the SNB lowered its interest rates to -0.75%.

To be fair to Bank Pictet that was from the end of July and so could not factor in the statements from Bank of Finland Governor Ollie Rehn on Friday about “overshooting” market expectations about the ECB move. So the statement below has got more likely.

In that event, should the CHF come under
excessive upward pressure, our best guess is that the SNB would cut the interest rate on sight deposits by 25 bps, bringing it down to -1.0%.

Comment

Thus we are facing a new frontier should the Swiss find they have to cut to -1% interest-rates or as the SNB might put it.

Yes we’re gonna have a wingding
A summer smoker underground
It’s just a dugout that my dad built
In case the reds decide to push the button down
We’ve got provisions and lots of beer
The key word is survival on the new frontier. ( Donald Fagen )

This will mean that the pressure for more of this will build.

UBS, the world’s largest wealth manager, told its ultra-wealthy clients on Tuesday that it would introduce an annual 0.6% charge on cash savings of more than €500,000 (£461,000). The fee, to be introduced in November, rises to 0.75% on savings of more than 2m Swiss francs (£1.7m). ( The Guardian ).

In some ways the economic situation has already adjusted to this as the Swiss ten-year bond yield is -1.1% and the thirty-year is -0.6%. Imagine the impact of this on long-term contracts such as pensions. Give me 100.000 Swiss Francs and I will give you 84,000 back in thirty-years, who would do that?

Meanwhile here is something to make UK readers very nervous.

BoE Gov Carney: At This Stage We Do Not See Negative Rates As An Option In The UK ( @LiveSquawk )

Podcast

Where next for the Euro, the ECB and the Euro area economy?

In our new financial world where pretty much everything depends on the whims and moods of central bankers one of the main leaders is the ECB or European Central Bank. Yesterday we got one version of its future from the Governor of the Bank of Finland Ollie Rehn. So let me hand you over to his interview with the Wall Street Journal.

“It’s important that we come up with a significant and impactful policy package in September,” said Mr. Rehn, who sits on the ECB’s rate-setting committee as governor of Finland’s central bank.

“When you’re working with financial markets, it’s often better to overshoot than undershoot, and better to have a very strong package of policy measures than to tinker,” Mr. Rehn said.

That is pretty cleat although there is are two self-fulfilling problems in trying to overshoot financial markets. The first is that you are devolving monetary policy to financial markets. The second is that markets will now adjust ( they did so yesterday as I will discuss later) so do you overshoot that as well?

According to the WSJ these are the expectations Ollie was trying to overshoot.

Analysts expect the ECB will announce next month a 0.1 percentage-point cut to its key interest rate, currently set at minus 0.4%, as well as around €50 billion ($56 billion) a month of fresh bond purchases under its quantitative easing program. The program had previously been phased out at the end of last year.

There is already an example of the “slip-sliding away” as Paul Simon would put it that I mentioned earlier as the monthly bond purchases were expected to be 30 billion Euros a month. So which one would Ollie be overshooting?

Even worse for hapless Ollie others seem to have a different set of expectations.

Investors currently expect the ECB to cut its key interest rate to minus 0.7% and to hold rates below their current level through 2024, according to futures markets. Mr. Rehn said those market expectations showed that investors had understood the ECB’s guidance.

So will he now be overshooting -0.5% or -0.7%? Actually it gets better as -0.6% is in there now as well.

The comments suggest the ECB might cut interest rates by more than expected in September, perhaps by 0.2 percentage points, and could start to purchase new types of assets, Mr. Ducrozet said.

So roll up! Roll up! Place your bets on what Ollie will be trying to overshoot. Also as no doubt you have spotted whilst he may be in Finland he wants to start turning Japanese.

Mr. Rehn said he didn’t rule out a move to purchase equities under the QE program, but that would depend on the assessment of ECB staff.

That is a pretty shocking as the ECB staff assessment will be exactly what the Governing Council wants in the manner explained by The Jam.

You want more money – of course, I don’t mind
To buy nuclear textbooks for atomic crimes
And the public gets what the public wants

As I have acquired quite a few extra followers in the last week or two let me explain the Japan reference which is that the Bank of Japan has for a while now been purchasing Japanese equities. According to its latest accounts it now holds 26.6 trillion Yen of them.

The Problem

It is highlighted by this.

To provide space for fresh bond purchases, the ECB could adjust the rules of its bond-buying program, which currently prohibit the bank from buying more than 33% of the debt of any individual eurozone government, he added.

This is an example of what ECB President Mario Draghi calls it being a “rules-based organisation”. It is until they are inconvenient and then it changes them! One of the ways it got support for the previous QE programme was the limit above bit now it will be redacted from history. How high can it go? Well one example is from my own country the UK where the Bank of England does not have country limits ( for obvious reasons) but it does have a limit of 70% for each individual Gilt-Edged bond.

The Euro

Part of the plan behind Ollie’s interview was to talk down the Euro. After all the new “currency war” style consensus is to try a grab a comparative advantage in a zero-sum game. In a small way he succeeded as the Euro fell against most currencies. But there is a catch as highlighted by this release from Eurostat today.

As a result, the euro area recorded a €20.6 bn surplus in trade in goods with the rest of the world in June 2019…….In January to June 2019, euro area exports of goods to the rest of the world rose to €1 163.3 bn (an increase of
3.2% compared with January-June 2018), and imports rose to €1 061.2 bn (an increase of 3.7% compared with
January-June 2018). As a result the euro area recorded a surplus of €102.2 bn, compared with +€103.6 bn in
January-June 2018.

As you can see in the first half of the year trade created a demand for the Euro of around 102 billion Euros which is a barrier against any sustained fall. Actually this is a German thing because if you look at the national breakdown it accounts for 112 billion of this. Other nations such as the Netherlands run large surpluses assuming we look away from the “Rotterdam Effect” but as a collective in a broad sweep they contribute very little. So we get something very awkward which is that the main exchange rate fall came when Germany switched the Dm to the Euro. Since then there has been a lot of hot air on the subject but in terms of the effective exchange rate the Euro is at 98.3 or a mere 1.7% from where it started.

In a purist form I should look at the full current account but hopefully you have the idea from the trade figures. Partly I am doing that because I have very little faith in the other numbers.

Even more awkward for the ECB would be a situation where President Trump actually goes forward with his plan to buy Greenland. He would pay Denmark in its Kroner but as it is pegged to the Euro this would raise the Euro versus the US Dollar which is presumably part of the plan.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here but let me open with looking at the real economy. It is struggling with some but not much growth. So far in 2019 economic growth has gone 0.4% and then 0.2% on a quarterly basis. The fear is that it will slow further based on what was a strength above ( Germany’s trade surplus) which right now looks a weakness or as Frances Coppola out it.

Thread. Germany has been importing demand from China for a long time.

I am not saying it is the only perspective but it is one. On this road we have found little economic growth because even if we take the view of Mario Draghi this created a mere 1.5% of extra GDP growth. On the other side of the ledger is the destruction wreaked on all long-term contracts such as pensions and bond markets by the world of negative interest-rates. Oh and the fact if it had worked we would not be here.

As to the real economy well if we return to Ollie we see that in fact his main concern is “The Precious! The Precious!”

To offset the impact on eurozone banks of a longer period of negative interest rates, the ECB could introduce a tiered-deposit system, under which only a portion of bank deposits might be subject to negative rates, Mr. Rehn said.

The ECB could also alleviate the stress on banks by sweetening the terms of new long-term loans, known as targeted longer-term refinancing operations, he said.

If the real economy merits a mention I will let you know….

As a final point this version of economic management combining “open mouth operations” with reading a Bloomberg or Reuters screen to see where markets are often involves what have become called “sauces” saying something different, so be on your guard.

Meanwhile liuk on twitter has a suggestion which we can file under QE for millennials.

#ECB STAFF WILL INCLUDE AVOCADO FOR NEW ASSET BUYING PROGRAM

It would be a bit dangerous putting them in the Helicopter Money drop though…..